INTERVIEW: Edmund McMillen on creativity, the controversy behind Cunt, and more


Edmund McMillen is just about to get famous - if he isn't already. He's one of the few independent game developers profiled in Indie Game: The Movie (check out our review here), which just had its Boston premiere at the Brattle on April 21. He's best known for his 2010 game Super Meat Boy and celebrated for his unique and unforgettable visual style. His most recent game, The Binding of Isaac, adapts the Biblical story of the same name; in McMillen's version, Isaac's mother receives a message from God telling her to kill her son. The naked and crying Isaac escapes into his basement, where he fares no better, for the basement is a maze of monster-filled dungeons.

But Isaac is hardly McMillen's most disturbing game. In 2008, he made a game called Cunt, in which you play as a penis that attacks a vagina. To be specific, you attack both the vagina and the crab-like STD that infects it by shooting out explosive bursts of sperm.

In spite of all the attention McMillen's gotten lately, few have asked about this unusual game from his pre-Meat Boy days. So, here it is: the story of Cunt from conception to completion, the game's place in McMillen's canon, and its unexpected similarity to McMillen's most recent game, The Binding of Isaac.

Does Indie Game: The Movie refer to Cunt?

They showed one picture of it.

Do you think they were afraid to show more?

No, I just ... maybe they think it might give people the wrong idea. So they probably didn't focus on it. They never asked or talked about it. I didn't know if it was going to be featured, but I think that when they were summing up stuff that I had done, they showed clips from probably seven different games. I think it was when I was talking about pushing the envelope, they put that in.

Which is the classic McMillen pushing the envelope example, right?

Yeah, I guess. It's the easiest way to show that I tend to - I mean, it's harder to convey why some of my other work could be considered controversial or risky or boundary-pushing by just showing a clip from it. That's one of the only ones I've done that is quite obvious.

Did you intend for it to be offensive?

I intended it to actually be a career suicide piece. I was in a weird space. 2008 was when my Grandma passed away, and I started to just try to make a future for myself and try to figure out exactly how to do that. Because I had been making basically freeware games - well, except for Gish - for almost five years prior, and I hadn't really made any kind of substantial money. I was living in a really crappy apartment with my wife.

I can't really complain much, because I had a really great time when we were poor, but I needed to do something in order to be financially stable, and in order to do that, I needed to be able to get attention. I needed to do whatever I needed to do, to do that. So I kind of put myself out there. Strangely, it's something that I'm going back and forth with, now, because I'm trying to remove myself from it, in a lot of ways. Not the game, but the attention.

So, in 2008, when I ended up making it, it was the most productive year of my life. I made six really well-known games. I got the attention of Microsoft and Nintendo by doing so, and then, that enabled me to secure the deal for Super Meat Boy, which happened two years later.

Cunt was one of the games that appeared in the middle. I was conflicted about what I was doing. I felt like in a way I was trying to sell out, which is what I was doing at its core. What I was trying to do was sell out in the best way possible, the most comfortable way possible for me.

Did Cunt make money?

It actually did, but that wasn't the point. My confliction was, I didn't like that I was doing that. It was after I made Aether.  Right after I made Aether, I made Cunt. Which are completely opposite games. I think, in a way, it was ... it was my way to ... I don't know.

I was fighting with myself over what I was doing, and I kind of wanted to prove that I could do whatever I wanted, still, because there was a part of me that was like, if you keep doing this and you get a deal, you're not going to be able to do what you want to do because you're not going to have the freedom to do it. So, might as well do it now.

And part of me wanted to do something really dangerous and risky for my career. Just to see what would happen. It was just an experiment. Everything I do, I'm not 100% certain exactly what it is when I'm doing it, which is why I love doing it. That's the adventure, because I don't know where we're going to end up.

With Cunt, it was a game I made in nine days. Very, very short. I just wanted to do something that I thought would ruffle some tail-feathers, in a way, but also be pretty entertaining for me to watch, response-wise.

Anybody who knows the work that I did before I made games wouldn't be surprised in the slightest by that game, because I've done much worse.

Oh? What's an example of something worse you've done?

In high school, I was an independent comic artist, and I produced a bunch of these independent ‘zines called This is a Cry for Help. It was a series of purposefully offensive content, which had a lot to do with ... well, there's a dick called Little Chubby who's a recurring character in it. And, things to do with dead babies, that was a big thing.

Well, dead baby jokes are a different kind of shock humor than sexual violence.

If you saw the Little Chubby comics - well, it was a dick being repeatedly mutilated. He was repeatedly killed.

Oh, okay. I think the discomfort with Cunt is because it's about a dick attacking a vagina. But even if that role had been reversed - if it had been a vagina attacking a dick - I think it's still disturbing. I think you probably got at that in your comics, too. It's genital mutilation, it's sex-as-violence. It's pretty negative all around, yeah?

When I made [Cunt], I never thought anybody was going to be upset about that aspect. Mostly because a lot of people that played it, that were women, didn't say anything. And it's not something that's going through my mind because, at its core, when I was making that game, it was based around the mini-bosses in Gradius, which has a mothership that - well, it's a fucking vagina.

There are a lot of games with phallic imagery -

It's like, the most literal in that game. There's a barrier, like a hymen barrier, which you must break down in order to hit the other side with your phallic ship that shoots out white stuff.

When I first saw the response [to Cunt], I understood why. It kind of goes with what I'm going through now. I get frustrated that people don't know who I am, and what I'm about, and where I'm coming from, that they would think that I would do something that would be intentionally misogynist.

If I was a misogynist - if I was really a misogynist - I would revel in it. I totally would. I'm that kind of person. I have things about me that are ... off. And I push those through my work. And if one of those things that was off was that I had this unrelenting hate for women, then you would find a recurring theme in everything that I've done and I would totally talk about it. I would say, "My Mom abused me," or whatever else.

People can find that vein - people will go through and find that vein, or whatever else. But I'm not. I'm not at all! When I say that [I'm not a misogynist], people say, you can't say that. But, I'm not that kind of person. I'm the kind of person who would talk about it, if I was. But, it doesn't really matter.

I mean, I was taken aback at first. I don't want to upset people. Or, I don't want to upset them in that way, if that makes sense. That wasn't my intention. My intention was never to hurt somebody.

It reminded me a lot of the first comic that I ever did, the first This is a Cry for Help. The recurring theme in the comic was me killing myself, repeatedly. And, on the cover of almost each of the comics, there was a cover of me dead in some way. And on the cover of the first comic, it was me with my head blown off, leaning against the wall. And a friend of my family who lost their son to suicide got the comic and was totally destroyed by it, just seeing the cover of it. And I was so hurt. Because I didn't - I felt helpless. I would never in a million years want to hurt this person, in any way.

And I would never want to hurt somebody who was fighting the good fight for women. It was never my intention. But when you make any kind of art, you're going to upset somebody. I have learned that, over the years. And I can't try to self-censor or stop what I'm doing because I'm worried that someone might get hurt. And in a lot of ways, when I do, I feel like maybe I'm doing something that has more meaning or substance. Maybe it needed to happen.

I felt the same way about The Binding of Isaac, when I was making it. In a lot of ways, The Binding of Isaac is the most similar game to Cunt.

Well, you made it with Florian Himsl, who also helped you with Cunt. I'm not sure what his involvement was ... ?

He programs.

He wasn't involved creatively? That's just a coincidence?

Yeah. Well - Tommy [Refenes, co-creator of Super Meat Boy] is "anything goes" as well, but some of the people that I've worked with in the past are not exactly "anything goes." And Florian is definitely "anything goes."

You mean, it's possible that you would have had this idea and somebody else might not have programmed it.

Oh, sure. When I was starting this game, the guy I was working with at the time, who did Gish, was totally against it. He was so against it that he told me if I ever entered it in the IGF [the Independent Games Festival], that he would never enter anything into the IGF again. He hated it. He completely hated it.

But, The Binding of Isaac, the mindframe, the mindset that I was in when I did Cunt and The Binding of Isaac was very similar. I was questioning my motives. After Super Meat Boy, the success and everything else like that ... I wanted to do something risky. I wanted to do something that could commit career suicide, again. Something that I might not be able to make any money off of. Something that might have a very, very small following. Maybe a cult following. Something that could possibly make people think about stuff that would make them upset.

And, when going through Isaac, there were many times when I was going in completely uncensored. I wasn't going to stop myself. There were many times when I thought, I can't do this. This is pushing it too far, I'm going to upset the wrong people, this is just going to get me in trouble, this is going to do this, this and this. Whenever I would push into those areas, that was when I would regain the confidence that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into the danger zone again. It's exciting, because you feel like you're actually doing something that maybe hasn't been done this way, if that makes sense. It's uncharted territory.

So you do want to create art that upsets people - but, the right people and in the right way. Do you want to go into that?

This is the reason why I get in trouble!

I think you mean you want people to feel uncomfortable -

But to think about why they feel uncomfortable. That's important. And it's important for me. Because I feel uncomfortable, too! I feel the same feelings. And then I want to explore the reasons why.

With Isaac, it's much deeper and more personal than Cunt. Cunt was just a little tiny thing. It was more just about, why do genitals upset people? And why are they so fun to draw? It was very angsty. It was definitely me channeling my 18-year-old self, back when I was just out of high school.

The joke is just, "ha ha, genitals."

Right. But moreso: why ha-ha genitals? Why?

The ongoing theme of my work is stuff that's so gross it's cute. And, of course, Cunt wasn't cute, in any sense. But it was pretty. I mean, I thought it was one of the prettiest games I had ever made. Well, not from a thematic standpoint.

Well, the line art is very clean. It's got a striking visual style. I think that's part of why it's so memorable.

I love drawing anything with folds and creases and wrinkles. That's really fun to draw, for me. So, in a lot of ways, it's just surface-level stuff that started this off. And like I said, it was a nine-day game, so not a lot of thought was put into this. It was really just that I thought it would be fun to draw a lot of vaginas and dicks. [laughs]

I mostly think it's interesting that people forget about Cunt.

I do end up talking about it more and bringing it up more than people ask me about it. Most of the interviews that I do tend to be on sites that wouldn't post the word.

I always thought that it was only called Cunt. It wasn't until recently that I realized it was referred to as The C Word too.

I actually had to call it The C Word on Newgrounds because Cunt was already taken. [laughs] But a lot of people refer to it as The C Word, which is the proper way to refer to it in the printed form.

A lot of time when it's brought up in interviews, they will indirectly ask about it. They'll jokingly say, "oh, well, it's not like you've made a game about the female genitalia!" or something like that.

Also, there's the fact that it's not a good game. It's a horrible game!

There's not much to it. I mean, it's not a broken game. It works.

Yeah, but it's not good. It's not something where I would ever say, check out the design in that game! It was very, very quick on paper. Real quick. Really basic design. And very short, just for fun.

The only redeeming value that it ever had was the art and the content, which ended up being more a talking point than anything else. It faded away.

It used to have a Wikipedia for a good year or two. It was really in-depth. People discussing it, both sides - is it misogynistic, is it not? And a bunch of articles referencing it. And then someone deleted it, and it just faded away.

I do still talk about it, when people ask, "What are your most significant games?" I do think of that as one of my most significant games. I felt it was very important for me to make. It was very important for me to remember that I had the ability to make whatever I wanted to. It seems minimal, but it was very crucial. And it's something that I need to constantly do, to remind myself, that the boundaries aren't completely defined. That, in a lot of ways, it's my personal duty to push them a bit. I'm not going to ever play within the lines. It's just not... it's just not fun. And that was one of my first big ones.

It sounds like when you make things, you don't think about an intended audience.

I believe this strongly to be true: by doing that, I'm respecting the audience and respecting their intelligence. And respecting knowing that they want something new and they want something different, even if it might be slightly upsetting and might not be for everybody.

I would think that would be extremely difficult to do as a video game designer in particular, though. As opposed to a comics writer or movie maker, where you put art out there and people absorb it. With video games, you can't not think about the player. Do you imagine just yourself playing a game?

It's really specific. When I'm doing a game where the functional design and the way that someone plays and understands is very important, I think about the player.

With Super Meat Boy, I feel like you'd have to.

Of course I have to. That's one of the things I have to do, to grow.

In a lot of ways, this is one of the reasons why video games aren't that good. It's our inability to understand how other people think and how other people learn and understand. In a lot of ways, the past couple years of me getting better as a designer has been me watching other people play my games. Even watching Let's Plays and stuff like that.

It's very important for me to see how other people understand and learn, because I only know how to learn and understand one way. And I'm one of a billion people playing games. Everybody learns differently. So, yeah, I do think about other people when it comes to learning and understanding and how they experience things. But I don't when it comes to [questions like], who will play this? Will they care? What will they think? The importance is mostly on the functional design of the game, because I want people to experience what I am putting out there for them. It's important. I want them to be able to experience it in the way that I intended, and in order to do that, I have to understand how they see it and learn. Which is hard, but it's a fun challenge.

But also, you're asking somebody to identify with this thing that they're moving around on the screen.

Yeah, I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I honestly hadn't really thought about it much before. I really do design from my own perspective, and I can't write. It sounds weird - because everything that I write is fiction - but I can't write fiction. I'm always pulling from something that I've experienced, in some way, or know something about personally, or am personally invested in. If I'm not, then I'm lying. If I'm lying, there's no honesty in what I'm doing. And if there's no honesty in what I'm doing, then no one's going to like it. There's going to be no art there.

In that way, it sucks, since I don't believe I could ever make a game with a female protagonist in a way that was honest. Maybe eventually, maybe when I get some perspective in life or become a better writer, but I'm not that good of a writer and I can't write fiction. So, I do have a hard time changing perspectives. I tend to put male roles in everything. I tend to write about young boys growing up, their imagination. There are a lot of recurring themes in my work, about how I grew up. I can't get away from those. I'm not good enough.

My niece played a lot of games, and still plays games. I gave her a DS with a ROM loader, so there's a shitload of games on there for her to play. And really early on, when she was only 3 years old, she learned how to navigate through the games and exit in and out on her own. She had a certain number of games that she always played, and they were only games with girls as the main role. And it's really disturbing in a way, and it sucks, because I wish there were more girls who made games. So they could have more honest games about girls, for girls to play. Because I hate to think that it's just always some dude writing a girl's story.

She's five, and she's not as into games anymore. Her brother is really into games. He's really into Meat Boy. There's this video of him playing Meat Boy. We pan over to my niece and we ask her, "Who's your favorite character in Meat Boy?" And she says, "Jill." And we say "Why?" And she says, "Because she's the only girl in the game." And, augh, that sucks.

I don't have that perspective. I don't know what it's like to be a girl. And I'll never know. And in that same respect, I don't know what it's like to be black, or transgendered, or gay. And I don't know how important it is for those roles to be there, for kids to identify with growing up, to see, "oh, there's a space for me in video games, because there's a character who's just like me." I'll never fully understand that, but I do understand more why people talk about it now, after having seen it first hand.

Sadly, I don't believe I'm where I need to be in order to represent anybody other than myself. Maybe in time, though.

I think the fact that you've even thought about that at all is a start. In Cunt, for example, there's nothing there for me to latch onto. If I were younger, I might've made a game about how mysterious penises were to me. I could make that game now.

I think people were really more upset about the violence, though. Once you have genitals plus violence, you'll see people taking a step back and saying "I want no part of this."

I wish I had put more thought into it, so I could understand it. I grew up Catholic, so that could always be a thing.

Even with Isaac - I was just talking to Jon about this - I can now take a step back from it, play it, and see certain elements of the game. I felt the need to add certain aspects, like the dancing around the idea of sexual abuse in the game.

There could, of course, be a deeper meaning to all of this, because I definitely grew up Catholic and I definitely have a focus on violence and mutilation as being holy.

And there's the repressed sexuality aspect to Catholicism, too.

You could definitely dig in there. I think that a lot of it falls back on the fact that I think mysterious things are interesting. The things that people don't talk about or show are magical and interesting. I like drawing those things. I like using those things and themes in my work. I can't help but think that's it.

There's definitely Catholic stuff in there, when it comes to the violence. That's the reason why most of my work is so violent. I never see Cunt as a vicious violence. It still seems playful to me, in the worst ways. But I grew up with a picture, in my room, of a man who had been beaten with blood streaming down his face. And I always thought it was a picture of my Dad, because my Dad kind of looked like him. And, being told, "this is our Lord and he's God" - the tortured man! Violence is holy!

I'm not Catholic now. I'm not religious. But I find the mythology very interesting. The fact that so many people are so accepting of something so incredibly violent, yet not accepting of others ... It's so strange.

I wish I had a definitive answer. But I don't have definitive answers for a lot of the stuff that I do. Because a lot of the stuff that I do, I just feel it and then I go with it and see where I end up, just like I said before. I know what it's not, but it's hard to convince people of that after the fact.

You had said in an interview that you were okay with it if people wanted to use Cunt as an example of a misogynist game, even though you knew that it wasn't. Does it bother you when people do that, though, because you don't feel that way about the game?

Of course it bothers me, because they're putting my name with it and making me say something. Once, somebody said that video game was the equivalent of rape. And, number one, that person obviously hasn't been raped, because that's a horrible thing to say!

But, I was younger then. I shouldn't have even treaded into that territory and tried to talk. I was going to lose. I had lost already. I was never going to convince anybody otherwise. The mindset was there, it was made up, whatever else. All I could do was lay out the pieces for anybody else who happened to be wandering in, and say, "these are the only things I was thinking about when I was doing this, and I know I can't convince you as to whether I'm a misogynist or not."

But, like I said, if this allows you to think more about it, and be proactive about it and write about misogyny in video games, then that's totally cool. Because it's motivating somebody to do something that I believe is right. It sucks that I'm the basis for it, because I am an advocate for women. I'm always for the underdog, because I've always been the underdog. I'm always rooting for the odd one out. And that's the only part that bothered me.

Also, this has happened before. I have a blog, and if you search for my blog, it's called "Edmund's blog for gay nerds." Some people are confused by that. I've gotten emails saying, "You shouldn't say that, because you're being mean, you're bullying gays." They assume it's me saying, like, you're gay.

To mean "stupid" instead of "homosexual."

And, quite literally, I did that so people would think I was gay. To keep out the riff-raff. I would prefer it if people thought I was gay. I would prefer it if people thought I was any kind of minority. I would love that. Then maybe more people would think, "Hey, this guy is like me!"

This has happened, too. This is the best part. There's a huge gay community out there who loves me and thinks I'm gay. And I hate to tell them I'm not. I do these interviews for gay websites, and they're like, "So you're not gay. You're married." And I'm like, "Yeah." And they're like, "We thought you were gay." And I'm like, "I might as well be!" You know? Think of me that way. That's fine! I'd prefer it.

As a way of proving that you're a progressive, that you're a liberal ... ?

I guess. I grew up in Santa Cruz. I mean, Santa Cruz. I couldn't not be liberal and progressive here. I never in my life, other than when my Dad said it, thought that being gay was anything negative at all. My Mom had gay friends. I never saw it as anything weird, growing up, until my Dad told me that it goes against God's word. Even in a Catholic family, you'd think there would be some sort of negativity towards gays, but my Grandma and my Mom were always really cool. I have a gay cousin. It was just never a thing. Sorry, I'm going off on a tangent.

Heh, a little. Any other progressive people you've pissed off that you want to stand up to?

No, not really.

I heard that you pissed off PETA with Super Meat Boy?

I don't know if it bothered them - I don't understand it, exactly.

Okay. I don't like PETA. Obviously. See, I'm liberal, but I'm not illogical. I'm very anti-organized religion. I view them as an organized religion. But that's beside the point.

Me and Tommy talked about how awesome it would be if PETA ever protested us, because we have the name "meat" in our title. Anybody who's seen [Indie Game: The Movie] knows that Meat Boy is not actually made of meat. But, right before the first week of our PC launch, PETA did a protest game. I don't know if you've ever seen the McDonald's protest games. They did random protest games and it really doesn't help anything. I don't know what they're doing. But they invest lots of money in these little flash games that just kind of mock and poke fun at McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even Mario, because I guess it was abuse towards animals because you jump on Goombas and stuff like that.

They did a parody of Super Meat Boy which was called Super Tofu Boy, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever, one of the best things that could ever happen. I woke up, went on Twitter, and saw that, and I said, oh my god. Our dreams have come true.  This place is protesting our game. That's amazing!

So we played along with it and bantered back and forth. It was a campaign for them. They had a Twitter about it - a Tofu Boy Twitter. Tofu Boy website, Tofu Boy game. I heard that they invested over $100,000 in the whole campaign, which is three times more than our budget for Super Meat Boy.

So, we talked about that, we joked back and forth. I think they joked at us first, saying "Meat Boy is malnourished." It was weird, because they were doing a sexual edge to it. They said, "Band-Aid Girl is going to leave Meat Boy because he's bad in bed, because vegetarians are better in bed." [laughs] It was really weird! Really enjoyable, though. We were like, what the fuck is going on?

So, they were heckling us a little bit via Twitter, trying to push it. Then, we said, "How many PETA members does it take to change a light bulb? None, PETA can't change anything." And then that got on a bunch of news sites. And it kept going, and we thought, wow! We have the ability to do this. Nobody else could ever respond, but since we're independent, we actually can. We don't have to worry about tarnishing our image or ruffling feathers if fans of ours are supporters of PETA.

We put Tofu Boy in the game, that next day. We took their parody character of our character, and put him in the game as an unlockable thing. If you type in "petafile" on the character select screen, it unlocks Tofu Boy. And he can't beat the level, because he's so malnourished.

That was very fun. It was a fun, exciting time. We got a lot of press, of course, for it. But we got to actually respond in a way that was creative and used video games. It was cool both ways - they used video games a protest, and we used video games as a response protest. It was just cool. I liked that. It was a cool, once-in-a-lifetime situation.

It's great that they were good-natured about it.

It was never vicious on either side. But PETA is against animal testing, and Tommy is diabetic. If there weren't animal testing, he would be dead. So would his Mom. Also, my Grandma - I've known a lot of diabetics.

Understood. Well, hey, thanks for talking with me for forty-five minutes.

No problem! Actually, this is going to sound strange, but you don't need to link me to the article, because I've cut the internet off of me, if that makes sense.

I saw that on your Formspring. You are not interacting with the internet, now?

It's my internal war with exactly what I want. What I want is I want to make games. And reading people's responses to my games, as well as getting followers on Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else, is counterintuitive to what I want. All it ends up doing is feeding my ego in a wrong way.

So this is part of your philosophy about wanting to separate the author from the audience.

I guess, in a way. Yeah. I don't have the vocabulary, completely, to speak of it yet, because I'm in transition. Right now, I'm transitioning out of this.

You're trying something.

I'm trying something here, which feels really good. So I'm just going with the fact that it feels really good. Yesterday I deleted over a thousand-something people from my Facebook, and I've cut myself off from Twitter completely, and I've removed all Google alerts, and I'm no longer reading responses or direct messages from anybody or anything other than emails and a few Formspring questions. It makes me feel much, much, much better.

I don't need to hear it. I'm so fucking sick of hearing about myself. And it's only going to get worse. The movie's going to be coming out, and it's only going to get worse. It's best that I do this now.

Fair enough. Good luck with your fame!

Heh, yeah, my perceived fame. I'll be ducking and dodging for a while.

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