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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
There's not much to
it. I mean, it's not a broken game.
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
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
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
Of course I have to. That's one of the things I have to do,
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
But also, you're
asking somebody to identify with this thing that they're moving around on the
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
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,
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,
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
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
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.
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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