While driving to Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac mastermind Edmund McMillen's home in Santa Cruz, California, I find myself navigating winding highways to the tune of loud, aggressive ska-punk. The music raises a defiant fist against society's ills and screams of fearless rebellion - and while I don't doubt that the inspiration behind those lyrics is sincere, it gets me wondering: how do people who've hit it big going against the grain and making no secret of their disdain for mainstream society actually live? Do they change once the system starts working in their favor? How do they occupy themselves day-to-day? What are their houses like? Do their cats have fur, just like ours?
It is, to be honest, a very conveniently timed line of thought, given that it's still stage-diving around in my mind when McMillen - a man who's brazenly taken on topics other developers would never touch with games such as the extremely explicit female-anatomy shooter The C Word - answers the door. After meeting his wife, Danielle, and petting his hairless cats (yes, just like in the movie), we proceed into his room/workspace. There, surrounded by a mixture of traditional game/comic geek paraphernalia and a life-sized organ-baring model of human anatomy, we talk. About poop.
"I tend to like really weird stuff," he says, reclining in an office chair across from me. "I mean, most of my work really does delve into the pee-pee, poo-poo stages of development, the whys of... It sounds retarded, but I'm fascinated with the idea of poop. Because it's considered so gross and weird, yet everybody poops. We all are very familiar with poop. Every day we wipe our asses, and we smear poop on a piece of paper in our hand. And yet it's considered so naughty and so gross and weird. Yet we're all very f***ing familiar with it."
"There's recurring themes in everything in my work, and they're usually things where I think it's so odd that people think they're gross. I tend to focus on the fetal stages of birth, life and death - but mostly birth - the development process, and dying and decay. It's life, but it's these parts that are interesting. After and before, the development and the decay. Those are the mysterious things. Guts. The stuff that's inside. That sort of stuff. Religion and sexuality and... genitals."
It's a mindset that's driven McMillen since his earliest days, though he insists it's no longer about making people mad or getting attention. But, as a child growing up in a family of alcoholics and drug addicts turned Bible-thumping born-again Christians, McMillen lived for that reaction. He drew and drew and drew. He drew poop. He drew dead babies. And if people hated what he was doing, well, that just made it all the sweeter.
"I think Catholicism is quite interesting. It's very close to D&D. It seems like such a natural progression."
"My dad's side of the family, they're all born-again Christians," says McMillen. "And with that came very little Biblical talk, but a lot of more stereotypical Christianity - the really negative aspects. Everybody's going to Hell. I'm going to go to Hell because I'm playing D&D, I'm playing Magic [The Gathering], and you're chastised for every little thing. Which is kind of ironic, because it's coming from these born-again Christians who lived the most horrible sinful lives possible before they became Christians and saved. They were all recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, everything else."
So McMillen went with it. If he was going to Hell, he'd at least do his damnedest to take everyone else with him. "When I got a response that upset somebody that was close to me, especially, it was a huge motivator to push it. That's how I learned to fight back. I never put up physical fights, but I could fight back with my work very easily because I could put it out there and say, 'You deal with it.'"
"I don't remember what it was called back then, but there was a family website. It was like Facebook, but only your family could log in. You could show each other what you'd been working on. I have a baby, this person turned three, that sort of stuff. So I decided, since I was invited to the McMillen Facebook page, whatever the hell it was, that I was going to show my work too. I started posting my comics and stuff like that, and they were very offended, removing it and telling me to never post anything else. And of course it would just make me do more, until I got banned from my own family's website."
And yet, McMillen's beef is not - nor has it ever been - with Christianity. Instead, he and the Bible have an incredibly complicated relationship, built largely on both demons he's attempted to exorcise through his work and the one person who's supported that habit since day one. I bring up the topic of McMillen's (now sadly deceased) grandmother - who was referenced more than a few times during that movie - and inadvertently open the gates on a figurative flood of Biblical proportions.
"My grandma was Catholic," he says. "Very, very religious. But not in a negative way, surprisingly. She would never push it on anybody. It was a very personal thing for her. She was a very intelligent woman. She never talked to me about it, but I would overhear her talking to her family, and they would talk about Revelation and stuff like that, which was by far the most interesting part of the Bible. I was obsessed with it when I was little."
Then, on a dime, he turns from reflective adult back into that wide-eyed kid. His disposition morphs from casual yet reserved to something more animated and expressive as he recounts his love affair with the end of days. "I don't think I ever believed it fully, but the mythology was so epic. Giant beasts rising out of the ocean? It was just, oh my God... I almost wished that was real so I could see it happen, because I would love to see giant angels come from the heavens and take the believers away as a f***in' beast rises out of the ocean and opens up Hell. It would be worth dying for, because it would be the most epic thing you will ever see."
"People wonder why there's a lot of violence in my work. I grew up with a picture of a bloody dying man who is suffering for everybody, a martyr, and it's the whole idea of self-sacrifice. Your exalted God, your God, rips his body to shreds for the good of the world. Violence becomes holy. And in a lot of ways, in the Bible and Catholicism, violence and gore is considered holy. You drink the blood of Christ, you eat his flesh. How does that not come in to me?
"It's hard for me to say, because I hate saying I was playing it safe - but I was playing it safe with Super Meat Boy."
"When I'm going through seven years of catechism growing up and they're teaching me, you know, spells... I'm learning how to cast incantations before I receive the blood and body of Christ, you know? So I can be protected from the devil. It's total magic, and I totally love it for that, I love it for its mysteriousness, I love it for its ritualisticness. I think Catholicism is quite interesting. It's very close to D&D. It seems like such a natural progression."
And then McMillen sinks into his chair, leather cushion squeaking slightly as he slumps. He glares downward, as though suddenly overcome by a great weight. It's these moments of revisiting his childhood that remind him just how far removed from it he's become. For McMillen, it all goes back to the mystery and the curiosity and the wonderment of those formative years. But once they're over, they're gone for good.
"I'm not scared of monsters anymore, and there's a part of me that really hates that," he explains, verging on heartbroken. "I don't feel like I have the ability to believe certain things, and for the most part it sucks. It's one of those things that sucks about growing up, you lose the mystery, and if you lose mystery you lose magic. I don't want to do that."
"Ever since I started having money, the first thing I did was start rebuilding my childhood. I'm re-exploring the mysteries of certain things that were magical to me growing up, that influenced me. There's a lot to being a kid and growing up where there's this kind of unbridled creativity. You believe in myth, you know? I have this impulse to surround myself with the memories that I have, because it's inspiring. It's inspiring to visit a time when I used to be afraid that I was going to be abducted by aliens in the middle of the night, and then be really afraid because I knew that they could hear me thinking, and if I thought about it they would hear it and then they would eventually come to get me. They'd arrive at the scariest point, because they knew what the scariest point was."
Suddenly, the paraphernalia stacked floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall takes on a whole new meaning. As does a Jesus Christ action figure, which I'd originally assumed was simply there for irony's sake. But it's not all retro game characters, comic book heroes, and tiny recreations of largely passive religious figures with kung-fu grips. There's Meat Boy stuff as well, and it's sort of... everywhere. Posters, figurines, shirts. But then, it makes perfect sense, really. After all, Super Meat Boy - more so than even the dreamy, idyllic Aether, tar-coated sidescroller Gish or The C Word - put McMillen on the map. In some ways, however, he's not entirely happy about that.
"It's hard for me to say, because I hate saying I was playing it safe - but I was playing it safe with Super Meat Boy," he admits with an air of defeat. "I was risking so much, so of course I was playing it safe. We went in knowing we could get this [Xbox Live] deal. So what game are we going to do? Well, let's re-do a game. Let's not make a new game, because that's dangerous. I don't want to risk my whole f***ing career and my future on something that is uncertain. I'm not comfortable with that. I'm not comfortable with risking [programmer and good friend] Tommy [Refenes'] future and my wife and everybody else. I'm gonna do something that I know that people like already. And the most popular game that I had done recently was [the browser version of] Meat Boy."
"Super Meat Boy is the closest thing to selling out that I've ever done, but it's not. But it is safe. It's very, very safe, and I knew it was safe going in, and I was playing it safe because I was risking so much. There is that part of me, after Super Meat Boy, that felt like I needed to... I needed to not play it safe. I needed to do something dangerous."
McMillen's answer, then, was The Binding of Isaac, his now mega-successful roguelike-meets-Zelda-meets-Robotron top-down shooter. But, at the time it launched, Isaac was one of what McMillen describes as his "career suicide" games. It is, after all, a pulsating mass of complexity, blood, guts, genitalia, poop, religious symbolism, parental abuse, and punishing difficulty. Who in their right mind would expect to find an audience for that?
""I've got my one best friend, you know? And I'm good. I have a hard time relating to a large number of people. I never did parties - that was just something I avoided. People frighten me in a lot of ways. I see the worst things in people, and it's scary."
"I just wanted to go all in," he says. "There were many times when I was like, 'I can't put that in.' And then: 'What am I doing? What am I doing? Am I doing this again? Am I committing career suicide? This is stupid. Why am I doing this?' And whenever I would think that, I would be like 'Yes, I know this is good. This is exciting again. I'm dancing around with things that are dangerous. I like that.'"
"A lot of that stuff, a lot of the really dark stuff, came from my dad's family. They were horribly abused. A lot of the really, really dark stuff: his mom giving him a wig, and the gender-issue stuff and some of the other abusive stuff comes through stories I heard from my mom about what happened to my dad. His parents were very religious. It's just weird."
"I really went in thinking, like, 'I'm going to have to give this away. It'll be a sponsored free game, because no way in hell will people pay for it. It's too weird.' There was a darkness there that was so dark. That's why I had to make it really cute, because I couldn't... I can't destroy people with this game. This is going to be way too heavy and weird and dark for people to enjoy. But that was what was most interesting, so I kept going with it - kept pushing and pushing and pushing. I never censored anything that I did. Nothing at all was ever taken back."
But, against all odds, The Binding of Isaac went on to rival Super Meat Boy's popularity - and perhaps even surpass it in terms of rabid dedication of its fan-base. Meanwhile, around the same time, McMillen's star was rising in another medium as well: film. So, naturally, that movie finally enters our discussion. The popular line of thought, of course, is that stardom changes people. McMillen, however, draws a very sharp distinction: the film didn't change him. It changed the way people perceived him - in his eyes, for the worse.
"It sounds really weird, and I even hate talking about it, but I don't feel like a celebrity," he starts, a heavy note of dejection in his voice. "I don't feel like a big success. I don't feel like I 'made it.' I feel like the same person I've always been, who's trying my hardest to learn, trying my hardest to get better, and just stay sane by doing this. But I feel like I've been forced into this other caricature of who I am by the masses, because I'm viewed as this successful independent voice who's in a movie about independent games, people know who I am, and they know my name."
"It's just weird to go to GDC and stuff. It seems like people just want to hang out. What's this supposed to be even about? I don't know. I'm the kind of person that always has one best friend and no other friends. And now I've got my one best friend, you know? And I'm good. I have a hard time relating to a large number of people. I never did parties - that was just something I avoided. People frighten me in a lot of ways. I see the worst things in people, and it's scary."
"But there's another part of it where it was like I needed to be accessible to fans. I don't want to be an asshole, I really don't, because I've been let down by people who inspired me. I'll get their email, talk to them for a bit. I thought I needed to keep up with my celebrity, you know? I needed to understand what people are talking about, what people like and don't like about me. I needed to read all these things, I needed to understand who I was in the public's eye. And I really focused on that for about two years with Meat Boy and then the movie and stuff like that. And I got sucked in, and it was very bad. I didn't realize that [at the time]."
"Ever since I started having money, the first thing I did was start rebuilding my childhood. I'm re-exploring the mysteries of certain things that were magical to me growing up, that influenced me. There's a lot to being a kid and growing up where there's this kind of unbridled creativity."
Recently, though, McMillen finally found a way out of that destructive loop. The short version? He quit the Internet. Or rather, a hacking attempt forced him to do so for about a week, but it was like taking a deep, full breath for the first time after nearly drowning. He could finally move on.
"It wasn't until I got hacked and I was forced to be without Twitter and whatever else for about a week, and I'm realizing, 'Oh my God, I'm so much more productive and I feel so much better and I'm starting to realize how all that stuff has nothing to do with what I like to do, what I am, or anything.' It's a very negative thing. I don't need my ego stroked at all. Sometimes people do say things that are very motivating and great. But for the most part I just don't need them anymore. And I work better without them because then I stop obsessing over them. It's easy me to get stuck in these obsessive loops, and I didn't realize I was even in it until that happened. But either way, I think it's really good for me to do, because all the movie and GDC stuff was really weird."
And so, we conclude our chat on a relatively positive note. McMillen stresses that thinking - sometimes obsessively, bitingly, and destructively - is simply what he's best at. But for now, he's back to focusing those thoughts on the things and people he cares about. There is, however, still one loose end. My eyes have spent the past hour and change drifting over to McMillen's intricate tattoos, so I have to know: what are they all about? What's so important that someone like McMillen - who tremendously prizes his ability to reflect and reinvent - would decide to permanently imprint his body with it?
"This one, right here," he explains, gesturing to the lines on his left arm, "it was around the time my grandma died. And it was supposed to be a reminder that I was more than just my left hand. I'm left-handed, and it was just a reminder that I was more than just this guy who's making games or whatever, this creative dude. I have more to me than that. If something happened, if my arm was cut off and I wasn't able to do it anymore, that I could still do other things and still be a valid human being."