Sorry that I wrote this up I have the brain worms.
When I need violence in my life, your humble visual novel is not the first place I’d expect to turn towards, but EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER has recently continued into their second season. Subtitled BOUND BY ASH, it has all the same cop punching, mech crunching, gay and gory, tearful and terrifying furor as the first season had, and in many ways moreso.
The first season of Extreme Meatpunks Forever released three years ago, and it set a strong tone about queer identification, anti-fascism, constructing your own body autonomy, and found families. You got into your mech, snapped your spine to the console spike, and knocked whatever motherfucker got in your way off of the nearest cliff. Kill to survive. The themes are simple and empowering. In a fascist world, we must weaponize our softest, squishiest parts in ways that aren’t considered civil or polite, since it is clear by who’s allowed to kneel and who isn’t allowed to breathe. That ‘civility’ is what empowers the norms fascists use to rally against anything they consider the Other. Now, in 2021, after a summer of fighting for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people against police brutality around the world (a fight that continues in the American streets today — no justice, no peace), it feels even better to punch a cop (the weakest enemy in this game) than it did in the first season. And that’s not just because of the inherent value that comes from bashing in the boys in blue, but because there has been major systemic improvements in the UI, the graphics, combat mechanics and the writing that makes Meatpunks feel less crusty and more meaty. Each chapter now contains content warnings and they offer alternative ways through that content in conscientious ways so you don’t lose context for any content that is skipped [No fomo, all homo]. The menus and transitions in or out of combat scenarios are smoother and give the player more information on how to easily progress the game, and there are ways to skip the combat scenarios entirely without impeding your progress. These changes make the game a lot more accessible, and even though most folks are still going to binge through the season in an afternoon, it makes that afternoon an even smoother ride compared to the first season.
Speaking of combat in this game, each chapter sets up one or two combat scenarios to break up the visual novel scenes. They’re often tough and have very little in the way of adjusting the difficulty, but they are thematically appropriate and provide diverse scenarios. You may recognize the design of the combat from Lucah: Born of a Dream, since those sections were built by the same developer, Colin Horgan; now sporting major improvements over the original season. If you haven’t seen it, the combat style can most effectively be described as “Super Smash Bros. for the Atari 2600” which looks alien on the outside but feels intimately familiar in your hands, like most of the queer experience. Basically, your goal is to use each character’s standard and secondary attacks to knock your opponents out of bounds, usually into water, fire, or off a cliff. At least, that’s what the scribbled exterior of the game looks like. Diagetically, as the story describes in gruesome detail, you mount your body inside old, broken-down, previously-used, blood fueled meat-mechs which feel like they shouldn’t work, they should barely function, and yet they do… almost out of obligation to your desperate hopes and wishes.
This is translated through mechanics that start off feeling clunky and rigid, but when suddenly everything clicks, it feels so right. It feels like a dance. You try to become one with your partner, just a couple of scribbles on a screen. At one point, one of the main characters, Cass, changed their secondary attack to match a new worldview they were developing and I almost broke down. Because this old attack that used to be really frustrating to use suddenly became a novel concept that could only be explored in this style of game. It is so simple, but felt so inspired! Cass’s new special attack made them my automatic go-to for any fight I could choose them in and it, alone, made me immediately demand for a season three just to see this entire combat system keep evolving and transforming. These kinds of story beats weren’t only reflected mechanically, the biggest technical improvements came from all of the diverse set pieces that were put into the game.
Many of the game’s five chapters contain set pieces to further break up the action between emotional dialogue sequences and dynamic fighting sequences. For one chapter they put you into an old school RPG-like world where you can guide each character through an extremely normal town. Or for another one, our hapless goofball techy, Brad, plays guitar at a rowdy punk gig where the goal is to play a Guitar Hero-esque sequence as shitty as possible. These set pieces give us opportunities to see the world of Meatpunks with our own eyes instead of strictly through the lenses of the main characters, contextualizing the more bizarre parts of the world and the characters to be more relatable and grounded. Moments like these become invaluable to the flow of Meatpunks because they capture the normalcy of the world in order to better contextualize and break up the cycle of violence and aftercare we’d otherwise see in the game. If everything is queer and violent, then nothing is queer and violent; it would be like Mad Max without Tom Hardy. Instead, we crack through these edgy, queer, and violent tropes with sincerity and little rhythm game gags so we can bring the whole world together.
So now that the world is brought together, I want to talk about the story more in detail with you, because a lot of exciting stuff happens. Stuff that really doesn’t happen in other games, and it all requires a great deal of unpacking. Since the format of Meatpunks is like a Netflix-structured pulp drama and it’s so easy to binge through it, let’s do the thing they do for the Netflix shows and finally put up the BIG ‘OL SPOILER tag. You probably see it down there if you’ve scrolled the page a bit, which means for some folks, you and I might not have a lot of time left together, and I understand. I just want to say it’s been nice hosting you for this part of the essay and I hope to see you again soon after you finish Bound By Ash. I recommend it, and the first season of Meatpunks was in the itch.io bundle for racial justice so you can even start from the first season if you want as well! Anyways,
DISCUSSIONS AHEAD DETAIL PLOT EVENTS IN EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: BOUND BY ASH (Season 2). SPOILERS, GORE, 410,757,864,530 DEAD COPS, AND PUNK SHIT BEYOND THIS POINT.
When we break our bones and tear our skin in the streets, it is never for ourselves. There is no glory in fighting against the status quo, as glory is only granted by empires; the gallant warrior, knighted by his queen. The only glorified punks are dead ones. What the fuck good is glory when you’re dead? So instead of fighting for glory, we fight for our families and our future in hopes for a better life. In order to fight, we have to take on a name, and through lived experiences of the characters in Meatpunks, we find a lot of names are a lot more than names. They are totemic to identifying ourselves. That’s why people have to go so far as to ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ their old ‘dead’ names: to remove the totemic power it could have over them. Dead names and changing names come up a few times in Bound By Ash like it did in the first season, where Cass finds their old mech name stops working because surviving and recuperating from trauma has changed them so much. When Cass finally shouts out their new powerful mech-activation name, ULTRALIGHT SCAVENGER, it is a force of clarity and peace for themselves; it is the reward for all of the hard work overcoming a major depressive episode and identity crisis.
But really, that event near the beginning of Bound By Ash is a setup for a later event. When you encounter the eldritch deer spirit of the blood forests, simply called The Forest, they reveal something fascinating about the cosmic power of names. Obviously at the highest level, names don’t mean shit to an eldritch being, and yet The Forest takes the time to notice that ULTRALIGHT SCAVENGER, our new name we use to start our mechs and gain incredible power, doesn’t actually come from a desire to know ourselves better. The Forest says, “A MECH NAME DOESN’T TIE YOU TO YOURSELF. IT TIES YOU TO OTHERS.” Which is a radical statement when you identify your mech name as your most empowered self! But your name really isn’t for you, huh? Because, The Forest is right; a name has no power within a vacuum. Our power comes from how we allow others to perceive us, and that starts with a name. We use our names to connect to others; our history, our family, our culture, our gender. I mean, I use an alternate name when I order fast food just because my name is tough to read out loud, although I doubt The Forest was considering something as pedestrian as my Wendy’s order…
That’s why we change our names, to reflect ourselves more clearly to the world around us. Cass never needed to change their mech name to better understand themselves, since Cass already overcame their struggle. The end purpose of the name ULTRALIGHT SCAVENGER was for Cass to signal to the rest of the Meatpunks, to their friends, that they had overcome themselves, that they wish to build bridges between this family, and that they no longer feel like an encumbrance. That is what makes the bond between the mech and the pilot so important and intimate. Your name becomes a reflection of love for friends, family, culture, and ultimately that is what informs a love for yourself. We most often associate the social systems around name-changing to trans people or internet usernames, but anyone can transform their name for any reason and it doesn’t have to be permanent change or some kind of heavy commitment, because as The Forest helped me realize, identifying your own authenticity is a process of reflecting yourself against others. Maybe Cass will change their mech’s name more times, who knows? Either way, ULTRALIGHT SCAVENGER fucks hard and helps prepare us for the next level of breaking down the themes within Meatpunks.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote about how the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the unknown, and Meatpunks stands perpendicular to that with how it organizes its many tiers of threats. From local to celestial threats, danger comes from every twist and turn in Meatpunks, and yet, through it all, the most dangerous and frightening threat is other people. The main characters have a lot of enemies and some of them are extremely relatable like fascists and the technocratic ‘Tickbros’. While there are others that are seemingly beyond human understanding such as a false sun that could obliterate us with lasers at any moment or the eldritch blood-forest whose guardian can envelope the world in living meat. The scales that these different monsters work at throughout this season are a staggering element of the story. While the unknowable monsters like Atlas, The Sun, and The Forest all come to our heroes at this unknowable scale, it is the people: the Fash and the Tickbro, who are in the end more terrifying and malicious than any cosmic phenomena in this world. There is a terrifying dread to knowing that the sun could shoot a laser and wipe out your home and your family, but it’s much scarier knowing that there’s someone out there who is controlling that sun, intentionally, to hurt the people you love the most.
In the last chapter of Bound By Ash, Sam, Brad, Lianna, and Cass all separate to take on each of these different threats. And while Sam manages to activate Atlas, and Cass allies with the spirit of the blood-forest, it all comes down to Lianna and Brad fighting the self-assured megalomania of a single tech cultist. A tech-supremacist who demands purity in society by smiting anything he considers impure with an iPad and a massive orbital cannon. When I describe him like that, he sounds like a cartoon villain, but the juxtaposition of the Tickbro next to literal titans and eldritch horrors focuses all of that massive scale downwards into a single person, like a magnifying glass. The transition from these large-scale protectors of nature, history, and the cosmos puts into perspective how a single man, any random Tickbro, can instantly wipe them all out on a whim. It’s this frame of scale that shows the difference in power between the hyperprivileged and the disenfranchised queer and minority class; the punks. It’s the minority, the queer, the disabled, and the poor who are forced into a position to protect the forests, the history of the land, and their family’s town against direct threat of obliteration. One individual’s greed can lead to generations of suffering. And at the end of the day, the reward for these protectors is that they wake up to be punks again tomorrow. Still just as maligned by the world as before, maybe even more so for upsetting some kind of status quo. That was just one Tickbro. Who knows how many are out there? These are the unknowns that horrify me, way more than any cosmic horror, giant meteor, paranormal phenomena, or natural disaster could. In our world, abuse like this happens when marginalized people are labeled and ruled by parasitical systems, especially ones that build political capital; landlords, lobbyists, and their police protectors.
That’s why the most terrifying creature in Meatpunks aren’t celestial gods, orbital cannons, or eldritch beasts: it’s Tickbros, people with a cult-like adherence to technology who use futurism to mine human beings like bags of meat: Palmer Luckey, Elon Musk, Game-dev CEOs like the Housers who crunch their teams, that stupid fucking Shark Tank show that commodifies people’s ideas into race horses they can bet on in order to legitimize their endless desire for more and more. These neoliberal horrors that every person on the planet has to deal with on a day-to-day basis and have seemingly no way to possibly stop. Just a wealthy man with an iPad and a dream for power, and all he wants is to sacrifice a few punks who are in his way. Really, it’s these meatpunks fault for getting their mulchy bodies caught in the treads of his progress, right? Fuck the punks!
Punks. This is the word that is used here as a shorthand for any and all minority identities; folks who, for this or that reason, lose out on the high amount of privilege and opportunity the world would offer them if they just automatically and magically existed as part of whatever the privileged class is. This includes the disabled, the racialized, the queer, the colonized, the anarchist, the houseless, those in-or-adjacent to poverty, and many other folks (a rapidly growing caste as poverty from wealth inequality disenfranchises more and more). All of ‘em, punks. Within our neoliberal rat race, punks lose their agency the moment they can’t conform (or at least pass as conforming). In Meatpunks, being a punk means you have to become a salvager. You have to build, from the broken parts and from the land around you, your own identity, your own family, and your own space. Which, hey! That should be fine and normal! Because punks mind their own business, protect each other, and keep to themselves.
And that’s the problem. The tenets of neoliberalism have no value for scavengers; those who opt out of competing for money, must die. Punks offer nothing to the fascists who demand control over everything. No loitering, no soliciting, no sleeping, no jaywalking, no existing in any way that could make my job of protecting property any harder, you punks. There’s this extremely violent moment during Bound By Ash: Chapter 5, where, simply with words, our main cast is ‘othered’ by someone we thought was a friend. In establishing this hegemony that puts them above the rest of us, that person literally transforms into a fascist before our eyes. We are joined by a friend from Sam’s past who tries to drive a wedge between Sam and Brad because after so many years apart he is shocked to finally see Sam flourishing on his own. Sam and Brad have grown a relationship out of their shared struggle. And this old “friend” despises that. He grows spiteful of Brad and a new desire for Sam. To have what Sam has, and to have Sam. To finally own him. And then the moment this “friend” is called out — the moment he is asked to be accountable for his behavior, which involves gaslighting Brad, lying about their past together, and almost letting him die– we watch as he desaturates and becomes a grey outline of himself.
This non-colored form is the consistent identifier the game uses for the Fash, but before now we’d never known any Fash by their name. Fascists in Meatpunks are identified by their lack of color because they inherently have nothing to offer, all they can do is take from other people. They take wealth, culture, identity, pride, space- anything that they can from those who already have very little. But the little that punks have, they made themselves. Punks have a salvaged novelty that fascists can plunder (or ‘market’ in capitalist terms). Sam’s “friend” does this by intentionally misgendering Cass, dictating his history with Sam, and by emotionally manipulating Brad. These are all behaviors of someone trying to suck control and power out of others they see as lesser. Then the moment fascists like our “friend” here are called out for trying to take control, they attack. The behavior of fascists is the behavior of parasites. Ticks. There is no ‘both sides-ism’ here wasting everyone’s time. When marginalized people stand up for themselves, it becomes very clear whose violence is justified. And when Sam beats down his “friend” in one final fight, it is not only more fair than this guy deserves, but entirely justified. Bound By Ash contextualizes that fascists will only ever take from other people while giving nothing in return. The fascists who would even take away your fucking agency simply to maintain their rank within a hegemonic status quo are parasites that need to be beat down in order to make the world safer for the salvagers of the world, the marginalized folks, the punks.
…Not that punks ever get to choose whether they defend themselves.
“YOU WILL NOT FIND THE RESULTS PAINFUL, AND YOU WILL REMEMBER THE MOMENT FONDLY. BUT YES, WHILE YOU ARE EXPERIENCING IT, IT WILL BE VERY PAINFUL. YOU MAY EXPERIENCE A SORE THROAT AFTERWARDS… from the screaming?… YES, FROM THE SCREAMING.” – The Forest and Cass negotiating terms of The Pact
While subverting a lot of tropes normal to the games medium, Meatpunks maintains one core component of contemporary games: the power fantasy. Games always have this understanding that challenges of increasing difficulty come to you with the expectation that you’ll always be able to overcome them. Level up, receive +5 shotgun, assert increased dominance, repeat, repeat, repeat… Almost all games are like this, mostly because it’s awesome and rules. Maybe also because of the medium’s ontological predilection towards self-embodiment, especially via first-person games and character-driven role playing games (which is especially problematic when all games with budgets are made by and for the same kind of dude), but I DIGRESS. The power fantasy is fundamental to most genres of games, and Meatpunks is no different in the end.
Or is it? A strong, queer power fantasy harnesses privileges normally reserved for the Bruce Willises and Adam Drivers of the world in a way that will inherently alienate the straights. By giving power that is assumed for macho heroes freely, sometimes even without obvious merit, power is returned to the previously disenfranchised. In Meatpunks, each character’s physical challenges are easily overcome and the cast only ever gets stronger as the story goes on, all the way up to Brad openly mocking the patheticness of his final boss. It especially comes through during the combat sections where with a single button press you are clobbering enemies across the map within these bulky monstrosities that loosely bend to your will. There is a palpable power fantasy within here for queer folks who are often physically preyed upon throughout life. This is basically the same power fantasy as Kratos and Master Chief and Cloud Strife, whose games are also largely about meat-tanks making the numbers hit bigger. Likewise, in the end of Bound By Ash’s final chapter, Cass, Lianna, Sam, and Brad all attempt to sacrifice their lives in important and meaningful ways and in the end it costs them … fuck all! Nothing! Just some broken bones, rattled feelings, and rebuffed resolve for the next time they are called to action. The sun sets, they sing a song, and everyone goes home happy! This is where the queer power fantasy subverts the norm.
Normally in games where power is assumed for a privileged hero character, sacrifices have to be made in a way to humble or even punish the main character. In the Mass Effect series, your crew of friends is constantly sacrificed in exchange for the main character’s success (women and more exotically racialized crewmates first, of course). In the Metroid series, Samus has to lose access to all her power-ups from the previous games before she can start an adventure. In Kingdom Hearts, Sora has to sacrifice his memories and return back to level 1, in an infuriatingly infantilizing process. Meatpunks chooses to abstain from the Hero’s Guilt Complex For Kicking Too Much Ass. Sam flings himself chaotically and foolishly from the top of a building in order to spike his spine on one of the largest mechs we’ve ever seen and save the town from an orbital space laser with the last of his strength. This selfless heroism would have extinguished a lesser hero completely, but instead of being punished, Sam is rewarded handsomely in the way of gaining the respect of his literal inner demons and getting to wake up to Brad holding his hand in a safe, warm bed. When every day life is pain and misery, why should we sacrifice ourselves or our friends just so we can get through another day? I thoroughly respect Meatpunks for subtly calling out that bullshit in its combat, its characters, and its plot.
For another example from the opposite end of the spectrum, LISA: The Painful reflects on the ways masculinity distorts sacrifice as being noble or worth merit. Brad Armstrong, the player character, sacrifices his friends and his own body parts in exchange for progressing towards his increasingly quixotic goals. Unlike Shephard from Mass Effect, whose sacrifice is constantly rewarded, Brad Armstrong is reduced to a writhing worm. In reality, meritocracy and masculinity (structures often analogous to heroism; the basis of our power fantasy systems in games) more often than not, end up reinforcing upper classes oppressing lower classes based on ranks. Heroism and self-sacrifice rarely look like Mass Effect and often look like LISA: The Painful, which is why we need fantasies to break us out of a grim reality. Returning to Meatpunks, Cass was para-consensually forced into merging souls with the god of the forest, and they were assured that ‘although it would be painful, they wouldn’t remember any of it’. That’s incredible! I almost broke down reading that the first time! It’s so rare to see suffering reduced in fiction, especially for queer characters, and so I cherish these scenes incredibly. When even a paranatural hive-beast of unknown cosmic origin can afford the time and effort to do pre-care before overtaking a new host?? That is a queer power fantasy I never knew I needed. Heroism maximized and suffering minimized, it seems so simple yet unbelievable how rare it is!
There are multiple points within Bound By Ash where cosmic beings with little knowledge of human enterprises choose to relate with their suffering via altruism. I’m still shaken from an event in Act 1 where a shopping clerk within a pocket dimension offers the rear lobe of her immortal brain to take Sam’s internal demon and permanently quash it. Sam, doing the mental math of his own suffering compared to the endless millennia of an interdimensional clerk, kindly chooses to maintain the suffering that he knows. Sam doesn’t want to be responsible for any pain that might come of his newly acquainted cosmic ally or even the intra-spatial suffering of this demon that he thinks he can overcome. There is no gain to this self-sacrifice and the clerk is flummoxed by it. I’m flummoxed! This demon, that Sam got from inserting himself into a previously used mech, can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for AIDS, a pandemic which took an entire generation of our ancestors and leaders from us. And Sam’s just gonna be this big gay fucking hero who can withstand Super Demonic Enhanced Depression/Anxiety and you know what? He will easily overcome it. In a way that is entirely all his gay-yearning, socially-anxious, pacifist-desiring beautiful dork-ass own way. Why? Because Sam is Black Master Chief and he deserves his queer power fantasy like anyone else does. Sam motherfuckin’ Godkiller lives.
There are so many story beats in the latest season of Meatpunks that deeply affected me and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface at this point. I’m not even sure of how many alternate paths I could have gone down? Maybe this was all just a bunch of rambling for you, but these are concepts that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for months since having finished Bound By Ash:
> The way you define your authenticity is determined by the relationships you have to the world and the people closest to you, and you should name that authenticity something sick as hell.
> The ways in which punks salvage from the world around them should be protected from commodification. Cops who protect garbage cans should be shamed and destroyed.
> A radical punk’s power fantasy isn’t limited to how epically they sacrifice themselves for a cause. Angela Davis is still alive, MOTHERFUCKERSS!
> Just normalize punching cops, fascist leaders, CEOs and techbros in video games (and in other media, like documentaries, TikTok, the streets)
Sometimes visual novels go places other video games are too cowardly to go, you know? For the case of EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER, I only want it to keep going in harder! It’s one of the rawest and coolest visual novels I’ve ever played and I hope the vast universe that Heather Flowers has carefully built inspires many others to make things as cool as this. The second season is out there now and the final season is currently in development, so we’ll get to see how the story of the Meatpunks wraps up soon! In the meantime, make punk shit and stay dangerous out there.