EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: BOUND BY ASH resists any kind of summary. I can tell you that it’s the second season of a visual novel/mech brawler hybrid that follows a misfit bunch of outcasts as they attempt to survive (and maybe even improve) the wilderness and society that are trying to kill them. I can tell you that you jump between four characters, making decisions more about who acts and talks than what they do or say. I can tell you that I cried and laughed out loud in probably equal amounts. But none of this really explains what makes MEATPUNKS so special.
Its store page says MEATPUNKS is “about gay disasters beating up neonazis in giant robots made of meat.” Cribbing the marketing description directly isn’t typically my favorite practice, but there’s nothing typical about MEATPUNKS, and how it sells itself is illustrative. You’re either in or out with this description alone. If you’re out, MEATPUNKS has no time for you. But if you’re in, you and the game likely already share something of an understanding. And because of that, MEATPUNKS can start where most media finishes, if it even gets there at all.
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Take, for instance, those gay disasters. This year has seen a new dimension in the complicated conversation around representation, particularly with the release of Tell Me Why, which advertised itself as having “the first transgender playable character from any major studio.” The caveat “from any major studio” does a lot of heavy lifting here. MEATPUNKS has had at least two since its first season released in 2018, and hundreds or thousands of other indie games could say the same.
Then there’s the representation itself. Critics generally agree that Tyler, the protagonist of Tell Me Why, is portrayed… respectfully. But some, like Dia Lacina, struggled with the game’s kid gloves, finding its lack of courage to get in the way of emotional storytelling. “How do you convey marginalized identities to outsiders? Is there an answer?” wrote Lacina.
MEATPUNKS isn’t interested in conveying anything to outsiders. It’s definitely courageous in its refusal to pull any emotional punches. It’s made by and for and about LGBTQ+ people. Unlike the stilted conversations I mentioned in my review of Murder by Numbers, conversations arise naturally between people who are already completely acquainted with the basics, and usually the intermediate stuff, too. By starting there, they can actually give a queer player food for thought, instead of making it painfully obvious that, despite any representation, the game is targeted to folks who need the 101 speech.
MEATPUNKS isn’t the first game to achieve this, of course. BOUND BY ASH isn’t even the first part of the ongoing narrative to do so. All this has been true since the 2018 season. But this is one of my favorite character portrayals in any piece of media. The writing is an absolute masterclass in making all four protagonists feel like scrappy, caring, flawed, beautiful people, even down to how their text is expressed onscreen.
BOUND BY ASH also meticulously improves over its predecessor. Combat has been overhauled, including adding mechanics that simultaneously tie into the narrative and make it easier to avoid losing. (You can always skip any fight you lose, but it was still frustratingly difficult to succeed in some season one battles; in season two I didn’t have to skip anything.) There are new mini-game-ish segments breaking up the “fight, dialogue, fight” rhythm as well. Meanwhile, new character sprites bring life to the Meatpunks themselves, and extra background art does the same for the gore and beauty of Meatworld. Somehow the soundtrack is even better, too, which I would not have thought possible.
The whole season is short — maybe four hours to play all six episodes — but that’s just to say it’s concentrated. In that time, BOUND BY ASH is simultaneously many different things. It’s a warning about all the forms that fascism can take; an investigation of how we can truly care for one another in a society that refuses to care for us; a statement on identity, performativity, and self-conception; an exploration of the power of music in self-expression, resistance, and community care; a dialogue on the meaning of sacrifice; a found family and a found home story; and a grimy, desperate handbook for survival. Also, there’s this incredibly touching scene between two characters who fought badly enough to come to blows last season involving a fursona. And more!
Given all this, it almost feels cheap to focus on how the game treats queerness. It’s less than the BOUND BY ASH deserves when there’s so much else I could mention on top of and in addition to the timely pillar of its plot. But it’s emblematic. Every part of MEATPUNKS is treated with the same cavalier leapfrog over the basic conversation into what’s actually interesting.
What I really wanted to write about was every time BOUND BY ASH truly explored what it means to connect to a hulking amalgam of meat and bones and nerve, then to name it — to connect it to an identity that can be perceived by others. But even as I took notes, I realized they were for me, not for this. MEATPUNKS skips what I can easily summarize. It leaves me instead still sitting with thoughts too new to connect up into a neat essay. But that’s okay, because it says everything it wants to say itself, more cleverly and eloquently than I.