Super Mario Massacre and Other Bad Ideas
Wednesday, 20 January 2021
A blog-letter to Chris Billows of The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers.
Is Mario's secret power to lower dissonance...? You ask interesting questions about how and why Mario is able to star in so many different kinds of games - from the bizarre pseudo-medical puzzle game Dr. Mario to the arcane sewing simulator I Am A Teacher: Super Mario Sweater, there does seem to be almost no concept that cannot be made to work with Mario as its centrepiece. By contrast, you point out there is no Doom Space Marine Tennis... and that does gesture at a limiting factor in Mario's promiscuity: there will never be a Super Mario Massacre game in which a gun-toting Mario and Luigi murderize hordes of enemies in a splatterfest of gore - and as your chosen juxtaposition highlights, there is a sense in which what is going on with Mario is that Nintendo have claimed everything outside of what the traditional gamer's vision of 'what videogames are' by having Mario come and plant his red flag. There are subtle points here worth exploring.
Many thanks for your engagement with the Game Dissonance serial in your blog-letter Layered Dissonance in Video Games. Our continued correspondence is a recurring blessing, especially since I can become quite discouraged when no-one is engaging with me on the topics that have drawn me in, and I have always been either in tension with or in exile from (take your pick) the mainstream academic communities - although I am increasingly convinced that standard academic discourse is not founded upon engagement, per se, and is rather a way for us insular nerds to satisfy their own desire to feel clever while being removed from any conversation that might have any impact upon how things are.
Before unlocking the mystery of Mario's secret power, I must push back against your use of 'theme' to mean 'setting'. This is certainly not your fault or responsibility! Boardgame geeks (primarily in the US by my reckoning) set up this use of 'theme' in games that has both stuck and spread - despite mildly disastrous consequences in terms of keeping games of all kind outside of the 'serious art' clubhouse. The problem is that 'serious art' considers theme to be an essential quality of narrative artworks - it is what a story is about. Thus while War and Peace has as its setting the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon, its themes are about spirituality and suffering. 'No theme, no entry' is the door policy on the 'serious art' clubhouse. So identifying 'theme' with setting not concepts helps keep games (of all kinds) excluded from consideration for serious art. Which is doubly unfortunate, since there is an enormous volume of great artworks that are not serious (Duchamp's Fountain, for instance), which makes me wonder what's really going on inside that clubhouse...
You imply in your letter (and state explicitly in a short exchange we had by email) that you think videogames are better able to transition between settings than other media. I am not at all convinced of this. I suspect what makes this seem like a credible claim is tied up with why we ended up with 'theme' meaning 'setting' in the first place - namely, the association of 'game' with the patterns in the systems of play. Thus we can call Destiny and Phantasy Star Online 'the same game' despite being set in very different worlds, and switching a fantasy setting for science fiction does not break the sense of sameness between Terraria and Starbound.
But the same is eminently possible with other artworks, especially narrative artworks. Shakespeare's plays are routinely (and often quite excellently) transplanted from one setting to another without changing the plot, characters, or dialogue - consider, as only one example, the transplanting of Richard III from the 15th century to an alternative history 1930s fascist Britain in the 1995 film of the same name, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellan. Indeed, the Royal Shakespeare Company has thrived in recent decades upon finding ingenious settings to transplant these plays into. In my mind, this is a sign of greater transplantability of content in literature than in games, which are actually severely constrained by their systems. As I have said before, whatever setting you attach to Chess, the game will remain a representation of conflict. If there is a sense in which games are more transposable, however, it is because those systems are always dealing with pawns and not personalities; it is thus easier to house a game system in a new setting than to find a new way of mounting Richard III, because there are fewer interdependencies in game systems than in narrative systems.
Which brings us to Mario's superpower, namely to star in all manner of games provided none of them are serious. I cannot help but point out that this is also a power possessed by all cartoon characters - how many different settings has Bugs Bunny participated in...? Indeed, Mario is to Nintendo what Mickey Mouse used to be to Disney, before they discovered princesses were even more marketable than that ugly freak of a rodent. Thus I would suggest the power to reduce dissonance that you attribute (half-jokingly) to Mario, might perhaps be better understood as a power possessed by the cartoon setting to inherently transcend all other settings, to move between them for comedic purposes without ever breaking our engagement. It is something we have seen reach a kind of zenith with The Simpsons, Shrek, and other cartoons that smash together material from everywhere into a single semi-coherent world. Here, as elsewhere, our expectations - the habits we have picked up by participating in prior narrative practices - are precisely the limiting factor as to what we can get away with, and in cartoons it seems that what we can get away with is basically everything!
Many thanks for engaging with the Game Dissonance serial, and I look forward to exchanging further ideas with you in the near future.
Until next time,
Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!
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