Imagination is like a muscle: the more it’s employed, the greater its ability. Think back to the time when PC gaming was textual based; when you read a premise of a scenario, then your mind filled in the gaps. You could chat with your chums about the type of experience you had and no two could ever be 100% the same. While it would be trite to write about “them kids lacks of imagination these days” while swinging my cane (ala Cranky Kong), I would like to address how video game developers could learn to ease up on their narrative control and free our imaginations.
I’ll illustrate how exerting this control has completely white washed one of gaming’s most prominent characters and franchises into a bland flavorless shell: Mario.
In honesty, Mario wasn’t much of a character when he jumped onto the scene in the late 80s. You would be hard pressed to find 8-bit characters who existed outside the traditional paradigms of being heroic, brave and selfless. As gamers, we didn’t need an explanation wrapped in the narrative about the moral decisions of these characters. We knew our choice: move and progress. At times, developers would include an explanation in the manual or on a few lines in the pre-title sequence. In Super Mario Bros., we knew Mario was a plumber, Princess Toadstool was kidnapped by a cosplayer named Bowser, and you were in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Let your imagination of everything else begin!
Super Mario Bros 2 evolved Mario (and his companions) by way of adding signature clothing, facial features and demeanor. What made the second game in the series such an impressive move forward was how the gameplay worked itself into the personality of the characters. Mario was all-around useful—not too fast or slow—and well-balanced. Luigi was taller, and therefore could jump higher but acted timid on landings. Princess Toadstool was royalty and didn’t apply to the rules of physics so she floated. Toad was a worker and the fastest digger but couldn’t jump worth beans (which was all he was probably fed). See how the gameplay weaves a character for you and your imagination can fill-in what isn’t said?
Super Mario Bros. 3 remained wholly consistent on the character traits set-up by the previous entry. While the scenario resorted back to the “princess is captured” ploy, the gameplay mechanics of exploration and uncovering secrets was astounding. But what us players are now given is a better idea of who the antagonists were: The Koopas. Each boss had a distinct look and feel, adding to who they were. The gameplay manual gave them minor backstories, but the point was, as a player, you felt as if you were fighting against a vast powerful opposing empire. I imagined the Air Ships docking at each of the castles, slowly taking control of the country, with evil King Bowser at the helm. It felt epic, it felt vast, and being Mario made you feel unstoppable.
Super Mario World would be the swan song for the courageous Italian plumber. The 4 games of the 2D era perfectly set up this fitting conclusion: now, gamers are given an entire world to explore, with more secrets and allies. It gave us an idea about what this Mushroom Kingdom was like. Mario, in fine form, was still a man of defined courage. Again, how? Because we gave him that courage through our expert handling through danger, by jumping into the face of doom, to rescue Princess Toadstool one more time because it was the right thing to do. Everything included in the gameplay and narrative made the battle atop Bowser’s castle final and gratifying. To this day, I can hum the ending credits music with glee.
Super Mario World was released in 1990. In 1996, Super Mario 64 launched with the Nintendo 64 and the series would never be the same.
Welcome to the third dimension. From the onset something was wrong: Mario had a voice, and that voice was loud, effeminate and over-joyous. Now, this silent protagonist who I had imagined was reserved, happy, and courageous, was yelping “YA!”, “WA!”, “YAHOO!”, “HERE WE GO!”. But Mario wasn’t the only victim: Princess Toadstool was now called Peach and had a dull, monotone, mouse squeak voice. The game’s music took on a frantic, banjo ridden and manic tone (listen to Tick Tock Clock for example).
Now, to be fair, the gameplay was a necessary evil in the development of 3D gaming; setting the stage for much better entries like Banjo & Kazooie. However, the point is that Mario wasn’t the same man. The problem is that when your imagination is taken away with a character backstory, or mannerisms, or aimless plot, you can no longer go back to thinking as you once did. You are helpless to now think, see and hear Mario as an overbearingly optimistic, loud, annoying character.
The trend continued throughout the N64 generation with the Kart series, all the Mario sports games and party titles. Now, every other character was affected by this sweep of banal mishandling: Luigi was a wuss, Wario became a one-note hack, Bowser a surely joke, Toad screeching, Birdo a featured character for some reason, and Yoshi similarly happy despite being enslaved (which is how I interpreted Super Mario World).
The Gamecube generation worsened this with Super Mario Sunshine (is there anything more horrifying than this voice work?!) and all it’s accompanying Mario-crew titles. I could continue but the fact remains that nothing can ever be the same again with these characters. I held my hopes when New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS was released but was aghast when I heard the same obnoxious noises bellowing from Mario.
Our imaginations are turning into mush. In this respect, game developers are to blame. Where our in-game protagonists were once ourselves projected into the adventure, we are now ambushed by over-the-top archetypes leading overly scripted events. Whereas before, we could explore the game mechanics through trial and error, now we’re given in-game tutorials and voice overs explaining every last controller detail. In-game worlds aren’t explored with open interpretation, they’re sold with deeply rooted explanations and in-game cutscenes.
The list can go on of how our imaginations are taken away in favor of games playing themselves for us, not by us. While many a gaming icon survives intact today, I lower my head in honor to Mario who I once fought beside in the plight to save the Mushroom Kingdom.
(It should be noted, however, that this devolution of Mario’s character only applies to his adventure titles. The role playing game series, Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Mario & Luigi, share much of his original 2D charm and sensibility. This will be explored in another article.)
[Images via Knowyourmeme.com]