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Posts Tagged ‘Super Mario Bros.’

Super Meat Boy doesn’t hate you, but it doesn’t mind hurting you.

The Xbox Live Arcade release delivers on the promise of the pre-release version that was shown at PAX Prime 2010, where it was my own personal Game of the Show. Here are my initial thoughts after spending a few days (and a few thousand deaths) with SMB:

There is an immediacy to the play experience that goes beyond the fact that many of your deaths will come within the opening two seconds of a given level. This immediacy is a product of the extremely tight and responsive controls. It’s rare to feel like you’re not firmly in the driver’s seat. You’ll die a lot, but most of those deaths will help you gain an incrementally deeper understanding of how to use the control that the game gives you.

Meat Boy is light, strong, agile, and remarkably tacky. He isn’t sticky; that is, he doesn’t stick to surfaces, but he is frictional, and much of the game is spent learning how this friction interacts with Meat Boy’s weight and the game’s implementation of gravity.

You will also spend a good deal of time learning how to hop. Pressing the jump button will only get you so far: SMB insists that you learn to tap it. Then it shows you that there is something between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. Then it explains that there are actually several degrees of jump (what the French theorists call degrés de saut1) that can be executed somewhere between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. It demands that you execute all of these degrés de saut while fully understanding how they interact with Meat Boy’s weight and friction.

You learn by doing, and the price for failure is death. But in SMB, death is reimagined as an immediate do-over. Upon dying, Meat Boy will reappear at the start of the level in time to see the pieces of his just-dead (Other?) body still airborne. You run, jump, die, and repeat, incredibly quickly. In many levels the first few jumps are key, and must be executed immediately and with precision. Let’s suppose those jumps are difficult, and the player dies ten times before getting them right for the first time. In the language of modern video games, ten deaths is a significant commitment of player time. In Super Meat Boy, it might take 30 seconds.

Keith Oatley, summarizing Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, wrote:

We only really learn by our mistakes (refutations). As we apply our schemata to the world by living, they fail in various ways and we can learn, change and develop by modifying our schemata or theories accordingly. Popper quotes J. A. Wheeler at the beginning of his book as saying “The whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.”2

Super Meat Boy wholeheartedly embraces this model of learning. You will make lots of mistakes, you will make them quickly, and you will immediately have the opportunity to make them again. The only way to break this cycle is to learn. The cycle moves fast, so the player tends to learn a lot in a relatively small amount of time.

If “Easy to learn, difficult to master” is a cliché, Super Meat Boy is, to borrow Bonnie Nardi’s term, its visual-performative3 embodiment. The learning curve isn’t particularly steep, but it is relentlessly high. The successful player will continue to learn, level after level after level.

The best thing about SMB as a learning environment is that the dialog between game and player remains congenial. The game makes demands, to be sure, but eventually the player learns that she has a lot of freedom to determine how those demands are met. Once the player has a certain understanding of the game’s conception of gravity, friction, and degrés de saut, there are numerous ways in which a level might be successfully completed. You don’t have the freedom necessary to call this a sandbox game, but I’m going to call it a playground game4. At a certain point each level becomes a playground, and the player’s only task is to get in there and make something awesome happen.

Super Meat Boy takes its button mapping straight out of Super Mario Brothers: hold one button to run, press another button to jump, move with the thumbstick / d-pad. However, the complexity of the actions that the player can input with these controls has more in common with modern fighting games than the platformers of the 80s. High-level fighting game techniques such as frame counting, canceling, buffering, hit checking, and more are all highly relevant to playing Super Meat Boy. Once I started to understand the game on that level I switched from the standard 360 controller to my Hori Fighting Stick EX2, and I haven’t looked back.5

This is really the tip of the iceberg: there is a lot to analyze. I am particularly interested in applying theories of postmodern subjectivity to the replay that occurs when the player finishes a level, which shows every attempt to complete the level simultaneously. This simultaneity both expands and compresses the fractured subjectivity and ontological crisis that is inherent to modern video games (a topic I have previously touched on). But that is a whole other can of worms, and deserves a post of its own.

Notes:

1. No they don’t. I made that up.

2. Ok, this reference is a mess but let’s go with it. Keith Oatley, Perceptions and Representations: The Theoretical Basis of Brain Research and Psychology (London: Metheun, 1978), 241-42. But that quote is taken from: Ellen Spolsky, “The Uses of Adversity: The Literary Text and the Audience That Doesn’t Understand”, in The Uses of Adversity: Failure and Accommodation in Reader Response, ed. Ellen Spolsky (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1990), 31. So it’s a quote of a quote of a summary of something that Karl Popper wrote in 1963. And that summary ends with a quote from someone else entirely! The fact that Spolsky’s essay is in a book that she also edited is just icing on the (layered) cake.

3. Bonnie Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

4. Please allow me to show my disdain for genre boundaries by articulating another (meaningless) genre.

5. The only complaint I have regarding the game’s controls is the inability to remap the buttons. I write this not just because I think that a different button layout would be a little more comfortable on the EX2, but also because it’s an important step toward making games accessible to players of all abilities. Understand that this criticism isn’t directed only at SMB: alterable button mapping needs to be understood as a basic feature that should be offered in all games. Accessibility is always worth it. Alterable button mapping is a drop in the bucket, but each drop counts.

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Baudrillard wrote that “The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.” (19)

Media operates in the mode of layered simulation. The interaction of simulations has been readily identifiable in film for some time, but their operation within video games has gone largely unexamined. This is unfortunate, because video games exploit the layering of simulation and the resulting confusion of real and imaginary in ways that are not available to other media objects. This is achieved by actually inducing the ontological crisis that was previously only described by postmodern media. I will outline this crisis and describe how video games use it to further complicate the relationship of the real and the imaginary.

Fellini’s opens with a traffic jam that quickly reveals itself as a dream. The horror of people, the need to escape them, the realization that the need to escape is an intrinsic part of the self, and so escape is impossible if the self is to remain intact. The protagonist keeps his self concept intact, injured by the social and defined by its injury: he allows himself to be pulled out of the sky, crashing into the ocean, trading the gentle horror of the dream for the gentle horror of life.

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As the film continues, several similar sequences are presented: dreams, memories and fantasies are interwoven with what presents as real. Sorting out the worlds of the real of the film and the imaginary of the protagonist is left to the viewer. This is indeed no small task, as the viewer must also know that the real of the film is itself an illusion to be sorted against the real of the viewer. This layering of illusion is extended (distended?) by the film within the film, and, in the impossible task of defining true and false, the real and the illusion, the inevitable question: On which side of the camera does our director sit? Which is nothing but an ontologically safe reimagination the actual question: On which side of the screen does the viewer sit?

The opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind visually and thematically mirrors that of : the protagonist, surrounded by the horror of the social, the crowded in-between places of mass transit, escapes to the beach. His escape does not provide the desired relief, instead revealing a fractured self-loathing that simultaneously seeks and hates the social.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s opening sequence: Sorry for the link, but YouTube has disallowed embedding for this video. Still, it’s well worth opening a new browser tab.

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Like , Eternal Sunshine weaves together real and imaginary, challenging the viewer to define and distinguish two opposing elements from its hyperreal singularity. Unlike , it does so without limiting its implosion of internal and external to an episodic conversation between protagonist and viewer. Eternal Sunshine‘s conflation of reality and illusion instead extends without boundary. The mechanic of a film within the film, the elaborate layering of reality and illusion, it’s all made unnecessary by the uncomfortable believability of constructed (reconstructed? deconstructed?) thought and memory: the self-creating self. This crisis is mechanically similar to that of , but it is of a different order: the film presents a logic in which distinguishing the illusion of the film from the real of the viewer is not possible. Both are plausible, but neither can be verified. The hyperreal digests the whole of both reality and illusion.

In terms of simulation, Super Mario Bros. presents neither a visual nor a cognitive logic that approaches this level of hyperrealism.1 And yet, its hyperreality surpasses that of both and Eternal Sunshine.

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The surreal representation of a world gone, quite literally, unbelievably wrong. It is easy for the spectator to disbelieve this world; but for the player, belief is another matter entirely. This is achieved through the creation of ontological insecurity the player, resulting in a division of the self that complicates the dichotomies of belief and disbelief, of real and imaginary.

In The Divided Self, Laing describes ontological insecurity as the feeling that the individual is

precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. . . And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body. (Laing 42)

Ontological insecurity calls into question the nature of the self, and a response to this question is the perception of the self as, in Laing’s word, “unembodied.” The unembodied self’s “functions come to be observation, control, and criticism vis-a-vis what the body is experiencing and doing, and those operations which are usually spoken of as purely ‘mental’.” (Laing 69)

By using elements of the recognizable language of earlier forms of media and combining those elements with active participation, games induce a gentle form of ontological insecurity in their players. This insecurity is grounded in the same basic confusions presented by the hyperreality of and Eternal Sunshine. We return to the question: on which side of the screen does the player exist?

The truly fascinating twist is that while games (like other forms of media) can achieve this confusion through pure representation, they need not bother. Instead, games create instability simply by requiring the player to perform; that is, instability is created and maintained through the action of play. Games necessitate an unembodied self while simultaneously allowing that self access to virtually embodied action.

Thus, in games the destabilizing question has a preliminary answer: I exist simultaneously on both sides of the screen. I am part of the simulation.

Simulational participation is not limited to the active: games exploit the passivity of memory to further layer simulation. This tool is used by the films referenced above; but the digital nature of games allow memory to operate in a mode not available to film: perfect reproduction.

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Super Mario Crossover illustrates the nature of convention and genre in digital media objects: perfect simulation is possible because perfect reproduction is possible. The referentialism of earlier media, as we saw in the opening sequences of and Eternal Sunshine, is replaced with the exact reproduction of prior simulation. This adds a temporal dimension of simulation, in which the player’s memory (whether real or illusory) of experience (whether real or illusory) becomes a passive part of active play. Thus the real and the imaginary are further confused as the player participates in the replication and remixing of their own memories, a level of hyperreal confusion that is not available to film.

The ontological crisis imagined by and Eternal Sunshine becomes, in games, a densely layered crisis of the imaginary; a real crisis of simulation; a crisis that is induced every time we play a video game.

Notes:

1My use of gameplay videos that follows is, in this context, a placeholder at best and disingenuous at worst. It is my desire that they be viewed as placeholders: they show you the screen of someone who is playing, but it is important to recognize that they are themselves not objects of play. However believably these videos imply a player, one cannot escape being implicated as a viewer; a spectator; an anti-player.

This topic could span several posts on its own. For my purposes here, I will say this: these games must be played. The embedded gameplay videos are a good low-barrier way to access my argument, but they should not be construed as viable alternatives to actually playing the games they portray.

Works cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print. The Body, In Theory.

. Dir. Federico Fellini. Columbia, 1963. The Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.

Super Mario Bros. Nintendo, 1985. Game.

Laing, R. D. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. New York: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Super Mario Crossover. Dev. Jay Pavlina. Newgrounds.com, 2010. Game.

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I’m currently drafting a post based on the material framework below. I think there is value in presenting the frame without the analysis, so I’m posting this stripped-down version ahead of the final version.
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Baudrillard wrote that “The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.” (19)

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s opening sequence: Sorry for the link, but YouTube has disallowed embedding for this video. Still, it’s well worth opening a new browser tab.

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Works cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print. The Body, In Theory.

. Dir. Federico Fellini. Columbia, 1963. The Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.

Super Mario Bros. Nintendo, 1985. Game.

Super Mario Crossover. Dev. Jay Pavlina. Newgrounds.com, 2010. Game.

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