February 10th, 2010

My Equally Valid Opinion

Have you played the end of Super Mario Bros.

Every time I read a Tim Rogers column, he somehow manages to work in a particular reference to Super Mario Bros. which reinforces his philosophical stance on video games: the concept that "most people" have never actually beaten SMB, and therefore "it never ends." Sometimes he uses it as a marker on the tide, such as in his construction of Canabalt as "Mario plus Tetris." In the article I'm reading right now, he's mentioned it in defense of Love Plus, a genre-redefining dating sim which carries on after the successful wooing of the player's chosen girl.

I used to like Tim's writing, then I stopped, only to recently start again, but one thing stays common when I read his articles regardless of how I feel about his style at the time: I can never get through the entirety of them without stopping halfway. Part of it is the length; reading Tim's articles require a certain time commitment, to say the least. Part of it is how he invites it upon himself, suggesting obscure rock bands and recursive website searches in spite of the nature of these things to draw you away, perhaps to forget the article that led you there in the first place, which is a ballsy move (to say the least again. While I've got a parenthetical running, note that his draw-out tactics are different from the hyperlinks I previously provided; mine are there for simple edification, whereas he almost convinces you to navigate away and ignore him.) But mostly it's because he keeps getting these thoughts into my head, obscure ideas which attach to each other and force me to react to their synthesis. The culmination of this reaction differs. Last time, I wound up becoming his friend on Facebook. This time I'm going to complain about Super Mario Bros.

To reiterate: Tim states that many people like Mario games, even though they've never finished one, and therefore Mario is "endless" in their mental picture. Let's ignore the simple physics that could disprove this on the surface -- I could simply counter that the game ends with "game over" when you lose all your lives, or when you finally hit the power switch, or maybe in some combination of the two when you brutally smack the machine in a fit of rage at having been disposed of by an errant Hammer Bro and the screen flashes a wide array of colours before reverting to a frozen title screen with strange lines popping out of the trapped individual sprite-bricks which make up the logo. Goddamn Hammer Bros. And let's also gloss over the contextual element, wherein nearly all owners of an NES had not simply the original SMB cart, but the dual SMB/Duck Hunt version, with the avians and the iconic laughing dog ready to show players what a real endless game is like. Let's focus entirely on the game itself as a freestanding microcosm.

I'll help out by relating an anecdote about context to you. Last night, during one of those splendid alltalk sessions on Team Fortress 2 which stray from the usual back-and-forth of strategies both real and misleading and the associated trash talking, we were debating the Indiana Jones movies. I maintained that, when freed from the comparisons to its predecessors and simply weighed on its own merits, the recent Crystal Skull entry was a suitably good and entertaining movie. If you can put yourself in that mindset, where you're willfully bypassing your natural human desire to seek patterns and notice coincidences based on past experiences, then you should be able to visualize why some people might find SMB unbeatable.

When I play SMB, I don't have to guess what to do. Hold B, run forward, tap A to jump on the approaching Goomba. The first ?-block has a mushroom in it; the other two have coins; the regular blocks have nothing. The last pipe before the first pit leads to a secret room which bypasses the rest of the level. There's an invisible 1-up before that pit as well, then a Fire Flower if I choose to continue forward. Then hidden Coins and a Starman in unmarked bricks. World 1-2 has a warp zone. These are all things that I've committed to memory. There are later levels that I can't describe in such painstaking detail, but I'm aware enough to recall how I cleared them before, or at least what skills and techniques I should use to pass through them safely. The increased difficulty is really just a manipulation of the environment, and that can only kill me if it surprises me, like say in world 8 when a series of Hammer Bros appear without matching platforms for me to scoot past them, or in world 5's castle when a double-sized fire bar swings around and cuts me down to size.

Now imagine the contextless player. Everything surprises them. World 1 might as well be 8 to them, because they have no idea what to expect, except perhaps the unexpected. Even in a later world, where they might come across a turtle followed by several goombas (not an uncommon sight to the seasoned player) they wouldn't necessarily think to jump on their foe and kick the shell to clear a path. If, by some fluke of chance, they got past their first Hammer Bros, they wouldn't recognize the dual platforms which herald the appearance of the next pair.

Why do I construe such a miserable, unfortunate being? To make a point: unless your actual skillset is declining, the only reason you wouldn't be able to clear a level is because you never formed a proper recall of it in your mind. (I make the exception for skill, because obviously someone with arthritis or prohibitively slow reflexes wouldn't be able to get through either, regardless of cognitive competency.) Once you learn to recognize where the power-ups and enemies are, it's simply a matter of repeating the scene until you figure out the path and get it right. It's like a theatre piece: you practise your lines, sort out the onstage blocking, and perform it without screwing up. You can add in a certain degree of improvisation, and even recover successfully from a terrible mistake in some cases. There's nothing pure about mastery of a Mario game, no amount of raw skill which can see you through; to paraphrase a pretty good movie, "everybody falls the first time." Even the most difficult killzones are overcome eventually through a certain application of grey matter.

There's a couple of castles which particularly exemplify this idea, the first of which appears in world 4. Mario is presented with three pathways. If he takes the correct one, he carries on; if he goes the wrong way, it's back to the initial choice with him. Gradually, the player puts together the correct route, then runs through it, dodging the hazards, to reach Bowser and then another captured mushroom man. ("Uh-oh, she's in another house, go away.") Or alternatively, the player doesn't figure it out, keeps running in circles, eventually running out of time even if they consistently avoid the same enemies over and over again. If they run out of lives, game over. Would we call that the end of the level? Of course not; they didn't make it to the end, we say, because they didn't reach Bowser. It's the reaching that counts.

Super Mario Bros. is not an "endless" game. It has a very distinct end, the same as a book or a movie. But it could be considered a "reachless" game. For whatever reason, some folks just can't make it, but the ending exists. It lives on in the gossip of schoolkids, passing along the rumour that Bobby who lives a neighborhood over saw his big brother beat the game. It's present in the evidence of screenshots and "let's play" videos. We all know it ends. We might even know how it ends. But the game isn't going to do us the favour of getting us there, shepherding us along the path the way a modern game that wants to be finished might.

I'm going to go back now and try to finish reading Tim's article. But if I get waylaid along the path, if I never actually reach the end, I won't call it "endless."