While creating this project my goal was to cause the viewer to ask themselves the question: “what really happens to Mario when you lose?” I feel that video game characters are seldom assigned the same level of humanity or approached with nearly as much empathy as characters in movies and novels (although a Psychology Today study argues that video games create empathy based on some pretty questionable sounding research (Psychology Today)). making me want to bring the viewer/player/consumer to potentially think from Mario’s perspective To do this, I initially was exploring the potential of creating a hacked Mario ROM that would be an exact port of Super Mario World on the SNES except that when the player “died” they would be sent to a sort of “afterlife” level populated by wandering NPC versions of every Mario the player had previously killed in action. These post-mortem Marios would haunt the game in the same ghostly way that a video recording of a person who is now dead might – creating a “ghost-like” type of haunting which was one of the two options for this project. After some research I was confronted with the conclusion that hacking my own ROM would require more coding skill and experience than I personally have, so I instead decided to instead create a fake play-through of this game using After Effects-based animation and commentary in the style of a Let’s Play. I wanted to utilize the commentary generally present in a Let’s Play/review/game walkthrough video to create a sense of normalcy and represent the expectations that would likely be carried by many stereotypical gamers going into playing such a ROM (especially given that it’s probably fair to say that those who make reviews and LP’s are generally more likely to approach games in a way stereotypical of frequent gamers).
The expectations carried by many gamers when entering into gameplay of an 8-bit side-scrolling platformer, especially the famed and ubiquitous Mario series, is that they will inevitably die at some point. Because of this the Player Character, usually also serving as the game’s protagonist, becomes a victim of the player in the same way that the NPC enemies do. Because Mario is a victim in Super Mario World, Carly Kocurek’s notion of alternative blood applies to his “death” mechanic in the game quite well (Kocurek 2015). Mario’s deaths are substituted in two ways: the first is with the inclusion of multiple “lives” that the player has before harming Mario results in the Game Over screen. The other way Mario’s death is substituted with alternative mechanics is the animation – where does he go when he bounces off the screen looking like someone pricked his butt with a cattle prod? This was a question I wanted to provide one potential answer to with my video – perhaps Mario is buried by his digital friends and family at a lavish memorial service and Luigi wears nothing but black for the rest of his life. I’m not sure that I think the cultural violence Kocurek outlines as being a combined product and goal of alternative blood is necessarily as present in Mario as it is in some of the games she describes, but the dehumanization and resulting deemphasis of empathy created by Mario’s “alternative” death was something I wanted to explore in my Haunted Media Project. With the player repeatedly bringing Mario to a series of untimely and often immensely painful-looking ends it only seemed fair to question whether Mario – however digital he may be – appreciates being killed over and over or not.
Mario’s alternative death is further dehumanized by the serialized and repetitive nature of player character death in side-scrolling platform style games such as Super Mario World. As Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux write in “Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making and Breaking Video Games”: “Each moment of domestic play, in Sartre’s (2004, 262) words, is ‘lived separately as identical instances of the same act.’ The work of game designers, however, often obscures the explicitly repetitive aspects of computational media.” (Boluk and Lemieux, 2017) The obscuring of repetition and serialization of death in Super Mario World has something of a synergistic effect on the desensitization present in the alternative death of Mario. Because the only reminder of Mario’s past “lives” in Super Mario World is the counter on the top left side of the screen (and even that is erased when the player depletes their lives and triggers a game over), the player is separated from the parallel Mario’s that have existed in the past, both during the individual player’s accumulated Super Mario playing time and more generally during the time spent by everyone who’s ever played Mario in the history of the series. Even for Super Mario World alone the number of deaths Mario has endured since his 1990 birth is unfathomable. I know that I am personally responsible for at least a couple hundred – if not a couple thousand – of Mario’s untimely ends. Despite the timeless nature of the Mario series and enduring popularity of even the older games in the series such as Super Mario World, Mario has already died millions if not billions of times over. Does each individual Mario matter? Are they the same character or slightly different each time? These are questions I wanted to bring viewers of my video to ask. I am reminded by a concept present in the recent anime, Ajin.
In the series the humanoid species of Ajin cannot die and will regrow any limb or heal any injury – even regrow the ajin’s head should it be removed; however, when an
Ajin has their head cut off they regrow it, including the brain, from the body instead of the body growing from the severed head. This means that they have an entirely new brain, but does this make them the same person or are they a new person/Ajin entirely? The protagonist believes in the existence of the soul and feels that he will permanently actually “die” should he regrow his head and lives in extreme fear of decapitation. Far from a digression, I think the above description of death and the fear of losing ones soul is very relevant to Mario’s apparent immortality despite having numerous torturous game-ending mishaps. It reminds me a bit of Jonathan Sterne’s idea of a resonant tomb (Sterne 2003). Whereas the human body/throat is analogous to a resonator of life (not sure he would word it as such) in Sterne’s idea of recorded audio as a resonant tomb, Mario’s initial character could be seen as analogous to the initial life with his subsequent manifestations merely being replications of the original. Does Mario have a soul? If he did, does he still have one? Both are additional questions I wanted to bring up with my Haunted Media Project.
The feeling of invincibility brought to players by the repetitive life-based mechanic present in many video games allows players a respite from the feeling of vulnerability created by a perceived permanent death (I say perceived because, although some claim to know the answer, nobody knows objectively that the death of our corporeal body is in fact the death of us permanently. Brendan Keogh writes about the effect of instituting ‘perma-death’ restrictions on games such as Minecraft, describing how he used self-imposed perma-death through refusal to use the in-game sleeping mechanic (which serves as a save function) and promise to delete the game should he die. Minecraft is a survival game so the nature of the game creates more opportunity for vulnerability, but a similar mechanic in Mario would still definitely make a player’s relationship with Mario much different.
My fake mod’s inclusion of a visual reminder of Mario’s death alongside heavy-handed implications that Mario is experiencing pain lift the veil of false invincibility that the player (the wonderfully named Sheik the Freak in this case) has over their perception going into the game. My inclusion of the commentary was both to add to the sense that my artifact could be a real video one might find online as well as to represent this veil of invincibility and how many gamers would probably be very disturbed to find that they were actually causing someone tangible pain through their recreation. Hopefully serving as somewhat comic relief, the final clip of someone setting fire to their computer also serves to represent the feeling of deep disturbance I would probably have should someone inform me that I have actually been brutally torturing and murdering a growth-stunted Italian-American vigilante plumber all these years. My hope is that, to quote a proverb, “it’s not that deep”. But while thinking about the idea of a pain-feeling vulnerable Mario quite a bit during the creation of my video I realized that I would probably have the “burn it with fire” reaction to such a game, whether because of its clear position somewhere far beyond the uncanny valley or because perhaps, deep down inside all of us, we’ve all wondered if Mario feels pain.
Carly A. Kocurek (2015) Who hearkens to the monster’s scream? Death,
violence and the veil of the monstrous in video games, Visual Studies, 30:1, 79-89
Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick LeMieux. Metagaming: playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, and breaking videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2017. Print.
Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past – Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press 2003