The Way of Mario
First, a confession: I’m not a gamer. Like most members of my generation, I spent countless hours on the original Nintendo console, and I’ve already expounded at length on my mastery of Tetris. Later, however, my knowledge of new platforms and games diminished, and it’s only recently, with the help of the invaluable Virtual Console on the Wii, that I’ve begin to fill in the gaps in my gaming education. One of these days, I’m finally going to tackle Ocarina of Time, but for now, I’ve been working through most of the landmarks in the Mario series. Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole. And any consideration of video games as art really needs to begin with this humble little plumber.
In some ways, the fact that I’m little more than a gaming dilettante allows me to look more objectively at the question of whether such games can be regarded as an art form. Generally, discussions of the artistic value of gaming have centered on elaborate open world titles like Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption that require enormous patience to fully explore. For an outsider, the prospect of investing hundreds of hours on a game can seem daunting, for much the same reason that many of us hesitate before committing to the full run of a novelistic television series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which really needs to be experienced from beginning to end. For the members of any obsessive fanbase, the object of their adoration always seems, by definition, like a form of art that demands attention and respect, to the point where it isn’t worth debating. But just as there are television shows that can delight and surprise a casual viewer without feeling like homework, it’s worth singling out those games that reveal their pleasures at once, while also rewarding an extended period of engagement.
This is all by way of preface to saying that the two games in the Super Mario Galaxy series have provided me with more sustained joy than just about any work of art I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’ve also given me new insights into storytelling, which might seem strange for a pair of games that consist of little more than a string of fascinating puzzles built around the rescue of a thinly defined princess. I’ve spoken before about the fractal nature of a show like Mad Men, which can be appreciated on the level of an entire series, a single season, or an individual episode. Galaxy has some of the same granular quality: with few exceptions, any stage of any level is a delight to play, and they add up to a universe of dazzling richness and invention. As a review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Edge puts it: “It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.” “Generous” would be the word I’d use: these games change radically at every turn, but also work as unified wholes, thanks to their gorgeous art direction, character design, and music, as well as a relentless focus on the player’s experience. For all their complexity, we’re never lost for long, and the challenges are scaled and introduced with a grace that can only be achieved through endless testing and refinement.
And if this isn’t art, I don’t know what is. At this point, it seems clear that video games are what animation was eighty years ago: the great collaborative art form of a new century, overseen by a handful of geniuses, that innovates in ways that will inevitably trickle down to other media. That said, the hoary predictions that video games would lead to a revolution in interactive storytelling strike me as misguided: a great novel or movie doesn’t gain much from viewer participation, and any attempt to push them in that direction usually ends up feeling gimmicky or worse. But just as the great Disney movies shaped the look, technical effects, and narrative choices of countless other arts—you can see their influence on everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Powell and Pressburger—it would be equally careless of contemporary artists to ignore the contributions of a major creative industry that occupies the bleeding edge of coordinated, large-scale storytelling. Their impact is bound to be indirect and unpredictable, and so transformed in the process that their influence is hard to see. But at their best, they’ve raised the bar for all of us.