You take games too seriously.

Aristotle’s Super Poetics Bros.

Mario Aristotle Poetics

In theater, film, and television writing, authors rely on the power of dramatic forms to shape their work. A blank page intimidates the writer, likes an empty ocean before a doomed sailor. Forms provide the tools, methods, and successful examples to put your awesome work to page, and ideally, get it on a screen.

The videogame is a new medium, and unlike theater, which has had centuries to develop, it lacks established forms. Many designers and scholars have written guides and manuals to game structure, but most of these books rely on genre, a tool devised to delineate audiences for marketing games, not for game craftsmanship. As writers and avid fans, HardCasual will participate in game forms analysis in a bi-monthly column titled “The Save Files.”

Little debate went into the topic for the first “Save File.” Aristotle’s Poetics is recognized as the guide to popular drama. Utilized by every major sitcom and blockbuster picture, to some screenwriters it’s a tool, to others, a Bible. Today, FPS’s use the form to tell epic, Hollywood stories, but it was in 1985, when one mustachioed hero first jumped, fireballed, and plumbed, that the form reached gaming stardom.

To understand Super Mario Bros.’s play mechanics is to understand the Aristotelian form; yet, games offer an interactivity unfamiliar to previous mediums. Below, the affects of SMB’s interactivity on and relation to the five parts of the Aristotelian form are broken down in three ways: the literal, Mario’s actual action; the traditional, Aristotle’s definition of the action; and the game factor, how the game either subverts, modifies, or expands Aristotle’s method.

The Aristotelian Form in 5 Parts:


Mario Aristotle Poetics

a.) Inciting Incident:

The Literal: Mario sees a pile of rocks. He cannot turn around. He climbs.

The Traditional: The player is often allowed a brief moment to absorb their surroundings before they are forced to progress. In SMB, the inciting incident is simple: a Goomba. The player must either evade or jump on the Goomba to survive.

The Game Factor: SMB forces the character forward via an invisible wall. As the player progresses, the wall, a constant few paces behind Mario, restricts the player from retracing any ill-chosen footsteps. It’s great for adding action, and sucks for catching 1Ups off a bad bounce.

b.) Rising Action:

The Literal: Mario hops from rock to rock, avoiding potential enemies and gaps.

The Traditional: As the level progresses, enemies’ and obstacles’ difficulty increases. The player receives a sense of accomplishment as they stomp Koopa-Troopas and explore dangerous pipes.

The Game Factor: In other narrative mediums, the character often learns one lesson, and applies it to his next trial. Videogames force the player to continually learn and fail and learn and fail against a single enemy. A SMB novice may take a few lives to stomp their first Goomba. They may then encounter an enemy that requires a different method to avoid or defeat. Each enemy teaches the player a lesson and requires that lesson’s application, thus each enemy represents its own miniature rising action.

This will be discussed further through Aristotle’s Tri-Partite Structure. Likewise, it will include an equally adorable handmade diagram.

The Climax, a diagram, and Mario’s Tri-Partite Structure in Tri-Parts After the Jump…

c.) Climax:

The Literal: Mario jumps the chasm to the victory flag.

The Traditional: The level culminates in a final moment, more difficult than those previous. To obtain victory, the player must apply skills taught by the level’s progression.

The Game Factor: Mario faces spurious boss battles. To obtain victory against King Koopa the player must abandon everything the game taught her. She cannot jump on King Koopa; he’s too tall and pointy, like a dangerous sea urchin. Instead she must dodge the creature and use the environment, a curiously placed switch (Koopa’s worse interior design choice), to win.

d.) Falling Action:

The Literal: Mario descends the flagpole, and collects bonus points.

The Traditional: The Mario metaphor, along with many popular games, wears thin at this point.

The Game Factor: Arguably, the player should remain active in the falling action. Many games reward their players with stylized cut-scenes, while some abandon the falling action entirely.

In contrast, Half-Life 2’s Gordon Freeman, the protagonist, mounts an attack against his enemy, the Combine. After many close calls, Freeman cripples the Combine forces. Rather than a cut-scene, the player spends the remainder of the game adorned as a Hero by fellow freedom fighters—hoots, hollers, and slaps on a back, a real life reward. In SMB, completing the level at a specific time shoots off fireworks— impressive for 1985.

e.) Resolution:

The Literal: The Princess is in another castle.’ Mario must crack more skulls if he wants to save his love.

The Traditional: After the game totals your points, the player is either informed that another more difficult obstacle awaits, or is awarded congratulations on completing the game. In the former case, the form begins again.

The Game Factor: In the later case, the game’s completion, many designers provide the player with unlockable Easter eggs, specialty options or a harder game mode to entice the player to continue. Silent Hill 2 contains my favorite incentive. After completing the game on the most difficult setting the game rewards the player with the Super Dogs reveal.

Super Mario World offers hidden levels, notoriously recognized as verging on impossible, and costing many children early baldness from ripping out their hair.


Aristotle further broke down his form with the Aristotelian Tri-Partite Structure, a device for crafting beats and scenes. As mentioned earlier, a nice example is the miniaturization of SMB’s rising action.

Aristotle’s Tri-Partite Structure in Tri Parts:


mario aristotle

i.) Pre-Action: Mario encounters an obstacle.

ii.) Action: Mario hurdles the obstacle.

iii.) Post-Action: Mario confronts another obstacle.

SMB’s success comes from continually employing this form. The immediacy of obstacles, each slightly more difficult than the last, made SMB the penultimate platformer.

This method may appear obvious, but games, like all narrative art, live and die by pace. No one wants a movie where nothing happens, or a plot so dense it’s impossible to understand. Even great works of “nothing theatre” like Waiting for Godot use elliptical action to produce the illusion of progression, and Beckett’s knack for humor benefited the play’s pace. In games, especially those with little story, difficulty substitutes plot. If a game’s too easy, few players will return, but too difficult and you have the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2, Lost Levels in the States, where the player confronts invisible obstacles, and trial-and-error deaths. You should never be forced to horde lives in a game made for a mass audience.

While obstacles in games appear to hinder the player, their true job is to guide him to an ultimate goal, training him for expected and unexpected events. Aristotle, however unlikely to be the definitive method for videogame storytelling, and however old and crotchety, offers these useful forms and tips for narrative and general game design.


No two games are alike, nor are two forms. As games progress, many designers may hope to step away from other mediums’ forms, and as “The Saved Files” continue, we will dissect these games that break the mold. But we will also recognize their many borrowed sources: Grand Theft Auto’s hints of Film Noir, WarioWare’s heavy-handed DaDa roots, and even Shadow of the Colossus’s geek-lust for Ovid.

There’s an ocean of games, but we fine sailors are prepared to explore. Hit us up with your opinion, recommendations, and thoughts.



Filed under: Commentary, Story Analysis, The Save Files, , , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. Sam Ryan says:

    but isn’t “lost levels” (mario 2 japan) more interesting just because it breaks the rules?

    super mario bros. was a mega-hit. everyone was playing it at the time, even if it meant making friends with that weird red-haired kid down the street (which was my plan).

    isn’t lost levels great precisely because it takes all those skills you built, presents you with the same exact mechanic, and then tells you to screw off, because here are the new rules, and you’d better get ready to try some new things?

    listen, i’ve played a solid 30 minutes of “i wanna be the guy”, and while it makes me want to throw my macbook across the room, every time i solve a board, i feel a sense of accomplishment that’s greater than anything i felt playing New Super Mario Bros.

  2. ctplante says:

    Nah, Lost Levels sucks.


    I think SMB1 and Aristotle go well, because they’re both designed to please the mass audience. Lost Levels was built to take the audience, drive a nail up its nose, and watch it trip over itself for a couple hours, before it died of blood loss.

    Expressionism is the closest form for describing the Lost Levels. SMB:LL uses modified, stranger versions of the traditional SMB level design to create a certain (read: irritating) mood.

    Lost Levels was also on of the first games to play with its own mise en scène. Obstacles like the Invisible Blocks jar the player–it’s only a game. Remember, Mario brought ‘scrolling,’ a feature where the player no longer completed static screnes, but scrolling levels, into most players homes. For a moment in time, Mario felt very real; it possible was the most realistic plumber simulation on the market.

    By creating a mood and pulling back the design’s facade, the mise en scène, SMB:LL’s designers were the first to take a major release, and make it a meta-commentary on the medium.

    Or, they just made a really hard game.

  3. Robert says:

    Outstanding article. I’m glad to see the repurposing of dramatic structure into a context that makes explicit sense for video games, rather than taking the obvious application of structure-to-story. Can’t wait to read more of this series!

  4. justindopiriak says:

    I mentioned in my response post over at TYFP that I disagreed with your methodology, but you’re right that we’re on the same page. Even if we hadn’t been, it’s always nice to see other people approaching gaming with the same intellectual respect one would grant any other artistic medium.

    Kudos to you, sir.

  5. Larke says:

    Three points:
    Did you forward this to Farrell? Cause. I mean. It’s his class. I’m sure he’ll be pleased he taught us something.
    You are meganerd. Just sayin.
    What I think is so interesting about video games is where traditionally story has been told to a passive audience (in the western tradition. This is all different in African traditions.) and what games do is essentially trick the player into telling the story themselves. In that way the dramatic theory term “action” becomes, um, literal.
    Your assignment should you choose to accept it is to try to use Aristotle to talk about MMOs as opposed single player games. Dare ya.
    Three points:
    Did you forward this to Farrell? Cause. I mean. It’s his class. I’m sure he’ll be pleased he taught us something.
    You are meganerd. Just sayin.
    What I think is so interesting about video games is where traditionally story has been told to a passive audience (in the western tradition. This is all different in African traditions.) and what games do is essentially trick the player into telling the story themselves. In that way the dramatic theory term “action” becomes, um, literal.
    Your assignment should you choose to accept it is to try to use Aristotle to talk about MMOs as opposed single player games. Dare ya.

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