You take games too seriously.

Speaking a Common Language

If you’re not reading Auntie Pixelante, Anna Anthropy’s pithy and intelligent round-up of the indie games scene, you’re missing out on one of the most unique and well-developed voices to be found in the gaming community. Like her fantastic journal, The Gamer’s Quarter, she exposes us to things we most likely would never see, with an insightful and intellectual approach that is rare at best.

In a recent post, she said of a recent Super Mario Bros. hack that:

it’s a fascinating exercise. in the same way that poets and playwrights repurpose older, widely-known stories and themes in order to create a kind of intertextuality, romhackers and game developers continuously return to super mario bros.: a known story with known mechanics, thematically resonant and wholly incorporated into the contemporary vocabulary of videogames. everyone who is making a platformer is having a dialogue with super mario bros.

Anna gets straight to the heart of what I was talking about in It Fit When I Was a Kid – and also adds a rub that I find interesting. More after the jump.

Playwrights can base their works off the Greeks. Novelists going back to the beginning of the form have The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and Arabian Nights. Filmmakers were trying some of the most impressive (and insane) epics ever accomplished from the earliest days of the medium.

But games started basically storyless, limited to just a collection of escalating quests. Every other medium began with a deep narrative drive, while games began with their mechanics. Early games were designed for children to play, with the story being less necessary or imperative than the single direct goal they led to.

Is it any wonder that we don’t have a Citizen Kane of videogames (to pull an old cliché out from the archives), when gamemakers have for years been working out of a toolbox antithetical to Citizen Kane – a toolbox that asked for simplicity of experience over depth of narrative? 

ROM hackers are interesting because they ignore this question entirely. Out of their love for the source material, they turn it into the message they want from it. They make it more musical, more humorous, more difficult, and often more interesting. They know that we are all working from this same toolbox, and by working literally only from it, they complicate our understanding of it. The “masocore” Super Mario Bros. hacks were even originated by Nintendo themselves, in what Americans know as “The Lost Levels”. 

Now, game creators are usually trying to expand games mechanically and narratively all at once. It’s a valuable fact to consider, before we (and by we I mean I) decry games like Fez for ripping off an art style as a motif.

As we dialogue with games, we should also consider how they dialogue with each other and how they dialogue with the classics from other forms. As games and the gaming audience gain depth, they both bring to it the knowledge of the classic works of other mediums – but the ways in which they work from their own classics can show us more about the medium itself.

– Sam Ryan


Filed under: Commentary, Links, Retro Today, , , ,

One Response

  1. It’s curious that people are looking for the Citzen Kane of electronic entertainment when the real Citizen Kane opened nearly 50 years after the invention of the format.

    By that math, no one should expect anything truly lasting until 2022 – 50 years after Pong. Fortunately, a lot more money and talent is being put into this industry at a far quicker pace.

    I suspect that this generation of games will yield the first crop of videogame art that is timeless without being quaint.

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