Monday, January 30, 2012

Super Mario 64: Phenomenology of Values

video games are a kind of phenomenology of values. for each functioning action there becomes a response, a visible effect of that input, directly placing itself upon the system and interacting with the respective pieces. as more of the system acted upon is revealed, a deeper understanding of the underlying elements that drive it becomes apparent. in this way the player forms ritualistic series of actions- a certain gun may become more desirable for them, generally picking it over other means available. a long jump may be realized to go further distances quicker, and may prefer that to diving or just running. others search for a deconstruction of the system and attempt to discover the flaws in these worlds for their exploitation. regardless all games are based  in some form on accumulating values and demystifying systems.

even in the most remote, obscured corners of super Mario 64 the rules are the same. the walls can be jumped off of, the same things serve as obstructions, and you still have your same moves. what I'm noticing more as i try to understand the game though is how often the exact same input will receive entirely different responses if changed even slightly within the environmental context.

in the corner pictured above i have spent a good couple hours figuring out various ways of toying with the walls and the hill which bends slightly overhead. depending on angle, height, speed, the exact point you hit, and how quickly you react after the first jump, it becomes possible for a seemingly infinite amount of individual possibilities. they generally are very similar but still have personal differences which separate them.

in fact i noticed that the hill if approached from a nearby point with a tree can be scaled from the right angle, long jumping and diving along the way. this allows for a bending of the system, collecting the lives from Yoshi that otherwise wouldn't be accessible until all 120 stars had been collected. this is what i mean when i talk about an accumulation of noticeable interactions though- changing a small piece of the context and receiving vastly different output, and trying to work it into an understanding of the greater whole.

in a way super Mario 64 is more of a playground than anything. there is an end "goal" of collecting stars and beating Bowser, but that is not really the fun of it. it's rooted in exploration- trying to find new ways of using these strange abstract forms, working through masses of ideas and even smaller systems. the end point is merely a motivation of sorts to unlock more worlds. between those points there is a strong analysis of play, the things we do for entertainment are generally viewed with cynical distaste, but i think all important discoveries are made through exactly this sort of "childish" play. experimenting, toying with ideas and forms, tearing the meaning from the apparently meaningless. the things no one cares about examining are generally those with the most unlocked potential, as their purpose has not yet been understood. the idea of "productive play" instead of work, instead of rigid ideologies. the entirety of environments as a playground, a system unknown and ready for exploration even under the veil of modern thought.

mediums of the unknown, misunderstood and lost in colossal heaps of consumerism. these are actually the forms most based in action- the process of, as opposed to the goal reached. they serve a purpose as a simulation of actions and their values. something that in a way reflects the meaning of everything people do. not through making the game more "mature" or "adult" with its subjects, but merely by showing the importance of action and reaction. the games that we played as children, physical or digital, are the medium all others come from: play. by retracing the history of culture all things stem back from experimentation and playfulness. the "accidental" discoveries that define entire centuries are not just accidents. they are people playing with ideas. get lost in these seemingly worthless endeavours and you just might find something. dig deeper into the pits, the unknown.


  1. great piece! sm64 is a game i've played in small bursts since i was young; it was probably my First Videogame and therefore a long drawn-upon wellspring of joy. a few years ago i bothered to actually complete the thing, and so the mystery is gone.

    most of what makes the game so compelling, as you discussed in tackling the hill adjacent to the castle wall, are the subtlties of it's physics. i'm reminded of speedruner mike sigler's casual extrapolation of slide & hop mechanics within the claustrophobic and many-planed 'jolly roger bay' boat, while taking a break during a botched world-record attempt. as a player with intimate knowledge of the game's systems, it was affirming to watch him succumb to the same kind of joyous excersize in exploration: deviating from the usual precision demanded by the speedrunner's strict self-imposed path to poke playfully at a handful of the game's nuances.

    i feel like the popular confidence in a player's ability to figure out a game's systems and world at their own pace, experimentally, largely died with this game. within this series and the genre especially, games have increasingly categorized and enumrated their elements, stripping mystery and space for player contemplation and growth.

    regarding important discoveries blossoming from 'childish' play, you'll find johan huizinga in agreement.

  2. I appreciate it! Super Mario has been similar for me- the only game I truly got into before it was the first Descent. Super Mario 64 holds a special place though because the hospital my little sister was at when she was born just got an N64 and during the next year I was there a lot to see her, as she spent her first 6+ months in that hospital exclusively. This meant I got to play a lot of Super Mario while I was waiting to see her. (I don't know if you care but my father wrote an article about her on his blog.

    To that end it has always served as a kind of sanctuary, a place I can understand among the strange events surrounding me. As you say it has a lot of subtlety to those rules though- I find new ways to play with it all the time! It has been the same place yet still has a lot of interesting unknown detail. Jolly Roger Bay and its usage of landmarks to build upon the "playground" environment is really a wonderful experiment with the rules. Having the boat, the falling spires, the whirlpool. Each with their own rules and purpose, yet with many ways around or through them.

    I would tend to agree- I still find games that allow for specific aspects of experimentation but never quite in this fashion. Honestly the closest I can think is Super Mario Sunshine, of all things. Some RPGs I've played give me a similar feeling, Deus Ex and System Shock 1/2 are both really fun to mess with, but it's a different take on the concept I think. In Deus Ex there is a much stronger emphasis on dialogue, in System Shock upon statistics.

    I really have been trying to focus on the mysterious spaces in my new game and to this day Super Mario 64 and the first two Descent games have been more influential than most any other. They both have a very strong emphasis on these kind of ideas I think. In Descent the mysteriousness manifests itself differently but I will have to write a separate article for that--

    Thanks for recommending Johan Huizinga by the way, I read about him now and I am going to have to buy a few of his books. It sounds like his views on culture would be worth looking at.

    1. I just realized my dad's article says she was born in '91 but she was born in '93. They got their N64 in '96 so I think I'm a bit off as well. Regardless I have a lot of good memories of playing it there though, as she spent a lot of her first few years there on and off.