Super Mario Vanitas

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September 22, 2012 by climagiste

Death and the Poetics of Fun

“Everyone considers dying important; but as yet death is no festival”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I’ve been thinking about death since 1990 when I first played Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I was a child, and I entered a world of pipes and brick, of turtles and mushrooms-with-eyebrows, a world where a child might be a man who has three lives. The strange wonder of Shigeru Miyamoto’s hallmark creation, the world of Mario, was its effortless integration of the morbid and the whimsical. Bullets were aiming for you, but they wore toothy smiles.

The common way to critique the concept of videogame “death”—a signifier that variously aligns with our concept of death, though normally means just the end of a turn—is that it is a failure of the designer’s imagination. Michael Thompson at IGN quips, “Death in games generally has nothing to do with death. It’s a lie based on a creative inability to communicate player failure in a more honest way.” [i] I understand where he’s coming from. We can have no direct experience of death, at least none that we can fathom because we don’t know what happens to us when we die. And when death does touch us, as when it steals from us a loved one, it’s a crippling finality. Whoever the deceased was, she is no longer, and all we have are distilled memories that will too pass.

That’s not what it’s like in Super Mario Bros.

Mario is so embarrassed you caught him drowning!

The premise is that you, Mario, have three lives. You scurry through pastures and sewers and castles, trying to rescue a princess from the horned turtle “sorcerer king,” Bowser. [ii] Bowser turned all the Mushroom People into parts of the scenery, including “stones, bricks, and even horse-hair plants.” On page 9, the frivolous game of grumpy shiitakes and mushroom-induced growth takes on a completely different tenor:

The premise is that you, Mario, have three lives. You scurry through pastures and sewers and castles, trying to rescue a princess from the horned turtle “sorcerer king,” Bowser.[2] Bowser turned all the Mushroom People into parts of the scenery, including “stones, bricks, and even horse-hair plants.” On page 9, the frivolous game of grumpy shiitakes and mushroom-induced growth takes on a completely different tenor:

Kids gotta grow up someday.

In addition to describing the many facets of Mario’s main weakness—being touched—and how to kill cute enemies, note the last tip: “The points you get depend on how you kill the enemy. Try a few different methods to see which gives you the most points.” Things just got sinister.

These many deaths are as full of whimsy as the rest of the gameplaying experience. You flatten the fungal Goombas, you go bowling for fresh turtle. Although the language of the English translation of Super Mario Bros. might be klunky in a fascist way, the game itself treats dying as just another part of the fun. Consider the in-game music and sound effects that accompanies death. When you stomp on a Goomba, it’s the same sound that Mario makes when he’s swimming, a fun, froggy sound. When you land on a Koopa Trooper, it’s more staccato, but still not somber. The Koopa stomp sound is a perfect fourth interval, meaning that it’s among the few intervals that offer near consonance. [iii]

The music of Mario’s death is interesting for several reasons. Foremost, although it is most noticeable when you lose a life, it actually appears several times in the “Overworld Theme” (the song that plays in the aboveground levels) in the second half of the composition, normalizing his death in a much subtler way than the death/rebirth cycle of playing. In the last arpeggio (which is the tonic C chord) of the “Death Theme,” the bass line falls from C a perfect fourth to the fifth scale degree, G, then falls a perfect fifth (greater consonance) to the root note C—a configuration that’s stabilizing and familiar and offers closure. The tune is jaunty and without dissonance.

I circled the notes I’m talking about.

So are we to read Mario’s death as something harmonious? Gary Westfahl, science fiction scholar, believes this death/rebirth cycle matches the samsara of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, where one perfects her essence spiritually through many levels to attain moksha, or release from the suffering of life and death. He says, “Super Mario Brothers offers a more benign, less punitive version of reincarnation.”[iv] Less punitive because in the original three lives, you don’t have to go all the way back from the beginning, and, more importantly, you get to keep the knowledge and skills from the aggregate of your lost lives.

I think Westfahl is on to something here, though there are some problems: 1) Players typically don’t welcome death as a way to jumpstart their spiritual evolution. At least I didn’t when I played as a 6 year old. 2) This theory doesn’t account for the particularly whimsical nature of both death and life in the Super Mario Bros. world.

Imitating Westfahl as he yokes Mario with the burden of religion, I would like to point out some themes in Christianity and the art movement in Europe it partially inspired—the Renaissance. One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is the resurrection of the body. Consider this strange verse:

So also is the resurrection of the dead. [The body] is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.[v]

This passage associates the perishable body with an everlasting one, creating an apophatic symbol for the resurrection out of the corpse. This metaphoric play between absence and presence is how wearing a cross makes sense to some denominations of Christianity: it doesn’t symbolize death but life.

As Christian iconography became assimilated (sublimated?) into Western European painting so did the memento mori, the reminder that dust we will become. In the 16th century, a curious trend began to take hold of the funerary practices of the rich: transi, or cadaver tombs, which depicted in full detail the embarrassment of the rotting corpse, the real remnants we leave behind. Today, it would be considered a bitter, macabre thing to do: to rub in loved ones’ faces the base materiality and grossness of death. It’s helpful to imagine the mindset that saw the skull and saw salvation, looking forward and over the hurdle of death, projecting the self into something that can never die. In the words of the Super Mario Bros. manual, “Look out for these immortal creeps!”

Thank you, Renaissance.

This trope enters Baroque painting in a slightly less insensitive form: the vanitas. Vanitas painting, a form that finds its genealogy in lush still life painting of 16th century Holland and Flanders and in Medieval memento mori. The most famous example, a painting called “Vanitas” by Pieter Cleasz, depicts a big skull in a pile of the leftovers from a great 1620s party: an empty wine glass, an opium pipe, and books. The idea was that earthly pleasures will soon pass, an idea that only makes since in the context of seeing the skull as a stand-in for everlasting life. Otherwise, we just as soon smoke up and read while we can.

Ballers.

A more bizarre vanitas painting is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. You are probably looking at this picture on the computer thinking: wait a minute, there’s no skull, only two rich dudes about to have a sweet time playing the lute and conquering some hapless country. There’s actually a vanitas puzzle going on here. Hint: put your face about 8 inches to the left of your monitor and look. SPOILER ALERT: that big smudge turns into a skull. This technique is called “anamorphic perspective” which allows the painter to embed images in paintings that are only apparent from certain angles. I would consider this a very playful way to get a person to think of death in order to think of the afterlife.

While I’m not arguing that Miyamoto intended to make us dwell on the possibility of death and life in Super Mario Bros., I do believe the game’s unique depiction of death has a power over the gamer. Like Westfahl, I think that the gaming experience is one that ties these deaths to a particular conception of life, but as in the vanitas, just because the skull is an apophatic image that points us to life, it’s still a skull. And when Mario dies, he dies, and if you were playing in the late eighties and early nineties when I was, you know there were no save states, and if you were as young as I was then, all of this means you probably didn’t get to save the princess because you were too busy being dead.

I generally died after getting this screen.

The nirvana state that Westfahl describes doesn’t exist for most of us. I remember when I achieved it with Super Mario Bros. 3, when I was in second grade and had figured out that I could pause the Nintendo while sleeping and during school. But nirvana never came with that original encounter with death in the Mushroom Kingdom. Did I give up?

I played that game raw.

Because there is also playful exuberance of trying to elude death, of exerting your will whatever way you like no matter what the manual says, of mastering the unmasterable. It’s not an example of Freud’s death drive; it’s the living-at-the-brink-of-death drive. Freidrich Nietzsche, a pleasant German fellow, came up with this way to frame his ethics of power and self-expression: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it.”[vi] The gods of Nintendo gave Mario eternal freedom in an infinitely recurring world. There are death and danger in the world, but there are also mushroom boys and girls held captive by turtle sorcerers. And you get to be an Italian American plumber who gets to make a go of it. This creates a pleasure we call fun.

Thompson says we need death “honestly and bracingly, in games as in anything else, if only we’re brave enough to look at it directly and claim it as our own.”[vii] I get that, but the human mind is a complex beast that also gets death on different levels, and while I applaud videogames that are emotionally poignant and narratively complex, I also celebrate the silliness of using the language of death so intensely in a world where one gains money by headbutting overhead blocks. There’s a giddiness to Mario, knowing that at any moment the whole thing will fall into the pit and having the ability to laugh at it.

Figures

Screenshots from Super Mario Bros. Nintendo: Redmond, Washington, 1985.

Ligier Richier. ”Transi de René de Chalons.”  Bar-le-Duc, France, 1547.

Holbein, Hans the Younger. “The Ambassadors.” National Gallery: London, England, 1533.

I get that, but the human mind is a complex beast that also gets death on different levels, and while I applaud videogames that are emotionally poignant and narratively complex, I also celebrate the silliness of using the language of death so intensely in a world where one gains money by headbutting overhead blocks. There’s a giddiness to Mario, knowing that at any moment the whole thing will fall into the pit and having the ability to laugh at it.


[i] Thompson, Michael. “Dealing with Death in Videogames.” IGN, April 5, 2010, http://www.ign.com/articles/2010/04/06/dealing-with-death-in-videogames. Accessed September 19, 2012.

[ii] Super Mario Bros. Game Manual. Nintendo: Redmond, Washington, 1985. 2.

[iii] In this case, because the arpeggio begins in the base, there is slight dissonance (compared to a perfect fifth or an octave), but this kind of dissonance isn’t unpleasant to most people’s ears.

[iv] Westfahl, Gary. “Zen and the Art of Mario Maintenance” in Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin. The University of Georgia Press: Athens, Georgia, 1996. 215.

[v] The New American Bible1 Corinthians. Thomas Nelson Publishers: New York, 1987. 1.15.

[vi] Nietzsche, Friedrich. “from The Gay Science” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. & tr. by Walter Kaufmann. Penguin: New York, 1982. 101

[vii] Thompson. Op. cit.

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