Speculative Ludism:

by tommy.rousse

Or, What Is It Like to Be a Mario?

Death is an incoherent and varied phenomenon across the many instantiations of the genre of the electronic game.  Frequently, there is little relationship between rules and fiction[1] when it comes to dying.  To take a common scenario: Mario plummets to his death; a “life” is subtracted from his total, and the player is sent back to the beginning of the level.  What is the player to make of this situation?  Perhaps his or her Mario is identical to the one he had before he began play; perhaps Mario has lost whatever power-ups he had previously collected.  Has Mario been granted a boon by whatever god he favors, allowing him to return to the realm of the living once more?  Is a bizarre simulacra Mario decanted from a cloning tube somewhere and placed at the beginning of the level?  Does Mario survive his run-in with danger and somehow come to return to the beginning of the level?  Is each life representative of an alternate universe or timeline where Mario has not yet died?  Does Mario face down Hades and throw off the shackles of Death itself between each life?  Are we to instead assume that only successful runthroughs represent the “real” playthrough, and our multiple playthroughs are simply an affordance to allow us to achieve the unerring perfection of the fictive Mario?  The Mario series offers little explanation for giving the player multiple “lives”; by whatever mechanism of closure[2]they exercise, either subconsciously or through an idiosyncratic explanation, players discount this cognitive dissonance and continue on.

[1] For more on this usage, see Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (The MIT Press, 2011).

[2] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994), 63.

– from a revision of On Permadeath