Dr. Mario or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ascension of Video Games into a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry That Will Consume Us All

I

I convinced my parents to buy me a subscription to Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1997. I was thirteen years old and had just saved up to buy the original PlayStation, a console so futuristic with its built-in CD player that I moved my yellowed Super Nintendo and collection of Japanese role-playing games to my grandmother’s basement one town over. While my friends played basketball or got into music, I gave myself up to the hyperbolic prose of EGM and its stable of early-twenties dudes highlighted by Sushi-X, a game reviewer whose picture was blacked out, the kind of secret agent nerd bro so proficient at Street Fighter he had to hide his face out of fear of retribution. The reviews weren’t even two paragraphs long, but I always read them first. I’d grown up on the Nintendo Entertainment System and often poured upwards of sixty hours into those neon Japanese fairy tales. I was predisposed to video game criticism—even if it came in the form of cartoony Sushi-X—and the alluring idea that adults would actually take this medium seriously. When I finished EGM each month, I penned bloated reviews of games that hadn’t been released yet. I didn’t care if my reviews were accurate or not—what did I know in 1997 of the meta mind games Hideo Kojima would unleash in 1998’s Metal Gear Solid?—but I was infatuated with the format, of how a writer could transfer the singular experience of play into a few hundred words. I wanted to enter the conversation, the idea that I could talk back to the game and to other players about what the experience of playing an interactive experience meant. I started reviewing hypothetical games, sequels to popular titles, brand new properties born out of my own soda-fuzzed head. And when that too grew boring, I moved forward in time, writing about launch titles for nonexistent consoles, the PlayStation 64, the Nintendo 128, further and further into the future and nearly every prediction was spectacularly wrong. What I imagined in 1997 for the future of video games was this: virtual reality art installations and increasingly elaborate Japanese mascot games, evolutions of Mario, Sonic, and the dozens of other clones that had come to prominence in the early-to-late nineties. I couldn’t imagine that in the early 2000s I’d give up modern video games altogether. I couldn’t imagine that in 2014, I’d purchase a PlayStation 3 on a whim and discover that the Japanese mascots were essentially dead, replaced with one North American first person shooter after another, with embarrassing adolescent fantasies, rampant and realistic violence, endless cut scenes, and the kind of addictive play that made it difficult to put the controller down. I couldn’t imagine myself at thirty justifying to my fiancée that I was playing Skyrim for hours on end for academic purposes, that even as I visited family over the holidays I would feel my fingers tremble, the electric desire to once again disappear into the world of the game, the avatar, that embarrassing teenage playfield.

II

It started in the unlikeliest of places: a committee meeting. As unbelievable as it always sounds when I say it, I grew up to be an academic. I teach English and creative writing at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, and the most surprising part of the job is how many meetings you’re expected to attend. Meetings about insurance changes and library renovations and curriculum overhauls. Meetings in civic centers with complimentary chicken sandwiches and meetings in the President’s Dining Room surrounded by paintings of wide-eyed graybeards. I don’t even know how I landed in a meeting about Digital Media Studies, but it ended with a colleague suggesting I teach a class about video games. This wasn’t completely surprising. I teach a superheroes and religion class. I teach graphic novels. I’ve assigned video games as homework. And I’ve developed a reputation as the kind of weirdo who thinks that Jack Kirby’s New Gods is worthy of academic study. If somebody in the English department was going to teach a video games course, it was unquestionably going to be me. I nodded awkwardly at the other professors and remembered the reason I’d given up modern video games in college: I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t just play for twenty minutes or even an hour of Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy X-II. I had to play for five hours, ten, had to spend days of my life in those colorful worlds at the detriment of my physical life. The lowest low came during a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas binge, when my roommate found me in my underwear eating cereal from the box as I tapped X over and over again. He watched my digital counterpart lift weights, and when he asked what I was doing, I slurred that I didn’t want my character to be fat. Each bench press brought my character closer to the physical ideal, a sculpted chest that would have no tangible impact on gameplay whatsoever. When asked how long I’d been virtually working out, I sheepishly whispered three hours. I knew in the committee meeting that if I was going to teach a class about games, I had to familiarize myself with everything that had happened in gaming over the ensuing decade. It was the equivalent of letting an alcoholic in the bar, but I wasn’t twenty anymore. I was on the wrong side of thirty with a fiancée and job as a professor, not to mention a second novel lurking in my Dropbox. I turned to my colleague and told him I’d teach it and tried not to dwell on exactly what I’d done.

III

At first glance, Far Cry 3 reminded me of a dozen other games I played during the waning age of the original PlayStation. It’s first person, you have a gun, and based on that criteria alone, it’s not far off from Unreal Tournament or Counter-Strike or Quake II or any of the other computer games I devoured during the transition from grade school to high school. In fact, I only picked up Far Cry 3 because of an essay about Far Cry 2 written by Tom Bissell who, in my estimation, is the best critic gamers have. He’s the future ingrained in the darkness of Sushi-X’s missing photo, and his book Extra Lives explores Far Cry 2’s flirtations with ludic narrative, the concept of designers foregoing all pretenses of cut scene narrative—everything from the ninety-minute ending of Metal Gear Solid IV to the now famous “Your Princess is in Another Castle” message of Super Mario Bros.—and replacing them with unrehearsed moments of narrative completely dictated by the player. It’s chaotic freedom.

I downloaded Far Cry 3 on my PlayStation 3 for a measly thirteen dollars and quickly discovered how far I’d wandered from those fondly recalled multiplayer games of my youth. Far Cry 3 begins with a mostly irrelevant quote from Alice in Wonderland followed by a rapid-fire montage of white frat kids downing shots with scantily clad women on an island set to M.I.A.’s subversive “Paper Planes.” These scenes are fully rendered in the first person, but the game repeatedly reminds you that you’re a mid-twenties white male. You—or your avatar, but for all intents and purposes, it’s your story being told on the television screen—are partying with friends and family on an exotic island, and everything’s going just dandy until your crew is kidnapped during a skydiving expedition gone wrong—better not to ask—by a menacing crew of pirates lifted wholesale from Captain Phillips. You wake up with your brother in a bamboo cage surrounded by stolen passports and ruptured suitcases. It’s legitimately scary when the vaguely ethnic pirate leader approaches the cage and hurls a litany of curses and threats at you and your brother—apparently a former Marine. But then things go from bad to indefensible. Your brother manages to untie himself from the cage, and after he frees you, the two of you sneak through the compound past guards as stupid and clueless as any of the Mushroom Kingdom Goombas. Eventually, their leader—the manic Vaas—spots your brother and shoots him in the neck. The game takes a swing—and misses—at legitimate emotion by tasking you with stopping the bleeding. The game tells you to tap X, and when you do so, your character reaches out and applies pressure to the wound. Your brother screams. Your character screams. No matter how many times you press X, your brother dies. Vaas tells you to run, and after a brief jog through the jungle, you find yourself rescued by a native black man named Dennis.

The opening to Far Cry 3 is problematic to say the least. The game is preying on white fears of the stereotypical brown man waiting to reach out and terrorize during gross displays of white privilege and avarice. But in many ways, it’s schlock lifted from other forms of schlock. Is Far Cry 3’s opening that different from Iron Man or, for that matter, any Chuck Norris film produced between 1975 and the conclusion of Walker, Texas Ranger? Not really, but Far Cry 3 doubles and even triples down on its troubling rhetoric. Dennis quickly announces that you’re the chosen leader of his ancient warrior tribe. You. A white, twenty-something male who’s up until this point led an idyllic life in Santa Monica. You spend the early hours of the game skinning boars and dogs to construct more elaborate gun purses—how exactly you go from deerskin to gun purse the game never explicitly explains—while liberating scores of brown islanders from scores of other brown islanders—this is done by brutally slitting their throats, firing flaming arrows into their chests, pulverizing them under the wheels of your jeep, or any number of other grisly methods rendered in stunning high definition. Conveniently, you can tell the factions apart because the bad guys wear red and the good guys wear blue. Later, as you transform into the white savior Dennis predicts you’ll become, you encounter the tribe’s sex goddess Citra and, after downing some mind-altering drugs and battling a giant ink monster hallucination, engage in implied intercourse in front of the entire tribe. After orgasming, you detach from your dead-eyed prize and announce to the watching natives that you will “lead [them] to glory!”

The rhetoric of Far Cry 3 is that some brown people are evil, some brown people need to be led by white bros, and some brown women need to have sex with said white bros in front of said brown people in order to be liberated. The game makes a miniscule attempt to critique this interpretation in one ending of the game—there are two—where Citra murders you, implying that she’s been tricking you into doing her dirty work from the beginning. But this barely even registers after thirty hours of rhetoric pulling in the opposite direction. It’s difficult to really talk about Far Cry 3 with a critical lens in the same way it’s difficult to critically discuss the sun. It’s big and clear and obvious. It doesn’t require any guess work or interpretation. It is what it is, and, in the case of Far Cry 3, it’s downright horrifying. The politics of the game go against nearly everything I believe as a bleeding heart progressive. And yet I play it. I know that tons of my liberal buddies play it. Why? If Far Cry 3 was a movie, there’s no way I’d sit through it, let alone spend thirty hours with it on top of a few thousand words picking at its rhetorical scabs.

One of the reasons why modern video games have such a stranglehold over adult entertainment is because of how relentlessly fun and frustration free the gameplay is. A standard game of Contra released in 1988 for the NES probably has three controller-throwing moments of rage for every thirty-minute play session. The highs are high—it’s essentially nonstop shooting from the moment you hit start till the second you fly away from an exploding island at game’s end—and the lows are low. Although no singular moment of Far Cry 3 ever captures the intensity of Contra, I never once had to fight the impulse to hurl my controller across the room. The manufactured joy of Far Cry 3 is doled out in steady, frequent intervals, never becoming too stressful or too boring. Every few minutes you encounter a new enemy camp, new animal to hunt, new jet ski, a tiny prize that lures you deeper into the thirty-hour campaign. Games likes Far Cry 3 or Skyrim or even the NBA2K series have taken this programming ideology even further, rewarding you with a Trophy—the Sony equivalent to awarding a kindergartner a gold star for coloring inside the lines—every few moments. These games are IV drips of accessibly steady fun that keep players glued to their flatscreens far longer than Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo fame ever envisioned. Losing three hours to Far Cry 3 is even easier than marathoning a new series on Netflix. Far Cry 3 begs you to keep going.

And yet, this doesn’t in any way whatsoever excuse me or my contemporaries. I’m totally complicit in all the grossness of Far Cry 3’s rhetoric. I purchased the game and continue to play it even as it offends every one of my sensibilities. In that alternate future I wrote after reading Electronic Gaming Monthly, I imagined more elaborate versions of Super Mario World or even the 3D Sonic Adventure. How did video games become fucking a brown woman in front of a bunch of brown men for their own apparent good? How did any of this happen?

IV

Last summer, I co-led a university trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My students met with atomic bomb survivors, collaborated with Japanese students, explored the countryside, and I went with them for three important reasons: 1) to make sure that everyone returned home, 2) to conduct research for a novel that uses Robert Oppenheimer as a major character, and 3) to locate and purchase as many Famicom games as I possibly could.

The Famicom—or Family Computer—is the Japanese equivalent of the Nintendo Entertainment System, my initial foray into electronic gaming. I was obsessed with the machine as a child and returned to it as a poor college student because back then NES games cost between one and five dollars. Since entering the retro game collecting world in 2004, I’ve amassed more than four hundred NES games or over half of every game produced for the system in North America. I own the rare DuckTales 2 and the bizarre ROB the Robot peripheral. I own a TurboGrafx-16, a Virtual Boy, and even the Aura Interactor, a strap-on vest that physically hurts you every time your avatar takes a hit in an SNES or Genesis game. I’m not proud of any of this and only relay it here so you might understand why I’d use a free trip to Japan to acquire rare Japanese games most American collectors could only dream of. Before we left Indiana, I met with my students for a week of activities run by my department chair. The second she went to the bathroom, I hooked up my laptop to our room’s flatscreen and projected an image of the Twin Famicom, a rare system that looks more like an eight-track player than anything a person in 2015 might hook up to their televisions. I told my students to keep an eye out for it in Japan, and they responded with blinking silence.

Our flight was twenty-two hours long, and I’m not the best flier. I get anxious and slightly claustrophobic and to stave off my inevitable meltdown, I purchased a Nintendo 3DS—the descendant of the mythical GameBoy—on a whim before leaving. This was before I agreed to teach a video game course, before the PlayStation 3, before Far Cry 3, and what surprised me about the 3DS was how very little had changed. When I’d left gaming, the console playfield was dominated by Japanese companies. Nintendo, Sony, Square-Enix, Capcom, Konami. Those were the studios I’d been raised on, and those were the studios I felt loyal to—or at least as loyal as a person can feel toward a multi-million dollar corporation. There was something endlessly playful about their games, something wacky and good-natured. Even when Konami steered into harsher waters in the blood-soaked Metal Gear Solid series, there were always bizarre, anime-inspired larks peppered throughout each over-the-top adventure. Nintendo, on the other hand, rarely showed any desire to cater to any core-gamer demographic, and instead, tried to reach as many people as possible through a Pixar-esque strategy of providing family friendly entertainment challenging enough to satisfy adults. The 3DS library is filled with reimaginings and reboots of my favorite childhood memories. New Super Mario Bros. 2. Mario Kart 7. Donkey Kong Country Returns. Pokemon Y. Super Smash Bros for the 3DS. And for one shining moment in time, I believed that gaming hadn’t changed, that everything was exactly where I’d left it. Mario and Donkey Kong still walked left to right on a 2D plane. Link’s falling sword attack still killed everybody. The blue shell in Mario Kart was still bullshit. My childhood was intact!

This feeling only intensified when we arrived in Japan. On my first night in Hiroshima, I wandered alone through the shopping district—a mess of neon lights and stores tunneling away from the a-bomb memorial. I can’t express how bizarre it was that a McDonald’s selling burgers in black buns stood a mere hundred yards away from a stone marker down an alleyway marking the epicenter of the nuclear blast. I walked for an hour before coming across something that immediately returned me to my childhood: the ping-ponging dissonance of a packed arcade.

I was born in 1984 and missed the true heyday of arcades. But the first fifteen years of my life was still a strong period for American arcades. Every mall in my hometown had one, and all my best friends had their birthday parties at Top Dog, a majestic little hole in the wall famous for its WWF Wrestlefest cabinet and greenish orange hot dogs rumored to be made wholly from boots. Chain entertainment restaurants like Dave and Buster’s filled the void left behind when the American arcade industry collapsed, but I always missed the dank arcades of my youth filled with pimply teens shooting coins from belt dispensers. The Taito Game Stations in Japan blow Top Dog out of the water. Each one I visited had a minimum of seven floors, and they were always packed no matter what time it was. In the Hiroshima Taito Game Station, I really believed I’d entered the art installation game world I’d imagined in 1997.

The arcade cabinets in the Taito Game Station were so bizarre they barely counted as video games. Two smoking businessmen sat behind gigantic video screens with a physical board game between them that looked like a feudal version of Axis and Allies. When one of the men swiped a command on the screen, the plastic pieces on the physical board moved in unison. One floor of the arcade was comprised solely of slot machines, but these were unlike any slot machines I’d ever seen—and I’ve been to sweaty Atlantic City and schizophrenic Vegas. One of the slots focused on Neon Genesis Evangelion—a renowned anime about teenage robot pilots waging war against God. A giant purple robot stood sentry atop the machine, and instead of lining up cherries and lemons, you lined up three identically scowling faces of series antihero Shinji Ikari. I rode another escalator and found a room filled only with 2D shoot-em-‘ups—updates on games like Space Invaders or Gradius—and killed an hour playing a 2011 version of Darius that had never come to American shores. There were small differences in every Taito Game Station I visited, but one element was always the same: each top floor was nothing but photo booths where couples could rent schoolgirl outfits. Bright signs warned men not to enter unless they had a female companion. It was the only floor I avoided with my students.

None of the above compares to the absurdity of Cho Chabudai Gaeshi!, or Super Table Flip. I stumbled across Cho Chabudai Gaeshi! on my last evening in Hiroshima and was drawn to it primarily because of its controller. There was no joystick, no light gun, not even a trackball. The input for Cho Chabudai Gaeshi! is a miniature red table. You feed one hundred Yen into the machine, and you’re presented with a number of different scenarios to choose from. If you’re like me and can’t read Japanese, it’s easiest to select the very first one. From there, the game shifts to a cartoony funeral. Weeping mourners are gathered around an open casket, and a wispy blue ghost hovers just above, clearly the deceased. A few seconds pass before the game screams at you, and, left with no other way to interact with the game, you flip the physical table as hard as you can. It flies forward, and onscreen you’re treated to a visual of your ghost flipping its own coffin. The corpse flies out and strikes each cartoony mourner in the face, points popping above their heads. When it’s over, the game shows you the carnage again and again in slow motion replay. Then the experience ends.

My students were with me that night in the Taito Game Station and snapped a photo of me the moment the game ended. They caught me laughing hysterically. I can’t recall any game ever providing that much unadulterated joy, that much dopey happiness. Over the course of my trip, I found so many retro games I had to abandon my sneakers to fit them all in my suitcase. As I flew home playing my 3DS, I imagined that the future I’d dreamed up back in 1997 really had come to pass. I believed however foolishly that maybe the video game market was dominated by Nintendo’s brand of retro cool and the many games at Taito Game Station more interested in providing unique experiences than button-mashing mayhem. I believed that perhaps video games had evolved into something joyful, meaningful, and uniquely Japanese.

But that alternate present remains only that: an alternative. Of the top ten grossing video games in America for 2014, only one was produced in Japan—Super Smash Bros for 3DS/Wii U—one in Sweden—the imaginative and child friendly Minecraft—and the other eight were programmed by North American companies. Of those eight, two are sports games, and the other six are shooters. Compare that to 2000 when six of the top ten selling games were published by Japanese studios, and the other four were American skateboarding, driving, or sports games. Of the thirty top selling games of the 1990s, only five were programmed outside of Japan. There’s no denying that in present day North America, Nintendo and its ilk are a niche, catering to children and thirty-somethings with a soft spot for the company’s long past heyday.

But so what? Obviously my intention is to show that as American game developers seized control of the video game market in the mid-2000s, content mutated from the family-friendly fun of early arcade games into the blood-soaked mayhem of Grand Theft Auto or a dozen other North American franchises. But isn’t that too simplistic? Isn’t the exponential increase in processing muscle responsible for this shift too? In the 1980s, you couldn’t program a first-person shooter for the Nintendo Entertainment System. That only became possible in the 1990s, was perfected in the 2000s, and by that point, 2D side scrollers had become outdated, the equivalent of black and white movies. On the other hand, aren’t I fetishizing Japanese culture? Aren’t I just another white nerd mad that his childhood is over, replaced with something new and strange? Aren’t I squeezing Japanese culture into a tiny box that serves my own murky agenda?

Am I just a curmudgeon?

The thing that bothers me is this: I grew up on Super Mario Bros., but I play Far Cry 3. I play Grand Theft Auto V. I play Call of Duty. I see the problems behind the shiny veneer of the game screen, but I don’t look away. I represent one of those sales numbers.

V

So where does this leave us? The future of the gaming industry is tipped in a few conflicting and strange directions. On one hand, you have the major North American studios pumping out an endless stream of shooter franchises. On the other, you have the Japanese companies releasing perfectly tuned updates to games that entranced legions of kids decades earlier. But what about the in-between? Far less popular than either of those schools of gaming are the independent developers pumping out games for Valve’s Steam service or equivalents for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. The indie market is as varied—if not more so—than the full physical releases you can snag at your local Best Buy, and an intriguing gang of gaming’s fiercest devotees are making the case for the kind of art video games I dreamed about as a boy.

Nearly every semester for the past five years, I’ve taught Kellee Santiago’s TED talk “Are Video Games Art?” in my composition courses. Santiago makes compelling if fairly obvious rhetorical points—boiling down to who can really say what is or isn’t art in a world where the line between low culture and high culture media fluctuates wildly—but her choice of examples is telling. Santiago shows video of three games during her presentation: 1) Flower, a game developed by her own Thatgamecompany that has you controlling the titular flower dancing in the wind, 2) Braid, a platformer in the vein of classic Mario games that critiques the misogyny of the “Save the Princess” narrative, and 3) a David Koresh magical realism simulator where gamers actually put on a papier-mâché Koresh mask to start the game. This is all ambitious and interesting, but none of the games—minus Braid which is by far the most mainstream of the three—look particularly fun to play. Santiago’s examples never utilize the IV drip of constant and steadily doled out stimulation so perfected in games like Skyrim or Far Cry 3. I find myself intrigued by Santiago’s games without ever feeling any real urge to play them.

Enter Phil Fish and the legion of hipsters raised on Nintendo. I learned about Fish through the documentary Indie Game which follows two groups of developers through the game programming and release cycle. Fish is the auteur behind Fez, a deceptively simple game which resembles a knock off NES game despite being released on PlayStation 3 and a host of other modern platforms. Gomez, the game’s protagonist, is a two-dimensional character who discovers he exists in a three-dimensional world. The game takes the standard platformer genre and literally turns it on its head. Most of the world’s puzzles are solved by rotating the landscape clockwise and examining the problem from a new angle. That alone doesn’t sound especially artful. It isn’t straining for pre-canned narrative meaning a la Metal Gear Solid or even the few cut scenes of Braid. Instead, Fez relies on the ludic narrative of Tom Bissell. Fez has atmosphere. It’s mournful. Everything from the haunting 8-bit music to the often blank faces of its characters contributes to this. It’s bittersweet nostalgia wrapped in a candy-coated bullet. It somehow makes you feel in your gut that you really can’t go home again, that like Phil Fish, you can’t truly experience the joys of your childhood in an authentic way ever again. It strives for something artful, and it’s a beacon of hope in an industry that all too often aims for the lowest common denominator.

Other Eighties-gamers-turned-developers have made similar strides. In 2014, Yacht Club Games released Shovel Knight on the 3DS and Wii U, a classic platformer in the vein of DuckTales that doesn’t aspire to art like Fez but does approach the IV drip of fun found in games like Far Cry 3. Derek Wu’s Spelunky is another retro callback that apes the controller-hurling difficulty of Nintendo while presenting it in a slick, high definition 2D package. All three of these games have sold over a million copies, but there is still work to be done. Shovel Knight never attempts to say anything beyond winking at its retro cousins, and Spelunky retains and actually escalates the misogynist and heteronormative rhetoric of Super Mario Bros. Spelunky’s Damsel—that’s literally her name, although you can make her male if you select a female avatar—can be sacrificed on a bloody altar for extra power; even her corpse can be used as a projectile weapon. Although the art game utopia I imagined as a dreamy adolescent never came to pass, what the current video game landscape resembles more than anything is the beleaguered film industry. Nearly everything’s a superhero movie or blockbuster sequel, but there’s still a fledgling indie community producing films about human beings, about what it means to be human on this earth. That’s still cause for cautious hope.

VI

My fiancée and I spent two weeks over the holidays visiting our family hundreds of miles from our home in Indiana. It’s always wonderful returning to the east coast, but in the down moments—when my parents fell asleep in front of SNL, when reading with my fiancée’s family in their living room—I would close my eyes and see the world of Far Cry 3, see myself driving through the lush jungle en route to infiltrate an enemy base. My fingers would tremble in anticipation of stealth murdering one islander after another, and I would remember the many justifications I’d given to Theresa when asked why after three years of dating I was suddenly playing video games for hours upon hours each day. This is for research, I kept saying, this is for work. This is for work. This is for work. This is work.

Gamers are more complicit than readers or viewers because of Bissell’s ludic narrative, where we’re given active choices within each gaming experience. Gamers are less receptacles for media and more like creative partners. I killed all those islanders in Far Cry 3, but there was always an alternative: when beckoned by my brother to escape the initial pirate compound, I could have remained in my cage. I still regret my decision.

The problem isn’t gamers or programmers or even the foggy, vaguely racist and surely presumptuous line between American and Japanese culture: the problem is us, all of us, and more specifically, me.

I will continue to play.

I am the problem.

***

Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges (Braddock Avenue Books, 2012). His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Buzzfeed, and many other venues. He’s an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached at salvatore-pane.com.

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