Sometime last week, I was able to wrestle down and incapacitate some free time. My temporary freedom from the trials of young adult life thusly assured, I decided that I would spend my newfound temporal allotment with my absolute favorite thing: video games. Unfortunately, I’ve been really hung up on Dishonored lately, stuck at this one part which compels me to sneak into a masquerade ball undetected and take out one of the hostesses. Apparently I’d made too much banging and clanging and deathnoise earlier on in the level, and now none of the City Watch were willing to be taken unawares. This boded particularly ill, as I was now forced to choose between some shady, irritating save-scumming, or barreling through the party, gun and sword ablaze, hoping to kill or be killed and annihilating any satisfying stealth the level would otherwise have afforded me.
My frustration having ruled out playing games for the time being, I chose to turn next to my second favorite thing. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to get hold of an albino donkey, a Peloponnesian fire-walker, and a fishing pole on such short notice.
My next recourse was to my third favorite thing: talking about games. Ensconced in a bracing conversation about the impact of Mega Man on modern gaming, its endearing cheesy plot and setting, and its almost subversive methods of teaching new players (I am, after all, a sucker for a good tutorial), I happened to compare Mega Man’s mostly-predictable sci-fi setting with those of the Mario games. And before I could stop to think about it, my unchecked motor-mouth produced this gem: “Mario is surrealist!”
I said it on a whim, but as I thought about it later I began to ask myself – could it actually be true? Sure, the Mushroom Kingdom is weird and all – the premise of the plot and backstory of the games is kinda off as well. Does that really make it surrealist?
Well, I think here we need to make like a rushed high-school valedictorian and seek the sage advice of dear old Merriam-Webster. Quoth the good lady, surrealism can be defined as “the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.” For you stuffy academic types for whom the use of any dictionary but the OED is anathema, here ya go. I’ll be back in a jiffy with your freshly-pressed tweed jacket and a copy of the New Yorker.
Of course we’re all familiar with how deep the rabbit hole of weirdness goes: Mario Samelastname, the plumber formerly known as a carpenter formerly known as Jumpman, and his brother Luigi Siblingsfirstname, are down in the New York sewers one day. For some reason. When, much to their surprise, they discover a pipe which leads, not to some Brooklyn bachelor pad’s toilet, but to the Mushroom Kingdom.
The Kingdom is inhabited by various talking animals, vegetables, and minerals (including, of course, the eponymous mushrooms playing the role of privileged majority). I don’t even need to tell you what happens to the (oddly human) Princess Peach-in-Japan-then-later-in-the-US Toadstool: she is pilfered away by the nasty Koopa King, who turns the denizens of the kingdom into blocks and leads the Mario Bros. on a wild goose – erm – turtle-chasefrom castle to castle in an attempt to break her free.
Along the way, the brothers Mario are aided in their quest by various power-ups: mushrooms which allow them to grow bigger and reanimate when they die, stars which grant a temporary invincibility, and the ever-popular Fire Flower, which allows our mustachioed, coverall-clad daredevils to release bouncing spheres of flame from their closed fists. The few remaining Toads (the preferred nomenclature for the sentient ‘shrooms) are being held in the faux-hideouts, to serve as distractions from the princesses’ actual location.
So, all of this is pretty strange, bizzare even. But, is it enough that a work present a visage of, as Ms. Webster is fond of putting it, the “fantastic and incongruous” in order to be considered surrealist?
In order to answer this question, it will be helpful for us to turn to the opening page of the chapter of history belonging to surrealism. Andrè Breton, the “founder” (if there could be said to be one) of the surrealist movement, published The Surrealist Manifesto with the help of his like-minded peers in order to establish a philosophical revolution, specifically regarding psychiatric treatment. Though surrealist art is the philosophy’s legacy, Breton’s intention was to engender a paradigm shift in our thinking about our own minds, and those of others.
See, Breton worked in a hospital treating (what would now be referred to as) PTSD, using Freudian psychoanalytic techniques, with particularly heavy emphasis on those bits involving the role of the unconscious mind in constructing conscious psychological phenomena and dream theory. Dreams were thought to be semiconscious emanations which would be able to clue us into the unconscious self’s activities, and therefore lend insight into the alleviation of those pesky conscious symptoms.
Surrealist art, therefore, came to be judged by how well the visual representation of a dreamstate could be brought to a conscious fore, and examined by others, allowing us to examine the workings of the human subconscious through a corporate experience of an individual’s inner workings.
Pretty heady stuff, to be sure. Does it measure up in the world of modern psychology? No, though perhaps it should. Regardless, now we have a measure by which we can determine Super Mario’s surreal-ness…osity. Rather than setting it up against disparate visual media on the grounds of its weirdness (and it’s already taking Princess Peach’s cake in that respect), we’ll have to take a look at how accurately the game portrays a surrealist’s understanding of the dreamstate.
The surrealist philosophy is based on the idea that conscious observation of the typified elements of dreamstates can determine what’s going on symptomatically (both in individual minds and our own).
Imagine, if you will, the Mario Bros., plumbers extraordinaire, asleep in the Brooklyn flat they share, Bert and Ernie-style. Accept, also, that they ply the same trade (to roughly equal efficacy), get along fairly well, and that Mario has a romantic interest over whom Luigi feels some protective impetus, due either to unrequited affection or “brother’s long-term girlfriend”-syndrome.
You know what? Scratch that. We don’t even have to take that many steps. Let’s just imagine that there are two brothers who, for circumstantial (and unimportant) reasons, find themselves spending a good deal of time together during the day, and then sleeping in the same bedroom that night. For our purposes, that alone will be more than enough.
So, in our hypothetical scenario, one brother wakes up to the other – um – making waffles, or something. He bursts into the kitchen, eyes wide, pupils dilated, gesticulating wildly, unaware of the suspicious breeze being allowed free reign of his trousers by way of his neglectful buttoning.
“Dude, I had the weirdest dream last night!”
He proceeds to regale his beloved sibling with the details: there they were, plumbers hanging out in the sewers, except they had the same last name, and one of their names was also their first name for some reason. They discovered a pipe to a land filled with what were supposed to be mushroom people, except they had all turned into blocks, and if they ate the remains of the people imprisoned therein (!) they would get more powerful somehow.
Starting to get the picture? The more one examines the setting, plot, and characters of Super Mario Bros., the more plausible the whole thing begins to look as a pasta-infused nightmare one might have on the loose end of a Saturday night binge.
This is surrealism in a nutshell: imagine if one were to actually have this dream, and recreate it in video game form. Presumably (at least according to the post-Freudian tenets of the surrealists), we’d be able to determine which elements came from where in the real world and how they affect the conscious psychology of the subject. Could the mismatch of tropes and shouts-out to various well-known genres be useful as a clue for how the game might be interpreted? Just how many of these cues and callbacks to the real world are there?
- For one thing, we have the cartoony, borderline-racist Italian stereotypes, exaggerated to the nth degree in the game/dream world (Mario’s name actually comes from that of a real-life portly Italian with whom the Nintendo of America executives were familiar).
- Several key references, not the least of which being the mushrooms and their physics-warping attributes, come from Lewis Carroll’s well-known Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (a book in which, you’ll recall, the titular protagonist awakens at the end to discover it was all a dream).
- Okay, okay, the Mushroom Kingdom is being terrorized by a giant friggin’ lizard. Remind you of anything?
- The Princess herself is something straight out of a fairy tale, what with her wearing pink, being a gentlewoman of noble birth amidst a sea of fantasy creatures over whom she rules in a loosely-organized Kingdom. Not the mention the fact that she’s constantly getting kidnapped and locked in generic medieval stone structures…
So, what we have here is a hodgepodge of established fantasy and experiential reality, contorted and exaggerated in just the way we would expect were we to have dreams containing these elements. This is a way for us to look at games, even imminently popular and long-lasting bastions of the industry like Super Mario Bros., that could help us examine the fantasy worlds we choose to inhabit, our motivations for doing so, and the repercussions of our daydreaming and subsequent constant reorganizing and conflating of our imaginary and real lives.
Or perhaps I’m reading too much into this whole thing. Maybe it’s coincidental that Super Mario Bros. just happens to render the parameters of a dreamworld for us so perfectly. After all, you might be asking, what about this game in particular makes it special and unique? Aren’t many platformers, just like animated “family” films and cartoons, created from a thick mismatching stew of old and new worlds – fantasy and reality – and writ large for our entertainment, composed of memes that we would imminently recognize and identify with in our cultural mileu?
After all, it’s not like Nintendo of America would later conspire to make the surrealism/dream connections even stronger by re-releasing a completely different platform game, re-skinning it, and make it out to have all been a dream…