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Mario Dali: The Super Surrealist Brothers 1

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…

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Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.

  • KmartStalker

    Aaron, I love you. I love star­ing at you from afar and observ­ing as you sleep.