Bizarrely Out of Character · Games Criticism · Games Journalism

Teachable Moment

Right. By now I’m sure many of you have heard about Michael Thomsen’s WaPo review of Super Mario Maker. Suffice it to say that I found it really freaking obnoxious. Others did, too. I didn’t see many people defending it, and I can imagine some reasonable ones; Tom Auxier at least had a couple reasonable explanations for how the author’s viewpoint maybe came to pass. Basically: if you come into Mario Maker expecting a game and instead get this Sargasso of player-created levels with varying degrees of quality, you’re likely going to react negatively.

Okay. Fine.

I Storify-ed a series of tweets by Night in the Woods dev Scott Benson that I think are worth looking at as well. His take on the review is a critique of tech utopianism and elitism as he sees them in that review and I think I agree with him for the most part. His final tweet is pretty telling, in which he basically argues that whether or not this author likes Mario Maker — or if his dislike of MM is “legitimate” or not — is sort of irrelevant to the problems with the review itself.

As with many pieces of games writing I take the time to critique here on this blog, the problem with the Mario Maker WaPo review is one of tone and framing, rather than pure/raw content.

How does one even review Mario Maker as a game? Having spent almost a week with it, I can hardly disagree with Thomsen: a massive percentage of the player-created levels are nonsense and the Nintendo-provided example levels are more suited to showing off the create mode’s features than they are at being “good Mario levels,” a fate that LittleBigPlanet‘s various incarnations also share. I think Laura Hudson’s request, over on Offworld, that Mario Maker creators “slow their roll” is maybe broadly sweeping but not misplaced.

So if I am looking to review the experience as “here is a thing I am playing, as a player<->game interaction,” Mario Maker is not terribly compelling.

But as Scott Benson said, MM isn’t just a game. It’s a creation engine, a piece of development software. And that needs considering too.

Mario Maker is an example of what Chaim Gingold called a “magic crayon.” It’s a simplistic tool that abstracts the many and varied layers, toolsets, and skillsets of level design into something that a person without access to those things can still use to produce a tangible outcome. The tradeoff is that, because the tools are abstractions, they are less powerful and often more time-intensive than the alternative, because you are often running up against the limitations of the abstracted toolset, among other things.

This is why, in my introductory game design courses in spring 2016, I’m going to have my students build Mario Maker levels with university-owned stuff. Not because I think Mario Maker will turn them into “great level designers,” but because it is a relatively judgment free, low tech skill entry barrier way for them to appreciate the potential of digital game design that also leverages IP/iconography with which they are familiar: Mario and his world.

Lest this be read as bad, I think “magic crayon” toolsets are powerful because of their accessibility. Anna Anthropy’s work (such as Rise of the Videogame Zinesters) has discussed the power of democratizing game design and its ability to destabilize hegemonic game design norms. Magic crayons are often a necessary part of that because they make people feel like these goals are reachable.

Of course, that’s part of the problem for Thomsen, as evidenced by this quote:

There is a futile egotism to “Super Mario Maker,” a piece of software that caters to delusory belief that enthusiasm and creativity are interchangeable, that being a fan of something can, if practiced with enough care, create an equivalent of the work to which one’s fandom is fixated. This self-deception is antithetical to the genius of “Mario” games. From “Donkey Kong” to “Super Mario 64,” Mario games have always felt like creations in pursuit of abstract ideas rather than homages to any specific history or design tradition.

The issue here is that Thomsen is making a number of problem assumptions that I think rely on facts not in evidence, the biggest of these being that any given Mario Maker creator is looking to “create an equivalent” of existing Mario products. Is that really true? Do we know that about these creators?

I think it’s much more likely that the levels that seem to plague him — the endless-lives slogfests he calls “hostile” — are more influenced by I Want to be the Guy or even Kaizo Mario, products that actually exist in specific opposition to the “welcoming” feel of traditional Mario. The trajectory of level design in Mario games usually starts at “interesting but simple,” proceeds to “quirky but doable,” and by the end of the game is “fiendishly, usually frustratingly difficult.” Comparatively speaking, something like Super Meat Boy is built entirely with the inevitability of repeated failure in mind. While Mario games and Super Meat Boy have superficial similarities, they do not exist in the same general mode.

There’s also the problem that we can’t assume an “ideal” Mario Maker designer. Last night in particular, I had a fruitful conversation with friends who are also making levels in MM about difficulty, the difference between “I want to make an interesting level” vs. “I want to make a challenging level” (these are not synonymous), and how differing player expectations will influence the reading of each. If there’s any takeaway I love about Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution, it’s the knowledge that player expectation toward the orientation of the activity has a non-trivial impact on reception and meaning making (in his case, Juul was discussing casual vs. “hardcore” players and games).

I think maybe a deeper problem I have with Thomsen’s review is the subtle implication that the purpose of creation in Mario Maker is to please other players, and in a very particular mode. In part I feel this way because so much of his review relies on his perception — again, not necessarily wholly inaccurate — that these “cacophonous new creations overcrowded with moving platforms, piled-up enemies, and nonsensical clusters of question mark blocks” are “bafflingly opaque, frenzied contraptions that rarely seem to have a purpose.” He really just Does Not Like these user-generated levels.

Rather than trying to establish the authenticity of his claim — which is largely irrelevant as it’s a matter of taste — I want to focus instead on the idea that he is considering Mario Maker as “a game to be played” and that the primary mode of “play” in this instance is to go through levels, continuously comparing them to 30 years of Mario canon.

But Nintendo has gone out of their way to make creation in Mario Maker play in and of itself. Among other things, the tactile-ness of the interface and its reactive audio — I love hearing the auto-tuned voice try to say “question block!” to the tune of the background music when I place one — help make… well, making levels feel like play. Which is, again, part of Gingold’s “magic crayon” scenario.

While a lot of levels are indeed terrible fun house dystopias full of aggressively-placed flying turtles, some of the weirder (even broken) levels are interesting and compelling because of what they try with the engine; pushing its boundaries, testing its limits, sharing the results. Not every level says, to me, “Hey try and finish me with the high score!” Sometimes it says “did you know you can use [x] in this way? Try it!” Sometimes it says “I just got moving platforms and I really want to build something that uses them so I can figure it out.”

Sometimes it says “goombas are really concerned about ethics in games journalism.”

I feel so weird about a review that decries the creative possibility of the software, throwing away any level that doesn’t reach the “Mario standard,” referring to the online collection of levels as “a gaping archive of disposable failures.” I feel weird about a review that has such a prescriptive way of engaging with the tool, one that implies only the already polished have any place using it.

definitely feel weird about a review that says the toolset is “despairingly limited by the mandate that all of your ideas fit in the ‘Mario’ universe” but then refers to the user-created content as “single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.”

As for referring to these failed creations as “cultural refuse” and “bad comedy” and claiming that users who think they would be good at making games because of Mario Maker as indulgent self-deception? Maybe fuck off with your elitist bullshit. I wish I had a fancy argument with citations about this, but I don’t: it’s just a very smug, very dismissive tone that — considering the product being reviewed — is not just unwarranted, but outright insulting.

Ultimately what I wanted from this review wasn’t that it be more in line with my views on Mario Maker, but rather that it be less dismissive of its possibilities just because the product of the game’s first week of user-generated content doesn’t meet the “standards” of existing Mario games.

How hard would it have been to say — as Laura Hudson did — that many of the current levels are often hard to play, or are not mechanically elegant/advanced, and leave it at that? Not very, since I just did.

Instead it had to be about how a democratizing magic crayon is unfaithful to the Mario spirit (whatever that is), about how not being able to reproduce Mario with said crayon results in “cultural refuse,” and how such democratizing tools only make people delusionally capable.

Speaking as a queer person — even a cis white one — and a fat person, I’ve always been in the margins a little bit, always off-center from capital-n Normal by a degree or two. What such people have learned is to make do, to create and expand, to (re-)appropriate, and to use existing tools for our own ends.

To me, it seems as if Thomsen looks down from on high at the rabble doing just that, and… well. I’m perfectly fine down here among the “cultural refuse,” thanks all the same.

[Edit: if you liked this, you should also check out Patricia Hernandez at Kotaku talking about similar stuff; she makes some excellent points that I don’t discuss here, particularly about curation]

4 thoughts on “Teachable Moment

  1. “Nintendo has gone out of their way to make creation in Mario Maker play in and of itself.”

    If that’s true, then u r implicitly agreeing w Thomsen, since play seldom yields tangible, worthwhile outcomes–the fun of it is an end in and of itself (which is OK). Think of a child w a toy, it’s s/he that’s having all the fun…if other kids r around, they’d want to take their turns, too. As to adults, they’d be mostly uninterested, possibly “playing along;” offtering words of approval or encouragement at intervals. The best scenario is that the “magic crayon” creation will 1st & foremost be appreciated by the kid him/herself (hence the refence to ‘egotism’ by Thomsen), followed by family & friends. Again, nothing’s wrong w that. Thomsen is simply refusing to play along, or to fawn over the ‘creativity’ of kids who r not his.

    And u SHOULD feel weird, if u take the “gaping archive of disposable failures” in Thomsen’s review and omit “the few creative levels being lost” just before.

    Perhaps Thomsen’s been amiss & harsh, not so to anyone in person, by name…unlike u, stepping too far as to direct your writing to him using insulting languange (I surely hope u r not used to saying “F*off” to ur poor students!).

    IMO, seeing the many negative comments to his review (likely by people who took issue w their ‘masterpieces’ being broadly belittled), u rode the wave.

    To be clear, intuitive tools–quasi-toys–that capacitate everyone to create–as well as play–their own games is not only a noble, but an attainable, goal. But my own view (and that of the guy u attack) is that we r not there quite yet; not much b/c of the available toolsets–after all, there’s no shortage of game engines that can b learned & mastered (altho more plowing is required in areas such as more automation as well as UI bells & whistles)–but b/c, as u mention, there r to level/game design many and varied layers and skillsets (indeed, mindsets) which the majority of people who jump straight into Mario Maker lack. Like Lego, the possibilities from simplistic to sophisticated constructions are near limitless…it’s the kid who needs to mature a little more.

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