Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Mario and Surrealism

Better start off as I mean to continue, so here's a response to the first Idea Channel video, Super Mario Brothers is the World's Greatest Piece of Surrealist Art.

For those of you who don't know, Surrealism is an art movement that basically involves the combination of things that make absolutely no sense being together, which somehow creates a cohesive whole of sorts: it might not make any concrete sense, but its dream-like structure makes it seem plausible, as it were. The video makes the point that describing the things that can be found in the Mario games sound like the drunken ramblings of an insane person. Let's try it, shall we?
In the course of his adventures, Mario games include:

  • Headbutting bricks, causing showers of coins or mushrooms. 
  • Eating certain flowers that makes Mario breathe fire. 
  • A furry suit that allows Mario to fly. 
  • Birdo. Just Birdo. 
By themselves, those elements would indeed seem surreal. But I have a hard time buying that Mario and Luigi truly count as surrealist inventions. 

For context, my parents love Dali. We have at least ten of his paintings scattered about the house and I've grown up with them for almost my entire life, so he's pretty much my reference point when it comes to the surrealist movement. As such, I found myself almost automatically dismissing Mario games as surrealist, despite the compelling argument made in Idea Channel, because in comparison Mario feels too "normal". I guess that might seem a weird thing, but hear me out. For me, the surreal elements of Mario are essentially window dressing; they might be big elements of how you play through the game, but you could easily change them out for something else and the core elements would be pretty much unchanged. The core element of a Mario game is that it has a clear, defined goal: save the Mushroom Kingdom and/or rescue Princess Peach. There you have two of the seven basic plots, "Overcoming the Monster" and "The Quest", at their most basic. While there are many weird and colourful characters in the Mario universe, of the main four (Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser) there are three humans, and the only non-human is the series' main bad guy, who you sort of expect to be monstrous in some way. Get rid of the surreal elements and you have possibly the most basic conflict and set of goals that it is possible to have. I would argue that it would probably be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to make a truly surreal game, as it would involve a lack of goals to pursue; if there is no aim to the game, then surely it ceases to be a game at all? With visual arts, surrealism is easier to achieve, as the role and mechanics of art is a lot less rigid: while a piece of art could well have a meaning or purpose in the mind of the artist that created it, this meaning can be challenged by observers of the piece, who would then supplant that meaning with their own. Each interpretation of a piece is equally valid, creating a multitude of potential outcomes and thus obliterating any chance of defining what the goal of any one piece is. In the case of Mario, the visuals may well be surreal, but a game is not purely visuals alone and should not be treated as such. Thus, Mario is made less surreal through the inclusion of the linear plot and clear definition of player aims. 

I hope that I didn't end up repeating myself, and I hope that whoever reads this enjoyed it. Any comments would be welcome. 

Signing off, 

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