Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“But What Does It All Mean?”: Lacanian Reading and Video Games (Part II)

Borromean RingsOK, let's back up and take a look at what I just did. In brief, I wrote a basic little analytical essay about Super Mario Bros., drawing conclusions about it based upon what I could glean about Shigeru Miyamoto's inspirations and worldviews and the actual text of the game. I started off talking about how Dave Sheff recounts elements of Miyamoto's biography, and then I took that information and dovetailed it into an essay in which I essentially argue that Super Mario Bros. is a piece of radical deconstructivist commentary on the video game medium and player's expectations circa 1985 and, furthermore, serves as an outlet for Shigeru Miyamoto to share experiences and emotions with an audience. What I've done is constructed an argument consciously and explicitly out of the first two layers of a Lacanian reading: The actual text and authorial intent. There is, however, a bit more work to be done because there is, of course, a third level to this analysis.

The third level is perhaps the most difficult to come to terms with as it is fluid and defies easy explanatory devices: It is the way in which the text resonated with its audience. Put another way, it's what the text means to the individual reader. This is the part that probably isn't taught in most English classes (though talented ones can implicitly foster it) as it cannot be quantitatively measured or tested: It directly calls upon the reader's positionality, that is the unique set of preconceptions, associations and experiences that any given reader, and only that given reader, brings to the discussion table. What does the text mean to you? What did you, personally, take away from it? This to me is the most revelatory part of the theory Felman, via Lacan, outlines and when joined to the other sides creates a powerful dynamic reaction that yields practically limitless explanatory power. Because then, and only then, can we finally tease out what any given text actually means: By looking at it in the context of these three dynamically interacting spheres. Meaning isn't one thing that a text inherently has: It's not something that the author “hid” under layers of irritating, obfuscating metaphors and symbols and is cruelly making you “dig up” and “unearth”. No, meaning is an intangible and ever-changing thing that is generated by the act of reading itself through the dynamic interaction of these three core principles.

I've already touched upon this third sphere to an extent already: Much of the leverage I have to claim Super Mario Bros. is a work of radical deconstructive game design in the previous essay is because that's what it plays like to me. This isn't something Miyamoto has expressly confirmed, but it's present and noticeable to me when I put it in the cultural context of the time. It's also something other critics have picked up on, so I'm not the only one to notice it. To continue my argument, I should logically now explain to you what the game says to me as a playerXreader. I could now rattle off a few comfortable paragraphs about how I interpret Miyamoto's vision within the context of the game, but there's an additional wrinkle here: This is Super Mario Bros. In many ways, this is the game that single-handedly made me fall in love with the medium and showed off its full potential for creative and artistic expression. It is impossible for me to disentangle it from my own childhood memories of staring with rapture at a hazy 1980s television set and having my life changed forever. So, for me to do this properly, I have to do a bit of reminiscing and autobiography.


This story begins, as many of my formative ones do, with my cousins. They lived about six hours away so we didn't see them very often, but whenever we did it was an occasion. This was my first time visiting them at their newer house (I hesitate to say "new" because they had lived there for quite some time and we'd just never visited). Not long after arriving and settling in, my oldest cousin (who had first exposed me to video games in the first place via the Game Boy he always had on him when he travelled and brought whenever he visited us, but that's another story) urged me to come upstairs to his game room so he could show me something cool. It was his Nintendo Entertainment System, the original one with the wonky side-loading cartridge system that broke down when you looked at it funny. The first game he wanted to show me was Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, a special pack combining the game we've been spending a great deal of time talking about with the surprisingly excellent and accurate (for the time) skeet shooting simulator Duck Hunt.

That single event is permanently etched into my mind it was so important to me. To this day I can remember the exact look and layout of that house to the tiniest detail: The sprawling suburb in which it was situated, the diminutive front yard, the big open first floor, the deck leading out to the pool and the backyard, the spiral staircase, the long corridor upstairs and the bright games room (made even brighter by the vibrant summer sunshine pouring in through the large window to the right) with the fuzzy 1980s television sitting on top of the entertainment centre with the NES beneath it and the stack of games in the long file beneath the bed.

Super Mario Bros. was by no means the first video game I'd ever played, but it had an effect on me unlike almost any I'd played up to that point. Super Mario Bros. was literally unlike anything I'd ever played before and for very subtle and specific reasons. I'd played sidescrollers and platformers before and I certainly knew who Mario was (I'd played a few of his earliest games beforehand) so the actual gameplay was nothing particularly revelatory. What Super Mario Bros. did that I'd never seen a video game do before was exude an atmosphere, a sense of place and of emotion from every single detail. The first thing that struck me was how vibrant, warm and inviting the game's colour palette was, full of striking blues, greens, reds, pinks and oranges. There was literally no other game that looked like it: Every other game I was familiar with was in black and white, grey-scale or that classic arcade dark psychedelic vector neon that's a vibe unto itself. Super Mario Bros., helped in no small part by the lush summer sun pouring in through the open window and reflecting off the trees and grass outside, felt young, fresh and full of life.

Whole articles could, and have, been written about Super Mario Bros.'s theme song alone. It's a positively enchanting and infectious Calypso/Latin fusion piece that was surprisingly musically complex for its time. Like the colour palette, it was like nothing else at the time, coming into a world of 8-bit techno beats, brief little jingles and games that were silent save for scratchy laser blasts, explosions and bleeps. The Super Mario Bros. theme, like all good songs, sets a mood and uses music to paint a picture in the mind. Combined with the games already bright visual style, the song melds with the other aspects of the game to build a mood with magnificent nuance and elegance. The Mushroom Kingdom is not overtly tropical in climate, but Super Mario Bros. is simply made of dazzling, summery emotions and a sense of wonder and youthful joy. Despite its nigh-infinite number of remixes, covers, adaptations and samples, not to mention copious usage in other games, the best possible way to listen to the song outside Super Mario Bros. proper is to find a steel pan trio playing it: It simply feels right.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the world of Super Mario Bros. that struck me is that it *changed*: After the initial level sets you up for a pseudo-tropical romp, Level 2 dumps you in what amounts to a sewer. Level 3 returns you to the surface, but makes you clamber over soaring cliffs. The fourth level of every world (and the fact that Super Mario Bros. has eight “worlds” made up of four “Levels” each made it seem indescribably large and sprawling for the time) is a dank castle with fire sticks, lava pits and giant fire-breathing monsters. Some levels even take place at night, which was something I'd also never seen done before. As the game progress into its later levels, the overworld itself changes seeming to get paler and harsher the further you get (trees turn from green to white, for example) as if Mario and Luigi are steadfastly moving north. This culminated in one level set in what seemed to be a frozen tundra at night where everything has a sleek, white sheen. It even snowed onscreen! The fact that this gorgeous snow effect was, as my cousin later informed me, a result of his hand-me-down television going on the fritz instead of some genius design decision by Miyamoto did little to take away from the magic of playing through that level the first time. Temperamental television or no, the fact remains that all of this came together to make Super Mario Bros. the first game I played that felt like it took place in a cohesive, living, breathing world, which made exploring its various secrets all the more substantial and enjoyable.

Super Mario Bros. for me than is an absolute triumph of game design and playing it was one of the most important moments of my life. Because of it, I really started to see what video games had to offer as a medium. With Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto gives us his first, and arguably still best, master stroke: Using brilliantly nuanced game design to put the joy of exploring, of living in wonder and just plain living front and centre and allowing someone like me to experience it in the bright, naturally lit games room at my cousin's house the same way he himself experienced it so many years ago as a child in the city streets or the forests behind his Kyoto home.

Because that's what he's done, of course. He's created a work that is a reflection of his personal feelings and viewpoints that has successfully recreated for countless people around the world the very sensations and experiences that helped make him into the person he became. In other words, Miyamoto, through Super Mario Bros., has actually literalized the Lacanian concept of reading as a fundamental tenant of his game design philosophy: The authorial intent is obvious, but the fact that the text of the game allows players to actually discover and feel such things on their own through the agency the medium provides indicates Miyamoto is aware of positionality and how to exploit it to share experiences with his audience. This is the true potential of video games as a medium of artistic expression in my view: It's one thing to tell a story with heroic characters you relate to about themes you care about, but to actually be able to share an experience, share an emotion, and have the reader be able to not just witness it but experience it themselves, that's something else altogether, and something almost unique to video games in my opinion.


What I've done here is use my experiences with Super Mario Bros. to make another argument-In this case that video games are inherently, literally Lacanian (at least ones with skilled designers. There are exceptions, but I'm not ready to discuss those yet) The reason I spent so much time talking about my personal relationship with the game is not just for me to indulge in misty-eyed nostalgia: My history with the game, and crucially my history of experiences dating from before the point at which I picked it up for the first time, is essential to understanding the positionality I inhabited as I played it, how my positionality shifted after I played it and crucially, how that affected the way I read it.

Positionality is key to utilising the third sphere of Lacanian reading as Felman describes it, because it's only through getting ahold of one's associations, relations and preconceptions that we are able to understand how any given reader will respond to a text. In my case, Super Mario Bros. dramatically shifted my conception of what video games were capable of, and is probably why I'm sitting here writing this now. So, if you're looking for someone to blame for my incoherent academic gobbledygook blame Shigeru Miyamoto. Well, and Jacques Lacan. And Shoshana Felman. And my philosophy teacher who introduced me to both. And my Anthropology professor who set me on the path to joining this field. And...

Which brings us to the real delicious irony of this whole thing: Reading is not just one act, but the chaotic interaction of many and varied acts, individuals and texts. I just spent a series of essays writing about Shigeru Miyamoto (whom I understand primarily through what Dave Sheff wrote about him in a book I read) through tools I learned from Shoshana Felman who learned them from Jacques Lacan, who was resolute in his claim that he was doing nothing more than reading Sigmund Freud, which I read because my professor read them and thought I should as well. Not to mention the fact large portions of this series have been dedicated to me reading and analysing myself, and you reading me as I do that. Somewhere in this grand, beautiful symphonic cacophony and language and discourse is meaning. But meaning is, as I've claimed, not one thing, but a mutable, ethereal series of concepts dynamically generated by the interaction of three forces and countless subjects whenever anyone reads anything.

This then is finally how we can judge whether any given reading is “valid”: The addition of the third sphere would, at cursory glance, seem to render all analyses into exercises in futile relativism, but rather what it does instead is give us a more nuanced way to practise it. All we need to do to determine whether a reading is valid or not is to weigh how it utilises the three spheres against itself. For example, I can claim Super Mario Bros. is a work of radical deconstructive game design that literalizes the concept of Lacanian meaning to recreate for players the experiences of exploration and discovery treasured by Shigeru Miyamoto. I can do this because I've (hopefully) provided enough evidence from both what is on record about Miyamoto's intent, my personal experiences with reading it and the actual text itself to back up my claim. I couldn't, however, claim Super Mario Bros. is about a magical flying hamster who soars through Candy Land turning clouds into doughnuts to fight Communism because there is absolutely nothing in the game or what Miyamoto said about it that could remotely be used to support such an assertion, no matter what my personal experiences might be. One is a valid interpretation, the other isn't. One constitutes a legitimate reading of the text, the other is me reading the text wrong.

On the other hand, this is also why no-one can claim I am "reading too much" into a simple video game from 1985 or "picking up on things that aren't there", because the very act of ever reading anything is inherently bound by these forces and interactions. These are the conclusions to which I have arrived at via my history of reading things, and not just video games, as texts from a particular positionality. This then is the core of analysis for me, and the tool set by which I'm going to approach anything else I do on this blog.

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