Super Mario 3D Land: Narrative and Gaming | 2013-03-04
I wrote this essay for class. It could use some more depth (~600 words as per instructions for the assignment) but I liked it so I'm posting it here.
Dr. Kevin Moberly
English 395 - Gaming
20 February 2013
In Super Mario 3D Land it is possible to apply typical narratology to explain the actions of the player and Mario. Mario runs quickly, jumps over obstacles, cuts corners and chooses to just narrowly avoid danger because the quickest path is through the enemy. What is Mario's motivation? Princess Peach is in danger. Later, he flees from his shadow, dodging it throughout the level, but it slowly gains on him. Does the shadow represent time? Does it represent an imminent death for Mario and, by extension, Peach? Does it represent his past failures? Guilt? It could be all of these things, but there is more to Mario than this. The narrative criteria of film and literature do not explore the full capabilities of video games (Eskelinen). Super Mario 3D Land illustrates the shortcomings of applying narrative theory to video games by introducing friction.
Traditional narrative elements such as plot and characters are presented by the game and used by players to discuss and rationalize the subtle emotions in every specific action in the level. As Murray argues, "storytelling is a core human activity" (3), and so we use these elements to describe game feelings. However, since stories require "linear and fixed structures," narrative may not be the best way to describe video games (Hua 2). Narratology lacks the terminology to discuss what it feels like to be Mario, struggling to stay upright on a rotating cylindrical treadmill while positioning towards an odd-angle jump at a precise corner of the next platform. This is the narration of friction.
Within "In Praise Of Sticky Friction" Tim Rogers defines the various frictions found in games (Rogers). Friction is what gives games a feeling. When Mario changes direction quickly and slides for several milliseconds, that is sticky friction. Sticky friction gives weight to Mario's actions. It is what induces players to tense their muscles and jerk the controller while performing a tricky jump.
3D Land is full of friction which players intuitively understand. It is only when the player steps back from the game that she constructs a narrative to understand the "lesson" being taught. By creating an "object-based narrative that relies on a player's interpretive activity" players give games a meaning that can be communicated using a formal structure of narrative (Arnott 434). In the heat of the moment, however, friction is all that is understood. Players stick, swish, chunk, grease, jerk, grip, and snap their way through the level.
An expert tactic in 3D Land is the long jump. While running, holding either shoulder button on the 3DS will make Mario slide in a crouched position for a moment (sticky friction). If the player presses the jump button during this slide, Mario jerks forward in a straight-line, low-arc jump. The long jump has a specific distance and time wherein the fate of Mario is out of the player's hands (swish friction). The moment Mario lands, if the crouch button is still held, the player can initiate another long jump.
Chaining long jumps together, along with all the other maneuvers that are determined by levels such as wall jumps, side jumps, corner landings, and dives makes for a thrilling compound of frictions. An expert player will know to not stop jumping, thereby intensifying the friction. These pieces of friction are patterns that train the brain to interpret and use without the aid of narrative (Koster 37). Super Mario 3D Land becomes a puzzle in which the player must piece together different frictions to achieve a stylish level completion.
Super Mario 3D Land demonstrates the ways in which narrative theory fails to describe the messages that games communicate. Narrative can be constructed by setting and other ancillary elements to the game. However, to understand the raw emotions delivered by friction, decidedly non-narrative structures are needed.
Arnott, Luke. "Unraveling Braid: Puzzle Games and Storytelling in the Imperative Mood." Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 32.6 (2012): 433-440. Sage Journals. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Eskelinen, Markku. "Towards Computer Game Studies." Electronic Book Review. 22 May 2004. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/anticolonial>.
Hua, Qin, Pei-Luen Patrick Rau, and Gavriel Salvendy. "Measuring Player Immersion In The Computer Game Narrative." International Journal Of Human-Computer Interaction 25.2 (2009): 107-133. Computers & Applied Sciences Complete. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, 2005. Print.
Murray, Janet, Pat Harrigan, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. "Cyberdrama." First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 1-33. Print.
Rogers, Tim. "In Praise Of Sticky Friction." Kotaku. 8 June 2010. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://kotaku.com/5558166/in-praise-of-sticky-friction>.