Videogames Without Players


I made a Super Mario Maker level recently called “You Need Two POW Blocks” (7A92-0000-00EB-B2CB). It’s an autoscrolling level, so you can’t go back towards the beginning. At the end of a corridor is a door floating in the air, two grid cells up from the ground. The only way to enter this door is to place two POW blocks on the ground underneath it, one stacked on the other. The only POW blocks on the level, however, are back at the start, and you can only carry one at a time, and you can’t throw a POW block without destroying it. I made this level once I noticed that if a POW block or P-Switch falls on your head while you are already carrying one, it will bounce forward until it lands on the ground. If the player is very careful, they can move a falling POW block by headbutting it down the corridor, and thus end up with two POW blocks at the end of the stage.

mx9uuywThis is probably not a good level, in the sense that no one who has played the stage on Super Mario Maker’s online community is yet to actually complete it. It is frustrating and obtuse, and it is not entirely clear what you are meant to do. Indeed, no one has completed the last four levels I’ve uploaded. Each of them require fairly intricate and fiddly combinations of Super Mario World mechanics that the original game never actually required. On one stage you have to throw a red shell in the air, then do a spin-jump to catch the shell in mid-air and land on a piranha plant to spin-bounce over a canyon with the shell in hand. On that same stage you have to jump on a P-Switch in mid-air, and somehow get a POW block to the top of a beanstalk. Continue reading


On The Beginner’s Guide

I didn’t spend too much time with Davey Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable. I felt like I got it pretty quickly. I did, however, spend quite a lot of time watching students play it and listening to game scholars talk about it. While thematically I found it pretty to-the-point (all choices and agency in videogame play is an illusion), it was quite spectacularly put together. Just really beautiful and clever environment design.

What I couldn’t stand about The Stanley Parable was most of what was said about that game. I have an issue with analyses (especially academic analyses) of games whose themes are incredibly obvious. Suffice to say, I could live the rest of my life without seeing another conference presentation on what The Stanley Parable says about choice or what Papers, Please says about ethics or what This War of Mine says about war. It’s not that I think any of these games are bad, but more that they are games that I guess I don’t think require any thematic analysis. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing! Analysing how they do these things is still worthy (the difficulty of desk space in Papers, Please, for instance) but simply pointing out that The Stanley Parable is about choice just seems… boring and easy. To stress: this isn’t a fault of the games themselves.

I would rather analyse games that aren’t so obviously about a specific thing. Perhaps this is why I end up writing more about blockbuster titles than indie or amateur titles despite the latter two almost always doing something far more interesting. Writing a critical analysis of a blockbuster title is more difficult and thus (for me, anyway) more rewarding.

So on the one hand, writing about Wreden’s second game, The Beginner’s Guide, seems like a pointless thing to do as the game pretty explicitly tells you what it is about. The Beginner’s Guide is games criticism so to analyse it would almost be an excruciatingly meta exercise. My three favourite essays on the game so far (Cameron Kunzelman, Laura Hudson, Cara Ellison) all kind of circle around this challenge in different ways (and each has far more interesting things to say about the game than I do). It is an incredibly meaty game for a game critic to latch onto, but I’m also wary that perhaps that is because it is just too obvious what it is doing and, thus, any further analysis might not even be necessary. Continue reading