Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Manufacturing Enjoyment? (with apologies to Walter Lippmann)

So, this morning I woke up and came down to campus, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the second minor snow New York's gotten this year.

That honestly didn't rhyme the way I originally typed it, but see what happened? Sorry about that.

And I'm only partially sure about this "second snow" thing. We had this bizarre out-of-nowhere flurry in late October, I think, and that's the only other one. This one seems to have spent itself for the moment, but looks like we're due for more "rain/snow" this afternoon. Meaning flakes + wet, gross sidewalks. Oh, New York, how I love you!

This is all almost beside the point, because what I'm really interested in this morning, after a thread at Gamespite's forums sparked a few thoughts, is this question: why are there so many ice/snow/winter levels in video games? Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 and arguably the original SMB all have one, as does almost every other Super Mario Bros. game. So does Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game for the NES. Sonic 3 has one; Donkey Kong Country has one; Metal Gear Solid basically is one. Lots of adventure games and RPGs have an ice section, including the ice cave shoehorned (sorry; it was!) into Ocarina of Time and the incredible Snowpeak Mountain Mansion in Twilight Princess, the aptly named Winters in Earthbound, Phendrana Drifts in Metroid Prime, and Death Peak in Chrono Trigger.

I'm tempted to assume that it's just an easy way to throw some visual variety into games that would otherwise be dominated by green and brown, and honestly, that's probably not inaccurate. Mario games in particular are known for their almost elemental stages: desert levels, water levels, fire levels. Again, this could be a matter of visual interest: desert levels use lots of yellow; water levels use lots of blue; fire levels use lots of red and orange. These swaps of huge swathes of the palette do create what amounts to an artificial feeling of variety; they also come with all sorts of associations that make for easy categorizing and theming. But come on, it's so much more fun to dig a little deeper and come up with a more interesting if not necessarily more correct answer. Let's just assume that it's not just convenience. What would that mean?

Well, I kind of suspect that if we deny ourselves the obvious assumption, winter levels may be a clever, perhaps even a subconscious, way of playing on the ways we think about things like color and time. I've mentioned that there are these "elemental" levels in the Mario games; the 3D Zelda games have much the same thing going on; the first Metroid Prime does this too. There's a lot of emphasis in all of these series on the tie between colors and certain kinds of environments, and indeed we might take these connections as suggestive of particular elements--not quite the ancient elements of earth, fire, air, water, but something fundamental. Certainly they seem to suggest certain crucial ecosystems. For instance, both Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess start off with a trio of dungeons that have something important to do with, in order, plant life, fire, and water. Ocarina of Time hammers in the connections to these elements later on with yet more forest, fire, and water temples, all explicitly and chromatically associated with their respective elements, but the early dungeons in Twilight Princess form a clear progression that's synced up with a color palette that moves from green to red to blue. Thinking back to Ocarina, Link is in the first three dungeons collecting gems colored green, red, and blue. Even Wind Waker has a forest dungeon and a fire dungeon.

Each major Zelda installment (and I'm only somewhat unfairly excluding Majora's Mask when I say this) seems to be playing more and more with the series' set of conventions, to the point that many have said that Twilight Princess is essentially a remake of Ocarina of Time. I really do think a lot of this perception comes from the games' persistent connection of color to concept. And these concepts that are deployed in the games work well because we already believe in the kinds of worlds Nintendo's able to concoct. A desert world should be predominantly yellow, mostly rounded because of all the sand dunes, should have a bright sky, should feel dry, etc. An ice world should be predominantly white, might have some craggy rocks or ice crystals or perhaps some rounded snow drifts, should feel dry but crisp, etc. A forest world should be mostly green, have lots of dirt and stumps and trunks and branches, should have dim lighting because of the forest canopy, and should feel somewhat moist. All of these ideas come out in many of the desert, ice, or forest worlds we encounter in modern, sophisticated video games.

But where things get kind of strange is in games where these ideas come into close contact with each other, which I suppose means pretty much any game. Something like Metroid Prime seems almost odd, because you can take perhaps five minutes and travel from the lush, green overworld of Tallon to the fiery underworld of Magmoor to the wintry landscape of Phendrana Drifts. I realize that the overworld of Twilight Princess is supposed to be huge, but if you're thinking too literally about the game's spaces, it can feel quite strange to travel only a short distance and go from a beautiful, quiet lake scene to a cold, harsh alpine environment. The environments in Mario games have always been connected arbitrarily; if there's one message you can take away from the way Mario moves from world to world in one of the 3D games like Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy, it's that this is a Mario game, and Nintendo doesn't particularly care (and hasn't ever cared) if you think there's a natural progression to the levels or not.

Still, I think we sort of need these things in our games. I realize that I've brought the point back to where I started, and I'm running the risk of creating a circular argument wherein the very fact that these differentiated worlds exist means that we need them. Yes: what I seem to be setting up here is a theory of manufactured enjoyment, an internally defined and enforced regime of comfort gaming propagated by Nintendo and other publishers. But that's not what I'm saying. It's always possible to get out of these circles by saying that the system came about and continues because it works. Yes, its continuation depends on its original instantiation; it wouldn't be here if Nintendo (et al) hadn't decided it was a great way to design games. But that doesn't mean it's not an aesthetic decision that resonates strongly with Nintendo's audience. Nintendo probably would not exist today if it weren't for the staying power of its major franchises, and I suspect that a lot of those games' success relies on their ability to touch their audience. Furthermore, I don't think Nintendo would have stuck with this wonderful system, seen first in Super Mario Bros. 2 but really raised to an art form in Super Mario Bros. 3 and later games, if it hadn't been for the fact that this progression of colors and elements and concepts didn't appeal to something embedded deep in the human psyche.

So here's the thing. Basically, a good game takes a fair amount of time and effort to finish, right? Something like Twilight Princess takes, what, sixty hours or so for the average mortal to complete? But even something like Super Mario Bros. 2 felt long in its proper context, and that game, of course, is intended to be finished in a single sitting. These games take commitment, particularly a time commitment. We need these sign posts of advancement, these markers that show a movement from the part of the game world we're leaving behind to the part we're entering. These connections of colors and ideas, these webs of association, work the way they do because in some sense we need a game to feel like real life; we need games to have visual cues tied to progression, the same way that the natural world does. Most of us use manmade rhythms to understand the passage of time. Many people are students or educators who use the school calendar as an index of movement. Some people are in business and rely on the fiscal year calendar to understand progress (or a lack thereof). But almost all of us (inhabitants of equatorial or polar regions excepted, I guess) understand the world's natural rhythm of seasons, a rhythm that is itself a mixture of colors and associations. The brilliance of winter levels in video games is that they represent a piece of the actual cycle of seasons we live within, and so they produce a significant link between the artificial world of video games we are trying to understand each time we play and the real world we understand better.

Which might just explain what's so great about playing winter levels, if you're into those.

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