Sunday, December 3, 2017

Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Video Game Interactivity

Close your eyes.  Picture yourself as a plumber.  You are in a world with floating bricks that you want to jump up and destroy.  There are pipes that you think would be fun to slide down.  Evil turtles are running rampant and you’re the one person who can stop them.  All of this stuff happens on the way to saving a princess.  You’re in the world of Nintendo’s Super Mario series, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time.

Nintendo began the franchise in 1981 with the release of Donkey Kong.  That’s not as important as twelve years later.  In 1993, Super Mario Bros. was released, a movie loosely based on the video games.  Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) were two brothers working as plumbers in Brooklyn.  When Luigi’s love, Daisy (Samantha Mathis), was kidnapped by Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson), the brothers travelled to an alternate dimension of Brooklyn to free her from the grasp of King Koopa (Dennis Hopper).

Super Mario Bros. was not a good movie.  It was a mess of ideas with few that actually stuck the landing.  One of the criticisms was that the story strayed too far from the source material.  That’s not completely wrong.  It was much different than the game it was based on.  But it would be difficult to create a direct adaptation.  The games don’t have god stories.  They weren’t designed to tell stories.  They are level after level of jumping on goombas, breaking bricks, and collecting coins.  Adapting the story was not the problem.

What hurt Super Mario Bros. the most was the same thing that hurts most video game movies.  Translating a property to film loses one of the key elements of video games.  The property is no longer interactive.  There is no immersion to be found.  You simply watch something unfold.  That takes away what makes the property fun to its original fan base.
A platformer like a Super Mario game is all about the person with the controller moving the character around.  It’s not about the story.  The player gets to jump around, doing whatever they want the character to do.  The levels get tougher as you progress through the game.  The character dies, but comes back to life so that the player can try again.  The games are catered toward the player’s participation.

It all comes down to letting the player have control.  What happens in the game is up to the player.  If a player makes a wrong move, it’s not only the character that loses.  It is the player’s loss as well.  If a character in a movie loses, they lose.  The viewer might be sad, but they’re safe because they don’t have any control.  They are separate from the character.  In a video game, the character and the player are one.  The character is the avatar for the player.  The character is how the player enters that world.

This concept of interaction is especially true of arcade games and mobile games where, many times, there is no story at all.  Nobody cares about the characters.  It’s about how you play the game.  It might be easier for filmmakers to write something with the freedom of not needing to stay close to the source material.  However, the source material is entirely about the interactive element.  Making a movie loses that.  Look at The Angry Birds Movie.  Was anybody clamouring for a movie based on a game where you slingshot birds at pigs?  Probably not.  They managed to write a story that gave a background to the feud between birds and green pigs, but they couldn’t recapture the interactivity of placing your finger on your phone screen, pulling back the bird, and letting them fly into the pigs’ building.  They never could.
Multiplayer games bring in a whole other issue.  The whole idea of multiplayer games are to compete against your friends (or in co-op games, work with them).  Everyone playing the game gets immersed in it to the point of being the characters themselves.  Anyone can play any character in a multiplayer game.  It’s more about the person handling the character than the avatar themselves.  Whether it’s a LAN party, or online play, you are actively participating in a game with your friends.  Actively is the key word in that sentence.

Take a popular game from my childhood, Goldeneye.  It was a game based on the James Bond film.  What is remembered most about that game is the multiplayer first person shooter mode.  You could go up against your friends in a hide-and-seek style gunfight.  Now, compare this to the movie.  You and your friends can’t compete against each other in watching the movie.  You just sit there and watch the movie.  The game kept your group of friends actively trying to defeat each other.  The movie took away the active aspects and had you sitting there in silence watching Pierce Brosnan battle Sean Bean.  Both could be entertaining.  Once just had much more interactivity than the other.
You might be wondering why I haven’t brought up any of the more cinematic recent games.  I’ve kept mostly to the side of gaming that doesn’t have much story.  Whether it’s the Super Mario platformer, the Angry Birds style mobile games, or the Goldeneye style multiplayer, there’s not much story to bring to screen.  There are hints at story, but they’re just enough to give reason as to why the game is happening.  Good guy and bad guy type stuff.  That’s the same for fighters like Mortal Kombat or DOA: Dead or Alive.  There’s enough story to bring characters together to fight, but people are playing for the fighting, not the story.  There are games that are much more story based now, and they haven’t yet been discussed.

The thing about these cinematic games is that they still have an interactive aspect to them.  Games like Uncharted tell a linear story, but let the player participate in what happens.  The player moves the character from one point to another through the story, being a part of the action, puzzle solving, and adventure.  Some games, like Until Dawn and the whole myriad of Telltale games give the players some freedom in choosing how the story plays out.  They bring up choices.  The players make decisions that influence how certain beats in the story play out.  They’re the “choose your own adventure” of video games.  There’s still an adventure set up, the path just changes based on the player.

This façade of player influence is completely removed when these stories are brought to film.  People who love these types of video games always feel like something gets lost during translation.  That something is the sense that the players are guiding the story, when they are merely pushing it forward.  They feel more interactive than they usually are.  Because the choices are big choices, the players think that they have been a bigger part of the story than they actually are, though, in the end, the story still ends up at the same point.  These games are very much like movies.  They simply act like video games, allowing the smallest amount of interaction.
An argument could be made that a good story is a good story and it shouldn’t matter how the story is told.  If it’s good, people will flock to it.  There are many movies based on books that have found critical success and become favourites of filmgoers.  There’s a difference between books being adapted into movies and video games being adapted into movies.  That difference is the one thing I’ve been writing about through this whole post.  Video games are more interactive.  Books tell a story and you go along for the ride.  In a video game, the player either shapes the story or feels like they do.  At the very least, they push it forward.  With a book or a movie, the characters, not the readers/viewers, push the story forward.  Perhaps it is this interaction element that keeps video games from being adapted well into movies.

Super Mario Bros. was a movie with many problems.  The producers and directors had different ideas of what the movie should be.  The stars were constantly drunk.  People were getting injured.  It was a mess of a production.  But maybe, just maybe, it never stood a chance.  Maybe video games can’t be properly adapted.  The interaction is what makes them special.  Removing that to make a movie removes an essential part of the video gaming experience.  Perhaps that’s why there has never been a video game based movie that has been considered great.
These notes probably won’t be considered great, but they’re here anyway:

  • Here’s the original post for Super Mario Bros.
  • Mortal Kombat and DOA: Dead or Alive were mentioned in the post.  So was James Bond.  I’ve covered Die Another Day from that franchise.
  • Frank Welker did some voice work for Super Mario Bros.  He was involved in Anaconda, Mortal Kombat, Hudson Hawk, and GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords.
  • Kevin West’s third Sunday “Bad” Movies appearance was in Super Mario Bros.  He was also in Bio-Dome and Santa with Muscles.
  • Before appearing in the Sunday “Bad” Movies in Super Mario Bros., John Leguizamo had been featured in The Happening.  He was once again featured in last week’s movie, American Ultra.
  • Richard Edson, who played Spike in Super Mario Bros., was in Howard the Duck.
  • Lance Henrickson’s late Super Mario Bros. role was his second Sunday “Bad” Movies appearance after Monster Brawl.
  • Super Mario Bros. was the second time that Dan Castellaneta was in a Sunday “Bad” Movie.  The first time was Fant4stic.
  • Bob Hoskins played Mario Mario in Super Mario Bros.  Another film role he had was in Son of the Mask.
  • Finally, Fisher Stevens played Iggy.  He was in Movie 43.
  • Have you seen Super Mario Bros.?  What are your thoughts about it?  What do you think about video games being adapted into movies?  If you want to discuss any of this, the comments section is open.
  • Any suggestions that you have for future Sunday “Bad” Movies could also be placed in the comments.  That way, I might discover some movies I don’t know about.  Twitter is another place to reach me.
  • If you want to see clips of the bad movies I watch, add me on snapchat (jurassicgriffin).  Many times, while watching bad movies, I’ll share bits and pieces in my story.
  • Next week marks the first week or year six of the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  As such, I chose a movie that is of no importance.  It’s just a movie like any other week.  Santa’s Slay will be featured next week.  I’m looking forward to it and I’m looking forward to what the next five years will bring.  See you then.

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