Andrew Stanton, the writer and director behind WALL-E, Finding Nemo, all three Toy Story’s, and several other beloved Pixar movies, began his 2012 TED Talk with a story:
“A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there are a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while. And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, ‘You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the country. Gave it more love and care than my own child. But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.’ Points out the window. ‘You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.’ Points out the window. ‘You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No.
“But you fuck one goat…’”
After the audience’s laughter died down, Andrew continued: “Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.”
By this definition, Super Mario Maker contains some of the greatest—and funniest—stories that I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Part of what makes jokes so rewarding to hear is the shared understanding between the teller and the receiver. The “ah-ha!” moment of suddenly comprehending an obtuse punchline feels great—not only does the audience feel smart for “solving” it, they also get a sense of being closer to the comedian on a really personal level. Through poking fun at the common experiences that all people go through in day to day life, we’re able to realize that, hey, we’re not so different after all. Almost nothing feels better than sharing a laugh with a close friend.
Playing a fun Mario Maker level gives me a very similar feeling to hearing a hilarious joke, and a large reason why this works is because every aspect of its design is pulled from the universal (to Nintendo fans, at least) language of Mario objects. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to jump on Goombas and collect coins. When these rules are subverted within a given user-created course—when you go to hit a power-up block and, instead of receiving a fire flower, are greeted with a giant flaming Bowser—you can almost hear the level’s creator yelling “Gotcha!” as she smirks at you falling for the trap.
Working your way through a well-designed Mario course is like having a dialogue with its creator. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been dancing my way through a difficult level’s hazards, only to have my jump arc blocked at a crucial moment by an invisible block intentionally placed in the perfect spot to screw me over. “You bastard!” I cry out to the game, as if the level’s author will receive my psychically-projected rage from thousands of miles away. Whether he speaks English, Japanese, or any other language, we both understand exactly what’s happened here—no written text necessary.
As with any language, Super Mario Maker can (and hopefully will) be used for much more than joke telling as the artists who wield it grow more skilled. Koopas will be their apostrophes; 1-up mushrooms, their semi-colons. Right now we’re seeing a lot of Companion Cube-esque tales of casting the beloved Yoshi into a bottomless pit in order to make an otherwise impossible jump. I once played a level where I had to utilize a deathly-fast spiny shell to navigate a series of obstacles, which seemed to be a metaphor for some kind of painfully fun short-term relationship.
The gaming community has not yet explored the full range of emotions that might be possible to convey using Super Mario Maker, and it’s hard to say if they ever will. Either way, I think it’s beautiful that a game exists which allows people to communicate through the pure language of game mechanics, and I very much hope that it inspires a future generation of game designers to attempt the same with their own interactive experiences. Games don’t tell stories; games are stories. To this day, no one understands that better than good ol’ Mario and the people—now numbering in the millions—who design his levels.