The lights are on
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It only seems logical to go right. There’s no other indication on what to do, really. Super Mario Bros. begins with the titular character on the left side of screen, facing right. A mushroom with feet hobbles toward him, leaving no option but to travel in the direction wherein the most screen space appears. The concept arises with little context, but we nevertheless know exactly what to do. The beginning of Super Mario Bros. telegraphs the player’s direction with such clarity that we often take it (and many other moments like it) for granted.
We lack an appreciation for the obvious. We smirk at it like it’s a bad thing, something so plain it hardly warrants consideration. As soon as someone points out the clearly visible, he or she is met with a derogatory “Thanks, Captain Obvious” or something equally derisive and uncreative. We’ve learned to prize subtlety because it’s so carefully concealed, and the prospect of discovery gives us a chance to acknowledge our own skills at astute observation. Such has been the standard for media and academic criticism at large in the past fifty years. It’s an understandable impetus to turn over pages and look for that one thing the author has tucked away, hiding in the shadowed alleys of the novel. Or to similarly approach repeated viewings of our favorite films and television shows in hopes they’ll reveal visual metaphors that only make sense the third time we’ve seen them.
This practice marks a has become the recent trend of ‘reading’ games at the onset of a fairly new movement in games criticism. We prize games like The Last of Us or Gone Home for those elements that aren’t as blatantly assertive — a message scrawled on a wall to build atmosphere, a note hidden in among a pile of books. And we’re right to do so. Hunting to uncover moments of quiet exposition rewards us for our observation as often as it validates the aesthetic values of the creators. While we should never devalue the deftness of subtlety, we should also hesitate to mistake the obvious for laziness or assertive arrogance. Sometimes, the obvious appears because it forces us to consider it, to deal with its presence how best we can, and to (if we’re lucky) marvel at its function.
Since games are an interactive, dynamic medium, they reveal their mechanics with as much clarity as possible. In the early days of console gaming, instruction booklets helped detail controls, but limited buttons rarely required such elucidation—at least until the latter part of the 16-bit era. Since instruction booklets have more or less gone the way of the mammoth, games rely more on blatant mechanical tutorials ranging from the painfully boring, but clear (Assassin’s Creed), to the strangely inventive, but vague (Dark Souls — I still don’t know what all those symbols mean). Though methods of instruction vary, they must rely somewhat on readily apparent contexts.
Super Mario Bros. is nothing if not a digital monument to the obvious, as each move and jump makes perfect contextual sense. To point out why you should stomp on a chomping turtle and kick its shell into an enemy’s path would be pointless. We do it because the game telegraphs this path right in front of us with a line of tap-dancing mushrooms behind that hard-shelled ***, waiting to be knocked over. It’s a concept so plain to see that we engage with it almost mechanically, acting on the world without a need to find nuance in the mechanic.
There’s something undeniably fascinating about how games train us to interact with the obvious. Introductory screens tell us “Press ‘Start’ to Begin,” as if there’s another button more appropriate for the task — though I admit, I’ll always press ‘A’ to see if it works. Game Over screens appear over our digital corpses, even though it’s pretty clear by the depleted health bar and bloodied character that we have to start over again. The old "Continue? "prompts never really felt like options at all, rather like goading jabs at our fumbled attempts. The insinuation was always clear.
Now, we see the obvious more organically merged in environments and character models in ways that dictate gameplay. The chest-high walls littering a digital warzone scream at us with military vulgarity that we had better *** duck and cover, while red barrels appear conspicuously by groups of enemies, peppering the area with fire. An enemy moves in calculable ways to let us know which attack is coming, and though we may have fallen for it seventeen times, by our eighteenth try we know when to roll away to heal. We know what those health kits will do, and we know to check every damn box, cupboard or trash can in hopes we can find some innocuous item to help us out. They lay out obvious formal structures in the way we always know that there’s treasure in some clearly-marked dungeon because the ornate tomb wouldn’t be there otherwise—even if it doesn’t make much sense to hide an enchanted sword in a haunted crypt.
We tend to dismiss such elements because they are so rarely, if ever, elegant. We attribute to them terms like “gameisms,” and do so a bit too pejoratively. Considering these idiosyncrasies as just “things games do” takes away from their significance to how games relay information to the player. The language of video games is a complex and dynamic one, and pushing aside one of its most prevalent aspects shortchanges the varied ways we appreciate them.
What if, instead of disregarding these moments of telegraphed clarity, we embrace them? After all, there’s something accidentally poetic about stating the obvious. We all do it in private and public moments, like remarking on the way a storm comes even though everyone around us already sees the clouds. It only follows that we do it with games as well, remarking about how badass that explosion is that sends enemies flying or cursing in rage when we try to fight a boss that’s so clearly beyond our skill level. Somewhere amid the “This level’s too hard,” the “I can't believe I just *** died,” and the “Holy crap, that worked” we restate in our own words what a game’s already told us, acknowledging how the most transparent moments can turn into the most meaningful.
The obvious is one thing that games do best, not to explain something in the simplest way possible, but to give us information in such a way that we are forced to interact with it. Games pit us against giant enemies or impossibly treacherous platforming sections to say “You had better come prepared.” We know our enemies for their threatening armor and imposing stature. We see a world’s boundaries in the oceans or mountains that border the map, insisting on impassible terrain. Games forcibly point on such things out to us because it’s a medium that requires confrontation.
More often than not, playing games is an exercise in relishing the obvious. It’s how games speak, whisper, or scream their mechanics at us, steering the way we play by telling us what we’re about to face even if we only superficially recognize what that means. Despite all those prized subtleties buried in characters and environments, the medium’s greatest strength may indeed be how it forces us to acknowledge the obstacles in plain sight, not to show itself off, but to remind us why we came to play: to encounter worlds, challenges, and possibilities unavailable outside of virtual space.
So we make the obvious choice. We plan our route to the princess, jumping over mushrooms and turtles to reach the castle clearly marked with a flagpole. We move right.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!