A lot is made these days about the new social revolution in videogames. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Games used to mainly be a solitary experience for socially reclusive, nerdy kids who preferred sitting in a dark basement to interacting with the outside world, but today’s online first-person shooters and massively multiplayer RPGs allow gamers to come out of the basement and forge relationships in the warm cathode light of LAN parties and dungeon raids.
Anyone who actually grew up with games knows this is a bunch of hooey. Social interaction has always been a part of gaming. From drunken frat boys betting on Pong tournaments to school kids fighting side by side as Ninja Turtles to crowds of eager teens placing their coins on a weathered Street Fighter 2 cabinet, the socializing influence of multiplayer games predates recent telecommunications advances by decades.
But discussions of the deep, personal connections that can be made through multiplayer gaming usually gloss over the deep, personal connections that can also be made through single player gaming. In fact, one single player game in particular helped me connect to two of the most important people in my life – and I didn’t even realize it until I played Super Mario 64 DS.
Let me preface this by saying I’m a fan of Super Mario 64 the same way that Picasso was a fan of painting. This was a game I had happily spent hundreds of hours playing, watching, talking about and even writing at length about. So, the idea of a portable Nintendo DS remake of the game was exciting, to say the least. But, once I actually got my hands on the game, the initial thrill of a portable, 3-D Mario experience quickly gave way to boredom.
I tried to blame my sudden disinterest on any number of mitigating factors – the portable version’s difficult controls, the crushing weight of my own high expectations, the numbing passage of time and experience. But when I really analyzed it, one thing made playing Super Mario 64 on the small screen so much less fun for me than playing it on the big one:
The lack of other people.
When my sister was five, she would find nearly any excuse to spend time with her big brother. For a few months after I got Super Mario 64, this usually meant sitting and watching me work toward 120 stars while she tried in vain to get me to play with her instead. Sure, she would watch with mild interest as I played through Tick Tock Clock for what probably seemed like the millionth time, but the way she saw it, she was battling for attention with the little plumber on the screen.
But the tables turned once she saw the game’s ending. Anyone who has seen it can probably imagine the delight it can give a five year old girl. The soaring music; the beautiful princess descending from the heavens; the rising flock of birds; the chaste kiss and the swooning hero; the giant cake; the ending sequence amazed and delighted my sister like nothing before (or possibly since).
Thus, for the next three years of my life, the words “Save the princess, Kyle” became a common refrain in my house. This one goal usurped all others in the game, from my sister’s perspective. She had no interest in seeing Mario run through the desert, or fly through the air, or swim underwater. Who had time to waste time on such things? There were princesses to be saved!
And I was the one to save them. Again. And again. And again. Until the vagaries of the level were seared into my subconscious. Sure, I had other games to play, and other things to do, but the smile on my sister’s face as she watched that ending sequence seemed like a good enough reason to put them off. After all, there were princesses to be saved! And I was the one to save them. Again. And again …
When I met the love of my life in the fall of 2000, she had barely touched a controller in a decade. Like every kid in America in the ’80s, she had owned an NES, but somewhere in the intervening years she had let the gaming world pass her by. I was determined to bring her back into this world, as much out of a desire to be with her as a desire to validate the last 10 years of my life. So, after an initial courtship (in which I downplayed my videogame obsession to an absurd degree), I made a case for her to try out my favorite game, Super Mario 64.
To say she took to it would be an understatement. Every chance we had some time together would be another chance for her to suggest we break out the good old Nintendo 64. At first, I was overjoyed that this wonderful woman took so easily to my favorite game, but the joy quickly turned to frustration for me, usually because it turned into frustration for her.
The years of videogame atrophy had taken their toll, and her desire to explore ran up against her inability to complete the next objective. I would try to give helpful advice at first, but that only seemed to add to the frustration. I would try to turn my attention elsewhere when I couldn’t bear to silently watch her struggle any longer, but she’d insist I stay and watch while she played. “It’s no fun if you’re not here,” she’d tell me. What could I say to that?
But what love doesn’t go through a rough patch? Despite the problems, watching the woman I loved play the game I loved made me feel like I was playing for the first time, even though I never touched the controller. Mario’s trials became hers, and her trials became my own, and we connected through shared digital struggle.
It may seem counter-intuitive to say a single player game helped me connect with the people close to me more than any multiplayer game did, but it’s true. And as I wrapped up my time with the newer, jazzed up portable version of Super Mario 64, I realized it was this connection that was missing this time around. There was no look of joy on the subway rider next to me when I beat Bowser. There were no shared shouts of triumph after a hard-earned star. It was just me and my favorite game, alone in the crowd.
I often worry that, as I get older, my ability to play and enjoy games will diminish as my reflexes slow, my fingers stiffen, and my body generally gives way to the ravages of age. But then, I picture an old man sitting on a couch as a new, hungry generation of gamers tears into some new digital world or other. The old man laughs and screams and winces and throws tantrums right along with the children on his floor, living vicariously through the vicarious lives of a new generation. And I smile.
Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.