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Video games and art aren’t strangers. In fact, video games have been intersecting with the art world ever since they first entered the public consciousness. That said, it’s hard to name many games that deal with art on a thematic level. I can only name a few examples off the top of my head: Relm, the young painter from Final Fantasy VI; a few characters from the Kirby series; and maybe Disney’s Epic Mickey. And even these examples only deal with art in passing, rather than as the center of the plot’s attention.

The best example I can think of is Super Mario 64. Despite how it may appear, the game doesn’t follow the “common man fights to save the princess from the evil dragon” mold its predecessors did. Looking at the set design throughout the game, we see it’s instead about that common man reclaiming art for himself, away from the curators who dictate where and how we interact with it.

‘Super Mario World’

While that reading might sound surprising, it actually makes more sense than the story Super Mario 64 presents the player with. As cartoony as Mario games are, their worlds before Mario 64 were always meticulously designed to appear as if they took place in a kingdom. You push through military citadels in the first Mario game, restore kings to the throne in Super Mario Bros. 3, and journey across the entire kingdom in Super Mario World.

Super Mario 64 doesn’t appear interested in such political concerns. Its events are local, taking place only within the immediate vicinity of the castle. We don’t visit any of the surrounding lands that Peach presumably rules over, or receive any hints about them (remember: Mario enters the game via pipe from parts unknown).

Nor does the castle itself suggest any kind of governance. It’s difficult imagining the princess ruling out of a building like this. Where’s the throne room? And what purpose does a moat serve under a non-retractable bridge?

However, Peach’s castle makes a lot more sense when we look at it like an art gallery. To consider just one example, look at the Whomp’s Fortress room early in the game:

This room’s design appears frequently throughout Super Mario 64. Its wide open space allows for any number of patrons to enter the room and observe the painting, yet there’s no doubt about what they should be observing. Every room employs some leading technique to focus Mario’s attention on the one painting hanging from its walls. In Whomp’s Fortress’s case, that technique is a balcony. Maybe the curators wanted to give the impression that one is looking at this castle from afar, almost as though they occupy another castle.

Other rooms employ similar strategies: Bob-omb Battlefield amplifies the Bob-omb army’s power by making Mario look up at them, and the aquariums lining the painting for Jolly Roger Bay give him the feeling that he’s underwater with the ship (or in the Japanese version, just underwater).

However the particular effect a room employs is irrelevant. What’s important is that the rooms were designed with that effect in mind in the first place. They’re not just presenting their viewers something and letting them make up their own minds; they’re asking them to focus on this one thing (most frequently a painting, but sometimes not, like the mural where you get the Wing Cap, and the slide I mention in the next paragraph), and to focus on it in a very specific way.

It’s within this context that Mario’s rebellious nature starts to show itself. Some of his readings are relatively innocent: upon seeing a stained glass portrait of Princess Peach, an object that connotes religious austerity, Mario’s first priority upon entering the image is to reinterpret it along more whimsical and playful lines—as a lengthy slide:

Other readings are more subversive, indicating an ambiguous relationship with the princess Mario’s been tasked with saving. That ambivalence shows up as early as the first level, where he finds himself plunged into an ongoing civil war, and takes arms with the people (the red bob-ombs) against a militaristic monarch (the big black bob-omb).

Although this could be read an attack on King Bowser instead of Princess Peach, Mario’s decision to side against the monarch still undermines the Princess’s royal authority.

And the interpretation he creates for Thwomp’s Fortress completely undermines her monarchical narrative. Where Peach wants to draw attention to the castle’s aesthetic qualities, Mario instead focuses on its construction.

More specifically, he directs his attention to the working class, whose efforts were just as vital to the castle’s creation but end up ignored and exploited. One can’t help but also apply those lessons to the painting, or even the castle that houses it.

Granted, both of these instances involve Mario restoring order by toppling outside opposition, so it wouldn’t make sense to characterize him as completely counter-cultural. Yet at the same time, it’s clear that he’s not simply repeating the narratives he’s been given. He’s molding them to his own vision.

I think his recalcitrant attitude speaks to a larger idea regarding how art works. No work of art is a static object; it is always in conversation with whoever is viewing it. Nor is that person obliged to accept whatever meaning the artist intends them to accept. They can rebel against it, modify it, ignore it, or any other number of things. Taken to an extreme, we could say that there is no art beyond what the viewer sees in art, including whether what they’re looking at qualifies as art in the first place.

Now by no means are any of these ideas new. In fact, they date back to reader response theory in the 1960s and Marcel Duchamp’s art in the early 1900s. The latter’s work is especially relevant to Super Mario 64: in his efforts to stimulate the viewer’s mind, Duchamp would submit as art ordinary objects with no apparent aesthetic quality, like a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel, and his famous urinal.

‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917

No doubt Mario would see a lot he can do with Duchamp’s ideas. On one level, we see him questioning what qualifies as art in the first place. He doesn’t limit his definitions to paintings hanging on the wall or whatever set piece dominates the room. He extends that definition to anything that capture his interest, even if for a small moment. Pools, walls, holes in the ground, other walls, a small cage, yet another wall (Mario has a strange fascination with walls, for some reason); they’re all equally worthy of being called art in Mario’s eyes.

And on another level, we see Mario approaching art with a playful mindset that Duchamp would be proud of. One of Super Mario 64’s most memorable qualities is just how playful and open its levels are. They encourage you to explore every nook and cranny; to take in all the sights and play around with everything you can find. These features make for compelling gameplay, but when considered in context, they also show the player how meaningless art is without a viewer to appreciate it. What kind of game would Super Mario 64 be if, everything else being the same, the player was only allowed to look at the paintings? It would be a lifeless, dismal one. The player would have only the castle to explore, and not only does it offer little for them to do, but it’s also too restricted a space for the player to bring their own fun to. In short, these paintings need Mario to bring life to them.

So it feels all too appropriate that a video game would be the place for us to hear this message. Like other works of art, games are incomplete without their players. They need somebody to fill their spaces with activity. Super Mario 64 just extends this argument to less obvious places. The kind of active imagination Mario applies to things in Peach’s Castle is necessary for art to have any value in the first place. Otherwise, all you have are dead paintings on a wall.

Brian Crimmins is a freelance game writer who critically analyzes older Japanese titles.

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