By Andrea Tallarita
Set the argument, ready—Fight!
Is there anything, anything at all, that can be said about Super Smash Bros., other than that it is well crafted? Is there anything to learn from it about the world of videogames? The answer to both these questions is yes, and it is an issue that is best pressed now, lest we allow Brawl, the new Smash Bros. installment for the Wii, to go unnoticed and unrecognized like its predecessors. So, allow me to begin.
There are three Smash Bros. games, the original, Melee and Brawl, respectively for the Nintendo 64, the GameCube, and the Wii. All of them are pretty accessible fighting games based on a unique approach to the genre: designed with enormous, irregular stages and bestowing on all of its characters phenomenal jumping capacities, the Smash Bros. series blends fighting with platforming very effectively. There aren't any ‘life bars' to quantify how long your character can get beaten. Instead, the objective is not to fall off your stage, which tends to have cliffs at either extreme. Provided you can stay on, you can get clobbered pretty much indefinitely, though the more hits you take, the likelier you are to fall.
In line with other Nintendo games of this kind, Smash Bros. is easy to learn but hard to master. The basic mechanisms for combat, which involve alternating character-specific attacks (mostly undisruptive, but easy to use) with harder but devastating ‘smash' moves to finish off your adversaries, can be learned very quickly. Using them to the best of their potential, though, is a much tougher matter.
At first, the formula of Smash Bros. seems to have so little to distinguish itself from that of other Mario spin-offs that it comes as something of a surprise to find a truly unique feature in the character selection screen. For Smash Bros. is the only Mario product to draw on characters from outside the Mario mythology. In Mario Kart or Mario Party we have Mario, Donkey Kong, Yoshi and Peach, all characters who had played a part of some kind in a previous Mario game. They're present in Smash Bros. too, but this time they're flanked by Link from The Legend of Zelda games, Samus from the Metroid series and Pikachu from Pokémon, along with countless others. Seeing these characters appear next to Mario is somewhat unsettling, in the same way that Godzilla vs. King Kong or Alien vs. Predator are concepts initially unsettling; but then, that's part of the point. The character list in Smash Bros. plays not on our interest in experiencing an original narrative, but, on the contrary, on our wish to experience a familiar narrative (or set of narratives), yet without tautology. We like to play with Mario, but not so we can go back to the Mushroom Kingdom; we like to be Link, but not because it's Zelda. In other words, it must be the same experience without being a repetition, a notion which in the best of cases seems paradoxical.
The game resolves this paradox by framing its experience in the concept of play. Consider the opening cut-scene of the original Smash Bros. game. We have a children's room, with its desk, its window and its lightly coloured walls, where an undefined ‘glove' appears and extracts the Smash Bros. characters (in the form of puppets) from a toy-box. The characters then take a life of their own, and start their fighting.
The entire game is then set under the register of some child's imaginative 'play,' some young possessor of the glove (assuming there is one) who stages all the fights, along with their mythological clashes, for his/her personal entertainment. So we are not experiencing narratives, in the sense of being exposed to them, but, like the child who stages the fights, we are ‘playing' with them. We are repositioning them, re-imagining them, breaking and remaking them, without affecting their original integrity. The game wants us to play. Literally.
But what does it mean to frame narratives within 'play,' as opposed to its normal status of continuity? How is it possible that we can alter them without profaning them?
The way that Smash Bros. and other texts of its kind accomplish this is by creating a sort of 'otherness' of narrative. Smash Bros. is not a different narrative from Zelda and Metroid, but a different kind of narrative altogether. It stands in relation to all the other narratives not in the way that they stand in relation to each other (that is, by separation—Metroid and Zelda are separate narratives which can never touch), but in a relation of segregation. Smash Bros. is the non-narrative, the locus outside the mythological archive where all narratives perish, the void outside narrated experience.
That's why the game can play with all these different narratives with such impunity. Link is fighting Mario, yes, but that is not the real Link, it is a Link fighting in another world, outside of his narrative. As long as we're using the 'other' Link, the puppet Link extracted from the toy box and inserted into the frame of 'play,' instead of the one which is interwoven with his narrative and mythology, we can use him whichever way we like, thereby experiencing the familiar narrative we were looking for without repeating it (because it's not the same one, but an 'other').
This is also the reason why the game's content tends to be so easily dismissed as meaningless: because it works in ways which are outside our normal way of understanding meaning (that is, within a narrative). This kind of superficial reaction is particularly unfortunate in a world as that of videogames, which is uniquely suited—much more so than films, books or comics—to set a unified stage for and bring together an enormous number of vastly diverse mythologies. This is not Freddy vs. Jason or Superman vs. Spiderman, this is Mario vs. Zelda vs. Metroid vs. Kirby vs. Pokémon vs. F-Zero versus Star Fox, to mention only the ones appearing in Smash Bros.
This particular feature of the game becomes especially noteworthy in the light of the new Super Smash Bros.: Brawl. The stunning announcement that Brawl features Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series and even Sonic (!) broadens the scope of Smash Bros.'s 'other' universe immensely. Now it is not limited to Nintendo mythologies—it admits characters from the entire world of videogames, even Nintendo's rival stars. The fact that entry in Smash Bros. is conditional to a character's having previously attained a certain degree of popularity makes its floating platforms ironically prestigious: appearing in Smash Bros. becomes something like the Oscar prize for videogame characters.
And most of these Oscars are deserved. It seems that the characters which Smash Bros. is drawing together are all pillars of modern videogames—I for one would not be surprised if Master Chief appeared in the fourth installment of the series, and it would likely be seen as an achievement for the character, not degradation.
Let me qualify this statement, though, because it is important—what do I mean by 'pillars of modern videogames'? It's more than just a matter of influence; games like Doom or Half Life were revolutionary, but it seems very unlikely we'll ever see the helmeted marine or Gordon Freeman appearing in Smash Bros., and not just because their highly violent franchises jar with Nintendo's more family-friendly philosophy. Rather, the problem is that while their games have as legitimate a claim to an historical seat of honour as Halo does, their protagonists do not. Smash Bros. is not about the games, it is about the characters. Specifically, those characters that have become greater than their games. We may refer to these kinds of characters as videogame myths.
Now, we can define a myth as something that transcends the media within which it becomes manifest rather than being exhausted by them; something which sustains a culture rather than being consumed by it. The phenomenon that I am talking about is by no means restricted to myths in the sense of ancient myths, such as those of the Greeks, which existed across rather than within any of the forms in which they were to be found (the epic, lyric poetry, drama, philosophy, sculpture, architecture, visual arts). The Alien films, for example, do not exhaust the Alien creature itself, whose existence goes far beyond them and seeps into books, comics, videogames, t-shirts, not to mention a wealth of parody and the extraordinarily lively Alien vs. Predator mythology. The films are a part of the Alien, rather than the other way around, which is what defines the Alien's status as a myth. The same can be said of such characters as, say, James Bond or Indiana Jones—or, within the field of videogames, any of the main characters in Smash Bros. (for there are also some peripheral characters which are drawn from the mythology of the main ones, and have thus a supporting role).
Myths are the points of reference, within culture, which allow for representation. They function as lighthouses. The characters in Smash Bros. can therefore rightly be defined as the pillars of modern videogames. Without them, representation is impossible, and this fact is proved most explicitly by the structure of the Smash Bros. games themselves. The main single-player campaign is divided in levels, in each of which you face one or more adversaries, fighting on a stage which reflects its character's original mythology. Link will be confronted on the castle of Hyrule, Captain Falcon on an F-Zero Grand Prix track and so on. As you progress through the game, you progressively get rid of each mythology as you defeat the characters which represent them. As you battle your way further forwards, however, something slightly creepy starts happening: the stages become increasingly less defined, more blank and barren. They'll become impersonal, grey or purple platforms set against a backdrop of random, shifting lights.
The final level is the epitome of anonymity: a single, large platform, entirely flat from beginning to end, the background of which shifts chaotically between outer space, flashing lights and an unidentified terrain with some trees on it. The final boss itself is not even a character, but a giant hand—not even that, actually, merely a glove. It has no speech, no interaction, and no history. We mentioned that it originally represented the hand of some unidentified entity which played with the various characters. Essentially, it set the stage for the 'other' world we have discussed before by extracting the characters from the roles in which they were crystallised (in their narratives), that is, by taking them out of their conditions as toys—or, more aptly, puppets. Placed on the table by the hand, they took on a life of their own, in a universe which was inherently segregated from the one they originally inhabited as puppets of their narratives—precisely because in this new universe they are not puppets. (Even though their original puppet condition is never forgotten, only suspended; awareness of their condition as puppets—objects of play—is exactly what distinguishes them and makes them 'other' characters, as I mentioned before with reference to Link).
To go back to the last levels of Smash Bros., if they are so impersonal, that's precisely because by the end you have defeated—and gotten rid of—all myths. The game, stripped bare of everything, of all the narratives which constituted it, produces levels which are utterly empty, a void which, in some ways, is almost disturbing. The game goes beyond myth, and what it finds there is its crisis—a crisis of representation, because it is precisely myth(s) which allow for representation. It is unsurprising that, once the great controlling ‘hand' should have been defeated, the character should return to its status as a puppet instead of escaping it, thereby returning into its original myth while egressing from the game's 'other' universe framed in play.
But Smash Bros., with its frantic collage of characters and mythologies, is more than just a tribute to the art. It is as if videogames, as a medium, were trying to write their own index. The most addictive feature of Melee was, after all, the collection of a set of figurines (called trophies) which came with a text explaining their history and role in the world of videogames. The final result was a formidable compilation of the Nintendo mythologies, so the most addictive feature of Melee was literally completing an index. Smash Bros. is also the only game of its kind; no other production brings together so many different worlds in such a way (there's the Marvel vs. Capcom kind of fighters, yes, but they're far less daring in conception and execution).
What this game is doing should be cherished. It clearly doesn't stand as the great narrative parable that games like BioShock or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion represent, mainly because it's not a narrative (specifically, it's a non-narrative), but there's more to a medium than the sum of its tales—especially this medium. An index is by no means something useless in a book, and the way it is organised should be not ignored. We would do well to remember this, when Brawl comes out—that as we sit here, content and spoon-fed by our narratives, this game is meanwhile silently writing their index for us. The fact that as an index for the entire world of videogames it should still be so woefully inadequate is precisely what makes it worthy of our consideration.
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