With so much to do in the next few weeks, my Nintendo DS has been providing much-needed escapism.
Specifically, I’ve been playing New Super Mario Bros. The premise is the same as any other Mario platform game. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser, a psychotic turtle who wants to conquer the otherwise peaceful Mushroom Land. Mario, an Italian plumber with a blasé attitude towards his own mortality, volunteers himself for a rescue mission.
Rescuing the princess, while not easy, is achievable by pretty much anybody aged between eight and eighty if they’re willing to put in the hours. For more accomplished players, there are bonus levels to unlock, magic coins to collect and secret exits to locate. These tasks are much more difficult than merely rescuing the Princess. You have not completed the game until you have everything there is to have.
It’s as addictive as heroin. To desist playing for more than a few hours I would have to throw my DS into a river, rent a bedsit in the middle of an economically depressed Cumbrian town, board up the doors and windows and endure two weeks of total withdrawal, subsisting on chicken noodle soup slurped straight from the can. Even then, I might claw my way out, sweating and shaking my way down the high street, mumbling incoherently to passers-by about gold coins, mushrooms and princesses.
I think the absorbing appeal of games like this is due to their relative simplicity. You control the fate of a symbolic individual with whom you come to share a form of ego. You can go up, down, left and right, there are a couple of clear objectives, and you have the ability to pause and save.
Would the game of life be better if it were that simple? As it is, some people spend the whole game trying to figure out the point, which is like trying to balance a rock on a cloud of gas. Some are content to push themselves around collecting coins. Others are frustrated by the inconsistency of the game-play, the frequent shortage of gold coins and the sense that each new level has brought you no closer to resolving the mystery objective. Also, you can’t go back to the last save point if you catastrophically fuck things up.
If there is an objective to the life game, it is to reproduce. Since many human players of the game harbour doubts about the wisdom of breeding, this leaves only variations on the theme of collecting coins and bumming around aimlessly.
This wouldn’t be so bad if you got the opportunity to complete the game properly. Once you peer into the shadow of the valley of death, it would be good if you could go back and collect all the gold coins before you step through the final curtain.
Imagine being able to nip back to certain points in your life with the benefit of hindsight and experience. Perhaps you might want to have sex at every opportunity. Maybe you’ll decide to amass as much wealth as physically possible. Personally, my first re-run action would be punching that kid who threw my apple over the fence on my first day at primary school.