And the winner is… “Mario Galaxy”?

Mario Galaxy

“Mario Galaxy” was voted by a vast majority of game sites as 2007’s Game of the Year (Gamespot, Gametrailers, 1Up, IGN, etc). Personally I found it disturbing. Not because I consider it a bad game, mind you. [Though I must admit, “Mario Galaxy” is the only game-of-the-year nominee I haven’t played from start to finish. I have however played and seen enough footage to know what the game is about…] The thing that bothers me, is not the actual award, but its justification. The main reason why “Mario Galaxy” allegedly gained the award over games like “Bioshock”, “Mass Effect” or “Call of Duty 4” was because it was considered to be “more fun” than any other game.

Now this really reminded me how immature the industry and its media really can be. Imagine, if you will, that during the next Oscars “Pirates of the Caribbean” won the award for best movie; that the Grammy for overall best record went to Shakira’s latest album… and imagine the Nobel Prize in literature given to JK Rowling. All, because that was the best entertainment of the year; all because those were the most “fun”. Forget about everything else: THEY WERE FUN.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: games are supposed to be “fun”, right? Hey, movies too. Music, books, paintings… they’re all supposed to deliver on some sort of entertainment. Whether in the form of contemplating aesthetic beauty, the conveying of powerful feelings, the telling of stories, or even the provoking of laughter, amusement and pure pleasure. Whatever the form, all art has one purpose: to entertain an audience. Now, the key thing is: there are many forms of entertainment, and many types of audience, and any medium has an infinite array of ways in which it can deliver entertainment… to an equally large number of different audiences. Think about the differences between a “Da Vinci” and a “Pollock” painting; think about what sets Mozart and Shostokovich apart; think about the work of Kubrick vs. that of Spielberg. Are they the same? No, they’re different; they all have different notions of entertainment, audience… and Art.

So, why is “Mario Galaxy” Game of the Year a problem? Because critics in the videogame industry only contemplate entertainment in one simple way: the amusement one gets from actually playing the game. Everything else: all the complexities, all the variety of possibilities a game offers, all the beauty… falls secondary. This year, the artistry of the graphics, the weaving of the narrative, the message games convey, were forgotten. Only “fun” was rewarded with the Game of the Year award. Now, this doesn’t happen this consistently in other mediums: magazines, websites and festivals consider many aspects beyond this abstract “fun” factor, when reviewing and criticizing art/entertainment. More so, the majority of awards go to works that challenge the audience into feeling or thinking about some issue or message; not the ones that are just more “fun”.

Bioshock - No gods or Kings. Only Man

Not that there is anything wrong with fun. I love playing games that excite me, that challenge me, that entertain me at a more basic level. But a game can, and (in my opinion) should deliver much more. Books, movies, comics, music, tv… all those mediums deliver on so many levels, so why should games be any different? Are they inferior? No, but I guess they are more recent, more immature, and as such, are still seen as “toys”. Because “toys” are the only objects that are all about being “fun”, nothing more, nothing less. Now think a bit: is “Mario Galaxy” just a “toy”? Is “Bioshock” a “toy”? Think about the games you liked the most: were they just “Toys”? Or were they something far more powerful? Something we usually call… Art?

The conclusion one can achieve from the justification of the “Mario Galaxy” award is that the majority of the game media still regard games as some sort of fancy “toys”; the same media that, supposedly, should be enlightening and uplifting people’s perceptions about videogames. And if they regard games as these “toys”, and not as something more, then who will?

[I will come back to the issue of what defines art (and games as art), as well as the lack of maturity most game journalists show, in weeks to come…]

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  1. I should be writing in other places right now, but your article made me change my mind up and I felt the necessity to answer to some of the points you make.

    First off… you seem to be misunderstanding what’s said to justify the decision of Mario galaxy (mg) being goty.
    If you read carefully and think about the main reason why the awards were given, it was not primarily because of the “fun” factor.
    As I see it (and be warned, I haven’t played mg) and understand from what I’ve read, the reason it won, was why all major super Mario games win: its gameplay, its level design and its charm.

    The work, the thought, the flow pf what you see and experience when you play Mario is unlike anything you tend to see in the gaming world. The super Mario games never get old, its gameplay it’s always fresh, well thought and intuitive.

    Its level design it’s so perfect you never feel bored while playing it and never get the same old feeling you normally get with other platforming games (and not only them) “hey, I’ve been here before, I‘ve seen this enemy, I know this bush, etc”. It’s not too easy nor to hard, it’s perfect in the sense of challenge.

    Its charm…really you got to admit, the game has it, and the most incredible thing is how they can do it when the main character is a plumber with a mustache and a monkey suit. The entire world around you, its colors, the almost cheerful enemies, the lighthearted ambience of the game, it’s fantastic, it all fits so well.

    This new Mario is not an exception, like IGN wrote, Nintendo could do an “o.k.” game and it would sell millions anyway, they could just do super Mario sunshine 2 and people would still love it and buy it. But no, Miyamoto just thought “What if I, once again, rewrite all the laws in platforming and do something completely new?”…and so it was, not only original – He plays with gravity…really…come on… – but he did it the right way, with everything in the right place once again.
    It’s not every day that gaming is redefined but Miyamoto still does it.

    You can say, “But Mario is not a philosophy, the game is centered on a mustache-man trying to save a princess from a turtle mutant guy. He doesn’t talk about the origins of mankind, he doesn’t have leveling up and the dialogs are crap”…
    Well in that case you’re thinking in the same way the ones you are criticizing, putting the importance of the dialog or the story in front of level design, gameplay and “funness”.

    And that’s what I got from the reasons I read on the sites you mentioned (except from gametrailers…but you that doesn’t count as a valid opinion). None of them says “this game won because it was fun” or “we had more fun with this game than with bioshock”.
    I’m glad I didn’t see your reaction when Serious Sam got game of the year in 2001 from IGN ;X.

    As for the fact that the video games are seen as toys…well that’s kind of true that it’s seen that way. If you think about it, all the gaming world industry was, until…let’s say…4 years ago almost completely directed to a younger audience. Now it has grown exponentially (right aside with the internet), and it’s starting to widen its borders to a larger audience. So bear with it just a little more because I’m sure gaming will be seen as something as big and potentially mature like cinema in the near future.

    P.S. : I understood , I understood, I understood you’re point in doing it…but….please don’t mess Art comparisons with gaming comparisons. In gaming you have predefined “rules” , characteristics that are , somewhat, measurable, and comparable between every game ever created. Not the same with art, even worst if you hard comparing two different movements.. High renaissance and expressionism and not comparable in any way possible.

    p.p.s. I’m sorry for any orthographic errors and for my rudimental English.

    Well..back to work.

    *Note* the text was slightly correceted, to become more compreensible.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 20th, 2008

    First off let me just thank you for spending time “trolling” around, when you should be working.

    Now, for the reply:

    “As I see it (and be warned, I haven’t played mg) and understand from what I’ve read, the reason it won, was why all major super Mario games win: its gameplay, its level design and its charm.”

    Yes, of course it wasn’t just about “fun”, it was about the game components that make a game “fun”: gameplay and level design. The thing is, all other areas in game development were forgotten. Nobody refers the artistic qualities of the game (perhaps because they don’t exist?). Mario Galaxy won because Game journalists still put gameplay and level design on top of everything else. Look at the DICE awards, and the number of artistic categories they present: all of them were forgotten in favor of the “fun” factors.

    About the “Charm” issue. Yes, Mario Galaxy is charming and has this quirkiness that makes it “cute”. Yet, you have to concur that it doesn’t make it unique. If you ask me, I think the art department snoozed out during the development of MG; everything looks the same as in Mario Sunshine (plus minus a few colors). And if you look closer, it’s a formula Miyamoto has used for many years: “happy go lucky” visuals filled with that typical japanese insanity. It’s not something original, by any standard: most japanese games have it (with different degrees of quality).

    But I get what you’re saying: Mario galaxy is a great game, period. What bothers me, is the unanimity of its GOTY award, and that it ultimately has to do with the “fun” factor. Gametrailers may not be the best site journalistic wise, but they reflect, in a simple way, what the justification for the award was: “FUN”.

    “It’s not every day that gaming is redefined but Miyamoto still does it.”

    Admit it, in its core, MG is a game about collecting stars: is Miyamoto really revolutionizing anything? In my point of view: no. Of course, his game is unique in terms of gameplay, but I don’t see anyone using these gameplay elements on a game that isn’t called “Mario universe”. Everybody says Mario Galaxy will revolutionize games as Mario 64 did: but think about it, how many games followed the platforming genre in the same direction? “Jak and Daxter” and “Ratchet and Clank” (okay, and Spyro…). And even those franchises are losing fans: it’s not an accident that their companies are behind “Resistance” and “Uncharted”.

    Kudos down to Miyamoto: he’s one of the great game developers, I just think he’s a tad bit overrated, and continues to confine games in a philosophy that I don’t agree with.

    “I understood , I understood, I understood you’re point in doing it…but….please don’t mess Art comparisons with gaming comparisons. In gaming you have predefined “rules” , characteristics that are , somewhat, measurable, and comparable between every game ever created. Not the same with art, even worst if you hard comparing two different movements.. High renaissance and expressionism and not comparable in any way possible.”

    Now this is the part where I totally disagree with you. I don’t see rules in comparing games. Just as I see no rules in comparing any form of art. Of course renaissance and abstract expressionism have nothing to do with one another, that’s my whole point. The thing is, Game journalists see “FUN” as the commonground in games, and compare them, mostly on that level. But does Mario Galaxy have anything to do with Bioshock? Mass Effect? Orange Box? Do they have the same objectives? Are they not different experiences, that try to recapture different moods and feelings? Of course they are, so why all this unanimity towards Mario Galaxy and the FUN factor? That is my problem.

    Now, what you can do, is evaluate certain aspects of the works. But that’s just the same as in very art form. Yet, the value of a work of art, has little, to no relation with that comparison. Because you have to review, and think about each work in a certain context, and right now, game media regards a GOTY as an award about the fun factor of a game. Everything else follows as a bonus.

  2. Super Mario Fallacy?

    I think the award was given more or less arbitrarily or in order to comply with a certain trend in the videogame community, although the game in itself is by all accounts excellent. It is true that Miyamoto has not evolved beyond his rudimentary storytelling of 1981 (it wasn’t rudimentary back then, of course), though I have to say on his defence that the lack of narrative attests to the immutability of a world-wide phenomena which is Mario: the game and the character.

    The problem begins when you actually pay attention to these narrow-minded lists which serve no purpose but to be annoying and reveal a childish exercise from the same agents who were supposed to probe deep into the videogame medium. If you look for reasons, you’re bound to find that most game players are only now discovering the unique charms of Miyamoto’s platforming.

    Can you really blame Nintendo for recycling the gameplay mechanics from Mario 64? What are all the 2D Super Mario Bros. but face lifted clones of the original 1985 game? It works as a market formula, it’s tested, proven and it is enough to keep Mr. Iwata and associates some of Japan’s richest. What is most amazing is that the studio actually comes up with new and inventive ways to recreate the old formula, and for that Nintendo has earned its great reputation. Mario Galaxy is a wealthy deposit of unique and creative ideas which are surprisingly functional.

    The first truly audacious Mario game in years was Mario Sunshine, as it brought an element unseen in any other title of the series: it had a small story where the classic characters revealed another part of their fictional existence (Mario travelling, getting arrested, etc.). And look how the game was criticized in the majority of western sites. The same happened with Windwaker in another age-old series from Miyamoto. Is this how the players respond to audacity? If so, then it comes as no surprise that Mario games seldom innovate. And the reason why Mr. Yoshiaki Koizumi played it safe this time is more than obvious if you know he’s actually the one being blamed for his previous fiasco with his very own Mario Sunshine.

    Is Mario Galaxy, nonetheless, an unworthy game? I dare say that it is unique in the way it represents videogame’s cornerstone: gameplay. Is it perfect? – very close to that, in its own field. Is it incontrovertible? – well, nothing is.

    I wish I could discuss the issue deeper, but my lunch hour was over minutes ago!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 6th, 2008

    Damn… just can’t get enough of this mindless replying :DDDDD

    Ok, point one – I agree, “Mario Galaxy” is pure awesomeness in the form of a videogame. Though I haven’t played the game as much as I should’ve (don’t have a Wii), I can see perfectly why someone would say its gameplay and level design are perfect. But, if you’ve been reading my blog you’ll probably have noticed how I tend to weigh down the importance of gameplay and level design (for reasons I have yet to write about, but I’ll get to that). So, I see Mario Galaxy as a curious object, a form of inconsequential entertainment, like say… Devil May Cry, but not as something I’d regard as Art (it’s object is just too shallow and self contained: I don’t see any message or notion of message hidden in the game).

    “Narrow Minded Lists” – It depends on what you see as narrow minded: the lists themselves, or the people who wrote them. If you’d give your opinion on who should be awarded game of the year, it would definitely result in an interesting article. Not because of your choice, but because of your justifications for it, which would undoubtedly educate a *mortal* gamer such as myself. I think that, like ratings, these lists are a powerful means for analyzing artistic trends and works in a simple, effective way.

    Do I blame Nintendo? Of course not: they’re a company, they seek profit. I blame the guys who say their games are still as groundbreaking as ever, and that the Wii should be rightly named Revolution. The same people who dismiss games that actually try and achieve something new in an artistic way, like Bioshock, Persona 3 (which I’m currently playing) or Eternal Sonata, just to name a few.

  3. Lists are rubbish, unless you choose not to order them – then they become a little more acceptable. But even the selection of an established numerical value of games released within a year – say 10 or 20 – is tightening the frame of selectable games as well as the depth with which the article is being composed. I find that is an easy way that magazines and websites have of summarizing the year without much effort. The general public is interested to find if their favourite game matches the preference of “so-called” expert. Notice the empathic nature that these fast-drafted articles aim to provide the reader. They reveal, at most, the indolence persisting among most game experts who play the same worn-out tune every year.

    As for SMG, I understand you when you give lower credit to the gameplay, focusing more on themes, written narrative or character depth. If you focus on a game like SMG that way you’re bound to be disappointed.

    To me, the marvellous thing about Super Mario games is the solid spatial reproductions, the smooth learning curve and the reduction of excesses in order to attain one single, bug-free experience of sheer interaction between colourful images and spontaneous controls. Mario is universal and immutable; he is a videogame icon and possibly the ultimate example of how to define a videogame. Super Mario Galaxy is a brilliant game, literally and figuratively, where the creators have disrupted with some of the most basic laws of physics and gravity, where spaces are illusive and distorted, where you achieve greatness using a thumb stick and a couple of buttons. It stands as one of the singular examples of videogame at its most pure.

    Also, I think Mario has always been a vehicle of the same formal qualities which define art expression. Sometimes they are small things such as colour palettes or the disposition of objects in space. If you study, for instance, the art of Salvador Dali, you will be able to realize a number of semblances – and I’m not even going to fetch far as I would otherwise. When you play Mario Sunshine, you will surely notice that the character disintegrates itself when travelling between worlds: as he does so, he decomposes his body into small, singular toned spheres which fluctuate in the air, much like the ‘atomic’ period of Dali where he recreated bodies the same way (see Galatée aux Sphères). In the case of Mario Galaxy, the space debris is organized in accordance to some of his dynamic “dead natures”, where still objects float the air captured within a frozen time frame. It is not a coincidence, yet an acknowledgement of certain art conventions, their iconology and semiotics while also respecting the allegoric world idealized by Miyamoto-San: spatial and temporal distortions, oneiric space mapping and intersectional combinations which provide their own visual and coherent structural narrative.

    Where you say “shallow” I say ‘that’s the stuff that dreams are made of’.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 7th, 2008

    Minor rebuttals to sum things up, once and for all. (you’re probably already tired of discussing this with me )

    “As for SMG, I understand you when you give lower credit to the gameplay, focusing more on themes, written narrative or character depth. If you focus on a game like SMG that way you’re bound to be disappointed.”

    Indeed I am, but that’s just the way I see art in general. Can that pre-established notion limit my opinion? Absolutely. I have no problem in admitting so, and I would never “criticize” Mario for not discussing the meaning of life (like a friend of mine once said). It’s just not my cup of tea (we all have our own planes of interest, no matter how wide or narrow they are).

    I agree that the art design of the Mario Games is very original and unique, and that it shows a great amount of knowledge of aesthetic rules (from colour palettes to spacial compositions, etc, etc). Still, I’d be really careful in placing Dali and Mario in the same sentence. Not that you don’t have reasons to do connect both (knowing you, you probably have tons besides the ones you used), but maybe you’re looking too hard into Mario. I mean it’s “Mario”. Seriously, my experience tells me that sometimes, when establishing references and links between different works, everything can be found to be true, when seen from a certain point of view. But hey, that’s just me, I tend to be a bit cautious with such bold claims 😉

    As to Mario being the stuff of dreams… I guess, for some people. My dreams tend to be darker, more like a Dali painting or David Lynch film than anything else. Maybe that’s why I don’t get Mario…

    Well BOB, I’m tired… thanks for the great discussion. We’ll have to discuss things further head to head, this is way too complex for a mere amateur blog 😉

  4. I know something about Dali. I’m certainly far from being an expert but I have studied his work for some time. It wasn’t my intention to say that Mario matched the depth of Dali’s work. I meant that it shared, with reverence for his mastery, some of the same design tools and solutions as some Dali paintings have, while reproducing them to attain different objectives. Dali would have loved Super Mario Games had he been given enough life time to understand the roots of the videogame medium. He was able to look deeply into basic notions: why would he accept to create the logotype for the Chupa-Chups brand after artistic emancipation, if not for the love of all things pictorial?

    I’ve noticed this: somewhere along the way you labelled Mario as “simplistic” and now it is hard go beyond that conventional notion, now deeply rooted within you. But Mario, like any other game, is built from an empty screen. Mario has always been the bearer of several innovations in terms of videogame history, from side-scrolling worlds which were unfolded in front of our eyes like rolling wallpapers on theatre stages (Super Mario Bros.) to the quintessential nature of gameplay in 3D perspective for modern-day videogames (with Mario 64). What I tried to say before was that Mario is universal enough to be popular, but also very cunning in its design and overpopulated with rich references where you can discern them. I don’t suggest wild theories; maybe I see things as they are. Or, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, I think of things that never were and say ‘why not?’

    Apart from the original ventures, I don’t hold Mario as personal favourites or anywhere near that. I think it is important you know that.

    Always a pleasure to participate! And please address me by my real name: I don’t want anyone to know my name is Bob. ‘Very hush hush’!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 8th, 2008

    Dali was… a tad bit insane. He was also a provocateur, an egocentric, a free spirit; when anyone tried to label him, he would do something even crazier and strange just so to prove a point.
    So if he would like Mario (and I heartily concur that he would: it’s too surreal and unique for Dali not to have liked), I’d say it’s not something I would take into account into my taste, no matter how much I like his paintings. One thing is for sure, deep down inside, Miyamoto is as “cuckoo” as Dali 😉 But I digress…

    I understood (really!) what you said. There are elements in Mario that go back to Dali, which proves the sheer quality of its aesthetic and conceptual side. And yes, I agree with that. I may find Mario “dumb”, but not “ugly” and “dumb” (Mario heresy #226 – > calling Mario dumb and ugly in the same sentence, PUNISHMENT: Death by a giant Koopa).

    And of course he revolutionized games a thousand times (maybe not that much…), I’ve always been a fan of Mario growing up (like any gamer kid) so I remember. I never said Mario (any Mario, even number 2) wasn’t a great game.

    Yet, I would never place him and Dali in the same sentence, because the connection I see between the two is merely casual, in the sense that for every thing that can unite them, there is a world of objects that will separate them. If you look hard and abstract certain details, you can always find traces of every art movement (specially when it’s old) in a modern work of art.

    And yes it’s true (so true), you’re George “GameHard” Shaw. But that’s what I’ve always been telling you BOB, you just didn’t believe me 😉

  5. The connection is not casual. The creators of Mario have, on several occasions, attempted to reproduce some of the artist’s pictorial modus in the game, thus legitimating a suitable reference. That fact remains unquestionable, regardless.

    You may argue as to the real weight of this feature within the game, and I never claimed Dali to be a major inspiration for Miyamoto’s work the same way Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ was, or even western animation for that purpose. ‘E pur si muove!’

  6. I just stumbled upon this blog by complete accident and I must say I’m very interested in reading more of it. : ) I love seeing games discussed analytically.

    I don’t have a lot to add here, to be honest. I agree with many of your points; games should never be judged solely on accessibility or entertainment value. That’s why, as much as I love Tetris, my skin crawls whenever I see it atop a ‘Best Games’ list.

    One thing I would like to mention is my surprise that nobody has mentioned Mario Galaxy’s score. Almost all of the music for the game was fully orchestrated rather than synthesized, and the pieces just fit the scale of the game so perfectly– I’d say it’s the ideal of game music simply because it’s so atmospheric. Maybe it’s just me as a musically-inclined person, but -flying- from planet to planet to the apex of the music just puts a smile on my face every time it happens.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • August 21st, 2008

    Thanks for the compliment and the comment 😀
    Always a pleasure to hear about people on the other side. Hope you keep enjoying the blog!

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