Failure is the Only Way to Communicate in Super Mario Maker

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I’m staring at the screen, silently raging against myself after another failed attempt. Why did I make this level so hard? Maybe those blocks should be closer together? No, that jump is possible. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again, because the entire level builds up to that point. Without that pixel-perfect leap, there’s no sense of accomplishment—but my audience might have already quit the level before they get there.

This is a typical night with Super Mario Maker, a title that continues to reside in the back of my mind, gnawing at my every free thought. It’s fascinating that Nintendo, makers of some of the most memorable experiences in videogames, would give players the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom and let them run rampant.

There have been plenty of one-off gags or clever tricks. There are “don’t move” levels that put Mario on auto-pilot for a harrowing journey, one that makes you anxiously want to bump that controller right before a last-second bounce keeps you going. There are trivia games and themed levels, but underneath it all there’s a single underlying ideology that keeps the experience honest and focused.

Normally, these kinds of community maphacks can serve as exercises in “griefing,” forcing the player to die repeatedly in impossible scenarios or to laugh at the ridiculousness of facing down 20 Bowsers with no power-ups. But in Super Mario Maker, there’s a distinct connection between the creator and the player: you must be able to conquer what you’ve built. To upload a level, you have to complete it.

In essence, the creator wants to fail.

An unbeatable level is not only impossible, but not a viable solution. Joy is wrought from the moments where you watch your players ram themselves into obstacles head-on, carefully trying to piece together your puzzles and make it to that final flag. Making a level easy is too simple though, as then there’s no benefit to either party; the creator did not demand effort, and the player was offered no challenge.

The creator has no overt means of communication with the player, though, outside of the title of the level and the strange attempts to scrawl words like “police state” in coins. The player, to finish the level, needs to see inside the creator’s mind and understand their thought process behind each puzzle—so how does the creator offer that glimpse without the modern crutches of text boxes and button prompts?

Failure is the only means of communication in Super Mario Maker between creator and player, and the game thrives in that call-and-response. The player attempts a jump and misses, and that’s the creator’s method of saying “don’t go that way!” or “you’ll need something else to make that jump!” The mechanics of Mario games, especially the earlier ones, are so fluid yet grounded in a base set of commands the player can execute, and that allows the creator to communicate and express using the world around the player. The player’s possible actions as Mario are always a guaranteed constant, so they become a rigid set of rules that the creator can exploit as a means to communicate.

Perhaps the most prevalent example of this is “The Ryckoning,” an ongoing Super Mario Maker feud between Giant Bomb’s Dan Ryckert and Kotaku’s Patrick Klepek. Ryckert often creates mechanisms that are inherently insane, but he’s consistent in his means of communication—by placing coins in certain areas, he’s communicating a need for a P Switch. By placing a door one space above the ground, he indicates the need for Klepek, the test subject of his nefarious experiments, to manage to get a POW Block to that door.

Watched individually, the video series of the many levels they’ve traded back and forth as player and creator might seem like good entertainment, but as a whole it becomes a work about the relationship between creator and player. Ryckert obfuscates certain objectives needed to complete the level, and Klepek becomes accustomed to them and learns the language of Dan’s development. Ryckert must then re-evaluate and expand his language, sometimes playing mind games with his audience in order to keep them challenged while still creating a conquerable level.

Even beyond the normal Mario tools, the creator can often subvert those rigid expectations and turn them on their head. Years of experience mixed with the crowdsourcing of thousands of avid Mario players means creators can fiddle in elements and create entire levels based around certain interactions. Certain enemies might kill Mario if he jumps on top of them normally, but a spin jump won’t, and so platforming levels can be based around mastering a move that was often considered a secondary option in Super Mario World. One level in particular amazed me with how it tackled that idea, making it so you had to bounce across enemies while dodging invincibility stars, because grabbing one would make you kill your moving platforms and drop you into the pit below. An item that often signifies an easy method of completing a level becomes a failure state, and your common enemy becomes your lifeline.

It’s this strange method of communication that fascinates me and continues to nag at the back of my head. By simply handing tools to players and letting them play creator, Nintendo has somehow created a community that teaches and grows, communicating nonverbally through simple failures and retries. Each missed jump is a learning moment, and each moment spent painstakingly debating the placement of simple blocks and endlessly testing the same jump again and again gives us all a glimpse into the world of game design. It’s a crude, sometimes cruel forum, but the possibilities that Super Mario Maker creates for design discussion across a global scale is simply breathtaking.

So maybe I will keep that jump. It’s difficult, but I know I can make it, and so can you. If you miss it, just try again, you’ll get there soon enough. Super Mario Maker is about the dialogue, not the destination.

Eric Van Allen is an Atlanta-based writer and Paste intern. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.

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