Our world is a mess. People are losing their homes from natural disasters, lives are lost at the hands of violent madmen on a daily basis, the risk of international war hovers over us all and the political climate is more toxic now than ever. In our current society and culture, anxiety reigns supreme.
While our real world fends with external sources of anxiety, we as individuals still have our internal anxieties to fight. For myself, a summer of personally shaking and traumatic events—a major breakup, a series of career rejections and an extended self-identity crisis—led me to explore my anxiety, depression and hypomania. I searched for healthy methods to cope with these afflictions. But whether one’s anxiety is based on external, worldwide factors or internal, deeply personal ones, an avenue one can take is to temporarily escape into another world. During my tumultuous summer, I found that Nintendo games became my medium for keeping my mental health issues at bay. The company’s newest game might be better suited for that task than any other.
In Super Mario Odyssey, Bowser’s devious plot to plan a shotgun wedding with Princess Peach creates a globe-spanning mess. In the Koopa King’s rampage, homes are destroyed, valuable trinkets are stolen and cultures are desecrated. It is up to the player to clean up this mess. It goes without saying that these conflicts are nowhere near the magnitude of our real-life issues, but the concept of acting out this fantasy of a single mustachioed man saving everyone with his ghost hat is silly and appealing.
Early in Odyssey, I landed in the Wooded Kingdom. I quickly encountered the residents of this area—dirty, robot watering cans. All were in a frenzied panic, spinning non-stop. I went up to one of them and received a bit of dialogue: “Recent events have initiated my panic-and-spin routines. Panic and spin!” I had landed in a kingdom of anxious robots.
I as Mario had to bring them relief. There was no impending apocalypse, no threat of war or anything desperate or hopeless of the sort—this was an external force creating a ruckus and destroying routine. All of these non-playable characters seemed specifically designed to gain my sympathy, from the relatable anxiety robots, to the adorable hat inhabitants in the Nightmare Before Christmas-esque Cap Kingdom, to the extremely huggable-looking giant seal creatures in the Snow Kingdom. Once I completed the primary objectives and restored the status quo, their dialogue changed—they were happy now, and so was I.
I found that this videogame was persistent in its mission to bring me joy. Super Mario Odyssey is extra—in that same area in the Wooded Kingdom, I stood next to a boom box, and Mario, without any button prompt, automatically began dancing to the music. When I left Mario alone for more than a few seconds, he would lay down for a nap, and a bird would eventually land on his nose, with each kingdom having a different kind of bird. There are many moments like this that serve little to no purpose other than smiles, laughs and entertainment. Nintendo has a classic charm in all of their products. They do not simply go for the extra mile, but for at least fifty miles beyond that. Besides silly idle animations, Nintendo games such as Odyssey provide little nuggets like well-timed musical cues, quirky dialogue expertly written by the Treehouse localization team, and imaginative sequences like the many 8-bit throwback segments that most developers would never have thought of to include in the first place.
Nintendo was never one to create a deep, thought-provoking story. This is not a videogame that tackles hot button sociopolitical or economic issues (perhaps the closest we can get is the rise of global consumerism with the expanding chain of Crazy Cap stores in locations that simply make no sense). Although those games, in their own way, are about fulfilling fantasies, Odyssey’s fantasy is totally dominated by the type of escape I was searching for.
Mario doesn’t throw fireballs at Nazis or monologue for half an hour about private military corporations. He’s too busy running around a kingdom made out of food in his boxer shorts. The game’s skeleton of a story doesn’t tell the player about the human condition, but the experience of playing the game tells the player about herself. For me, playing Super Mario Odyssey helped to solidify the idea that videogames are my coping mechanism.
I think back to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and how it was labeled as an “open air” game. It sounded like a bit of nomenclature nonsense at the time, but the explanation made perfect sense to me. As Bill Trinen of Treehouse told IGN at E3 2016, “From my perspective, I look at a lot of open world games, and the world is a setting for the story the developers want to tell in that space.” What I took that to mean is that other open world games have the environment in the background, leaving the player slavish to waypoints to create a linear experience. “I look at this game and I see a world that is fully integrated into the exploration and the adventure,” Trinen continued. “It’s not just a world that you’re passing through. It’s sort of a world that you’re a part of. So much of the adventure and exploration is in this outdoor space, and the theme of wilderness collectively seemed like ‘Open Air’ was the right fit for it.” Breath of the Wild is not a game that puts icons everywhere on the map, expecting the player to visit them all as part of a highly telegraphed and cultivated experience. Instead, the player explores the world out of pure curiosity, building their own world, and ultimately their own experience.
Over my turbulent summer, there were various times where I had reached an emotional low point. On one night in particular my mind was at its most dire. In a brief panic, I turned to Zelda in an attempt to fight back. I loaded my save, where I was at a stable near a bridge and a waterfall. Mere seconds later, and completely by chance, I was prompted by relaxing piano chords. I looked around in the game, and for the first time, I saw a dragon approaching. I had Link jump off of the bridge, as the draft produced from the dragon carried me with it. I had no gameplay objective in following this dragon; I just wanted to. I slept well that night, brightened by this experience that I felt that I myself had created. This emotional experience is something that can’t be replicated in a Let’s Play.
Videogames at their purest are about the experience, and the emotions, thoughts and feelings that playing the game evokes in the player. What Super Mario Odyssey and Nintendo’s other games like Breath of the Wild do is take full advantage of the medium, and create something that cannot be replicated elsewhere, by movies, television, books or anything else. Perhaps the closest comparison could be a role-playing tabletop game—the elements and the rules are there, but you create your own story and experience out of those tools.
I recently revisited the Wooded Kingdom to check back on my anxiety robot pals. As expected, all was well thanks to my efforts. But I went back to a charging station area, where robots waited in an absurdly long line to recharge their energy supplies. The robot at the end of the line appeared to be near-death. I walked to the front of the line, and received the following dialogue from an anxious robot: “Patience expiring! Initiating passive-aggressive commentary!” Mario may have saved the day, but anxiety itself cannot be totally eradicated.
And to that one anxious robot, all I have to say is: same.
Chris Compendio is a Paste intern who is currently losing his mind looking for every purple coin. Send him advice on Twitter @Compenderizer, and check out his pieces about Marvel on MCUExchange.