Sunday, 14 April 2013

On: Mario Empalado

All you have to do go to the freeindiegames page of Mario Empalado and you'll see what the general idea of this game is. Many people seem to feel that it's crass, juvenille and sort of gross. I understand that. I even understand if that makes you not want to play it, or it totally turns you off from the game. But I actually like Mario Empalado. I like it a lot.

 I think people are making a mistake about what the game actually is. Paiva calls it a "hate letter to the games industry," but I don't think he's being totally honest. Paiva is a good designer. He's made a lot of games. He's taught them to 11 year olds at workshops. I think he's smarter than what Mario Empalado would suggest of him at the surface, and I think it's important to trust what he's trying to do.

I don't think that Mario Empalado is the HotlineMiami/FarCry3 self-reflection shooter that it probably initially implies for a lot of people. The reason why the FarCry3 'reflection' game fails, is because it's inherently disingenuous at its core. It wants you to feel bad for shooting others, yet shooting is designed to be enjoyable. It's mechanics tell you that FarCry3 is a game to have fun with, but it's narrative (not even full-heartedly) tells you that it's bad, in ways that are superficial and meaningless: through absurd cutscenes and weak dialogues of "what have I become" in between hours of shooting down coloured people. Games like FarCry3 are in conflict with themselves, and become incapable of properly saying what they want to.

(I encourage you to read Brendan Keogh on the subject)

This isn't what Mario Empalado is. Mario Empalado isn't disingenuous, and it's nature is not a veneer.  Everything you do in Mario Empalado is exactly what the game is trying to suggest to you it is. The shots themselves, for example, aren't satisfying or enjoyable. They feel dead, and hollow. There's no feeling of feedback or response to them; they just have this low-quality soundclip, which makes your shots feel cheap and useless, like garbage. Everything about Mario Empalado feels gross and repulsive. But it doesn't just tell you that. It actually curves it's entire aesthetic and mechanics towards instilling the feeling of disgust.

Think about how Mario Empalado looks. Think about how its aesthetic is literally composed of colored neon-like outlines on pure black. It feels so ugly and uncomfortable, like an dirty city alleyway at midnight. 

If Mario Empalado is dishonest, it's dishonesty probably comes from the surface assumption that it's attempting to act as some kind of industry criticism. I think its "fuck the games industry" surface exists to manifest the militant nerd-gamer mentality, but I don't even think it's the point. What brings Mario Empalado full circle, is its ending, the point where you're disconnected. The game drowns your head in mucky water, and then pulls you up, to show the contrast between the political intensity of the embedded metagame, and the dry, mundane reality that acts as its frame narrative. The transition in turn, communicates that what you just spend your time on was pointless. "What you did was meaningless," says Mario Empalado. "You're just some asshole on a computer. Look around you. What are you doing with yourself?" Asks Mario Empalado as you stare at the clock showing midnight, the leaky roof you still haven't fixed, the door closed to your room, revealing your own sad isolation. 

Again, this is not the same as the ironic self-reflection shooter. Mario Empalado is not commenting on the morality of my complicity in its systems. The game is well aware that what I'm doing is awful. The game does know that, yes, I know that what I am doing is terrible in a real world context. I do not need to be told this over and over again, as I, like you, am not an idiot. Instead, Mario Empalado removes us from the metagame, to show the destructive disconnection that exists in games, the kind that would allow for such extreme violence to exist unquestioned in the first place. 

Let's look a little outward for a bit. Do you remember Russ Pitt's Polygon review of Sim City, where he praised the game for its addictiveness? He discussed how the game caused in to miss a meeting:

"As for how satisfying the experience is as a whole, take this example: I missed a meeting. And it was my meeting. During the course of one play session, I literally became so absorbed in the experience that I lost all track of time and played through an entire afternoon, oblivious to the fact that a meeting I had scheduled approached and then passed. When I returned to my work station many, many hours later, I greeted my overflowing email inbox and the raft of polite (but concerned) inquiries as to my whereabouts with a serene, self-possessed calm. As if, whatever troubles the world might throw at me would be of little concern next to the travails I had experienced in West Pittssex."

Upon reading this for the first time, I found it incredibly disturbing. Why would someone view a game causing them to miss their meeting as a positive? A game that would, apparently, have no respect my time, no respect for my autonomy and my self as a human being, who has priorities and goals and passions, but rather views me as a hollow piece of meat, a means of perpetual consumption who purely exists to put time into itself, like a fordist factory worker puts in labour. Is that not disturbing? Is that not terrifying?

Perhaps, but it's also revealing of what I think is the full circle of Mario Empalado. A culture that doesn't respect itself. A culture that doesn't like itself, and searches not for meaning or purpose, but total disconnection, in order to satisfy its subconscious self-loathing

In that way, I find that Mario Empalado is better than the reflection-bro shooter. It's probably the most effective game that directly comments on the nature of violent play I've played.


Also, as an end note, this is a good chance to play more of Paiva's games. He's a very good designer. Carrocracia was just put up today on freeindiegames. Check it out!