By Jordan Shapiro
Shovel Knight is hard to stop playing. It is a super stylized tribute to the epic platformers of the video game industry’s early days. My kids and I have been playing the game together for the last few weeks. We sit on the sofa, handing off the WiiU controller and navigating our way past witty characters and imaginative obstacles.
The thing about platformer games is that they are all about style. After all, they are all essentially the same. The avatar just keeps moving to the right. Sometimes there’s a ladder up. Other times the passage leads down. All along, you avoid rifts and chasms. You hop over obstacles. You avoid projectiles. You stay cautious lest something falls from the sky or rises from beneath the platform.
The difference between one platformer and the next comes down to storytelling and style. What story is laid atop the essential mechanics? How well are the elements introduced? How do the aesthetics align with the mechanics? And do all the components organize into a unified and consistent system?
Platformers often have a quest theme. They tend to borrow many of their dynamic narrative elements from the archetypal hero’s journey–the “monomyth” laid out so well in Joseph Campbell’s famous book, Hero With A Thousand Faces. Whether they are set in the future, in space, on pirate ships, or in an urban wasteland, platformers usually include some sort of heroic objective. The protagonist is always ambitiously seeking an object.
This, of course, is precisely why gender-conscious folks object to the damsel in distress narrative trope: it turns the “princess” into an object. No matter how often misogynists make the argument that the women must be respected because the whole point of the game is reach them, nothing changes. The damsel is still a prize, a treasure, a kind of property.
Of course, in hero stories the ultimate boon need not be a person. It can be a chalice, secret data, a weapon, a magic potion. He or she could even be a fugitive trying to get to a safe place (the object is safety), or maybe a modern day Odysseus side tracked on the way to Ithaca. Always there’s an object of desire and the hero is on a quest to attain it.
The procedural specifics of the heroic quest make it perfectly suited to video game design. The great French mythologist Jean-Pierre Vernant explains that in classic myth the exploits of heroes “are valid in themselves and on their own account, quite apart from the hero performing them.” In a video game, too, any individual player can drop in and control the avatar. This is why the best protagonists reduce the thematic down to a common denominator, a smiley face–as general as possible–allowing the largest number of players to identify.
Each level of the game is like a trial of Hercules, self contained in its objective but also a piece of the whole. You go from one boss to the next, compounding new elements and obstacles atop the familiar. Heroic games work for the same reason heroic myths work.
The audience can enjoy imagining themselves in the same extreme circumstances. They can imagine proving their own heroism. After all, Vernant explains the mythic hero: “He does not perform the impossible because he is a hero; rather, he is a hero because he has performed the impossible.”
In the formative days of video game design, the platformer quest was much more explicit. Dialogue was written in pixelated text. There were ogres and villains, psychopomps, messengers, and mentors. The game played like a choose your own adventure novel with expository content crammed before and after each level. Eventually, most of the narrative was eliminated.
Perhaps it was because Mario showed us we hardly needed the story. We were content to learn Peach and Bowser’s motivation the opening and concluding credits. Everything in between is just a procedural challenge. The modern platformer is not like a novel, it is a myth. There is no character development. There are only trials.
Regrettably, in the age of mobile games, even more is lost. The platformer can be reduced to stick figures. Run. Jump. Shoot. On tablets, the platformer is often just a generic side-scrolling endless runner to which advertisers can apply movie tie-ins whenever and wherever they see fit. The story is irrelevant, the characters meaningless.
Luckily, Shovel Knight, the new indie game for Wii U and 3DS, steps in with a nostalgic homage to the platformers of the past. Everything about Shovel Knight recalls the games I played as a child. It feels like an platformer from the Atari 2600 suddenly fell into a time travel portal and arrived in 2014. Imagine what would happen if we skipped everything in between then and now. If the games of the past, without having evolved slowly, were just given the capabilities of today’s HD consoles.
Shovel Knight’s music sounds like the mono-timbre midi-sequenced beeps of the early game consoles suddenly got released into a world where they are provided with techno accompaniment. The old melody still plays lead, but now it is backed up with 21st century beats.
The art design utilizes the new tech but only to enrich the old-style graphics, as if we had never imagined other kinds of design. The 3DS version of Shovel Knight (when played in 3D mode), for example, has a beautiful layered depth; but each layer remains flat like old style cell animation.
Because it makes the hero story explicit, Shovel Knight allowed me to discuss the nature of the platformer genre with my eight year old. I pointed out the narrative structure and tried to explain to him that when success is defined by the deeds rather than the person, we implicitly define dignity as the opportunity to climb the backs of others to the top of a pyramid. Climb or be climbed upon.
I scrambled for the best eight-year-old metaphors I could muster. “Imagine stepping on your friends because you are racing to be the first one down the sliding board. Why not just take turns? Share the fun with everyone?”
The ubiquity of heroic stories in our culture leads to unchecked ambition, corporate growth disconnected from humanity, standardized testing, and fierce competition. Heroism is useful in many ways. But harmful in many others. Hopefully, I will raise boys who understand when it is good to call on their inner Hercules and when it is not.
It seems like a complicated conversation, but it was not. He understood completely. “That’s what I like about Tomodachi Life, Dad.” He explained, “It is not about winning or losing. It is about how all the Miis live together.” I smiled proudly.
I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m told Tomodachi means “Friends.” That makes sense, the game seems to be about having fun in community. I say “seems” because I do not get it. I have tried to play, but it just does not resonate with me. Both of my kids, however, never seem to stop playing. Perhaps this is because I was raised in the age of platformers that didn’t even have coop mode. Perhaps I have hero consciousness; and maybe they don’t.
I would like to think it is true. The idea that new games can (and already are) teaching kids how to re-imagine cultural priorities gives me hope for the future.