In Defense of Automatic Mario

January 21, 2016 by Ben Gabriel

Learning to love Mario by putting the controller down.

Most mornings, after I’ve cracked three eggs into the skillet, I turn on my Wii U. By the time the eggs are ready, I'll have booted up Super Mario Maker and navigated its menus. The trick is to stay in the "Highlights" section of the "Course World" -- the portion of the game meant for playing its user-generated levels, rather than creating them yourself -- but swapping the filter to view "easy," rather than "normal," creations. From there, it's as easy as finding the right title -- "Don't Move" or "Automatic" or [a string of kanji our new CMS doesn't like -ed] -- and pressing Play.

Ninety percent of levels start with a spring being fired out of a Bullet Bill cannon, sending Mario careening forward. From there, every obstacle he encounters is perfectly timed to either propel him forward or narrowly avoid him. Anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes later, Mario will be deposited, triumphant, atop a flagpole, and I'll be a few bites through breakfast, ready to go again. 

On a typical day, I'll have gotten through my eggs (sunny side up, for those curious) after about a half dozen levels or so. I might play through some more, either Automatic or manual, or practice punishes in Super Smash Brothers for Wii U, or do something else entirely. Maybe that night I'll smile about a particularly clever trick -- the Wiggler that chased me halfway across the level only to be my salvation, or the Thwomps that landed on coin blocks to produce massive angry Boos. I might even reflect on how this whole thing started off as a joke: instead of stressing about finding something on Netflix or Youtube while eating breakfast, why not just watch Mario go through his trials, only hands-free? 

There is a thin line between a joke, repeated, and a ritual proper. Before I knew it I was looking forward to playing Automatic Mario levels through breakfast. The shift was in attention more than intent; rather than focusing on my food, I found myself cataloguing the choices creators made in Automatic Mario levels. The way springs were so often used as bookends started striking me. Not only did they initially propel Mario forward, but in many levels they waited after the flagpole to push him into the abyss. And then I began to appreciate the trope of killing Mario after he had won. It was poetic, in a trollish way: the player trusts in the level to propel their avatar throughout, and it does, only to renege on that contract at the point that trust is no longer needed. 

The most prominent criticism of the Automatic Mario style of level -- beyond simply disparaging them for their prominence -- is that once you've seen a few, you've seen them all. That isn't necessarily unfair: for all the tools that Super Mario Maker provides to create levels, only a subset of them can be used to propel Mario forward, and within this subset there are further limitations. Combine these limitations with a valuing of the flashy -- the more frenetic the level, the more accolades it tends to attract -- and the toolset is narrowed down even further. Playing these levels in a ritual way, rather than as an activity, helped me think of them in a different light, though. Much like a science fiction novel or a horror film, what attracts me isn't the broad strokes but the particular techniques used, and how they are configured. 

The most exciting Automatic Mario stages are the ones that use that narrow toolset to do something like environmental storytelling. Without the ability to build unique assets, this is hard to do: Super Mario Maker may provide the tools to represent a disheveled room, for instance, but there's no way to craft an empty bassinet for instant pathos. In the Automatic Mario version of environmental storytelling, the creator will use the tools at their disposal to recreate the feeling of experiencing another game or a generic story. The most prominent examples are Automatic Mario stages that replicate the feeling of playing Mario Kart. They do so not just by making Mario move quickly, but by including some empty Buzzy Beetle shells to move alongside Mario, representing the other racers. The best of these levels will have Mario jockeying for position with the shells, as though it were a real race. 

Mario Kart style Automatic Mario levels present a paradox that all Automatic Mario levels contain, only magnified: the player knows that the way to win is to remove themselves from the controls, but the desire to nudge Mario forward to overtake the other "racers" is strong. The tension to take over is different only in degree, rather than kind, from the split second decisions in a shooter about whether to jump or strafe, only you are choosing whether or not to touch the controller at all. After enough mornings of Automatic Mario, you might find yourself thinking of putting the controller down as the highest form of interactivity.

Even before I had begun building my first Automatic Mario stage, I had certain expectations: that it would require more planning, more trial and error, and more tweaking than anything I had done prior. More, in a word, time. I wasn't wrong. 

The amount of work that goes into creating an Automatic Mario level has a lot to do with testing. It is, in this way at least, similar to more professional forms of game development: more systems that interlock mean exponentially more testing, as each individual aspect must also be tested on its own and in relation to the whole. One of the best aspects of Super Mario Maker as a level editor is that it allows the user to start at any point within the level, allowing the player to test a specific jump without having to run through the whole thing. Making an Automatic Mario level, though, can involve thoroughly testing the placement of a Wiggler to get it perfect, only to realize that Mario's placement because of a conveyor belt a full minute before means that he will collide with it and die rather than it propelling him along. 

Early on, I thought I found a hack; using a P-switch stops all conveyor belts, so I would use them as soft checkpoints during testing. Place Mario where he would stop and the level should work the same. It didn't. But I did realize that this was the exact sort of thing I enjoyed in Automatic Mario levels: using the tools to create a new experience, one that valued the moments of stasis as much as those of speed. 

It didn't take long for each addition to be subjected to a mental calculus. Adding a series of jumps off Koopa Troopas here would make a dull section more exciting, but would it simply add too much time in testing that I would sour on the whole project? Whether I chose to pursue any individual decision or not, what ultimately kept me going was the same frame of mind that initially attracted me. I wasn't finding some key to unlock a previously unopened door, but choosing how to arrange the rooms that were already opened up, and that was even more gratifying. 

Going back to my ritual after creating a handful of Automatic Mario levels of my own didn't change the way I appreciated this style of level, but it did deepen it. All the time I spent testing each individual aspect of my own, admittedly amateur creation, and the way that interacted with testing the whole thing, led me to appreciate not just the Automatic Mario designs as complex structures built out of abstract building blocks, but as products of a very real labor. That someone somewhere did work on something doesn't make that thing inherently valuable, of course, but the specificities of what that work entails does highlight certain aspects of how it is valued. Testing an Automatic Mario level, for instance, isn't arduous labor, but it is time-intensive.

The more levels I play, the more I learn to think about what each one, individually, is trying to say. At the same time, I listen to what the Automatic Mario style as a whole speaks to. Many levels repeat themselves and each other, of course. They say simple things, like that speed is good, or that danger is exciting. But even the most simplistic have a real nuance built into them. The excitement of danger is presented in the context of a promise of a safe journey, as long as you abide by the rules. The value of speed is the result of the time sucking tedium of repeated testing. Deliberately working through a well-designed challenge of lateral thinking and fine motor skills can be fun and interesting, but sometimes putting the controller down can be just as playful.

Ben Gabriel writes about labor, genre and form across media for Strange Horizons, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. He lives on Island Demeter.