In the following, I will analyze the gameplay experience of the original Super Mario Bros. as a demonstration of two analytical methods.¹ First, I will isolate the variety of goals common to all goal-oriented games. Second, I will use an overlooked object-based analysis to complement the more common action-based analysis. Through these methods, a better understanding of a game’s generalized experience can be accessed.
The Variety of Goals
Most video games have a variety of goals. Global goals (those that encompass the entire gameplay experience) are either internally or externally constructed. The internal goals are either based in the game’s narrative reality or in the game’s mechanics, while the game’s external goals are socially constructed.
In conversation, I might adopt a global goal to explain a game. “I’m trying to save the princess,” I might say, referencing the narrative goal. Or instead, “I’m trying to finish the game,” referencing a mechanic-informed goal. In yet another explanation, I might say “I’m trying to beat my high score,” or “I’m trying to beat my best time.” None of these explanations capture the essence of Mario, however. All are about reaching an end state, not about the process necessary to reach it.
To understand the gameplay and generalize the game’s individual experiences, analyze local goals instead. The way to access these local goals is by separating global goals into their elements. To achieve Mario’s mechanic-informed global goal (completing the game), a player must complete worlds, which depends upon completing levels. Assuming the player has basic familiarity with Mario, to complete a level, the player must not die. Avoiding death may be considered the irreducible local goal, but it is passive. Translated to an action, the player’s local goal is to gain lives.
Some of these steps from the global to the local were less than obvious, but the point is to understand a game’s experience more accurately. This division could similarly be performed for the other two global goals. I wouldn’t expect the narrative goal to provide much insight for Mario—the fiction has little bearing on the gameplay—but a social goal might lead to a very interesting (and very different) analysis. I will be focusing exclusively on the mechanic-informed local goal (to gain extra lives) from this point onward.
Actions and Objects
While designers such as Anna Anthropy and Chris Crawford have recommended an action- or verb-based analysis of games, this method overlooks aspects. Even though the platformer genre is associated with the act of “platforming,” it is just as associated with collectibles. I do not suggest either mode of analysis in isolation, but an object-based analysis is especially valuable for this genre.
For example, in level 1-1 there is a choice to descend a pipe into a secret area and gain 19 coins or to continue onward with the opportunity for a hidden 1-up, a mushroom (or fire-flower), a star, and 15 coins. What at first appears to be beneficial to the goal is comparatively detrimental. However, this judgment depends on the local goal; a speed-runner would take the “detrimental” route. An action-based analysis overlooks the experience of exploration created through objects.
Objects also affect player choice through the conflict of risk and reward. In level 8-2 there is a 1-up that, while easily found, requires the player to proceed past three winged turtles at an uncomfortable speed. Moving too quickly or too slowly will force the 1-up off screen, and the player will gain nothing. A similar risk occurs again in 8-2 with a mushroom surrounded by bullets and another flying turtle. Objects provide the framework for actions, and challenges imbue objects with value.
More specifically, consider the role of invisible blocks. From the action-analysis, they oppose the player’s expectations. The anticipated jump is interrupted, and the player potentially loses a life for their accidental discovery. Once a hidden block is made visible, however, it extends the range of the player’s actions by providing a new surface to jump off of. Often more valuable is the unexpected content, though. Discovering a secret 1-up or discovering coins concealed in brick is satisfying. This sense of discovery is a central experience in Mario that would be less easily understood from an action-based analysis alone.
The local goal is made meaningful through scarcity as well. In Mario there are three ways to gain lives. For objects, the player can either collect 100 coins or a single 1-up mushroom. This ratio creates value that only exists due to the comparison. For actions, the player can perform a turtle-shell trick. (This means hitting a turtle shell 9 times by either jumping on it repeatedly, hitting it against 8 other enemies, or some combination.) This trick requires several conditions, making it as rare as 1-up mushrooms, while inherently more difficult.
From this local, mechanic-informed goal of gaining lives, skilled play is characterized by creating optimal routes through objects and actions, risks and rewards. Mario becomes about much more than beating the game or saving the princess.²
TL;DR When analyzing games, it’s beneficial to ask “How does gameplay (constructed by the interaction of objects and actions) affect local goals and, by extension, the generalized experience of a game?”
¹ The version of Super Mario Bros. referenced is from the SNES Super Mario Bros. All Stars.
² This analysis also provides a baseline from which other Mario games may be compared. I will leave this for later, but in brief, a trend of devaluing bonus lives becomes apparent from Super Mario Bros. 3 onward.
Anna Anthropy’s “Level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight.”