He’s Ain’t A Coward, He’s My Brother
This was Siblings Week on The A.V. Club, and I used the theme as an excuse to finally lay out my love for Luigi and his first real starring vehicle, Luigi’s Mansion. (Let’s just pretend Mario Is Missing never happened, shall we?) Some commenters took issue with my calling Luigi a “coward” and Mario a jubilant cartoon hero. And they’re absolutely right! There’s more nuance to both of those points than I could, for brevity’s sake, have dug into in an essay of that scope. LittleMac summed it up nicely:
I’m not sure it’s fair to call Luigi a coward. He’s certainly a fearful, timid guy, but he doesn’t run away from his responsibilities; he swallows as much of his fear as he can and timidly marches forward. Aren’t we always hearing that courage isn’t lacking fear but doing what you have to in spite of it?
I’d also like to stick up for Mario as a character. Undoubtedly, like almost every action protagonist, he has less personality than his supporting cast, but I’d say he definitely has a personality beyond just “hero.” Just as Luigi is the timid, reluctant hero (or Peach is the ditzy but resourceful-when-the-plot-calls-for-it Princess, or Daisy is the brash tomboy), Mario has a personality defined by a single primary trait: his exuberance. Mario LOVES facing down every challenge that lays before him.
Sure, when it gets right down to the critical moment he grits his teeth and gets serious, but most of the time he’s dashing through absurdly dangerous situations having the time of his life! Wah! Woo-hoo! Wah-hah! YIPPIE!!! Mario and Luigi are both slapstick heroes at their core, but one of them is fearless and the other is quite the opposite.
I think the “Mario is an empty vessel” conventional wisdom probably arises out of the fact that, as Nintendo fleshed out the supporting cast and technology allowed them to give more life to the animation, Mario’s exuberance became the defining trait of the entire “Mario World”: when even the foliage is looking bouncy and exuberant, it’s a lot easier for Mario to just blend in to the world and come off as a cipher.
I made the off-the-cuff statement the other day to my wife that, “You can’t have character without a flaw.” Nowhere does this ring so perfectly true than for Luigi. Mario is seemingly without flaw and thus seemingly has no character, but what we have in Luigi is a deep and meaningful personality that is very compelling, and I love seeing him take the narrative spotlight.
Particularly in Luigi’s Mansion, his ability to return, again and again, despite knowing what is there and what challenges await shows bravery far beyond the outward appearance of his trembling and trepidation. He forces himself through beyond fear, not out of stupidity, but out of duty. That makes him a true hero, far more than I’ve ever felt from another video game character.
TwoPointBro (who also made a Gameological commenting debut with a great, monstrous post arguing that the GameCube was a peak era for Nintendo games with big personalities) pointed to Super Mario Sunshine as a game that gave Mario some extra charm:
I think Sunshine Mario had the most personality. In the first scene alone, we see him drooling over the idea of a vacation with good food, and we get to chuckle at his ludicrous idea that “beachwear=denim overalls + SHORT sleeves.” That whole game was unafraid to be stuffed with goofiness.
And ’Tis pointed to another heroic duo to explain Mario and Luigi’s dfferences:
I like to think of the Mario/Luigi dynamic as something akin to Superman/Batman. Mario is nearly all powerful, with abilities like super strength (Mushrooms), invincibility (Super Stars), flight (Winged Cap, Cape, Super Leaf), heat vision (Fire Flowers). He is just and unstoppable. Like Superman, it’s never a matter of if Mario can win; it’s only a matter of whether he can do it in time.
Luigi, on the other hand, is the perfect Batman parallel. They both get to use the gadgets (Poltergust 3000). They both are hampered by emotional baggage (sibling inadequacy). They are, as DL said, flawed and compelling. Mario/Superman are the ideal—what we strive to be—but Luigi/Batman are relatable, what we experience in real life.
Elsewhere, both Tinkerer and Jakeoti gave props to Charles Martinet, the voice of Nintendo’s plumbers and some of their supporting cast. Jakeoti even recalled a story Martinet likes to tell about the origin of Luigi’s timidity:
Some of Luigi’s personality comes from a bit of improv by Charles Martinet. Going back in Nintendo’s history, it’s not hard to see the first gig that Martinet had as the voice of Mario: performing on a (somewhat creepy) motion capture system. The computer was rigged to Martinet’s face so that it could track his expressions and mouth while he talked to attendees at an event as he greeted the crowd and answered questions. Someone asked if Luigi could come out and talk. In response, Martinet held his mouth shut behind the scenes so that Mario’s computer-generated mouth wouldn’t move as “Luigi” called out from the “kitchen” and said he was busy making spaghetti and too shy to come out. Mario apologized that his brother wouldn’t be there, but I imagine that just that little bit of personality stuck with Luigi.
Okay, No, This Is Actually Really Heavy
[Plot details for the ending of Brothers: A Tail Of Two Sons coming up.]
Our other entry into the Siblings Week festivities was a To The Bitter End essay from Anthony John Agnello (who’s currently living inside a giant Loot Crate at Comic-Con and thus needs all your prayers) exploring the emotional wallop of Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. RedBlueGreen echoed Anthony’s reaction:
This game’s big final moment with the younger brother back in his hometown—it got two simultaneous reactions out of me. I thought it was extremely emotional, both beautiful and harrowing. But there was the other more analytical side of me that was impressed with what the developers had managed to pull off. They took the simple pushing of a button, the most basic and fundamental thing you do while playing a video game, and turned it into a huge character moment. It’s a thematic payoff and perfect ending to the story, and it was totally reliant on the innate understanding of the core action that they had ingrained in you over the course of your playthough. It was ingenious, and I absolutely loved it.
As much as Team Zissou enjoyed the rest of the game’s character work, the ending was just too obvious for this intrepid band of oceanographers:
My favorite thing about the game was the characterization of the brothers through their unique interactions with strangers, animals, and other parts of the world. They really did seem like two good kids with true affection for each other, mixed in with all the frustration.
The ending didn’t completely work for me. From the second I heard the title of the game and its basic premise (particularly the controls), I could immediately guess how the game would end. It did a fine enough job, but I wished the solo portion at the end were a bit longer so you could feel the full effect of the boy’s loss. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I was hoping for a bit more than the sketch of an ending I had already made up in my head.
For Girard, it was the game’s poor handling of its only prominent female character that soured the experience:
The game’s handling of its one female character left a really, really bad taste in my mouth and abruptly changed the tone from a sweet, if kind of cloying, tale of brotherly camaraderie to a pretty noxious affirmation of “bros before hos, amirite?” sentiment.
The only criticism I’ve read of this game that bothers to take even a brief pause from fawning adulation to mention this was Justin McElroy’s review over at Polygon, which is weird because the mishandling of the character is so glaring. She’s like a condensation of virtually every stupid trope women in media are shoved into. She starts off as a damsel the boys rescue, then is an unplayable escorted tagalong character (because even in a game vaunted for its inventive control scheme that puts you in the heads and bodies of multiple characters, who would want to play as a girl, right?), then becomes a Yoko Ono whose feminine presence threatens to disrupt the boys’ bro-bond. That last manifestation of the terror of women’s disruptive sexuality is then exacerbated when she becomes a literal black widow, a giant spider monster who traps the brothers in a web sac hanging out of her vagina and ends up having to be pretty brutally (by this game’s standards) dismembered and killed. (It’s noticeable that this game’s only scene of actual violence—its only real “boss battle”—targets its primary female character).
It’s a real shame. As I headed towards the final act, and the red flags around that character kept popping up, the game shifted from a beautiful, inventive, touching experiment I’d heartily recommend to anyone to show them games’ potential, to something embarrassing that I wouldn’t really recommend to anyone, and if I did, it would be with major caveats.
And in a follow-up post, Girard suggested some alternative approaches that might have helped avoid the problem. They’re worth a read.
And with that, we’re signing off for the week. Winners of the Spectra giveaway in this morning’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? should be receiving their codes shortly. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all again next week!