Captain Toad and Captain Toad and Me: The Weightiness of the Virtual Body

 

Over the past week or so, I’ve been catching up with a game I missed out on the first time around: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Despite being a spin-off of the Mario franchise, there’s a uniqueness to the world Captain Toad inhabits – square “islands” floating in space with seemingly no way to enter and no way to leave. This leads us to one of the game’s main mechanics: rotating the camera around these cubed purgatories to reveal hidden spaces and pathways. You’re never really stuck in Capt. Toad, you just need to consider a different perspective on things to show you the way. The game also differs from other Mario-based properties in that the emphasis isn’t on platforming or speed but rather puzzle solving and, well, treasure hunting. In fact, Captain Toad can’t even jump; instead, he relies on his turnip-pulling skills (He’s been ace at this since Super Mario Bros. 2, remember!) to take care of any baddies in his way. Nothing makes a guy more shy than a root vegetable to the face!

 

Despite the lack of running and leaping in the game, moving Cap’n Toad around really pulls me into the game’s spaces. There’s a great bit early on where Cap’n Toad grabs some magical cherries (also from SMB2!) and splits into two through some sort of mitosis for sidekicks. Players must then complete the level by moving both virtual bodies through something of a maze, pressing buttons and hitting switches often at the same time. And here’s the squeeze: both bodies are controlled at once and generally must be at opposite sides of the area. The immediate result is a discombobulation in trying to move one character to where they need to be while inadvertently moving the other away from where you put them. The level is the fifth one of the game, so I had gotten quite used to the way Cap’n Toad moves around by the time I encountered it. Now, it felt like re-learning how to ride a bike that someone else was riding. Soon enough, though, I got the hang of using the environment to my advantage, trapping one Cap’n Toad in a corner or on a wall while I move the other towards the goal. I gathered all the diamonds, reached the star, and finished the level.

 

Player trying to move two Toads at once

 

What really struck me as interesting is what happened next, though. I load the next level and press forward on the controller’s thumb-pad to move Cap’n Toad forward. And he goes forward but it feels so different now. It feels a bit like when you pick up a box expecting it to be quite heavy only to find that it is empty. I had gotten so used to the feeling of moving two characters that I still felt the “weight” of the now-absent second Cap’n Toad, like some sort of phantom limb almost. Moving just one felt… weird. The experience brought to mind Brendan Keogh’s argument that “bodily incorporation is the experience of videogame play” (A Play of Bodies, 4). What other medium could give me this feeling, and more importantly, what can this medium do with the ability to make players feel this way?

Ryan House

Ryan House is a PhD student in Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Twitter: @ludoscholar

6 Comments

  1. Of course, my first instinct is to reach for MGSV: The Phantom Pain, whose title infers a similar feeling to what you’re describing! I don’t think this feature is completely unique to games (I think a film like Timecode (ugh) sometimes accomplishes a similar feeling of suddenly realizing something that’s *not* there), but there is much possibility for it to be explored more.

    Have you by chance played “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”? It has a similar feature to the Captain Toad levels you discuss wherein one player controls two characters. It’s primary narrative message is deeply enhanced by the feeling you flesh out at the end of this essay.

    • I actually edited out a bit about “Brothers” in this essay because it felt unfocused, but yes! I think what it manages to pull off in the last bit of that game begins to answer some of the questions I ask here. I played through it on stream a while back: Part 1(https://youtu.be/bfrvyRxz3zg); Part 2(https://youtu.be/24Fq0MINY5s).

      I’m not sure I agree about Timecode — partly because I’m not sure what you mean when you say it does something similar, but mostly because I don’t think film as a medium is capable of it. There has to be some physicality of input to reach the phenomenon of what I’m describing here. It requires body pushing against machine and vice versa. Moreover, I think the audiovisual element that distinguishes videogames from other games is fundamental, as well.

      • In regards to Timecode I’m thinking of eyes as the body pushing against the machine. In that case there are four “eyes” and when (if), after a significant portion of the duration, the film removes them (makes them go black) there might be a similar sensation of a part of the body missing.

        • Ah, okay. I see what you’re saying. It still seems to me to be missing that bodily incorporation that Keogh talks about. Watching a film is a kind of coordination, maybe, between the apparatus and the body, but not an enmeshment or amalgamation of the two. I think it’s the difference between running parallel or perpendicular to one another (though I need to think through this analogy more probably).

          That said, I think the phenomenological “coordination” (as a working term) involved in watching a film is certainly an important aspect of the incorporation that videogames can achieve. As I mentioned in my last response, the audiovisual element of videogames is a direct descendent of film and film-like mediums. Without the coordination it provides, the incorporation might not ever happen (or even be possible?).

          This is something that I’ve been trying to work out in my work on co-op games, too. I think I need to go read some Benjamin. I appreciate the comments, Erik. They’ve helped move my thinking forward a bit.

  2. Cool stuff! I love Captain Toad so much. I enjoyed controlling a character who felt heavy for once, especially in the Mario aesthetic where most of the time you control characters who feel flighty and weightless at times.

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