The Freedom of Super Mario 64

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The first game I fell in love with was Super Mario 64. I can remember first seeing my cousins play it at my grandma’s house when I was six years ol d on an brisk Friday evening. I was so excited about it that the next morning I woke up at 5 am and snuck into the basement, where grandma kept her spare TV, to play the game without interruption, and play I did. I sat in front of that old cathode ray television with pure joy on my face. At the time I never missed my Saturday morning cartoons, but on that day they were the furthest thing from my mind. I had played video games before like Duck Hunt, and always thought of them more as toys, like my legos or action figures, they were neat but nothing revolutionary, nothing my mind dwelled on. What hooked me on Super Mario 64 was the immense sense of freedom I felt from moving Mario around and exploring Princess Peach’s castle. That freedom still inspires me to this day over 20 years later.

We sometimes think of freedom in intellectual and political terms, such as “we hold these truths to be self evident” and it is absolutely an important abstract concept to be debated and understood, but freedom is as much a feeling that one has as an ideological construction. We can see this in the way we often talk around freedom: for instance, Robert Frost’s famous quote “Freedom lies in being bold” is about the emotional disposition of freedom, not whatever philosophical tenets might underlie the literal freedom of people.

When a company is trying to sell you a video game that emphasizes freedom, they often describe it in ways muddle emotional and intellectual freedom. They might tell you that you can “go-anywhere, do-anything,” talk about the multitude of things you can do, or describe copious ways the player is in control of the experience, all to engender in the player a sense of freedom the game affords. Such arguments are often intellectual descriptions of games that aim to let you do the imagining of the freedom you will have while playing the game. But does the player actually feel free when they play? To me, that is an entirely different question, set apart from simple descriptions of narrative or ludic features: I can’t tell you if a game feels free just by a description, I need to play it to know.

So in this video I’m going to try to define that feeling of freedom that games can give us using one of the most free games I know: Super Mario 64. This video is structured around ten short statements that describe freedom, all of them start with “Freedom is…” I will describe what I mean for each of them, what that feels like, and how Super Mario 64 accomplishes that feeling. So lets get started.

Freedom is movement and movement is change. Of course, movement has been part of video games since Pong, but that doesn’t diminish movement’s huge importance in impacting the way it feels to play a game. When we move around in the world of a game, that world is constantly changing from our perspective, based on our decisions. These changes makes us feel like we are in control, that we are free to do what we want, go where we want. Goals may funnel us into particular pathways, but movement and choosing where we are located in space are important for elevating games beyond just “press the right button at the right time,” as they give us the ability to pace the game.

The best feeling part of Super Mario 64 is no doubt the movement. It’s pretty well known Miyamoto spent months getting the movement of the game right before moving onto anything else. The dynamic ways Mario moves in three dimensions reaffirm this freedom, not only does the player have control in 360 degrees as opposed to the 4 directions of the game’s 2D predecessors, but the player also gains control, somewhat sloppily, over the camera as well. There are nearly limitless combinations of camera and movement directions, but because us humans are already used to moving around and looking at things, this doesn’t overwhelm us. Beyond this, Mario moves in very intuitive and surprising ways. The side flip makes it feel as though Mario is reacting very specifically to the players inputs in a way that still gives me a little bit of goosebumps. Mario moves in all sorts of incidental ways that give each move on the analog stick a sense of action and reaction. As a result, moving in Super Mario 64 feels like freedom: Mario may be grounded, unable to fly, well at least most of the time, but the responsiveness of the controls and the fact that every challenge the player faces is fundamentally about getting from point A to point B gives the player a sense of wanderlust as they traverse each stage.

On that note about getting from point A to point B: Freedom is choosing how you accomplish a task. All that freedom one gets from movement would be meaningless if there were only ever one way to accomplish any given challenge. We feel free when we feel like there are many routes to the same goal. Whether we fail or succeed, at least we know that we picked that path, and maybe we’ll take the other road next time. It can be absolutely fun to accomplish a difficult task that can only be done one way, but that doesn’t engender a sense of freedom, instead just accomplishment. We feel free when offered a choice of how to go about solving a problem.

We can imagine a version of Super Mario 64 where every challenge can only be accomplish in one way. Where every obstacle has one right, and a million wrong, ways to get past it. That version of the game would frankly suck. What the game does so well is mixing big and small choices together into a kind of route stew. We can flowchart these out into picking the Power Star we want to pursue, the general path we are going to take to get that star, and then how we are going to tackle the minor difficulties and setbacks along the way. Sure, sometimes you might have only one path to a star but within that path you will have micro choices to make: which jump will you use to cross this gap, how are you going to get past this obstacle or that enemy? In these micro instances, there are usually a dozen or more variations to the way the player can proceed. One of the best examples of this are the red coin stars. If we just count the number of sequences, there are 8!, or 40,320 orders one could collect the 8 coins in any given level! You probably don’t think about that while playing, but it helps illustrate how the wealth of options in Super Mario 64 can instill a sense of freedom in players.

I think this is something that contemporary big budget games sometimes miss. For instance, a game may tout that you can stealth or action your way through an encounter, but the moment you break stealth you are permanently in action mode. This often does not feel like freedom, because while you picked a specific path, that path is only tenable as long as you succeed. Whereas in Super Mario 64, most sequential obstacles are not informed by how you solved the previous one. You can even switch what star you are going for in the middle of a pursuit if it suits you! All this maintains a sense of dynamic freedom by compartmentalizing smaller challenges within bigger ones where the player can jump between both big and small obstacles at the drop of a hat.

These routes though wouldn’t be meaningful if the player’s decisions weren’t significant, because freedom is feeling like our choices matter. If we are making decisions, but they don’t impact the outcome of the game, then we weren’t really making meaningful decisions. Even if these decisions lead to the same outcome, the same credits sequence, we have to feel like our decisions drove us forward and that some decisions wouldn’t have, or wouldn’t have been as easy, or wouldn’t have been as fast, or wouldn’t have been “ours.” Regardless of how they matter, those decisions have to matter.

A great way that Super Mario 64 does this is that there are 120 total power stars in the game, but the player only needs 70 to finish the game. This means that the player is free to pick and choose which stars they want to hunt and collect, neglecting some and privileging others. By the point that the player gets 50 of these stars, all 120 are available for collection, so those last 20 are a particularly interesting bunch: does the player go back to old levels and get stars they passed by, or do they try their hand at some of the game’s final, more difficult levels? The choice is up to the player, and that choice matters. If one particular star getting you down, just swap to another. Therefore, each of the 70 stars the player collects on their way to Bowser says something about them, whether it is which 70 stars or in what order they were collected. They have significance to the player because they add up to the sum total of the player’s decisions, proving that they mattered for the outcome of this game.

Normally you don’t define a thing by what it is not, but why not? Freedom is not feeling constrained. Constraints are a killer of free play. The more boxed in a player feels, the less options they feel are available, the less and less they are able to explore, to do what they want, to engage with a game on their own terms, the less free they feel. There are great, amazing, reasons to constrain a player and limit them, it is what makes games challenging and interesting. DOOM is a much less interesting game with infinite ammo and health, as such, constraints make games fun. That said, when one plays DOOM, I really doubt that they feel constrained by the game, because they move so fast and have so many decisions to make every second that they forget their limitations.
Super Mario 64 is the same. Even though Mario is literally grounded 95% of the time (more on the wing cap later!), it never feels like we are bound to the earth because we are leaping through levels like a caffeinated kangaroo. I don’t know anyone who would simply walk from point A to point B in a 3D Mario game, even on a completely flat surface! I think you’d have to be a psychopath to not jump and dive your way there! That constant jumping we do when controlling Mario feels good to do, it makes us feel free, like we aren’t constrained or bogged down by the physics of the world. It represents the buoyancy that defines every moment of the Super Mario experience. So while defining a thing by what it is not may be silly, there is nothing silly about the lack of tethers the player feels when controlling Mario, and that lack of emotional chains makes the game feel free in a way few others can accomplish, even if it has little consequence for the level design or difficulty of the game.

What’s not there is often as powerful as what is, and thus, Freedom is never knowing what’s around the corner. It’s being surprised by new things and finding what isn’t obviously there. Secrets and variety do not sound like things that enhance freedom, but they place a sense of wonder of the world of a game and encourage the player to look at it sideways, to test its limits and see what they return with. If a game has no secrets, no reason to squint at its design, then the player will become singular minded, focused on only the goal in front of them. If a game has no variety, even with the features listed already, the player will less free because they will start to feel like their actions are repetitive.

Super Mario 64 feels free because it is filled with secrets and variety. As for variety, the amount of uniqueness in the presentation of the games levels is staggering even for today. The difference between Dire Dire Docks, a peaceful exercise in swimming and the downright spooky Haunted Mansion alone points to the intense depth of diversity in the game. From soundtracks to color palettes to level design Super Mario 64 never stops evolving. The first-time player truly does not know what to expect around the corner of Super Mario 64, as the game is constantly surprising them with tonal shifts and creative worlds to explore. That possibility is sure to inspire the player, fill their head with notions of what could be, and make them feel free in the vastness of variation before them.

Secrets pervade the Super Mario 64 experience as well. Whether it is the secret levels one can stumble upon, the secret stars they can get by catching bunnies or talking to Toads, or the secret puzzles the player solves, Super Mario 64 is filled with mystery and intrigue. It begs you to poke and prod it, to explore its nooks and crannies, to be perceptive and wide eyed. These lead to a more freeing and focused experience, where new goals pop up seemingly out of nowhere, where you want to share what you’ve learned with others, where you feel so smart when you figure out how to do something you didn’t think was possible. It makes all the difference in the world to feel like you didn’t get everything, that something was left behind, because to be free means to leave some things undiscovered, to leave some mysteries left unsolved for them to take up real estate in your head. Secrets ultimately leave a mental hole in a game, and the more the player fills that hole with their own thoughts and ideas, the more free they are.

For many games the system of the game and the challenge of the game are one in the same, this is especially true for simple puzzle games like Sudoku, where the apparatus and game are one in the same. But freedom is the separation of the system from the challenge. By this I mean that the tools that are available to the player came first, and the challenges those tools are used to solve came after. When they are built together, it can feel like the obstacle directs the player, rather than the other way around. The further separated these two are, the more free a game often feels, because we feel less like the path in front or behind us is prescribed, and instead like we forged it ourselves.

Super Mario 64 has this kind of distinct separation between challenge and system. The way Mario moves is fluid and dynamic, and almost any given challenge in the game can be solved in a myriad of ways. This is only possible because the game’s engine came first, and the levels around that engine came second. As a result, there are so many ways to “cheat” Super Mario 64, skip challenges in unintended ways, creatively working the system to our advantage. When we feel like we pulled one over on the obstacle and subverted the intended challenge, we feel not only like we won, but that we were free to win our own way.

Freedom is f***ing up. You can’t have it without failure. If you’ve ever played a game where you are invincible and can’t fail you know just how boring that really is. Sure, you might be able to go anywhere and “do anything” while invincible, but it feels hollow if there is no danger nipping at your heels. So in order to experience the freedom of a game, we need to also be able to experience some amount of failure as well, to keep us grounded, to make the success that our free choices bring more meaningful.
In Super Mario 64, you can mess up bad. You can fall down bottomless pits, you can burn yourself on lava, you can drown, you can suffocate on poison gas! Danger lurks around every corner and even the experienced player is bound to meet an untimely demise every once in awhile. This gives weight to our decisions, a heft to how we choose to exercise our freedom, and in that that we find purpose to our action. A reason to make one choice over another. A satisfaction when our decision works out, and a desire to retreat to the drawing board when it doesn’t. Failure heightens the joy of victory.

But of course sometimes we just wanna smash everything in our path, because Freedom is feeling like nothing can stop you. Invincibility is a welcomed change of pace that gives us the feeling of profound freedom and liberty. Power is freedom, because our power level reflects our ability to enact our will onto the world of the game. For limited periods of time Super Mario 64 gives us such wonderful power. The Metal Cap in particular turns Mario into an indestructible killing machine. The fact that while invulnerable in this way we are also heavy as a rock gives literal weight to our figurative power. The fact that these powers are limited and rare makes us use them wisely, but offers a stellar change-up to the general pace of the game and makes those moments where we are invulnerable truly spectacular.

Other power ups also dole out a sense of freedom. Freedom is feeling like anything is possible. It’s not just not knowing what is around the corner or experiencing variety, but it’s imagining in your head possibilities that aren’t there. Games that open up our imagination to unseen possibilities stick with us and keep us engaged. When the player picks up the flight cap in Super Mario 64 the entire game opens up, we soar over levels with a fresh unhampered joy. The sudden thrust of flight removes the important grounded feeling of Mario and replaces it with breezy lightness. Picking up the flight cap never fails to make me feel like I can do anything or go anywhere. The fact that it is a secret to be uncovered only makes the experience more grand. Super Mario 64 excels at inspiring the player’s imagination, and rewards them just enough for such inspiration as to keep them feeling like they can do anything in this magical space.

This last one might surprise you, but freedom is being able to be done. So many popular contemporary games are never finished. We can play DOTA or Fortnite from now until the end of time, but as long as there are other players to entertain us, they’ll never really get old. All the while, these games incentivize us to keep playing and playing, rewarding us with random things for putting our time into them. I love these kinds of games, don’t get me wrong, but we can reach a point in them where we no longer feel free to do what we want, like we might be playing it as a chore. When I quit these kinds of games I often feel a sense of regret and longing, like I left something unfinished, but of course the draw of such games is that they are never done.

This is not so for Super Mario 64, where the player can put down the controller at pretty much any time, but more importantly, the experience is relegated to 70 (or 120 if you’re a real fan!) stars and a final boss. Finishing a game is liberating, it allows it to rest in your mind as a completed thing, start to finish. It allows you to move onto other things. Perhaps this is a stupid point, but games can give us the feeling of freedom by giving us freedom from themselves: freedom to move on. Now some of us won’t move on so quickly, we may keep exploring the game, we may speedrun the game, or we may return at a much later date to experience that joy and freedom once again. But isn’t it liberating to know that you don’t have to? That the game isn’t holding you down anymore? Super Mario 64 takes up my mental real estate, but only because I want to reflect on this wonderful masterpiece of a game that still informs so much of how I feel about games today.

All these different senses of freedom within Super Mario 64 matter. They inspired me, I hope they inspire you! Because inspiration is the end result of freedom, it’s why there is so much fan art of Super Mario 64, it is why it is one of the most popular games to speedrun, it’s why you’re likely watching this video two decades after it’s release. Not just because of some forlorn nostalgia for a thing of the past, but because you were inspired by this fantastic game and you can still see its etchings on the way you relate to games today. If you somehow have gotten by without it, from the bottom of my heart I hope you’ll give it a shot, and I even more sincerely hope you feel the way I felt in my grandma’s basement all those years ago. That is the power of freedom, it stays with you long after you’ve moved on, it’s something that can’t ever be taken away.

Erik Kersting

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