I pick Metal Mario. Pipe Frame. Cyber Slick. Super Glider. I select Mushroom Cup. And I enter the Mario Kart Stadium.
The camera tilts from a cityscape and fireworks to reveal the frenzy of Mario Kart Stadium. Fake brands advertised on enormous signs. Video jumbotrons everywhere. An anonymous crowd of thousands.
No matter how good your are at Mario Kart, you start every Cup the same: in 16th place. The sadness hasn't hit me yet. I'm with friends, surrounded by the Marioverse characters I love. A sense of foreboding, maybe. But no sadness.
Lakitu hovers into view, dangling the stoplight. On two, I rev my engines. On go, I blast to the front of the pack.
And the sadness begins. I blaze through the track, drifting around every corner, maximizing every boost, looking for an edge anywhere I can get it. I'm very good at Mario Kart, and my early lead is never threatened. I'm racing against myself, really, aside from the occasional Blue Shell that comes along.
It's hard to point to exactly what makes me sad about Mario Kart Stadium. There's sort of this feeling of tangible loneliness, I guess. The track is simple enough that I don't feel like I'm engaging with it actively. My opponents are far away, eating my dust. And the generic roar of the crowd highlights how they're a faceless glob of people I can never know. The jumbotrons are Orwellian, demonstrating my surveillance without giving me a part in the conversation. Even the funky anti-gravity parts of the track seem arbitrary and Kafka-esque — architecture meant to highlight my own impotence and insignificance.
It's not the worst sadness. Not like any of the real things I get sad about. It's more like how bad weather makes me sad. There's nothing tangible to the affront, it's just the culmination of symbolic meaning that seeps through into my unconscious. The darkened sky can never not be foreboding to me.
Architecture meant to highlight my own impotence and insignificance.
All I can really do is drive, and so I drive. I drive fast. And I win.
Video games don't usually get to me. But when they do, it's kind of a weird awakening. Video games are an escape, a nearly passive form of entertainment — more active than television, less active than almost anything else. They don't normally question your beliefs or philosophize like film does, and when they try it's usually laughably bad.
But every once in a while, the immersion of video games can touch my moral or emotional compass in a way that a purely philosophical discussion, or a narrative portrayal, can't.
There are the obvious examples, like the civilians in an airport I'm assaulting in Call of Duty, or the torture I'm supposed to carry out on an informant in Grand Theft Auto. But while those are worth talking about, they're closer to film in their presentation of a quandary.
Where video games really get me is when the feeling sneaks up on me at a time I'm least aware. I drive around an open world recklessly for hours, mowing down virtual citizens, and then there's that one citizen whose reaction gives me pause. I slaughter thousands of "enemy" characters, and then I take a moment to consider whether or not I'll kill a fake deer. I skip all the story scenes, because I find them tedious and I want to get to the action, and then all of a sudden I ask myself, "Why am I here? What's my motivation?"
Being a video game character is kind of like being an actor, I guess. You don't feel morally responsible for this character's actions; you didn't write the script, and you aren't actually this person. But as you immerse yourself in the part, and learn to inhabit these affected emotions, it can start to get to you.
Maybe in my subconscious construction of a narrative for Metal Mario, his sadness at Mario Kart Stadium makes perfect sense. He's been on a world tour, rising through the ranks, besting every level of competition. Now he's back where it all started, and he asks himself, "What does it all mean?" And then what if it doesn't mean anything? He feels a deep separation between himself, the greatest Mario Kart driver in a universe of wannabes, and the crowd, pit crew, and fellow racers. And, as Big Brother watches him blaze to another record finish, he only knows one thing: he did it to himself.