Giant World

If I were to say that Shigeru Miyamoto is the best, or the greatest, or the top, or my favorite landscape architect of the late 20th century, what would that mean? Most importantly, I would be taking him at his word, in that he has repeatedly located his creative work in landscape forms and metaphors. His origin story puts him in the countryside of Japan, wandering over round hills and stumbling upon caves hidden in the woods. He locates the source of the Pikmin series in the gardening he does at his adult home. But beyond origins, or inspiration, he speaks of the games under his charge as hakoniwa, or miniature gardens. Each iteration of Hyrule, or the Mushroom Kingdom, is a space that is tiny within our own space. Your project yourself into it, borrowing the body of an avatar. You encounter repeated elements that surround you, and learn how to make changes to result in predictable, advantageous effects. Your usual repertoire of physical actions is changed and reduced to best operate in this little theater. Appropriately enough, for a garden, you eliminate pests, which you know will never stop coming, in order to appreciate the scene.

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SUPER MARIO BROS. 3, Level 4-6 (1988).

Seeing Miyamoto as a landscape architect is also a gesture toward the general oddity of auteurism in the landscape profession; the idea that someone who can only be, past the initial stages, a figurehead, presiding spirit, and fundraiser, might still somehow be the forehead from which the work deigns to burst. Of course, there the model of gardening might be the most helpful guide; that the mature and responsible landscape architect precisely walks around the precincts of the office, planting certain things and uprooting others. That homely image conceals the dimension of design that we seem almost anxious to overlook: again, that designers work from storehouses, from selections of material at hand; they can make orders, they can even try to shift the market, but fundamentally they are working out of a market, and a limited one at that.

Surely this wouldn’t be as true of Miyamoto, who with his team has the luxury of working in defiance of natural law – water is where they want it to be, and can as easily be breathed indefinitely, or kill on contact. And yet they have constraints. First, they work out of the storehouse of human experience – the models of physics that they use must be internally consistent, and preferably resemble the ones human bodies are familiar with. Second, their worlds, no matter how miniature and abstract, still operate between physical media.

Nathan Altice’s I AM ERROR – from which much of the factual material here is taken – makes clear how many of the particulars of digital game architecture are conditioned by physical constraints, from human eyes and attention spans to the limits of the hardware the software nests within. Take as an example the early history of the Mario franchise. Famously, the design of Mario the character is based on graphic constraints: his coloring and clothes are shaped by the ability of the game architecture to display color and manipulate pixels. His form is based on its legibility to players and flexibility to programmers, this last particularly crucial given space constraints in the computing of the time. Making a figure with a moustache and overalls, to more easily be seen in the low-resolution environment, forces the creators to interpret it in the terms of the world they inhabit: a worker. Mario begins as an immanent being – drawn through the intersection of the material and relational possibilities at the conjunction of physical and digital worlds.

Mario’s working class status, understood respectively as a carpenter in Donkey Kong and as a plumber in Mario Bros., is underlined by each game’s setting, loosely a construction site and a sewer space. The first Super Mario Bros. game opens this up; according to its manual, the evil king antagonist (a giant ox-turtle) has turned the residents of the land that Mario traverses into repetitive pieces of the landscape. This may as well be a joke about said turtle’s bad taste – brick, brick, brick, often floating in bars in the air, with occasional fences and cotton-swab trees popping out. Mario’s urban background persists at a remove in this expansive suburb – the construction site and sewer have unfolded through the land as a low-density Levittown of vulgar little brick castles. But any sense we can make still bumps up against a fundamentally odd set of elements – why should a plumber fight turtles and chestnuts?

Over time, the understanding of Mario as being a worker has waned, with the ubiquitous green PVC pipes of the first few games steadily reduced to a background element, replaced in games like the Mario Kart series by a series of spectacles (an arena with berms and flames, a haunted house) or aspirational luxury sites (an extensive beach, a cruise ship). This occurs, naturally enough, as the limits to the designers’ imagination have been removed – without the narrow constraints which the 8-bit operating system forced them through to make sense, they replicate a more typical repertoire of fantasy spaces.

That is, the constraints have ceased their odd cull of the growing of concepts and representations in the space of the game. If Mario’s legacies and trademarks perpetuate some of the strangeness of the first entries in the series, the games function more and more as the appearance, priorities, and stock characters of the everyday world continued by other means. The miniature garden enlarges into street trees. 

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SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY's New Donk City (2017).

In taking a Miyamoto as a forebear, we who work in the world at large would seek to make the spaces nested in between spaces, places that speak to one another, places that let constraint breed their own strange and characteristic flora and fauna. Places with danger, solitary, competitive, and dreamy, spaces that accommodate both good logic and lapses thereof. It may be that our world is the one out of proportion, that is overinflated, the giant world that is seeking its right proportion in a new iteration.

(March 2018)