I forgot to mention it at the time, but while in Venice I finally finished the very first level of Kaizo Mario. As I’ve said before, I made liberal (oh so liberal) use of save states in order to make it through, but the fact remains that I did ultimately execute all the delicate little maneuvers and tricks needed to pass each of the level’s challenges. It was pretty exhilarating to get to the end.

Since then, I’ve been trying to decide whether I actually finished, or even played, that first level, or whether I did something else. The granularity of play was so fine that it seems like there’s a sense in which I wasn’t playing the game at all, but rather was engaged in some far more symbolic task (in the sense of semiotics and purely abstract associations between sign and reference). Not a game, but a kind of ancient ritual which had lost its original meaning and had become important “just because”.

The actual story of the level – Mario runs from bullets, daringly crosses a chasm, defeats enemies, performs breathtakingly complex sequences of jumps with last-second timing – is completely absent from my play-through. At best, I can piece it together from my memory of each numbingly difficult mini-task, but I have no feeling for the sweep or grandeur of it, and thus no real emotional attachment at all. My Mario was a fleeting thing, each time engaged in a mere twitch of life before either dying or being frozen for future reincarnation.

This bitsy-ness of play probably applies at a higher level, too. I was often concerned in my play of Alan Wake that I was literally “losing the plot” by breaking off play sessions in the middle of one of its episodes (because they were simply too long for my attention span).The same goes for the episodes of a TV show with a continuous narrative.

How much is too little for us to absorb and then move away before returning? At what stage of fragmenting does the story lose its meaning?

11 June 2011
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