Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jump, man, jump!

At the dank, cryptic arcade I frequented when I was young, there was one machine that towered above the rest: An original Donkey Kong. Set apart from the other games, it loomed monolithically, promising dark portents to any who dared plumb its depths. I’m talking real “hit a monkey with a bone” stuff, folks. Serious business.

"Huh.. it says 'insert quarter.'"

Despite my fascination, I never touched it. There was always a line of dull-eyed teenagers barring my way, menacingly clutching their cans of New Coke. Instead, I would gaze longingly at the art on the side of the machine, where a lumpy Mario-before-he-was-Mario was shown mid-spring. Underneath was a helpful protip, one as curious as a zen koan: “PRESS A TO MAKE JUMP MAN JUMP.”

It seems like we’ve been making Jump Man jump ever since. Since their inception, there have been video games about navigating space. Even pre-graphics classics like Adventure and Zork have a layout and a sense of motion - so much so that the ultimate threat is for your light to be extinguished, giving you no idea of where you are going. But with the platformer came the final ingredient to the recipe.

There is something supremely satisfying about jumping on a goomba. The way it remains squashed down, comic in defeat, while you spring upward and onward. It has a consistency: elastic, spongy, slightly al dente. (I have always suspected that they would be delicious in an omelet.) Though a lowly peon, one to be stomped with impunity, it has substance in a way the soulless blips of previous games never did.

The moment that physics are brought into the equation, the simple acts of running and jumping conjure a experience of the heft of the game: not simply the presence, but the experience of mass. In learning to move, we are not only learning to control a character but experiencing the scope of the world, the tactile sensations of bashing blocks and kicking about turtle shells. In coming to intuit how a character will jump, swim, fly, we encounter one of the first immersive experiences in gaming: the sensation of existing in a internally-consistent world.

Le saut-homme original.

In these cases the physics represent the grammar of these games, relating a language of motion. How Mario moves about the screen is not merely a character trait, but his essence. Compare to other 2D platform figures like Sonic the Hedgehog, Samus Aran, and Kirby: The way that the characters are defined relates directly to how they navigate their respective spaces.

King mentioned Cave Story in an earlier post, in tandem with Metroid. At first glance they seem to have nothing in common, due to their drastically different visual tones. But in beginning the game, the physical parallels are immediate and unmistakable. In both games you don’t so much jump as glide through the air, drifting in a way that is both crisp and surprisingly graceful. The connection is a kinetic one, as is the realization: “I have moved this way before.” They may not resemble each other, but they speak the same language.

So now we have a slew of 3D platformers, whose successes and failures have hinged upon how well they have provided navigable spaces. We have games like Portal, which translate first-person experiences into experiments with movement and space. We have Little Big Planet, which follows through on earlier experiences of tactile physics. We have Braid, which meta-textually examines this whole “jumping about from ledge to ledge” business we’ve busied ourselves with for decades.

So jump on, Jump Men and Jump Women. O’er pit of spikes, o’er lava deep, jump on. Jump on, Jump ever on, into the future. Because the one thing that we haven’t jumped yet?


- Rook

p.s. For an immediate and simple example of what I call heft, consider: Space Invaders don't got none. Asteroids does.


  1. You just brought back so many memories of that old arcade that used to be in Mountain View Mall... Captain Kens? No that wasn't it...