Writing in the dirty South, Wilds is one who wakes up late. He wrestles with commas and broken controllers, while fighting off nightmares of Silent Hill and Battletoads, as well as thinking about old cartoons that only got one season.
A large serene edifice can be seen from far and wide across the kingdom. Its gray slabs, brown windows, and red-shingled roof are surrounded by a majestic moat and sprinkling of lush trees. It is her visage immortalized in stained glass that is representational to the passing subjects of their Princess’ power. The wooden double doors that act as the main entrance seem almost humble considering the rest of the structure. The interior of the main hall is like nothing to be found anywhere else, with multiple lavish stairways and walls covered in a mural of a past, more idyllic, outside setting full of green bushes, blue skies, and clouds with little dots for eyes.
This is where the adventure begins.
Super Mario 64 is potentially my favorite video game of all time. It was released in 1996 when I was in my early teens and one of my favorite memories is finding a kiosk in the late summer of that year that allowed those unworthy (like myself) to try the next big thing. I played the game, amazed, for almost two hours as my mother shopped at the Kroger next door. I didn’t even mind when the display unit reset every thirty minutes because there was so much to see and explore. The hub world for this new masterpiece was the castle of one Princess Toadstool (but she lets me call her Peach). She summoned me through a warp pipe to her place with the promise of cake, but something doesn’t feel quite right, and I have a feeling that Bowser is involved again.
It wasn’t a great year for me if I’m honest. Middle school was tougher than people warned and high school started off worse, especially with a skin condition that makes you a blaring target. I had Super Mario 64 though and my brother had gifted me a Hootie and the Blowfish CD, so I had good ways to spend my time.
Often, I would leave school attempting to figure out how to never have to go back, to face the people there or deal with the daily conflicts. My albinism got me picked on a lot, which led to many fights. I had a much more virtuous (and winnable) war to wage at home. I dove into the mushroom kingdom, into the halls of the eerily vacant castle, wandering the corridors and looking for things I missed. This was more inviting, more important at times than the real world. There were one-hundred and twenty power stars to find so I could go see if James was telling the truth about Yoshi being in the game.
Playing the game helped. Brian Sutton-Smith has his rhetorics of play where it puts ‘play’ as, “having its basis in the psychology of the individual player,” and discusses how, “where play occurs as an optimal experience that is intrinsically motivated to gain escape and release.” [qtd. in 2] Here, in playing, we lose self-consciousness, becoming absorbed in other realities, forgetting our own. “Attention is focused on the relevant operations and motivations that are bounded by the rules of the game, making everything outside the play immaterial.” [qtd. in 2]
I was projecting myself on to Mario (borrowing his better life), becoming the hero as I fought through waves of strange enemies, some of which are literally named Bullies. That made it incredibly easy to project my real life tormentors onto these aggressive 64-bit baddies. But sometimes the days were a bit darker, especially when I had been hit, and I murdered needlessly with punches, kicks, and bouncing off of their heads. It felt better to have the power and be the bully for once.
Princess Peach’s castle was substantial and wonderful, but in most rooms were enormous beautiful paintings that acted as gateways to different worlds. This was a game design decision, having a hub world and loading up new areas due to not knowing the N64’s true potential,  but to my young self, it felt magical and cool. Though the castle had different areas of colors and tones, each world contained inside these painting portals was vastly different and presented its own set of enemies, obstacles, and changes that had to be explored, understood, and overcome.
The worlds that these portals led to were a big part of how I dealt with my issues, as each new land offered a place to put a different problem. Whether it was my first skirmish on Bob-Omb Battlefield, perfecting my swimming for Dire Dire Docks, or learning to turn to metal to overcome Hazy Maze Cave, the rules, powers, and problems were all different but felt like they still somehow belonged to the same reality. Psychologists believe, “the mind’s compartments create conflicting beliefs,”  and that’s why the rules don’t always match up from enchanted land to twisted reality (like where we fight Bowser). The brain making these loose connections is how we can accept that some of the areas are so vastly different in the castle. This is why the basement can be home to a desert, an oil rig, and a volcano. “The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s.”  Knowing this allowed for some enemies and accessories to show up in other realms while others don’t.
While I’m in these different places I fight. I perform amazing acrobatic feats. I conquer fears of facing adversaries and failure. In an odd way, these wonderful places frighten and allure me. More importantly, they’re fun. They’re odd and fantastical. “The deliberate inversion of real-world expectations can lead to pleasure through surprise and nonsense, or black humour.”  In some worlds I have vicious plants and large ominous stone slabs trying to murder me, but in others, there are snowmen that are plain silly as they hop forwards to wallop me. This is the same world where I (and many others) have kicked a small baby penguin who was trying to return to its mother off the edge for a laugh.
“Nintendo are masters at making these worlds. Nintendo has managed to maintain the successful formula of their Super Mario Brothers series. One of the winning features of this amusing action-adventure game is the deliberate fantastical and colourful environment where real-world conventions are subordinate to playful rules such as transportation through warp pipes concealed in a mushroom kingdom.”  Inga Paterson discusses this by associating it with frivolity, something I don’t agree with. It isn’t nonsense, just an ever-expanding world that I am the hero of. Mario. Plumber. Princess-saver.
Perhaps a small amount of the frivolous nature is what attracted me back to this place when my mother and sister died, six months apart from each other. I found myself spending a lot of time in the mushroom kingdom, holed up in Peach’s estate. This was a place where their memories still were and where I could escape, by doing more important things than being sad, like freeing the castle from Bowser.
Though the portals took me to where the fighting needed to happen, to where the action was, I have always felt the most comfortable in the castle proper. Now as an adult I find myself spending more time there, admiring the layout and architecture, the ability to simply stroll out the side door and take a quick walk around the grounds. Listening to the peace of the outside or taking in the moody atmosphere of the lower levels—depending on my mood.
Gordon Cullen describes cities—or in our case a castle and its immediate surroundings—as, “a dramatic event in the environment, where elements: buildings, trees, nature, light, water, traffic, advertisements and so on, are woven together in such a way that drama is released.” [qtd. in 2] Everything matters. In most games, these places help with telling the story. “The environment itself can direct the flow and rhythm of the story,”  and in the case of Super Mario 64, the castle is a pivotal character to the game’s narrative. All of the parts come together to form a rich surrounding, enough that it is a safe space for my mind. He also states, “our awareness of our environments instinctive and continuous, and our perception of the environment can induce an emotional reaction, with or without our volition.” [qtd. in 2]
Peach’s place is gigantic and extravagant, excessive even. There is one room that is just a series of aquariums in the walls and a giant painting of a pirate ship as the centerpiece (there might be a secret also if one knows where to look). Other rooms seem almost empty and seem to have no point. There are ample places to hide: “Hiding and concealment are recurring features in gameplay and a game-environment can be designated to incorporate areas such as recesses, loggias, alcoves and other subspaces opening onto a major space to make temporary spatial isolation possible.”  Many of the out-of-the-way spots felt comfortable, like finding hidey-holes in a real house. These spots were safe, where intruders were unlikely to look for me, like behind the staircase on the second floor or in the basement room with the strange pool of reflective oil.
It is also a bit lonely. Mario (until the DS version) cannot find any of his usual friends other than a ghostly version of Toad who tells him that everyone is trapped inside the walls. The fully-formed creatures he does locate inside the palace are odd looking rabbits that have to be chased around and inside the strange worlds, they are turtles who want to race or monkeys that steal his hat. There is never a completely friendly face.
This is a form of isolation. Whether we do it consciously or not this forms a gap between threatening thoughts and feelings from those connections that we want to hold close. Many thoughts are compartmentalized and forced into mutual exclusivity, no matter if they should connect or not. This is often done to protect the ego. Going back to school the next day only to be bullied or have to embarrass myself in front of the classroom, explaining my albinism or going up to the board because of my lack of vision, often triggered my cognitive dissonance.
None of that happened in front of my television at home. My ego is fragile, but I’m supposed to be SUPER Mario after all. I dealt with mean people each day as a kid, so in my world, at home, I went somewhere where there were none, unless I was on the battlefield, prepared to fight them.
When I do fail, I rationalize it. My not beating Bowser was their fault, the bullies. They threw me off my game. I would have beaten it had they not upset me so much earlier. I often looked for explanations that weren’t there or were not needed. I tried to find more information and rationalize how certain things could fit in. I remember discussing the game with friends after school. We would theory craft about this new adventure and how it even could fit into what we thought about Mario already. One kid proposed that it was all in the hero’s mind, a stressed fever-dream, and he backed this up with the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 was a dream. I’m glad we didn’t know the third installment was a play yet or he would have had more ammunition. I didn’t like his theory.
Instead of the castle and hidden worlds being in Mario’s shattered mind, it acted as what kept mine together. With each new incident in my life, I shoved it into a different room, as another obstacle to overcome. Compartmentalization can be seen as a defense mechanism, separating seemingly incompatible thoughts or feelings from one another. It can also deepen into other defense mechanisms, like the aforementioned isolation.
“People imbue spaces with social and cultural meaning, transforming a mere space into a place.”  In accordance with that idea, places hold more power than a space. I imbued a lot of emotional wonder into that castle, a lot of my pain, and a good bit of time, making it much more real, giving it a stronger purpose: “environmental storytelling relies on the player to associate disparate elements and interpret [them] as a meaningful whole.” 
Thanks to Brian Sparks M.D. for collaborating on the psychological concepts discussed in this article.
Shermer, Michael. “The Mind’s Compartments Create Conflicting Beliefs.” Scientific American, 1 Jan 2013, [1.]
Paterson, Inga. “Experiencing Architectural Interiors and Exteriors in Computer Games.” 5 Oct. 2007, [2.]
Biswas, Sharang. “Video Games and the Art of Spatial Storytelling.” KillScreen, 1 Mar. 2016, [3.]
“Super Mario 64 – 1996 Developer Interviews” Shmuplations, n.d., [4.]