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.

mario level
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 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. 

mario level 2
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)