It seems epiphany comes in three shapes and sizes: little, super, and fire. A few months ago, I brought home a $30 mini-NES console imported from China containing 600+ games and, of the Mario franchise, it included the original Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. alongside the unreleased sequels Super Mario Bros. 10 / 12 / 14. As a testament to the universality of good design, even among five-year-old gamers, my daughter showed a preference for the original Super Mario Bros. amongst the hundreds of other titles, and over the weeks that followed — during her brief allotments of sanctioned gameplay — she progressed from barely being able to evade la goomba prima to reliably achieving World 4–2 via the initial warp zone. She has internalised the locations of one-up mushrooms and power ups within the initial worlds. In the little and super Mario forms, she adopts a strategy of non-confrontation, simply allowing goombas and koopa troopas to walk off-screen or drop into an abyss while in the Fire Mario form, she gleefully eliminates foes by bouncing fireballs into them. Every so often, she will jump prematurely, thereby dropping into a hole or into a passing enemy and she understands that this results in, as Super or Fire Mario, returning to the Little Mario form, or “falling down” if she is already in the little form.
In our good fortune, my daughter has had no concept of death from real life or her preferred media. When watching Frozen, it struck her as odd that the parents never came back, but the following inquiry about their fate ran shallow. Likewise, we’ve more than once passed a “fallen” bird or cat and pointed out that they were sleeping — to which I quickly agreed.
This all changed when — after helping with a difficult jump — I revealed to her the beanstalk on World 4–2, which granted us access to another warp zone to World 8, a place where the timer is not just a formality but something to race against. The early visits to World 8–1 were fraught as it’s more densely packed with enemies such as Piranha Plants and there are more holes of various sizes to be overcome. On one attempt, after learning we could run across the single-segment holes rather than hop over each of them, she was able, with considerable patience, to navigate safely through much of the level. However, while in the Fire Mario form facing down a Winged Koopa Troopa, the timer in the right-top corner ticked down to zero, shrinking Fire Mario to little size without altering the red-white outfit and sending him sprawling to the great below.
I announced the end of our play session, turning off the console and the TV, but she looked at me puzzlingly.
“Why did Mario fall down?” she asked.
I answered, “Like I told you. The time on the top is always counting down, so you need to go fast after the beanstalk.”
“I need to go fast?”
“Yes, you need to go fast. If the timer goes to zero, you will fall down.”
“Hmm…you know how you draw pictures of rainbows, and cats, and spiders. People also make games like the Mario game. They also made a timer, so you would fall down if you run out of time.”
“Because they want you to go fast. It’s harder, but it’s more fun.”
“So, I will run out of time.”
“I will run out of time every time?” she asked earnestly.
“Yes. If you go slowly, you will run out of time every time.”
After a moment’s thought, she asked, “Why did Mario fall down?”
Seeing that we were back at the beginning, I wanted to illustrate, turning on the TV and game console once more. “Look I’ll show you. I’m going to turn on the game, but we aren’t going to play. We’re just going to watch the time run out and see what happens to Mario, okay?”
I pushed the start button and allowed the 400 second timer to begin its countdown. I reassured my daughter that Mario would fall down and the timer was indeed counting backwards. At a hundred seconds, I noted the increased speed of the soundtrack. At twenty seconds, I began counting out loud.
“THREE, TWO, ONE, ZERO and…look he fell down. See?”
My daughter sat in stunned silence for the time it took to switch off the game and TV once more. Returning to another familiar question, she asked, “The time will run out every time?”
“Yes. Just like that.”
“But I was the fireball,” she followed up, referring to the earlier run.
Smiling, I answered, “It doesn’t matter. You can be the Big Mario or Fire Mario. If you run out of time, you fall down.”
“You fall down every time?”
In the pause that followed, I heard the faint spark of synapses and this was confirmed in her ponderous expression. It dawned on me that the conversation was no longer confined to the mechanics of Mario, but the parameters of every living being regardless their size or stature. The unshakable truth that every living creature, regardless of their seeming potency, cannot turn back the sands of time on their own mortal life through the needless accumulation of Fireball Flowers but must simply move from one world to the next within the allotted time frame was realized. Until that moment, I had avoided the Contra and Ninja Gaiden series since the image of an extinguished life would be much more explicit, but the stark lesson came through our beloved Mario nonetheless.
More to herself, she repeated, “You fall down every time.”
I allowed her a moment alone with the thought in the hopes that insight would follow since I realised that a growing mind clasps only onto information it’s prepared for and the directions I impart might serve as an intrusion. This truth will come in its own time, but children must be allowed to trust themselves in the process.
“Why did Mario fall down?” she asked of the same tenor.
“Yeah, listen,” I answered, scratching my eyebrow. “Should we have a piece of chocolate and play Go Fish?”
She answered by running to the kitchen to retrieve the chocolate bar while I picked up and shuffled the deck of cards.
Lance G. Powell Jr. divides his time between writing fiction, blogging, and the maturation of Multi-User VR. To learn about his thesis on harassment in Social VR, his digital magazine, the prototypes of his VR apps, and his as-of-yet unpublished novels, check out this landing page.