Leveling Up For Dummies -The Toast

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Peach_Mario_2Rohin Guha’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

“[E]ven though I knew nothing about Peach in terms of stats or character besides her princess status, the mere fact that she offered me the chance to play through the game as a girl felt like such a novel idea that I picked her immediately.” –Kate McCallister, “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Peach”

When was I eight years old, I would blow air into my dusty Super Mario 2 NES cartridge, push it into the console, hit POWER, and wait for the player select screen to come up. I’d always tap the RIGHT button on the D-pad three times and hit B, and Princess Peach would raise her hand, happy to accompany me on my quest to chuck turnips, pumpkins, beets, and other vegetables at Shyguys and King Wart.

In a culture in which Disney princesses reigned, and even the feistiest – like Jasmine, Belle, or Ariel – were shoehorned into traditional heteronormative gender roles, here was a corner of contemporary culture where I felt encouraged to navigate the world as Princess Peach, equipped with a unique power-up (floating!) that, thanks to the buggy nature of 8-bit NES games, could help the player skip over vast chunks of the level.

When the designers decided to take Doki Doki Panic and skin it with Mario-branded characters, I don’t know if they intended to make some revolutionary statement about the role of women in video game universes. Probably not. According to the physics of the Super Mario 2 universe, Peach’s ability to fly and float owes itself to her billowing skirts. Throughout her storied life, Peach, like even the boldest A-list actress gliding down the Hollywood red carpet, would never find a way to separate her identity from what she wore.

The stupidest thing about the Super Mario franchise is not that Mario’s princess is always in another castle, but rather the fact that, in almost all games in the franchise – except for Super Mario 2 – Mario’s motivation for saving the Mushroom Kingdom hinges primarily on his ability to collect a woman at the end of his quest. The liberation of a make-believe land from a bloated spiky-shelled monster is always tertiary.


D-Pad Dilemma

Queer kids growing up in suburban Michigan towns just want to play video games, like all the other kids they know. We want role models, we want icons, we want to see ourselves represented in the media with which we engage. It’s not asking for the moon. But we don’t want something as commonplace as a videogame player select screen to become a battleground for identity politics. What a cruel morass to thrust upon kids wanting to play video games! That their choices might require a referendum on masculinity.

At nine years old, I want to D-pad my way to Princess Peach because it just makes sense to me.

“You always pick Peach, Rohin. What’s wrong with you?”

The shrill cry always comes from one of my childhood friends. Other friends join in, and lo! a chorus of burgeoning adolescent misogyny is born.

I can’t possibly come back with “You always look like a bag of duck poop, what’s wrong with you?” because I won’t develop my meanness muscle until later in life. Instead I feebly respond, “She’s really cool.”

I don’t know why I picked Peach. Why did you pick Toad? Why did your friend, who I don’t even like all that much, pick Mario, who in the Super Mario Bros. 2 ecosystem has no real special abilities?

The scene shifts. It is years later. You’ll know the setting well: I am hanging out a friend’s house on a Saturday night. We are hopped up on pizza, M&Ms, ice cream, and soda. We are locked in a Goldeneye firefight to the death. A winner is crowned, the losers shamed; we go back to the player select screen.

My friends gravitate to the vast array of playable male characters. Meanwhile, my cursor hovers over one of the two female characters, Xenia. She is a femme fatale – the type that became popular as the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises became blockbusters, inspiring a slew of copycat fighting games. There is nothing remarkable about Xenia, except that unlike all the male playable characters in Goldeneye, she wears very little in the way of clothing. Her character stats are notably weaker than those of her playable male counterparts.

This is a trend that continues for years. When my friends and I had Street Fighter 2 tournaments, I’d always pick Chun Li or Cammy; in Mortal Kombat tournaments, I’d skip over Mileena and Kitana – female playable characters who were programmed from the same Xenia-like prototypical template – and gleefully pick Sindel, probably the most stereotypically female playable character in that franchise, and given the fact that she’s marketed as a Mortal Kombat MILF, still an unconventional choice. Sindel’s most devastating attacks were either her shrill scream or her ability to grab opponents with her hair and slam them against the ground. Life goals: set.

And yes, when we played Mario Kart, I’d always opt, again, for Princess Peach.

In her essay for The Toast, Kate McCallister also calls herself out on what the pattern of selecting a female character became: “The habit that started with Peach is still a deep-set pattern in my psyche: pick the girl every time.” Her motive for internalizing this gut reaction is obviously different from mine – yet not all that different. Both women and queer men are gravely underrepresented in the video game ecosystem.

At a young age, I learned to take pleasure in the squirming unease of friends and peers who were put off by my penchant for selecting female playable characters. I’d opt for Princess Peach in Mario Kart in part because there was something gratifying in seeing straight-identifying boys suffer when their notions of proper masculinity were challenged.

I didn’t want it to be a fight over identity, not really. But, look, if my friends were going to foist that battle on me, I’d rise to the occasion. I’d show up — pink parasols, turnips and all — ready to kick their asses.

Friendship Kill Switches

It sucks being a teenager in the pressure cooker of adolescence who not only doesn’t fit into any of the molds society has provided, but fails at even trying to.

Growing up in the neat confines of suburbia often means that your life has been mapped out for you. There are milestones you are expected to hit, but even before you hit those milestones (4.0 GPA, taking a nice girl to prom, graduating with honors, going off to college, then starting off at your first real-life job at a salary that, while menial, symbolizes how your life’s hard work is truly starting to crystallize), you are expected to show a predisposition towards achieving these milestones.

It sucks being a teenager facing not only the expectations of well-intentioned parents, but also the expectations of peers and friends who, in their teenaged ignorance, do not understand how intrusive and absurd their pokes and prods are.

It sucks being a teenager who is cognizant enough to know that the prescriptive molds that the world around him expects him to fit into will never truly be able to contain him.

Floating away like Princess Peach had never seemed more appealing.

tailsWhen I was younger, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express why these were my decisions – these gut feelings that just felt right.

My friends were never taken to task for selecting horribly basic male heroes of any games, whether Ryu or Ken from Street Fighter or Scorpion from Mortal Kombat.

Even when the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise tried its hand at playable characters, I would prefer Tails over Sonic. The franchise characterized him as Sonic’s swishy sidekick. Despite not comprehending the idea of queer identity at that point in time, I could understand that game developers were making a pointed effort to market Sonic as an alpha male character and Tails as a beta; in the Saturday morning cartoons based on the franchise, Tails was effete and clingy. I thought his ability to fly to new heights was more useful that Sonic’s ability to wield a split-second force-field. And yet, there is a parallel between Tails and Peach: their special abilities are as much about avoiding confrontation as they are about enhanced strategy.

In all of these games, the default male protagonist was just so uninspired and one-dimensional. So basic.

I was thrilled by the ability to proudly assert how truly basic James Bond was in Goldeneye – and if I was getting needled about always picking female characters, I could bite back by telling friends how unimaginative and small-minded they were for always picking the popular favorites.

Player select screens foretold the dissolution of many friendships. For the friends who would relentlessly tease me about my penchant for heroines, I could see a ticking clock above their heads. Our hours together were numbered. I might not have had the words to articulate it at the time, but I knew that these bulked-out, super-angry representations of masculinity didn’t represent a brand of manhood that was in the cards for me. I knew that those of my friends who seriously celebrated this kind of hyper-masculinity weren’t going to last in my world.

Soon enough, they all quietly fell away, replaced by the kind of friends I would spend the next decade making – quirky nerds, artistic types, misfits. With these friends, player select screens were no longer one of many fronts on which I had to negotiate my identity, but simply a place to exist–and even celebrate one another.


Other Missions

I found myself inside an enchanted desert temple as Valanice, a queen trying to find her daughter. In the next chapter, as Valanice’s daughter Rosella, I would try to concoct a potion to return to my human form, as I had somehow become a troll. In this rhythm, I would alternate between Valanice and Rosella until the final chapter, in which both characters worked together to defeat the evil faery queen Malicia.

King’s Quest VII is a point-and-click PC adventure game from 1994 by Roberta King — a game that was accidentally revolutionary. The Disney-inspired animation and art was choppy; the voiceovers were grating; the plotlines and puzzles, while cute, bordered on trite. Yet, at its core, it represented something incredible: the damsels are in distress, yes, but you get to play as them and work your own way out of danger. The women emerge as heroines after you slay your enemies.

But the real kicker is that the endgame isn’t killing the enemies and saving the day – it’s that you get to play, in alternating chapters, as mother and daughter. The list of video games where you are encouraged to solve puzzles and power through problems as a mom…are slim. Even at twelve years old, this concept seemed awesome to me – that I was playing a game whose primary intent was to reunite a mother and her daughter despite the quagmire of obstacles separating them.

Saving the make-believe land of Etheria and defeating Malicia were tangential. It’s a King’s Quest installment in which the actions of kings happen in the periphery, and heteronormative machismo doesn’t get you too far as an in-game strategy. A final cut scene featuring Rosella kissing her beloved prince almost plays like an afterthought. The women weren’t trophies or obstacles, but agents of change — in both protagonistic and antagonistic roles.

King's_Quest_VIIAs if being a queer kid who didn’t really know how to describe himself as such wasn’t challenging enough, there was another wrinkle: growing up in a house where traditional Indian values were perpetually at odds against evolving American values. Stuck in that cat’s cradle and trying not to get tangled up in its strings, I wanted to explain to my parents how wild and strange this jumble of conflicting cultures was for me.

King’s Quest VII was incredible to me because it presented a universe in which seemingly insurmountable obstacles between generations could be scaled, minimized, and even eliminated. The characters were thrown into two wildly different corners of an unfamiliar, confusing universe, and they found a way to make sense of it all, come through the wilderness, and eventually reunite. The narrative framework of King’s Quest VII created a context in which I could imagine connecting to my own family–no matter how spiky or mired the obstacles in front of me.

Not everybody can have the luxury of coming out to family; it is a luxury I enjoyed in my early twenties – but I will continue to realize and negotiate the consequences for the rest of my life.

After all, you’re never done coming out. 

Co-op Missions

During different stages in my life, I have found myself with a few friends who I swore to love like family. At the peak of so many of these friendships, I loved fantasizing about tackling life’s challenges, its ugly villains, with whoever was in my clique at the time. I felt so immensely powerful with them – so beloved and accepted – that there was some joy in idly wondering what would it be like if we were like the time-hopping heroes of Chrono Trigger. When you have your best friends with you, the most sensible thing is to go traveling with them, after all – even if it’s in the Epoch and over a range of centuries.

Chrono Trigger‘s most remarkable point of relatability was the fact that, after its titular hero dies midway through the game, you can continue the quest with any of the remaining playable characters. You can outfit your entire team with all three female playable characters: Lucca, Marle, and Ayla. The idea of three playable female characters in the absence of an alpha male was awesome to me. In many ways, a gang of heroines is how I would describe the cliques that I fell into at various points in my life–and in the best way possible.

The idea of a character like Lucca, most notably, was even more impressive. A tomboyish inventor who, unlike Marle or Ayla, didn’t find her Chrono Trigger storyline bedraggled by romantic pursuits, Lucca is the reason why Chrono is able to time-travel in the first place. Lucca represented the kind of inimitable moxie that my friends and I loved; she was inventive, quirky, passionate. She even wielded a flamethrower.

The premise of Chrono Trigger sparked a degree of teenage magic in my twenties, when cynicism continued calcifying what little remained of my wonder. Still, I could vicariously live out this fantasy of time-traveling with my closest friends, slaying beasts and coming together to save the day. We were all anxious. We all had our own antagonists to deal with. We all had our almost-impossible quests to negotiate. But, most wonderfully, there were points where our individual dreams and endeavors overlapped – and there we could come together as a team.

After you crush the final boss, though, the fantasy is always over. The curtain comes up. You get a glimpse of the end credits – and that’s when you realize that even the best video game exists only within the very narrow boundaries of its own universe. There are a finite number of actions we can execute along the way to produce a finite number of results.

Yet for kids, and for anyone whose reality is cactus-prickly at all turns, even the finiteness of video games is an escape. If the rules in the physical world fail to establish order, the physics of a video game universe can provide a reprieve. By living and breathing these physics, many of us learn something about ourselves. We come back to reality slightly different people – and perhaps with enhanced problem-solving skills, more motivated to try and face the challenges that present themselves in the real world.

It is silly, then, and unfortunate, that there are few to no entry points for queer kids — especially in an era in which multiplayer and co-op missions abound — to be themselves as they endeavor to save the day in a video game. It is crushing for me to think that gaming is an industry that too often communicates a devastating truth: a kid sometimes has to become someone else entirely in order to make a change in the world.

Rohin Guha is an editor at The Aerogram. His writing has appeared at Jezebel, XOJane, Fusion, NPR, and others. He was once dubbed "The Gay World's Answer to Maya Angelou" by the blog Queerty. He lives a few towns over from Detroit, where he is hard at work on his debut essay collection.

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