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A long, rambling analysis of the meaning that lies behind popular entertainment, and how games express their meaning.

Jason VandenBerghe, Blogger

May 2, 2011

8 Min Read

(In keeping with full-disclosure, the latter half of this post is almost 100% me musing about myself.  If you're looking for content that doesn't contain overly-public overly-personal self-analysis, you may want to give this post a pass.  Consider yourself, as they say, 'warned.')

I want to talk about allegory.

al·le·go·ry [al-uh-gohr-ee] A story that has a deeper or more general meaning in addition to its surface meaning.

Why? Well, that's what this post is about.  Or, at least, it will be, if I ever actually get to the topic.  But I'll start with this: I had a bit of an epiphany this Xmas break, while sitting in my livingroom FarmVilling and iPadding while my teenagers frolicked around me.  Here it is: the primary reason I am interested in working in entertainment is to have a chance to work with allegory.

A question immediately presents itself: "Um... who cares?"

Let's dig around in that for a second, because the answer is more complex than it appears.

First of all, when we talk about "allegory", what in the hell do we mean?

Hmmm.  Let's swing a couple of examples around.  Now, normally when this word appears in conversation, the first examples people reach for tend to be the classic, crusty, out-dated literary references like Aesop's Fables, the Grim Reaper, or Plato's Canticle of the Cave.  Mmmmm, yummy stuff, and quite fascinating.  But, as it turns not, not so applicable for talking about the application of the word 'allegory' to modern audiences.

Yeah, so fuck all that.  Let's start with Mario.

On the surface, Mario is a tale (if, in fact, we can call a sidescrolling platformer a 'tale') about a plumber who rescues a Princess who has been captured by a monster.  The plumber's job is to take a long, dangerous journey, overcome many obstacles (including hordes of the monster's minions), and confront the monster in his lair.

Clear?  Easy enough.  So, what's Mario about on the allegorical level?

Interpreting "meaning" in allegory is always murkier than surface interpretation.  What I described above is just the facts - anyone who has played any Mario game would probably agree with the description above.  It's not, shall we say, controversial.
Yet, if we dig, sometimes it gets weird for people. Brace yourself.

Mario's relationship to Bowser is remarkable in many ways.

First, Bowser is huge. He's a monster - but more importantly, he's at least twice Mario's size.  Physically intimidating.

Second, Bowser is an idiot. He has only one method of interaction: intimidation. When intimidation fails, he tries it again, and if that fails, he either flees or throws a tantrum.

And third, Bowser's existence is defined solely by stealing Mario's primary companion: Peach.

Bowser is, simply put, a bully.

At the allegorical level, Mario is a tale (again, 'tale'?) about standing up to bullies.  As many allegories are, this one is extraordinarily shallow: the 'message' is that bullies can be overcome by confronting them directly. While this can be true, and it's often nice to believe, it's not exactly revelatory.

Mario?  Standing up to bullies. Zelda?  Growing up.  World of Warcraft?  Well, it's mixed, and there's a lot going on there, but at the core, every RPG ever made is in some way about the positive rewards of effort.

It goes on and on, but I figure the point has been made.

Okay, now for a little sociology.

If you're reading this, you are likely having one of two reactions to the above.

First possibility: "Hmm, interesting analysis, VandenBerghe.  Not sure if I'm with you on [some part of it that you disagree with], but I see where you're going with this. Hmmm."
Second possibility: "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. There's no 'secret meaning' in Mario. What a douchebag idea."

(There is, actually, a third possilbility: if you're name is "Aaron Steelman", then your response will be unpredictable, as he tends to avoid any response he feels is predictable.  Given the double-bind I just put him in, I await his reply with baited breath. ;) )

So, aaaaaaaaaall the way back, like seventeen paragraphs, we asked a question.  Remember it?

Yeah, me neither.  I had to go back up and look.  It was "Um... who cares?"  This was in regard to the question about "allegory".

So, the answer to this question is twofold.

Someone who cares about the allegorical level of the entertainment they consume... well, by definition, they care about allegory, don't they?  Easy enough.

And then, strangely, people who don't care about allegory... well, generally, they tend to hold a strong anti opinion on the topic. To the disinterested, allegory can come across like some arcane language, one to which the viewer is not invited to understand. It's threatening and confusing, and the risk of getting it 'wrong' is seeming stupid.

So, who cares? Both ends of the opinion spectrum, along with a good chunk of the middle (those who don't mind not understanding completely). More than you'd expect, basically.

But, and perhaps more to the point, I care.  I care a whole fucking lot, in fact.
In fact, to loop this whole thing back to the original point at the very top of this post, I have been simmering (for a long time now) on just how much I care about allegory and its role in the entertainment I consume... and, more to the point, make.  This post is an attempt to try to point some light on what I've been simmering, to help clarify for myself what it all means.


Okay.  Now that I've defined my terms a bit (we know now what "allegory" means in this context, and we know that I think it's pretty important, and we know that I think that the rest of the world is pretty conflicted about that), I can move forward.

To do that, I'm going to tell the story of why I left Activision.

My studio at the time (Underground Development) had shifted to working on Guitar Hero: Van Halen.  Now, I love me some Guitar Hero.  Moreso than most, actually - so the idea of working on GH:VH was a delightful one.

That said, actually working on it proved to be incredibly unsatisfying for me, and answering the question "why?" forced me to try to define exactly what it is I do.
Here's what I came up with:

I create imaginary worlds where imaginary characters have imaginary conflicts.

See, Guitar Hero only has two out of three of those.  Imaginary world?  Sure.  Imaginary people?  You bet!  Conflict?  ...  Yeah, not even close.  There's tension in Guitar Hero, but it's entirely a question of whether or not the player will be able to accomplish the task put in front of them.  It has literally nothing to do with the characters or the world.  It's 100% about the player.

While fun, that's not what I do.  So, I went and made Red Steel 2.

Now we finally have arrived at the actual insight I had this Xmas, while sitting watching my teenagers (soon to be full-fledged adults) enjoy their various Xmas presents.  It is this: the above definition of what I do is incomplete.  Here is the modified version:

I create imaginary worlds where imaginary people have imaginary conflicts that illustrate real human truth.

How?  Allegory.

I am not interested in creating worlds and people and conflict for their own sake.  I am not interested in creating entertainment purely for its visceral result.  I'm not doing this job for the money, the glory (hah), the fame (ho ho ho), or the 'credit'.

I'm doing this job for the chance to provide to others what was provided to me when I was growing up.

Star Wars? Embracing your full potential.  Believing in the magic of human will.  Alien?  The world has monsters in it.  Highlander?  Protect the helpless.  Dungeons & Dragons?  Success comes through perseverance and planning.  Ultima?


Ultima.  If you didn't play Ultima IV - if you were too young, or if you didn't encounter it, or whatever - my condolences.  The rest of the series gradually lost the luster of the fourth (and fifth) installment(s)... but...

Ultima?  Principles matter.

Twenty-five years later, I'm still trying to live up to the lessons I learned at the bottom of the Stygian Abyss, before the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.  I know that sounds stupid!  I know!  But...

...damn, man.  If you've done it, maybe you know what I'm talking about.  That deeper meaning - that 'second layer' of experience, where what you are doing makes sense all the way down...

...that is what I'm here to do.  I'm not sure that I've succeeded yet, but as my dad once said: I have my boat, all my supplies, all my training... and now, I simply raise the sail, and hope for the wind to blow.


I hope some of this made sense.  Know that I'm really writing to myself - not so much to make a point or to convince you guys as much as I am talking to you to help me sort out this stuff in my head.  Strange... yet, I think it has helped.

I feel better, anyway.  If you made it all the way down here... well, DAMN!  I'm impressed!

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About the Author(s)

Jason VandenBerghe


Jason VandenBerghe currently resides in Bothell, Washington. He is Founder & CEO of Corporation X, an independent games publisher dedicated to making opportunities for independent developers who want to bring their games to market. He can be reached at [email protected].

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