Friday, January 7, 2011

I Mock You With My Monkey Pants (Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, Donkey Kong 3, Donkey Kong Jr. Math)

The ninth chapter of Walter Abish's lipographic masterpiece Alphabetical Africa begins "I haven't been here before," an amusing sentence given that the conceit of the book is that the first chapter may use only words beginning with A, the second A or B, the third A, B, or C, and so on. That's kind of how I feel.

There are few enough core concepts to the NES. Several make their first appearance in the Nintendo Project here. Mario, for instance. But this is also the first game we have looked at to be worked upon by the two most important game designers for the NES, Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto. In fact, this entry is, by its nature, a sort of nexus point in the project - the first absolutely and unequivocally major game we've talked about since Contra. And it brought its friends.

Seeking as we do to understand the event through its material echoes, it is genuinely difficult to handle an event whose contours are so clear and definitively stated as this. Measuring Dirty Harry: The War on Drugs by its deformation of the surrounding regions of ideaspace is a challenge, but the scope of the problem is at least well-mapped, if only because of the profound lack of territory to map. This is different. The full scope of these four games is preposterously broad.

What we are getting at here is, frankly, what Nintendo is. It's something we've danced around, pretending that the NES era enjoys some independent existence. It doesn't. It was the product of a large amount of money being made off a small number of ideas. Nintendo rose to the top because Miyamoto and Yokoi had some very good ideas, and executed them well enough to dominate a decade of culture.

Donkey Kong is the first of these ideas. Belonging as it does on absolutely any list of classic video games, it is interesting to note that Donkey Kong, along with Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3, is not originally for the NES. In fact, the NES version of Donkey Kong is actively inferior to arcade versions, which have four repeating levels where the NES version only has three, due to excessively small cartridge storage in the early days of the NES. Oddly, when the game was re-issued along with Donkey Kong Jr. (The second game in the series - there is no Donkey Kong 2 as such) this level was not reinstated - indeed, it didn't actually get a home release on a Nintendo system until the Wii.

Donkey Kong forces us to confront hard and difficult truths about the nature of video games. Actually, that might just be me. See, I'm historically a skeptic of video game narrative. I don't hold to the extreme view of critics like Espen Arseth or Markku Eskelinen, who essentially deny that narrative has any relevance at all for game studies. But I do think that, as a matter of relatively staid empirical fact, video games are mediocre at narrative. Sometimes they outdo themselves, but it's usually by virtue of adopting a narrative style that is extremely non-traditional, and that does not really have enough good examples to develop a clear narratology of. By and large, I think there are many, many more good video games with minimal or poor plotting and excellent gameplay than there are good video games with brilliant narratives and dodgy gameplay.

What's interesting is that Donkey Kong is not a game with excellent gameplay. Donkey Kong is a game with, frankly, terrible gameplay. It does not hold up well at all. The jump mechanics are not awkward, but this is because there basically aren't any. Mario jumps in a predefined parabola. Jumping is thus entirely a matter of timing - do you press the jump button at the exact right moment. It is not until Super Mario Bros that this changes for Mario, and the change is, as I'll explain in a  few years, arguably the single most important development in video game control schemes ever.

But in Donkey Kong... no such luck. Add to that the fact that movement speed in all three games is a bit wonky, the line between where a fall is safe and where it will kill you is arbitrary and difficult to judge, and the games are dicey and kind of viciously arbitrary to begin with. My favorite example to trot out in "Donkey Kong is a badly made game" comes in level two of the NES version, in which it turns out that the floor a the bottom of the level is lethal and will kill you. Despite the fact that it is visually identical to all of the safe floors in the level. That's an astonishingly bad bit of design - among the most fundamental design errors in video games. It's so bad that it serves as a great basic example of the whole idea of providing visual cues for the player, and of the bad things that happen if you don't. It's something that Miyamoto, even as a first-time game designer, should have known better than to do - I am hard pressed to think of many errors that massive that were allowed through by publishers.

And yet Donkey Kong is a landmark of video game history. And not just because Mario makes his debut in it. No, Donkey Kong is a massive game in its own right and on its own merits. But why? The answer is in the upper-left corner of the first level of the game - Mr. Kong himself. Donkey Kong is basically the second video game character to matter, the first being the year-older Pac-Man. Pac-Man has a lovely NES version to save for later, so I'll stick to Donkey Kong.

Short form? He's brilliant. We can start with his name. Contrary to legend, it is not a transcription error on a character who was supposed to be Monkey Kong. No. Donkey was picked deliberately - to give the character a feeling of simple-minded stubbornness. Kong was picked, of course, to evoke King Kong, thus tying him into the great tradition of movie monsters. He is the first video game character I know of to have an expressive face. This is huge. From the manic, toothy grin he makes as he pounds around between throwing barrels to the panicked, goofy look on his face as he falls at the end of the rivets level, Donkey Kong is an antagonist that forces you to personify the game.

That changes everything. And is basically the example of how Nintendo grabbed the medium of video games and ran off with it, dominating the industry unquestioned for a decade and remaining a major player through 25 years and counting. Because they recognized how narrative can work in video games. Video games do a poor job of telling a story, but they do an excellent job of sketching one - of making a few strokes, and leaving the player to fill in the rest. On his own, Donkey Kong is nothing more than a silly monkey. To say that Miyamoto's work in characterizing him renders him a deep character is ridiculous. He is barely sketched out with enough detail to become a brand icon - the equivalent of Aunt Jemima. (Ooh, dodgy comparison there)

It's when you put a player and the basic frame of interaction into the equation that something interesting happens. The vagueness of Donkey Kong becomes an asset when paired with the existence of a player. This is because the normal Aristotlean notion of what a character is is, in many regards, inadequate from a readerly perspective.

Writers of fiction, when they create characters, tend to create them in extreme detail - making idiosyncratic decisions about things that are never going to appear in the work of fiction itself. They often attempt to realize their fictional characters in a sort of high-definition, insisting on knowing them so well that they can answer any question about them.

Readers do not. A reader's perspective is similar to that of someone watching a movie and looking at the set. It does not matter if the set extends beyond the confines of where we will see the actors. In fact, at some point, it usually doesn't. A movie set is a contained illusion that depends on the fact that the audience's perspective is going to be limited to the areas where the illusion holds. A fictional character works similarly - the character need only be worked out to the extent that it informs what happens within the limited perspective the work of fiction. Once the work of fiction ends, the character does not need to have any further definition. In fact, I'll go one further - the character does not have any definition outside of the work of fiction. A character is defined entirely by what happens within the scope of the work of fiction.

(I say this without comment on the writerly process of character development. Overdeveloping characters may well be an extremely useful technique in writing fiction. However, it is a mistake to assume that because the author has overdeveloped the character this has any direct impact on the reader.)

If we instead treat characters as narrative functions, we get, I think, more interesting results. In Donkey Kong, it is easiest to understand Donkey Kong himself not as a set of defined traits, but as a function that responds to player input. Donkey Kong is that part of the game that tries to kill you. And its a mischievous, stupid, stubborn monkey. This allows for emotional investment in the game. The game taunts you and mocks you, and in doing so makes you want to beat it more.

To see how brilliant this bit of sketched storytelling is, one need only jump ahead to Donkey Kong Jr., a game that retains most of the irritating play mechanics of Donkey Kong, but switches the roles around - Mario is the villain, Donkey Kong is the captive, and the player is Donkey Kong Jr. The result is, frankly, a bit of a mess. Donkey Kong Jr. is as lousy an avatar as Mario is a villain. The game has no emotional resonance to speak of.

For the third edition, Nintendo swapped it around again, with Donkey Kong as the villain. This time they abandoned the play mechanics, turning the game into a shooter. It's neither good nor bad, and its main innovation is probably the worms that look pissed at you whenever you shoot them, another great bit of adding personality to video games. The most interesting thing to note about it is the fact that the protagonist, Stanley the Bugman, is more or less wholly forgotten, leaving him ripe for a sort of Land of Misfit Toys revival where, in some elaborate and postmodern Mario game, he rises up as Dark Stanley and seeks to ruin the world of Nintendo Games just as he has been ruined.

And then there is Donkey Kong Jr. Math, a non-classic in the edutainment field, itself a field that nobody save the Minnesota State Government ever really figured out what to do with. Basically, if you took Donkey Kong, took out all the actual threats and challenges, and added arithmetic, you'd have Donkey Kong Jr. Math. It's as good as it sounds.

But even in Donkey Kong Jr. Math, there is something to be said for the game. When you defeat your opponent, they thrash about in an absolutely gorgeous display of agony. It's cute enough not to be traumatizing, but upsetting enough to add just a touch of sting to the defeat. This sort of thing was Nintendo's biggest invention - the one that's still enduring. Better than anyone else, before or since, Nintendo has been gifted at making video game characters, and at using them.


  1. Great observation regarding the floor in the second level of Donkey Kong. There's nothing instinctual about avoiding it, it's just a simple memorization of one of the idiosyncrasies of the game. I think in the present day something like this would be glaringly obvious, but for some reason I never really noticed it in Donkey Kong until you pointed it out.

    Interesting bit about Donkey Kong 3 as well - I had completely forgotten how much personality those little worms had. The whole ensemble is kind of overshadowed by the awkward feelings I had as a child giving Donkey Kong what basically amounts to a bug spray enema.

  2. You assume your subjective experience is an objective reality. Donkey Kong Jr is a wonderful narrative, that asks us to see the hero become the villain, the enemy that taunts us become our victim, and asks us to take the role of an innocent unaware of it all. It's the truest NES narrative ever written, and far more relevant to the twists and turns of human history than any other 8-bit game ever made. How many innocent people were killed by America in the 'War on Terror'? Same concept.

  3. The inversion certainly is interesting, and could be done well - it was, in fact, done well with the Half-Life 1 expansions that allowed you to play through a parallel narrative as one of the minor set decoration characters of the original. And done well in other media in, for instance, Grant Morrison's sublime issue of The Invisibles where he goes back and tells the life story of a character incidentally killed many issues earlier.

    The problem is not with the idea of making Mario the villain and Donkey Kong the victim. The problem is that Donkey Kong, as a game, succeeds entirely because of the mad charisma of the villain. Absent that charisma a near-identical play mechanism fails because the game feels, on a moment-to-moment basis, sterile - Donkey Kong Jr is an unaware innocent. He's also, crucially, uninteresting, as is stoic Mario in the role of villain. The sterility keeps the perversity of the inversion from sinking in. Rendering what could have been brilliant into an indifferent mess.