Ecology of the Mushroom Kingdom – The Parabiology and Anthropology of the Dry Bones and the Boo

The Mushroom Kingdom is not only a paradise of unique and unknown species for ecologists and biologists to puzzle over, it is also home to what we in the soft sciences have termed “parazoological lifeforms.” While the existence of such lifeforms in our own kingdoms are mere speculation, visiting ecologists have long marveled at the undead remnants of living creatures found in the Mushroom Kingdom. While several varieties of undead manifestation exist, the two most common classifications are the dry bones and the boo.

The word “skeleton” comes from the Greek skeletos, meaning “dried body” or “mummy.” This etymological connection between skeletons and mummies may have its roots in the origin of the Egyptian mummy. Prior to the Egyptians adopting man-made mummification as part of their burial rites, dead bodies were simply buried in shallow graves. The dry desert heat and air would dehydrate these corpses, leading to natural mummification. This natural mummification process left behind an extremely dry corpse with visable skeleton, and it would have a profound impact on the spiritual beliefs, as well as the society and everyday life, of ancient Egypt.

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Over time, the ancient Egyptians came to define the human soul as existing in five parts, all separate from the body. The reason to preserve the body through mummification was to provide a space for the souls to return one day. Without the souls, a mummy was just a dry bag of bones without animation. The idea of a stalking, animate mummy came centuries later with the Western imagination desperate for monsters. The animate mummy now represented the pre-colonial past, animated by the language and superstition the “enlightened” colonizers had undermined or ignored, and returned to punish those that had defiled its land. The monster was awoken by Hollywood archaeologists, scientists, rogues or vaudevillians who violated the past for their own gain, and it couldn’t be stopped by conventional means. Even then, the animate mummy from these movies was mindless and soulless, a body without true awareness or purpose.

The Dance of Death (1493), a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

The Dance of Death (1493), a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

This idea that the body was without awareness after death was not universally shared. Medieval art is filled with images of skeletons capable of passion, rage, joy and other emotions. These expressive skeletons were not usually meant to be joyful to the viewer, but rather to horrify and shock them. Death was not an escape from earthly passions, if anything it would only make things worse. With the divine soul gone, all that remained was violence and depravity. This is mirrored in some ways by the use of skeletons in Japanese folklore, where skeletons and spirits are consumed with an unending hunger for something they either over-consumed or under-consumed in life. Bodies dying of starvation may come back as giant gashadokuro skeletons with endless hunger. Those who died with anger and revenge in their heart may come back as piles of mekurabe skulls and torment their killers with undead staring contests. Whether Christian or Buddhist skeletons, their animation and passion did not mean they possessed a soul, but rather that the earthly body, rather than the divine soul, is the receptacle of earthly passions.

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The animated, mummified remains of a Terrapene fungus

One of the first appearances of skeletons as a representation of death in the Western canon appears in Ezekiel 37:1-14, The Valley of the Dry Bones. Dry Bones, the common name for the animated skeletons of dead koopas, may in fact be a reference to this passage. Dry Bones appear in two varieties, that of the quadruped Terrapene fungus and the upright Pseudeskelone peripatea . Animated Terrapene skeletons behave much like the did in life, animalistic and seemingly mindlessly wandering across the land. The upright dry bones are much more animated. They cackle and laugh when amused, they use bone tools, they respond to those around them, they play games and even drive cars with a competitive spirit. Does this mean that they house the souls of their former lives or is it merely the earthly passions of the body? Dry Bones do appear more active and excitable than living koopas, perhaps indicating that without the divine koopa soul to limit them, the body gives itself over to passions that were otherwise repressed. On the other hand, koopa lives tend to be both strictly regimented and violently short. A koopa can look forward to little more than a tyrannical leader conscripting them into military service, and then death at the feet of a Mario. If their soul remains, it may find that its now nigh-invulnerable dry bones form gives it an opportunity to express emotions and passions forbidden to them in life.

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Does the dry bones possess a soul? We may never truly know the answer, and can only speculate. A single piece of evidence that they do not possess a soul exists in when these creatures first appeared. The first recorded sight of a dry bones was by the Japanese in the October of 1988 (it was not described in US games or literature until 1990), a full three years after the first Toadstool-Koopa War of 1985. One of the results of this war was the mass death of hundreds, if not thousands, or Terrapene koopa troopas by Marios. If these first dry bones were the animated skeletons of those troopas killed by Marios in the first war, they may have risen with a specific calling for revenge against their killers, like the mekurabe of Japanese literature. These dry bones would then be soulless, and those who were more evolved upright koopas killed by Mario would retain the earthly passions and emotions. Of course, this is entirely circumstantial. The field of parazoology is entirely made up, and thus has not begun defining its methodology. Without proper tools we currently cannot penetrate further into this biological mystery.

Hieroglyphics discovered at Drybake Stadium showcasing daily life for the ancient Koopas civilization in World 2

Hieroglyphics discovered at Drybake Stadium showcasing daily life for the ancient Koopas civilization in World 2

We can, however, turn to anthropology to at least learn how Koopa society considers this question. Archaeological evidence of early Koopa civilizations is scant, but evidence indicates that the earliest upright Koopa settlements were built in deserts. This can be seen in the discovery and investigation of such sites as the Pyramids of World 2 (Super Mario Bros. 3, 1988) and the ruins of the Dry Dry Desert (Paper Mario, 2000). This was further corroborated by the discovery of three new sites in World 2; the Yoshi Sphinx, Sandshifter Ruins and Drybake Stadium (Paper Mario: Sticker Star, 2012). The discovery of mummified pokeys (Carnegiea ambulus) and dry bones at these sites indicates that mummification was part of the ancient Koopa civilization’s burial rites.  The discovery of the animated, extremely well preserved remains of King Tutankoopa in particular shows that the bodies of higher ranking koopas were preserved much better than those of simple troopas. It is easy to see how ancient Koopa society mirrored that of ancient Egypt, where the natural process of mummification led to a societal belief that the soul and body were separate. Koopa society today is highly stratified, with a regimented caste system divided by genus. This system may have its roots in this ancient Koopa civilization as well, where the difference in how different species were mummified became the basis and justification for the modern hierarchy of Koopa society. Bringing this back to the original question, we can see how Koopa theology holds that the undead forms are animated by the returned souls of their past lives, not simply by earthly passions.

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The second, and more common, form of undead in the Mushroom Kingdom is known as the “boo.” Boos are non-terminal repeating phantasms, and may also be considered a class 5 full roaming vapor. Like dry bones they express the full gamut of emotions, hungers and passions. If koopas come back as dry bones, then what are the boos the phantasms of? They could be the ghosts of koopas who died a different way, but they first appeared at the exact same time as the dry bones and with the exact same need to avenge themselves upon any Mario in sight. In fact, their anger at Mario seems more pronounced than that of the dry bones. Boos will stalk a Mario unless they make direct eye contact with the phantasm. When starred in the face, the creature will halt movement, cover itself in shame, and become slightly intangible. They will remain in this position until their target turns around. Their rage and fear at the Marios is significantly more pronounced than that of the dry bones, which would indicate they had experienced a great deal more violence at the feet of these predators than the koopas did. If there is any species that has reason to hate and fear a Mario more than the common koopa, it would be the goomba.

Taxidermy figures of a goomba and a boo. Note the resemblance.

Taxidermy figures of a goomba and a boo side by side

The goomba is an ambulatory fungus, and as such it does not have a skeleton. Human and koopa concepts of the body and soul being separate entities may have emerged from how their animal bodies exist and deteriorate after death, but goombas do not have the same experience. When a goomba dies, the body collapses and flattens, quickly deteriorating into the soil. When a goomba dies, nothing is left behind for long, either body or soul. What kind of undead would such a creature leave behind if it died full of rage and anger? Why, a class 5 vapor, of course. The face of a boo betrays its fungal ancestry. The boo’s face is nothing but an exaggerated and horrific goomba visage. The eyes have become beadier, the prominent eyebrows sharper, the large teeth sharper and pronounced at both the top and bottom of their jaw, and the two nubby feet of the goomba the nubby “arms” of the boo.

This does not mean that the boo is the divine spirit of the goomba given form, but that the earthly passions left behind take a different form. Perhaps this mirrors the Voodoun concept of the soul, which is composed of two parts. The gros bon ange or “big good angel” is a piece of the shared universal human soul. It enters the body, animates it, and hopefully returns to the universal soul upon the body’s death. The other half of the human soul is the ti bon ange, or “little good angel” and is unique to each person. This part of the soul contains all of one’s individual personality, moral conscience, experiences, reactions, drives and emotions. The ti bon ange is not trapped to the body, as it leaves every night to experience dreams. Upon a person’s death, the two parts of the soul leave the body, and where they go depends on how the family of the dead take care of them. Giving the dead honor and respect insures that the ti bon ange stays in the grave until it is ready to go to the realm of the dead. Failure to do this means the ti bon ange will leave the grave and can cause great misfortune to the living. If the parabiology of the goomba resembles the Voodoun concept of death and the soul, then the boo may be the lingering ti bon ange of the goomba, warped by its rage at an unjust death far from its family and home. A Voodoun sorcerer or bokon, can also use magic to capture and enslave a ti bon ange, particularly those who have died at sea or in far away lands. The Koopa have their own tradition of sorcery and magic, and the boos may have been created by the magikoopa caste as a way of ensuring their foot-soldiers could be reused by the Koopa Kingdom even after their death at the front lines. In either case, the boos tend to congregate in groups that roam a specific building or stretch of land that may have no connection to the location of their death. Goombas rarely inhabit these locations, and when forced to by Koopa military directions, they tend to wear masks made of skulls or pumpkins.  This superstitious activity may indicate that goombas feel a need to hide and distance themselves from boos, which would make sense if they believe boos to be the spirits of fallen goombas given improper burial or enslaved by their economic and military superiors.

Sadly, as the entire field of parabiology is largely made-up, we may never learn the truth.

A scene from Pieter Boo-gel the Elder’s The Triumph of Game Over (c. 1562)

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She Who Fights Monsters

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She Who Fights Monsters is a game by Gaming Pixie that uses the conventions of Japanese RPGs and survival horror games to tell a story of abuse. The story follows Jennifer, whose father suffers from alcoholism. This alcoholism can send her father into fits of rage where he will scream and hurl abuse at the young girl. While this abuse is not physical violence, we can see how the emotional and verbal abuse and intimidation tears apart the young girl just as violently. These fits of rage seem to have no logical origin. Any action Jennifer takes can trigger an attack, and the player can easily become caught up in the paranoia. The player may attempt to prevent Jennifer from doing things that her father can use as an excuse to become abusive, but the truth is that he doesn’t need an excuse. Jennifer will find herself facing a monster no matter what she does, and the player is no more able to decode what will keep her father happy and in “good father mode” than she is.

From examining her memories during her down time, we know that Jennifer’s relationship with her father isn’t solely defined by alcoholism and abuse. We can receive glimpses into positive memories of her father taking her on trips, playing with her, and caring for her. Emotional abuse is so damaging because it isn’t as simple as coming solely from “monsters” but can come even from people who love and care for. But that doesn’t excuse abuse when it happens, and there is one particular memory of abuse that reaches the breaking point and forces Jennifer to throw aside all positive memories of her father. But even knowing that this memory has undone every positive memory in Jennifer’s mind, it is still us, the player, who decides if it undoes that knowledge for us.

As the player, we can’t experience these positive memories of Jennifer. We are given static images of her drawings of these moments, and from that we can infer how much they meant to her, but we don’t experience them through direct action like the abusive moments. Meanwhile, those abusive moments play out in surreal horrorscapes where we run from shadowy figures, watch Jennifer rot and deteriorate before our eyes, and helplessly try and survive RPG-style battles against abstract horrors with only weapons and abilities like “tears” and “innocence” to defend ourselves with. This distinction between how we experience Jennifer’s positive and negative memories is important, because our decision at the end of the game as to how an adult Jennifer will approach her relationship to her parents is based on what we’ve seen and experienced, as well as what we’ve been told. We only get to experience the abuse first hand, but we can only guess and infer what the positive moments were like.

As the game is made in RPG Maker VXA, it borrows a lot of rpg conventions such as the top-down perspective, menus and “battles.” From exploring Jennifer’s room, we learn that she uses fantasy as an escape. She’s very imaginative, and creates positive fantasy spaces to feel safe in. The fact that we can only recover the positive memories of her father in these spaces may indicate that they are part of her fantasy. On the other hand, it may indicate that it is only through escapist fantasy that she’s able to find the safety and space to think beyond the immediate horror of abuse. In this interpretation, fantasy is not merely a security blanket, but a method of survival and of making sense of reality. On one day when her father’s verbal rage is directed towards a fight with her mother, Jennifer hides in her room to play a video game. This game-within-a-game gives us more insight into how Jennifer lives. Her game is saved before the final dungeon, and her heroine is at maximum level and decked out in the best equipment possible. This is clearly a game she plays, or escapes to, a LOT. Yet despite her heroine’s power and equipment, it is really easy to die in this game. The final boss of this game cannot be beaten with simple grinding and button mashing, echoing the hopelessness of the battles against her father.

Emotional abuse is not an easy subject to write about, much less to design a game about. It is even harder to live through. Leo Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is true to a point, but in my experience “unhappiness” tends to follow specific, repeated patterns. Abuse is such a pattern. It is sinister and damaging because of how it perpetuates and repeats across generations and communities. Emotional abuse involves convincing someone that they are isolated and alone. That their suffering, unhappiness and misfortune is their own making, all in their head and that they should be ashamed for experiencing it. It is through recognizing abuse as a pattern that victims find they are not as alone as we were told, and that there are connections and links even between unique and individual experiences. She Who Fights Monsters is a short look into one artist’s experience, and an invitation to explore how that experience makes you, outside the game, feel in response.

You can download or purchase She Who Fights Monsters here.

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Mongooses, Cockatrices, Magic Plants and the Evolution of a Story

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Saddle up Sonny Jim, this is a long one.

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Play Eft to Newt FREE

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Eft to Newt, my colossal, acclaimed, axolotl-inspired twine game, is now free. You can play it now right at gamejolt.

While it is now free, if you enjoy it and are moved by the plight facing the axolotl, consider buying a copy. All profits go to salamander conservation.

You can buy a copy on itch.io and gumroad.

There is also a review of Eft to Newt by Clint Emsley.

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The Handsomest Echidna Remastered

echidnathumbLast summer I released one of my first games, a little number made in Twine called ‘The Handsomest Echidna.’ Today I’m proud to announce a fully animated, fully voiced remaster of this game.

The Handsomest Echidna is the story of Eugene, an monotreme famed for his spines and good lucks. But today, Eugene’s commitment to his appearance will be challenged when his various endangered friends need some help…

Every species that appears in this game is evolutionarily distinct as well as critically endangered. You can learn interesting facts about these animals by playing the game, but you can learn even more about these animals and how they can be protected by Edge of Existence, a conservation program dedicated to studying and helping these animals.

This game was funded on Patreon. If you would like to support future games like this, you can pledge your support on my Patreon page. Set the maximum amount you would like to contribute, and each month I complete and release an ecology-focused game I’ll receive your donation.

 Play The Handsomest Echidna

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You Were Made For Loneliness

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I’m a sucker for robot literature. I don’t care how many times I read a story about AIs dealing with love or hate, or how many times I read a story using robots as a metaphor for class issues, or how many times a robot that can pass as human changes everything forever, or how many times a scientist builds a robot child that somehow also becomes a super hero, I never get tired of them. This includes every “proto-robot” story as well, be it Frankenstein’s monster or the original Rossum’s Universal Robots that coined the term but referred to biologically grown organisms. There is something unpretentious about a good literary robot. They are the perfect vehicle for playing with ideas of identity, existence, and awareness. Imagining how a mind becomes aware, or how an aware mind deals with limitations or barriers.

You Were Made For Loneliness handles this well. The dichotomy between how the robotic maid views the world and herself and how others, unable to truly communicate with her, project their own identities onto her is fascinating. While isolated and alone in the physical world of her employment, there is evidence that she is not as alone as she appears within her own mind. The ever-present assault of different memories and narratives, and the questions their existence raises, provides a narrative space for the reader to play with themes and ideas, as well as piece together the story of this world. It reminds me a lot of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, an author who famously played with games and play within his novels. Like Robbe-Grillet, Tsukareta uses their narrative to define a metaphysical space and the rules that exist within that space.

Something I like about Twine games is how it easily lets clever designers play with how we think about choices. The fact that your robot has several options seem viable until you try to choose them, only to find them suddenly striked out, seems simple, but it effectively communicates the mindset of someone that is capable of thinking beyond the boundaries they are trapped within. The fact that the game shows you options you can’t choose lets us know what our robot protagonist is thinking about. Even if we never wanted to choose those options ourselves, we are aware that it was on their mind, and that in turn influences how we play and how we think about the narrative.

As the game progresses, we as players become used to our lack of autonomy, and our ability to change things only within the context of that metaphysical space. Without giving anything away, when we finally do get to exert control outside of that space and within the formerly linear narrative, it is a powerful moment. How we choose to act is then influenced by how we chose to play within that metaphysical space.

You Were Made For Loneliness is a lovely, interesting, sad, disturbing and hopeful game. It is free to play or download, but the creators accept donations.

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On the origin of playing cards in “non-game” play

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It is easy to take things for granted in any medium, and games are no exception. We take for granted that established genres and control schemes are well known to us because we grew up with them, but are alien or confusing to newcomers. We take for granted that certain references and jargon will be known to our audience. We take for granted that even the most ubiquitous and familiar tools were once invented by someone and never existed before that moment.

We take for granted certain roles that games play in our lives and the assumption that these will always take certain forms. Imagine a group of recently-admitted college students, stressed and looking to unwind in a night of alcoholic debauchery among their peers. The students are all new to the school, so alcohol provides a useful social lubricant, and one student suggests a drinking game to further lighten the mood and allow the new peers to communicate on less formal terms. Perhaps you imagine one of them taking a deck of cards from their pocket for a round of King’s Cup or Asshole. Well, if this scene were taking place at an academy in Tang China, instead of a deck of cards they would be shuffling a collection of carved, wooden fish and would have to have very big pockets.

Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle is a combination drinking game poetry-creation system. In this game, a stone bowl holding various carved fish is placed at the end of a long hall. Players “fish” using red silk threads and when two fish are caught, the poems carved onto their sides are combined and read aloud. Some combinations of poetry may require the player to be penalized and drink a certain amount of wine. The game’s name is itself a commentary on the court education system, as getting into the prestigious Hanlin Academy was referred to as “getting onto the head of the giant sea turtle” and the rules specifically call on recent graduates to drink more than other players.  The wooden fish were created specifically for use in this satirical metaphor, but they didn’t lend themselves easily to other games. They were big and clunky and took a long time to carve. The invention of paper cards allowed players to easily construct similar decks for other poetry games, and to satirize other systems that didn’t have a built in marine life reference.

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But this wasn’t all cards could be used for. Just as these cards could be used to replace the more expensive and less-portable fish, they could also be shuffled, given numbers, and drawn to recreate the randomness of dice. The first of such games is known to us by name only. The rules of this “game of leaves” is not known, only that it was very popular with nobles, artists and scholars of the Chinese court. Within a few centuries, this game evolved into the first recognizable playing cards. It was this form that would travel to Europe through the silk road and, timed perfectly with the invention of new printing techniques, would lead to their mass production. The first four Tarot decks appeared almost simultaneously in Florence, Paris, Basle and Siena in .

The cards’ origins as a way to use randomness for the creation of poetry and their use in social functions is reflected in how these games were used as they spread out from China. Carl Jung would famously note of the Tarot deck’s use as a tool for psychoanalysis, but he was far from the first to do so. Spanish and Portuguese colonists and sailors brought the hip new playing cards to South America, where they were adopted into traditional games of the indigenous people living there. Peruvian shamans created a variation of the Tarot called Naipes (“naipes” is just a Spanish word for “card” but in this case also refers to a specific card game of Peru) that utilized images from Peruvian art and mysticism. The role of the shaman in these communities often revolved around mental health. The naipes deck would be drawn from to determine what questions the “patient” would be asked. The deck is stacked in favor of the therapist. While ostensibly a tool for divining the future, naipes readings involve asking “what could cause this result to happen?” rather than saying “this will happen.” Mathematically it is impossible to do a naipes reading and not get at least one card that portrays a “bad fortune” and asks the player to identify possible sources for this. As the players were not aware of the probability involved, the deck would seem to “magically” guide them towards thinking about issues that were troubling them, even if they came into the reading not thinking about anything negative in particular. Since the player is the one providing the context and meaning based on the matched card, it ends up being accurate for that player, furthering the perceived power of the deck as a tool for mystical insight. Just as the randomly matched Tang poetry cards would create poems of deeper meaning, the randomly matched images of the naipes deck would be used to create deeper ideas for the player.

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Any tool can be used by an artist or designer for new purposes. Cards were an elegant method of creating portable randomness and quickly juxtaposing ideas or images, and from there came an unimaginable wealth of new ideas and games. Even today, there is no shortage of ways to use playing cards, even within the confines of established methods of play. We still have social games, therapy games, storytelling games, probability games and countless more all portrayed in card form. Cards Against Humanity owes some of its existence to Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle,. and if we can get tarot, naipes, the “game of leaves” and the 52 bicycle deck all from the same basic set of cards, imagine what we could get out of another tool too many of us take for granted. The invention of cards allowed anyone the chance to make games cheaply and instantly. People who couldn’t afford game pieces, boards and dice intricately carved from rare materials could easily procure cards. As a result, we ended up with people from every background in almost every culture whipping out new card games and deck designs at an almost exponential rate. This is what attracts me to programs like Twine, zzt, and even RPG Maker. Those programs are the closest thing we have to this sea change in terms of digital games. An elegant way for anyone to design digital play without having to have a lot of computer space or power for “carving fish” as it were.

References:

Dobkin, Marlene. “Fortune’s Malice: Divination, Psychotherapy, and Folk Medicine in Peru.” The Journal of American Folklore 82, no. 324 (1969): 132-141.

Dummett, Michael A. E., and Sylvia Mann. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Lo, Andrew. “The game of leaves: an inquiry into the origin of Chinese playing cards.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63, no. 03 (2000): 389.

Tao, Zongyi. Shuo fu,. Taiwan: Taiwan Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1972. 

 

 

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