Save the Princess, or Save Your Soul

I wrote some weeks back that revisiting Super Mario 64 with a guide was allowing me to work around the parts of it I found the most frustrating and I thought that this time I might actually persist long enough to beat Bowser. Well, I did do that, and I felt proud of myself for doing it, and then horrified at how proud I felt.

Let me back up.

Years ago I wrote about being addicted to fake achievement. I played RPGs where my characters accomplished great deeds against impossible odds, but my success was both inevitable and meaningless. And that’s fine - but for me these games were not simple escapism. I had tricked myself into believing that those accomplishments were somehow my own, and since they came so easily I found that when I didn’t succeed at things right away I lost interest in them. Which is a problem because almost everything worth doing in life does not come with immediate success.

Once I realized this, I started down a long road of training myself to do real things and persist even when I initially failed. The first step was to fully complete a somewhat difficult action game, Sonic Adventure DX. This wasn’t a meaningful achievement in the sense of actually creating value or having positive outcomes outside of my own self - but it was a big deal in that I actually practiced and persevered and accomplished a difficult goal that required investing both time and effort in the face of repeated failure.

I was proud of myself for doing it, but I knew it was just a first step. I took more steps, and over the years reached a point where I could actually handle significant personal and professional projects - something that had felt very out of reach at the beginning of the journey. Video games remained a hobby along the way, and for a time I deliberately tackled hard games and played on the highest difficulties - a sort of meta-training ground where I kept practicing the habit of practice itself, proving repeatedly that I could master skills if I just kept at them.

Eventually that tapered off and I became impatient with too-difficult games that wanted me to invest so much of myself in them to experience all of their content. These days I tend to play on lower difficulties and complain loudly when story-heavy games have unskippable difficulty spikes.

I always assumed that was mostly about time. Back in college I had more time than money and it was a good thing if I could squeeze dozens of hours out of every game I bought. These days the situation is reversed - I’m much busier and I have literally hundreds of games I’ve never played, so I resent when a game makes uncompromising demands of my time and energy.

But Super Mario 64 showed me there’s a bit more to it than that.

When I first tackled Super Mario 64, I gave up in frustration before beating Bowser. I felt bad about leaving such a classic game unfinished, and that hung over me in the back of my head for years. When Super Mario 3D All-Stars came out, I saw it not only as a chance to finally try Sunshine and Galaxy but to redeem myself on 64.

And I did so. I persisted through frustration and failure the way I haven’t done in a game in years. I tried again and again on bullshit stars and against bullshit camera deaths and finally I beat Bowser. And as I watched the ending sequence, I felt good. I knew I’d practiced and persevered and done something difficult. I supposed that this is what all those “You cheated not only the game, but yourself” people were talking about, the greater feeling of satisfaction you can get from committing to defeating a game on its own terms and putting in the time and effort to pull it off. And I started wondering if maybe I should go for collecting all 120 stars, as that would probably feel good too.

Which is when my eyes widened in horror.

It’s been a long road since that first important step of completing Sonic Adventure DX. At the time, I needed to do that to prove to myself in a safe, low-stakes way that I could persevere and do something hard. But by now I’ve proved that over and over and over again and don’t need to prove it anymore. Completing Super Mario 64 would be a step in the wrong direction from where I am today - it would be a real achievement in the sense that it would be hard-fought and I’d have to actually practice skills, but it would be a far less valuable achievement than many other things I could spend that time and effort on.

And yet here I was considering doing it, because of how powerful the high was from just defeating Bowser. I felt the same sense of accomplishment I normally get from completing a significant task at work or in a personal project. I felt like I’d made good use of the day. And I found that terrifying! I don’t want to be proud of moving in the wrong direction! I want to stay hungry. I want to chase a sense of accomplishment from doing things that matter and not trick myself into complacency through the superstimulus of video games, leaving myself again sated in the short term but starving in the long term.

Maybe other people aren’t vulnerable to this in the way that I am. I’m not telling you what to do. But I know what can go wrong for me here because it went wrong before. I know what I need to do.

And so I emphatically will not be getting 120 stars in Super Mario 64. I will make sure that for me, games remain a source of relaxation and entertainment and not of achievement. I will play on Easy Mode, I will use guides and cheats, and I will feel very very good about that choice.