With my back-up of Steam purchases, which felt like a good idea at the time, the ever-looming feeling of “I should really play this” is always in the back of my mind. Yet I always get distracted. As people who play games, what I think a lot of us are looking for is a new experience. Yes, there are times where one wants to know what they’re getting into, appease the desire to turn off one’s brain and just enjoy the ride. But as a whole, games with new angles and new points to make are the games that catch people’s attention and stay in their minds—hell, it’s why indie games have gotten so popular and why, seven years after its release, people are still talking about Braid. The narrative of the modern AAA game is stuck; audiences are beginning to see nuance in the way their protagonists think about their situation, but at the end of the day, the protagonist is still the big damned hero whose sacrifices are worth the final outcome. In some cases, the world bends to the choices they make, but generally speaking the in-game world at large is unaffected. That is to say, there are no repercussions for egregious acts of violence. So upon coming across a game that set out to challenge this kind of ingrained gaming sensibility, of course it caught my attention and made me want to see what it had to offer.
Though arguably there are games out there that make players examine the importance of their decision—The Stanley Parable comes to mind, though that’s more tongue-in-cheek—Average Maria Individual set out with the lofty goal of looking at the Mario formula and engaging it in a more critical light. The internet is rife with dissections of Mario, but many of them stop short of actually getting to the meat of the issues. A flash animation of a crying goomba family after Mario stomps on one, a thousand posts of “lmao what if when Mario ate a mushroom, it was like, drugs, and he’s just high the entire time”: jokes that are on the precipice of maybe something interesting, but don’t go any further because, well, it’s Mario and a majority of the gaming audience knows Mario. Mario is shorthand for “beat the dude, save the princess”. Can it be anything more? Well, after playing Average Maria Individual, the answer seems to be “no”.
This short indie game, created by Alice Maz for Ruin Jam in 2014, stars a young woman, Maria, who is for all intents and purposes entirely average. She can’t walk particularly quickly and, as the description so helpfully points out, she can “jump no higher than half a tile”. This means that she can’t reach item blocks and she can’t jump over pipes, which may have people scratching their heads over how it’s possible to actually complete this game. Instead of bonuses and boosts, Maria must rely on her wits (i.e.: good ol’ conversation) to reach her goal. And what’s her goal? Well, that’s mostly up to the player. On her journey, Maria can run into a host of not-as-bad-as-they-seem enemies who question her about her quest. Is Maria here to check on the welfare of her girlfriend, the princess? Or is she here to play hero? The more Maria provides answers that don’t take into account the other creatures of the world or her girlfriend’s autonomy, the less easy it is for Maria to get to the end screen. Her choices are even brought up later.
Maz writes that the only puzzle of the game is “don’t act like a gamer”, and I suppose to some extent that’s correct. If one plays in a way that’s not just to see the ‘game over’ screens, the answers do contradict the toxic masculinity that’s endemic in gamer culture. Maria is encouraged to make dialogue choices that don’t reinforce her as “the hero”, but just a normal person. Maria should not be seeking to rescue her girlfriend—is her girlfriend even in trouble in the first place?—rather, she should make sure her girlfriend is safe. The quote-unquote enemies of the game are not creatures that should be lashed out at mindlessly, but creatures that should be talked with and given a little sympathy. Mario as a series cannot break free of its hero narrative, because that’s all it is: Maria can because its a completely different story that prioritizes different mechanics—after thirty years, I doubt the formula for Mario is going to change any time soon.
While the game is enjoyable (save for the backtracking I did because I thought I wasn’t going the right way when I was), does it stack up as a good critique of the self-important gaming narrative? Yes and no, but in my opinion, mostly no. I would be willing to place this on the time limitations inherent in all game jams, however. I think most of my problems come with the cameo of the mustachioed plumber himself. Near the end of the game, Maria comes across Mario, who tries to stop her from saving his princess. He makes comments about how the princess’s opinions don’t matter because it’s “not her story”, which I though was a really well done, chilling line, but then he just gets progressively more bloodthirsty and aggressive. I’m not conflicted about the contradiction of Mario’s canon personality and this one; I just think that this sort of straw-man figure only serves to make the message of the game weaker. Of course, I’m not saying that Mario should have been completely repentant and have tearfully seen the error of his ways, but there is no nuance in having Mario hate everything but himself. He ends up being a character the player just laughs at, and he’s much too easy to cast aside because of how outlandish he is. Male gamers are kind of a joke at times, let’s make no mistake, but with the somber tone of the rest of the game, this is just so out of place. I think I would have liked it more if the discussion between Mario and Maria was actually meaningful, or maybe instead of Mario being this figurehead for toxic gamer sexism and self-interest, if it was someone dressed up as Mario (since the game establishes that more than one hero has been through these parts before).
Despite this, I wholeheartedly believe that Average Maria Individual is the perfect kind of game to get people to start thinking about how they consume games. The short game length is perfect for people who want a taste of video game critique without fearing that they’re going to be lectured at for hours. Plus, the way in which Maz introduces these deconstructionist ideas are completely accessible and presented in a way that many would easily be able to grasp. If you have ten to fifteen minutes, I’d recommend downloading the game and trying it for yourself: it’s free if you want it to be, though you can also be a cool person and name yourself a price. Maybe it’ll be just the thing to get you thinking about how you’ve been influenced by stagnant game plots that don’t offer critical thought for the repercussions of the protagonist’s actions.