Pure Imagination

Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three.

Pure Imagination
Because maybe / You're gonna be the one that saves me

Like many, I am equal parts devouring and savouring the latest 2D Mario platormer game: a new high water mark for this venerable series. It has prompted me to reflect on the role of wonderment in imagination gaming.

Hold your breath,
Make a wish,
Count to three.

We tell eachother, and in our prospectus to new players, that the great joy of the hobby is that anything may be attempted, and we play to find out what happens. We emphasise ideas of tactical and narrative infinity, a boundless possibility space, limited only by our own imaginations. Yet in practice, for most of us most of the time, we take the road more travelled with leaves trodden black. Commodified, pedestrian vernacular fantasies. Before even sitting down at the table, we have constrained our flights of fancy to an insipid yet moreish gruel.

Come with me and you'll be,
In a world of pure imagination.
Take a look, and you'll see,
Into your imagination.

There are many notable published settings that dare to dream bigger:

  • The chromatic peoples and vile rituals of Carcosa
  • The waterscarce, mutated sandblight of Vaults of Vaarn
  • The opium-fuelled Yoon-Suin in a Himalayas that never were
  • The fallen entombed star-children of the Crystal Frontier
  • The shifting ink infused desert of Electrum Archive
  • The far-future Odyssey from cats to the end of the world in Ultraviolet Grasslands
  • The irreverent post-Coleoptera mythic tundra of Odious Uplands
  • The orbital gods and cult of Science from Anomalous Subsurface Environment
We'll begin with a spin,
Traveling in the world of my creation.
What we'll see will defy,

Yet returning to Wonder, I am struck how successfully the game remains faithful to the expectations of a mainline Mario title while providing flow of twists and surprises. The achievement is quite different to those wild other worlds above - the delicate tightrope of novelty and familiarity. Each stage offers a subtle spice or exotic ingredient to rejuvenate the childhood dish.

If you want to view paradise,
Simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it,
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it.

Perhaps then we need not abandon our cherished worn-through shoes just yet; let's set sail from our over-cosy elfgames, and tack to the following stars to find these lacunae of wonder:

  • Surprising. Invert or subvert a well-established norm (in the world or of the game game itself), grant a unique power or limitation, or present a strange objective. You can now only walk in the walls of the dungeon. You are invisible to these creatures so long as your eyes are closed. You need to line the goblins up in alphabetical order, but they're still attacking you.
  • Playful. Interaction and 'juiciness' is key - a grand advantage of imagation games is the latitude afforded referees to handle edge cases. If gravity is relative to each face of this chamber, can I make a trick shot with my bow? If I can become a pool of living slime, can I be ingested by my ally to take the fight to that parasite directly?
  • Fleeting. As any good performer, the trick needs to know when to take a bow and leave them wanting that bit more. Persistence leads to the new normal. The tunnel that hurled us through space and we needed to actually hold our breath was pretty wild - I hope we get to try going farther next time!
There is no life I know,
To compare with pure imagination.
Living there, you'll be free,
If you truly wish to be.

Challenging player skill and establishing adversity are often prioritised in discussions of classic adventure game play. Yet there are other complementary pleasures as well, and sometimes a moment of wonderment is quite satisfying. We need not reserve this for high-concept or gonzo settings: the vernacular fantasy of Monsters and Magic-users affords plenty of design space to delight.

Coda: I have now completed Wonder, and am further reflecting that the game's most memorable moments are connected by rhythm and flow. I'm cogitating on the salience of these features to conversation and imagination games, and hope to have another post on that some time soon.