by Tom Ingram
When I first saw an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was only a couple years old. I must have seen it on TV over my parents’ shoulders. I don’t what was happening or who it happened to, and for some reason I was left with the impression that Giles was a Sunnydale student just a few years older than Buffy. I hardly remembered anything at all, really. Except for the library.
The library was the core setting of the show, and in many ways it defined the first three seasons. Not a single episode went by that didn’t involve studying monsters, training, or getting attacked in that little round room. The old-looking architecture combined with little bits of the nineties encroaching on it is essential to the feeling of the show. And, of course, the destruction of the library at the end of season 3 was a watershed point: the show would never be consistently good again for the rest of its run.
A powerful setting has this effect on people. Think about some of the great “hub” locations from TV–the bridge of the Enterprise, the command centre under Cheyenne Mountain, the Simpsons’ couch–these places are instantly recognizable.
So what’s all this rambling about? Well, I think that Luigi’s Mansion, one of the games I grew up with, has one of the best settings of any video game ever made.
The game was a radical departure from the Mario games that had existed up to that point. Luigi was always something of a tragic figure, exactly like his brother in every way except how much we cared about him. The first time he was different from Mario in any respect other than the colour of his clothes was Super Mario Bros. 2, and that was only the vaguest of differences. Gradually, people started to wonder, who is this Luigi guy?
This was Luigi’s big chance. He “won” a mansion in a contest he never entered, and his brother went missing inside it. The place is old and dusty and somehow…not quite right. When Luigi pokes around the place, the paintings in the parlour make fun of him and send ghosts in to attack him. He’s saved by the eccentric professor Elvin Gadd, a ghost hunter who has dedicated his life to imprisoning the ghosts of the mansion in paintings. The ghosts have escaped, and in order to find his brother Luigi will have to recapture all of them.
One thing you notice quickly is that Luigi is scared. He hums nervously along with the background music, jumps and screams when he’s startled, and in general acts like a victim in a horror movie. The game is genuinely scary at times, despite its cartoonish atmosphere. Aside from the obvious fear of ghosts surprising you in a dark room, there are moments of good psychological horror.
The mansion is a huge building that requires dozens of people besides its owners to run it. They’re all dead, ghosts that spend their afterlife obsessing over one thing or another, not quite human but not entirely inhuman either. Some of them want to go back into the paintings. Others seem to barely take notice of Luigi except as a minor annoyance. Many of them are openly malicious.
These shells of humans obsessing over their no-longer environment have some poignant moments, some funny ones, and some really, really scary ones. Showing a place after its inhabitants have died is a powerful way of commenting on the nature of humanity. Post-apocalyptic fiction does this very well, but here we see it in what is essentially a horror story. The framework for all this is the mansion itself, which is creatively designed and well laid-out.
Roger Ebert said in a blog post that:
In a sense, a movie is a place for me. I go there. Just as I return time and again to London, I return to “Fitzcarraldo,” “Dark City,” “Late Spring,” and Bergman’s trilogy “Through a Glass Darkly,” “The Silence,” and “Winter Light.”
This is the way I remember good video games. And that’s why the setting of the mansion is so important to me. It is, ironically, one of the most lively, vibrant settings of any video game I’ve ever played. The mansion is a character in itself, at times vicious, wacky, or sad. Each bit of exploration reveals something about its character. It’s a joy to explore, and ideally suited to the hero doing the exploring.
Luigi himself is the most compelling character in the entire Super Mario Bros. oeuvre. His brother is the picture of perfection, always equal to whatever task besets him. Luigi has had to grow up in that environment, always knowing he’d never be good enough. When he pushes through the dark, cobwebbed rooms of the mansion, he’s terrified out of his mind. He’s isolated, his only connection to reality being the funny little man in the shack at the front of the grounds, which suddenly seems too far away. This culminates in an emotional low point when the lights go out, allowing ghosts to attack him at will.
Luigi, essentially, is just like us. He’s an everyman who doesn’t want any of this, and that’s where his strength of character lies. Despite his fear and resentment, he pushes on anyway. He knows it will probably mean his death, but he could never live with himself if he didn’t. A stoic hero who always saves the day needs very little courage. He’s almost contractually obligated to win. It’s the incompetent coward who’s terribly suited for the job but does it anyway that makes a good hero.