We’re Sorry, Pauline, But Your Plumber Is in Another Castle

Winda Benedetti reports that Mike Mika “didn’t have an agenda when he changed Donkey Kong” by hacking an old NES ROM and turning damsel in distress, Pauline, into Mario’s potential savior in what he has dubbed the Pauline Edition of Donkey Kong. No other agenda, that is, than to just “keep my daughter playing games with me” (“Damsel (not) in Distress: Dad hacks Donkey Kong for his daughter”, NBCNEWS.com, 12 March 2013). Nevertheless, clearly the alteration that he did make to the game, the role reversal of the game’s protagonist and the game’s object, has an effect on how one sees the game and what it communicates.

After all, Donkey Kong is in many ways the proto-damsel-in-distress, the proto-saving-the-princess game. It would lead to the “plumber saves princess” motif of Super Mario Bros. (and, yes, yes, I know that he was Jumpman before he was Mario, but, yeah, same guy), to saving Princess Zelda, and to the general tone that Nintendo struck with their boy friendly foray into the console market back in the mid-1980s.

If the narrative premise of that era of console gaming was simple, “boys are heroes” and “boys save girls,” Mika’s revision of the game communicates an equally simple message that “girls are heroes, too” and “girls can save boys.” However, these aren’t messages that are commonly present in games, maybe in part because portions of the foundations of gaming focused on boys as a dominant market for games. Certainly, more modern games like Mass Effect allow the player to choose a protagonist’s gender and Lara Croft has long been raiding tombs. Still though, it is heroes like Master Chief, like John Marston, like Kratos, like Nathan Drake, like Marcus Fenix that have largely served in the lead roles in most video games.

Revisions of prior narratives that allow audiences to view a story in a different light are, of course, common enough in the arts and literature. Wide Sargasso Sea allows readers to see the story of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the supposed “madwoman in the attic” of that tale. John Gardner’s Grendel give us the perspective of the monster, not that of the hero of the Beowulf story, and the novel Wicked also explores a classic tale from a slightly less innocent perspective. “Rewriting” older stories allows one to question, to interrogate previous cultural mores and values and to consider what light a radically different perspective might cast on a story that seemed inviolable and part of narrative and cultural tradition.

Again, just shifting Mario’s role with that of Pauline isn’t a huge revision of the simple narrative premise of Donkey Kong, but it might be a fresh point-of-view for many players and even more so it is a point-of-view that invites in more players to the game itself. While the ability to take on a role in a game (be that a different gender, a different race, or an altogether alien species) is one of the more fun and interesting aspects of gaming — games do allow their audience to “get away from themselves” in a way that, perhaps, other mediums do not – still what Mika’s daughter wanted, what provoked him to hack a classic game, was a quite simple request: “She wanted to play as Pauline … and she wanted Pauline to rescue Mario.“ Essentially, it seems she wanted a character that she more directly self identify with and that would allow her to play a role that she, a girl, could see herself in. Sometimes in a game, we just want to see what “we” can do in a given circumstance.

Mika’s revision of Donkey Kong may leave some open questions about his version of the game’s premise. I think that many players, like myself, have always assumed a lot about the thin story that Donkey Kong tells given its obvious indebtedness to King Kong as a source of inspiration. In that context, I have always assumed that if Donkey Kong stands in for King Kong that Pauline stands in for Ann Darrow, and thus, that the reason for Pauline’s abduction and need for a plumber’s aid is that she is the object of affection of the big ape. Why then has Mario been abducted? In 2013, is Mario now the object of Donkey Kong’s affection.? The new version of the game doesn’t answer that question, of course, but then again, the original premise is based more on assumption than any clues the game gives us about the context of what is going on in this story anyway.

Regardless, the real interest of the Pauline Edition for me is what it says about the medium of games themselves and their relationship to their audience. While other media allow us to see what other people are like (film, literature, and music), games allow the opportunity to be other people. In other words, Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition highlights the complicity of players with the work itself. And while games can show us what someone else’s experience may be like by stepping into the shoes of that other, into some new identity, Mika just wanted his daughter to keep playing games with him. If that means giving her a character she can identify with, so she doesn’t give up on the medium, so be it. Mika’s daughter’s request seems to show that sometimes games can simply allow us to see ourselves in a new context and might serve as a safe place to explore the possibilities of who we ourselves might become.