IMPALING MARIO, REVERSING SONIC: Inside Pedro Paiva’s Bootleg Games
THE SERVITUDE IS PRESENTED AS A PRIVILEGE
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Content warning: Some violent imagery, though not particularly detailed.
It’s difficult to write about games, partly because written text is static, and videogames are as dynamic as medium gets. It’s harder to write about short free games, like Pedro Paiva’s. Criticism often adds an artificial layer of mystique upon the object its trying to describe, and doing it to games that are accessible betrays their very intentions. Paiva is Brazilian, 26, and he makes what you could call game vignettes. He’s also a fallen arts teacher and an unapologetic anarchist. His games are more or less available on his blog: +ódio -playstation (ódio means hate), along with translations and essays on politics, history, art, and videogame culture. It would probably take you less time to play these games than to read about them, but still, writing extensively about what I like has always been my favorite way of understanding what I like, why I like it. Hopefully, by butchering these games and looking at their innards I’ll be able to show you something new, and we’ll get to understand something better.
Let’s start with his game Mario Empalado. As the name might suggest, Empalado is portuguese for impaled, and Mario is the usual Nintendo videogame character. In case you’re failing to imagine the scene, the game opens with a very visual depiction of it.
I should tell you that the game is available in English and Portuguese, which is nice. The bottom-box reads: “IMPALED MARIO: A HATE LETTER TO THE VIDEOGAME INDUSTRY AND THE STUPID GAMER PSEUDO-CULTURE. SHOOT MARIO TO START.” There’s a bloody thick stake running through Mario’s inert body. After you shoot him for the first time, Mario slides down the stake. You can continue to shoot, which causes him to rotate around the stake. It feels pretty good.
Not in a violent psychotic manner, mind you. It feels good, in a tactile way. There’s a nice friction to it, it makes a satisfying thump sound and there’s some visual feedback (possibly blood splurting out of his body). It’s a tiny little thing, but whenever I play Mario Empalado I notice how nice it is to shoot Mario. It shows a certain elegance in design. When it first appeared on the late freeindiegam.es (which earned its place in videogame history), reaction was mixed. Some accused it of being “crass”, juvenile, immature. A commenter going by the name of ‘nobody’ tried to defend it: “I want to insist that Paiva’s games are simply too savvy to deserve that sort of reproach, though I have trouble putting into words exactly why I feel that way so strongly. (Anyone want to jump in and give it a shot?)”. I’ll give it a shot, 4 years later. I believe that Mr. nobody’s “savvyness” refers to that elegant feeling I get. Like the first sentences of the first paragraph on a book informs you about the author, the interactions on Mario Empalado says a lot about the production values of the gamemaker: the animations are small, but delicate. It shows how much care has went into this hate letter in videogame form.
The game progresses through a series of scenes. On the first scene there’s a bed. “MIYAMOTO IS SLEEPING COMFORTABLY IN HIS BED. SHOOT TO KILL!” the top box commands. Second scene, a guy sitting at a table. “KOJIMA IS LUNCHING AT HIS FAVORITE RESTAURANT AND YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO”. The game has 10 scenes and it gets increasingly surreal, as the writing becomes less descriptive and more overstated. Let me share with you my favorite piece of text in the game, during the fourth scene: “FOR WHAT YOU EXPECT, IF YOU ALREADY KNOW EVERY NOVELTY WILL COME TOGETHER WITH NEW FABRICATED EXPECTATIONS?”
Now you have a minigun and after you complete your objective to shoot everyone, the bottom-box reads: “THE SERVITUDE IS PRESENTED AS A PRIVILEGE. THE CONSUMER PERSPECTIVE DO NOT ALLOW US TO PERCEIVE THE SUBTLETIES”. Mario Empalado is labeled by the author as an “experimental/manifesto game”.
It was most recently released in a collection with two other games. He published it on itch.io, but it was taken down by Nintendo along with several other games that used Nintendo trademarks. Nintendo clearly doesn’t share his values or appreciate “something artistically nuanced about Mario getting murdered”, as critic and gamemaker Liz Ryerson describes Mario Empalado. Another game in this collection is Carrocracia.
It’s impossible to translate it directly to English (the closest would be autocracy, but that one’s taken). ‘Carro’ means ‘Car’ and -cracia is the suffix of words like demo-cracy. It looks like a Frogger clone, one where it’s impossible to cross the road without getting run over. You can talk to the car’s dealer, who will ask if you want to buy a car. You can only answer yes, and then you instantly lose.
In this talk, Liz Ryerson describes it as “a weird sarcastic commentary about cars […] and it conveys it in this weird bootleg-game looking style”. I was really interested in her choice of words: “bootleg”. This label could be applied to many of his other games. With that description Ryerson honed in on what I think is one of the defining features of Paiva’s work. But to understand why “bootleg” is an important concept, we have to talk about growing up in Brazil and our shady history of videogame culture.
By the end of the 80s, videogames were in a legal gray area around here. Clone consoles like the Phantom System, a reverse-engineered NES, were common. Game cartridges were prohibitively expensive. Law enforcement just didn’t care about videogame copyrights, so there was no attempt to prevent clones, bootleg games, and pirate copies from being made or imported — Nintendo and Sega were in Japan, and that meant oceans away back then. The wind was blowing in a good direction, and the temperature was just right. The conditions for a colorful market had been set: enters the golden age of piracy in Brazil.
The majority of these games were sold by smugglers, or at the very least people that knew smugglers, practitioners in the old art of coming back with imported goods from countries like Paraguay. In my personal experience, contrabanded videogames were sold by street vendors along with fake handbags, food, CDs, and so on. This barely legal market was also a social space and looking back, it felt a bit mythical to me. I assume most people thought it was “crass”.
Pirated games nourished videogame culture in Brazil, and didn’t allow it to be strangled by games that cost half a minimum-wage at the time. Not everybody had a console, but somebody around had one; cartridges were being shared and traded; Pedro Paiva told me that his first console was a ‘Master System 3 Compact’, a brazilian variant of the Master System, which his brother got in exchange for a bicycle; improvised arcades started to crop up, small rental shops that allowed you to pay two bucks in order to play a console of your choice for an hour.
A favorite of the shop I used to go was International Superstar Soccer Deluxe (1997), for the SNES. It soon got replaced by one of its brazilian clones, Ronaldinho Soccer ’97 or Futebol Brasileiro ’96 (the one I eventually owned). These bootleg games were thoroughly modded to better represent the names of the players, the uniforms, and the shields of brazilian football clubs. Pedro Paiva is a fan of Sonic 4, for the SNES, a latin american hack of Speedy Gonzales with replaced sprites, where Sonic has to save Mario for some reason. It was piracy that allowed these strange games to exist.
The most common variety of bootleg were these multi-game cartridges called X-in-1. You could buy a single cartridge that had as many as 8 games in it. Pedro Paiva told me he was aiming at that when he designed the title screens for the collections.
To help with the bootleg/demoscene tone, his games usually start with a parody of the infamous FBI slogan: “ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS”. Remember, unapologetic. Then, the melting playstation gamepad which is the icon of his blog, and kind of his personal brand. Then, a disclaimer saying that the author encourages the exhibition and distribution of the game and ”Boycott the entertainment megacorporations! Play independent videogames!”.
Pedro Paiva has an agenda, an overarching project for videogames. Through his blog posts, I think we can pin down some of his aesthetic choices. In one of his essays, called “For An Anarchist Sonic”, he says: “A project for a left-libertarian society that does not take into account the importance of videogame in people’s heart is faded to succumb in front of a violent reaction or pure indifference — it would sound like one of Robotnik’s laws: No fun. By not ignoring people’s love for videogames, and by also not ignoring the weakening of good ideas — which we attribute to the market’s strength — , the best course is the simplest: revert the process, do the opposite with the same weapons, exaggerating and even misrepresenting the original meaning of games’ fictional universes. Good old propaganda.” Later, he talks about détournement (rerouting, hijacking), “a powerful form of propaganda crafted to perfection by the situationists.”
Whether through conscious choices or not, I think Pedro Paiva’s games reflect bootleg culture. Of course, there’s no technological imperative for videogame bootlegs anymore — Brazil eventually became a regular market for the global games’s industry. But along with its material implications, there was a subtler state of mind to them, which his games recapture. A feeling that cultural symbols were more within our grasp, and could be made more transgressive. It implies that by re-purposing characters and modifying narratives, one is claiming ownership of these fictional worlds, generating resistance to the canon. I think this tweet makes the point even clearer:
In another essay, “Videogame, Art, and Trainwrecks”, he says: “Cooperative Gaming Co-op, Different Games, Oak-U-Tron, Babycastles, Punk Arcade, Pirate Kart, among others, are initiatives that seek to transform videogames […], a critical alternative or antagonism to hegemonic videogame”. Paiva has his own arcade project to that matter (The Totem-Machine Mercer), and it all reminds me of those improvised arcades from when I was a kid —they were, as Pedro Paiva would call them, a “space for collective videogame appreciation”. I was there not only to play videogames, but to be around people, and connect over similar tastes — in a place that fatality codes and pirated copies of RPG Maker 95 were currency. And I think Pedro Paiva’s games would fit well there.
There’s one game that I believe is Paiva’s most accomplished: ESSES GAMES VIOLENTOS: PROIBIDÃO. Not to be confused with the previous ESSES GAMES VIOLENTOS, made when he was an assistant teacher in his university, by his 11-year-old students — although there are similarities. ESSES GAMES VIOLENTOS roughly translates to ‘these violent games’, and Porpentine said in her old Rock, Paper, Shotgun column that it’s “easy to call these masocore [because they are difficult], but they feel more like puzzles framed in the vocabulary of video games. Each drawing has its own rules, which constitute a puzzle of sorts. Part of the puzzle is figuring out the eccentricities of each animation.”
It may look like a shooter, or a platformer, but it plays more like a puzzle. PROIBIDÃO plays more or less the same way, but the content is different. About the first one, Porpentine also notes: “The audio is 100% juvenile mouthwork. I died frequently to the fanfare of children making death sounds. It was utterly worth it.” ESSES GAMES VIOLENTOS is funny, even euphoric, light-hearted. PROIBIDÃO’s audio is composed of rap and funk carioca loops. ‘Proibidão’ is the name given to funk music most associated to crime, drugs, and gangs.
PROIBIDÃO has 10 vignettes, all made by Pedro Paiva’s students under his tutelage when he worked in CSE, part of FASE — you can see these acronyms in many of the game’s vignettes. He was responsible for the coding, the sounds, and the title screen. He lost his job because of it. FASE is the “socio-educational foundation” that runs CSE, which stands for “social-educational community”; in short, a youth detention center. Pedro Paiva was hired by the state, and part of his job was giving art classes to juvenile offenders in a “restricted freedom situation”. He decided to teach them how to make games.
During the credits, I counted 49 names — well, nicknames. On the background, there’s an image depicting the Beagle Boys, the criminals from Donald Duck’s universe. In Portuguese they’re called ‘Irmãos Metralha’, meaning somewhat close to ‘Machinegun Brothers’. It’s not an uncommon nickname in Brazil: if you look for ‘Irmãos Metralha’ on Google, you’ll find many groups of criminals that went by this alias. The choice to have them presenting the game has nuance, it echoes crime culture, as does the exquisitely drawn Batman’s Joker on the title screen, playing with a handknife. They are characters that have been shaped to nonrecognition by Brazil’s weird street imaginary.
I think that Aventura Noturna, one of PROIBIDÃO’s vignettes, stand as a good example for the rest of the work. Aventura Noturna is the only one to have drawings of the people who made it alongside their names. When the game starts, you control Donald Duck, shooting big gun mounted in the back of a 4x4 truck.
If you can kill the police in the towers, the gate is opened and you can see the guys who made the game run to your truck. You’re helping them escape a prison. If you, Donald Duck, survives the car chase that comes after, you will take the them to a baile funk, the kind of party that plays funk proibidão, associated with poor communities, and consequently crime, to Brazil’s conservative perspective. A fun night, by the game’s perspective.
The other vignettes carry much of the same themes: money, crime, daring escapes from prison, or simply the recreational use of cannabis. In order to make them, Pedro Paiva taught his students the basic of animation, and he published some of their studies here.
Pedro Paiva told me that one of his students, in a playful mood, once said that he would distribute the games he was making while drug-dealing. I thought it was a funny scene. The administrative personnel weren't so appreciative of the project’s humor, though.
One day a police officer entered Pedro Paiva’s class without notice. He didn't say anything before or after taking several photographs of the blackboard. Then he left, and the students started to get worried that they could get in trouble for the work they were doing. The title of the game they were discussing that day was written on the board: ‘Escape from CSE’. “And also a storyboard describing the game level design. The students would draw the levels on paper, and then I would make a synthesis of each level on the blackboard. From that, we tried to give a narrative coherence to the parts each one drew”.
When administration found out about PROIBIDÃO’s content, they were unhappy. Pedro was asked to get rid of it and tell the students he had lost the files. “FASE politics was about pretending that the students’s past had never happened. As if they would leave prison to a whole different world, devoid of the same context that got them associated to crime in the first place”. He said he would get rid of it, but instead he continued to work with them: a clandestine game studio in prison.
Game or no game, administration was already revoking Pedro’s access to some of his classes and students, and the pressure got to the point he quit. “Once I asked the students to draw a narrative in three scenes: past, present, and future. One of the groups drew a gun on the past frame, jail bars on present, and a childish-like drawing of a house, flowers, and family representing the future. On the next day I discovered the administration had thrown out the poster because “gun drawings weren’t allowed”. It was like they were afraid of Crime’s icons and images. As they probably were scared of the young people there.” He seems discontent with teaching and schools altogether. When I interviewed him, he shared with me some of his anxieties. He’s currently unemployed, living off savings, and not sure what to do next. He’s working on a new game though, and he tells me it’s “something like Sunset Riders meets Bart vs. the Space Mutants”
Back to PROIBIDÃO: the vignette’s titles and nicknames of the authors might be difficult to read, as they are all written in Pixo. Pixo is a distinctive form of graffiti born and raised in brazilian streets. It’s Paiva’s unreleased game main theme, too. If you’re interested in Pixo’s history, I recommend this documentary by filmmakers João Wainer and Roberto T. Oliveira.
Pixo is unruly, cryptic in order to be understood, and confrontational by nature. “It’s pure anarchy; it’s hate, you know what I mean?” asks a ‘pixador’ interviewed by the documentary. Pixo is another instance of détournement. ESSES GAMES VIOLENTOS: PROIBIDÃO is videogame’s Pixo.
There’s a big controversy around Pixo in Brazil right now, sparked by a mayor’s ill-advised dreams to repaint the entire city of São Paulo and get rid of graffiti altogether — not a particularly new enterprise, except to the extent it is being done. One question often arises when discussing it: “Is Pixo art?” — you may have heard a similar question before. I guess that Pedro Paiva would argue that Pixo doesn’t care. Pixo is a clash between the conscious and the subconscious levels of a city. It’s illegal, but its nature makes the law impossible to be enforced. Pixo hijacks walls and private property to serve its own purposes, rerouting the usual meanings of the city, a verbal attack on the dominant cultural form.
Pedro Paiva’s games are fueled by the same rationale. It asks the question “who does culture belong to?”, while providing the self-evident answer: a bloody thick stake running through Mario’s inert body. Videogames, as he envisions, is a form of cultural guerrilla warfare. His games are colored by its locality, uncorrupted, like remnants of a pre-globalized world. Like the smugglers from the 90s, shaping culture through unlicensed cartridges, Pedro Paiva is trying to create not only games, but physical spaces and mindsets that will allow videogames to thrive — not as Art, which is where things go to die, and not as consumer products either; but as something else, something we do not quite understand, from when our expectations were original, “not fabricated” (as Mario Empalado would say). His games are short, condensed experiences that seems to channel a very particular tradition of DIY culture. They remind me that, when I first encountered videogames, their qualities emerged not only from what they were, but the place they stood. Maybe to become part of the global conversation we had to give up something I wasn't quite ready to part with. Official gaming culture arrived, and now that it is here it feels stale, vacuous. Bootleg and pirated games always had a strange weight to them.