I have mentioned before that SNES platformers are, largely, a homogeneous group of faceless experiences that melt together into obscurity. The cartoony protagonist leaping from horizontal surface to horizontal surface, over pattern-locked enemies, onto floating powerups that are doubtless coins, food or trinkets – this archetypical game bursts from every orifice the SNES figuratively possesses, rivaled only by sports games.
I believe that the moist burrow from which the genre’s placenta originally sloughed is Mario, at least in this specific form. Every trope, practically every moment within each of these games, can be traced back to the original Super Mario Brothers, or at least its sequels.
But everyone knows that. I am here today, then, to produce a new thesis on the origins of this genre. You might think it a conspiracy theory, but the overwhelming evidence I present will be so far above your whelm that you won’t even remember what it looks like. Your whelm will be like a footprint in the desert, viewed from the moon, by a myopic, wizened space traveler on his last legs who wanted to see the great, free darkness of space one last time.
My thesis is that all of these games were created, either directly or through vivid inspiration, by Franz Kafka.
Let us examine Dennis the Menace, then, from the perspective of this new (and shocking) thesis.
The first level of Dennis the Menace takes place in Mr. Wilson’s house. This space, presumably safe and domestic to anyone who wasn’t a self-loathing neurotic Jew in pre-war Germany, becomes vast and labyrinthine. Everything becomes a threat and a source of fear, and movement through the home is itself a terrifying, dangerous affair. You are beset on all sides by vicious household creatures and items – cats and mice, locked in their fleshly pattern of instinct, are a constant danger. Most notably though are the record players that spit out constant volleys of black vinyl death. The slightest touch, if you are in range, means grievous injury. I ask you, who but Kafka – a man who was unable to deal with noise and, in his own words, “most of all music” – would represent an innocuous music player as an autonomous artillery piece? Who but Kafka, terrified of intimacy and unable to trust his own family (especially his towering father, whom we will discuss in greater detail below) would represent a household as a monolithic citadel of pain?
Let’s take a moment to look at the very mechanism of injury and survival here – your life bar in Dennis the Menace is, in fact, “courage.” That’s what it says right above the little hearts. And when you are injured, just like in almost any other platformer in the Kafka genre, you flash in and out of existence – this damage not only wounds you, it brings into question your very being, oscillating between presence and non-presence as you do. And deeper still, this renders you invincible – a desirable state in this game, to render you invulnerable to the assault of your domestic environment. Kafka wanted nothing more than to erase his own presence and disappear.
There are many ties to examine, but let’s just go straight to the biggest one: Mr. Wilson himself, the steward and overlord of this demesnes. Like many platformer bosses, even as a humanoid creature, Mr. Wilson is not anything like your little Dennis. He is massive, a towering figure, grossly out of proportion. He is not the same species. If you’ve watched Dennis the Menace as a cartoon, you already know that Mr. Wilson is very much a father figure that represents for Dennis all the terrors of that great masculine presence – absolute power, physical and mental; a force of unforgiving, unrelenting domination that even compels you to see yourself from its own eyes.
Mr. Wilson, with his giant bobbling head, slouches through the halls of his lair like Grendel – and upon seeing you, he rushes forward. Armed only with a feeble, childlike array of weaponry – a slingshot, a water pistol – you must flee from this authoritarian nightmare. But you can never, as far as I could tell, defeat Mr. Wilson. He is always there, and he will always be there – if not in the house, then in your head, issuing commands from your past.
There is more to unearth here, but I am running out of space. Let me end with this: Kafka reportedly laughed uncontrollably any time he read “The Trial” out loud to his friends. Read it, dark as it is, and tell me if you laugh. And then play Dennis the Menace, and tell me if you laugh.
I did not laugh.