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Is Art Finished or Abandoned? What I Learned Playing Super Mario Odyssey with My Son

There’s a popular quote from Leonardo da Vinci that goes, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This quote is often pulled out as a response to junior storytellers asking, “How do I know when the story is finished?”

When I look back at my life, I realize that I’d abandoned more projects and pieces than I’d actually finished. Stories are left without an ending. Video games are abandoned halfway through.

In fact, perhaps the only medium I usually complete until the end are books, movies, and TV.

Recently, as part of my promise to my son to play with him a bit more (since it’s hard to find playmates during an ongoing pandemic), my brother lent us a copy of Super Mario Odyssey, one of the few Super Mario games that features co-op. In it, Mario’s hat comes to life and is played by the Player 2. And as much as I encouraged my son to play Mario in this game, I ended up being Player 1.

Through it all, I noticed the subtle differences that my son and I had in terms of play style. Where I’m more the type that's inclined to play through a level, perfecting it, and unlocking all its secrets until the stage is 100% complete, my son is the opposite. Once we’d progressed enough in a stage to move on, he would repeatedly ask if we could move on to the next world.

At first I was a bit peeved at the suggestion. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was some wisdom in that manner of play.

Looking back, even though we’d barely completed the hours and hours of extra content in each of the stages, we could safely say that we'd finished Super Mario Odyssey together.

This surprised me a bit. I’m someone that has played Elder Scrolls: Skyrim ever since the first year that it came out. And yet, to this day, I have not finished that game.

It seems to be a problem that continues to plague me with a lot of open world games, including the older ones. I often get so caught up in finishing and completing all the side quests and extra content that I end up abandoning the main quest and the game altogether out of boredom.

Most of the time (especially with most open world type games), I realize that I tend to be sort of a troublesome completionist to the point that I'd eventually get bored and move on to the next game without ever finishing the one that I'd first started.

“Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Granted, there are some games that keep my interest all the way towards the end, but they are few and scarce, especially with games like Mario Odyssey. Because while it was indeed fun, it wasn't challenging enough or interesting enough to get me deeply invested. The plot and story with Mario's hat coming to life was a bit silly, and the entire game was fairly easy (although I have to give chops to my son since he was a huge help all throughout).

Around the same time I was playing through Super Mario Odyssey with my son, I was also playing through Fallout 4 on the PC. By this time, the game was already a few years old, and I’d only recently got myself a good enough PC and a copy of the game to dive through in my spare time.

However, the same thing happened with Fallout 4 that usually happens to me with most games. There came a point in the game wherein I just got bored and wanted to move on to another.

But because I’d learned something valuable playing Super Mario with my son, I realized that I didn’t need to go through and finish every single side quest throughout the game. I could just move on and finish the main narrative. I’d gotten to a point in the game, after all, where I was actually strong enough and leveled-up enough to finish it.

And so I put out all the stops to finishing the game, spent at least a couple of hours every week just going through the motions of finishing the main quest until I finally reached the end game material.

Playing with my son taught me that to get to the finish line you just have to put one foot in front of the other and not get distracted by the many shiny objects all around you.

The same could be said with my writing.

“…it’s far more honorable to stay in the game—even if you’re objectively failing at the game—than to excuse yourself from participation because of your delicate sensibilities. But in order to stay in the game, you must let go of your fantasy of perfection.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Throughout the years, my art has never been finished, only abandoned.

Abandoned in a terrible way.

It’s been a while since I’d put words to the page in a way that made me feel alive. It’s been a while since I’d chased after the rush and the challenge of having to solve the intricate and complicated puzzle that was a story.

If I wanted to finish anything, I have to take a page out of my son’s playbook. I’d have to stop fussing over the minor details of perfection. I’d have to stop getting myself distracted, and instead focus on the main goal.

The goal in Mario is to save the princess from Bowser.

The goal in Fallout 4 is to find and rescue my kidnapped son.

The goal isn’t really to uncover all the secrets of the Mushroom Kingdom. That comes second to saving the princess.

“A good enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

The goal in every piece of art, in every story told, is to finish it and share it with the world.

In the end, I'm extremely grateful that my son pushed us to finish Mario Odyssey as quick as possible. Truth be told, it actually gave me a sense of accomplishment, just being able to finish the game at all.

Now all that’s left is to translate and apply that wisdom to the real world.

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