Super Mario Odyssey, as the title suggests, is supposed to be about Mario’s travels from kingdom to kingdom in search of Bowser to once again save Princess Peach. Mario’s quest for moons doesn’t really feel like much of a journey, though. The kingdoms Mario comes across are environmentally different, but there’s little variation in their challenges. To Mario, every kingdom is another land riddled with moons he must collect. Find a time challenge dummy, ground-pound a hidden moon, catch a rabbit, repeat. Mario’s odyssey is not much of an odyssey at all.
Princess Peach’s odyssey, on the other hand, is. Once players rescue Peach from Bowser, Peach decides to travel on her own, and to see a world she’s already seen as a hostage. For Mario, finding Peach in each kingdom is another moon for him. But Peach isn’t traveling solely to provide Mario with more collectibles; she’s looking to discover the world she saw briefly as she was forced to endure Bowser’s crooked scheme.
No land is off limits to her. She even visits Bowser’s castle. She states it’s her first time being on Bowser’s property without being there unwillingly. I think anyone who was kidnapped by someone would never step foot in the kidnapper’s home, but Peach doesn’t care. The stuffiness of her beloved kingdom makes her desperate for adventure, even if it’s in the most dangerous place. For me, finding Peach and listening to what she learns at each kingdom is far more rewarding than playing another minigame or racing koopas.
As Katherine Cross has written, travel for women and people of color “is the essence of precarity; it is purposeful, with each mile potentially being our last.” Games rarely utilize travel as a key component to narrative, but when it does, it’s usually placed on women who risk their lives to travel, and find something about themselves or the world they may not have understood without the ability to wander.
Super Mario Odyssey’s travel theme is wasted on Mario, but resonates when Peach—as well as all the civilians of the other kingdoms—takes the time to explore and learn about the world. While I may love the idea of a game where Peach travels to learn about worlds she’s only glossed over while in Bowser’s clutches, Mario titles will always be about collecting items and moving on.
The same could be said about the Uncharted series. With multiple titles under its belt, Uncharted has perfected its structure with its lead hero, treasure hunter Nathan Drake. Drake and Mario share similarities in how they use travel for personal gain. Uncharted has never been a game about travel per se; its proficiency is destructible environments. Travel for the two men are tied to their heroism. They’re adventurers, and despite both incorporating travel into their narrative, neither Drake nor Mario takes the time appreciate the world he’s protecting.
This changes once Chloe Frazer takes the lead in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. With her partner and ex-villain Nadine Ross, Chloe travels across India in search for the Tusk of Ganesh, an ancient Indian artifact once sought after by Chloe’s father.
Originally meant to be downloadable content for Uncharted: A Thief’s End, The Lost Legacy was released as a standalone game. It’s shorter than a typical Uncharted game, but because of its brevity, it accomplishes so much more in its emphasis on travel than any of the installments before it. With only one country to explore, Chloe and Nadine travel along the jungles of India in solitude. There’s plenty of gunfights and precarious climbing, but those moments aren’t as compelling as the quieter times when Chloe and Nadine are driving in their truck, talking away. They joke about their affiliation with Drake, and bond over the loss of their fathers. They argue and apologize afterwards, and slowly, their friendship blooms on the road.
This isn’t as binary as thinking that men travel for rewards and women travel for introspection. Obviously there can be a mix of both. Chloe and Nadine are still treasure hunters no matter how much insight their travels provide. Likewise, there are whose travels mean more than conquest. Take military veteran Lincoln Clay, from Mafia III, as an example of how the freedom to roam is both a blessing and a curse.
Set in 1968, Mafia III takes place in the city of New Bordeaux, where Lincoln uses his military training and to take control of New Bordeaux from a crime family that killed his family. Lincoln’s car is a crucial part of the game. It’s a set-piece that helps establish the time period; it’s a weapon used to interrogate enemies; and, obviously, it’s meant to quickly move Lincoln from objective to objective. But it isn’t until the end of the game where travel becomes a larger symbol for Lincoln’s displacement..
Once Lincoln kills his main targets and take full control of the city, he is granted the choice of leaving the city and his life of crime, staying in the city and ruling the city with his underbosses, or killing his underbosses to rule alone. If Lincoln leaves, he does so by driving to California. His stay in California doesn’t last long, however; Lincoln explores different cities and countries, unable to truly call any location home. If Lincoln decides to rule alone by killing his partners, he is killed by a bomb that was hidden in his car. With the rampage Lincoln wreaks throughout the city on his own, it seems almost too easy for him to die by a car bomb—and even the game says this. At the same time, dying in a car makes total sense. It’s the one thing that gave him his freedom.
As a war vet, Lincoln feels out of place even when back at his home. As a mixed-race man, Lincoln is constantly reminded of his Blackness by racist citizens and police officers. Travel, for him, is not for any thrill, but for closure. Lincoln, at first, wants to win. He has an objective, like Drake or Mario, and sees it through. But afterward, when he has to come to terms with his actions, that is when he resembles Peach, and Chloe; exploring has its pleasure, but there’s something deeper in navigating new space.
Perhaps the best example of the ways men and women sometimes differ in their travels is in 80 Days, a game based off the novel Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. The novel and game follow Phileas Fogg, a rich man who wagers a large sum of money that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days with his servant Jean Passepartout. The game shows both the thrill and hardship of traveling, not necessarily through Fogg and his servant, but through the people—particularly people of color—they meet along the way. There’s humanity in the characters that isn’t present in Fogg simply because his goals are only understandable to the extremely wealthy. He’s traveling to win a bet, not to save lives or preserve culture, like some of the people he meets. Where Fogg’s task is simply to win, the others are trying to survive.
In Super Mario Odyssey, Peach will return to her castle once Mario finds her in every kingdom. Peach is a woman of high authority, and even she has to reclaim her view of the world so that it isn’t solely a reminder of the most recent time Bowser kidnapped her.
Travel, even with today’s technical advances, can still be an exhilarating and terrifying act. Racial and gender discrimination still permeates through, hindering opportunities for people of different ethnicities and sexualities. Ride-sharing companies are less likely to pick up customers with Black-sounding names. Airbnb hosts have been accused multiple times of rejecting Black users. To travel as a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or both, is to navigate perilous terrain both physically and emotionally. And still, everyone must be able to journey, no matter the reason. No one should be afraid to explore.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.