Professor E. Gadd, You're Not My Dad
In the opening scenes of "Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon" Professor E. Gadd's paranormal research laboratory is running smoothly. Ghosts are helping him out with his studies by sweeping, writing on blackboards and doing odd jobs. Even apparently shocking each other with electricity, but it's taken as a great joke and everyone is smiling and laughing. It's a light-hearted scene of idyllic employment, as often seen in family friendly games. Maybe especially Japanese games. People enjoying even the most mundane and repetitive jobs, and knowing that eventually hard work will lead to results.
In this model the boss gets to be a benevolent (if eccentric) character, but the further I play the less I'm buying it. Elvin Gadd has the dubious honour of being my current most loathed video game character. And not just for the more obvious design reasons, although yes, a "mad scientist" with wild hair, swirly glasses and a white coat is about as lazy as character design gets. I might not enjoy his silly pun name or the way his large round face, gibberish voice and single tooth read as much like a baby as an old man. Or the constant stereotypes of what a scientist or inventor looks like. But it's his behaviour and dialogue that make me cross over from "forgettable eye roll" to "I wish I could wipe him from the face of the planet".
In Everglade Valley ghosts are kept friendly by the calming influence of a crystalline Dark Moon. As King Boo corrupts and scatters the moon's fragments the ghosts in the laboratory quickly turn hostile: throwing things, smashing glassware and tearing up books. A predictable, functional premise characteristic of this kind of game – collect all the pieces and restore peace to the valley – but it it's tempting to see it as just swapping one form of mind control for another.
E. Gadd, after escaping to his emergency bunker, naturally calls on Luigi for help, and here we have our first major problem. In the original Luigi's Mansion, Luigi was knowingly trying to rescue his brother so had an incentive to push himself forward even when things were scary or difficult. The professor was just providing help. Here, E. Gadd is calling all the shots and he's not friendly about it. Luigi is teleported away from his cosy lounge room, seemingly without his consent, and dumped into the action. No "please help me" just straight to giving orders.
Cowardly and awkward Luigi's so frequently the butt of jokes, and there to make Mario look even more heroic by comparison, but it's also made him the more relatable brother. It feels like he actually has to work for his successes. 2013's Year of Luigi promotion was an obvious advertising gimmick but still felt affirming in a lot of ways. It was a chance to cheer for the underdog and find success for everyone, not just an elite few.
Luigi's stories aren't about overcoming fear so much as they're about pushing forward in spite of it, and I adore him for that. Fear and anxiety aren't always things that can be dissolved with experience, sometimes they're just a fact of who you are regardless of how irrational it seems. There are ways to manage fear and get where you want to go, but not by pretending it doesn't exist.
It's critical for Luigi to be in control of his own decisions, without that it's just simple cruelty. Putting E. Gadd in control compromises Luigi's agency to a degree I'm not comfortable with. From the beginning, Luigi's talked down to and manipulated into doing what the professor wants. The power dynamic is something like a parent and child, with E. Gadd depersonalising and talking down to Luigi by calling him "youngster", "son" or "young feller" and ignoring or occasionally outright mocking his discomfort. He shows no sympathy for nervousness, even criticising Luigi for flinching every time he's teleported when he's come through it safely several times before. At one point, a slip of the tongue reveals Luigi wasn't his first choice of assistant, regardless of his experience and successful track record dealing with ghosts.
I'll admit I'm sensitive to being talked down to by authority figures. It's the nature of both anxiety and feminine appearance to be treated as in need of help. Sometimes we do all need help, but it's shitty when people assume you're less capable than you are. People decide that (a) you need special looking after; (b) you need situations explained to you in "more rational" terms, usually via obvious unhelpful platitudes; or (c) you need someone else to push you for your own good. These happen to me a lot, and I have collected a series of wannabe mentor figures over the years I never asked for. Professor E. Gadd's choices seem motivated by self-interest rather than a desire to help, but the result is similar. Luigi will be pushed where E. Gadd wants him to go, and if he seems scared or unhappy that's just his irrationality and he needs to snap out of it.
The professor is a constant presence in the game, mostly via phone calls to update us on level objectives and provide tips. Luigi flinches every time the ringtone goes off. Admittedly Luigi flinches at a lot of things while exploring these spooky haunted places, but in this case it's tempting to think about it as discomfort at the nagging attention of a disapproving parent or over-watchful boss. Go exploring instead of directly to the next objective and he'll call to set you straight for "getting lost". He's the one that decides when to pull you out at the end of a level, regardless of whether you would have liked more time to look around, and exactly when this happens can feel arbitrary and unexpected.
As the game goes on you meet some of E. Gadd's other employees. Several Toads who have been neglected and forgotten about. The Toad with a phobia of gears was the one sent to work in a clock factory. Or maybe it was the factory that caused the phobia? It's difficult to imagine the ghosts in the intro cinematic were as genuinely happy to work for this guy as they appeared. Mistreatment of staff is treated as a gag, and E. Gadd as the forgetful professor can seem to get away with it. But it's not cute or funny, however hard it pretends.
Society fetishises entrepreneurship, but the term makes me extremely uneasy at this point. Gadd Science, Inc. is emblematic of many things I fear and despise, including a self-absorbed approach to creativity and invention, and exploiting people along the way. I'm sure the real world E. Gadd would give inspiring but shallow and self-congratulatory TED talks, and leverage them to promote his coffee chain (in broader game lore E. Gadd also owns the equivalent of Starbucks).
So, the question I have is why include this guy here at all, or at least why give him such a prominent role? Does he add anything remotely interesting? Is it so hard to imagine a scenario where a character like Luigi can act without being bossed around?
Let Luigi find help from collaborators and other equals instead of from an employer or father figure. Respect people who ask instead of demand and manipulate. And give Luigi back his agency to show that even at their most flawed, scared and vulnerable, people still have their own power. That would be beautiful and worthwhile.