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The End of BVW

Reflection

The end of the semester comes with a lot of reflection.  In working on BVW, there are things I wish I had done differently – at times, I admit I could became too cranky or too pushy when brainstorming sessions were going long.  At other times, I think I allowed my own ideas to take a backseat, even if they were the best ideas.  Either way, I had a blast working with the people on my teams, and I think we made some pretty great stuff.  I’ll give a special shout-out to my “My Name is Joseph” team – at 11:00 on Monday night October 30th, an hour before the deadline, our build wasn’t working.  At 10:00 this past Wednesday, we completed the showcase of our game in festival, turning an orange-and-yellow office into a dark forest in the process.  Somehow it all came together.  And it is a memory I’ll always be grateful for.  Thanks folks.

Photos courtesy of Nicole Wan

High-Risk Storytelling: Betrayal at House on the Hill

18 months ago, I played the story-driven board game Betrayal at House on the Hill for the first time with new friends and fell in love with the sheer scope of its storytelling capabilities.  The fact that no one game can ever be the same appealed to me, as well as the role-playing that ends up coming to play with the characters you inhabit.

First is the premise – it is an easy premise to get: a bunch of characters go into a haunted house and a bunch of mischief ensues, as you have to move around the house not knowing which room card will be placed in front of you or what objects you’ll run in to.  These are easy grounding mechanisms so there is not any inherent complexity.  The game is completely emergent.

Second is the world-building, which is different every time – the first half of the game is just you and the other characters moving around the house and unlocking randomly placed room cards, which are shuffled in a deck and are thus different each time.  The first half is all about getting the feel of the world and the characters, but it isn’t boring because the inherent focus of exploration is powerful enough.

Third is the betrayal itself, which can be triggered depending on the size of a die roll after each time a player encounters a haunted object.  If the betrayal (or the “haunt”) is triggered, the type of monster/event that happens is determined by the object that triggered it AND the room in which it was triggered.  There are 50-some-odd possibilities of this, which means that, in theory, you could play the game 50 different times can get a different type of haunt event.

BUT the premise remains inherently simple.  The player that just triggered the object is now the traitor, and thus inherently brings tension into the play space.  The traitor himself/herself feels confused and may not necessarily want to be the traitor, but can give in to the role very easily.  The other players may be wondering what the traitor has planned.  At this point in the game, the traitor gets a different passage than the other players with regards to what to do to win the game.

So, now the board is set and the characters have been established (but, again, inherently simply, with a “bad” guy in the traitor vs. the “good” other characters).  And now, the story can play out.

By having the first half occur rather than just starting on a given board with a die roll to determine the type of haunt, it feels that the players determined both the world itself and the type of haunt they find themselves in.  So, therefore, the story follows feels connected to everyone.  There are stakes.

And, the interesting part here is that, even still, the story can fall flat.

The first time I played Betrayal, I was the traitor and ended up summoning Death who needing to be “playing chess” (i.e. rolling dice) against the other players at all times, or else the traitor/Death team would win.  If the other players could defeat Death before they were defeated or before a turn went by without a fight happening, the “good” team would win.  The “traitor” player could help Death in rolling, but didn’t need to be fought or defeated for the “good” team to win.

This played out with Death taking out one player easily, making this player drop her items.  Then, the second player battled long enough until the third player arrived.  The third player battled Death while the second player went to go collect the items that the first player dropped.  But then Death rolled an outrageously high number and wiped out the third player in one move.  So then the second player had to roll a high enough number to run across the house just to make it to Death in order to keep fighting and keep the game going.  He succeeded, and in doing so picked up the dropped items of the third player.  Now evenly matched with Death, dices were rolled, but Death rolled the higher number and the game ended.

This was fantastic.  Twists, a race to a final fight, downed characters giving their “essences” in the form of items to the remaining player in order to continue the fight.  It was easy to visualize a movie that contained this story.

However, the second time I played Betrayal, it felt very different.  We all explored the house, but due to a freaky die roll, the haunt was triggered by I think the fourth turn.  You see, each time a haunted object is encountered, the person who encountered it must roll two dice and “beat” a certain counter number, which increases with each object encountered.  If the player fails, the haunt begins, the player becomes the traitor, and the monster is summoned.  In theory, this is very easy in the beginning because the numbers to beat start out very small.

But in this playthrough, the player rolled a bad roll, and the haunt was triggered with very little of the house explored.  This type of haunt trigger was an angry, demon kid that could kill other players with one shot.  The goal for the other players was to find certain MacGuffins scattered around to give them powers to defeat the kid.  However, with so little of the house explored, it was easy for the kid to move around the limited rooms, find the other players, and kill them very quickly.  By the time just one of the three needed MacGuffins was found, the game was over and the kid/traitor team won.

Not a great story.  No tension.  No heroism.  No buildup at all.

But I didn’t mind.  Because that’s what the game is.  Because the players are in control of so many of the world elements that trigger the story, it remains randomly possible that certain events triggered at a certain time with a certain board structure lead to a limited, flat story.

And other times, other events can be triggered that lead to a story that almost feels cinematic.

High-risk, high-reward storytelling.  So I didn’t mind experiencing the flat story.  Because I knew that I could play the game again, given its vast possibilities, and potential experience a fantastic, player-driven story that I hadn’t even thought of.

The lesson: If the players are in control of all of the elements that make up the game story, and if there are a large number of possibilities given the combination of these elements, then even if the story ends up not landing, it ends up feeling okay.  Because you can always play again.

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

I’ll be honest, I’ve been looking forward to this design blog post for a long time.  After learning more about narrative and specifically how it is interconnected with the level design of a game, it is time to tackle what is arguably my favorite game of all game – Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, for the Nintendo GameCube, which I will sometimes condense as TTYD.

In this post, I will explore how all traditional Mario games employ certain structures that make the games pleasing from a level design perspective.  Then, I will analyze how Nintendo expanded on the “Mario” structure already in place to create the original Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 (PM64), and, from there, created TTYD – a game that retains this structure that makes it still feel like a “Mario” game, yet also a game that connects its structure to a multitude of rich narrative themes and characters, a combination of successes that had not been reached yet in a Mario game.

I will then compare TTYD to its potential successors that came after it, and explain why I still believe TTYD stands above them all.  And then, finally, I will discuss why TTYD, the greatest Mario story ever told, still has flaws at its core.

The lens within which I intend to do this is through Christopher Alexander’s A Nature of Order, where he posits on how there are inherent patterns in architectures, games, life, that, when employed and noticed, create a pleasurable feeling that things are balanced, comfortable, all right:

For the uninitiated, these patterns can be described as such [1]:

  1. Levels of Scale: We are constantly interacting with things small, medium, and big, and changes in these scales can be seen and felt.
  2. Strong Centers: We are interested in things, like the solar system or atoms, that are centered.
  3. Boundaries: Boundaries create centers, and there are also physical and thematic boundaries that need to be crossed in order for change to occur.
  4. Alternating Repetition: We like going back and forth, like falling/rising tension flow in a story, or checkerboard patterns.  They are pleasing.
  5. Positive Space: There is an interplay between positive and negative space.  Sometimes negative space can enhance positive space.
  6. Good Shape: We like shapes that are not trying to be pretty but, through their inherent purposes, make pleasing shapes, like sails catching the wind.
  7. Local Symmetries: Our brains are programmed to spot tiny symmetries (i.e. in our bodies, between characters in a story) that feel connected, even if, globally, they are not.
  8. Deep Interlock: We like the feeling that things are interconnected, that things which happened ages ago, that felt meaningless at the time, have some significance.  Characters, stories, mechanics, themes, must feel connected or the feeling starts to fall apart.
  9. Contrast: We can perceive two things brought together in unexpected ways, or one thing (like comedy) enhancing another thing (like tragedy).
  10. Graded Variation: This regards things changing overtime; things we can’t spot instantaneously but when we look back at them, we realize the change that happened between now and then.
  11. Roughness: We don’t want characters and things that are 100% smooth, because imperfect things feel human, real, and natural in their messiness.
  12. Echoes: One thing echoes another, like game mechanics or characters echoing the central theme of a story.
  13. The Void: Oftentimes the most important things are in empty spaces.
  14. Inner Calm: We are not given all the information at once, so that emergent complexities can come out through natural tension.
  15. Not-Separateness: We like the feeling that pieces, even if they are physically separate, are not, and that if you take one piece away, the other suffers.  The world is connected.

The Mario Structure

Traditional Mario games, from the classic platformers to the early 3D Mario games such as Super Mario 64 (SM64), actually do a fairly decent job in employing these patterns to create aesthetically pleasing “Mario” structures:

1 – Levels of Scale: This is not just in Mario literally changing size in most games, but this is also true structurally as well, in which you are able to interact with all three levels of scale:

      • Small: Coins, items, enemies, in-level things
      • Medium: The levels themselves that must be completed
      • Big: The big map, the worlds you go through.  Not all games have maps, but most, like Super Mario World (SMW) or Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3), indeed do, allowing you to track your progress.
  • 2 – Strong Centers: The platformers are often devoid of this (outside of maybe Mario being your center, which is a reach), with the levels simply stacking up on each other as you go through the world.  But with SM64, Nintendo improved on this with Peach’s Castle, proving that a strong center can work with a Mario experience that you keep coming back to and which serves as your hub.

3 – Boundaries: In all Mario games, the game is divided into worlds that you must complete in order to move on to the next one, and each world typically has a singular aesthetic that binds it to itself.  SM64 also has numerical boundaries of stars you need to collect in order to unlock new worlds, and Peach’s Castle has literal photo boundaries that you need to jump
through in order to enter levels.

4 – Alternating Repetition: Platformer levels that just build on each other are actually not the best at this, considering you’re just playing levels which don’t necessarily repeat.  With SM64, you can argue that certain elements, like mountains, repeat overtime between levels, and that maybe Nintendo was experimenting with this aspect. But this aspect is less noticeable than some of the other patterns.

5 – Positive Space: The Mario aesthetic is brilliant at this, and one of the reasons it is so nice to look at.  Mario, the collectible items, his enemies, the coins you collect, etc. are often drawn using hot, red colors that contrast vs. the environments that are cool colors like blues or greens, creating Positive/Negative space.  Mario himself, with his reds, pops out a lot.

6 – Good Shape: Some of the Mario maps, particularly SMW, create a good shape. Mario does so too when he puts on the different suits, creating new lines and angles in himself.  These new suits are meant to give Mario new abilities, but also create interesting, contrasting shapes.

7 – Local Symmetries: Again, the platformer style doesn’t lend itself much to symmetries.  Peach’s Castle in SM64 is largely symmetrical though. Also the only characters often symmetrical to each other are the enemies who are sometimes mirrors (like Red vs. Green Koopas), and Mario vs. Luigi.  These symmetries are often very subtle.

8 – Deep Interlock: This unfortunately is an area where Mario games often suffer; there’s rarely a case of a thing or item you didn’t think was important becoming important later.  In many ways, there are just not enough elements because everything is simple in traditional Mario.  Worlds are bounded and singular, characters don’t have arcs, and there really isn’t a story for mechanics to enhance.

9 – Contrast: There is some contrast in the world level structure, which is effective.  Particularly in the classic platformers, there is contrast between the island/grassland/desert/haunted/lava/forest/pipe/sky worlds with gorgeous aesthetics for each one that contrast one with the other.  Just looking at the environment on your screen will cue a naive gamer what world is being played.

10 – Graded Variation: This works in Mario on a pure difficulty-ramp perspective, as the levels are designed such that they become harder as the worlds progress. However, there’s little seen of the world at large actually changing, and YOUR abilities don’t advance or change much beyond the initial learning of them.  You learn your jumping and running abilities fairly early, and then outside of a handful of new suits that may get introduced (also usually early), there is not much of this.

11 – Roughness: Roughness arguably comes from the weirdness of the villain characters and how some of them act through their physical mannerisms.  However, on a character level, Mario characters are typically EXTREMELY smooth, which makes the games simple and accessible, but also makes them feel less mature.

12 – Echoes: Echoes can come from certain levels or abilities (you become a frog in the water level, for example).  The enemies often echo the environment as well.  These echoes exist outside of character and narrative, though, as there isn’t much of a theme in traditional Mario games.

13 – The Void: Bowser’s Castle usually takes up some nice space on game maps, with a lot of empty room around it.  Still, this is usually only seen at the end of games, so it is not set up as well as it could be.  You can argue that Peach is a metaphorical Void that is missing, but you rarely see the effects of her being missing.  This is a “maybe” in SM64, because the game starts with her inviting you for tea, and then when you arrive, she is absent, which creates this feeling of dread and worry (also, it’s Peach’s Castle with no Peach for the entire game).

14 – Inner Calm: Well, there’s a calmness in Mario and complexity, emergent-wise, in the Level Design, but because you aren’t unlocking many new abilities or lore, this is also a weaker one.

15 – Not-Separateness: Again, this is a problem in Mario games, even in SM64, because all of the levels feel separate.  This is the Mushroom Kingdom; but it doesn’t feel like a real, full place. Characters inherently don’t feel connected, neither physically nor emotionally.

So, we have a Mario structure that is expertly used in creating scalable structures and complexities in the levels themselves, but a structure that is, basically, devoid of narrative and emotional connections.

Nintendo eventually tried its hand at Mario RPGs, and the genre alone
lends itself to much more complex narratives and structures.  After experimenting with Super Mario RPG (see below), Nintendo released the original Paper Mario.

Note: I can’t speak much about SMRPG as I have yet to play it.  I know that many speak highly of the game and I intend to play it one day, but for now, I am only speaking about PM64 and later TTYD.  Also, from here on out, be aware of spoilers for both games.

Porting the Mario Structure to the RPG: The Original Paper Mario

Through this game, Nintendo managed to port the Mario structure seen in platformers and 3D into a grander scale, incorporating some of the elements the classics were weaker on, to make the world more satisfying.  In this original, the story is worth mentioning only somewhat, as it is not wholly complex.  Yet, it does exist and showed Nintendo’s ability at taking a simple, emotional theme and connecting it across its mechanics and characters to create beautiful results.

For the uninitiated, in Paper Mario, Bowser kidnaps the Star Spirits and steals their powerful Star Rod.  This boosts his power, allowing him to capture Peach’s Castle by raising it high into the sky.  Bowser is then powerful enough to defeat Mario in single combat.  Mario must then traverse the Mushroom Kingdom to retrieve the Star Spirits, held captive by Bowser’s minions, and eventually return to the skies to fight Bowser once more.

1 – Levels of Scale: Mario doesn’t change size in PM64, but the game makes up for it through its structure.  Firstly, there are literally three different types of game spaces for you to interact with:

        • Small: The battle screen, where you fight enemies in turn-based gameplay.
        • Medium: In-world, where you traverse the Mushroom Kingdom and solve puzzles and interact with characters.
        • Big: The map, which you can view whenever you’d like.
  • And, like the established Mario structure, there are small items/badges/coins you can use to affect you, medium characters and enemies that you interact with, and the larger, big-picture structure that you are traversing, which carries more narrative weight this time.

2 – Strong Centers: The game is all about its strong center.  Toad Town acts as a hub throughout the game that you continually return to and is full of life, shops to visit, and NPCs to chat with.  Additionally, Peach’s Castle (which has been uprooted) acts a subtle Strong Center on its own.

3 – Boundaries: Firstly, during some game moments, the game employs actual boundaries (Example: At first there is debris that prevents you from exploring the southern half of Toad Town, but it is removed after Chapter 1.  This becomes very satisfying and feels like you opened up the city.)

You also can see the boundaries on the map so then it feels satisfying when you cross them.  Plus, biggest of all (which turns Peach’s Castle into a strong center) is the boundary between you and the castle. The game starts off IN-CASTLE with Mario visiting Peach, so in your mind, Peach’s Castle feels like the center even though Toad Town is the game center.

You’re then thrown from it and Peach’s Castle is raised high into the sky by Bowser, with you needing to find a way back, a crossing-the-boundary task that initially feels impossible.

When you actually do, when you’ve made it back to Peach’s Castle at the end of Chapter 8 (where you were at the beginning and where you’ve been playing as Peach multiple times), it feels like you have finally returned to where you’re meant to be.  It feels glorious.

Lastly, of course, the Mario structure itself is built on boundaries of levels, and PM64 utilizes this with the chapters.  It’s a bigger world and an interconnected Mushroom Kingdom, but the boundaries are still there with each chapter feeling like a stand-alone part of the story with a mission to complete.

4 – Alternating Repetition: Ah, NOW it has it.  Each chapter typically has an “overworld” that also has some sort of “village” or hub of NPCs, followed by a “dungeon”:

      • Chapter 1: Pleasant Path (overworld), Koopa Village (hub), Koopa Bros. Fortress (dungeon)
      • Chapter 2: Mt. Rugged/Dry Dry Desert (overworld), Dry Dry Outpost (hub), Dry Dry Ruins (dungeon)
      • Chapter 3: Forever Forest/Gusty Gulch (overworld), Boo’s Mansion (hub), Tubba Blubba’s Castle (dungeon)
      • Chapter 4: Toad Town (overworld/hub), Shy Guy’s Toy Box (dungeon)
      • Chapter 5: Lavalava Island (overworld), Yoshi’s Village (hub), Mt. Lavalava (dungeon)
      • Chapter 6: Flower Fields (overworld/hub), Cloudy Climb (dungeon)
      • Chapter 7: Shiver City/Starborn Valley (hubs), Shiver Mountain (overworld), Crystal Palace (dungeon)
      • Chapter 8: Star Haven (hub), Bowser’s Castle (overworld), Peach’s Castle (dungeon)

Notice how as the chapters progress, the game begins to play with this alternating repetition to keep you on your toes as to what to expect next.  The game uses Toad Town, the de facto center of the entire game, as the “hub” for a chapter as well.  The last two chapters start out with you in the “safe place” with NPCs before sending you off on your quest.  You get the idea.

There is also a grander scale of Mario returning to Toad Town in-between
levels, which creates a pattern of Worlds / Toad Town / Worlds / Toad Town (with a playing-as-Peach level thrown in-between there for good measure).  Also, if you are so inclined, there are different sidequests that become unlockable with each chapter you complete, so these stack onto your feeling of repeating them with each iteration (i.e. Koopa Koot’s missions, delivering Parakarry’s letters, etc.).

5 – Positive Space: Again, the Mario aesthetic with paper is wonderful and creates LITERAL contrast with the paper lines on characters and objects, which make them stand out and pop.

Also, Bowser is at his most menacing in this game, and there’s an energy about him that creates this positive space whenever he’s on screen (because, well, he basically murders you in the first scene, which makes you see him as a much larger threat than usual).

There is also a contrast of seeing the shadowy, see-through Star Spirits that appear beside you at the beginning BECOMING positive space as you save more and more of them.

6 – Good Shape: The world map, for one, is great to look at, and it’s great to see your trails of the places you’ve visited creating dotted lines across the Mushroom Kingdom.

There are also shapes with the dishes that Tayce T. cooks for you- you want to keep making the dishes to see the different shapes of what they look like, but the interesting shapes they make are secondary, as their purposes are to help heal you in different ways.

7 – Local Symmetries: You encounter similar types of enemies in certain worlds (just like in classic Mario), and then certain enemies (like Gloombas or Hyper Goombas) repeat in terms of style, which create symmetries that lead back to them.  So, as you’re fighting a Hyper Goomba in Chapter 3, you’re thinking about that time you fought an ordinary Goomba in the prologue and how this current experience is different.

There are also local symmetries with how the items in-game connect with each other (Mushroom vs. Super Mushroom vs. Ultra Mushroom, etc.), which leaves you thinking about how their different abilities relate.

8 – Deep Interlock: In-game, this happens a lot, as within a chapter, you’ll find a certain item or there will be some mystery early on that gets resolved later.  For instance, in Chapter 6, you get various items from the various flowers and only figure out how to use them by talking to other flowers and realizing which flower needs which item.  Most mysteries are self-contained within each chapter, however.

There are also larger-scale connections with Kolorado (returning as comic relief several times in the story) and Jr. Troopa (a character whom you fight as your first mini-boss and who returns for revenge a total of five more random times).  Aside from these, however, there’s less of an interconnected narrative that you feel.  In-game, you’ll get introduced to new mechanics AND partners as the story and worlds progress. But less globally.

9 – Contrast – There is the same wonderful contrast that traditional Mario has, with the different vivid worlds.

Thematically and mechanically, each level is more or less the patterned overworld + dungeon in which you have to figure out who is behind the some sort of mystery, and why/how to defeat them,.  The contrast is in the details, and, aesthetically, it’s brilliant.

The yellows of the desert vs. the purple of Forever Forest vs. the blue-green of Yoshi’s Island vs. the shining white of Shiver City vs. the grey-orange of Bowser’s Castle make them distinct.

Also, unlike traditional Mario, the game employs dialogue that acts as a contrast for the rest of the game (listening to NPCs is contrasted with running around in the overworld).  The comedic dialogue between characters typically contrasts with the seriousness of the subject matter, but, at least with PM64, the subject matter is not, like world-ending or anything.

10 – Graded Variation – Here we go: You feel the world at large changing more (i.e the difficulty ramps up with types of enemies, you unlock more abilities / more badges / partners / more ways to fight, etc.)

You are unlocking all these things and adding abilities or people to your inventory, so it feels like you are changing.

Toad Town changes as well.  If you spend the time talking with people, you see people’s opinions of Peach’s absence changing more, with some maintaining their wishes for her return, with others giving up hope, and others moving on to small issues in their own lives, such as longing for Toad romances.

If you return to your house and interact with Luigi, you’ll see that he also changes, with his opinions of you going from “take me with you” to “you’re never gonna take me with you” to “I wish you luck regardless.”

What’s interesting is that all these changes are triggered by boundary checkpoints of completing a chapter.  Once you do, time passes and characters’ opinions change.  You feel the sense of time in this game, which follows over to its successor.

11 – Roughness – It feels very fresh to see some ROUGHNESS (as in, character and different aesthetics) added to traditional Mario characters like Toads, Goombas, Koopas, and others.  You see this with your partners.

Each one has a unique aesthetic, like Goombario having a blue hat to make him stand out from a traditional Goomba, or Bombette being a pink Bob-omb.  The game takes the traditional Mario enemy and tweaks them to make them your friends. Some of their personalities are more fleshed out then others, but aesthetically, absolutely yes.

This applies to Peach as well – instead of a pure damsel in distress, she’s out there causing mischief and trying to help, finding out information for you and potential boss weaknesses in between chapters.

12 – Echoes – Each party member echoes the environment/chapter you find him/her in. Also, there are nice little echoes of certain items/enemies/characters echoing traditional Mario games.

The story (needing to save Peach to restore her absence to Toad Town mirrored by needing to save the Star Spirits to give people hope) is very, very simple, but it is built by the fact that at the beginning, you, like, basically almost die.  So, the game is built on a foundation of hopelessness, echoed both through your journey, the loss of the Star Spirits, and Peach’s abduction.

As you get stronger, you begin to feel more hopeful.  You’re saving more Star Spirits, and Peach is unlocking new locations in her castle.  There is a literal montage effect of finishing a chapter and saving a Star Spirit echoed by a Peach chapter to see how she changed as well.

But yeah – you building yourself up and getting more of the world behind you bring hope.  Once you rescue Peach and the Star Spirits and defeat Bowser, the story ends with the world parading, and you looking at the stars  with Peach (a.k.a. the most romantic moment between Mario and Peach in a game), with everything echoing each other.

The music of the game also provides echoes.  There are battle themes, leitmotifs for the Star Spirits which come on every time you save one, and Bowser’s theme has never felt more sinister.

13 – The Void – Again, there is a LITERAL VOID of Peach’s Castle being missing which connects back to all the echoes of it listed above. Also the void of the shadowy Star Spirits that you see at the beginning makes you feel their absence in Star Haven.

And in terms of level design, the game indeed employs the boss-battle-in-a-big-room, or dungeon-in-the-middle-of-nowhere style of design as well.

Lastly, the very end of the campaign, you arrive at Peach’s Castle after fighting your way through Bowser’s Castle in Chapter 8.  You’ve finally arrived that the space where you’ve played as Peach and navigated through a bunch of enemies, but the entire castle is empty.  And you’re like, “oh my – Bowser is here somewhere.  Time for the final battle.”

14 – Inner Calm – There is emergent complexity in the gameplay as you unlock new party members, hammers/boots, badges, and other bonuses that give yourself more STUFF to work with in-battle.  There is less emergent complexity for the sake of narrative though.  The stakes are established early, and from there, the chapters, more or less, stand alone until the climax.

15 – Non-separateness: This aspect is perfect here, as the worlds feel connected.  Mario games are typically about saving the princess, but here you actually see what her absence is doing to her subjects.  There is also the fact that Parakarry’s letters, Koopa Koot’s missions, and other sidequests between characters make you realize that all these NPCs have actual relationships with each other and backstories and histories.

So, as we can see, the original Paper Mario expanded the Mario structure out into a 3D RPG, utilized a powerfully simple paper aesthetic, and employed more of these patterns to create a very pleasing experience.  But, as seen as well, this experience is largely constrained to the chapter-by-chapter level.

Characters usually are not crossing over across chapters (except for Kolorado and Jr. Troopa) and some of the complexities (outside of the initial hook/stakes of the game) are bounded by their chapters.

The narrative itself is very simplistic. Powerful, yes, but not reinforced as much as it could be during the middle, nitty-gritty parts of the game. The beginning reinforces the end and there are individual chapters to get there (which are more obstacles than emotional keystones).  The party members, as well, while a breath of air to see vis-a-vis new roughness added to iconic Mushroom Kingdom denizens, are fairly baseline.

Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door:

When an Established Design Structure is Extended to Narrative

Four years later, however, Nintendo released the sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and took the structure that worked with the original PM64, and expanded it.  Only this time, they extended the structure to create an emergently complex narrative reinforced by the characters and mechanics over the course of the game.  Let’s begin:

For the uninitiated, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door begins with the lore that, a thousand years ago, there was a prosperous town that was destroyed by some sort of ancient cataclysm.  This town fell underground and was entombed behind the mythical Thousand-Year Door, magically kept shut by the seven Crystal Stars.  Legend has it that if you unite the Crystal Stars, you can open the Door and obtain whatever lies beyond it, be it an ancient treasure, a weapon, or worse.

The rugged town of Rogueport was built above the Door, and, during a vacation, Peach is able to unlock an ancient chest (because she is pure of heart) that contains the Magical Map that leads to the Crystal Stars.  Peach sends the Map to Mario, asking him to come with her on a treasure hunt, but when he arrives in Rogueport, she is gone.  And shady creatures, calling themselves the X-Nauts, are asking questions about the Map.

Mario is tasked with using the Map to find the seven Crystal Stars before the X-Nauts and other baddies do, figure out where Peach is, and solve the mystery of what lies beyond the Thousand-Year Door.

In the end, it is revealed that an ancient demon, the Shadow Queen, lies beyond the Door, and that the X-Nauts (who kidnapped Peach this time) plan to use her body as a vessel to awaken the demon.

1 – Levels of Scale: This is kept consistent.  The game uses the same types of screens and scale structure as its predecessor.

2 – Strong Centers: Like its predecessor, TTYD has two strong centers: Rogueport AND The Thousand-Year Door.  The question of where Peach is remains a mystery for the majority of the narrative, as does the question of what is behind the Door.  Rogueport is your hub that your return to in between chapters, but the Door, bounded by the drawings of the Crystal Stars and set up initially by its lore, becomes the more important Center over time, as does its central mystery of what is behind it.

So, like PM64, you have your Game Strong Center and your Thematic Strong Center.  In PM64, the theme was represented by the absence of Peach’s Castle.  In TTYD, the theme is represented by the Thousand-Year Door itself.

3 – Boundaries: Throughout the game, the Thousand-Year Door prevents you from entering the final world.  In the pre-game prologue, the game introduces the mystery of the Door being created, so your mind is tuned in from the beginning of wanting to see what’s behind it.

There are boundaries to each chapter that you need to unlock with the Crystal Stars. PM64 is slightly stronger here, thematically, because the boundaries in it reinforce the Mario/Peach dynamic more. But this game still has them.  Same with needing to complete different chapters (plus playing-as-Peach interludes and playing-as-Bowser interludes) to cross boundaries of unlocking more of the world and its lore.

4 – Alternating Repetition: This is employed just like predecessor. You have Worlds / Rogueport / Worlds / Rogueport (with Peach levels and Bowser levels in between).  And, like its predecessor, TTYD employs the overworld/hub/dungeon dynamic as well:

      • Chapter 1: Petal Meadows (overworld), Petalburg (hub), Hooktail Castle (dungeon)
      • Chapter 2: Boggly Woods (overworld), The Great Boggly Tree (hub/dungeon)
      • Chapter 3: Glitzville (overworld/hub/dungeon)
      • Chapter 4: Twilight Town (hub), Twilight Trail (overworld), Creepy Steeple (dungeon)
      • Chapter 5: Keelhaul Key (overworld/hub), Pirate’s Grotto (dungeon)
      • Chapter 6: Excess Express/Poshley Heights (hubs), Riverside Station (overworld)
      • Chapter 7: Fahr Outpost (hub), The Moon (overworld), X-Naut Fortress (dungeon)
      • Chapter 8: Palace of Shadow (dungeon)

However, unlike its predecessor, the game actually “breaks” the pattern more of world/dungeon to keep you on your toes, which pays dividends later on.  In PM64, outside of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, once you reach the dungeon, you don’t leave it.

Whereas in TTYD, you are often sent back out into the overworld to solve some mystery even after reaching the dungeon (as is the case with Chapters 4 and 5, revealing that the dungeon wasn’t the core of the chapter story), or the overworld/hub/dungeon pairing is messed with completely.  I like to believe that, in the first two Chapters, TTYD patterned itself very much after its predecessor so you’d start to think the entire game would repeat PM64’s patterns, but then started to spread its wings to the point where you never knew what would happen next.

5 – Positive Space: The game maintains the Paper aesthetic for positive space.  Also, Rogueport, which is a grimy, run-down location, is contrasted by the Door itself, which is magical and mystical in comparison. The Crystal Stars feel like they come from a different world…

6 – Good Shape: The game employs a similar mechanic like PM64 with Zess T. making new dishes out of items you find.  But MOST OF ALL, the game introduces the ability for YOU TO CHANGE.  The game employs the aesthetic of the game (paper), enabling you to be able to turn into paper things like planes and tubes and boats to get through puzzle blocks, but this also makes a good shape and calls back to traditional Mario games of you being able to change size and shape (upon obtaining new suits) to be able to do new things.

7 – Local Symmetries: Let’s be honest, for someone having played the original PM64, it is enjoyable to see symmetries across-game to make you think when and how it will break them (i.e. TTYD’s Chapter 1 environment mimics PM64’s, as do the first two partners you meet in the game).  This makes it a good sequel, as there are thematic callbacks to the original, even if you rarely see characters from the original.

But the game also has symmetries (more actually) between enemies, items, badges, etc.  There is a literal challenge of tattling on lots of enemies to put them in your Tattle Log, and then you get to literally see the symmetries between the enemies you fought.  Same goes for the desire to cook more and more dishes to see them appear in your Recipe book.  As you unlock more and more, it becomes more satisfying as you approach a feeling of completeness.

There are also symmetries across character (i.e. the Chapter 1 boss Hooktail turns out to be one of three siblings, just like the mini-boss Shadow Sirens), which, cleverly, connect to the greater story this time (see further below).

8 – Deep Interlock: The game maintains the in-chapter mysteries of things you find at the beginning becoming important later similar to PM64.

But this time, characters who appear early on end up being revealed later as being more important and NOT just stand-alone unlike in the original PM64. Let’s see:

      • Chapter 1: Hooktail is introduced, and later revealed to be one of three dragons in the Shadow Queen’s employ.
      • Chapter 2: The Shadow Sirens are introduced and return multiple times later on in the story.  Also, the X-Nauts and Lord Crump (and by extension Magnus von Grapple) are formally introduced as enemies, and return later in Chapters 5 and 7.
      • Chapter 3: The chapter boss, Grubba, is using the Crystal Star’s power for evil, but doesn’t return after he is defeated (see below).
      • Chapter 4: The ghostly boss, Doopliss, returns later as a villain again in Chapter 8, and is also is a catalyst for Vivian’s arc.
      • Chapter 5: The pirate boss Cortez is used as a decoy villain in order to reintroduce Crump as a true villain.  Cortez later becomes your friend to ferry you back and forth from Keelhaul Key and Rogueport.
      • Chapter 6: None (although the Shadow Sirens appear in this chapter)
      • Chapter 7: You return to the location where Peach was being held, fight Crump for the last time, and finally meet TEC, the computer that has been helping Peach all game.
      • Chapter 8: This final chapter has a lot of payoffs.  You fight Gloomtail, one of Hooktail’s siblings, then the Shadow Sirens and Doopliss again.  Then you finally meet Grodus, who is the leader of the X-Nauts and the main villain up until this point.  Then Bowser crashes the party and it is teased that maybe he could be the final villain, just like PM64, but he is defeated.  Then, the mystery is completed as the Shadow Queen is awakened and you are forced to fight to the sake of the world.  Plot twist: the Shadow Siren Beldam is turns out to be the one who engineered the entire plot to be in motion by baiting Peach to find the Map.

And what’s more, a larger mystery can be slowly unraveled to see how and why these events are important (i.e. what is going to happen to Peach, why do the X-Nauts have her, etc.)

9 – Contrast: Contrast in-world starts off with different aesthetics but then shifts to being more about the type of place you are in vs. the color of it.  You can still see contrast in people like in original PM64, but in TTYD it goes more beyond aesthetics.  The denizens of PM64 are often similar, all average-Joe characters going through life, just they are different species.  In TTYD, however, there are entirely different life-moods in these NPCs!!

Take the Twilight Town people that are dour just because that’s where they live, or the machismo types you meet in the Glitz Pit, or the Poshley Heights people that are visibly snobby.

Comedic dialogue is employed in this game just like the original, which endears you to the characters. But the subject matter on the broad scale is inherently more serious, so this contrast becomes more vivid.

10 – Graded Variation – You definitely feel like things are changing (more on this in the next few sections).

11 – Roughness – This is where TTYD arguably shines the most. Firstly, Rogueport feels even more personable than Toad Town (in a way) because everyone is a rugged type and oftentimes angry at the world.  This is something that’s rare in a Mario game – realism!

For example, Zess T. cooks for you, but unlike Tayce T. from PM64 who is uber-sweet, Zess T. calls you names and insults you.  Initially, you’re like “whoa, Mario characters aren’t supposed to be this way!”

There are characters in Rogueport who literally complain about not being able to find work. And through the Trouble Center, these characters will place requests that you can help them with.  Through this, you can learn more about them (and there is incentive because you gets coins and other goodies for doing so).

And then – of course – there is the party.  Every party member (or at least most of them) not only has a unique aesthetic but a unique personality that changes.  PM64 was very much about putting aesthetic twists on old enemies.  TTYD does this somewhat too (i.e. Goombella, Ms. Mowz, Yoshi), but each party member HAS a unique backstory or personality.

For example, whereas Kooper in original PM64 is your standard Mario superfan, Koops in TTYD is a scared, fragile individual that needs to overcome his fears, save his dad, and become worthy of his girlfriend, Koopie Koo.  See the table below for more comparisons of the partners in TTYD vs. their closest counterparts in the original PM64.

Now, on to the the villains: Bowser’s menace is sacrificed for the sake of comedy (I personally prefer the more menacing version of Bowser from the original, because he was still funny sometimes, like with his diary about Peach, but because he KILLED YOU AT THE BEGINNING, he’s still menacing, whereas in this one, he’s more or less a joke).  However, Grodus is your standard villain who wants power for the sake of power (but he’s not Bowser so it’s initially intriguing on a meta-scale).

There is a twist that Grodus isn’t the main villain (as the encounter at his lair, where Peach was being held, is in Chapter 7).  The Shadow Queen is the main villain. And she kills Grodus before the final battle. So, yeah, the villains aren’t especially dynamic but the central mystery that ends up being the Shadow Queen makes up for it a little bit.

And, talking about Roughness, take TEC, the computer at the X-Naut base, who gets a full-blown, full-game character arc as he falls in love with Peach. It’s an archetypal one (the computer who is “bad” learns how to love), but the actual fact of seeing a full-game character arc in a Mario game is very unique.

Plus, he DIES. Grodus shuts him down before Chapter 7, and you genuinely feel it, especially with Peach horrified at her friend being terminated. At this point, you’ve come to love this computer.  He holds on long enough to speak to Mario at the end of the following chapter, but then seemingly dies.

Note: In the denoument, it is revealed that Grodus and TEC actually lived, and this is one of the few instances where the story should’ve stayed dark and kept them dead.

Lastly, in terms of roughness, each of these characters begin to reinforce an aspect of MARIO’s personality. I’ll get to this more, but Mario doesn’t really have a personality. However, over the course of the game, different characters (even ordinary NPCs like the KP Koopa King K) begin to acknowledge Mario as this “strong, silent type” almost as if Nintendo was aware of how devoid of a personality Mario has and turned it into a running gag.

The fact that Mario is given multiple nicknames (such as Marty-o, The Great Gonzales, even “Luigi”) showcase how he can be anyone.  But this is most showcased through many of his partners:

  • Goombella: She appreciates you for helping her (and you see your abilities as a hero reinforced on a smaller scale, outside of grand Peach-rescuing)
  • Koops: He acknowledges that you give him courage
  • Flurrie: She flirts with you… a lot
  • Yoshi: You hatched him and named him, and he’s the one most like to “bro” out with you.
  • Vivian: She literally switches sides because you’re kind to her.   She is the partner that comes to the closest to actually truly loving Mario (and done for real, outside of standard Peach-rescuing, which grounds you, the player, into it)
  • Bobbery: He has less of a personal connection to you, but you’re aware that you helped bring him back from the brink.
  • Ms. Mowz: Flirts with you and appears a lot before joining the party, but it’s more one-note than the others and less grounded.  (NOTE: If Goombella shows friend love, Flurrie shows physical love, and Vivian shows emotional love connected to Mario, Ms. Mowz is like an amalgam that doesn’t land as well.  However, though, she is an extra, optional party member, so therefore it is likely the game was designed so that these personality connections wouldn’t be sacrificed if you didn’t find her as a party member.)

12 – Echoes: TTYD shines here as well. Party members echo their environment less because, taken as a whole, TTYD is less about its overworld and more about the narrative, so characters and mechanics echo the narrative more than the original.

The original has the stronger beginning, no question, but TTYD builds upon the central mystery more and more overtime. If the original is about finding hope and belief again, the sequel is the journey to ward off darkness.

Everywhere you go, characters you encounter are often broken, injured, or fragile people and through actions find their way back to life. Like the original, this is a simple theme, but it is reinforced over and over.

For the case of TEC or Vivian, they are “Bad” characters who find redemption.

Bobbery is on the brink (presumably of suicide, which is unheard of in a Mario game), but learns to live again through his “one last adventure” with Mario.

Additionally, I mentioned above that Chapter 3 doesn’t introduce a character that “returns” to impact the central mystery, but it actually does – thematically.

The Crystal Stars represent power, and the ability to do great things, but up until this point, we’ve only seen them either, well, lost in Hooktail’s stomach or used to power machinery. Through Macho Grubba, we learn how the Crystal Stars can CORRUPT a person’s mind and lead them directly to doing evil things (there is a subplot in Chapter 3 where the villain, later revealed to be Grubba, is literally sucking the power (i.e. life) out of retired fighters, including King K, who is your friend). So, thematically, Chapter 3 echoes the central theme of what happens if darkness wins.

Then, in Chapter 4, this question of warding of darkness is directly put into the physical realm when the main villain STEALS your body and turns you into a shadow that you have to fight out of by learning the name of your tormentor.

Of course, even in this state, simply doing something nice for Vivian allows her to see your good heart and then she agrees to help you.  Again, this reinforces the theme that the “inner light” (which both Vivian and, obviously you, have) is more important than the outside.

This is also “reinforced by mechanics,” as losing your partners and being alone FEELS alone because your abilities are stripped.

There are echoes of darkness all throughout the game. Enemies have dark echoes of them, often found in the Pit of 100 Trials, which gets darker and darker the deeper you go (AND HARDER, which again is an example of the game mechanics reinforcing the theme).  This is then tied into the main plot when it is revealed that, 1000 years ago, the Shadow Queen threw her prisoners or enemies into the Pit.

Example: Gloomtail and Bonetail (right) are dark echoes of Hooktail (left)

And what does the central mystery turn out to be? Grodus captured Peach in order to use her as a vessel for the Shadow Queen to embody. So, Peach, who is described in the very first scene of the story as the one “most pure of heart” and the one who enabled a computer to find love, is going to be used as a vessel for darkness that you have to save.

So, at the end, you’re indeed fighting for the fate of light in the world (literally; at this point the sky gets covered in darkness), but also metaphorically by fighting to save Peach.

So, like the original, the game is SMARTLY using Peach as an echo for the theme, which is one of my favorite aspects of these games. In the original, her absence is felt by all of her subjects and you have to restore that balance. In TTYD, she is meant to be “light” incarnate. So, in both games, you’re not saving the damsel in distress, you are saving the IDEAL of the theme.

And because the characters are inherently rougher, there is much more of a tension of finding light within them. So, at the end, when the characters need to give Mario their support during his final fight against the Shadow Queen and do so by calling out through the Crystal Stars, you feel it. Like, “Hey, if these inherently grouchy/pompous/rough characters have found belief in this cause, then so can I.” And who is the last one to give you support that breaks the Shadow Queen’s defenses, if ever briefly? Peach, of course.

It’s an age-old story: light vs. dark. But the mechanics and narrative are reinforcing it at every turn.

Oh, yeah. And the music… is… amazing.  Each track reinforces its environment wonderfully, be it the fighting style of the Glitz Pit or the moodiness of Twilight Town.

13 – The Void: Unlike the original PM64, the game doesn’t have the luxury of having the loss of Peach’s Castle serve as a literal void. The game surely employs the boss-battle- in-a-big-room strategy (one of the plot points in Chapter 3 is to “never go to the Glitz Pit when no one is around,” reinforcing this notion).

I think the best use of The Void in this game is the entryway to the Thousand-Year Door itself. The room is spacious, larger than any other you’ve encountered so far, and it feels intimidating. Then, when the Door finally opens before Chapter 8, a giant void opens that you have to walk through. This scene connects everything: The Void = The Thousand-Year Door = The title of the game = darkness that you have to enter in order to save Peach = your challenge, mechanically, to fight on the side of light = the theme.

14 – Inner Calm: Just like the original, there is emergent complexity in the gameplay as you unlock new party members, hammers/boots, badges, paper abilities, etc., which gives you more stuff to do. But, unlike the original, there is inherent narrative emergent complexity, which builds as well.

You don’t learn that the Door houses a thousand-year-old demon until well around the 1/3 point of the game. You don’t learn about the X-Nauts as a race until Chapter 2. You don’t learn about Grodus’s plan for Peach until the 2/3 point of the game.

Additionally, there is a Rogueport denizen, Grifty, at the top of a roof on the eastern side of town that, for a price, will tell you information about the backstory of Rogueport, the Thousand-Year Door, the Crystal Stars, and the Shadow Queen. As the game progresses, more and more tidbits become available to learn about. This is a nice bonus feature for the sake of emergent narrative complexity.

15 – Not-Separateness: It can be argued that the physical world of TTYD is more separate and bounded than in PM64, as each chapter you get to is from either a pipe or a far-away piece of transportation like a blimp, train, or ship (as opposed to just walking to it).  But thematically, everything is more interconnected by the theme.  Again, mechanically, this is also reinforced in Chapter 4 when your party is stolen from you, and you then lose some of your abilities and your aesthetic body.  Darkness winning = you losing things.

So, that is TTYD.

Admittedly, the overworld is stronger in original PM (related to carrying letters and more sidequests littered across the world, with more directions to move in, less backtracking, and a wider gameplay space).  Peach also has more to do and Bowser is much more threatening in PM64.  But the narrative is stronger in TTYD.

Basically, TTYD takes Mario characters + Mario structure + RPG Mario mechanics and builds on it.

I posit, and remain steadfast in my belief to this day, that TTYD is the greatest Mario story ever told, which builds off of its IP’s rich history, combines it with iconic archetypes of light vs. dark, and reinforces all of it through its mechanics and characters.

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Now, I have not played Super Mario Odyssey yet, so I can’t speak for its narrative, but other Mario games and other Mario RPGs that came after TTYD are not as strong. Let’s go through a few of them:

Super Paper Mario: This is the most obvious counter-example. Because, on a pure story and plot basis, the main narrative is arguably more powerful than TTYD’s.

The story is about a LITERAL VOID (called the Void) opening up and threatening to destroy all universes and you have to collect all of the Pure Hearts in order to save the world.  At one point we actually see a world destroyed by the Void and reduced to nothingness, which might be the darkest AND most brilliant moment of the entire Mario canon.

The story employs Peach NOT as a damsel but as a playable character, AS WELL AS Bowser too! Luigi goes from captured hostage to brainwashed villain to party member to brainwashed villain again.

At one point, your party LITERALLY DIES and is sent to the Mario universe’s
version of Hell, and are forced to traverse towards Heaven, only to realize that one of the NPCs who was helping you, Luvbi, is actually a Pure Heart and must die in order for the Pure Hearts (and, by extension, you) to live (And this isn’t like in TTYD where this character returns in the denoument. She remains dead.).

In the final chapter, it is teased that members of your party (starting with Bowser, Peach, then Luigi) sacrifice themselves for Mario to continue (though they eventually survive and return in the tick of time).

And then, just as you defeat the de facto main villain (Count Bleck, who is using the Chaos Heart to power the Void), the TRUE Villain, Dimentio, reveals himself having manipulated everyone to take control of the Void and remake the world in his image.

Finally, Count Bleck’s backstory is teased out emergently and you eventually learn that he was a member of a wealthy family who fell in love with a girl, Timpani, and when his father refused their union and separated them in perpetuity, Count Bleck turned to hate and eventually used the hate to nearly destroy the universe.

Then, it is revealed that the Pixl Tippi, who has been with you from the beginning, is actually Timpani – after she was turned into a Pixl and banished by Count Bleck’s father. Now, finally reunited, Count Bleck (whose real name is Blumiere) and his true love unite, destroy the Void, and save the universe. They presumably die, but the ending shot of the game is of the
two of them off somewhere in the distance, suggesting that maybe they got their happy-ever-after after all.

It’s a beautiful story. And it employs the tried-and-true Mario structure of chapters, collecting valuable objects, and employs light vs. dark again to great effect.

And the mechanics betray it.

The game tried to be a platformer and an RPG at the same time, and it just… honestly doesn’t work. Some of the niche moments of switching from 2D to 3D to unlock puzzles is mildly entertaining, but only Mario has the ability to switch from 2D to 3D, and playing as Peach/Bowser/Luigi is a bigger original draw to playing the game.

But especially, it becomes increasingly frustrating when a boss fight gets built up for hours and then, with a couple of nifty bounces, Bowser’s firebreath (which packs 2x damage), and some Pixl throws, said boss is defeated in less than a minute.

This is especially grating during the final boss fight. Dimentio, at this point, has been built up as a master villain, and has just spent a 2-3 minute cutscene revealing his plan gloriously and setting you up for a grand climax (with maybe the greatest Mario villain song put to reality). And YOU CAN LTIERALLY DEFEAT HIM USING BOWSER IN LESS THAN TWO MINUTES. So… basically… the cutscene that reveals the villain is longer than the final fight against the villain is… like… what?

Compare this to TTYD when fighting the Shadow Queen takes TIME. You FEEL like you are Mario, tired, wanting to stop, but you can’t… because YOU HAVE TO STOP THE SHADOW QUEEN. Now, sure, there are badges in TTYD that, if used as cheats, can give you massive attack power, allowing you to power through the final fights. But these are for players TRYING to break the game.

In Super, just being an average player means defeating the final boss in less than two minutes. Which feels cheap.

Also, the Pixls are a huge step down from partners with basically no personality at all (except for Tippi). And the rest of the overworld, outside of the most significant, named NPCs like Luvbi, feels less rich, with blocky characters replacing lovable Mushroom Kingdom denizens for the most part.

So, yeah – Super has a great main plot, great villain in Count Bleck, great twists, and great arcs for characters such as Luigi or Dimentio. But the rest of the game fails to support these elements.

Mario + Luigi Series: This is actually a series that I like very much. Mario has more of a personality (that of a somewhat annoyed, frustrated individual that keeps having to be the one to save everything and everyone, including his brother) and Luigi’s rich personality is always a wonderful addition to the narrative.  There has always been a case of Status usually used between Mario and Luigi, which gives Luigi low status and a colorful personality.  But in this game, we actually see what is it like, somewhat, to be the “high status” person.

And the main plots of these games, particularly the original, Superstar Saga, are actually quite strong.  In the original, there are strong central mysteries regarding the witch, Cackletta, who is stealing people’s voices, and then you have a whole kingdom (the Beanbean Kingdom) to save from her.  I’m a fan of the fact that, midway through the story, Cackletta is defeated and you’re thinking “Wait, I just killed the main villain… now what?”  But she is then able to return having been used to possess Bowser’s body.

Fawful as well is a great villain, though I appreciate him more as a side character than as a main villain.  I think the majority of Mario fans love Fawful because he’s funny and sarcastic, whereas I prefer my villains to be more like Count Bleck, with their tragic backstories.

Yet, the game itself doesn’t feel like a “Mario” game the way that the original PM64 and TTYD do. The game is not bounded by chapters or anything, and the enemies are often more and more wacky and zany, which then make them feel less like Mario characters.

Also, the characters themselves, outside of a handful like Bowser, do not feel as rich, especially compared to those of TTYD. The games often reuse canon Mario characters like E. Gadd or Petey Piranha that are nice callbacks to the main series, but actually make the story feel less original honestly.

Again, I enjoy these games, mainly because Mario & Luigi probably have the MOST personality in them compared to any of the other games. And the plots are intricate enough to satiate. But somehow the world around our protagonists and plots feel less developed, and, well, less “Mario.”

Super Mario Galaxy: For me, this game comes to closest, narratively speaking, to the original two Paper Marios. Firstly, it employs a mechanic that, at its time, was wholly original: planet-hopping and using gravity in nifty ways.

Bowser, like in the original Paper Mario, feels menacing. Like in Paper Mario, he lifts Peach’s Castle from the sky and disappears into space, leaving (you guessed it) a thematic void that you have to go and save.

And the theme – that of the cosmos themselves being in danger – is reinforced by Rosalina. If Count Bleck is the richest Mario villain put to the screen, Rosalina is the richest supporting character put to screen.

In slow, emergent side-readings, you learn how Rosalina became connected to the cosmos and the Lumas, for whom she now cares for. She comes to represent a “Mother of all the Cosmos” type of character – basically, she cares for space itself. And, from the very beginning, she has been kind to you in your own journey.

So, yes, you need to rescue Peach because you need to rescue Peach. And you need to save the world because, well, it’s a Mario game. But additionally, you’re also doing it for Rosalina. The story becomes as much about repaying her kindness with your own heroism.

Also, I’ll be honest: it is refreshing to see a female Mario character used in an elegant way – a woman who represents knowledge, love, wisdom, and knowledge without a HINT of romantic overtones. She represents love on a grander, much more powerful level that in some ways is hard to put to words. But you feel it when you play the game. Her backstory surrounds the game’s hub (its Strong Center) – the Comet Observatory. So, if Rosalina’s backstory bounds the game’s Strong Center, then, in truth – SHE is the true center of the game.

Also, like the Paper Marios, the music is practically perfect, arguably the best Mario score ever created, reaching a level of grandeur that’s hard to compare it to. You literally feel like you’re flying through the sky. And when you fight Bowser, you feel like you’re fighting for the state of the world.

The story in Galaxy is not back-and-forth like TTYD is, but, like the original Paper Mario, it employs a simple story structure at the beginning that is reinforced by original mechanics and powerful music. And the game has one supporting character that transcends everything else.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor, as it sacrifices Galaxy 1’s Strong Center of the Comet Observatory for simplistic level-by-level design. And it loses Rosalina.

As for the other RPGs, again, Super Mario RPG I have yet to play. I know, like Super Paper Mario, both Bowser and Peach become party members to defeat a greater evil. The aesthetics of the game seem less rich, popping, and pleasing than the Paper Marios, or Galaxy, but it is a game I know I need to try one day. Same goes for Odyssey.

Sticker Star and Color Splash I’m not even going to talk that much about, because enough people have. Nintendo sacrificed its story completely in these games in favor of gimmicks that actually harm the traditional mechanics. I still retain hope that a Paper Mario 3 will eventually come into the world that actually honors its predecessors, though with the direction Nintendo is moving in (favoring more “fun” party games or reboots with twists on them, instead of more mature content), I also have my doubts that this will ever come to pass. Until then, I still have TTYD. I’ve replayed the game at least six times, and will continue to do so.

Flaws in My Perfect Narrative

But there is one more question: is TTYD perfect? And the answer is, well, no. Even my favorite game has flaws in its narrative, most noticeable in Mario as a protagonist.

If TTYD is the best a Mario story gets, what are its flaws?

Well, firstly, I pointed that the story’s denouement tries to undo a lot of the story’s darker moments in favor of a “happy” ending.  Vivian returns to be with her sisters who are magically nice to her now.  Grodus and Crump somehow survive being disintegrated and launched into space, respectively.  And TEC, who has a sad, believable on-screen death, is revealed to still be functional without much explanation.

I forgive these last moments because they are in the denouement and don’t affect the larger story or mechanics, but I wish the story had maintained its dark overtones 100% to the end.

Also, Mario still doesn’t change.  There is no Hero’s Journey.  The people who go through the journeys are the party members, or certain NPCs like TEC.  Thinking about both SPM and Galaxy, it is Count Bleck and Rosalina, respectively, that have the character arcs that ground the narrative.

Mario can be anyone, which allows you to feel like you are him, but he himself has no real issues or anything to overcome.  There is no wound that creates a lie that Mario believes that must be overcome in order for him to achieve peace.

There are tons of iconic archetypes Nintendo could draw on if it wanted to give Mario, and, by extension, you, a true journey.  There are different kinds of heroes, from classic to iconic and so on.

Compared to Luigi, who at least changes somewhat in his games like Luigi’s Mansion (i.e. growing some courage), Mario doesn’t.

As stated earlier, TTYD tries at least a bit to draw attention to this.  In TTYD, the party members are down-and-out characters that we all can relate to. These partners (and other characters like King K) highlight different aspects of Mario’s personality that he can’t express (like certain aspects of real love or of a “protector” type).

Yet, this is also arguably a problem. Mario is defined A LOT by love interests (heck, the core plotline of the entire series is rescuing Peach, even though in some games she gets more of a sneaky and developed personality), and ALL of the four women in TTYD have romantic overtones with Mario, which is a bit of a limited perspective.

In PM64, the female partners are less pseudo-love interests than in TTYD, yet they’re also less developed, and yet they are STILL often defined by love interests.  Bombette has an ongoing not-relationship with fellow Bob-omb Bruce, and Lady Bow has her trusty Boo butler, Bootler, who’ll do anything for her.

Anyway, the Mario series can learn from having female characters like Rosalina who are not defined by romance and have their own personalities and feminine strength independent of romance.

These are issues rooted in the Mario structure, so they’re not going to change overnight. There has yet to be a Mario game that employs all of these attributes to perfection.  TTYD may have the series’ best beat-by-beat interconnected narrative, but Super Paper Mario has the series’ best villain. Galaxy has the series’ best female character. The Mario + Luigi series showcases Mario and Luigi at their most personable. Maybe one day, Nintendo will make a new game (perhaps a true Paper Mario 3, perhaps not) that gets everything right. Until then, my order for favorite Mario narratives goes:

1. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
2. Super Mario Galaxy
3. Paper Mario
4. Super Paper Mario
5. Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga

Is TTYD perfect?  Naw, it isn’t.  But right now and for the foreseeable future, when it comes to Mario, it’s the best we got.  Thanks for reading, and, if you have, thanks for playing!

[1] Jesse Schell, The Nature of Order in Game Narrative, GDC 2018, https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025006/The-Nature-of-Order-in

Trying to Address My Love of Longform Play

As I was sifting through my list of games that I’ve played over the course of my life, I noticed a distinct trend in some of my preferences: I often preferred longer, tournament-style games of play compared to single-game completions.

It came up at first when I noticed that I preferred the game Mafia (below) to the more shorter One-Night Werewolf game that is available on phones. Both games involve a group of people sitting or standing in a circle in which one person is the killer (or werewolf) and the goal of the game is to figure out who.

Playing Mafia

In the former:

  • The group goes through multiple rounds as the killer takes out people in the group, with some members of the group tasked with being a medic or detective, and then the group has a council to determine who the killer might be.
  • If the group reveals the killer in time, the group wins.
  • If the killer survives all the rounds, he/she wins.

In the latter:

  • There is one round. The killer chooses who to kill, the actions take place, and then the group guesses who the killer is.
  • Regardless of what happens next, the game ends, although it can then be repeated with a new killer.

It always bugged me that the latter game was so short, and minimized the investigative work that can be done in the former. Also in the former, there is an element of strategy to trying to discern who’s dying each round to figure out who might be who, while the latter is basically all luck. Basically poker without any longform elements.

However, I later realized that I preferred tournament-styles of play of other types of games as well, once that have more strategic elements in one round.

Take Beer Pong (below). College-aged younglings have been playing the game for decades, but I always found it to be a bit dry and slow for my taste. However, if we’re playing Tournament Beer Pong, sign me up! Something about the buildup, the grandeur, being a team that no one expected to win potentially climbing the ladder and surprising everyone else; that potential made me want to play.

Beer Pong

I’ve seen this pattern repeat when I play games like Heads Up or Scattergories. I always want to play as many rounds as possible, keep score, etc.

But at the same time, there are outliers for me, some instances where I prefer playing the shorter version of an experience:

The biggest of which is sports games. I’ve never once played a campaign mode in MLB The Show or NBA2k, always preferring to play singular matches than an extensive season.

Additionally, in playing Cards Against Humanity (below) or the game Spyfall, there are indeed avenues to keep score and do a kind of come-from-behind buildup that I seem to like. Yet, when I play those games, I don’t feel any need to keep score. We can of course, but I am perfectly content to just go through the rounds, do some improv, and laugh until the group I’m with decides to stop.

Playing Cards Against Humanity

So it’s not a desire in me for things to be “bigger and better.” It’s something else.

After thinking about it, I think it has to do with aspects of emergent narratives (a.k.a. the stories that come out of playing these games that we don’t intend to).

In the games in which I prefer multiple rounds, a lot of them have a sort of endgame built into it.

Mafia/Werewolf is designed with the question of “who is the killer?” and answering that question provides the catharsis for the emergent, role-playing story. If that story is extremely short, the feeling of this catharsis is significantly mitigated.

It’s hard to feel like an underdog or feel like you’re playing a larger role in a single game of Beer Pong, because, hey, it’s just one game. But extend that out in a tournament, and you begin to take on an expansive identity – the underdog, the favorite, the guy that always makes the last shot, etc. – and then this becomes the story that you want to see completed in the most satisfying way possible.

Whereas in a sports video game, you’re already playing as professional players, so the identity is more or less built on. Also, kind of like a TV show that goes on for too long, playing an entire season of a sports game feels like it begins to drag, depleting the narrative. There is enough meat in an hour-long single game to satiate (at least me).

Also, I think there is an element of Comedy vs. Drama as well. Spyfall and Cards Against Humanity, especially with the right groups, are enormously hilarious games. There is indeed competition, but you start to not care about this competition as you laugh more and more, seeing your friends act out certain roles and respond to hilarious instances. In the same vein as TV comedies, having longform narratives are nice, but we are often perfectly content to have episodic experiences where we just get to laugh.

Maybe there isn’t too much to be gleamed from all of this. Maybe I just like games that are 1-3 hours long, compared to one-off 5-minute games or experiences that take days to play.

Or… maybe it begs the question of thinking about which types of games (funny vs. dramatic ones; investigative ones vs. action ones) lend themselves to being perfectly satisfying in the one-off or without structure, and which games are more powerful if time is taken to experience them through multiple rounds.

Without Saving: My Journey with Swords and Sandals 2

When I was in high school, I stumbled onto a little-known online RPG called Swords and Sandals 2.  The game is fairly straightforward: you play as a gladiator (whom you get to name) during the Roman era, with different stats in the following:

  • Strength – Your attacks do +2 damage with each additional point.
  • Agility – You move faster, and unlock additional Ranged Weapons.  You also get tired faster
  • Attack – You grow your odds at landing attacks with each point.
  • Defense – You grow your odds at defending attacks with each point.
  • Vitality – Each point adds 10 HP to your health.
  • Charisma – Your attacks win over the crowd more, winning you extra coins more easily
  • Stamina – You get tired less easily and your rests restore more health
  • Magicka – You unlock special magic spells and enchantments that you can buy

When you click on the Arena, you have the option to engage in gladiatorial combat.  You and a CPU opponent take turns choosing moves such as Walk Forward, Lunge, etc.  In close quarters, you can choose to take a Quick attack (easy to do damage), a Normal attack, or a Power attack (hard to do damage, but heavy damage when dealt).  The higher your skill is in Attack, the better your odds are in all of these categories.  But if your opponent’s defense is high, the benefits of your Attack are mitigated.

Example: In a given fight, a Quick Attack might have a 93% chance of success that deals 10 damage, whereas a Power Attack will have a 43% chance of success that deals 35 damage.

Outside of tournament play, you fight your opponent until you weaken his armor and draw first blood.  The winner wins coins and EXP points and the loser loses coins.  Gain more EXP to level up and unlock tournaments.  In tournaments, you have to fight a list of gladiators including a boss gladiator, and this play is to the death.

You start off with 2500 coins.  You can use them to purchase Armor from the armory to build up your armor, and you unlock more armor as you level up in EXP.

You also have the option of purchasing advanced weaponry, either as Swords, Axes, Bashing Weapons like hammers, or Ranged Weapons.  Swords and Ranged Weapons are unlocked in correspondence to your Agility, while Axes and Bashing Weapons correspond to your Strength.  You unlock a new weapon for every 3 Agility and 3 Strength, respectively.

There is some minor strategy in maximizing your money in terms of when to buy things to give you the best advantage over your opponent, as well as choosing which opponents to duel with in the non-tournament mode to minimize risk of losing in order to earn the most money and therefore the best armor and weaponry.  The majority of the strategy is choosing your moves in the Arena.

You also can choose to purchase various boosting magic spells and potions that restore health, armor, and stamina.

The goal of the game is to progress through tournaments and level up until you eventually fight the evil Emperor Antares.

I became interested in this game due to its strategic turn-based gameplay as well as the choices I needed to make in terms of which stats to level up and how this affected my chances.  The version online that I found only went up through three tournaments, so I typically would have some short fun with the game and then be done with it.

A few years ago, I found the game again, only this time a new free version had been released online [1], allowing you to play through the game in its entirety with one small catch: the “save” feature didn’t work, so if you died, all your progress was lost in an instant.

This was the summer before coming to CMU so with some free time on my hands, I gave the game another shot, and after various failed attempts at progressing past four or five tournaments, I figured out a winning strategy:

I needed to upgrade my Agility as soon as possible, while maintaining a steady increase in Attack as well.  See, the Swords that you are able to unlock at higher levels do some extremely brutal damage (the highest-level sword deals 627 damage for a Power Attack, the most in the game), so it became clear that if I unlocked a weapon, quickly, with high-damage potential and enough Attack to at least give myself decent odds at landing a killing blow in one shot, I would be at an advantage.

The other trick was to also use this Agility to buy increasingly powerful Ranged Weapons.  Being able to run around the board and shoot my opponent from a distance to lower his armor without even putting myself in range of being critically hurt gave me an additional advantage.

And then, all of a sudden, I was off, winning tournaments at ease and leveling up to increasingly higher stats.  But I still needed to be careful – because one false step, one wrong move in which an opponent landed a Critical Hit and I died because of bad luck, and it would all be over.

And I began to realize “This is closer to what being a real gladiator must have felt like than what it would be like if the Save feature worked.”  Even the best gladiators in the world needed to be careful with their moves and their strategy because even the greats could lose, and a loss meant death.  Had the Save feature worked, I could have played matches extremely loosely and with little regard for my actions because if I died, no worries.  I could just restart from my last match.

In the end, I spent 9 total hours playing the game without stopping and made it all the way to the final battle against Emperor Antares, but he pinned me against the side of the arena, blocked my Whirlwind attack, and I died.

But the experience stayed with me, and it made me start thinking about the types of games that can capture this kind of verisimilitude with the lack of a Save feature:

  • Sports games certainly can, at least in the vacuum of playing singular matches, but less so in the long-term.
  • Games with short adventures like Luigi’s Mansion certainly can.
  • But could you play a Zelda game with the Save feature turned off to try and capture what it must have been like to be venturing out into the world, feeling low on supplies, but having to go on anyway because you had to?

I began to wonder where the line should be.  At what point is not having a Save feature basically torture despite the benefit of realism?  Is it dependent on how much content there is in the game?  Swords and Sandals 2 doesn’t have a whole lot of changing locations or environments in it, nor does it have a lot of overworld exploring or backtracking where a player might get stuck.  There also isn’t a sweeping narrative you have to sit through if you restart it. It is a 9 hour game, not a 70 hour game, is that why it worked?  At what point is a Save feature needed because to play a game nonstop for more than a day is detrimental to the players’ actual health?

I suppose, even if it is available, a player always has the option to just not use the Save feature in an effort to capture a realistic experience, but I think that at a certain point, anyone will end up using it because we naturally want the safety net and we get tired.

Maybe there should be a “no Save” option on certain RPGs and games, where players, if they want to, can play through the entire plot without saving.  So many games feature the spectre of death in their narratives, but very few of them evoke a feeling even close to it in real life, because you, as the player, know that even if you die, you can just try again from a fairly close checkpoint.  My playthrough of Swords and Sandals 2 wasn’t literal life and death, but knowing that Jean Valjean (the name of my character) would be lost forever with one wrong move gave a level of urgency and focus that otherwise would not have been there.

Suffice to say, I have yet to fully return to the game since that playthrough.  I’ve noodled around on it once or twice, but I haven’t felt the need to beat it anymore, feeling like I “lived it” enough.  Maybe that should be a goal of certain games in the future.  Sacrifice the joys of replayability to enable one-time playthroughs that feel as “real” as possible.

[1] http://swordandsandals.top/swords-and-sandals-2-full-version/

How Super Mario Party Solved Its “Gimmick” Problem and Revitalized the Series

First, I’ll say off the top: I love Nintendo.  I was introduced to Mario games as a kid and have many fond memories playing them with my family.  The original Mario Party was one of the first games I played with my cousins and it holds a dear place in my heart.  So, naturally, when I got a Nintendo Switch this past Christmas, they gave me Super Mario Party as a gift.  After playing it, I instantly loved it.

Super Mario Party

Taken as a whole, I have mixed feelings about the Mario Party series, with my opinions oscillating from game-to-game.  Yet there is no doubt the influence it has on my mind, as I realized that the Hopscotch game I just designed for Game Design class borrowed several elements from the series.  Now, while discussing dice games in class, I revisited my newfound love for Super Mario Party.

After many years of Mario Party games that tried out new styles of gameplay, Super Mario Party returns the series back to its original style:

  • Four players take turns rolling dice and moving around a board
  • You collect coins via spaces and mini-games that play at the end of every turn
  • You then trade coins in to buy stars, and the player with the most stars at the end wins.

I appreciated the game’s return to what the series is at its core very much, but it was the way the game did so that made me smile.  It feels like a board game now.  And by incorporating some new mechanics such as meaningful character selection and Custom Dice Blocks into the gameplay, as well as by paring back some design flaws from previous games, Super Mario Party strikes a delicate balance between strategy, chance, and character.

Rather than including dozens of wacky power-ups, Super Mario Party allows players to focus on a select group of strategic items.  The game also directs its focus towards the “dice” aspect of Mario Party, which makes it feel more like a board game.  And, finally, it makes choosing your character a meaningful, strategic decision.  In doing so, the game helps solve the series’ continuous problem of feeling too gimmicky.

What Are Gimmicks?

Gimmicks are fairly ubiquitous in Nintendo games, especially within the Mario franchise.  A Mario game typically has some sort of power-up or shtick that is utilized in the gameplay.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is famous for introducing players to the Tanooki Suit, and the more recent Super Mario 3D World introduces Cat Mario into the fray.  Usually, however, the single-player Mario adventures are rich enough with puzzles and multi-varied levels that the gimmicks never feel like they are overwhelming the gameplay.

The same cannot be said wholly for multiplayer Mario games.  These games, from Mario Tennis to Mario Kart to even Super Smash Bros., include dozens of different power-ups, and taken to the extreme create a sense of chaos that considerably reduces strategy in these cases.  Basically, the gimmicks end up dominating the game more than the players’ decisions do.

Take Super Smash Bros. for example – a match played in which every item is turned up to Very High Probability is typically decided by who is standing next to a Smash Ball or Assist Trophy than on the players’ fighting abilities.

A Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fight with a Smash Ball

Of course, for all these games, the solution is simple: If you want to play them without gimmicks, simply turn them off.  Play Mario Tennis on a standard course with no power-ups.  Turn the Mario Kart items to Basic so that the game-changing Blue Shells and Bullet Bills don’t appear.  Play Super Smash Broson Final Destination with no items appearing.

These gimmicks help make these games what they are and in small doses, they can add augmentations to strategy.  If you can focus on a small number of gimmicks, you can think hard about the correct ways to utilize them.  This allows you to focus both on the core gameplay mechanics as well as the utilization of the gimmicks.  This is in sharp contrast with when there are too many gimmicks.  Here, so much is happening that you more or feel like the gimmicks happen to you because they are too much to keep track of.  That being said, sometimes wacky fun is a good thing.

Basically, in all these cases, players can self-balance the gimmicks as they choose to, in-game, for their optimal experience.

And, these games have always had meaningful character selection.  As the courses and items in the Mario Kart series became more zany, you got more kart parts and weight classes related to your character choice to choose from.  Super Smash Bros. has its ever-increasing cast of characters to the point it is almost overwhelming, but nonetheless allows you to make that first choice.  So even if a match becomes a bout of “item warfare”, you are still running around feeling like you and your character are bringing unique abilities to the table.  It’s not completely random.  There was, at the very least, strategy in the character selection.

Mario Party is trickier because:

  • There is no turn-off feature for items and other gimmicks, and, to be honest, Mario Party without these features is almost all luck.
  • Character selection, up until Super, for the most part didn’t matter other than for aesthetic variations between them.

Note: For the case of this post, I’m mainly considering the console Mario Parties.  I generally prefer the console versions because sitting around one large screen with your friends feels more communal and together than everyone individually looking at their handheld screens.  Thus, I haven’t played the handheld Mario Parties much at all.

What is Mario Party’s History with Strategy?

In the original Mario Party, all of the strategy comes from the mini-games.  On the board, there is some decision-making in terms of which directions to take along the boards, and there are some different star-collecting rules built into the different boards for variety, but outside of the mini-games, players are beholden to the randomness of their dice block numbers.

Mario Party 2 was the first to add items into the gameplay.  In the game, you won them by landing on Item Spaces and winning subsequent single-player mini-games, or by buying them with coins.  This added at least some strategy to choosing which item to buy and when to use it.  Mario Parties 3 and 4 expanded on this idea by allowing you to have up to three items in your inventory.

Mario using a Golden Mushroom in Mario Party 2

However, in Mario Party 5, items were dropped in favor of capsules.  Instead of being able to choose which items to buy, you were given capsules at random.  And, although there were some capsules you could use on yourself, for the most part you threw capsules onto spaces in front of you to either try and help you or mess up your opponents.  Basically, the strategy element from the previous games was minimized in favor of more randomness.

And, the variety of items expanded dramatically.  Whereas the items in Mario Party 2 were either simple Mushrooms that allowed you to roll multiple dice blocks or Warp Blocks that allowed you to teleport to an opponent’s space, by Mario Party 5, there were Bob-ombs and Ukikis and Goombas that each did a different action like swapping out players’ coins or stealing coins or shuffling capsules.  It became very hard to keep track of.

Yoshi about to use a Capsule in Mario Party 5

In turn, your energy while playing became dominated by figuring out what these capsules were doing.  It didn’t feel good to forget which capsules did what and then have a different event happen than you expected.

Mario Parties 6, 7, and 8 tried to change this, at least somewhat, by allowing you to buy capsules of your choice from shops (called Orbs in 6 and 7, and Candies in 8), but the problem of there being too many to keep track of persisted.  These games were a lot about watching different Orb or Candy Events play out when people landed on spaces, rather than on the board game gameplay.

Mario Parties 7, and 8 also reduced strategy in their endgames.  For the first five Mario Parties, Bonus Stars were given out at the end of games to the:

  • Mini-Game Star: The player who won the most coins in mini-games.
  • Coin Star: The player who, at any point, had the highest number of coins.
  • Happening Star: The player who landed on the most “? Spaces.”

This allowed you to focus on winning the most mini-games if you wanted to, or on collecting coins if you wanted to, knowing that you would get a reward at the end of it.  Mario Party 6 would replace the Coin Star with the Orb Star, but the point was the same: you knew what Bonus Stars would be given out at the end and could plan accordingly. 

However, starting with Mario Party 7, the series started introducing more kinds of Bonus Stars, like the Running Star and the Red Star.  Out of six potential Bonus Stars, three would be given out at random at the end of a game.  Another potentially strategic element reduced to chance.

Then, with Mario Party 9, Nintendo changed the direction of the series, wherein all of the players moved around in a single vehicle and shared the results of each other’s dice rolls.  This was understandable, given that feedback from the more recent games was mixed.  I actually enjoyed playing the game’s single-player mode, but the truth is it stopped feeling like Mario Party.  Trying to collect mini-stars instead of coins in order to buy big stars was not the game I or anyone else had originally loved (although Mario Party 9 did have some great mini-games).

Shy Guy rolling in Mario Party 9

It is worth noting that Mario Party 9 was the first game to switch from the series’ traditional 1-10 Dice Block and to an ordinary 1-6 Dice Block.  Plus, when a player jumped to hit the block, the number wouldn’t immediately pop out.  The Dice Block would bounce around on screen for a bit before settling onto a number.  Instead of feeling like you were hitting a power-up block in a standard Mario game, this small change helped make you feel like you were actually rolling dice inside a board game (Super retained this feature).

Speaking of dice, Mario Party 9 also introduced the concept of different kinds of dice.  Instead of collecting items, you could collect 1-2-3 Dice Blocks, or 4-5-6 Dice Blocks, or Slow Dice Blocks so you could aim for a specific number.  Mario Party 10, which repeated Mario Party 9’s all-in-a-vehicle style of gameplay, continued with this concept of multiple dice, introducing Double Dice Blocks into the mix.

Meanwhile (touching on the handhelds for a short bit), Mario Party Star Rush introduced players to a mechanic of finding Mario characters scattered around the board game map, bringing them onto your team, and with them a special kind of Dice Block.

Keep in mind, at this point throughout Mario Party‘s entire history, every character’s abilities were the same*. Starting with the original when you could choose between Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Wario, or Donkey Kong, this selection was purely aesthetic.  And though the roster expanded over the years, it only did so aesthetically*.

Mario Party Character Selection

*In Mario Party 7, each pair of characters (Mario & Luigi, Peach & Daisy, etc.) had a special Orb that they could collect, which helped with character variety a little bit.  Still, collecting these Orbs was inherently random, and still a few steps removed from characters having abilities that befitted the type of game you’re playing.*

So, with Super going back to the series’ traditional gameplay, what did it do to ground the series in its roots while maintaining “just” enough style to revitalize it?

Super Mario Party: Character Selection Befitting a Board Game

The biggest key, more than any other, is that it made character choice matter.  In other multiplayer Mario titles, what matters (with or without the gimmicks) is the abilities of the character you choose.  It is about the weight class and acceleration/speed of the Mario Kart character you choose, or the specific fighting abilities of the Super Smash Bros. character you choose.  So:

  • Mario Kart (Racing Game) = Specialized driving abilities
  • Super Smash Bros. (Fighting Game) = Specialized fighting abilities
  • Super Mario Party (Board Game) = ?

For Super Mario Party (in helping restore its board game roots), it is about the specialized Dice Block abilities of the character you choose.  Each player has a special Dice Block that you can choose to roll on your turn (i.e. Mario has a 1,3,3,3,5,6 Block, Luigi has a 1,1,1,5,6,7 Block, Peach has a 0,2,4,4,4,6 Block, etc.).  So, on a given turn, you can choose to roll a traditional 1-6 block or your character’s Special Block.  So, you get to choose your odds with every roll.  And, because these odds are connected to the character you chose, it feels like it connects back to your first, starting decision.

Mario and his special Dice Block

Plus, this feature gets augmented with the addition of Ally Spaces around the board, where you get to add an additional Mario character to your team and then get the option of rolling his/her Dice Block (similar to Star Rush).  Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to watch your team of Mario characters slowly grow, it gives you more decisions to make in terms of which Dice to roll on a given turn.  Allies also help you in certain mini-games, making their presence that much more valuable.

Star Rush allowed you find characters around the game board and collect them and their Special Dice Blocks, but not so with your starting character.  Plus, these characters in Star Rush appeared randomly throughout the board, so it felt less like a full choice.  In Super Mario Party, you get that first choice.  And if the dice fail you, you can say “Well… it was my choice.  I gambled and lost.”

Super Mario Party: Item Selection and Choice

Going back to items for a bit, Super Mario Party pares these down as well.  It includes the traditional mushroom items that give you boosts to your Dice Block rolls, as well as a warping mechanism to go directly to the star (in this game the Golden Pipe).  It also includes the Custom Dice Block, which allows you to choose your Dice Block roll number between 1 and 6, which is a tremendous bit of strategy.  You can spend your money on mushrooms to go faster, or buy Custom Dice Blocks to aim your characters at the spaces you want.

Luigi choosing an Item

Basically, the game takes the Mario Party 2 approach of having a small group of key items for you to worry about, not a smorgasbord of wacky items that overwhelm the gameplay.

Conclusion

The original Mario Party debuted and (outside of its signature mini-games) was a game more about the randomness of your dice rolls than strategy.  Mario Party 2 attempted to rectify this by adding items for you use as you saw fit, but as the series progressed, this feature began to dominate the gameplay.  It made a game less about the core board game design and more about throwing items, capsules, orbs, or candies around and hoping for the best.  Then, the series pivoted away completely from traditional gameplay.

Super Mario Party brought the series back, both in terms of traditional Party Mode gameplay and in terms of its board game roots, by redirecting its focus to be about the decision-making process that comes with choosing what kind of Dice Blocks to roll and how to acquire new and different ones.  The game personalized these decisions by having these different Dice Blocks be connected to characters and, first and foremost, the character you initially choose.

Playing as Luigi

The game did what every other multiplayer Mario series had been doing for years: made character selection meaningful.  And, needing items for the strategy they provide, the game pared down the amount of items to worry about so they can add to the experience, not take it over.

Of course, no game is perfect.  Super still employs a randomized list of Bonus Stars to be given out at the end of a game.  Only two stars are given out, but these two are chosen from a list of nine different types, and I do wish that list were smaller.  I also wish that the Golden Pipe cost more in Super, as it can be sometimes easy to stock up on coins and continually buy Golden Pipes to grab stars continuously.  I wish that there were more boards available to play with, and that the ones that were available were a touch bigger.

However, although some of the content might be limited, the possibility of choice and variety within that content is very strong, and I’m happy with the direction the series has taken.

Oh, and the mini-games are pretty great too.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones: The Unsatisfaction of a Loyal Adaptation

Last year, I played through Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series and it has stayed with me ever since.  I have been an avid fan of the TV show for many years, yet my feelings for the game adaptation have always been a touch confused since I played it, never sure if I loved it or was angry with it.  And yet, my mind has consistently come back to it, searching for Let’s Plays on YouTube or reading analyses of Rodrik Forrester and Ludd Whitehill on the various fan pages that exist online.

Rodrik Forrester

It seems that my mixed feelings regarding the game are shared by many.  Its reviews, on average, exist in the mid-70th percentile, and there are wide swings around that average, with a 4.5/5 from GamesRadar but a 64% from Metacritic and a deadly 2/5 from Hardcore Gamer.  Though reactions vary from review to review, there is a clear consensus among them all: people feeling that their decisions didn’t matter and the ending being unsatisfying and “too gloomy” [1].

These reactions can be contrasted with Telltale’s other game adaptation of a vast TV series with many characters and many deaths.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead is almost universally praised, with an 89% from Metacritic and an aggregate around the 90th percentile [2].  In addition to the prevailing sentiment that the game put Telltale on the map and revolutionized narrative gaming, there are many who believe the game to be superior to the TV show on which it is based.

Lee and Clementine

And these reviews have a point – I cried at several points when I first played the game.  I was pulled in to the dynamic between Lee and Clementine.  And Lee’s death made me have to turn off my computer and just emotionally think about what I had just watched for a while.

However, it is worth noting that, on the large scale of things, your choices don’t matter a whole lot in The Walking Dead either.  Lee dies at the end of Season One regardless of what you do.  And yet – this didn’t and doesn’t seem to bother people that much, myself included. (I have yet to play subsequent seasons of the series, so I will be referring to Season One for the purposes of this post).

My feeling is that this contrast has to do with the parent series that the respective games are adapting as well as the way by which the games were adapted.

Both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones lean into their respective genres and parent series significantly, with heavy focus on aesthetic and feel.  But Game of Thrones has more “winks” to its TV show than The Walking Dead does.  Several subplots exist mainly to showcase TV show characters (i.e. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow).  These characters, removed from the main plot, have short interactions with the game characters that ultimately lead to underdeveloped relationships with them that do not really matter in the end.

Daenerys and Asher Forrester

This is different somewhat with Mira’s storyline, as you are constantly having to shift allegiances between Cersei Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Margaery Tyrell in order to survive, so these characters have more of a presence.  The same can be said with regards to Ramsay Snow in the central Ironrath storyline – Ramsay exists as a spectre hanging over the plot, and he physically returns to the storyline enough times to augment this presence.

But the bottom line remains the same – the game characters do not have fully formed relationships with the TV characters.  It feels like the TV characters stepped into the game space to interact with the game characters, but ultimately feel removed from the game characters’ emotions and feelings.  They’re action objects for all intents and purposes.

The same is true with The Walking Dead, only this technique is used significantly more sparingly.  Hershel is introduced early in Episode 1 and before you can develop a dynamic with him, you leave his farm.  Glenn is an ally during the rest of the events of Episode 1, but subsequently leaves to forge his own path and you don’t hear from him again.  This is about all the “winking” that The Walking Dead needs.  Comparisons can be made from show characters to the game characters (one could argue that Lee is a more damaged, morally grey version of Rick and that Clementine is a more empathetic and capable Carl), but these comparisons are done more subtley and indirectly.

Truly, you do not need to have seen the show to get the gist of the story.  Lee and Clementine are their own protagonists.  In Game of Thrones, literal show plot moments happen in the game, like the Red Wedding or Joffrey’s Wedding, so you’re constantly wondering where in the plot the show is, or where the Forrester plot fits in within it.  So, you’re inherently now thinking about the “big picture” with regards to this narrative.  In The Walking Dead, with less of this going on, you’re more focused on the characters and what they are doing.

The Walking Dead goes really small with its characters.  Much of the conversations or choices you have to make (i.e. choosing who to give food to, choosing to teach Clementine to shoot) are intimate, and the character relationships are paramount.  How the other characters feel about you, Lee, the protagonist, is very very important, and these relationships are reiterated over and over.

So at the end, the climax, in truth, is the Stranger (who is a foil to Lee – that of a man similar to him having lost everything) calling Lee out on all the bad stuff he did (because no gamer is perfect and is bound to make a decision that had negative consequences for someone).  So you, the gamer, are inherently thinking about Lee as a person during this climax.  You’re thinking “Yes, he/I did these things, but I had to do it to protect Clementine.  I need to save her now.”  And that’s what you do.

Lee confronts The Stranger

So then, as you die, you’re not necessarily thinking about “Was there something I could have done to have prevented this death?”  No.  You’re thinking about whether or not, at the end of the day, this run-down ex-convict was a good person, and whether or not Clementine can carry on his legacy.  And because you made Lee’s decisions, you can easily connect these emotions to yourself.  “I’m crying out of sadness because Lee is dying, but I am also crying out of joy because Clementine loves me, and she lives.”

Whereas, in Game of Thrones, the central conflict is not personal – it’s external: saving the home of House Forrester, Ironrath.  Most character conversations are about machinations to try to do so: from King’s Landing (Mira getting support to send North), from Essos (Asher bringing in the sellswords), from Beyond the Wall (Gared meeting the bastards), and in the North (Rodrik negotiating with the Whitehills).

Not to say that there are not smaller personal conflicts within this narrative.  Some of the more touching relationships include: Mira’s dynamic with the other handmaiden, Sarah, the only friend she has; Asher’s brotherly bond with Beskha, whom has known him for years; Rodrik’s romance with Elaena, whom he has also known for years.  These relationships shine because of the history that stems from them.  They feel very real and it is not to say that these don’t have payoffs.  They are just not the central payoff.

The central conflict is “can the Forrester land be saved?”, not “can Lee redeem himself/save Clementine?”  And the answer to this question is no – Ironrath falls regardless of what you do.  This is an external question, so the idea of what kind of person you were in the process carries less weight, makes it more nihilistic, and is inherently more unsatisfying.

The fall of Ironrath

With regardless to the level of emotionalism derived from the characters, some of this has to do with the respective IP.  Game of Thrones inherently is bigger in scope, so characters are not able to have the same level of screen time that The Walking Dead characters have.  The relationships that feel the most fully-formed are the already-existing ones that carry backstory with them, not the ones that develop in-game.  However, it is shame that Season 2 of the series will never happen, because one wonders what might have been had these characters had more time to develop like the show characters did.

And yet, Game of Thrones is loyally true to its parent series.  Through the lens of the Forresters, we feel what the Starks felt throughout the early seasons of the show: that no matter what we do, so-and-so is going to betray us or this loved one will die, or we’ll have to make the difficult choice to protect the House only to have the House collapse anyway.  The feeling of hopelessness is Game of Thrones, and the broad scope of its characters is Game of Thrones.  Owen S. Good at Polygon writes that the look and feel of the game is what got him hooked on Westeros and the show. [3]

The Walking Dead tells its own story, removed from its parent series, and channels its focus by showing us the details of developing character relationships that feel authentic.  Game of Thrones tells its story within its parent series (and with the consistent “winks” you’re always comparing it to the show), has moderately developed characters that carry backstory with them, and makes you think about high-level machinations that ultimately end in failure (like the show did in its early seasons).

This has left me thinking constantly about it.  Was me being unsatisfied a good thing?  Is that in tune with the show?  What decisions could I have made not to change the overall outcome, but to get the “best story” within it?   This is a very intellectual exercise and befits the more removed nature of the game.

It is telling that the most gut-wrenching choice in the game, choosing between Rodrik or Asher to live at the end of Episode 5, is not the characters’ choice; it’s your choice, removed from the narrative but getting to construct it.  I kept coming back to this moment over and over again not with regards to how much it hurt; but with regards to which choice made the most narrative sense.

Choose who dies: Rodrik or Asher

In conclusion, Telltale’s The Walking Dead vs. Telltale’s Game of Thrones shows us that when constructing sweeping narratives, first we need to go small and take time with our characters.  Secondly, especially when adapting a story, we need to not be constantly “winking” to the audience and drawing comparisons to it, because this takes people out of the story that’s actually being told.  Tell a story, not a comparison.  Yet we also need to indeed stay true to the feel of the source material, which Telltale’s Game of Thrones certainly does.

I probably think about Game of Thrones more than The Walking Dead, because I keep wondering about its high-level structure and what could have been tweaked to improve it.  And maybe with another season or two, the game could have matched the show and allowed its low-level character development to catch up.

This is because the low-level is where the emotion comes from.  Game of Thrones has it in spades, but needed more.  The Walking Dead has it at its center.  That is why Game of Thrones is an interesting thought experiment, while The Walking Dead is beloved.

[1] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/game-of-thrones-a-telltale-games-series

[2] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-walking-dead-a-telltale-games-series

[3] https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/22/17890364/telltale-games-shut-down-closes-game-of-thrones-walking-dead

A Tale of Two Semesters

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” carries a lot of weight for me with regards to the fall semester that I just completed.  In addition to my ETC project, I also took RPG Writing as an elective, while simultaneously acting as one of six Visual Story TAs for the first-year students.  I also participated on a successful Pitch Project team and completed an extracurricular project on AR sound design at the same time, so I guess I should solve world hunger next.  Kidding.

Anyway, all of these endeavors carried with them complicated results.  My ETC project never gelled in harmony together the way HomeFront did, and as a result our final product ended up more incomplete than we had hoped, which was a letdown.  Also the stuff I had wanted to do on the project – creative design and a lot of playtesting – ended up becoming secondary, and producing has never been my primary interest.  Also, I didn’t get to do as much hands-on TA work that I had wanted to do, but I got to see Visual Story from the other side, watch first years grow over the course of the semester, and ran some fun workshops, which was good.  And while the extracurricular sound project I was on didn’t end up winning, we had a lot of fun making it.

The biggest successes for me came from RPG Writing and on the Pitch team.  Following the summer, my confidence was struggling to find itself, but in RPG Writing, I ended up back in the environment I feel the most comfortable in – writing.  Me and the team I was on managed to sift through a 500-page book on the IP Mindjammer and managed to create a campaign story that’s pretty cool.  I’ve heard from many professionals that writing in the real world is a team endeavor, and this was my first time being on a writing team.  And – wouldn’t you know it – I felt comfortable and self-actualized on a writing team and felt confident in my ideas.

The same can be said with the pitch team – I was brought on as the required second year, yet I still felt that my knowledge of the process and of general storytelling was impactful in our project getting picked up for next semester – we will be exploring spatial jump cuts in VR, so look out for new links to our project website soon.

Oh, and during all of this, I submitted a VR story I developed, Don’t Be Afraid, to the XR Alliance, a competition for writers.  I didn’t win, but I was selected as one of 11 finalists out of more than 600 applicants, so I’ll take it.

But beneath all of this professional minutiae is the social element.  The pitch team gelled instantly, laughing about movies and having brainstorming sessions that were always full of smiles.   One of the guys I worked on RPG Writing with, whom I had also worked with over the summer, felt like he always had my back, and vice versa.

Beyond that, I made some wonderful friends at CMU this semester.  It’s all well and good to be a part of a great group of people, but that’s not the same as having people to connect to and confide with on a personal level about work, life, anything.  I’m not gonna call you out, but if you were either my co-producer on my project, or my fellow TA who happened to write a script with me about a mindmap, you know who you are.  Thanks folks.

So yeah – my ETC project was not as successful as I or any of us wanted it to be.  But at the same time, I started the semester feeling a bit untethered, professionally and socially, and now it’s better.  In that sense, this has been my most rewarding semester at the ETC.

One more semester to go.  Let’s make it count.