December 11th, 2016
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story employs a functional approach to RPG design where the experience is centralised around player actions. We saw this in the game’s story which hinges on the interplay between Bowser and the Bros, and we see this once again in the game’s level design.
Although BIS is an RPG, the employs higher order forms of level design, such as those popularised in Metroidvania titles. Much like those games, BIS has the player criss-cross a large, interconnected world which slowly opens up over time. Progression into new areas is dictated by a sequence of new abilities and the Bros. and Bowser’s alternating access to certain parts of the overworld. The beauty of this template lies in how the player’s experiences in different game states (i.e. with different ability sets) are layered together in rich and organic ways. To illustrate this particular point, I’d like to talk about beans.
Delayed Interaction (Beans)
Many games foreshadow new abilities, areas, or collectables before the player is able to reach them for the purposes of priming, creating anticipation, or testing the player’s ability to recall information. Beans in BIS are one such example.
For the first third of the game the player can only traverse the overworld as Bowser. During this time they’ll come across curious markings on the floor which they cannot yet interact with. These niggling elements linger in the mind and as the player comes to notice their consistent presence throughout the game world, they’ll begin to commit them to memory (whether consciously or subconsciously). After all, video games worlds aren’t natural environments, they’re intentionally designed—and so surely such ubiquitous markings must have some kind of purpose. Later on, the Bros leave Bowser’s body and are able to burrow under these markings and uproot the beans underneath for a permanent stat boost.
In many ways beans are similar to missiles in Metroid. The two sets of collectables increase the player’s power (number of strong attacks and player stats) and present their own mini-challenges (often based on observation).
The duration of the delayed interaction differentiates beans and missiles. Depending on when the player first sees the bean hole, the delay between the player seeing a bean hole and then being able to uproot the bean can range from 1-8 hours (8 hours roughly being the time in which the Bros. are captive in Bowser’s body). In a Metroid game, the gap is closer to 1-5 hours. Throughout this time the location of the beans fade in and out of your short-term memory. And as the game trudges on and presents the player with new information, remembering the older details becomes all the more difficult. So finally being able to close the knowledge gap by uprooting a bean hole can be a huge relief, cathartic even.
The number of beans is simply too great for any player to remember. Rather the challenge is keeping as much as you can in your head until you can act on it. The tension from this process therefore releases over the many hours it takes to collect the beans one by one.
Fortunately, the game world provide a structure for which the player can organise the vast amount of information. Beans (like missiles) are tied to specific areas of the map, and so the player recalls relevant information as they move through the game world. Speaking from my own experience, I find that collecting beans tends to complement the existing gameplay. The game will point me in a direction and as I begin the trek visual landmarks in the environment will reactivate my knowledge of nearby bean holes. In this sense, I feel that beans are a neat way of extending the gameplay and giving the player something else to do during the low-intensity gameplay of exploring the overworld.
Since the game world is large and interconnected, the player has a degree of freedom in determining the order in which they collect beans. They also have a lot of freedom in how much they wish to partake in the collectathon, with 251 beans in total. Alternatively, some players will choose to ignore this optional layer of gameplay, and that’s fine too. BIS accommodates both interested and non-interested players and allows interested players to engage however much they wish, however they wish.
By delaying the player’s ability to uproot beans, a connection is made between the player’s initial overworld rhomp as Bowser and their subsequent run as the Bros. In effect, the designers elicit two forms of engagement for the price of one. As Bowser, the bean holes invite the player to observe, chunk out, and retain sections of the game world in their short-term memory. As the Bros, the player draws on their short-term memory to recall and then uproot the beans. Whether you’re playing Metroid, Mario & Luigi, classic Resident Evil or any other games which utilises this higher order form of level design, this process of mentally reconstructing fragments of the game world in your head is a highly engaging top-tier challenge.
Overall, I think beans work so well because they rely on the player’s curiosity (give the them some buy-in); create anticipation through delayed interaction; and allow the player to retrieve the beans organically, at their own leisure, and in a sequence which suits them.