December 7th, 2016
[The Mario & Luigi series applies Nintendo’s function-driven perspective of game design to what is often a genre which skews towards abstraction. The benefits of more grounded gameplay are present throughout each game in the series. The following series of three articles will explore this idea through a handful of examples from what is perhaps the best game in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story. We shall first begin with the game’s narrative.]
Bowser’s Inside Story‘s character-centric narrative is told through a series of individual narrative arcs which tie together through interdependent character motives and the unbeknownst interplay of the involved parties. The game’s design frames the relationship and interplay between the Bros and Bowser through the symbolic use of interface and input. Together the game’s plot, segues, interface, and input design help unify Bower’s Inside Story around the central concept of connectedness.
BIS’s interweaving story threads can initially overwhelm the player. Bowser is without a castle and his army is under Fawful’s control; the Bros are trapped inside Bowser; the Mushroom Kingdom is plagued by a body-inflating disease called The Blorbs; and Fawful has made Peach’s castle his new residence. The locks and keys knot together with enough complexity and interconnectedness that I found it difficult to foresee how the events would shake out. Details wash in and out of conciousness. So when a plot detail sitting just outside your short-term memory range comes full circle to solve a present predicament in the story, the resolution fills an information gap and feels all the more satisfying. BIS often makes such connections (usually between character motives and abilities), which in culmination lead to a cohesive, interconnected story.
The developers undo the narrative knot one motive at a time. The Bros must find Princess Peach and Bowser must reclaim his castle. The story then turns to the Bros escaping Bowser’s body and curing the Mushroom Kingdom of The Blorbs. With the main characters distracted by these initial obstacles, Fawful has enough time to hatch the next part of his master plan, the Dark Star. During this time the Bros. and Bowser also become strong enough so to level the field between themselves and the Dark Star bosses. Undoing the initial narrative knot therefore facilitates the conditions for the game’s second half. So the individual character arcs build towards the game’s finale. Again, we see that cohesion and connectedness are central to BIS.
The player occupies a space where they are witness to the adventures of both the Bros and Bowser and their unbeknownst run-ins. The player takes the role of Bowser until he comes across a situation where the state of his body changes (passes out, stomach ache, etc.) allowing the Bros to advance. Once the Bros mend Bowser’s body from within, he can continue on his way. The Bros help Bowser overcome the obstacles preventing him from reclaiming his castle, while Bowser’s overcoming of obstacles opens up new areas of his body that the Bros can explore to find both Princess Peach and a way out. Neither party is fully aware of how dependent they are on the other. Yet the player can see everything from their external vantage point. For the whole game I felt like I was privy to characters who didn’t know that they were on camera (especially for Bowser). The writing plays into this dynamic by capturing some of Bowser’s more embarrassing moments.
As Bowser and the Bros. stumble around in-game, the player’s big picture view establishes frequent anticipation. The player has more context than the in-game avatars which allows them to foresee what will happen next in the minute-to-minute storytelling. And so every time the Bros. tinker with Bowser’s body or Bowser does some buffoonish stunt, you wonder what effect one party’s actions will have on the other.
The interplay between parties also provides the context for transitions in story and gameplay. There is always a reason within the fiction for what happens next.
Character Roles through Game Design
Bowser’s Inside Story reinforces the theme of the Bros. and Bowser’s relationship through the interface, input, and the DS hardware design.
- Each screen is designated to each party. Bowser occupies the top screen. The Bros occupy the bottom screen. The player can therefore see both parties at the same time and the effect their actions are having on the other party.
- The positioning also simulates their relative position, with Bowser out in the game world and the Bros. below (i.e. inside) him.
- Bowser’s moves are mapped to the top two face buttons, while the Bros’s moves are mapped to the bottom two face buttons. The input is consistent with the screen designations, and thus helps to reinforce the separation between the two parties.
- The overworld is in isometric 2D, yet Bowser’s insides are in side-scroller 2D. So the nature of space between parties—and thus the nature of the gameplay challenges—is fundamentally distinct. The Bros. engage with gravity and jumping challenges, whereas Bowser trudges his way across the overworld. Furthermore, Bowser is free to roam the world map, whereas the Bros are trapped within the confined chambers of his body. The team-specific spatial dynamics and gameplay challenges characterises the two parties and helps the player distinguish between them.
- However, within battles the camera perspective for both parties is identical. Thus to create variation Bowser’s special attacks use the touch screen, while the Bros’s special attacks use the buttons. It’s neat that the Bros. input is consistent with other Mario Bros. games. The input is subtle reference to the original Super Mario Bros.
Connectedness is both an idea which underpins BIS narrative and the construction of the narrative itself. Cohesion is created through the interweaving plot threads where a solution establishes the context for the next dilemma; the use of interplay as segue; and the use of interface, gameplay challenges, and input design to communicate character and interaction. Various elements support the core in a highly functional manner.