Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Insights into Narrative and Function

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.

Plot Threads

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.

Segues

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.

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.

  • Joe Rothenberg

    Hi Daniel, really enjoying your series on BIS. I think it’s the standout of the series and a rare instance of a Nintendo game with a great story.

    While I understand and agree with the idea that stats are an artificial system that doesn’t support the timing-based core gameplay, I see some downsides to removing it. Most obviously, it removes the incentive to engage in battle. I tend to enter ordinary battles only begrudgingly, and without the due diligence requirement to level up, I’d probably skip most nonessential battles. Coins and beans could be an alternate incentive but care would have to be taken to avoid turning them into a circuitous way of doing the same thing.

    Stats also provide a nice through line from enemy to enemy. The enemies are so varied in BIS that skills learned from one enemy don’t necessarily translate to the next, so leveling up helps provide continuity. (Perhaps learning the special moves is enough on its own, or could be, if the game were designed to focus on that. But it could make the difficulty curve hard to control.)

    Color Splash all but did away with enemy stat progression, and I thought the results were interesting. That game felt more like a point and click adventure to me than an RPG, even in the battles. I didn’t hate it and actually really enjoyed using the cards to create algorithms for Mario to defeat groups of enemies in one turn. I feel myself getting off topic, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I think you’ve written about Color Splash before, so I’ll probably go reread your thoughts.

  • Joe, thank you for your contribution. As I said recently on Twitter I wrote the leveling piece mainly because I wanted hear a counter argument. Removing levelling is such an interesting thought experiment and the points you make didn’t come to mind when I was writing the original piece.

    The more I think of a rebuttal to your arguments, the more I realise that addressing the levelling issue would require some pretty significant systemic rebalances within the game (i.e. creating a stronger through line between enemy attacks, providing an incentive scheme for battling). I haven’t played the two recent Paper Mario games, but I’ve been meaning to ever since I saw Sticker Star at E3 2012. I think they’ll provide some insight into what a stat-less Mario RPG adventure would look like. I will most certainly explore this topic further in the future. 🙂

  • Joe Rothenberg

    I look forward to your future thoughts, Daniel!