Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Delayed Interaction

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.

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.

The Decline of Super Monkey Ball

November 25th, 2016

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“Because you’re asking ‘Why? Why are they in the balls?’ With this story, you’re going to find out why they’re in the balls.”

—Marty Caplan, Producer of Super Monkey Ball Adventure

Back in 2006 fans and critics universally panned Super Monkey Ball Adventure labelling the game as the first misfire in the series. Given quotes like the one above, it’s not hard to understand why. In hindsight, Super Monkey Ball Adventure‘s failure signalled the series’s decline over subsequent games. Yet for all its flaws, Adventure was a spin-off from the main series developed by an external studio trying their hand at a new concept. The game is far removed from the main line Monkey Ball games and their developers in Japan.

Rather I would argue that Super Monkey Ball‘s decline began from the second game in the series. Super Monkey Ball 2 added fast-moving objects, big drops, and mazes to the pool of precision-based challenges. Dr Bad Boon and songs about poo aside, the game’s new-fangled story mode defocused the gameplay through its do-what-you-want organisation of level challenges. Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, a greatest hits spin on the first two titles, only added to the bloat with 43 new levels—a middling compilation defined by expansive mazes, flat gimmicks, and few fresh ideas. Not helping matters the lack of the Gamecube’s octagonal grooves in the PS2 and Xbox analogue sticks diminished the series’s iconic precision input. Super Monkey Ball Adventure may have been the punching bag, but the series’s real decline started three years earlier.

Chaotic Approach to Levels

Super Monkey Ball Deluxe consists of two types of levels: tight navigational challenges which test the player’s ability to finely manoeuvre their monkey ball to the goal and ineffective gimmick levels which hinge on risk or chance. The latter group tend to feature the following elements:

Sporadic jumping challenges and fast-moving objects which can knock the player off stage with little notice. The combination of the default behind-the-monkey camera angle, slow camera tracking, and fast movement speed inhibit the game’s ability to frame the action when the player quickly turns, falls, or makes a sporadic action. Unfortunately, some levels are constructed so as to elicit such perilous manoeuvrs.

Mazes and dull switch puzzles. Given the default camera position, the player cannot easily see above walled areas. Thus without the information necessary to make informed decisions, most mazes boil down to guesswork. Some mazes spread themselves out for no apparent reason other than to force the player to move through a highly scaffolded environment.

Random stage conceptions (for example, a giant wall textured in the Monkey Ball website address or an insect walking along a cylinder) instead of challenges designed around the navigational nuances of the game system.

To substantiate my argument, I’ve compiled a list of the worst offending levels from Super Monkey Ball Deluxe. Most examples have a video link, so you can click through to see the level played out in full.

Levels with Fast-moving Objects

Levels with Bad Puzzles

Levels with Big Jumps and Falls

Levels with Poorly-implemented Gimmicks

In challenge mode the player cannot filter between the navigational challenges and ineffective gimmick levels, rather the two types are mixed in together. As a result, the effort you invest in manoeuvring through the obstacle courses can easily be undermined by the chance involved in many of the gimmicky stages. Furthermore, the luck involved in these levels also promotes a more reckless style of play which the player may transfer over to the dexterity-focused navigational challenges. These non-serious challenges can therefore have a potentially negative impact on player motivation and concentration.

Organisation of Level Challenges

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Super Monkey Ball 2‘s story mode defocuses the gameplay by giving the player too much control over their progression. For each world the player must complete ten out of a pool of twenty levels of varying difficulty. The selection screen includes difficulty rankings for each level and players can choose to complete whichever levels they like in whichever order they like. The player therefore has an unprecedented degree of freedom over the experience, being able to scale the difficulty as they see fit. The extra freedom sounds good on paper, but in reality the average player lacks the aptitude and strategies to successfully regulate their own learning.

Regardless of one’s experience with a particular series or genre, players simply don’t know what the next set of challenges will look like, let alone what conceptual understandings or skills they’ll need going forward. If I were to trust someone to teach me a game, I would probably trust the people who made the game over myself, the novice. And so it is that the freedom to play whichever level one wishes should actually read as “the freedom to drive the difficulty curve off a cliff”.

If there’s one consolation, the level select does allow players to skip past the problematic levels discussed above. So in the end I personally didn’t mind the extra leeway.

Camera Design

monkey-ball-camera

Super Monkey Ball Deluxe‘s camera is perfectly functional for most stages, but can prove troublesome for particular types of challenges. The camera sits behind the monkey ball and doesn’t like to move from its default position. If the ball turns, the camera will maintain its original reference point. This behaviour keeps the camera work clean and non-intrusive. Once the player releases the stick, though, the camera will swivel around the monkey ball until it arrives back in its default position. The rotation begins at a reasonable pace and then slows to a crawl as it comes in for landing behind the monkey ball. The player therefore controls the camera through intentional releases of the analogue stick following a turn.

The camera—privileging the default position—will sometimes end its rotation before it arrives behind the monkey ball, leaving the player to contend with a slightly skewed perspective. I’m not exactly sure if this issue is related to the release, the turn, or something else—but it exists nonetheless. The speed and responsiveness of the camera’s tracking exert an “invisible” but powerful influence on Super Monkey Ball‘s gameplay.

The camera’s behaviour is crucial in 3D navigational games like Super Monkey as the camera establishes the nature of space. Super Monkey Ball employs a tracking camera (as opposed to say a series of specifically programmed cameras as in, say, Super Mario 3D Land), and so a significant element of play involves aligning the camera, monkey ball, and path ahead. By triangulating these elements, the player can simplify a game challenge.

The video above demonstrates what triangulation looks like in action. The player moves the monkey ball directly in front of the tightrope. They then attempt to cross the narrow bridge as the camera is arriving in behind the monkey ball. This is a brazen move. Although the monkey ball is dead ahead of the tightrope, the camera is skewed at an angle making the challenge harder to read cognitively. The camera then arrives and the player fails to recalibrate causing them to slip and fail the challenge. The player messes up the second go. But for the third attempt, they wait for the camera to move into alignment. Then all they need to do is push the analogue stick forward and keep a steady hand. As this example illustrates, the camera defines the nature of space and by extension the difficulty of the challenge.

triangulation-monkey-ball

In levels where the player must turn 90 degrees or more, the camera becomes a source of great frustration. 90 degree turns require a significant realignment of the camera and the player often cannot afford to have the perspective off at an angle. As the topmost animated gif so neatly demonstrates, the player makes an input and then waits 5 seconds or more for the game to provide feedback—all the while the timer continues to count down overhead. If the camera then decides not to arrive directly behind the monkey ball, the player must re-attempt the turn (tilting away from and then towards the tightrope) as they wrestle the camera into place. Something as simple as lining up the camera can feel like you’re fighting your way out of a perpetual state of flux.

Additional Comments

[Originally written in 2014]

Additional Reading

Super Monkey Ball – Leading into a Banana Blitz