What’s at Stake? – Yoshi’s Island vs. Yoshi’s Woolly World

[Currently listening to: Yoshi’s Woolly World OST. Appropriate, no?]

 

If you think I can’t find serious literary juice in super cute and colorful platformers, then you’ve got another thing coming.

I’ve mentioned before that Super Mario RPG is the game of my childhood, but maybe I should amend this declaration and say that I have two games which hold such a coveted place in my heart. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island fills me with wonder every time I play it. The game mechanics are flawless, the world is beautiful, and the challenge is balanced enough that even when you die repeatedly attempting 100% level completion you still feel like you’re having fun.

(But will you just STOP CRYING, BABY MARIO.)

 

(Keep this on in the background for full enjoyment of post.)

I have two memories from when I first played Yoshi’s Island: the first was letting the title screen sit so I could hear this way good island melody play. The second was watching the end in awe, allowing my adrenaline to settle after finally beating giant baby Bowser, captured by the simplicity of 16-bit piano music and a stork intent to deliver two celebrity plumber babies to their parents.

It. Was. Immersive.

I didn’t keep up with Yoshi’s solo games after that. Once the next gen of consoles arrived, my brother and I opted to get the PlayStation instead of the N64. When the Wii was released, I returned to play the Super Mario Galaxy games, but by that point at least three Yoshi games had come and gone, and I’d heard they weren’t earth-shattering.

Fast-forward to the present year. Yoshi’s Woolly World makes its debut, and fans wonder if this will be the game that brings the magic back. And you know, it’s this blogger’s opinion that it did.

Yoshi post3
I never thought I’d fangirl over a yarn Chomp Rock, but there you have it.

Since it’s a newer game, I won’t spoil the nuances that Woolly World implemented to bring back memories of Island. Sufficed to say, there were several levels where I was grinning like a fool at the way Good-Feel perfectly pushed all my nostalgia buttons. They made a whimsical setting on par with the childlike world of Island and even mirrored some of the challenge present in the first game.

But this is a blog that talks about story elements in games, right? And while playing Yoshi’s Woolly World, I was surprised to realize: I wasn’t as interested in its story as I was with Island’s.

Yoshi post4
The plot thickens!

That seems silly, since platformers generally stay light on plot so the player can focus on enjoying level design. How could the two games’ stories produce such different responses from me? Well, aside from an obvious nostalgia factor (I won’t deny it), there’s that question every person who creates a story needs to ask concerning his/her plot: What is at stake for our characters?

In Island, the Yoshis are tasked with the protection of baby Mario, dropped from a sabotaged stork delivery and separated from Luigi, who’s been captured by Kamek. Not only does our dino friend have to keep Mario safe, he also must find a way to reunite the separated brothers and get them back on their way to their family!

In World, Kamek has turned nearly all Yoshis into skeins of wool to complete his plot of building Baby Bowser a bigger castle. The remaining Yoshi(s) must chase after him and rescue their un-spooled friends along the way.

Yoshi post6
Kamek knows how to get to the point.

Both plots give enough premise as needed for their games, but in the case of Island, there’s far more the player needs to care about. I mean, yes, rescuing your entire species from being un-spooled is serious business, but since Woolly World mainly uses it to create a goal for collectibles, emotional attachment is never quite established. Additionally, there’s no increasing tension as we near the end: We’ve saved several Yoshis at that point. The crisis has gradually been lessened.

Meanwhile, in Island, the risk is always increasing for Yoshi and the infant plumber. In later levels it becomes harder to keep Mario on the saddle; there are more enemies to avoid. Plus – provided the player has experienced other Mario games – there’s a sort of “destiny” on our shoulders to make sure baby Mario becomes the video game hero we’ve already known and loved for a decade.

Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.
Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.

How do we apply this practically if we attempt writing our own stories? Think about what’s at stake: for your characters, for your world, even for the readers. Is the potential loss serious enough to warrant emotional investment?

I mean, if a cute, green, tennies-wearing dinosaur can pull it off, then surely so can anyone.

Meeting Characters – the Dynamic Way! (Part I)

[Currently listening to: Mega Man remixes.]

I’m starting to realize the value of a dynamic introduction.

Dynamic Introductions1

Typically, I adopt the Dickensian manner of characters meeting each other: an individual bumps into another individual and discovers a memorable quirkiness about this new acquaintance. These two characters now proceed to quip about their backstory at length (or sink into a tense silence where they hide something important about themselves) and join each other for my convenience as a writer who wants people to meet because plot, that’s why.

But far better introductions are made out of need or a certain character’s motivation. It gives a better glue to the upcoming relationship between characters than if they were just to meet by happenstance.

Video games by rule must pull this off if they want to keep a good pace in gameplay. So over these summer months we’re going to have a look at the ways we can adopt a VG method of character introductions.

(These introductions will mostly include heroes meeting fellow heroes/anti-heroes. I feel like the subject of meeting the villain is a whole ‘nother topic on its own.)

COMMENCE WITH PART ONE!

Part I: Meeting Out of Need
  • Frog & Ayla: Chrono Trigger

Frog2

In an attempt to rescue Queen Leene and restore the timeline’s continuity, Crono and Lucca find themselves in a pinch when they’re assaulted by Fiends at a highly-suspect chapel. Just when they think the battle is theirs, one Fiend catches Lucca off guard and assaults her. Is it all over for Lucca? Will she die a brutal death 400 years in her world’s past??

No, because outta nowhere this frog warrior springs in and cuts that Fiend in half (at least, that’s how I interpret the flickering pixels). And he’s like, “Don’t let your guard down, fool.”

And Lucca’s like, “AAH, GROSS, A TALKING FROG.”

And Crono’s like, “…”

The party of three goes on to form a brief alliance based on their mutual search for the Queen, but already we know a great deal from Frog’s dynamic entrance with him having to explain very little:

  1. He is in some way connected to the Queen.
  2. He’s more than skilled with a blade.
  3. His physical appearance is unnatural (revealed by Lucca’s shock upon seeing him).

How would it have been different if Crono and Lucca just randomly bumped into Frog while they were exploring Guardia castle? They might spend a few dull text boxes explaining to each other why they mutually need to find the Queen, then figure out why they should join forces; and if the writer was feeling particularly verbose he could add in a dash of Frog angsting about his appearance.

Instead, since the three of them must meet in the immediacy of a search-and-rescue mission, the introductions have to be brief – and give just enough intrigue for us to wonder how this Frog fellow is going to contribute to the rest of the story.

Dynamic Introductions3

Ayla’s introduction is practically identical to Frog’s, but it drives home the same point: introductions made out of need reveal the essentials of a new character. This primal woman can mow down six imposing Reptites. BY HERSELF. Ergo, the player knows right away, “Dang, don’t mess with this chick.”

You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.
You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.

Her scenario also establishes the setting, as well as many of her own plot points:

  1. There’s man-dinos terrorizing the prehistoric era.
  2. Humans and man-dinos are apparently not on friendly terms.
  3. …I don’t really have a third point. I just like writing things in three’s.

In summary (wow, this went all “college thesis”, didn’t it?), Frog’s and Ayla’s intros play out brilliantly when it comes to setting up their interaction with other characters in the party – as well as drawing the players into their personal stories. We don’t need long exposition telling us who they are or why they’re intent on joining up with our heroes.

Oh, but don’t you dare think we’re done yet. We’ve got to talk about one more character from a different video game:

  • Jeff: Earthbound

Dynamic Introductions2

Who doesn’t love this nerd? And why DO we love this nerd? Is it the diverse array of firearms at his disposal? That stylin’ green slacks-and-coat combo? The fact that he can create a beam gun out of a broken harmonica?

Well…yes, actually. ‘Cause that’s all pretty boss.

But alongside all that, he’s a character that arrives out of need, which gives the player a sense of purpose as we lead him toward rescuing Ness and Paula.

Our introduction to him is far different from how we’re introduced to Frog and Ayla. We don’t get to see his interactions with the other characters immediately; instead, we’re brought into his personal world and shown what he must leave behind and face in order to help a couple of strange kids he doesn’t even know.

Dynamic Introductions5

We’re essentially drawn into his needs as he tries to respond to the needs of new friends. This is itself a genius move, because it creates empathy without requiring excessive explanation about this new character.


So now that I’ve geeked out for lines and lines on this post, here’s a question for the comments section: what makes a character introduction stick with you?

Next month we’ll look at “Meeting to Establish Motivation”. No sneak peeks at the characters I’ll pick for that topic; you’ll just have to come back to find out!

 

Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Don’t Settle for the Stud: Why Duster Has My Heart – Bad Breath, Limp, and All

[Currently listening to: Unfounded Revenge/Smashing Song of PraiseFOREVER.]

It’s easy to swoon for a pretty face, right? Even the gamer ladies aren’t immune; we’ve got our pick of fictional gentlemen – from spiky-haired JRPG leads to inarticulate Hyrulean swordsmen.

While we may love the attractive characters for personality as well, it certainly doesn’t hurt their fan following that they’re easy on the eyes. They’re a gimmick that’s been around since the dawn of Jane Austen books (okay, probably from before her, but you get my meaning), and when something ain’t broke, why fix it?

But ladies: what if a story – game or otherwise – could get you to fall for the completely average-looking, slightly unkempt, absolutely non-studly guy?

Our shining example for this post:

Mother 3 - Clay Duster
Hubba hubba.

Duster, from Mother 3, leaves no possibility for studly misconceptions when introduced. Other characters comment on his bad breath and mistake him for a hobo or a drunk due to his pronounced limp. His very appearance gives off anti-hunk vibes: unkempt hair with a widow’s peak, drowsy eyes, magnificently huge nose.

He quickly became my favorite Earthbound/Mother series character.

Because here’s the thing: at the same time we’re assured he’s got no looks, we’re shown how incredibly kind-hearted this guy is. He’s the first person to offer condolences after tragedy hits Flint’s family; before that he willingly helps Flint find Lucas and Claus lost in the woods, even politely excusing his handicap and saying he’ll do his best regardless.

Oh, Duster, I loved you even before I found out you could flip enemies around in battle and get a free attack.

Duster1

It was Shigesato Itoi’s intention, after all, to create characters you wouldn’t normally befriend and make them an integral part of your team. Other RPGs have done this to a degree, of course, but Itoi has a gift for bringing a real sense of humanity to his cast. With Duster, I’m more able to associate his mix of imperfections and good qualities with people I know in reality – as opposed to, say, the way I feel about Quina from Final Fantasy IX, who’s also a weird outcast but gives me little to work with beyond that.

Quina
Man, if I had a nickel for every time someone who looked like this came into the library…

I also just like the flipped stereotype: Duster isn’t a beautiful and brooding male heartthrob. His looks aren’t the “in” that make you love him; you have to get to know him past what’s initially off-putting before you can make a judgement call.

The beautiful/brooding boy is of course common fare in the book industry as well, YA fiction in particular. I get it: we want to live vicariously through our stories, and it’s easy to play on the girlish fantasy of meeting and wooing a hunk.

But I challenge you: get your audience to love the atypical guy. Maybe we can start a revolution.

 

Mother 3 is the property of Nintendo & Shigesato Itoi and has no English language release. You can, however, emulate the game in Japanese and use this translation patch by Tomato. If you choose this route, please support the developers by investing in their other games and merchandise.

(Oh, and I don’t own Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy either.)

Release Date: April 20th, 2006

Mother 3

Happy 10th anniversary, Mother 3! If you had an official English release, I’d throw so much money at you.

For now, I’ll just have to be satisfied with my Lucas Amiibo:

Lucas
Triumphant in front of the Smash Bros. roster!

And now, for a celebratory dance! …But I’m not gonna stick my butt out or anything like that.

Wess dance

(Stay tuned for a Mother-related storytelling post this weekend!)

Release Date: March 9th, 1996

super_mario_rpg_logo

Happy 20th anniversary, game of my childhood!

When I was a kid I had these stickers of all the main characters, and I thought they were meant for glass so I slapped ’em up on my bedroom window.

As it turns out…they were regular stickers, not window clings. And man, they were tenacious little suckers. I couldn’t even peel them off to take with me when I moved out for college.

They might still be on that window down in Wyoming, perplexing some new 10 year-old girl who wants to know why she’s got the Mario crew plus a cloud kid and blue-caped wooden doll obscuring her view outside.

(No doubt my mom scraped them off during the move. But it’s a romantic thought, okay?)

Geno-real-name
My main team forever.

Super Mario RPG: Lessons from a Fluffy Tadpole

[Currently listening to: Undertale OST]

Since Super Mario RPG is pretty much the epitome of my childhood, I can’t think of a better way to launch this blog than by opening up a big ol’ can of nostalgia. Plus, we’re coming up on the game’s 20th anniversary! (Wow, now I feel old.)

So let’s start by talking about this game’s adorable, cottony protagonist: Mallow.

So fluffeh.
So fluffeh.

This kid cringes at fights, forgets even the most important things, is totally naïve, and thinks he is what he’s not. And yet – you won’t find a gutsier person on the SMRPG team. Why?

Consider this: lost as a baby, Mallow floats into a community of tadpoles where, though he’s fluffy and short and not at all a good jumper, he’s raised to believe he’s a frog. Say he lives eight to ten years thinking he’s a tadpole, and he tries all the while to do the things a tadpole is expected to do – but badly.

But it’s not that rotten a life for him, really. Even if he can’t play the part of a tadpole that well, his grandpa Frogfucius loves him, and he seems to get along swimmingly (haha…puns are great) with the other polliwogs.

Then, after blissfully living this lie for most of his childhood his grandpa sees fit to inform him: no, you’re not a frog. No one knows what you are or where you came from.

Say WHAT??!
Say WHAT??!

Now, the game plays this revelation for laughs (it’s clear Mallow’s more fit for a s’more than as an amphibian), but think about it: has your world ever been shaken in a similar way? How did you handle it?

Well, Mallow does this: after a bit of a cry, he bids his grandpa farewell and heads out to find his real home. Just like that! Hardly a complaint, no existential crisis, not any sort of “why me” attitude. Sure, he’s sad that he’s not a frog, but he’s also brave enough to find out what he really is.

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I love the way the trope gets flipped with Mallow’s story. Instead of playing out in a Little Princess fashion – where the adopted tyke is mistreated until s/he finds her/his “real home” – Mallow has to have the courage to leave a life he doesn’t mind and a family he honestly loves. That’s a whole different sort of conflict with its own challenges to overcome.

On a note of personal application: There’s a great deal of pain in this world, and there’s a time and a place for the “why” to be asked when we grieve and are confused. But let’s not become stuck in that attitude! Sometimes we have to lose what we cling to in order to make way for a better perspective. We cry that we’re not frogs so long that we miss what Mallow found: the value of our true heritage.

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Oh. Uh…spoilers.

 

Super Mario RPG is the property of Nintendo/Square-Enix. You can purchase it for your own enjoyment through the Wii Virtual Console.