Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Nintendo Story (or lack thereof)

Nintendo is the most consistent game developer on the planet. No other developer routinely makes high quality groundbreaking games like Iwata's gang. Do I even need to go through the list? I challenge you to name a company that's made as many successful franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon. These are multi-million selling classic titles loved around the world. Nintendo aims to make games not just for hardcore players but for everyone, and they succeed for the most part.

I'm a total Nintendork and I'll buy anything they make, but their success frustrates me as a fan of deep, involved stories. The problem is that Nintendo rarely makes story-heavy games. The most story-driven series they make are Zelda, the Mario RPGs, and Metroid, but even these entertaining tales don't rise to the narrative standards set by competition like Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption.

I feel the need to defend my love of Nintendo before I argue this point any further. Since childhood I've owned every one of their systems. When a new console generation rolls around, I always buy the Nintendo console first. And in my game room I have a Power Glove above my television reaching up toward a homemade SMB 3 Evil Sun (A wedding gift from Gnora & Adam. Thanks guys!). But like every loving relationship, Nintendo and I have topics on which we just don't agree. No HD for the Wii; fine. Lack of a true, full-featured online experience; I can wait until Wii 2. Nintendo, you can have everything else your way if you just please give me this one thing: deep, mature storytelling.

That's a descriptor hardcore gamers require for their games: mature. What they want is games that speak to them as grown-ups on an adult level. Modern Warfare 2 earned over a billion dollars not just because the core gameplay is fun, but because it presents gamers with complicated moralistic choices and a story that assumes the player to be an intelligent, mature person. Grand Theft Auto 4 made $500 million its first day not because it lets you beat hookers (I can do that for free!) but because it allows you the choice of whether or not to beat hookers, whether or not to go to the bowling alley with a friend, whether to date this girl or that girl, and whether to let your enemies live or die. These are both mature stories, and their parent companies' wallets matured because of them.

Now here's where we've got to be careful with our terminology. Most hardcore gamers mistakenly think the term "mature" means "violent" or "sexual", and I'm certainly not saying Nintendo has to make violent games, or put Peach in a miniskirt, or anything to that degree. As anyone who played the green-blooded SNES version of Mortal Kombat knows, Nintendo doesn't like that kind of content (and I consider the "M" rating on Eternal Darkness's box a miracle). Look to the entire Pixar filmography for mature, nonviolent stories. What I'm saying is it's time for Nintendo to step it up in the story department, and there's no reason they can't give Mario as deep a narrative as Toy Story. Here's a very troubling quote from Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto:

“I’d like to go with as little story as possible,” he said. “I’ve always felt that the Mario games themselves aren’t particularly suited to having a very heavy story.”

Source: Wired

This is coming from the designer at the peak of Nintendo's creative mountain. He doesn't believe Nintendo's flagship franchise should have a deep story. Mario RPGs all have great stories, sure, but this quote tells me the real Mario series we all love will never find true emotional momentum, and we'll just have to settle for making the little man onscreen run to the right. Allow me to get embarrassingly nerd-angry here: I've been playing in the Mushroom Kingdom for twenty years, yet I know so little about it. I've been jumping chasms, smashing bricks, and kicking koopas my entire life and I just want to know one thing, Miyamoto: Why? Sure, there's a princess to be saved. But is she even worth saving? I know nothing about her! Why does Bowser keep kidnapping her? What's Bowser's origin? Who's the mother of all those Koopalings? How did a lowly plumber become charged with saving the princess every freaking time she's taken? And why, ever since the world's most famous plumber's birth in 1981, have I NEVER SEEN MARIO DO ANY ACTUAL PLUMBING?!

These are the stories that beg to be told.

To be fair, I can understand why Miyamoto thinks Mario games aren't suited to mature storytelling. And to be blunt, I know why he's wrong. Mario games are nonsensical by nature in that they're really a series of playgrounds built by crazy Japanese men with boundless imaginations, and the developers design each level solely according to what's fun. Director of Super Mario Galaxy Yoshiaki Koizumi, explain:

"One of the best things about being able to develop a Mario game, is that the very concept of a Mario game is free and open. There are not that many fixed ideas. So we're able to go with whatever gives us the best options in development and whatever we can use to make the most fun game for the player. "

Source: IGN

Just look at the wide variety of level designs in that game, and you know these guys simply go wherever their minds might take them without adherence to any kind of logic. One level has Mario flying around a garden in a bee costume, and the next level finds him running upside down on a battleship sailing through outer space. Try to connect those levels in a narrative! So yes it might appear that Mario games aren't suited toward deep storytelling. Hey Mr. Miyamoto, quick question: Where'd you get the idea for Mario to eat mushrooms?

"We thought, 'What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest.' We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland."

Source: Businessweek

Alice in Wonderland begat the Mushroom Kingdom. It also happens to be the most popular absurdist story of all time. Wonderland is a world where nothing makes sense just like the Mushroom Kingdom, yet the story Alice in Wonderland makes enough sense to be understood 100 years after its publication, translated into many languages, and loved around the entire world. Maybe the Mushroom Kingdom doesn't make sense, but a Mario game with a mature story certainly can.

It is my steadfast belief that every game in every genre can tell a story and become a greater game. As evidence, check out Pinball Quest, the world's first and only Pinball RPG:

I played the crap out of this game as a kid not to get the high score, but to save the kingdom. It's not the world's greatest RPG, but it's an otherwise forgettable pinball game made memorable by the inclusion of a story. This was gaming in its infancy, mind you, and I bet someone could make a pretty remarkable pinball RPG these days if they had the balls to try. The pinballs.

The RPG seems to be the only genre where Nintendo's willing to give storytelling a solid effort, yet still they fall short. Zelda is by far my favorite video game series and individually, the stories of each game range from good (Link to the Past) to great (Majora's Mask). When you look at the games collectively, however, the story of Hyrule can't even be classified as good or bad; it just doesn't make sense. Just look up "Zelda Timeline Theory" on YouTube and you'll find over 200 nerds scrambling in vain to piece it together. Now, I've been a Zelda fan for a long time and as I played each new game I tried in my mind to tie it to the previous game in the series. From the original game in 1986 through 2003's The Wind Waker I like every Zelda fan thought I was playing one continuous narrative where the series followed the events of Link's life in a distinct chronological order. And then, this happened:

"In our opinions, every Zelda game features a different Link. A new hero named Link always rises to fight evil."

Source: Gamecubicle

Zelda director Eiji Aonuma said that, and all over the world nerds dropped their controllers in disbelief. What?! You mean I was controlling a different Link every time?! Are you ser--wait, WHAT?! So are these multiple universes? Multiple Hyrules? Is there more than one Zelda too? And more than one Ganon? And these multiple Links, Zeldas, and Ganons all just keep crossing paths and battling to the death? Over and over?

Something wasn't smelling right in Hyrule. Zelda was THE story-driven series from Nintendo, and now after seventeen years suddenly it wasn't one cohesive story at all. We weren't even playing as the same characters from game to game! Link, we hardly knew ye! And then I realized what happened: all these years Nintendo was remaking essentially the same Zelda story with each game, only improving graphics and gameplay as the power of their hardware increased. With the advent of fully-rendered 3D graphics, games truly became cinematic experiences and gamers began to expect deeper, more mature stories from their games (stories which forward-thinking third parties like SquareSoft already made way back in the 16-bit and 8-bit days). So when throngs of obsessive dorks started asking logistical questions as though the Zelda series had one pervasive storyline from the beginning, Nintendo shat out a quick solution: "Multiple Links! Boom!" and slammed the door.

There's a new Zelda coming out for Wii next year, and it will be incredible but I've resigned myself to the fact that its story won't build on the foundation laid by Twilight Princess or any previous Zelda legend. "Legend", hm. Isn't it funny that a series called Legend of Zelda keeps starting from scratch? To not keep the momentum rolling from one game to the next and build a multi-game epic in the realm of Hyrule is a missed opportunity of Biggoron proportions.

There are so many great Nintendo series in need of thorough narrative exploration. Kirby is a hungry pink marshmallow. Star Fox is a spaceship-flying fox whose father was also a spaceship-flying fox. Donkey Kong is a monkey who owns his own country. These are our favorite Nintendo characters, and everything we know about them fits into a single sentence.

A few months ago, this trailer appeared from internet heaven and made me believe Nintendo's trying to do better:

Holy Zebes, it's a character-driven Metroid game. We're actually going learn something about the Nintendo character we're controlling.

Nintendo, the days when you could improvise a new story from game to game or forego a story altogether are in the past. Your gaming audience has matured, and it's time you do the same. Again Nintendo, you know I love you. But it's because I love you that I'm calling you out on this. Nintendo says they want to make games for everyone. Well, everyone loves a great story.

(Jon leaves, walks to the right, aimlessly, forever.)

Friday, June 25, 2010


In the last year, the movie industry found a way to get the "I'll wait 'til the DVD" crowd back to theaters with 3D. The first film I saw from this new 3D generation was Coraline with my wife on Valentine's Day, and we both agreed 3D made an already great movie more fun. Then we saw Avatar, and again were glad to pay the extra five bucks for the extra dimension. The 3D of today is less a gimmick than it was 50 years ago. But it's still a gimmick. How so? There has yet to be a 3D movie that's not possible to be made in 2D.

I appreciate 3D, and I even think every movie should be 3D whether it's a blockbuster sci-fi epic or a quaint indie dramedy. An extra dimension can only add to the experience, so why not let small-scope films use it too? With a greater number of filmmakers using the technology, the greater the chance becomes that someone will elevate it beyond gimmick status and make a film that simply cannot be made in two dimensions.

I believe this non-existant perfect 3D film begins not with mind-blowingly elaborate camerawork or visual effects so far beyond what the eye can perceive in 2D that they require three dimensions, but at the very root of the film with a story that cannot be told by any other method. This is a new type of film story that hasn't been invented yet. If I could explain it any further I'd have written it already myself, but for the sake of this article I'll at least give this new type of story a name: st3Dory. No idea how to pronounce that, but as you can see, "3D" is at the heart of the story. That's the only way to make an extra dimension matter.

No filmmaker has ever made a st3Dory, and I'm not sure they ever will succeed at making one. But for a better picture of what a st3Dory might look like, let's imagine movies without other essential elements. Picture "The Conversation" as a silent movie:

Or Once without music:

Or Enter the Dragon without martial arts:

Likewise, a st3Dory is a movie where 3D is simply inextricable from the story. And the day when someone writes a st3Dory is the day when 3D stops being merely a gimmick.


I turned on the TV tonight and caught Pulp Fiction on AMC right as "The Watch" segment began, my favorite part of the movie. I've seen this movie at least 20 times and was prepared for a neutered TV-safe version. Any changes to this movie would jump out because A) the cursing and violence are bountiful and B) the story and dialogue flow at such a precisely orchestrated rate that any edit might feel like hitting a pothole. AMC for the most part let it play uncut, and even when they removed the f-bombs they at least replaced them with "damn" instead of "friggin'" or some PG word. Nice job, guys. Also, I learned that AMC allows anal man-rape, but limits depictions of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson covered in that Mad TV guy's blood to 3 seconds.

I'm speaking of course about Marsellus Wallace's first time and "I shot Marvin in the face!"

Now as I said before, I'd just turned on the TV and AMC seemed to let things play uncut so as I watched Bruce Willis hear Ving Rhames getting violated from behind the cellar door I thought nothing of it. He screamed in pain, and I drank my Dr. Pepper. Then Bruce saved him with the samurai sword as I trusted he would yet again. It was bloody, and all was well.

Not long after that, Sam Jackson and John Travolta were in the car with the Mad TV guy, whose head suddenly went boom right on schedule. This was approximately the 21st time I'd seen that happen, so no surprise to me. I was surprised, however, to suddenly find Jackson and Travolta in Tarantino's kitchen talking about getting rid of the body. Wait a minute--AMC cut the whole dialogue in the car! That was the funniest part of the movie, and they cut it! Normally I'd have seen the two stars covered in blood arguing about what to do next, but after showing them covered in blood for exactly three seconds, AMC skipped all the way to the middle of the next scene!

So AMC censorship department, what was the thought process here? Man-rape okay, exploding heads bad? Theories:

1. Someone at AMC hates Ving Rhames and wanted to hear him get raped (or conversely, loves Ving Rhames and wanted to hear him get raped)
2. Exploding heads are okay, but no more than three seconds worth
3. Exploding heads are okay, John Travolta covered in blood is okay, and Samuel L. Jackson covered in blood is okay, but exploding heads, John Travolta covered in blood, and Samuel L. Jackson covered in blood all together is not okay
4. Exploding heads, bloody Travolta, and bloody Sam Jackson are okay only when preceding Ving Rhames man-rape, not after

Pulp Fiction is not just a violent movie, it's a movie about violent people. You cannot remove the vulgarities and have this be the same film. Some movies you just play them as they are, or you don't put them on TV at all. Am I right?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hello, Nobody!

And so another blog is thrust upon the internet. Another shouting voice in a sea of millions. Another person home alone in front of a computer screen, typing away about himself, not reading what all the other self-indulging bloggers already left rotting on the web. Just another no-name writing to nobody.

You're welcome, Nobody.

Nobody, you're a busy non-entity so I'll spare you more of the usual "this is my first post! yay!!" crap and get to the point: I love writing, I love movies, and I love video games. There are way too many websites about movies and video games out there so I'm not looking to add to the heap. There are, however, way too few sites about writing movies and video games. Written Bits will correct this situation.

I graduated from Columbia College Chicago in 2005 with a BA in Film Production. I've worked on movies, small, big, and very big (check the film on The Dark Knight cutting room floor for Gotham Corrections Prisoner #52474, that's me!). Like most film students, I've done a bit of everything on set and I love the whole business.

For me the real excitement begins waaaaaay before those cameras roll, back at home, in my office. My desk is the stage, and my script is the star. I love writing screenplays. So far I have ten features to my name, one produced and a few in the works (thanks to a close friend of mine in Hollywood). I've written countless short scripts, as well as short stories, poems, and grocery lists. I take my advice from David Mamet, who once spoke to me personally through his script Glengarry Glen Ross and said "ABW: Always Be Writing." Or something like that.

If there's one thing that keeps me from obeying ABW, it's NES. And SNES. And N64. And Wii, XBox 360, Playstation 3, DSi, DSi XL, DS Lite, DS Fat, Genesis, Sega CD, Dreamcast, Saturn, Game Gear, Game Boy, Colecovision, Intellivision, Odyssey, Fairchild F -- I interrupt this unwarranted display of gamer knowledge bravado to mercifully bring you its conclusion. (Let's sum it all up by saying I even own a Virtual Boy. There.) Just as I love writing and movies, I love video games.

Nobody, here's where you can relate: Schindler's List is one of the greatest films of all time. Everyone knows it's Steven Spielberg's directorial masterpiece. But who wrote it? Nobody knows. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is widely heralded as the greatest video game ever made (and in my opinion, it is the greatest game ever made!). But who wrote it? Nobody knows. Now of course, people in Hollywood circles know who wrote Schindler's List (Steve Zaillian) and someone at Nintendo knows who wrote Ocarina of Time (no clue), but to the general public the writer is always a NOBODY.

Written Bits is this nobody's attempt to turn the spotlight toward the writer and all he/she brings to the table. Writing a story is hard, mind-taxing work, like putting together some ambiguous puzzle but first creating the pieces too. A great director is nothing without a great screenplay to direct. A story-driven video game requires hundreds or even thousands of pages written, and no one can say great gameplay overrides one thousand pages of bad writing. Film and game writers deserve more credit.

I may write about other subjects from time to time, whatever's on my mind. It just so happens my mind's usually on writing, movies, and video games. If you found your way here, Nobody, chances are your mind thinks the same way. Keep coming back to Written Bits and let's help writers everywhere become Somebody.