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.)

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