Sisyphean Design: The Problem with Nintendo’s Core Franchises


In an Iwata Asks on Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the designers were talking about story. It was said that Miyamoto didn’t like the idea of a story in a Mario game, “It’s fine without a story, so do we really need one?” And that got me thinking about all of the Mario games’ stories. Each one creates a similar base-line plot and that hasn’t changed in over 25 years: Bowser kidnaps Peach and Mario saves her. It isn’t interesting, exciting, different, or groundbreaking; it’s just a series of levels to get you to the end of the game.

This week, Nintendo announced another slew of upcoming titles including a Mario, Zelda, and Yoshi game. You can almost guarantee in that Mario game you’ll be saving Princess Peach from Bowser, and that Zelda game will have you save the Princess from the evil Ganon, and that Yoshi game will have you eat apples. But video games are unique story-telling devices, and it doesn’t have to be just that flat archetypal narrative. It can be as simple as giving the enemy a reason to fight, rather than just being evil.

“I think all we need is to have an objective to win the boss battle at the end of the game.” (Iwata Asks – Paper Mario: Sticker Star)

In recent years, I’ve become more inclined to let a game tell a good story than be a good video game (see: Deadly Premonition). Boil down any game and sure, it’s an objective to win the boss battle, but why does it have to be just an objective? Mario deals in archetypes to achieve the broadest range of appeal possible. If the good guy beats the bad guy, everyone comes away happy.

But I haven’t been invested in a Mario game for a long time. Not because they’re bad – in fact they’re some of the best games on any Nintendo system – but because I’m not drawn into a world. I just feel like I’m completing objectives to win the boss battle at the end of the game. We don’t need to settle for just another Mario game when we can get a fresh Mario game with some form of compelling characterization.

Even Zelda has become more of a story-driven series with Skyward Sword. For the first time, Zelda isn’t just some princess, but your best friend, someone you care for and want to save. Later in the game, you realize everyone has a motive and everyone has a purpose. The finale becomes a bittersweet understanding that this is a continuous cycle that must be performed. That realization is heart breaking and a genuinely good story moment.

Majora’s Mask focused on telling personal, character-driven stories to flesh out its world. Link would run around doing favors for the various denizens of Clock Town in order to obtain their masks. These miniature quests allowed the player to connect with Clock Town and be frightened for the end of the world and that damn moon. Majora’s Mask is more than just objectives and boss battles: it tells a story and attempts to create empathy in a player.

The original Paper Mario had players read a series of entries from Bowser’s personal diary. The one line I still remember today, “Dinner was nice but a bit bland,” is the only time I really connected with Bowser as a character. During those diary entries I understood his plight, but I never understood why he had to kidnap Peach, or kick Mario’s butt. By getting to know Bowser and considering his motives, the player becomes empathetic.

Most story-driven games attempt to garner players’ empathy and connect them to the world and characters that live in it. I’m not saying every game has to be Persona 4 (even though that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, maybe), but designers should allow for deeper, richer experiences, instead of just dealing in archetypes.

There’s this Greek myth of a king named Sisyphus. Sisyphus betrayed the gods and was forced to roll a huge boulder up a large hill. Every time Sisyphus neared the top of this hill, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. Sisyphus continued this punishment for all eternity.

I don’t want to be Sisyphus. I don’t want to continually complete the objectives to win the boss battle at the end of the game, just because it’s a game. We have a reason to complete Mario games: to save the princess. But that’s no better than attempting to roll a rock up a hill, because the princess is always going to be in another castle.