What Mario Learned from Mickey Mouse - Part 5: Using Everything to Support Visual Storytelling
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Using Everything to Support Visual Storytelling
Disney uses colour, architecture, weenies, and characters together to develop an emotional bond between the environment and the guests and its visual storytelling. From the line queues, to the attractions, pathways, walkways, and landscapes. The story of the environment is communicated in every way possible. The main objective of a created environment is for the guest to feel as though they’ve escaped to a new world not within one of the major cities that Disney’s theme parks are located, e.g California, Orlando, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Paris. Disney wants their guests to feel as though they are undeniably within the world and environment that the Imagineers have conceived, and visual storytelling, as a tool, has the ability to ignite that feeling within a guest. Storytelling provides context for the world and why the guests are in it.
Figure 35. The photo on the left (Disbrow, C.) illustrates Walt Disney World’s Tower of Terror’s sharp and abnormal architectural form, the photo on the right (Hawk, C.) shows one of the interior sections of the line queue where color and weenies establish atmosphere, and the bottom photo (Penniston, J.) displays the bellhop characters who give purpose to the surrounding.
The stories of the environments are communicated to guests through the use of the principles discussed previously. Colour is used to establish the atmosphere of a setting. Architecture conveys the emotion and pace, of the environment as well as contextualize it through the use of form, space, and time. Weenies provide the player with guidance throughout a game's story and serve as story beats that advance the dramatic structure of the narrative within the environment. Characters are used to enhance emotional connection between a guest and a situation. All of these design principles work together to establish and enhance the visual storytelling of an environment. For example, the attraction “The Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror” that opened July 22nd 1992 in Walt Disney World, is about an abandoned hotel with a ominous past. The Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror tells most of its story with little written text and speech, and conveys most of its atmosphere and emotion through Disney’s main design principles. Upon a guest’s first glance, The Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror immediately conveys its environmental turmoil to the guest through its architectural form. The disjointed and uneven shape of The Hollywood Tower Hotel’s architecture, establishes an emotion of dread and anxiety to the guest. Following after that, upon entering the line queue for the attraction, the use of dark, monotone colours forms an unsettling atmosphere of dread for the guest in a similar action to Disney’s Haunted Mansion. From there, guests follow weenies within the environment to new locations that invoke an increasing sense of dread after each consecutive appearance. Once inside the hotel, the bellhop characters enhance every emotion that the guest has felt thus far through their exceptional acting, appearing lifeless and blank expressions with no reaction to the fear that the guests feel. Each Disney principle is used collectively to enhance the visual storytelling within the environment. The reason that Disney communicates a story visually is because not everything within a story of a Disney park can be told solely through dialogue and text. Walt Disney considered his theme parks to be similar to a show in a theatre, where the acts tell the story for the guests (Hench 10). Emotions are difficult to project onto the guests through traditional means in a theme park. When written, emotions can be lost in translation and may not hold the attention of a guest in quite the same way. Visual storytelling is a form of entertainment that withholds a guest attention. It is a type of storytelling that can be told to a guest without them knowing that it happened. The magic that is perceived when guests are visiting a Disney park isn’t something that is clearly stated, it is something that is felt. The environments and worlds within Disney parks must reflect magic and spectacle. Through the incredible design of their parks with the use of colour, architecture, sense of direction, and characters, Disney is able to project emotions onto their guests, and support the idea that their park is sincerely magical.
Bowser’s Influence in the Cap Kingdom
Figure 36. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) shows the opening cutscene of the game, where Mario is battling Bowser atop Boswer’s airship. This part of the story is conveyed to the player through traditional means, i.e not through gameplay or the environment.
The first few moments within a video game is critical in establishing the groundwork of the story for the rest of the game. The conflict of Super Mario Odyssey is established within its intro cutscene, and is then reinforced in its first level, Bonneton, of the Cap Kingdom. For context of the situation, the main villain of the story, Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, the damsel in distress, and is planning to marry her. In an attempt to fight Bowser and rescue Princess Peach, Mario’s iconic red cap gets destroyed, is then is thrown off Bowser’s airship into the first level of the game, and is knocked unconscious. So far, before the gameplay has started, the initial conflict and story of the game is communicated to the player through traditional storytelling methods, i.e cutscenes. After Mario wakes up, the player gains control of Mario, and the story from this point forward is largely communicated to the player through practices similar to Disney’s visual storytelling methods. Now the main question is, how does the first level of Super Mario Odyssey use colour, architecture, weenies, and characters to support its main conflict?
Figure 37. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) demonstrates the use of color within Bonneton. The photo on the left showcases the first look that the player has on Bonneton, reflecting a bleak tone after Mario was defeated. The photo on the right displays the change in color once the player gains control of Mario and he regains consciousness. The bright colors in the photo on the right indicate courageousness and hope, for Mario to save Princess Peach.
Once Mario awakens in the Cap Kingdom, colour establishes the atmosphere for the story that is about to unfold. Bonneton is cloaked with a soft, well lit, black and grey colour that, by Disney standards could normally make a player feel distressed, but now instead both fits the events that just transpired by evoking a grim feeling upon the player and yet, inspires the player to feel courageous and curious to explore while retaining a slight hesitation. This is done through the contrast of the smooth blacks and dark colours which inspire the fearful feelings, against the vibrant yellow accents scattered throughout Bonneton’s brightly lit town in the distance, the twinkling night sky, and the gentle glow of the large moon. After being defeated by Bowser, it is important for the players to feel a sense of hope and encouragement within the game as this is what will drive them to pursue Bowser further.
Figure 38. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) indicates the first weenie that the player is presented with, Cappy, a hat ghost that later becomes a friend, and the main objective weenie which is the airship above the Bonneton Tower. As Mario walks towards Cappy, he runs away, which tells the story of the environment, making the player question why he is afraid of Mario, while the airship shows the player that enemies are here and Mario needs to beat them.
Immediately after playing with the controls the first weenie for the player to follow becomes visible, a ghostly hat-like Bonneter named Cappy, who runs away as you try to follow him. Cappy’s fearful actions serves as a narrative action, advancing the story of the environment to its first beat. The player becomes curious, wondering why this cute character is afraid of Mario, and becomes consumed in trying to find an answer. Eventually, once the player catches Cappy, the next main story weenie to guide the player becomes visible. A tall white tower in the distance catches the attention of the player, and the motion of Bowser’s airship guides the focus to the top of the tower. This new weenie serves as the next advancement in the narrative of the level. The player now knows Bowser is here and must set out to confront him, creating a solidified goal that the player must fulfill.
Figure 39. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) shows the destruction Bowser and his minions have wreaked upon Bonneton. All of this information is conveyed through the architecture with its broken pieces and disjointed sharp form communicating the damage. The player can draw their own conclusions to who did it.
In order for the player to make their way to their new main objective, they must first pass through the town of Bonneton. As the player arrives, the form of the architecture and objects in the space show the player how the Bonneters live in their environment, and how Bowser’s influence has impacted their ability to use their environment normally. The form of the homes for the Bonneters resembles tophats with windows and a sail on the top for flying their homes like a plane. Some of these homes have partially broken sails on the top, while other homes sails have been entirely obliterated with the remains being scattered around the environment. Scattered throughout the space of the environment are debris from the homes and half broke crates that serves no purpose being in the location they have been placed. The broken form of the houses, along with the dark smoke rising out the Bonnetor’s homes, and the debris blocking the paths of the space, contextualizes the environment for the player, explaining that Bowser is wreaking havoc upon everything in his path.
Figure 40. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) shows the characters reacting to the destruction of the environment, and confirming the player’s suspicions on who caused the destruction. The characters are used to enhance the story through dialogue.
Within the town of Bonneton, more Bonnetors greet Mario and provide more solid contextual on what happened before Mario woke up, and enhance the emotional connection between the player and the situation. The Bonnetors, are animated flailing to show their fear for their destroyed homes. The Bonnetors explain what has happened with extremely short dialogue statements such as “My airship… My beautiful airship, ruined!” and “I can see that monsters minions from here, but all I can do is float helplessly and watch!”. The animations show the emotional impact that the narrative is having on the Bonnetons, while the short dialogue statements provide key statements that prove suspicions that the player has made about the narrative, while remaining short enough to keep the attention of the player. Through the use of the Bonnetons characters, the bond between the characters and the environment is strengthened to serve the narrative.Within the first ten minutes of gameplay in Super Mario Odyssey, the designers have managed to convey a strong narrative for the world of Bonneton through visual storytelling using color, weenies, architecture, and characters.
Effectively Reflecting a Game’s Climax in Bowser’s Kingdom
Figure 41. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) showcases the player’s first look at Bowser’s Kingdom.
Bowser’s Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey serves as the climax directly before the final world and battle between Bowser and Mario. Bowser’s Kingdom is Bowser and his minion’s final effort to stop Mario before reaching his wedding. The visual storytelling of the environment is what conveys the narrative information of this pivotal moment to the player. Utilizing a narrative arrangement similar to that of a three act structure, Nintendo adopts each of Disney’s design principles, consecutively increasing their prominence and power after each beat in order to ensure that the player reaches climax after climax before finally arriving at the endpoint conclusion of the level. The reflection of Bowser’s desperate attempts through Disney’s design principles ensures that the player feels a sense that the game is nearing its conclusion. In this section, I will be answering questions that explain how Nintendo sequentially cranks up their usage of each of Disney’s design principles in order to convey the narrative of Bowser’s desperation to the player.
Figure 42. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) demonstrates the change of colour from the beginning of the level displayed on the photo on the left, and the middle of the level featured in the photo on the right. This exhibits the progression of intensity within the level’s narrative.
How can colour within Bowser’s Kingdom establishes the atmosphere of the narrative to the player? In the beginning of the level, the main colors of the level expressed within the environment are the contrasting mild white stone walls against the fortified black metal plating of the fortress armor. The heavy use of white carries a sense of atmospheric calmness while the contrasting blacks reflect power and protection. As the player progresses further into Bowser’s Kingdom, the gentle white that provides the sense of calm to the atmosphere becomes less and less prominent while heavy blacks, deep reds, and dull greens become increasingly dominant. This progression from lighter toned colors to exaggerated dark colors increases an atmosphere of chaos the further that the player journeys into the level, supporting the narrative theme that Bowser is in dire need of stopping Mario.
Figure 43. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) showcases the change in the form of the architecture of Bowser’s Kingdom, featuring the beginning of the level’s rectangular form on the left, and the architecture’s sharp and curved form displayed on the right. This photo represents the narrative progression from Bowser defending to Bowser executing an all out attack.
How does the architecture of the environment uses the principles of form, space, and environmental metrics to convey the emotion and context of Bowser’s Kingdom’s narrative? The first fortresses that Mario infiltrates are are extremely flat and straight with almost no curves to the form, they have very larger traversable spaces, and are quite small in scale. The farther that the player progresses into the level, the form of the architecture becomes more curvaceous and sharp, the traversable space turns more condensed, and the scale of the fortress becomes mighty and imposing. The square converging lines of the form seen a the beginning of the level communicate an emotion of defense, support, and protection within Bowser’s environment. Later, the form of the fortress maintains its square walls, leaving the protective emotion conveyed, while adding in shapely rooftops with curved forms and sharp closing edges that communicate an emotion of aggression within the environment. The open space in the beginning of the level makes the player feel unrestricted, as though they are free to charge the fortress as they see fit, but after progressing further, the compact space adds restriction and makes the player feel extremely vulnerable. Finally, the smaller metrics of the fortress in the introduction of the level convey to the player that their goal is attainable, as though they can reach the end of the level easily. As the scale of the architecture’s metrics increases, the task at hand becomes more and more daunting to the player, making the player feel as though Bowser can overcome them. Architecture within Bowser’s Kingdom emphasizes the emotions that the player should be feeling within the narrative of the level, and communicates the defensive state that Bowser is in.
Figure 44. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) demonstrates the progression of the main weenie of the level, the spark pylons, progressing from a small eye-catching display, to growing more extravagant after completing each section of the level. This further increases the intensity of the emotions the player feels while playing through the narrative, consecutively making the player feel closer to the end of the level after each one.
How are weenies used to provide story beats and guide the player through the rising action of the narrative? Each fortress within Bowser’s Kingdom has the same main objective of reaching the spark pylon, an object that allows Mario to fly from fortress to fortress. Although, the spark pylon alone is not a weenie, the elaborate set-ups and moving pieces that surround the spark pylons collectively create a weenie. Together, the spark pylon works to symbolise the completion of a section to the player. In the beginning the spark pylons grab the attention of the player as they are surrounded by small torches with burning flames. Each consecutive spark pylon has a setup that gets increasingly more extravagant, moving behind massive metal gates, massive flames, and/or flying Bowser patterned flags. The exaggerated arrangements fit the rising action of the level, showing the ferocity of the climax points the player has overcome.
Figure 45. The photo on the right (Super Mario Odyssey) showcases the brute ogres that block gates and key objectives that Mario needs to access in order to progress through the level, and the photo on the left (Super Mario Wiki) features the Broodals in Bowser’s Kingdom who Mario has fought previously before this level. These characters enforce the narrative through displaying the force that Bowser is using to stop Mario.
How do the new enemies and the recurring characters work together to reflect their final effort? Bowser’s Kingdom features both new enemies such as menacing gatekeepers known as the Stairface Ogres, and characters that Mario has already battled previously, such as Bowser’s evil wedding planning henchmen group, the “Broodals”. The new enemies serve the sole purpose of attempting to stop the player from reaching the sub-goals, which is to reach the spark pylons at the end of each fortress. For example, the Stairface Ogres are massive in size and have an angry expression on their face that reflects their ferocity towards Mario. They block the player from reaching the spark pylons and must be overcome in order to reach the end of the fortress. The Broodals recurrence however, strengthen the emotional bond between the context of the narrative and the player’s main goal, which is to reach the end of the level and rescue Princess Peach. The Broodals found in Bowser’s Kingdom collectively have been fought four times previous to this level, which makes their battles with Mario more impactful and meaningful as they have already been attempting to foil Mario throughout his adventure. Using new attacks that challenge the player’s skill, they enhance the narrative theme of Bowser’s minions using everything they can to stop Mario, before finally being thrown in as the final climax point of the level’s narrative. When Mario reaches the end of the level, Bowser gets away and is now ready to take Princess Peach to their wedding. As a final attack, the Broodals collectively ambush Mario in their robot mech, the RoboBrood. The use of enemies in Bowser’s Kingdom provides more than just small inconveniences and roadblocks that Mario must overcome. They reflect the narrative that Bowser hasn’t been able to stop Mario thus far, and needs to throw everything he has at him in order to win.
To summarize, Disney’s tried and true theme park design practices that have been built by Walt Disney and the Imagineers have managed to influence the design of video games as a whole. Disney uses the color, architecture, weenies, characters, together to convey information to their guests, and to support the visual storytelling of the environment that the guest is in. Color is used to evoke emotion and establish atmosphere, this is done through the various sensations that a mix of color palettes within an environment can stimulate within a person. Architecture enhances emotion, establishes a narrative pace, and contextualizes the environment that a person has been placed in through its use of form, space and time. Weenies are used to guide a person so that they may never become lost or without a goal, and progresses the environment’s narrative forward. Characters are used to enhance and connect a person to the environment and story that is unfolding, providing realism and clear consequences. All of these tools can be used to enhance the world building of theme parks, movies, and video games. With a strong world, a person can become completely absorbed within an artificial environment. Powerful environments are able to communicate goals, critical information, story, and enhance realism. It is through our world building that build we can spark a personal connection between our video games and the person experiencing them.
1. Hench, J., & Pelt, P. V. (2009). Designing Disney: Imagineering and the art of the show. New York: Disney Editions.
2. Super Mario Odyssey Nintendo Switch (Version 1.2.0) [Digital software]. (2017, October 27). Retrieved November 2, 2018, from https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/super-mario-odyssey-switchThe video game Super Mario Odyssey was used as the base for the analysis of said game and for pictures in the Art of Color, Architecture, Weenies, Characters, and Visual Storytelling sections to illustrate the ideas of the analysis to the reader.
3. Rafferty, K., & Gordon, B. (1996). Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. Hyperion. 4. Disbrow, C. (2010, June 22). Hollywood Studios - Happy Birthday ToT!! [Digital image]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/corydisbrowphotography/4818383335Shows the architectural form of the Hollywood Tower Hotel
5. Hawk, C. (n.d.). [The interior of Disney's Tower of Terror]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dca_hth_interior.jpgShows the interior of Disney’s Hollywood Tower Hotel of the Tower of Terror attraction
6. Penniston, J. (2008, January 26). Disney - The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - Fred [Digital image]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/expressmonorail/2293327017Shows one of the Bellhop workers of Disney’s Tower of Terror
7. Super Mario Wiki, User L151 (2018, February 13). Big Broodal Battle [Broodals atop their airship in Bowser's Kingdom]. Retrieved December 10, 2018 from https://www.mariowiki.com/File:BigBroodalBattle.pngUsed to show the readers who the Broodals are that Mario has fought