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Opinion: What  Super Mario Galaxy 's Rosalina Shows Us About Storytelling
Opinion: What Super Mario Galaxy's Rosalina Shows Us About Storytelling
May 7, 2008 | By Douglas Wilson

May 7, 2008 | By Douglas Wilson
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, game researcher and designer Douglas Wilson looks at why "the most surprising gaming moment of 2007" didn't involve game mechanics, plot twists, or sales figures, but rather a Mario Galaxy storybook tale told by a princess.]

EDITOR'S NOTE: Story spoilers contained for those who have not yet completed Super Mario Galaxy via the secret ending.

For me, the most surprising gaming moment of 2007 did not involve a new game mechanic, unexpected sales figures, a major plot twist, or even a maniacal talkative artificial intelligence.

The biggest shocker was a simple storybook tale told by a princess named Rosalina.

See, Super Mario Galaxy deceptively begins like most other Mario games. The hopelessly helpless Princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser, and it is up to Mario (of course) to save her and restore peace and order to the Mushroom Kingdom.

For us serious Mario devotees, this hackneyed opening presents little problem. After all, Mario games aren’t about the “story.” Indeed, an elaborate back story might even detract from the more open-ended 3D platformer experience, right?

At least, that’s what I used to think.

Mario Tackles Tragedy

In Super Mario Galaxy, Mario ends up adrift in space, only to be rescued by the enigmatic Princess Rosalina and her comet spaceship. Joining forces with Rosalina in the fight against Bowser, we are tasked with collecting enough Power Stars to restore full power to her spaceship.

Early on in this quest, we unlock the Library, inside which we can join a gaggle of Lumas to hear Rosalina read a chapter from her colorfully illustrated storybook (presented in the same style as the game intro). Throughout the game, we gradually unlock additional chapters, one by one.

In grand fairytale tradition, Rosalina’s story begins “a very, very long time ago with a young girl.” The tale, which starts unassumingly enough, slowly reveals itself as an autobiographical account of Rosalina and the construction of her spaceship.

Our heroine, who voyages into space in search of her mother, befriends a little Luma, builds a home on a turquoise blue comet, and eventually assumes a mothering role herself for a whole family of Lumas.

Then, in Chapter 7, Rosalina’s tale takes an unexpected turn for the tragic. Overcome by nostalgia for her home planet, our heroine finally faces up to the harsh reality that her search has been futile. Her mother, as she reveals in a poignant euphemism for death, is “sleeping under the tree on the hill.”

The story ultimately rebounds, as our heroine accepts this truth and embraces her new family. But this ending is, of course, bittersweet.

It is worth pausing here to reemphasize that Super Mario Galaxy – a Mario game, for chrissake! – tackles the drama of human tragedy.

In other news, Hell is now a chilly 0° C.

Super Mario Galaxy is a brilliant game, for reasons already covered in various reviews. Yet despite the largely positive coverage, I was disappointed that the gaming press so overwhelmingly ignored (or in one case, dismissed) Rosalina’s storybook.

To fill that void, I’d like to make a case that Super Mario Galaxy stands as striking proof that “traditional” stories can not only be successfully integrated into video game worlds, but can also enrich the broader gameplay experience.

All About Rosalina

Rosalina2.jpg Plumber be damned, I would go as far as to argue that Super Mario Galaxy is, at its core, a game about Rosalina – or at least her worldview. One only needs look at the secret ending – debatably the “true” ending – obtained by collecting all 120 stars.

This ending focuses not on Mario, but on Rosalina, as she wistfully departs for the starry beyond. Albeit a far cry from the artfulness and restraint of the storybook, the ending hints at where the developers’ true allegiances lie.

Part Little Prince and part My Neighbor Totoro, Rosalina’s tale uses the guise of a child’s perspective to explore issues of family, childhood, life, and death.

The hand-drawn aesthetic of the illustrations provides a fitting visual expression of the frolicsome gameplay and childlike exuberance of the game world. Indeed, the familiar storybook form, which plays on our own associations and nostalgia, is inseparable from the content.

As such, Super Mario Galaxy challenges conventional “ludological” wisdom that calls for video game stories to be procedurally generated, or somehow woven into gameplay.

Rosalina’s storybook may not formally alter the game system, but it certainly affects our perception of the game world, imbuing it with an additional aura of motivation and meaning. Much more than mere “bonus content,” Rosalina’s storybook anchors an emotional heart of the game world.

Of course, some players won’t care about or connect with Rosalina’s tale. Super Mario Galaxy supports these alternative play expectations by making a clean separation (at least formally) between gameplay and story. Moreover, this separation allows the storybook to maintain some subtlety.

Rather than spoonfeed the tale to us, the game requires us to take an active role in uncovering the trauma that lies within. The storybook avoids intruding, and feels all the more precious for it.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of game mechanics. On the contrary, Rosalina’s storybook works so well precisely because it stands in juxtaposition with the otherwise unadulterated childlike “fun” of the gameplay. Taken by itself, the storybook tale would be far less poignant.

"L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux"

In making these arguments, my intention has not been to stir up old ludology versus narratology debates. Besides, that was always a false dichotomy. My goal has simply been to push back against sweeping claims about how games should or should not tell stories, and also to draw attention to a game that has spurred my own narrative imagination.

Though I’m certainly excited to see how advances in user interface and artificial intelligence technologies open up new design possibilities, I wonder whether we game researchers tend to undervalue the fundamentals.

Super Mario Galaxy serves as a reminder that – with little more than proper timing, placement, and aesthetic synergy – gameplay and story can be used to amplify each another, thereby transcending the sum of their parts.

Phrased differently, I can't help but feel like gameplay purists are much like the "grown-ups" that so bemused Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince. So concerned with formal definitions and “unique” qualities of the medium, these purists overlook the more invisible links that bind story, world, and mechanics together, and ultimately make each element richer for one another.

No worries. Those of us who still have a little childhood left in them already know that we only need pick up the controller again to hear our little laughing stars. Well, if not five hundred million of them, at least 120 (and one).

[Further discussion of Rosalina's storybook is available on Wired's consumer weblog Game|Life, in an interview with Galaxy director Yoshiaki Koizumi.]

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Ian Fisch
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It´s funny that someone posted an article on Super Mario Galaxy´s story. It´s one of the things that disappointed me most. It seems as if Japanese game makers can´t not make a story that is super serious and filled with existential nonsense.

It´s like they have no distinction between a serious and nonserious IP. Musings about the nature of existence may be appropriate for a Final Fantasy or Zelda, but not in Mario and Sonic. Can the Japanese not just make a story that´s fun and silly, one that fits the silly and abstract nature of the Mario and Sonic games themselves?


Andrew Dobbs
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If Mario ever turns into a "story-driven, cinematic" experience I will have an existential meltdown.

Incorporating narrative is a genre by genre, game by game approach, so I appreciate the argument in favor of the storybook format. I just hope Mario never tries to go beyond that.

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to Ian,

The problem here is that you're not expecting certian properties to 'grow' with age. The reason there's been spurs of sonic and mario games and such with more and more story has been because the players of the origionals, like me, are much older now. I'll admit that there's something about the old school 8-bit classics that is always charming and always will be, but face facts, most gamers are now looking for a more complex taste than just that.

For example, lets take a look at final fantasy as you pointed out, being a story that's far more 'musing about existance'. The first one had no dialog for the characters to actual speak and you chose your party and went out to slay monsters. If you were handed this game now likely you wouldn't get a whole lot out of it if it were a current release. Before someone trounces me about it I'm not saying Final Fantasy 1 is bad, far from it. I'm just saying it's not what today's market would carry generaly. It's too simplistic is all. Much like how if you took out all the story of any sort and just ran mario though the levels in galaxy with no narrative except for "your princess is in another castle" it'd feel half finished. But that's just my opinion.

Scott Allan
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Anonymous, I completely agree. And Ian, I must say I whole-heartedly disagree.

Making blanket statements about how the Japanese are so "super serious" and include "existental nonsense" was actually counter-productive to your point. The Japanese confront issues of life and death head-on with maturity and depth... I WISH American developers had the balls, brains, and heart to do the same. Instead, as with our movies and TV, we hide from reality, choosing to focus on the superficial and materialistic here-and-now, or simply drown our minds in violence and sex.

I was very moved once we got to the 7th chapter of Rosalina's story book. It struck a cord with me, for various personal reasons. But what was most potent and powerful about it was that this tragedy happened to someone new in Mario's universe. Think of it like this; if it had been Mario, or Peach, or Toad, or Bowser even, it would have been confusing and actually somewhat ridiculous.

However, they chose to introduce a new character to introduce this new element in Mario; reality. Rosalina is now a symbol of the pain that we all deal with outside of the cheery Mushroom Kingdom. And as anonymous said, we aren't living in the 8-bit world, both in video games and the nature of our real world.

Things are getting harder; and as more individuals, young and old, encounter hardships in so many varying degrees, we need new ways to deliver therapeutic experiences. I believe the inclusion of this element shows, with incredible tact and delivery, a way to take something as fun and light hearted as Mario, and use it as a tool to help people cope with life.

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This is more subversive then all of grand theft auto. Good job, Nintendo. Making kids contemplate death is awesome!

Chris Rock
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I guess the story has some mature themes (and not the kind that just involve cussing or boobs), but the story is irrelevant to the game itself.

When you buy Mario Galaxy, you're not buying a game with a story. You're buying a game and getting a story for free. But what's a story if not an after-dinner mint?

Parker Phend
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In response to Chris, I partially agree with you. I think of the story more along the line of a dessert (to continue with you food metaphor) than an after-dinner mint. It is true that the story is not an essential part of the Mario games, but it has been something that is being continually worked with in the games and I feel adds a lot to the game. As for being irrelevant to the game I disagree. It is the story that gives the game its heart. If it was not for this heart the game would be nothing more than a child's toy but with the story it is moving more into a form of art.

To Ian and Anonymous, I fully agree with your views and believe that games are moving in a great direction.

Chris Rock
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To Parker,

If discussing games in general, I agree about the importance of story, but in regards to Mario Galaxy, I find it irrelevant. I don't think an illiterate would be missing out on much of that game if they played it all the way through.

Knowing the story doesn't make your play experience more meaningful, it doesn't change your style, it doesn't change your feelings toward characters or the world you're playing in. It's a cool idea I guess, but if Mario Galaxy didn't have any story element, I hardly would have noticed the difference.

And that I mean this as a criticism. A game's story deserves more respect from its developers than a few cutscenes.

Chris Rock
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Oh, and to be clear I was being sarcastic when I said "But what's a story if not an after-dinner mint?"

I meant to imply that the story ought to be a part of the main course.