[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.
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
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.]