Month: September 2018

How Nintendo Tells Their Stories (and Sometimes Doesn’t.)

I’m realizing that I spend a lot of time talking about stories in games and how games tell stories. I’m a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I suppose it stands to reason that this is the sort of thing I’d spend too much time thinking about. Part of the universal appeal of Nintendo and their games, I’d argue, is the LACK of narrative in the stories their games tell. Gameplay is universal, after all. I’ll perhaps get some angry disagreement from people reading this, but the truth is that the amount of story Nintendo puts into their games is minimal compared to what other developers, specifically Western developers, put into their games. Not only that, but the style of storytelling in Nintendo IPs tends to differ from franchise to franchise. Here’s a brief analysis of the various styles of storytelling adopted by some of Nintendo’s major franchises. (Note: I specifically say “analysis” as opposed to “overview” because there are some questions regarding the narrative nature of a few of these franchises, questions Nintendo doesn’t seem in a great hurry to clarify.)

Super Mario – Either Princess Peach gets kidnapped, like, once a week, or the scenario suggested by Super Mario Bros. 3 is true: the Mario games are performances, and the characters are all actors putting on a show for the player. Super Mario Bros. 3 is framed as a play, with a curtain rising on the title screen and falling after the game’s credits roll, not to mention platforms through the whole game being bolted in place and the various background structures casting flat shadows like two dimensional set pieces. Each level ends with Mario (or Luigi) running offstage into the darkened wings, for goodness sake. So the Mario cast is simply play-acting these adventures for us, and in their time off they like to get together and race go-karts, or play baseball, or maybe pile in a car and play a board game.

The Legend of Zelda – Around the time of Skyward Sword, Nintendo released a bat-poop crazy official Legend of Zelda timeline, seemingly to please the fans who had desperately been trying to figure it out on their own. In order to force contradictory games together, Nintendo split the Zelda timeline in three places, leading to three alternate realities where the events of different games could take place (and apparently, very quietly, they reunited the timelines last month by officially inserting Breath of the Wild at the very end of all three.) While certain games do seem to refer to past or future games, there’s an argument that people need to pay more attention to the word “legend” in the franchise’s title. Legends are passed down from generation to generation, changing and evolving over time. The base story of the Zelda franchise is almost always the same: a struggle for balance between three triangular shards of an all-powerful artifact, each with a designated bearer in the form of a boy dressed in green named Link, a princess of the royal family of Hyrule named Zelda, and a thief/sorcerer/pig-monster named either Ganon or Ganondorf. These elements remain fairly constant, but it’s the DETAILS in the telling that change over time. The games in the Legend of Zelda series are telling the same story over and over, more or less. They are representative of the multi-generational retelling of the prevailing legend of the Kingdom of Hyrule.

Metroid – Of the “big three” Nintendo IPs, the Metroid franchise has the most traditionally linear storyline. (It also has far fewer games to juggle than the Mario and Zelda franchises, to be fair.) Though not released in chronological order, each title in the main Metroid series fits neatly into a place, with the first two games in the franchise, Metroid and Metroid 2: Return of Samus each receiving remakes later in life that massaged their stories to better fit into the now-established franchise lore. Not only that, but the two volume Metroid manga that establishes the origin of series protagonist Samus Aran is largely seen as canonical, and slots right in at the front of the chronological list. (You can see the Metroid timeline order here.)

Pokemon – Again: this is not my area of expertise, but the mainline Pokemon games all seem to take place on one world map inspired by the Japanese islands, with each game taking place in a particular region; the nation of Japan is, of course, similarly divided into regions. Every game tells a similar story, more or less: that of a young Pokemon trainer trying to collect every type of Pokemon in their region. The ultimate Pokemon dream game is the game that will unite that world’s regions into one massive Pokemon adventure… or at least that’s what I’ve heard. This just isn’t my jam, yo.

Animal Crossing – All Animal Crossing games tell the same story: the tale of a town’s struggle to get out from under the oppressive thumb of their miserly raccoon landlord.

Fire EmblemFire Emblem games follow a similarly sort of weird rule of connection as, say, the Final Fantasy games: they all carry thematic and mechanical similarities, they all seem to take place in different unrelated worlds and kingdoms, but heroes from the different games seem to cross over from time to time into the worlds of other games. This is really a reminder not to take this stuff to seriously, y’all. They’re just games. (Note: some franchise fans will argue for a connected timeline that branches off into various epochs and eras, but honestly, what’s the point? See also: Xenoblade Chronicles.)

Donkey Kong Country – The chapters-long epic poem recounting the adventures of a bunch of monkeys as they try to reclaim their bananas.

Kirby – Who gives a <expletive deleted>?

Star Fox – The ongoing storyline of the Star Fox franchise seems to be: how many times can we reboot the storyline of the Star Fox franchise? And one time, with dinosaurs.

Splatoon – Yo, the Splatoon backstory is actually pretty messed up. I’m not getting too deep into it; it’s like some creepy-pasta Slenderman stuff. It involves human extinction, unchecked evolution, and a race war. Kotaku has more to say on it here.

Smash Bros. – It’s either the tale of children’s Nintendo toys coming to life to do battle (Smash 64), a multi-universe character hopping crossover (Smash Bros. Brawl: The Subspace Emissary), or the never-ending mission of a small group of gamers to keep the Gamecube controller relevant.

Dr. Mario – What am I even doing with my life?

Tetris – Let’s just wait for the three film trilogy to really shore up the story arc here.

Pikmin – Tiny plant monsters and… uh… astronauts collecting giant fruit… you know what? It turns out the lesson of this entire article is to just shut up and enjoy your games. Not everything needs to be connected, you know? Cripes. (The Pixar Theory is a bunch of malarkey, too.)

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How a Giant Purple Cube Revolutionized Interactive Storytelling

Last December, I wrote a post on this blog about the little-used literary device of “second person POV”. The second person is a form of writing in which the main character is referred to as “you,” effectively making you, the reader, the main character of the story. In a medium with minimal interactivity, like books, you can see how this is a device of limited use. However, in an interactive medium, like games… it struck me while playing Portal 2 and Breath of the Wild that second person POV is the ideal form in which to construct a video game narrative: create an intriguing world, and then step back and allow the player to react to it as they will.

While I was having this amazing revelation, Epic Games had already figured it out and was well into the process of busting the mold wide open with Fortnite Battle Royale.

In my original post, I wrote the following: “… environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… (developers) are asking you to react to the game… with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.”

I’m pretty unfamiliar with the culture and in-depth mechanics of online gaming, but I’m fairly keyed into gaming news in general. Fortnite Battle Royale‘s presentation is something that’s new to me, though perhaps not so much to longtime online gamers. FBR is divided up into “Seasons”, which implies segments of full narrative continuity, as consumers of media have long since been trained to expect from television. I picked up Fortnite right as Season 4 was ending, so I was only sort of aware of the event that took place near the end of that season: the timed rocket launch viewable to anyone who happened to be playing the game at that moment, the one that ripped open the rifts in the world that have become such a big part of both the game’s mechanics and of its narrative.

Fortnite Battle Royale, though, is not delivering a narrative in any sort of cinematic way… except, perhaps, to the ironic nod to the sort of storytelling the game’s developers are NOT using, in the way of a short film depicting the events of Season 4 that’s playing on the drive-in movie screen of map location Risky Reels. What FBR IS doing, though, is revolutionizing the concept of storytelling in interactive online gaming.

The player avatars of FBR are purely cosmetic in nature, chock-full of personality, and complete blank slates. Everyone on the roster, from Tomato-Head to superhero to biker chick to pink furry, is equal in both ability and character. In the tradition of many of gaming’s greatest protagonists (Link from Zelda, Steve from Minecraft, Chell from Portal, and Gordon Freeman from Half-Life) the FBR avatars are silent mannequins upon which the player can project their own personalities through style of dress, back bling, and by choosing which emotive expressions to include on the in-game executable wheel o’ emotions. The developer has provided the player with sick duds, true… but it’s the PLAYER who provides the character.

What the developer HAS done, though, is create a gaming narrative that’s second-to-none in a world of characters that are beyond its control, and it has done so in Season 5 simply by inserting onto the map a giant purple cube.

As of this writing (September 1st, 2018) the Giant Purple Cube has been on the Fortnite map for nine days… or so, I’m bad at math, shut up. It appeared not long after explosive lightning blasts had begun striking the map at regular intervals. The strikes came to a head in the game’s new desert region (created in the aftermath of Season 4) as a massive bolt struck a plateau and left in its wake the now-infamous Giant Purple Cube. (The appearance of the Cube was fittingly documented on the live-stream of Ninja, the world’s most famous Fortnite streamer, in a bit of coincidence that one assumes was helped along by Epic PR suggesting to Ninja the time and place he should be hanging out if he wanted to see something cool. If they didn’t? They should have.)

Since it’s appearance, the Cube has been poked at, jumped on, and shot at by probably thousands, if not millions, of Fortnite players, many of whom quickly discovered the Cube does not LIKE to be poked at, jumped on, and shot at. Gamers have screen-capped the Cube, sent the game’s camera inside the Cube (it appears to be a four-dimensional cube, in actuality, which is messed up and also awesome), made reddit threads about the runes that are glowing on and inside the Cube, and followed the Cube across the map as it began to tumble and slide and move, leaving in some places behind it an anti-gravity energy field and more mysterious runes burnt into the ground.

In other words? Epic Games have turned Fortnite Season 5 into a LOST-level mystery event, with theories about what the Cube is, where it’s going, what the runes mean, and what’s going to happen next flooding the Internet. In fact, LOST is probably exactly the model Epic was going for. I assume nobody missed the none-too-subtle inclusion on the Season 5 map of a sealed hatch in the ground of Wailing Woods? Will the hatch ever open? Who knows? Does it have to? Not really. Epic Games was presumably just telling us in advance that Season 5 was going to be LOST-like in its level of mystery and speculation. Just look at what googling “Fortnite purple cube” brings up:

And that’s just a tiny sampling of the online ink being spilled about Fortnite Battle Royale‘s newest mystery.

Whether or not Epic Games realizes it (and I’m going to bet they realize it; they couldn’t be this good at what they’re doing without knowing what they’re doing) they are revolutionizing storytelling in gaming. There are no scripted-dialogue events in the lives of FBR‘s silent online avatars. No, all of the intrigue going on right now in Fortnite Battle Royale is derived entirely from what is going on AROUND the players, what’s going on in the world in which the game happens to be taking place. None of this would be possible, of course, if the base video game at the core of FBR wasn’t so good and if Fortnite hadn’t caught on with seemingly every gamer in the world. If you’re playing FBR, and literally millions of us are, you can completely ignore the Cube and just play Battle Royale… just as you can completely ignore the battle royale and poke and prod at the Cube. In the grand tradition of the greatest works of second person literature of all time, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Epic Games has simply built an intriguing, mysterious world. It is entirely up to each player to decide what they’re going to do in it.

So, as stated: all Epic has done here is completely revolutionize how storytelling in online games will best be presented from here on out. That old gag. No big deal.