I’ve finished two games recently, “Super Mario 3D Land” (3DS) and “Dear Esther” (PC) and I felt it would worth indulging myself in a blog about them.
Some say that Mario World 64 is the greatest platform game ever, some say Super Mario Bros 3. I’ve played or sampled most of the “proper” games from the Mario platform/puzzler franchise. Super Mario 3D Land is an excellent implementation of this particular design pattern and possibly one of the best; it is a game, from any viewpoint, with challenge at its core and it even has an almost quantifiable end (if you ignore the extra levels that you gain after you rescue the Princess!). Mario is truly a game; a ludologist’s wet dream. Challenge is in your face from the beginning where you need to learn the core game skills and strategies in order to be successful. Well … that is apart from the patronising help shoved your way if you are a persistent failure. I resisted the power up costumes (rather strange dressing up a plumber that way!) and also the short-cuts to the end of the levels! I resisted for a while, but my time is limited and my skills slow to increase. So I did relent and frequently put on the suit of noobie shame, and once even, right at the end, I clutched the feather of “I’ve had enough of this” and thus completed the game. This made me happy because I hate having loose ends when it comes to my game playing, and I have many, many unfinished gameplay masterpieces. However, it still feels wrong. It feels like receiving a degree without having to pass all the course modules or by having a tutor sit with you during some of your exams, pushing you awkwardly over the toughest hurdles. Don’t get me wrong, the game is fun in the key ways games should be fun. There are some issues though. For example, it really just polishes and nudges forward a game that already exists, “Mario Galaxy”, and the addition of 3D does less for it than it has done for “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D”. Also, let’s face it, a fat, red, plumber is really just a design accident of history, a victim of its own success that we would put right if we could go back in a time machine. We would go back to the beginning and tell him to get a job worthy of an action/puzzler/adventurer. We would tell him that he really would need to look after his girl better, get better security, go to the gym, make him aware of the possibility that he could go to the police and report his girlfriend’s stalker. Princess Peach, well …. she would have to get a new wardrobe of clothes, go to self-defence classes, and put it on the line with Mario that he needs to pay attention to her a lot more. And, she needs to change her name, it really just invites abduction. Seriously though, game in Mario is evident but the narrative is so weary. Truth is, I like a story and I enjoy a context that is woven around a challenge oriented game. I understand that platform games are typically more challenge oriented than story led. Thus, characters are crucial and so I prefer the gameplay in the recent “Rayman Origins” and agree with Poole in his recent Edge magazine article that Crash Bandicoot games are more fun than Mario.
“Dear Esther” is a story based game. I read that it was a worthwhile experience an so I played it without reading any spoilers [spoiler alert!] before hand. I love stories, whether they be in books, movies, or games. I believe that games can tell stories effectively, even though this notion conflicts considerably with most definitions of what a game is. “Dear Esther” tested my belief, and truth be told, it undermines my arguments as someone who identifies most with the game narratology camp. I “played” the game for 2 hours, moving an unknown character around a beautiful landscape. As I traversed the island I found out more about the character that I inhabited, and a story unfolded as I chose each new path. The landscape played its part as a means of communication in this ghost story. I hurried towards the end because I could not interact with the environment; I could not jump, I had no inventory. I pushed on, enjoying the story, but thinking that at some point I would have to make a choice, a real and significant choice. Something might chase me. No. Will this box open. No. Can I read this book. No. Can I collect the books and gain achievements. No. Can I save my character. No. I rush to the end of the game, searching for the point, and find myself plunging from the island’s light house, down the cliffs and over the script filled cliffs. For a moment I feel like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” as I feel hope that I may have evolved rather than died as my bird-like shadow soars out to sea and then everything goes black. The farce that destroys the mood, my immersion is broken as I think my graphics have failed or there is a bug in the game. The black screen remains so I bring up the menu, then I start the level again, then I resort to youtube in search of an answer. I am dead, the darkness was death, and I was meant to know this? I think “Dear Esther” was an experience, a worthwhile experience, if too short. It is not a game though, it has not challenge and it has no discernible outcome (as far as success and failure is concerned). “Dear Esther” does demonstrate that narrative can be embedded effectively and uniquely within a virtual world. I have no problem with this, and it is wonderful. However, it is not a game and a want to see narrative structures of this quality embedded in gameplay.
Some believe it is impossible to marry the game design pattern of Mario styled games with the narratively rich structure of experiences like Dear Esther. However, modern games like “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” demonstrate how that by putting the player in control of whether they explore, learn, take on a challenge, or have an opportunity to be surprised, that story can be integral to an experience in a game. I play and enjoy all types of games, and I prefer games that have a meaningful and relevant story. My favourite game would be somewhere between Mario and Dear Esther where challenge and story are bed-partners in the conception of the ultimate interactive digital gameplay experience. This game does not exist yet but I think we are getting closer.