Currently, there’s a debate on whether or not story elements should be involved in certain gaming franchises. The question of whether or not Mario should be driven by something a bit more complex than a kidnapped princess is one that comes up often. One side argues that sticking to the same tried and true formula forever is the best way to go for these franchises, and if you want a deeper and more involving story from your videogames there’s always another series to enjoy. The other side claims that sometimes shaking up the formula for a series is the best way to move it forward or keep it fresh. Today I’m going to look at Nintendo, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and how they all relate back to that question of whether or not story-driven gaming experiences are what’s best for the player.
Mario saves Princess Peach from Bowser. This is a routine so many of us are familiar with, and something that has merged with our social consciousness so completely that it can easily be considered among other great institutions of popular culture. The Joker puts Gotham in danger and battles Batman, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, and Mario saves Peach from Bowser. Because of this, it’s no wonder that Nintendo is generally reluctant to venture into different territory. Sure, there has been slight twists along the road here and there, but the routine for main Mario games (and other major Nintendo titles for that matter) have been the same. Gameplay has always been priority one, while story, dialogue, and character have taken a back seat. While many may feel that these things are also important, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Mario and someone with a great deal of creative control over Nintendo) feels otherwise. In Miyamoto’s view, the gameplay should be the only thing that reaches the player, and through the gameplay the player is the one that feels in control of the game’s world; however, I would argue that Mr. Miyamoto is not giving the story based experience a fair chance.
Nintendo tried something akin to a game story with voice acting and cutscenes with Super Mario Sunshine, but that aspect was received poorly thanks to shoddy acting, half-hearted engagement in the actual story, and a painfully redundant twist. Ever since then, Nintendo has moved away from approaching their main games in that way and I think that’s a shame. What we get now in terms of story is a brief cutscene at the start, tiny events throughout (if we’re lucky) and one “the day is saved” cutscene at the end. In terms of characterization we get things ranging from blank slates as heroes to one note cliches as villains. For dialogue we get passionless expository text bubbles that tell us nothing about the characters and do nothing to engage us in their world. I don’t know about you, but that sort of structure does not connect me to the experience at all. If I can get behind the character I am playing as and the world they live in, it only enhances the connection I feel towards the game. Also, a legitimately funny script can go a long way in enhancing my enjoyment. Nintendo games are highly polished (Super Mario Galaxy was one of the greatest games of the last generation), their approach of ‘no effort stories’ is definitely preferable to a ‘bad story’, but I don’t think they’re fully taking advantage of these iconic characters. Unfortunately, another major roadblock to that next step being taken has emerged in the form of Sonic Boom.
Sonic Boom is a Sonic title developed by a third party American team of designers known as Big Red Button Entertainment. Recently released, the game is notable for being riddled with bugs, terrible graphics, and yes, hoakie cutscenes and dialogue. So much so that SEGA refuses to even send out review copies, a sure sign of non-confidence. The critical focus has been mostly on the glitches, and the cheesy dialogue and characters in the game that aren’t remotely reminiscent of any of the past Sonic games. Yes, past games in the franchise weren’t exactly Shakespearean pieces, and yes there has been a greater emphasis on story and character in Sonic games than any Mario games; but there was this sense that the designers understood their limitations when crafting a story, a silent understanding between the players and developers that it would be mediocre and that they would not spend much time or effort trying to sell you on it. Sonic Boom on the other hand tries very, very hard to turn Sonic and its characters into the modern irreverent, self-aware, quipping machines that populate the most popular animated TV shows these days and they fail miserably. The delivery is clunky, the horrid visuals are distracting (this Knuckles looks like an abomination), and the characterization is off. Yes, they managed to royally screw up the characterization of some of the most two-dimensional characters in the history of gaming, or at least they intentionally made them something terribly different; fixing what wasn’t broken in the first place. I mean, I never imagined I’d be correcting the characterization of Knuckles, but I at least know he is more of tight wad than your generic “lovable brute” that loves hitting things. Seeing him as this absent minded oaf rather than the nag who is always fretting about his emeralds bothers me more than I’d like to admit. So Sonic Boom blundered when it came to creating engaging characters, a good narrative, and funny dialogue, and as a result it became an internet laughing stock; yet I find myself admiring it to a certain degree.
No one ever accused the Sonic universe of being ripe with narrative potential, but there was never a real effort made to make the story engaging. It was always the bare minimum (which to be fair, is more than the big heaping wad of nothing we mostly get from SEGA’s former rival Nintendo), with humour and heart only being given a superficial brush. While this can be a good thing at times, I would argue that it is also just giving up on providing experiences akin to what Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank series or Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter series are known for. It is no coincidence that prominent developers of Sonic Boom are also former employees of both those studios. You can definitely see their influence shine through in the cutscenes of this game, but its buried beneath glitchy gameplay, some seriously bad presentation, and the “uncanny valley” of jokes where something is just almost funny, but somehow ends up worse off than a joke that wasn’t even close to making you laugh. There was an effort though, and that can’t be forgotten. What if they did succeed in scripting a legitimately funny and exciting romp with these characters? Hell lets stretch that out to include Nintendo staple series as well. If a developer were to come along and provide something that was written well, would people honestly complain? The Intelligence Systems developed Paper Mario and its sequels are prime examples of legitimately fun story-driven games, would adding better presentation, good voicing, and deeper characterization on some of the main characters really be the end of the world? I’m not asking for a tragic backstory for someone like Bowser, but maybe a detailed explanation on why he’s always kidnapping the same princess would be nice. And no, “he likes her” isn’t good enough if it’s going to be the impetus for nearly ever adventure in that franchise.
It’s definitely something to think about, because successfully implementing a decent narrative in the worlds of these iconic characters could really take them to the next level. The Joker and Batman are deeply engaging and iconic characters, and Darth Vader and Luke are cinema legends that people have written essays about; so why can’t Mario’s characterization go beyond “save the princess”?
Quote of the Day:
“Obama chuckled. ‘You mean the Chaos Emeralds?’ “
-A famously bad Sonic fanfiction