Show and Tell

My friend Laurie visited in December to bake cookies, and it became my duty to entertain her six-year-old daughter. I like children, believe they are the future, and want some of my own, but I have little recent experience interacting with them. I took the easy route. I went to my wall-of-video-games-that-looked-interesting-but-I-never-had-time-to-play, and tore the plastic off Super Paper Mario; henceforth SPM.

I believed SPM would be age-appropriate in both content and game complexity. SPM plays like a 2D Super Mario Bros. game, but allows you to switch to a 3D perspective. This is either a clever idea implemented poorly, or just a poor idea.

Despite the concept’s apparent potential, it boils down to this: Play 2D Super Mario Bros. Reach a dead end. Switch to 3D. Bypass obstacle. Return to 2D. Perhaps it gets more involved in later stages, but that was my experience. The 2D sections I played were dull and uninspired, not even surpassing the quality of early stages in the original Super Mario Bros. The 3D sections weren’t any better, suffering from awkward controls and a perspective that made it difficult to do basic things like jump on enemies.

SPM is also a Role-Playing Game. RPG is a genre I sometimes love, but they are too often allowed to be absolute junk because, regardless of quality, fans will play to see their favorite characters. I could make a game where people play leap-frog while holding a vibrating controller in their butt, and it would be successful as long as it was a Final Fantasy crossover featuring a gay love triangle between Cloud, Cecil, and Donald Duck mixed with level grinding and cross dressing. I could be rich if somebody hadn’t already made Kingdom Hearts.

The RPG elements in SPM resulted in Mario and the monsters all having hit-points which necessitated stomping on basic enemies multiple times, and you could take countless hits and still clear a stage. Instead of excitement and tension, this game is about tedium and sloppy play. Even worse was all the talking. Blah blah blah. You’d have to read six paragraphs of crap to get a door unlocked, and there were minutes of bad-guy banter before each stage.

The talking wasn’t a big deal at first. I’ve played many modern games where the developers supposedly add “depth” by having everybody talk too much. They weren’t so cruel as to deny me the courtesy of a skip button, so I might have clicked through it without complaint. Then something happened.

That six-year-old girl, remember her? She asked me to read the writing aloud. I tried to paraphrase because most of the dialogue was long-winded nothingness or sounded like innuendo. “The black void is exchanging implied potty humor with the reptilian?” Having to take it all in, the writing soon reached a level of stupidity I could not ignore.

I walked across a desert, found a temple, and went inside. Then the game narrated as I will paraphrase now: “Mario crossed the desert and went into the temple.”

Really?!? I spent fifteen minutes crossing the desert so I could reach the temple. Did they really need to tell me this?

One thing that separates video game storytelling from books is that portions, preferably all, of a video game story can be told through the gameplay. One thing every writing instructor will say is “Show, don’t tell.” Let’s put those ideas together.

When I walked across the desert and entered the temple, that became a part of this particular princess-rescuing tale. It was shown. There was no need to also tell me. Did they think, perhaps, that somebody playing this game would not be cognizant of their actions?

I later realized that SPM showing and telling the story is a lot like reality TV.

On reality TV, Sara watches a video of her boyfriend Billy screwing her sister. Sara walks up to Billy and slaps him. Sara runs away crying. The scene is shown. Then there is an aside where Sara is crying and tells the camera, “I am sad because my boyfriend Billy had sex with my sister and posted the video on YouTube! I clicked dislike! I am mad at him for cheating on me, so I slapped him!” Well, duh.

Another reality show might have people bidding on storage units so they can resell the items for profit. The entertainment lies in seeing what is inside the storage units, but half of the show is spent on asides where people say things like, “I came to this auction so I could bid on stuff and win! Yeah!” Thanks, now I know why people attend auctions.

I’m not sure if the purpose of these asides is to pad a 30 minute show into a full hour for ad revenue, to cover for the character’s inability to properly act and show emotion, to satisfy a public demand for cry porn, or because they think their viewers are dumb and need to be beat over the head with these ideas. Whichever reason is most correct, it doesn’t say much for this form of entertainment, and I was disappointed by SPM treating it’s audience the same way.

To continue the theme of restating the obvious: My first impressions of Super Paper Mario were not very positive.

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