I almost wanted to title this article “How Better Level Design Ruined Mario”. But that sounds much too harsh (and desperate for traffic). Still, that was my initial reaction after watching the latest video from Mark Brown, about the level design philosophy of Super Mario 3D World, summarized in this Kotaku article. The idea is that the last few iterations of Super Mario games (Galaxy 1/2, 3D Land, and 3D World) were developed with an increasingly structured approach by applying kishōtenketsu, a classic 4-part Chinese narrative structure. In this structure, each level breaks down into 4 parts, an introduction, a development, a twist, and a conclusion. And while I think this is a fantastic way of developing a level, my initial reaction was that this structure was exactly why I have been enjoying Mario games less and less.
So, those two ideas seem a little incompatible. How can a design philosophy that creates such great levels hurt a game? It comes down to a change in structural scope. The kishōtenketsu structure originates in 4-line poetry, by nature small and self-contained. That makes the structure a natural fit for small pieces of a game, like a single level in a Mario game. Instead of levels being a combination of multiple themes and ideas, each one has a specific focus and a specific story to tell. This can be very rewarding to a player, because you constantly get to learn something new and demonstrate your ability.
In a positive sense each level is a mini-game in a shared world. This is great in the current gaming climate of mobile games making up a huge portion of the games industry. You can sit down and gain that feeling of achievement even if you only play through one level. It is perfectly suited to casual play, and I think Nintendo probably executes this better than anybody. You get a superbly crafted game experience in every single level. But there are drawbacks, too.
But there is also a negative sense that each new idea begins to feel like a “gimmick” rather than a game device. Because of that, parts of the recent Mario games felt more like a collection of mini-games than a cohesive whole. And while I still appreciate the craftsmanship on Mario levels, Mario games have lost a lot of their draw for me. When you need to wrap the idea up in a bow by the end of every single level, you lose a degree of continuity between them. The overall arc of the game is lost in the noise of so many little arcs.
For me, that means I’m less engaged in completing it, because I only care what I’m doing right now. In contrast, I prefer games that place more emphasis on the larger arc. Put a good story in there. Not necessarily a narrative plot, but an explanation and motivation of why I go from one level to another. “Because it’s there” isn’t good enough.
My go-to Mario games are Super Mario World and Mario 64. In Super Mario World, you levels continue to introduce new concepts as the game goes on, but the structure is more loose. Levels are assembled into worlds, on maps that give you a clear picture of how to progress in the game. They combine and recombine elements of the game into new levels over and over again. But instead of making you find a solution and then taking it away, the game builds in complexity on a larger scale. As you learn more about the game, you get better at applying the same solutions to increasingly complex problems. It offers you the chance to decide how to pass through the level. And this is much more empowering to me as a player. Mario 64 does something similar, but literally makes you return to the same starting point to find a completely different solution to almost the same set of problems.
One of my favorite video game levels ever created is in Super Mario World. In SMW, you can skip huge portions of levels by flying over them with the cape. At the start of Cheese Bridge Area, there is a platform just long enough for you to take off from, daring you to fly. But if you try this while riding Yoshi, you gradually descend, and quickly realize there isn’t anywhere for you to land. But if you keep holding right, something amazing happens.
Just when you think you’re in trouble, you bounce off of a saw, and another, and another, allowing you to make it to a platform with a checkpoint, and Yoshi’s Wings [which can give your Yoshi an upgrade and automatically completes the level]. Sure, you could play the level the way it’s intended, riding moving platforms and jumping to avoid the saws, but if you take a bold leap, you’re rewarded for trying something different.
The difference between the two styles is a quilting approach versus a weaving approach. With a quilt, each piece can be complex but self-contained, but gets sewn together with the other pieces to make a larger design. With weaving, threads can run through the entire piece, occasionally coming in and out of the background as needed to create the design, creating complexity on a larger scale.
Mario doesn’t need to be the game that does this. Metroid is a much better vehicle for that, because it does away with individual levels. Metroid is about discovering something new, then applying the new idea to everything you’ve previously encountered. Get Bombs? Try blowing up walls you saw before. X-Ray Vision? Scan everything. Zelda falls between the two, with an open world and dungeons as distinct levels. And indeed, there is a similar structure in Zelda dungeons. You receive a new item, you learn to use it, then your skills are put to the test, and finally you use it to defeat the boss and bring the dungeon to a close. I’m playing Majora’s Mask for the first time, and the game does a great job of blending both levels of narrative. Each area and dungeon has that nice focused development, but the game also makes you combine multiple tools to solve increasingly complex puzzles.
Despite the cleverness of these puzzles, recent entries in the Zelda series have been getting criticism for is how formulaic they are. Yet, the Mario games have been following the kishōtenketsu structure in a practically formulaic way, but receive a lot of praise for a great player experiences. So there is clearly a double edged sword, as there is with any design structure followed so strictly. Both routes have advantages and disadvantages, but it is always up to the designer to choose what type of experience to create. I prefer more long term structure when I design and when I play. It isn’t the right solution for every game. Mario games, however, are all about the levels. That design philosophy has helped them to produce some of the best video game levels ever, and should help them jump ahead as they enter the realm of mobile games.