Friday, October 7, 2016

Super Paper Mario Part 4: Writing

Super Paper Mario is a game with flaws. Even the most ardent fans wouldn’t call the game perfect. But when complaints about it arise, there is a common response. There is one element of the game that supposedly makes up for everything else. From the moment you start writing a critique, you can see a vision flash in your mind’s eye, a person countless miles away with fingers poised above a keyboard. If you listen to the whispers on the wind, you can hear their call: writing!

When people complain about Super Paper Mario’s transformation into a platformer, you hear the call: writing! When people moan about Super Paper Mario’s removal of RPG elements, you hear the call: writing! When people whine about Super Paper Mario’s complete absence of difficulty, you hear the call: writing! When people trip over a discarded Super Paper Mario disc, you hear the call: writing! When you stub your toe and Super Paper Mario happens to be in the room, you hear the call: writing! When your dog urinates on the good rug and Super Paper Mario wasn’t in the room at the time but you were kind of half thinking about it in the back of your mind a minute or two before it happened, you hear the call: writing!

An exaggeration, but not as much as you’d think. In my experience, the common defense of the game is not to support the gameplay. The gameplay is dismissed as “good enough” and people gush about how great the writing is to make up for it. And though I can quibble on particulars, I agree. The writing is not some shining savior that absolves every other sin in the game, but it helps a lot. So it’s high time we dissected it, to see what it is that works so well for people.

Plot and Variety

I said before that variety was one of the greatest strengths of Super Paper Mario. That’s not just the case for gameplay, but writing as well. The game is constantly throwing new things at you. Beyond the first, none of the eight chapters could be considered normal. All of them feature strange diversions, unexpected plot developments and tons of quirky one-off characters. Describing all the individual twists and turns would spoil the fun, but rest assured by chapter two things get weird and stay that way.

Though that’s not to say the weirdness doesn’t kick in from the very first cutscene…

By contrast, the overarching main plot is very…standard. I’ll try to explain without spoiling anything. And a pre-emptive reminder to fans of the game: These are my opinions, backed up by arguments they may be. No one can take away your personal feelings on the story, so don’t worry if our views don’t match.

The opening states that this is a love story. So picture the most bland, archetypal star-crossed lovers’ story you can think of. Whaddaya know, like a 3D geometric shape slotted into a depression of similar proportions, it fits. Strip away all the window dressing, the awesome supporting characters (who we’ll get to), and the game around it, and this is just a bland love story. It’s not unique, it’s not well-written, and it’s not interesting. It also strikes a strange contrast to the much less serious tone of the rest of the game.

The couple it revolves around are the two least interesting main characters. Beyond their hackneyed backstory we know nothing about them. We don’t know their likes and dislikes, their life aspirations beyond each other, or much of anything at all. They don’t have much onscreen chemistry or anything to differentiate themselves from similar couples.

Long story short, this didn’t work for me. It’s average at best, and I was sorely disappointed when the plot didn’t offer some kind of twist on this central relationship. The shorter chapter stories along the way were so offbeat and interesting that the main plot surprised me with, well, it’s lack of surprises. So the core narrative is whatever, and that’s a shame. But wait! Didn’t I say the writing in this game was good? Astute observation, dear reader. Also an excellent time to bring that up! Why, it’s almost as though I wrote your response into this paragraph to begin with!

For all that it’s uninspired, the main story isn’t that important. It’s like a small rock in a patch of fertile soil. It doesn’t contribute much itself, but leaves plenty of room for a great tale to grow up around it. Apart from the wacky situations and refreshing variety, there are two things that make Super’s writing shine: Dialogue and Characters.

Building Better Banter

Super Paper Mario is funny. Super Paper Mario is clever. Super Paper Mario is interesting. Super Paper Mario is a whole mess of things that sum up to one: well-written. Part of this is from the general tomfoolery that makes up the script. That part is easy to understand. A convenience store floating in deep space or a quest to retrieve toilet paper is inherently hilarious. But there’s a second half to the humor less often discussed, and that’s dialogue.

It’s a lot harder to dissect the intricacies of well-written dialogue than simply pointing out wacky shenanigans. The secrets of making a conversation flow well or perfecting comedic timing are things people practice their whole lives. Even then, a lot of them are hard-pressed to break it down. It’s simply something you get a knack for, a natural rhythm you stumble into. After years spent doing anything, techniques just fall into place, and making people laugh or smile is no different. Basically, I’ve spent two paragraphs saying the following: Explaining good writing is hard.

And I’m under no illusions here: I’m not a master at it myself. The best I can do is browse the script and notice some positive things Super consistently nails. In no particular order, those are as follows:

Super Paper Mario is good at balancing irreverent humor without things getting irritating. There are a lot of comedic works out there, particularly in video games, that wield parody or meta-humor with all the grace and subtlety of a cast-iron hippopotamus. They’re frequently self-referential, waggling their eyebrows and shouting “Hey! Look how wacky we are!” Much of Super Paper Mario is completely ridiculous, but it has the good sense not to point it out. When the situation is crazy enough, it lets the insanity speak for itself. It does break the fourth wall or make meta jokes on occasion, but it spaces them out and keeps them restrained to areas where it doesn’t interfere with the light dusting of immersion required for situational or character-based humor.

Lines like this are great in the context of a single in-world character. They’d be far less amusing if anyone said them and they clogged up the rest of the story.

The game features many different characters with distinct voices. I’m not talking about the little “Oh” exclamations that technically count as voice acting. I’m talking about voice in writing, the way that characters express themselves differently from others. Without any name or face attached to dialogue, there are still a buttload of characters in Super that can easily be identified by the way they speak. Whether it’s a particular catch phrase, a cadence, a rhythm or a fondness for a certain style of simile, all the major characters stick in your mind with individual mannerisms and personalities.

Speaking of similes, Super Paper Mario has a real flair for them. The dialogue is more colorful than rainbow rode by rows of multicultural painters. It’s slicker than a slinky slipping on an oil spill. It’s bolder than a brass bull, punchier than a pumped-up pugilist and smoother than seas of silken sunshine. It’s good, is what I’m saying, and far better than I at integrating its witty metaphors into the flow of dialogue. People speak in a way that’s very natural and colloquial while still getting across their potent personalities and witty on-liners. I won’t say it’s some holy grail of dialogue writing. It certainly has forgettable moments. But Super Paper Mario feels consistently clever and enjoyable to read.

Ah, truly a simile like a…simile…which…is…good.

Nailed it.

And the biggest reason it’s so enjoyable? The characters behind it all. Which brings us to…

Characters: Rad Bad Dudes

Oh actually, hold on a moment. My pessi-meter is well under acceptable boundaries. I’ve still got a reserve of bile in my Complaint Bladder just ripe for the spewing. I’m sure none of you mind me being negative for the zillionith time in this series, right? Of course you don’t! I’m glad you responded so promptly and favorably without having your words twisted at all. So before we get to the final upswing, let’s dredge through the mire of grumpy criticism one more time for…

Characters: I’ve Got a Bone to Pixl

Pixls are a huge disappointment. The previous games had something called partners. Over the course of your journey you’d encounter various new party members who would fight alongside you in battle and speak with/for you elsewhere. They all had their own backstory and place in the world, usually one that tied into the player’s current goal. Partners spoke up frequently, which not only kept them involved but offered some nice replay value in having up to seven different responses every time someone spoke up. Pixls, by comparison, barely exist in this story.

I guess when it comes to writing, the Pixls really need to SHAPE UP!




They start off promising. Granted, they’re always completely vestigial to the plot. Most are just found in random treasure chests. But you meet each one with a long conversation, each a varying degree of strange. They sing songs, ask bizarre questions, and are generally entertainingly whacky. Then they never ever speak up again, even once, for the rest of the game. Wasted potential, the lot of them.

The four player characters try to pick up the slack, which mostly works. It’s a lot of fun to have these long running Paper Mario characters like their interpretations of Bowser and Peach get a spot to shine in the main story. It also offers some of those alternate lines for replay-ability. The only complaint I have with these four is that I want more of them. I felt like they didn’t speak up quite as much as partners in previous games, likely a side effect of the more action-y levels. It also doesn’t help that Mario is the fastest and only user of the oft-required flip ability. I often accidentally ran the mute into quirky conversations rather than someone more interesting, and he has no partners to speak for him this time.

It’s a shame I missed a lot of fun stuff like this due to the man with nothing to say being the most useful.

The NPCs in Super Paper Mario are pretty amusing. However, the ones outside the hub town suffer from a lack of development. Many pop up, say some quirky lines, and just as you start to warm up to them they’re left dwindling in the dust behind you. They’re fun, but don’t leave as much an impact as reoccurring faces would. Which is why a certain kind of character takes the cake in this game…

Characters: Rad Bad Dudes

Super Paper Mario has some wonderful villains.

It’s often said that heroes are the less interesting half of the equation. Whereas protagonists are almost inherently reactionary, evildoers drive the plot, steal the stage, and have all the ambition and agency. Having “good” baddies gives a story major mileage, and Super nails this. The big bad has a quirky miniboss squad that hits all the bases. You’ve got a brash bruiser, a vain villainess, a sophisticated schemer, a brusque businesswoman, and a “man of mystery”.  They fit character archetypes like bread contained within a box whose purpose is the storing of bread. But like many good characters, that’s not a downside. Instead they execute their tropes so well they remind you why they exist in the first place.

They’re not the deepest of characters. But they all have some hidden bits of backstory, either implied or found in optional dialogue. I could stand for more of it, but it’s perfectly satisfactory for the type of broad adventure tale Super shoots for. More importantly, they all have a constant presence in the narrative. Previous Paper Mario games had in-between chapter segments wherein you played as Peach to learn about the antagonists plans by proxy. Super upgraded her to the main line-up, so instead it simply lets the villains chat things out during the interludes. These segments aren’t as long and lacking in gameplay, but they do a better job of giving spotlight to the people you’re fighting against.

On top of that, all four of the combat-ready minibosses do battle with you three or more times over the course of the game. They try tricks and traps, trade barbs and banter, and throw down in, er, extremely disappointing combat. Okay, so the writing isn’t fixing the gameplay side of things. But still! I can’t stress enough how important these consistent showings are. It’s something that games often underestimate, content to shove their antagonist at the ass-end of the world like some doomsday battery charger. People get attached to characters fairly easy so long as they appear frequently and are even the slightest bit entertaining. You could have a rock with a smiley face drop from the sky once an hour and say nothing but “Hi, I’m a rock!” By the end of a decent length game people would be asking “When is the rock showing up again? Is the rock doing okay? Man I love that rock.”

To be fair, sticking googly eyes on inanimate objects was half of Rare character design in the 90s.

It helps that these antagonists show a bit more style than our aforementioned igneous friend. They have the quirkiest personalities and the most entertainingly over-the-top lines. Often times your trials revolve around them directly. They also each have their own musical theme and fight song, which I always support as a good way to make characters stick. These villains aren’t perfect, but solidly written to a degree than any dastardly doomsday drones should aspire to their high standards of low morals. In short: they’re great.


And with that, I think it’s finally time to put this series to rest. Super Paper Mario isn’t the best at being a video game, but it’s an enjoyable experience all the same. What it lacks in mechanics it makes up in music, writing, and heaping helpings of strange, energetic creativity. Today marks the release of the latest game in the series, Color Splash. Impressions thus far seem, if not glowing, at least better than Sticker Star. Maybe the series will continue to improve. Maybe it won’t. But regardless of what the future holds, the previous classics will always remain.

People often debate whether Super Paper Mario should be included in that category. The game is so drastically different from its predecessors, and equally apart from what came after. I think it shares a lot of the writing and humor of the originals, but diverges in the gameplay department. But you know what I think the real answer is? It doesn’t matter. Whether Super Paper Mario is considered part of the “original trilogy” isn’t important. It’s a unique and interesting game with strong showings in a lot of categories. If you aren’t too off-put by talk of its mechanics (which are admittedly lame), I encourage you to seek it out. I didn’t love it to death, but I definitely had a good time. Maybe you will too.

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