Summer with Shigeru, Part 3: A New Kind of Storyteller

Welcome to our last analysis on Shigeru Miyamoto’s work! For this last post, I wanted to talk about how Miyamoto pioneered a new way people could both tell and experience a story. He certainly wasn’t the first one or the only one to do this, but his early work is certainly a strong contribution to the development of video games as a narrative medium.

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I’m sure you’re all familiar with the first screen of Donkey Kong. You start at the bottom and have to make your way up to the top. But I want you to look at this screen again, this time from a narrative perspective. By just looking at it, do you know who the main characters are? Do you know what the central conflict is? How do you know this?

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Miyamoto’s careful placement of Donkey Kong, Pauline, and Jumpman clearly convey clarity all the basic narrative components you need. By playing, you the player fulfill the natural story progression of rising conflict, climax, and resolution. And even though it’s such a bare-bones story using worn-out tropes, Donkey Kong shows us that player input into a story is still one of the most compelling parts of a video game. Sometimes it takes stripping the story and gameplay down to basics in order to find that original appeal.

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Miyamoto takes it a step further in Super Mario Bros. on the NES. I know that World 1-1 has been analyzed to the moon and back, but the next time you play it, think about 1-1 as a story instead of a level. From that initial screen, Miyamoto establishes character, setting, and a gentle nudge towards the conflict. Even without reading the manual, the player understands the basics of what the game is about. After that, Mario’s movement plays like a literal graph of rising and falling tension as he overcomes obstacles and defeats enemies.

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And then have you noticed that almost every level ends with this large pyramid structure before the flag pole? Mechanically, its placement makes sense for helping Mario reach the flagpole, but it also serves as a narrative bookend — a symbol for the level’s climax and denouement.

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Super Mario Bros. 3 makes an even stronger connection between between level design, visuals, and story. From the title screen it’s apparent that the game is a stage play (which was actually recently confirmed by Miyamoto), and with that in mind, consider how a level mechanic follows the way a characters changes during a story. With every mechanic, it is introduced, then expanded, and then put in an unexpected twist. Sounds like a character arc to me. And then every level finishes as if Mario is exiting stage right.

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In all of these early games, Miyamoto was devoted to the idea that player action is narrative. It’s not a means to a cutscene, or busywork to keep the player occupied until the next story beat. Stories are actions. Actions are stories. It’s as if Miyamoto is speaking in the active voice (aka “Mario jumped on Bowser”); whereas a different game developer would’ve used cutscenes or overbearing dialogue to inadvertently use a passive voice: (aka, “Bower was jumped on by Mario”). Level design is the language of Miyamoto’s stories.

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That’s not all, though. Not only did he create this new language, he then invented a new method of using this language, and made a whole new narrative structure altogether. Most stories in books and movies follow a linear path, as we discussed earlier. But when Miyamoto worked on The Legend of Zelda, he developed a new trend that wouldn’t be truly popularized until this console generation: nonlinear, open-world stories.

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Again, level design is the language for the story: on the first screen, there are three paths and a cave. The player starts with four options, and each player’s actions are going to be slightly different from that initial point onwards. There will be choke points that every player will eventually meet (i.e., everyone will get the sword, every player will go through the first dungeon), but how they get there and the order they do it will all be different.

In fact, you could argue that advancing technology proved to be a double-edged sword for video games – sure they could become more cinematic and complex, but it also lead to an over-reliance on dialogue, text, and cutscenes to tell a story. Those are all good companions for the gameplay, but player action and level design is the real language of video games.

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Star Fox 64 is a great example of voice acting enhancing the game’s story. In the original SNES game, your companions chime in to talk to you, but I almost never read what they said because I was too busy dodging and shooting to bother. In Star Fox 64, however, the player can experience the characters and their interactions on the fly (pun intended) without it getting in the way of gameplay. Pikmin is another good example, only this time it’s Olimar’s journals and his reactions to finding each part of the Dolphin. Each flavor-text pieces together a narrative of who Olimar is, and what exactly is at stake for him to survive on the pikmin’s planet.

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The only thing is, Miyamoto is so focused on using level design to tell a story that he often neglects other story elements, to the point that it hurts his games.

Miyamoto is on record for frequently clashing with Yoshiaki Koizumi — Koizumi always tries to add in characters, themes, and dialogue into Nintendo games, while Miyamoto sees all of that as unnecessary. When they work together, like in Super Mario Galaxy, they strike a beautiful balance. But imagine that game without Rosalina or her backstory. Or imagine Ocarina of Time without Shiek or the episodes with the Sages. Wouldn’t these games be worse off? There’s a time to have limited characters and story, and there’s a time to expand it.

Personally, this is my biggest criticism for Miyamoto. I love his work and polish on avatar controls and the way they interact in the game world. I love his experiments, even if not every one is a home run. Miyamoto has made some fantastical playground to run around in; however, these playgrounds can sometimes feel lonely. If there is a story, it’s the same one from the series’ inception. I don’t mind it so much with Mario, but Link saving Zelda / Hyrule can feel quite repetitive. My favorite Zelda stories are the ones that leave Hyrule behind, like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask. People crave for dynamic characters, emotional themes, and well-written dialogue. And as long as it doesn’t hinder the gameplay or hold your hand too much, it wouldn’t hurt Miyamoto’s games one bit. Sadly, it feels like Miyamoto only had a brief period of using more complex stories (i.e., Ocarina of Time and Pikmin) and has left that part behind for most of his recent efforts.

All the same, I gotta give credit to Miyamoto for designing games where the player writes most of the story. He gives you the pen and the paper and you do the rest. This point more than any other validates video games as its own unique artistic medium.

And that wraps up our month-long discussion of Shigeru Miyamoto! There’s so much more we can talk about, so many little small things that we couldn’t go over, but hopefully these analyses can help you get your thoughts rolling on his games as well. Next year I’m definitely going to do another developer and we’ll keep this going!

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