When I sat down to play Super Mario Galaxy, I didn’t expect to have any burning desire to write about it when I was done. After all, Mario games is Mario games is Mario games, much has been said about their mechanical effectiveness, their ability to create a childlike joy with this pure sense of play – all of which holds true in Galaxy – but somehow it still managed to surprise me, and affect me on an emotional level. That’s because Super Mario Galaxy has one of the best stories that I’ve ever seen in a video game.
On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous statement, Mario games have extremely functional stories which exist purely to provide context for the character’s goal. This gives the player a sense of narrative completion when the goal is achieved, thus making the game more satisfying to ‘finish’ than it would be were it just an arbitrary list of levels. And Galaxy’s story fits that exact mold – as always you have to collect Xs to rescue Peach, and in this case the Xs are stars! But if the defining characteristic of story within Mario games is to contextualise play in a minimalistic fashion, Galaxy runs with that to a beautiful endpoint. The story elements serve no longer simply as a motivation or justification for engaging with the game, but here contextualise the experience as a whole as a nostalgic, bittersweet tribute to childhood.
Game stories as a whole, and especially within the AAA space, are still essentially using the same model as the original Super Mario Bros, in which story is used as an incentive for the player to actually play the game. Usually the scale is smaller, acting on a level to level basis, in which the character is given a goal, and to achieve said goal the player must complete a task of some description, at which point they are rewarded with another cutscene, and the loop repeats again. It’s a satisfying loop, but it is at its core a form of extrinsic motivation in the same way achievements are. When done poorly, contextualisation can quickly turn to frustration for the player, as all they’re invested in is getting to that next story point, so really what is the point of shooting three more waves of dudes? Some would say the answer is simply to make less rote gameplay, but I think the matter is more complex than that, and has to do with the purpose of story in a game you must interact with.
And Galaxy is acutely aware of the purpose of each and every story element within the game. It certainly uses story as extrinsic motivation – the main goal to rescue Peach, the weird little story hooks in each and every level – that set up Mario’s motivation and provide the player with unique gameplay tasks to do in each galaxy. But that’s not where what’s special about the game lies, and in fact what is special about it relies on the main plot being so minimalist and weak. The ‘story’ of Mario Galaxy is really the story of Rosalina, a secondary character who you team up with to collect Power Stars, and her story is told through a completely optional fairy tale-esque children’s book that can be read between platforming levels. It may seem like a bizarre choice to put the emotional core of the game in an optional tale that has little to do with the main plot itself, but through ignoring conventional wisdom and layering in narrative in a supplemental manner, Super Mario Galaxy is actually able to achieve a far greater tonal cohesion.
Rosalina’s storybook tells the story of a young girl, who one day finds a Luma inside a crashed space-ship, and goes off in search of the Luma’s mother. The storybook starts off as a sweet bedtime story of these two friends riding through space on an adventure, but quickly turns into a sad tale of loss and nostalgia for an easier time. Both Rosalina and the Lumas never find what they are searching for – they never find the Luma’s Mama, and Rosalina accepts that her own mother is dead – but find solace in each other, Rosalina eventually becoming the leader of the Lumas, thus completing the origin story. It’s a genuinely moving fairy tale, responsible for not for setting, but transforming the tone for the entire game.
Tone is hard to define in a critical sense, as it is a nebulous combination of every decision made along the way. A game’s tone is the way the lighting model mixes with the soundtrack, the way the movement feels quick or slow, the font on the menu – everything. Mario’s 3D gameplay has always embodied a sense of discovery and wonder. Mario’s controls are kinaesthetically pleasing. the worlds he travels to are inventive and always cheerful (just look at how scary those ghosts are), the music chirps along with endless optimism: the franchise has always had a childish tone. For better and worse, narrative elements in play in Mario have reinforced this in their simplicity and traditional nature (you’re rescuing a damn princess), and the introduction of an element with a strong emotional core without changing the 3D Mario gameplay or narrative structure in any way makes Super Mario Galaxy a surprisingly impactful game with something to say: The very adventure that Rosalina is on is a form of childish escapism as an important coping mechanism for her tragedy, and Mario games are childish escapism in its purest form.
So like any good story in any good game, Super Mario Galaxy’s storybook contextualises the gameplay. But instead of merely doing so through giving the player and player character a tangible motivation, it acts as a commentary on the gameplay, and allows the player to appreciate it and enjoy it that much more. From the dreamlike constant of the night-sky, to the way the planetoids and Rosalina herself are plucked straight out of The Little Prince, Galaxy already carries a more melancholy tone than its predecessors, and the storybook puts words to those intangible feelings. It reminds us of what it was like to be a kid, and how powerful that sense of escape was, and how crucial it is to never lose it. It is heartfelt, softly sad but never hopeless, a tribute to the power and importance of play in and of itself.
Many game stories are there to give you an incentive or justification to play. Super Mario Galaxy gives you a reason.