What Paper Mario Taught Me About Creativity and Why I Make the Games I Make

Last week, I mentioned that I had finished Paper Mario on the Wii and found the experience fun but frustrating. I guess the thing that frustrated me, specifically, was that I spent 25 hours of my life playing and at the end of that time, what did I have to show for it?

Was I a better person? Had I learned anything about myself, my family, my friends, my life, my work–anything? Sadly, the answer was “no.” I’d beaten every boss and solved ever puzzle exactly the way the designers intended. I’d switched in and out of a cool 3D mode, switched characters at just the right time and experienced a story of lovers reunited and a universe saved. But, mostly, I’d just sort of turned off my brain and killed some time. That’s it. End of story. And I’d never get that time back. I’d been diverted, but that was all.

Now, before anyone starts screaming, I’m not saying that everything has to be educational or personally or socially uplifting or anything like that. It’s okay just to “pass time.” I’m not even dissing Paper Mario (though I’m sure someone will take this as a rant against a pretty fun game…). What frustrates me is that Paper Mario is typical of so many platform games–nearly all games, when you get right down to it.

As developers, we almost never think about what games can do to enrich our players and, as players, we almost never encounter anything that informs us about the human condition. The audience certainly doesn’t seem to be clamoring for anything more than diversion. (I mean, the art director here at JPS has over 300 Pokemon in his Pokedex–I can’t even imagine investing that much time in something that offers so little in return!) There’s no other medium that routinely and without much self-reflection offers consumers so little.

Certainly there are books and movies and CD’s that don’t seem to offer much in the way of examination of the human condition, but even the most banal of products in those media offer insights into culture, into what we think is important and what isn’t. Games just aren’t like that. For the most part, games are all surface, no subtext. They’re about doing–they have to be about doing–but rarely about the WHY that drives the doing and even more rarely about the consequences of doing whatever it is you’re doing in the game.

So what does any of this have to do with me making games unlike a lot of the stuff I play (which was the topic last week and is still the topic I want to talk about this week)?

Well, this lack of subtext and significance is what I’m frustrated about these days–and frustration is, for me at least, the start of the creative process. (And if you think it’s easy sustaining a feeling of frustration over the three years or so it takes to get from seed idea to finished game, think again! I work hard to remain frustrated, as my friends will happily tell you.)

Playing Paper Mario started a thought process that brought me to the realization of just how frustration driven I am, professionally speaking, and that got me thinking about how different that is from what drives some other people I know.

I realized I’m a Reactive (or “editorial”) guy, creatively, not a Clean Slate guy. And I’m okay with that. Next week, I’ll talk about what I mean by reactive and clean slate, and why I’m okay with it…(Man, I did not expect this to turn into a public exercise in self-psychoanalysis… go figure.)

4 Responses to “What Paper Mario Taught Me About Creativity and Why I Make the Games I Make”

  1. crasht Says:

    Somewhat ironically you gain something from playing Paper Mario, a realisation of your personal creative motivation.

    It can be interesting to consider games from a macro level. When looking at the range of titles developed and released over a certain period you can usually pick out trends in terms of technology, design and content, that provide an insight into the zeitgeist.

    At their root, most creative endeavours seem born of some degree of frustration be it at the current state of the medium, or the state of the world in general. Punk-Rock emerged as a counter to the self-indulgence of early seventies rock bands, yet for all it’s differences it still shared a foundation of traditional rock and roll. Everything is build upon something.

  2. patrickdugan Says:

    What frustrates me (though as far as process goes I’m more of a clean slate guy) is that its really EASY to put subtext in a game, from a production perspective. I mean, the difficulty probably scopes with the scale of the project, but adding subtext is still the cheapest part of the process. Its really a matter of good writing and design, clever and/or intentive planning.

    For instance, I’m on the down slope of producing a casual game about matching projectiles to objects in a central vortex. The subtext is that the objects are candies, the projectiles Cuttlefish, and that your matching them to candies causes a population to be fed. Of course, candy makes for a nice wrapping for a casual game, but the sick truth is revealed as you go down the rabbit hole: candy just isn’t good for Cuttlefish! So what you’re actually doing as you flow with the game and get addicted to it, is actually feeding the addiction and health problems of the cuttlefish. The content progression plays off of this in some interesting ways.

    Another example is an indie game you might enjoy called Immortal Defense. Its a tower defense game that has an interesting metaphor and whose story, which is more or less text complemented by level design progression and some sprites, is quite haunting.

    I’m planning on submitting a talk for the Indie Summit at next year’s GDC called “Flow and Phantasm”, talking about how Flow, getting the player’s ego to feed into the game’s agency, is only half the power of the medium, and how you can create Phantasm, where the player’s agency feeds back to change their ego. If you’re interested Warren, we could get together with some other indie designers doing interesting things in that regard, and make a panel out of it.

  3. &nbsp Video Games as High Art » GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development Says:

    […] month, Warren Spector wrote about his frustration-driven creativity. After finishing Paper Mario for the Wii, he felt that it was fun but left him with nothing […]

  4. richardgaywood Says:

    Given that you played Paper Mario for 25 hours and it taught you nothing — and I see what you mean by that — try playing Passage for five minutes and see what that teaches you.

    I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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