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Room to Dream

how a world that's sparingly suggested can be far more stimulating - and feel far bigger - than one that's painstakingly detailed

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  1. Reprinted here for your discussion pleasure is a post at the blog Phantom Leap entitled "Room to Dream":

    A few days back, my friend Jamie alerted me to a fantastic SMB3 retrospective by Eurogamer’s Christian Donlan. It’s funny and poignant and awesome. I loved this:

    Most crucially, however, for me at least, the truly killer thing about Mario 3 is the way it stitches its levels together into maps. These little top-down chunks of real estate gave the whole thing a rakish non-linear aspect, obviously, but they also did far more than that. They suggested a broader, more coherent imaginary world in a way that the side-scrolling roads, cliffs, and pits somehow couldn’t do by themselves.

    These really were different places Mario was travelling through, and they were filled with their own distinct landmarks, such as the head-bobbing shrubs of Grass Land, the sweet archipelagos of Water Land, and Sky Land’s spire, complete with bizarre blue pipes and destructible battlements, that corkscrews you upwards into a fresh run of levels set amongst clouds.

    The writer touched on something really meaningful here, something that’s both echoed and contrasted in the entirely unrelated Tron discussion I linked to a couple days ago, which pointed out how a world that’s sparingly suggested can be far more stimulating — and feel far bigger, I’d say — than one that’s painstakingly detailed. In the case of SMB3, however, the further fleshing-out of the world served to enhance the illusion and further transport the player, proving that detail can be a powerful tool for stimulation if handled wisely.

    The Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant, for example, wasn’t boring simply due to the fact that it was fleshed out in such elaborate detail — so was Empire’s Cloud City, and it was flat-out mesmerizing. Good design or bad, Coruscant was boring because it wasn’t presented in a way that stimulated the viewer to dream. It was just there.

    Regardless of the medium, real magic is created when what’s shown to the viewer/player serves as a launchpad for the imagination. When there’s no room to dream, the experience can never really belong to the person (or more importantly, the child) who’s taking part in it.

    A good example of this can be found in the Zelda series, with Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. The former features a world that’s incomparably smaller, cruder, and less fleshed out than the latter, but few would argue that it feels much bigger — almost limitless — and like a place that’s far more alive and brimming with possibilities. It’s a masterfully achieved illusion, and it works its magic on me to this day. TP’s technically huge world, on the other hand, feels not an inch bigger than it really is, and this actually makes it feel smaller. Which is another illusion, just not an intended or desired one. OOT got the big picture right.

    When I was a little kid, I was horrible at Super Mario Bros., but I didn’t care, because I was having fun. And though I didn’t think about it back then, I can now identify exactly what it was that made me gravitate toward the Mario games — the sense of mystery and wonder they held for me, mainly in the backgrounds. I always wanted to know what was beyond those green hills in 1-1, and I still do today.* Ditto for the blurry N64 backgrounds in Super Mario 64, and those in Ocarina of Time. Lots of other games, too — Rygar comes to mind.

    The kicker, of course, is that those places wouldn’t have been special at all if I could have reached them, let alone explore every nook and cranny and blade of grass they had to offer.

    A lot can be learned from simple, nondescript toys like building blocks.

    • Another element of SMB that fascinated me as a kid were the crude little fortresses that Mario disappeared into at the end of levels, and how everything post-flagpole was beyond my control, which kind of drove me crazy. I always wanted to know what mysteries awaited inside those dark windows. By way of contrast, the same fortresses make an updated, polished appearance in the NSMB games, but they’re only skin deep — there’s no mystery.
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  2. @Matt
    Pardon me rezzing a thread this old.
    First off, very well-written. I enjoyed reading this and agree that seeing a world that looks lived in rather than just a place-setting can really enhance the immersion of the player into the world.
    This is something I try to address in my endeavoring to become a DM with the traditional RPGs.
    I find the games that have had the most effect on me are the ones with all those little details, the individual elements that make the world and the setting look real and lived in, no matter that there is a race of myceliumoids populating it.

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    • Wed December 2, 2020
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