Let me tell you the real story of Mario. It’s not the story of a beautiful princess captured by a scaly reptilian super villain. It’s not the story of a plucky plumber and his gangly sidekick who storm the reptilian’s castle only to discover they’ve been duped (seven times!) and confront the scaly super boss only on the eighth attempt.
No, the real story of Mario goes something like this.
When I was in Kindergarten we got the NES and the second video game we played was Super Mario Bros, right after Duck Hunt. My family gathered around our living room TV and played. My mom tried exactly once and when she died to the first Goomba never expressed an interest in video games again. My dad lost interest and to date the only game he plays (and still plays) is Tetris. My brother was older and got pretty good. I can’t remember if he beat Super Mario Bros but he got very far. I remember spending more time watching than playing. Eventually I gave up on the game as too hard.
The first video game I beat was Mickey Mousecapade, which we borrowed from our neighbors. It was incredibly easy, but because it was the first game I ever beat, it felt like a real accomplishment. When we got Mario All-Stars on Super NES I beat Mario Bros 2, also an easy game. I remember thinking how odd that game was compared to the others. Of course it was all a dream!
My fondest memories were playing A Link To The Past and Super Metroid. I played them again on emulator in college and after grad school and they still seem like masterpieces. The best stories were playing Super Mario Kart with my brother. Rainbow Road, we maintained, was a psychedelic experience. In the summer after eighth grade we borrowed someone’s Nintendo 64 for a week. I tried the Mario game on it… it was OK but also kind of weird. I couldn’t get into blocky 3D with awkward camera angles.
So that was the end of my interest in consoles. This was the era of Golden Eye and boy did I suck at that game. But I got into PC gaming and that means Brood War, which I still watch. When I play these old games today I’m impressed at how they teach you without you realizing you’re being taught.
So that’s the story of Mario, or at least, my story of Mario. I’m sure yours is different. The point is your game doesn’t need a narrative to have a story. Humans engaging with a system over time is the story. Always is. No one loses sleep over Princess Peach, but we’ll stay up all night to beat the boss.
So when composing think of the player’s emotional journey, not the character’s. Imagine the players playing the game and anticipate their feelings. The music writes itself. And while you’re at it, consider the role of session length and totals hours sunk into the game. As Mario demonstrates, your feelings towards a system change over time. Maybe the music should reflect that too?