World Building is perhaps the least important aspect of storytelling. It can be paper thin. It can be stolen from another work. It can even be nonexistent and do little to no damage to the rest of the story. Even the most detailed, lifelike, and interesting worlds will fail because of lackluster plot and characters. Bad world building can be brushed under the rug and hidden with a well-executed story. A bad story can’t be hidden by good world building. One sits in the background always, while the other is always on the main stage. I only say these things because it’s easy to get caught up in world building as a novice storyteller. We read and watch these grand tales set in beautiful worlds and can fall into the trap of thinking we can’t write a story until we have a perfect world in which to tell that story. Most of the worlds in stories you love are shallow facades and borrow heavily from other works and even the real world. They have to do that.
World building relies on the knowledge an audience already has of their own world and then builds on that. A storyteller picks what aspects of our own world are changed in their own and then leaves the rest as it is. Even the greatest world builder of all time, J. R. R. Tolkien, took his worlds from old English literature and history. And then most every fantasy author after him just built on the work Tolkien already did. The work of world building has mostly been done by the history behind us, so it’s best to just focus on the things that are most interesting. Plots and characters. Remember this bit about world building’s importance because I’m coming back to it later. Anyway, let’s move on to the main topic at hand.
Paper Mario is a game. Well, it’s multiple games spread across a few Nintendo console generations starting with the N64. The first two were these fantastic little gems of wonder and creativity. The world of Paper Mario brought the Mushroom Kingdom to life and gave character to even the smallest Goomba. Mario fans had been fighting the same enemies over and over for the last 15 years across several games. And each entry brought no more semblance of an actual living world than the last. Yea, that’s not what Mario is about. Mario is about jumping and running. It’s a game and you play it for the sake of having fun. There’s not much more to it. I don’t think anyone finished the Mario games to find out which castle the princess was in. If you did, good for you, have this definitely original and carefully crafted gold star.
Then Paper Mario came around (I’m going to ignore the Super Mario RPG. Nintendo does it so I can too) and breathed life into the characters of the game. It gave background to the enemies Mario fought. Gave them personalities and character. It gave them hats, outfits, and voices. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door takes us further by plopping Mario into an entirely new world surrounding the Town of Rogueport. In the area are distinct worlds that each have their own unique style, which is reflected by the denizens of those worlds. The characters are all still, mostly Mario characters, but altered just enough to give them a life before the player even talks to them.
Now fast forward to today where we have Paper Mario and the Origami King. If you don’t know, Nintendo has told Intelligent Systems, the developers of Paper Mario, that they can no longer alter or create new Mario Universe characters within the Paper Mario games. So, they have to make do with the same cast of characters they’ve utilized in the Mario games for the past 30 years. The world in Origami King is beautifully crafted. The paper animations flowing seamlessly with the gameplay and the origami is just top quality eye candy, it’s plain compared to the grungy world of the Thousand Year Door.
While the environments of Origami King are stunning, nothing populates the lifeless landscapes. Sure, Toads, Shy Guys, and Snifts abound, but that’s all there is. It’s just a bunch of generic Mario characters on a rotating few colors. The few unique characters are not enough to give life to the game. Which is honestly a shame, because the game is fantastic. Its puzzle battle system and over world adventures are much better than any previous Paper Mario installment. It’s satisfying to win each battle on the first turn. It makes battle quick and fun. More than most RPGs ever strive for. It cuts through the grind in favor of a bold system that rewards quick sliding and clever spinning.
Though, I’m not here to rave about gameplay. I’m here to say that Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door’s world building is leagues beyond Origami King’s. In comparison, the story and main characters of Origami King are exquisite, however it lacks a lively world to back them up. “But, Mister Dingo Sir,” you may say, “You said story and character are more important than world building, so why does it matter here so much?”
Oh good, you remembered. While other aspects of storytelling take precedence over world building, it’s still important. It just depends on the medium your story takes place. I’d argue that in video games world building is on par with both plot and character, though that also depends on the game. Also… Well no, I’m going to stop while I’m a few asterisks deep.
In a game like Paper Mario where we take an already ridiculous game—one where the premise is a plumber running through different environments jumping on turtles and mushrooms to save a princess—the world matters a lot. It’s taking something ridiculous and turning it up to 11. Now it’s a plumber running through different environments jumping on turtles and mushrooms to save a princess, but everything is made of paper. By necessity it needs to get whacky. It needs to get crazier than it already is. It’s made of paper, for goodness’ sake. And that’s just what The Thousand Year Door does. Each separate world is a unique outlier from Mario’s homeland.
While in Origami King, we spend yet another game exploring the Mushroom Kingdom. Going through forests, deserts, oceans, Peach’s Castle, Toad Town, Bowser’s Castle, and so on. These are places we’ve been to so often that I just can’t see how they’ll ever be exciting again. Doesn’t matter what color you dye it, it’s still vanilla ice cream if you don’t add any flavor. That’s exactly what we have here in Origami King, a nice big rainbow colored bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Go back to the Thousand Year Door and we have a vibrant, grim world filled with bright, dingy characters. There’s an underworld of crime, mothers addicted to gambling, child toads, kidnapped super stars, dirty sewers, and a toad with a monocle. Ten minutes in the Thousand Year Door and the world is already more alive than Origami King’s. Mario teams up with a college student female Goomba that all the guys are into as they simultaneously search for a kidnapped Princess Peach and a hidden treasure. Their search takes them all around the surrounding world. To a colorless forest, a town perpetually in Twilight, a boring Koopa village, a wrestling arena filled with rabid fans, a dangerous jungle island, an unforgiven tundra, a mysterious posh town and train, and a sleek futuristic space ship. All these environments are entirely unique, with characters built to match with names and faces unique amongst themselves. Origami King has a spa where the Toads have angel wings and white spots instead of colored spots. That’s most creative the world gets. The lack of little details that bring the world to life eats away at the care and attention I have for the beautiful game that Origami King is.
I’m not disappointed in the game, not by a long shot. Origami King is probably the best Paper Mario game. Honestly. However, there is so much wasted potential among the lack of true world building. It doesn’t need it per se. But it really could use it to give the game an edge over its competition. Many people will miss out on this game because it's not a classic Paper Mario RPG, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic game with amazing visuals and fun gameplay. It has the best new Mario character in Olivia and never fails to squeeze out a laugh or chuckle at its own expense. The game loses no charm from the lack of visual world building, but at the back of my mind I’m always missing it. I’m missing the immersion that comes from such creative worlds.
You can craft the greatest story and characters without thinking a bit about world building, but in the end the world is where your characters live. It’s where they spend their time and where your audience will spend their time. Don’t skimp on the details because it doesn’t matter. Put just as much love and care into your worlds as they deserve. They’re important because they’re a part of your story.