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What Mario Learned from Mickey Mouse - Part 2: Architecture and Metrics

"What Mario Learned from Mickey Mouse" is an analysis on the world building of Super Mario Odyssey through the design of Disney theme parks. Part 2 studies how architecture can be used to ground the world in reality through its form and metrics.

This article was first published on my blog which can be found here: https://www.asuttongamedesign.com/post/what-mario-learned-from-mickey-mouse-part-2-architecture-and-metrics

The Importance of Architecture and Metrics

The architecture of an environment within a Disney park makes a setting feel real and grounded in reality to the guests. Architecture reinforces guest immersion, tying the setting together through making a space feel livable. Disney applies the standard architecture design principles of form, and space, and time, to strengthen the perception that an environment is real. In architecture, form refers to the converging lines and angles that are used to create a 3D outline of a shape in the mind of the viewer (Crissman), while space is the area that the form occupies (Crissman). Disney defines time as the amount of time that guests travel from one destination to the other. Using these principles along with consistent metrics and tricky optical illusions (Hench 5), Disney is able to twist anything from the imagination, place it in reality, and make it unquestionably authentic to a guest’s reality.

Figure 9. The picture on the left (Esham, B.) shows Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain, and the picture on the right outlines its form and illustrates the emotion that is conveyed to the guests through its form.

The form of an architectural piece is used to convey a feeling, information, and/or an idea to the guest. Sharp, jagged, and pointy edges express danger and adventure, while rounded, softer shapes are an invitation and signify shelter, safety, and fun (Hench 50). For example, the form of Space Mountain at the Disney parks was named in part due to its mountain-like appearance, looking slightly like Japan’s Mount Fuji (Hench 14). According to Imagineer John Hench, Space Mountain “evokes such ideas as the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown” (Hench 14). This is done through its conical shape, sharp protruding lines, and a form that convey a high tech setting of adventure to the guests. The form of Space Mountain draws a guest towards it, telepathically connecting with the guest and inviting them to go on an adventure.Space and time however, are intertwined a little more closely than the principle of form. Space relates to how big an environment is and the area that occupies it, while time refers to how long it takes to travel from one space to the next. Both are taken into consideration when building an environment. To support this, Imagineer John Hench states that “In order to communicate story and character to to our guests, Imagineers must always consider the elements of space and time: the spaces through which guests travel within and between attractions, and the time it takes them to do this.” (Hench 5) Space and time are important pieces in environmental storytelling as they keep the guest engaged and help in creating a strong pace that suits the mood. Imagineers need to find out if the forms that they designed are properly filled and if they strengthen the story they are trying to tell. In order to fulfil the story of an environment they must know where the environment will be, how much area a space takes up, and the experiences the guest has before and after visiting a space (Hench 5). Space is important in designing how a guest moves through a form, while time provides benchmarks for where and when to provide new information to a guest.

Figure 10. This photo (J.) hows Br’er Rabbit next to his home in the Briar Patch on Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain. The metrics of Br’er Rabbit's environment are built to his sizing, with the home reflecting how a human would interact with objects in the environment daily.

Tying together the use of form, space, and time, are the metrics of the world, meaning the size and scale of an architectural piece. Consistent metrics reflect a sense of realism, no matter how fantastical a piece may be. For example, the attraction Splash Mountain features many anthropomorphic animals such as the main characters “Br’er Rabbit”, “Br’er Fox”, and “Br’er Bear”. The characters in Splash Mountain are of all different shapes and sizes, so the world they live in must reflect this. Br’er Rabbit is roughly half the size of the average human male, so Br’er Rabbit’s home in the Briar Patch has features such as the door and windows, that fit his size and scale (displayed in figure 11). If the metrics were off, the guest may question how Br’er Rabbit opens the door to his house, why he has windows that he can’t see out of, or how he can sleep in a house that doesn’t fit him. When Imagineers define a consistent size and scale, not only does it provide a sense of realism to the guests, they are also then able to play with the guests imagination further and transport them to experiences that would be otherwise impossible. These environments must appear truly livable and 100% authentic, as though you are stepping into a place that reflects a character’s usability in the world they inhabit.

Designing New Donk City’s Acrobatic Playground

Figure 11. New Donk City on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) contrasting against Cinderella’s Castle (Stephenson, R.). The two serve as staple locations to the environments they are in.

New Donk City as a level in Super Mario Odyssey is what Cinderella’s Castle is to Disney’s theme parks. New Donk City was Super Mario Odyssey’s centrepiece and was seen in every form of advertising done for the game, just like how Cinderella’s Castle is seen everywhere from T.V ads to the Disney logo itself. Nintendo made New Donk City the focal point of their advertisement for the game as it perfectly encapsulates what 3D Mario platformers are. They’re defined by their adventurous, playground-like environments that cry out to the player to toy with Mario’s acrobatic and parkour skills. This can be seen from the beginning of Nintendo’s first entry in the 3D Mario franchise, “Super Mario 64”, as the architecture of the area that the player begins in acts as a safe zone to test out Mario’s capabilities. Its space is wide open, inviting the player to experiment with the controls until they are comfortable enough to continue. New Donk City operates similarly, using the architecture principles of form, space, and time to communicate Mario’s acrobatic prowess to the player subliminally.

Figure 12. The environment of Super Mario Odyssey reflects New York City with its bright yellow taxi cabs, building architecture, environmental assets such as street lamps, signs, trash cans, road blocks, and with its populated sidewalks. The photo on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) contrasts New Donk City with the photo of New York City on the right (Emmerling, B.).

The space of New Donk City might at first appear to be constrained and tight, which is comparable to a real city such as New York where the restrictive alleys, congested roadways, and vertically colossal buildings reflect a feeling of confinement. New Donk City uses these symbolic spaces in order to reflect that same feeling of being in a real city, while limiting the blockage that one would experience within these cities through making each space fully traversable. Take for example, the congested roadways of New Donk City. The streets are lined with yellow taxis that roam around the city, which adds to the busy feeling of congestion, but also provides the player with acrobatic opportunities to move through the city. When Mario jumps on the hood of a car, he receives an extra high jump that allows him to move through the overcrowded space with ease. This clever use of space and how the player traverses through it allows the player to feel that a.) this is a real city that is indeed populated, and that b.) the crowded nature of a city isn’t restrictive to their movement.

Figure 13. These photos (Super Mario Odyssey) represent the architectural form of the acrobatic interactions that Mario can use within the environment of New Donk City. The form and line shape of these pieces call to Mario’s acrobatic abilities, and are symbolic to the form of gymnastic and playground architectural pieces.

Although the space of the level is paramount to the feeling of New Donk City, its architectural form is crucial in communicating acrobatic opportunities to the player. A childhood-like form of play can be seen symbolically throughout the entirety of New Donk City. There are no ladders in Super Mario Odyssey, but the high-rising vertical form of the walls in the alleyways between skyscrapers reflect Mario’s ability to do a wall jump to a player almost like a rock climbing wall within a playground. This removal of ladders is important as it requires players to think of fun acrobatic ways to reach the top of buildings. In the same vein, the form of the street lights hanging overtop the roadways reflect commonplace playground equipment. The vertical line of the post mirrors a fireman’s pole for Mario to climb and slide down, and the horizontal line of the overhanging lamp echoes monkey bars for Mario to swing and jump off. Finally, the forms of the umbrellas and awnings placed throughout New Donk City symbolically communicate a trampoline, with the stretched lines of the fabric pulled over their frames reflecting the elasticity of a trampoline. Form defines information to the player, stating the rules for what is possible when interacting with an object through its converging lines and shape. When used correctly, players are taught indirectly about a space.

Figure 14. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) represents the space of the environment in New Donk City provides a steady pace for the player, with many interactions and acrobatic opportunities for the player spread throughout at a continuous pace.

Time in Super Mario Odyssey can be described as establishing a pace of movement throughout its space. Constant beats of traversal opportunities and new player interaction in New Donk City, provides the player with a sense of rhythm and flow that keeps the player invested and moving forward within the environment. The repetitive placement and abundance of these objects ensures that the player is never without something to do and maintains the player’s state of activity. Disney does this similarly, clearly defining when and where to provide guest interactions in order to meet a pacing where each object of interaction feels appropriate and convenient to the guests. In New Donk City every placed asset has a sense of purpose to the player, either providing a piece that provides an acrobatic opportunity such as the aforementioned car hoods, or providing a moment of captivation such as speaking with citizens of New Donk City or driving an R/C car. The time the player takes between moving from being engaged in one of these interactable objects to the next allows for breathing room between the constant state of action. When the architectural principle of time is used correctly, players reach a state of flow where they are not overstimulated and not bored. Time helps us find what is exactly the right amount of high peaks of entertainment, mixed with the excitement of moving to or discovering the next interaction.

The Metrics of Lived-In Spaces in Super Mario Odyssey

Figure 15. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) demonstrates the massive scale of New Donk City, resembling the high-rise buildings found in New York City.

New Donk City in Super Mario Odyssey feels like a real city that is inhabited by the New Donkers. Through using correct metrics, Super Mario Odyssey successfully made New Donk City appear as though the New Donkers actually lived there. From the apartment complexes to the trash cans, everything within New Donk City seems to have been built specifically for the New Donkers everyday life.

Figure 16. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) showcases the metrics of Mario compared to objects found in the real world. Mario is much shorter than the average human.

New Donkers appear more realistic and humanoid when compared to Mario, with their taller and slimmer physiques reflecting those of the average human. Mario is nearly half the size of a New Donker, which means that everything in the environment should appear bigger next to Mario than they would in their real world counterparts. For example, New Donk City has standard city assets in their environment such as lamp posts, trash cans, pilons, and fire hydrants. The lamp posts are nearly 2.5 times taller than a New Donker, while being nearly 5 times Mario’s height. Similarly, the trash cans, pilons, and fire hydrants are all around the same height as Mario, and are all around waist height for the New Donkers. These assets appear to reflect the real world counterparts of the New Donkers and are easily understandable and relatable to the player. New Donkers would all need these assets to be designed to fit their anatomy as they are objects that are interacted with almost daily. This same feeling is experienced at Walt Disney theme parks when visiting a character’s environment, such as Toontown. Toontown is built to reflect the Disney mascot’s homes, while making their guests feel as though they are a visitor within the Disney mascot’s town. Tuning the metrics to fit with the New Donkers helps in making the environment feel realistic, as if everything is designed for them, while making Mario and the player feel like a tourist. Although New Donk City reflects a lived-in environment, not every kingdom within Super Mario Odyssey seems to use correct metrics to the residents of the environment.

Figure 17. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) shows two good entrances and exits, the photo on the left, and the photo in the middle. These specific entrances / exits fit the metrics of the characters of the environment well, as they are completely usable. However, the entrance / exit in the photo on the right features a door that the characters of the environment would be unable to fit through, they have been built to the metrics of Mario instead. These doors are found throughout their underwater city, and do not make sense to the environment they are found in.

Lake Lamode in Super Mario Odyssey is home to the mermaid-like creatures called the Lochladies. The amphibious Lochladies need to have a world designed for them to live both in and out of water. This is reflected through an air dome surrounding their underwater city, with a land section for them to walk around in on the inside and a water section for them to swim through on the outside. The Lochladies are easily able to swim in and out of the city through entrances/exits that are designed appropriately to fit their metrics, and would be able to swim through all underwater sections surrounding their city. Unfortunately, the doors within the inside of the city do not reflect an environment that the Lochladies would live in as the Lochladies are far too large to fit through. Although this does not reflect the inhabitants of Lake Lamode, the reason for the doors not fitting the metrics of the Lochladies are because the doors are built to reflect Mario’s physique, since Mario is the only one who interacts with them in game. Yet, this issue still makes the environment feel off, and unrealistic to a player as the world doesn’t make sense. However, Nintendo manages to remedy this issue in New Donk City. All entrances to new locations in New Donk City are doors that are built for the New Donkers, but Mario does not need to open them himself as they are always unlocked and open. If Lake Lamode adopted the same rules for metrics as New Donk City it would make Lake Lamode feel more realistic.

References

1. Hench, J., & Pelt, P. V. (2009). Designing Disney: Imagineering and the art of the show. New York: Disney Editions.

2. Super Mario Odyssey Nintendo Switch (Version 1.2.0) [Digital software]. (2017, October 27). Retrieved November 2, 2018, from https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/super-mario-odyssey-switchThe video game Super Mario Odyssey was used as the base for the analysis of said game and for pictures in the Art of Color, Architecture, Weenies, Characters, and Visual Storytelling sections to illustrate the ideas of the analysis to the reader.

3. Rafferty, K., & Gordon, B. (1996). Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. Hyperion.

4. Esham, B. (2005, January 10). [Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magic_Kingdom_Space_Mountain.jpgUsed to illustrate the form of Space Mountain

5. J. (2008, December 16). Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Splash Mountain - Brer Rabbit & Mr. Bluebird [Digital image]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jared422/3307216908Shows Br’er Rabbit next to his home in the Briar Patch on Splash Mountain.

6. Stephenson, R. (2012, February 28). Disney World Trip - Magic Kingdom - Cinderella's Castle [Digital image]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/richardstep/6960497677Shows Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World, was used to contrast New Donk City hall against the famous castle.

7. Emmerling, B. (2012, March 12). [New York City street view with taxi]. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://pixabay.com/en/new-york-city-street-manhattan-224393/Used to contrast the New Donk City environments to New York City

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