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What Mario Learned from Mickey Mouse - Part 1: Introduction & Colour

"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 1 studies how Disney and Nintendo use colour to guide and contextualize an environment to guests or player

This article was written originally from my blog found here: https://www.asuttongamedesign.com/post/what-mario-learned-from-mickey-mouse

Abstract

Disney has changed the way that designers look at the world. Through their world design principles of color, architecture, decision making guidance, characters, and visual storytelling, Disney’s Imagineers have managed to craft exceptional environments unlike any other. Their influence has spread into many different industries, including video games, and from their influence numerous games have managed to build worlds that reflect their design principles. In this paper I study each of the Imagineer’s world design principles, and then follow up with two case study examples from Nintendo’s 2018 game, Super Mario Odyssey, analyzing how Nintendo applied Disney’s techniques to their world building and level design.

Keywords: Mario, Odyssey, Nintendo, Disney, theme park, analysis, Imagineer

Introduction

Ever since I was a child, I have had a lasting passion for both theme parks and video games. Both Nintendo and Disney have played a huge role in my life, just as I’m sure they have for many others. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Walt Disney World and Universal Studios theme parks nearly every month of May growing up. My parents were huge Disney fans often telling me random facts of trivia about the parks and about the Imagineers who made it all happen. This only helped bolster my interest and resulted in me becoming absolutely captivated with the worlds Disney had designed each and every time I would visit. As well, starting at the age of 6, I began to draw out concepts and ideas that I hoped Nintendo would use in their next entry of “The Legend of Zelda” series. My mother would respond by pretending to mail my concepts to Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan, and she would write letters back to me as Shigeru Miyamoto telling me to never give up on my dreams and to continue learning so that one day I too could become a game designer.

Not only has Nintendo and Disney had a major impact on my life, but to say that both have also had an incredible impact on the video game industry, would be an understatement.

Since their first theme park, the Walt Disney Company has been at the forefront of innovation in theme parks, visual storytelling, and most importantly, guest experience. Themed environments represent the heart of each Disney theme park, where every piece of the world is placed in order to communicate a form of visual storytelling (Hench 1). Over the years, Disney has managed to perfect its immersive world design with the skills and unequaled creativity of their first-rate Imagineers. When building an environment within a park, Imagineers use architecture, the art of colour, and characters in order to support the overall goal of communicating the story of an environment visually to the guest. Each element within the park must work together to spark the imagination, engross, fascinate, and uphold a believable setting that feels natural to the guests (Hench 69). Through the development of these rules and practises, Disney has created some of the most useful and helpful guides in world building. Their influence has spread into industries such as other theme parks, movies, technology, and the video game industry.

Nearly every year, with their new game and/or console releases, Nintendo seems to prompt the game industry to move in new directions with interesting takes on new innovations in tech, design practices, or a combination of the two. Even with many failed projects under their belt, Nintendo as a gaming company is built upon attempting, and often succeeding in changing the way we look at games. Through attempting to perfect implemented changes in their products when compared to their competitors, they have managed to stick out from the rest. Beginning with altering our perception on video games in the home with the NES, to changing the way we interact with 3D games with the analog stick on the N64, to today with the Nintendo Switch’s success as a home-console handheld hybrid. Even with their innovations, Nintendo wasn’t the first company to attempt each of these examples. For example, Atari released the home console the Atari 2600 before the NES, the Atari 5200 had joysticks before the Nintendo 64, and the Playstation Vita attempted to integrate handheld gaming on a console level before the Nintendo Switch. Yet, it is clear that Nintendo looks to other sources in an attempt to better their products.

I was overcome with excitement when playing Nintendo’s “Super Mario Odyssey” for the first time. No game has managed to capture the same magic and energy that is felt when walking around a Walt Disney theme park, better than Super Mario Odyssey. The ability to run, jump, and explore around vast, beautiful environments reflects the same curiosity and excitement of touring through the magical worlds Disney creates for each of their parks. The reason that Disney has been so successful in their theme parks is due in part to their excellent world building expertise, using the principles that Imagineers have established over their decades of practice in building their themed environments. Nintendo has successfully managed to adapt these lessons to Super Mario Odyssey. Each Kingdom within Super Mario Odyssey truly feels like a virtual theme park, where players are free to discover and explore a world that has been designed specifically for them. The worlds of Super Mario Odyssey apply the use of colour, architecture, decision making guidance, and characters, to make each Kingdom feel real to the player. In this paper I will be studying how Disney uses these techniques, and how Nintendo adapted them for use in Super Mario Odyssey.

Art of Colour

Figure 1. The Power Structure Diagram shows how a Visual Hierarchy is created for guests within a Disney theme park. This information holds true for players within a video game as well.

Within a Disney park, colour is tool that is used to build atmosphere, set the mood, draw attention, and hide objects that would otherwise break a guests immersion within an environment (Hench 2). Colour is an instigating piece that is used to evoke emotion and provide information. Colour acts as an invitation for guests to come take part in an environment, play with their imagination within a story (Hench 5), and creates guides for guests to follow through the communication of a visual hierarchy. A visual hierarchy is a tool that represents objects of current importance to a person. Colour and visual hierarchies are a way to communicate information to the guest, defining what is important, conveying emotion, and subconsciously establishing a mood and atmosphere to a guest. Both the colour and their importance within a visual hierarchy can be outlined using a Power Structure Diagram, as represented in figure 1.

Colour as a Communication Piece Within a Disney Park

Figure 2. Disney’s Carousel of Progress featuring it’s colorful signage and mural in the background on the left (Dempsey, M.), and the interior of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion with its dark cool colors with inviting lighting (Kiger, B.).

The use of colour to communicate emotions to a guest within an environment is expressed throughout each Disney park. As early as the Carousel of Progress, an attraction developed for the 1965 World’s Fair, Imagineer John Hench wanted the line of the ride to feel worth waiting for. In order to accomplish this, John Hench designed a colourful mural for the outside of the ride with shapes that represented movement (Hench 12). This pattern and its vibrant colours, along with rotating of the mural communicated to the guests that the attraction was both in operation and played with the guests’ imagination. A more famous example of communication through colour includes the use of colour to create a unified dark and foreboding, yet fun and inviting atmosphere within Disney’s The Haunted Mansion. The dark, cold coloured, environment appears threatening, but with the use of warm, dimly lit lights (Hench 106) Imagineers help guide guests further into the mansion and make the environment feel slightly more welcoming, almost as if someone has lit the candles specifically for them.

Figure 3. Disney’s Tibet environment outside their “Expedition Everest” attraction pictured on the left (Montgomery, A), and its Power Structure Diagram pictured on the right.

Communication through colour is often done for the purpose of creating a visual hierarchy, i.e highlighting important points of interest to the guests. Visual hierarchies are created with a mix of vibrant colours contrasting against dull, washed out, or overly prominent/abundant colours that draw the eye to specific locations, indicate pathways that guests can take, and direct guests to destinations. In the Tibet environment at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, leading up to the Expedition Everest attraction, Disney communicates pathways in a variety of ways, using a visual hierarchy is one of those ways. Everything that is of a beige dirt colour becomes a clear pathway for the guests to navigate through, and at night this is guided more clearly through the lampposts that light the dirt pathways. The lights and dirt paths serve as the main goal and pathways for the guests to follow, they are eye catching through contrasting within the environment. Anything that is made up of the vibrant greens, e.g plants, trees, foliage, becomes evident to the guest as untraversable and defines these paths even further. The guest follows the colours of clear paths until they reach a more vibrant, eye-catching colour. One such example could be the energetic blue on the walls that act as the entrance to the Expedition Everest attraction. These visual hierarchies are communicated subconsciously to the guests. The guests never have to wonder if they’re getting lost, or question if they’re following a path to somewhere or possibly reaching a dead end when visual hierarchies are communicated effectively.

Creating an Visual Hierarchy in the Luncheon Kingdom

Super Mario Odyssey has clearly defined visual hierarchies in levels such as the Lost Kingdom, the Cascade Kingdom, and the Wooded Kingdom. But no level seems to do it better than the Luncheon Kingdom. The Luncheon Kingdom is an interesting case as the visual hierarchy is constantly updating with new information that is provided to the player. Information of different colours switch from being a hazard or a blocked path, to a new route that the player can take advantage of, depending upon the context of the player.

Figure 4. The photo on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) shows the beginning of the Luncheon Kingdom’s level. The photo on the right illustrates the power structure diagram of information within the visual hierarchy that is communicated to the player through color. The moon, which is the main objective of each level in the game is not pictured on the left, although it is the highest tier of information to the player within the visual hierarchy at all times.

The Luncheon Kingdom starts off by immediately communicating a strong visual hierarchy to the player, very similarly to the Tibet environment at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. A light pastel beige defines the path which the player can take and the bubbling neon pink magma being communicated as an untraversable path/hazard. The light pastel beige colour of the traversable path holds dominance in the players visual hierarchy. It holds dominance over the neon lava and other colours due to its size in the players view, and with its heavily contrasting colours between the vibrant neon colour palette of the Luncheon Kingdom. It’s important that pathways become the most dominant object of the visual hierarchy as they are communicate direction for the player and will lead to new moons, story objectives, and destinations. This visual hierarchy remains constant until the player reaches a dead end, with the beige pathway being blocked off by a road of the neon pink magma. This is where Super Mario Odyssey twists the player’s visual hierarchy, forcing them to rethink and reorder important paths.

Figure 5. The photo on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) shows Mario as a Lava Bubble who can now traverse through lava. The photo on the right shows the power structure diagram, whose tier 2 and tier 3 places have now swapped from figure 4 to suit Mario’s new needs.

In order to get past the road of magma, players must capture enemies by the name of “Lava Bubbles” who can traverse through the bubbling magma, turning the once hazardous material into a new path. The neon pink and the pastel beige colour now switch places in the player’s visual hierarchy, as the neon pink coloured magma becomes the clear path while in this form and the beige coloured roads become hazards that revert Mario back to his traditional state. This ability to flip the player’s visual hierarchy keeps the player thinking through how they are going to use a path. Is it a hazard, or is it something that they need to traverse through? Although the information is always changing, it helps in building a player’s understanding of the world. It always remains both consistent and logical to the player, while still offering up altered ways of thinking through what the player already knows.

Figure 6. The photo on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) shows Mario’s transformation into a Hammer Bro. that can destroy cheese bricks that block the paths. The diagram on the left illustrates the cheese bricks sharing the same tier as the beige pathway as they work together to make the main pathway.

That constant change in the visual hierarchy is reiterated and reinforced once again further into the level of the Luncheon Kingdom. Eventually, bright yellow cheese bricks block another beige pathway the player is taking, but now there are no accessible Lava Bubbles to traverse through lava. At this point the player must rethink their visual hierarchy through capturing another enemy, the “Hammer Bros.” who can break through the cheese blocks to uncover and build new pathways for the player. This moves the neon yellow colour of the cheese blocks to the same level of importance of the beige pathways, and again emphasizes the player’s ability to think through how they can use their new abilities to open up new paths. Once the player has cleared most of the cheese bricks, then uncovered and hit a hidden switch, a new beige pathway opens up to the player where they can continue onward to their goal. When we communicate a strong visual hierarchy we are able to continually switch and play with our player’s understanding of the world.

Colours Reflecting Themed Environments & Emotion

Figure 7. This photo (Super Mario Odyssey) represents the environment of this case study. The abundance of dull colors provide a sense of unease, while the bright and vibrant spots provide intrigue that calls the player for adventure.

Imagineer John Hench, when talking about the use of colour to ignite an emotional response within guests at Walt Disney theme parks, states that: “People respond to colours in two broad categories: light and warm colours, and dark and cool colours. Bright, warm colours make guests think and feel, This was done for me! or, I deserve that! Overuse of monotonous or grayish colours convey no such sense of optimism; they make guests think and feel that things are not quite okay.” (Hench 106) This holds true in Super Mario Odyssey and its use of colour to make a player feel emotions that support the theme of an environment. For the most part, Super Mario games are full of vibrant, smooth, cartoony colours which is done to appeal to people of all ages. Underneath that, each level’s selected colour palettes communicates deeper emotions that the game wants a player to feel in a given level. Colour can be used to tell the story of an environment, evoking emotions within a player and providing a flavour for the surroundings. Colour is a tool that is used for much more than just identification. But, in order to be effective must fit the culture, story, and mood of the environment.

Figure 8. The picture on the left (Super Mario Odyssey) shows the abnormally coloured trees, shrubbery, and grass. The small bursts of these vibrant colours mixed with the dark undertones of the environment makes the level feel exotic to the player. The colour palette diagram on the right highlights the use of these colours throughout the environment.

For example, the Lost Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey feels abnormal, bizarre, and untouched, almost as if Mario and the player are the first ones to set foot into this kingdom. Most of this is communicated through colour, establishing the culture, story, and mood of the environment. John Hench captures this idea perfectly in his quote “When we see things depicted with their natural colours, we experience the pleasurable sensation of identifying the familiar” (Hench 108). The player has just crash landed into this kingdom after Bowser damaged the player’s ship. The Lost Kingdom flips the idea of identifying familiar on its head, replacing the colours of the recognizable shapes of trees, plants, dirt pathways, and grass with colours that feel alien yet natural to the object they’re on. The alien colours suit the story and create the culture of the environment, making the player feel like they are an explorer, a person who has discovered new uncharted territory and nature that has been untouched by anyone in the Mario series. The mood of the environment is communicated with pale undertones. The overuse of the gray and dull colours makes a player feel uneasy, like an unwelcome guest.

The colour palette in Super Mario Odyssey acts as an emotional branch to the player, reaching out to connect the player to the environment. It is used to help build the world, sparking a feeling within the player.

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-switch

The 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. Dempsey, M. (2007, October 31). Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress [Digital image]. Retrieved December 09, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/matt44053/3303298039/

Reference photo for Disney’s Carousel of Progress, shows the mural outside the ride

4. Kiger, B. (2013, June 2). Escher Staircase [Digital image]. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/brettkiger/10895854686

Reference photo for the interior of Disney’s dark ride, The Haunted Mansion

5. Montgomery, A. (2017, January 31). [Picture of Expedition Everest at Walt Disney World at night]. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2017/01/quiz-how-much-do-you-know-about-expedition-everest-at-disneys-animal-kingdom/

Used to reference Disney's Expedition Everest park and its colours.

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