[28 March 2014]
Generally speaking, gamers aren’t big fans of escort missions. These levels, in which the player must protect someone else, tend to evoke the ire of gaming communities, and those escorted become the subject of memes and the butt of jokes about AI incompetence. Most players are already focused on themselves as they attempt to flee a hailstorm of bullets or obstacles and worrying about someone else can quickly become tedious. Yet, Yoshi’s New Island and the rest of the Yoshi’s Island series doesn’t mind, as the entire game is an escort mission.
In Yoshi’s New Island the player controls a clan of Yoshis escorting Baby Mario to his brother Baby Luigi, who has been captured by Kamek and Baby Bowser, so that the brothers’ stork (borrowing from the myth that storks bring children to prospective parents) can take the them to their new parents. Baby Mario can sense his brother’s presence so he rides on Yoshi through the game’s Super Mario World 3-esque levels. Every time Yoshi is hit by an attack, Baby Mario is knocked off Yoshi and floats off in a bubble while crying loudly. As he cries, a timer counts down to zero, and if said timer reaches zero before Yoshi can save Baby Mario, Kamek steals him away and the player must restart the level. As a result, Yoshi’s New Island can quickly turn into a game of tears – and not just for Baby Mario. The mechanic seems a little cute at first, as most of the early levels are so easy that getting hit by an enemy is more of a novelty than a threat, but as the game progresses, the difficulty becomes incredibly spotty and Baby Mario begins to become a nuisance that the player wants to be stolen away.
Some games do escort mission extremely well. In The Last of Us, for instance, Ellie never feels like a nuisance, partially due to the fact that she is impervious to damage. Yet these games mostly do “well” because the escorted is not actually in harm’s way. Why, when actual danger is presented, does being an escort become so tedious? Part of the reason is because of the nature of those being escorted.
If a character in a video game needs to be escorted, nine times out of ten they are probably annoying in some capacity because they already lack the ability to survive in the world. Characters who lack survival instincts are disassociated from the events unfolding or why they may need to be protected. They are naïve to their situation, tend to whine constantly, and seem to always be ensnared in the most obvious of traps. In this sense, Yoshi’s New Island is a great example of escort missions. While Baby Mario will grow up to be a hero, he is completely helpless here. All babies are this way, they need to be fed, put into their cribs, and need their diapers changed. Someone needs to take care of them. Unfortunately, for the player, the player is that someone. Those escorted are the babies of the video game world, and signing on to parent them can be an unpleasant task.
In Yoshi’s New Island the annoying nature of Baby Mario’s incessant crying and the ridiculous time limits imposed on the player to save him could all be remedied by playing up the parenthood aspect of the game more. The player and the Yoshis are essentially Baby Mario’s parents, helping nurture and raise him in a dangerous world. The game’s story and aesthetic play out like reading a children’s book before bed, with cutesy music and simple level design that draw out the way that we mask the dangers of the world for small children. While this could be used to create a unique parent-child relationship between the player and Baby Mario (see: Shelter), the cut scenes and story in the game are limited solely to the game’s prologue and epilogue. In its conclusion, we see a fleeting moment of what the game could have been. As the stork carries the brothers home and simple, but emotional music swells, we feel like a parent sending their child off to preschool and having to let go. It is a legitimate moment captured beautifully by the game, but this intense feeling not many games could pull off comes far too late and only offers a glimpse of the emotional potential that Yoshi’s New Island could have contained.