This isn’t a review, exactly, so much as a story about my experience with the game. Though not my first Mario RPG, The Origami King was my first foray into the Paper Mario series. I received it as a gift, and while I was excited to play it, I had no real expectations for what it would be. I had no idea that its poignant story would become a bonding experience, but it did: it’s the first game I finished with one of my sons.
We’d played video games together before, including Mario Kart 8 and Animal Crossing, but none of them hooked him like this one. My oldest is 4, my younger son was born just a few months ago. I’d usually be the one up with my oldest when he woke up, and very often we’d end up playing Paper Mario after breakfast. We’d take turns with the controls, he’d do much of the exploring while I’d do most of the battles, whose puzzle mechanics are still a bit much for him. He still enjoyed choosing which power to use and, since it’s a Mario RPG, doing some of the button pushes to make Mario’s attacks hit harder.
If it were just a matter of mechanics, I think it would have eventually lost his interest like those other games, but the Origami King really has a wonderful story. On the one hand, it is a very simple story, easy for a young kid to grasp: there is a clear villain, the titular king, and it’s not too scary since the characters are made of paper and are just getting folded up. On the other hand, the story is deeply resonant one of friendship and loss. I want to talk about it in three moments, spoilers ahead:
The first comes midway through the game, when one of Mario’s companion characters, a Bob-Omb nicknamed “Bobby,” sacrifices himself (the way Bob-Ombs do) to save another character, Olivia. The game actually slows down here for a beat as Olivia grieves the loss of Bobby in game. She leaves the party and refuses to go forward. It takes some encouragement from Mario (potentially guided by Bobby’s lingering spirit) before she can pull herself together to continue her quest with Mario as Bobby had wanted. I’m not sure my son entirely understood what happened, and I tried to spare him some of the detail, but he went through a similar process as Olivia: first he expressed sadness that Bobby could not travel with us anymore, but then found comfort knowing that no matter what, Bobby was still our friend.
The second moment was at the end of the game, where Olivia, the origami fairy princess, in order to restore the Mushroom Kingdom, uses a wish to undo all of the origami, which includes herself. While Bobby’s sacrifice was sort of telegraphed (I mean, he was a Bob-Omb…), this last one caught me off guard, and my son too. He actually sniffled some tears as Olivia floated away. Seeing that made tears well up in me too. I tried to comfort him by making sure he knew that we could always to go back and play the game with Olivia at our side, but I also let him know that it was okay to be sad.
The last moment occurs after replaying parts of the game. Revisiting the levels where Bobby had adventured with us, there were several points at the rest locations where Olivia would reminisce about the time we’d spent with Bobby. Unfortunately, this happened when I played by myself, doing some of the backtracking to go for a 100% ending that I loved and my son found tedious, meaning he missed these dialogues by Olivia. But as we’ve continued to run around the open world following our whims, he did eventually want to go back to some of these spots, and he brought up to me his own reminiscences of our friend Bobby.
I’m sharing this story for two reasons. First, as a game designer, it reminded me how powerful the medium can be. I’ve had similar reactions from other media, but most of all from games. Games are both a larger time commitment than most other media and require more active engagement. It takes time and effort to reach the end of a game, and that alone makes the experience more emotional and bittersweet. Even though you’ve won, you’re saying goodbye to this world that you have given so much of your time to. Some other media have long time commitments, for instance long running television shows, but games’ immersive quality also adds something to the equation. Olivia and Bobby weren’t just Mario’s friends, they were our friends. And their sacrifices really punctuate the fact that, just as their time with Mario has come to an end in game, their time with us has come to an end just because the game is done. We can go back and replay levels with them, but it is still an emotional moment to reach the end our journey.
Second, as a father, it made me think about games as a bonding experience. Ever since I had kids, I’ve looked forward to trying new types of games with them as they grow simply to share my love of gaming with them. But they do more than that, because it’s not just letting them try something I like, it’s a shared experience for us. It’s a chance for me to watch how they are developing their skills, their emotions, their whole personalities, really. And it’s a chance for us to feel the same joy, the same excitement, even the same sadness in a safe environment.
I love how games can facilitate the connections between people, and I’d like to make this more intentional in my design, as well. I’ve usually thought more about what sort of story I want to tell, but it is also useful to think, what kind of stories do I want to empower the players to tell? Players will tell their own stories regardless, but I think making this a part of the design process can make the resulting game richer.
I really enjoyed the journey of playing this game with my son, of having this shared experience. That bittersweet feeling of ending the game encapsulates a lot of parenthood, of the joy of watching your children develop alongside the sadness that they are growing more and more independent of you, a theme that has been heavy on my mind as he gets ready to start preschool. Thanks to the lovingly crafted story, which hit all the right notes of humor, tension, and sadness, this is a game that is going to stick with me for a long time.
One final note: maybe because I don’t want to let go of this experience yet, I found patterns to fold some of the characters in the game (pictured in the preview). Along with a flat printed paper Mario, it means we can still tell stories about these characters together: https://drive.google.com/file/d/13ZFoJHcvRm9LPOEOHg5EYtqoofruiSq9/view And though I’m usually not so driven for 109% completion of a game, I did it this time just so my older son could see a final extra cutscene in the ending: a little origami Olivia, and a reformed King Olly, happily sitting on their paper thrones.