If you clapped an eye at our previous podcast — or just enjoy mixed metaphors — you may have heard me talking a bit about Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I am oh-so slowly plodding through it and it is certainly a good game. It’s funny, mentally challenging if not obtuse, and cleverly made. It makes sly winks towards You the Gamer and my wife’s caught me giggling aloud while playing it, so that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but feel a creeping thought in my head.
Though it is a good game, I am constantly harried by the idea that it is the most aimless game I’ve ever played. Aimless in thrust, motive and direction — serving up a straw house to a wolf. A game by definition alone, ready to collapse under any real scrutiny.
As I mentioned in my preview, there is no real means of betterment in the game. You earn nearly-unlimited coins to buy stickers to use in battle for more coins. No semblance of XP or growth enters the equation. You can find hidden heart stickers out of combat to buff your health permanently and your sticker book gains more pages as you go; that’s it. It is almost identical 15 hours in as it was 15 minutes in. As a gamer I feel pitifully exploited, like Nintendo just decided, “Of course he’ll want to progress! It’s there, isn’t it?”
And to Big N’s defense, I do. Sticker Star is genuinely fun and the perfect difficulty of the puzzles make exploring come easy. However, it is the genuine emptiness to the actual gameplay that leaves me wondering what exactly I’m doing. Let’s be real here. I’m not playing it for the story and I’m not driving towards something like a level cap or new abilities. Seriously now, what exactly am I doing? There’s no reason to be playing and no reason to ever enter battles except to fulfill the fruitless cycle of coins, stickers and coins.
I can’t blame the writing; it’s exemplary. Also, I love games with zero story. It’s not a hang-up for me to slam a few tetrominoes down or score a few double-kills with no real basis for my actions. I enjoy gaming in almost any form. But when the gameplay has no direction outside of solely existing and there is no real story, what is there? It’s a frankly insulting gesture to serve up gameplay that lacks any investment and asks you to spend 20 or so hours in it.
Now, let’s peel back another layer. While Sticker Star is saved by the presentation and writing, the larger question at hand is where does a game cross the line and become a total waste of my time? When a game exists solely to exist, it loses me.
But what does that say about us as gamers or, rather, You the Gamer? I’ve always felt that games need three things to be games: Growth, Gameplay and (most modernly) Narrative Elements. One of these things is obviously missing in the Sticker Star formula while the others are very well done. Now, Growth can be a number of things: XP bars in Xenoblade, geographical expanse in Skyrim, abilities and stats in Torchlight 2. You might even argue that this falls under the Gameplay umbrella — and, if so, this bodes even worse for Sticker Star — but I’ll leave it at that.
And while I enjoy it, in the end, all I have is frustration and confusion. I earnestly want to like the game more because of its presentation and humor but cannot find a reason to pick it back up. I’d like to have more things to chuckle at and stickers to peel off, but what makes my time worth the investment? Yes, this is the curious case of Paper Mario: Sticker Star.