Among gamers is a persistent debate about storytelling: to use cutscenes or not? For some games, cutscenes can be an effective way of telling a story. Video games, though, are an interactive medium, and some believe that storytelling is better accomplished through gameplay: as few cutscenes and lengthy text screens as possible.
Cutscenes are seen by some as a crutch, an easy way to tell a story. But they break the immersion of the game, and they force the player to sit and watch.
Telling story through gameplay, effectively, is more challenging.
A couple weeks ago I reviewed my favorite levels in Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and made a striking observation: in World 6, the game tells a very dramatic story, all without a single cutscene. It got me thinking: does the rest of the game feature the same quality of storytelling?
Let’s find out! In this 7-part series, we’ll examine all seven worlds of DKCTF to see how the story is told through gameplay. Does the game have a coherent story? Is it effective? And most importantly, is this a better way of telling stories than through cutscenes?
The game’s opening
The game begins with a cutscene, which immediately casts doubt on my theory. This principle of storytelling through gameplay doesn’t necessary mean that games can never use cutscenes, but they have to be used sparingly. Let’s see what this scene accomplishes.
It opens with DK and friends having a party.
The party is cut short by the arrival of the Snowmads, arctic Vikings looking for new lands to conquer.
The Snowmad leader, Lord Fredrik—a giant walrus—wants to turn Donkey Kong Island into a frozen paradise more suitable for his people. He blows a frost horn that freezes the island solid.
The monkeys come outside to investigate, but are immediately blown off the island.
Lord Fredrik parks his ship on top of the volcanic island, and ice coats the land.
The cutscene ends when DK is thrown into an abandoned airplane, the start of the first level. The cutscene last 2:33, fairly short. And as far as DKC games go, this story has the highest stakes compared to the previous four games. DK isn’t called into battle to save his banana horde or a handful of friends: now he’s saving his entire homeland, something he just accomplished in the previous game, Donkey Kong Country Returns.
In DKC Returns, however, the enemies were slow in conquering DK Island. They had a presence, but it wasn’t absolute. This time, the Snowmads completely subdued the island in a matter of seconds.
The game begins on a Game Over, in a sense, and now the sequel begins: how does DK take back his post-apocalyptic island from these foreign invaders?
Who inhabits the Lost Mangroves?
DK flies miles and miles through the air, roughly to the southwest of DK Island, to land in the Lost Mangroves. Each world is a separate island chain that DK must traverse to get back to his home.
When he arrives in the first level, Mangrove Cove, immediately there’s a dissonance. DK lands in a broken, metal airplane.
The mangroves are littered with discarded wreckage of a previous era. The planes sit in the trees, on the ground, even underwater.
Where did these planes come from? The game never explains, but I have a theory.
The technology behind the airplanes is clearly more advanced than the technology that the Snowmads possess. They arrived via wooden boats and ships: the littered technology of the Lost Mangroves is several generations ahead of where the Snowmads are at.
Additionally, giant metal ships can be seen from time to time. These ships are clearly more advanced than the Snowmad’s ships, yet for all their advancement, they weren’t able to survive the harsh environment of the mangroves.
Which must mean that somebody previously tried to conquer the Lost Mangroves. Who? We don’t know. Clearly there was a fierce battle, as the wreckage of this failed quest is abundant. And considering the disrepair of this machinery, the battle for the Lost Mangroves didn’t happen yesterday, but likely years and years before.
As DK travels this world, the player gets the sense that the animals are protectors of their homes. Somebody tried exploiting these lands long ago, and failed. The junkyards foreshadow the ending of the game: the animals beat back invaders before, and hopefully they can do it again.
The Snowmads have a presence in this world, but it’s minimal. In the background, their ships quietly patrol the cove.
So why are the Snowmads in the mangroves when they were able to settle DK Island so quickly? My working theory is that the Snowmads sent scouting parties to each of the six main island chains, and Lord Fredrik went to DK Island. The scouting parties are investigating these other islands to see if they are suitable homes; maybe the Lord plans on freezing these islands at a later date.
Snowmad crates dot the first level, providing evidence that the Snowmads only just arrived and are unloading their cargo.
At the end of Mangrove Cove, DK destroys three Snowmad ships, letting them know that they aren’t welcome here.
In the second level, Shipwreck Shore, we find that the Snowmads are better settled. They are setting up tents and lodging. Even their barrel of fish is starting to attract flies.
The Snowmads have docked a ship and are once again unloading their property.
However, this level also features a sunken ship, so the Snowmad’s prospects for survival are in question.
After completing the second level, players can now visit Funky Kong, who sells extra lives, monkey barrels, and power-ups.
The presence of Funky Kong—or rather, his mode of transportation—is the first stumble for the game, storytelling-wise. Funky Kong is flying one of these advanced airplanes, similar to the planes we’ve just seen strewn across two levels. Does that mean the monkeys made this technology? More likely, Funky Kong repurposed a plane left behind by the last invaders.
Funky Kong appears in every world; thus, his shop needs to be mobile so that it makes sense why he’s in each world. However, since he has such a well-maintained plane, this raises the question: why doesn’t he just fly DK back to DK Island and be done with it?
After level 2, players have the option of playing level 1A, Zip Line Shrine. This level deepens the culture of these islands.
The player begins by entering a temple guarded by three banana statues.
This temple is ancient. We don’t know who created it, but given its banana motif, it’s safe to say the monkeys had something to do with it.
The monkeys were here first, and these temples prove it. Additionally, each level contains secret bonus rooms, all with similar architecture.
In Zip Line Shrine, the Snowmads are almost nonexistent. There are a few hootz here and there; they seem more like scouts, investigating whether these temples (with their numerous traps and safeguards) are worth fighting for.
When players reach the third level, Canopy Chaos, they once again find evidence of an extinct culture. Whoever inhabited the Lost Mangroves before set up massive machines, machines so durable they are still running in some cases.
The Snowmads have some slight interest in these machines, as we see evidence of their cargo crates once again.
The new invading culture mixes with the old
In Trunk Twister, we find more evidence of a previous invasion force. Trunk Twister is the first mine cart level. Why are there mine tracks here? The previous invaders must have thought something was worth mining, and built miles of track to support their enterprise. The invaders are no longer here, but their equipment survives in disrepair.
We find more cargo crates, only this time, they aren’t tagged with the Snowmad snowflake; the Snowmads are not responsible for the advanced technology seen in this world.
In level 1B, Busted Bayou, we have perhaps the most evidence yet that the previous invaders couldn’t survive this landscape. Why did so many planes crash? Was there a storm, or some magic, that brought them down? The planes are most degraded in Busted Bayou compared to the other levels, suggesting that the previous invasion force came in waves over a span of time.
Snowmad enemies are nonexistent in this level. However, if you look closely, you can see a Snowmad ship in the background, sailing slowly through the twisted mangroves. It’s almost as if they realize that this landscape is not for them. Maybe they can make a life in the open areas near the island shore, but the interior of the Lost Mangroves is closed to them: it’s not worth the effort.
Thus, Lord Fredrik decided to keep moving his fleet forward, searching for better lands.
The first six worlds in DKCTF feature a bonus temple level that’s unlocked if players collect all the KONG letters in each level. These temple levels are challenging, and feature fewer assists than other levels.
These temples are akin to the temple we saw previously in Zip Line Shrine. Despite the peril that comes with navigating these temples, the Snowmads find them to be a suitable home.
When entering the first temple, Swinger Flinger, players see a fallen Snowmad banner, along with a “No DK” sign.
This temple, though, was built by the monkeys, and DK fights to eliminate every Snowmad from the temple. This is a sacred place, and the Snowmads have desecrated it.
The first world closes with a battle against Pompy the Presumptuous. The Snowmads have established an arena, made from the discarded technology of the previous invaders. Even if the Lost Mangroves aren’t the perfect home for them, some of them will make a life here. After all, a scouting party doesn’t make an entertainment arena unless it plans on staying put.
Hopefully you found this analysis of World 1: Lost Mangroves insightful! If you have any thoughts on the storytelling in this world, please let me know! I’m curious if others agree with me that Lost Mangroves features three different cultures; the ancient monkey culture, the technologically advanced but since-deceased invading culture, and the more primitive Viking Snowmad culture.
If you pay attention to what’s happening in a game, you might realize that the storytelling is deeper than initial appearances.