Video: Visual storytelling in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

After writing three in-depth posts about the visual storytelling in World 1, World 2, and World 3 of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I realized something: the blog format isn’t well suited for what I’m trying to explain. So I rectified that oversight by creating a more complete analysis, this time of the entire game, in video form!

This video was a lot of work, but I think it turned out well! Thanks to everybody who’s been following my posts thus far. I had a ton of fun making this video, so I’ve started a new YouTube channel for this blog: Dpad on YouTube. Please check out my video and let me know what you think!

I’ve been watching Let’s Play videos for several years now, and after being an admirer from afar, I decided to finally tackle this new method of analysis. In this post, I want to talk about what went into the creation of this video. I’m sure there are plenty of resources out there for Let’s Players. Here’s my perspective on what I went through in the creation of this first video.

Research

First, I needed to play the game again so that I knew what I was talking about! I’ve already played DKCTF extensively for the write-up of the previous posts, but I went through the game for the umpteenth like, making notes on each level I played. I did this without capturing any footage; the focus at this stage was just to get information, and to figure out what footage I needed to capture.

I also played bits and pieces of the previous Donkey Kong Country games, as I knew I wanted to make comparisons to Tropical Freeze.

Gathering the assets

Next, I needed the assets: that is, the audio and visuals needed to make the video happen. I captured footage with the Hauppauge HD PVR Rocket. There are probably more sophisticated game recorders out there, but this one seemed intuitive to use and was fairly inexpensive at $140. That said, before I started gathering my assets, I played around with this recorder for a couple hours, learning how it connected to the system, troubleshooting errors that came up, and experimenting with short videos to see how big the file sizes were.

Once all that was out of the way, I played through each level, starting and stopping the recorder for each level so that I could better organize the data. Some levels I played all the way through, especially those levels where I knew I would be taking about them extensively. Other levels I knew I wouldn’t devote much time to analyzing them, so I played until I died, sometimes only 30 seconds.

One great feature of many games is the ability to adjust the volume of the music and sound effects independently. In 25 years of playing video games, I’ve never found a use for these options. But for this project, they came in handy! I turned the music all the way down, recording only sound effects. I knew that when I put the video together, I would have music playing on a separate track from the gameplay footage.

Then I needed to capture music. I readjusted the settings—turning the music all the way up and the sound all the way down. Luckily, DKCTF has many unlockables in the game, like soundtracks. I recorded 2-3 soundtracks from each world, usually for 3-4 minutes so that I had plenty of music to work with. The game doesn’t let you unlock all the soundtracks, so in a few cases I went to specific levels to record the music I needed.

Finally, I gathered some footage from the previous games in the series: DKC, DKC2, DKC3, and DKC Returns. I had the SNES games on the Virtual console, so I played them right from my Wii U. I also had DKC Returns on disc. No emulators were used in the creation of this video!

Recording the scripts

With all assets gathered, next it was time to write the scripts. This was a challenge for me: any follower of my blog knows that I write lengthy posts! The difference between reading and speaking, though, is that somebody can read something much faster than speaking the same words out loud.

The final script was over 6,000 words long! I tried to limit my discussion of each world to around 600-700 words, plus there was a little extra to introduce and conclude the video.

The scripts written, the next step was to record the voiceover. I purchased the Snowball iCE USB microphone by Blue from Best Buy. The mic is pretty good quality for $50. I figured, before I buy a ton of expensive equipment that I might not even use, it’s best to start with fairly inexpensive equipment and improve it over time should I really get into making this videos.

I recorded the scripts in chunks, only 2-3 sentences at a time. If I tried speaking longer than that, I usually stumbled over my words! I recorded the audio in Audacity, a free, open-source audio editor. After recording each segment, I combined the segments into one track, spacing my sentences apart as naturally as I could.

I’m not entirely satisfied with the voice-over work in this video. If I made the video again, I would spend more time editing my scripts for word choices (I tend to repeat certain words and phrases a few times, which makes the voice-over sound redundant in parts) and I would’ve rerecorded some of the sections so that the cadence was more natural.

Preparing the video

With all this prep work complete, it was time to put the video together! I edited the video with Adobe Premiere. I don’t own the program myself, but I’m a professor in a Mass Communication department, so I have access to this program on the school’s computers. I’ve used video editing software before, mostly Sony Vegas, but Adobe Premiere was considerably more sophisticated than Vegas. Fortunately, Google is a good friend! Typing in “How do I do XXX in Adobe Premiere” taught me a lot!

With the project open, I started by laying down my voice-over tracks. Then, I created text overlays for all the level names in the game. I relistened to my voice-overs, had whenever I started discussing a new level or world, I dropped a text overlay at the appropriate place.

Then I laid down the music. Each song would play long enough to cover the analysis of 4-5 levels of a given world. I think there are 15 tracks total in this video. I couldn’t have the music competing with my voice-overs, so I adjusted the audio so that the voice-overs were the loudest, and the music was quieter.

Finally, I was ready to sequence the game footage. I started at the beginning of the video and worked through to the end. I imported the videos, adjusted the volume so that the sound effects were quieter than the music, then cut the video into pieces, depending on what I discussed in the voice-overs.

I didn’t use all the footage from each level, so if I had unused footage, I put it toward the back of the timeline, as I knew I would need some general filler footage for the intro and conclusion to the video. By the time I got to editing the conclusion, I had a couple dozen clips to choose from. Almost no video repeats itself on this project!

Of course, there were several snafus I had to overcome in the creation of this project. Sometimes I forgot to record a tiny section of gameplay, or my voice-over just wasn’t good enough so I rerecorded it. Sometimes the video wasn’t displaying properly in the editor, so I had to fix it. And exporting the video took a few tries until I was satisfied with the final result.

Overall, I estimate that it took about 40 hours to produce this 37 minute video! Hopefully in the future, now that I’ve been through the process once, I can produce videos faster!

Since I am so pleased with how this first video turned out, for my next project I’m going to analyze the visual storytelling in the first Donkey Kong Country game: how did the inaugural entry to the series tell its story?

Stay turned for more videos, and more blog posts!

Game on,
~Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 3 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

In this post we’ll continue our examination of the visual storytelling behind Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. In previous posts we examined the storytelling in World 1 and World 2 and discovered that, if you look at each level’s backgrounds, enemy placements, and themes, you can learn much about DK’s quest to return to his frozen homeland.

Let’s get started!

An African homecoming

World 3, Bright Savannah, is a welcome addition to the Country series’ themes. While we’ve seen plenty of jungles in the DKC series, a natural habitat for gorillas and monkeys, we haven’t seen the savannah before. The first level, Grassland Groove, has such a happy vibe to it that it really contrasts with the previous worlds, especially the Lost Mangroves.

We see a few Snowmads in this level, but they are relatively peaceful. Considering the dancing trees, the chanting voices, and the frequent fireworks, Grassland Groove doesn’t seem to care about the conflict between DK and the Snowmads!

In the background we see several houses, though it’s not certain who lives in them. In the previous world, Autumn Heights, it was clearly established that the homes were the refuge of the owls.

Grassland Groove

Grassland Groove

The inhabitants of Grassland Groove, whoever they are (the flying chickens?) have a rich culture, as seen with the animal totems and fireworks.

Grassland Groove

Grassland Groove

By the last third of the level, the backgrounds open up to reveal miles and miles of unspoiled grasslands. While some culture outside of DK and the Snowmads live in the Bright Savannah, their impact on the land is minimal. As I gazed upon these soaring vistas, I felt like the Snowmads could make a life here without disrupting the current ecosystem.

Grassland Groove

The level ends with DK on top of giant totems. The sun shines, the music swells, and the chorus sings “Donnnnkeyyyy Kongggg!”

Grassland Groove

As we’ll see later in this post, the Snowmads don’t have such a respectful approach to the Savannah as this level might suggest. In fact, this level might have worked better as World 1-1. This optimistic level, the best one in the game with a complete through line, would’ve been the perfect way to begin the game.

A harsh landscape

In level 3-2, Baobab Bonanza, we learn firsthand what a difficult terrain the Bright Savannah is. The baobabs are trees that release giant, crushing seeds. Not only do DK and the Snowmads have to contend with the plant life, but also the high rocks, waterfalls, and charging water buffalo. It’s survival of the fittest in the Savannah!

Baobab Bonanza

Baobab Bonanza

There’s little evidence that any particular culture lives here—monkey, Snowmad, or otherwise. The threat of three-story tall seeds probably has something to do with that.

Baobab Bonanza

In 3-3, Frantic Fields, we see that the Snowmads have indeed established a firm presence on the Savannah. Grassscapes extend from horizon to horizon. While both the Snowmads and DK caused me a bit of consternation in World 2 for their mutual destruction of the owl’s culture, I’m fine with the Snowmads taking up residence here.

However, they learn right away that this land isn’t for the feint of heart and weak of will. A mighty windstorm rises up, threatening to undo their progress.

Frantic Fields

Frantic FieldsThe numerous Snowmad flags show that they’ve been here for a while, and they intend to keep this land as their own, like imperial conquerors.

Frantic Fields

Their ambitions, though, are checked when pieces of their bridges and structures are torn away by tornadoes.

Frantic Fields

The native fauna don’t seem to be putting up too much of a fight against the Snowmads. Additionally, they aren’t rushing to join their cause either, like the owls did in Autumn Heights. The animals have enough problems of their own. Just look at this water buffalo tumbling end over end through the windstorm!

Frantic Fields

That scene just cracks me up. 🙂

The environmental challenges increase in 3-4, Scorch ‘n’ Torch. As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence of any cultures that live in this level. We don’t see homes like in Grassland Groove, and we don’t seen wooden forts like in Frantic Fields. It appears that in the burning land, anybody who can survive can claim it as home.

Scorch 'n' Torch

The Snowmad penguins seem oddly complacent in the land of fire. Considering fire isn’t the natural habitat of the penguin, I’m not sure if these penguins are resigned to their fate on the Savannah or if they are that confident they can survive in the face of overwhelming odds against them.

Scorch 'n' Torch

Jackpot! The Snowmads find fish

In level 3-5, Twilight Terror, the visual storytelling gets a lot more interesting. This is a pseudo-water level. Given that the Snowmads are a seafaring nation, and comprised primarily of water-loving animals, Twilight Terror showcases the first part of the Bright Savannah that’s actually suited to their needs and desires. In fact, of all the levels so far, the shores of Twilight Terror are the most fitting home for the Snowmads.

And boy have they settled in. A series of dams, cranes, and structures cover the landscape. The Snowmads have set up shop in a big way.

Twilight Terror

These waters prove bountiful. The Snowmads lift net after net of beautiful, glistening fish from the sea.

Twilight Terror

The Snowmads have even set up some sort of processing (or canning?) operation, perhaps to send much needed supplies to places like the Lost Mangroves.

Twilight Terror

In 3-6, Cannon Canyons, we find the largest Snowmad base yet. This sprawling city, extending high into the air and through every canyon, shows that the Snowmads mean business. This city is a large contrast to the more modest camps seen in previous levels. Perhaps with the huge supply of fish close by, the Snowmads figure they can make a life here on the Savannah.

Cannon Canyons

While the Snowmads had trouble settling the land in earlier Savannah levels, by 3-6, they’ve proven that they have the engineering expertise needed to survive.

DK, though, does everything in his power to blast through their walls and towers, doing some damage to their city.

Cannon Canyons

Cannon Canyons

Cannon Canyons

Maybe if the Snowmads didn’t construct their DK traps out of dynamite, they could’ve avoided some of this damage. 🙂

Despite the threat posed by DK, and the numerous anti-DK signs everywhere (the red ties on shields with a line through them), some Snowmads apparently find time to rest. Inside the building to the right of DK in the following screencap, a penguin sleeps peacefully. It’s hard to tell in the screencap, but in motion, you can see the penguin’s chest rise and fall as his head rests on his plump belly.

Cannon Canyons

In 3A, Rickety Rafters, the Snowmads continue to build their civilization. They create numerous mechanical contraptions and homes on stilts, and at first, it’s not clear what they are trying to accomplish.

Rickety Rafters

Rickety Rafters

In the middle of the level, we get a glimpse at what these machines might be for. Three Snowmadic ships are hanging suspended in the air. This, however, is only a partial explanation. Why hoist the ships so high? While it’s a neat visual, I’m not sure how it fits with the wider storytelling on display in this world. If you look at the Level Select map before entering the level, there isn’t even any water nearby.

Rickety Rafters

The Snowmads can’t survive everywhere

Level 3-B, Bramble Scramble, shows that the Snowmads are still having some trouble on the Bright Savannah. Thorns cover the level from top to bottom: almost nobody lives here, though a few penguins are seen wandering around. This level, much like Baobab Bonanza, shows that the Snowmads can’t adapt to every environment.

Bramble Scramble

Bramble Scramble

Just like the other worlds, a secret monkey temple was constructed on the Bright Savannah long ago. In 3-K, Precarious Pendulums, we find that the Snowmads have raided another temple.

This temple features many movable contraptions, though I don’t think the Snowmads made them, despite their engineering prowess. Considering the deep scratch marks in the stone walls, these devices have been here for some time.

Precarious Pendulums

What’s interesting about these temples is that, while Snowmad imagery like flags drape the interior, they seem like they were hastily hung up. Given the emptiness of these temples, it’s probable that the Snowmads already raided these temples of their treasures long before DK arrived.

Precarious Pendulums

Precarious Pendulums

Silly monkeys with their bananas

DK and crew arrive at the final boss to find their bananas stolen again. While previous boss battles have featuredcrowds of Snowmads eagerly watching the conflict, the this arena is relatively sparse. Only a few penguins sit in the stands.

Triple Trouble

Do they not see DK as a threat? Are they bored with these staged fights? Or do they have more important things to do? Considering how industrious they’ve been in building cities, cranes, and fish nets, the Snowmads might be too tired on the Bright Savannah to give entertainment much thought.

The enemies this time are three apes, decked out with Snowmad helmets.

Triple Trouble

Given that monkeys aren’t seen elsewhere in the game as enemies, it seems to me that these monkeys are screwing around, having some fun with DK, rather than siding with the Snowmads the way the owls did in Autumn Heights. Monkeys naturally compete over food in the wild, and given the taunting attitude of these monkeys, I’m guessing they put the Snowmad helmets on as a way of taunting the penguins.

Maybe that’s why nobody’s in the stands.

Overall, the Bright Savannah has some interesting contradictions as far as storytelling goes. On the one hand, I think this world’s bright opening would’ve made it much better suited as World 1 than World 3, especially since the theme in World 1 isn’t that memorable. The first few levels show a surprising balance between the Snowmad civilization and the native animals.

As the world progresses, though, the Snowmad civilization really gets established in a much more effective and permanent way than in the previous two worlds, justifying the Bright Savannah’s placement as World 3. The Snowmads cut their teeth in World 1, and ultimately realized, as did past civilizations, that the Mangroves are uninhabitable. In World 2 they recruited the owls, in part because of DK’s violence against the owl culture.

Now in World 3, the Snowmads have established a firm presence. Will the Bright Savannah serve as a launching point for the conquest of more islands? We’ll see next time as we explore the storytelling of World 4: Sea Breeze Cove!

Game on,
~Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 2 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

In a previous post, we examined how World 1 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze has a deep, rich, and layered story, accomplished largely through gameplay and not cutscenes. This game is a platformer, and platformers often don’t have much story going on during the levels.

But if you pay attention to the backgrounds, the enemy placements, the puzzles, and the objects you interact with, you’ll see that DKCTF has an intricate story about the clash of cultures and people groups trying to make a living on a tiny chain of tropical islands.

In this post we’ll look at the storytelling going on in World 2, Autumn Heights. This world is quite a departure from worlds we’ve seen in DKC past, even the past of most platforming games. Most platformer worlds have standard (even clichéd) themes like Fire, Water, Jungle, Rock, Ice, etc, and DKCTF has some of that as well.

World 2, as far as I can tell, is German-themed. Monkeys and European mountain architecture aren’t common combinations, so let’s get into this and see what this world has to offer!

The owl’s land

World 1, Lost Mangroves, had evidence of three competing cultures: an ancient monkey culture, a technological advanced culture that tried to invade the island but failed, and the nomadic culture of the Snowmads. From the opening in 2-1, Windmill Hills, we see that the culture of Autumn Heights is very different.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rat chops wood

We see rats chopping wood, living in harmony with the birds. This island has established towns and finely crafted buildings. Whoever lives here has been here for a long time, and is thriving.

It’s apparent that this land is largely the domain of the owls. While the owls are technically Snowmads, I think Autumn Heights is their ancestral home. Perhaps they aligned with the penguins and walruses at a latter date. Maybe they even tipped Lord Fredrick off that the DK Island chain would be a good place to live.

It’s clear the owls have been here for generations. In the background you can see numerous owl statues carved from rock.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl statues

The mountains in the background are more than idyllic, green hills: we even see the hints of a giant owl bust carved into the mountainside.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountain

Maybe the owls led the Snowmads here. Or maybe the Snowmads enslaved the owls, and forced themselves upon this wonderful land?

When we get to 2-2, Mountain Mania, we see more evidence that the owls live here. Many of the houses have perches right outside: these homes are meant for birds.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl homes

In this level, though, we see a new side of Donkey Kong: his antagonism for other cultures. The player rides Rambi the rhino through Mountain Mania, smashing everything that gets in his way.

Rambi destroys artwork like owl totems, probably carved decades ago, with no regard for the culture that created these works.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rambi destroys owl statue

The happy, peaceful music is such a striking contrast to Donkey Kong’s cultural violence. Is Donkey Kong partially to blame for his suffering? Sure, his homeland was violently taken away from him, and he has every right to want it back. But does he have to destroy the owls in the process of getting home? Even though the owls are technically bad guys, and hurt DK when he touches them, they are passive as far as enemies go: they don’t seek out DK. They just fly in place until he finds them.

Toward the end of the level, Rambi stomps on a golden platform, summoning a barrel. DK shoots through the air and splits an owl mountain in two, releasing flying lava balls unto the owl’s home.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountain

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Split owl mountain

Leaf us alone, DK

In 2-3, Horn Top Hop, we get a deeper appreciation for the owl’s elegant culture. This level is littered with well-crafted horns. The owls just want to blow their horns, making music, sometimes even balancing leaves on the sound of their voice.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owls blow horns

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Blowing leaves

It’s in this level that we start to get a sense that the owls don’t want the penguins and walruses in their land. The Snowmads are screwing around in their horns, as if they are toys! The owls just want to blow those penguins out of there!

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Blowing penguins in horns

As DK progresses through Autumn Heights, he gets closer and closer to the giant owl mountain we saw in 2-1. At the end of 2-3, DK falls inside the greatest owl horn, an instrument likely capable of projecting music for miles around.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Giant horn

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Inside the giant horn

Even though the Snowmads have some presence on the island, just like the Lost Mangroves, they aren’t that successful in conquering it. In 2-4, Sawmill Thrill, we visit a lake, developed with numerous log structures. Do beavers live here? If so, where are they? Perhaps they are hiding in their lodges and dams, hoping the Snowmads will leave.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rainy lake

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Giant beaver dam

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a beaver dam: we saw one back in 2-2 as well.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Beaver dam

Maybe in Autumn Heights, the owls own the air and the mountains, and the rodents own the timber and waterways.

So far, we haven’t seen effects of the Snowmads’invasion like in the Lost Mangroves. There are no Snowmad crates, no barrels of fish, like in World 1. Perhaps the Snowmad fighting force was too devastated by the harsh environment of the Lost Mangroves to mount a serious offensive on Autumn Heights.

The rodents have a home, too

While Autumn Heights is mostly populated by the owls, the mice also have a strong presence, mostly underground. After Sawmill Thrill, in 2-A, Crumble Cavern, we see where the mice live. They live in the mines, storing their hordes of cheese.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese horde

As the level progresses, the cave gets sparser and sparser. There is a lot of open room here, but perhaps the caves are too cold, too murky, for the Snowmads.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Caves

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Caves

In the next level, 2-B, Rodent Ruckus, DK stumbles upon the rodents’ cheese factory.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Swinging cheese

The rodents are a little sloppy with the transport of their cheese, but they are at least capable builders. DK’s destruction of their society is kept to a minimum. It seems as if he’s stumbled into these caves by accident (and even landed on a crazy rocket barrel!). He just wants to get out in one piece.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Though this is largely the home of the rodents, in several spots we seen owl totems and wooden carvings. Despite being such different animals (owls eat mice, after all) the two animals have learned to live in balance with one another. It’s a lesson DK could stand to learn himself.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl carvings in cave

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Climbing up the mountain

By the time we get to 2-5, Alpine Incline, we’ve made significant progress up the side of the mountain. The penguins have a greater presence here than past Autumn Heights levels, though there still isn’t much evidence of a successful Snowmad occupation: no Snowmad crates or flags here.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Penguins on balloons

The flying penguins (?) seem to enjoy the thin air; maybe at least some of the Snowmads can find a way to coexist with the owls.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Flying penguins

The carved owl mountains are getting closer, and far more numerous. DK is inching closer to their capital.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountains

In 2-6, Wing Ding, DK reaches the owl’s biggest city. The elegance of their architecture is amazing: DK even enters many of their buildings.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Inside owl building

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl houses

DK continues his campaign of cultural violence, smashing apart leaded glass windows and breaking the owl’s totems.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl glass

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl window

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl totems

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl totems

Once again, we simply see the owls flying in place; they aren’t pursuing Donkey Kong. It makes you wonder: is DK liberating the owls from the oppression of the penguins? Or maybe the owls simply tolerate the penguins because the penguins don’t break the owl’s things the way DK does. DK’s violence might, in a way, be working to unite the owls and penguins together. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Ringing the bell

As in World 1, Autumn Heights is also home to a temple of the ancient monkeys, Bopopolis. The temple is decorated in monkey statues, though the Snowmads have hung their flags wherever they can.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Bopopolis monkey statue

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Bopopolis entrance, with Snowmad flag

As in the Lost Mangroves, it’s clear that Autumn Heights is a land of competing cultures. Even before the Snowmads arrived, there was competition between the owls, the rodents, and the monkeys. However, it appears as if the monkeys have been gone from this island for sometime. Their temple, Bopopolis, has survived, but it has no floor. This level contains 37 owls. The temple is a place of the air, and it has been repurposed as a home for the owls.

Maybe DK has some right to wage a war of aggression against the owls after all.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owls in Bopopolis

The monkeys and owls face off

DK and company finally make it to the owl’s hideout. DK blasts inside an owl mountain to face the owl leader.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Entering owl mountain

Once inside, the owls smash a banana with a giant mallet, causing DK and friends to freak out. It’s clear the owls are trying to insult and intimidate Donkey Kong. Owls don’t eat bananas; and Tropical Freeze’s plot isn’t about DK retrieving his banana hoard, as in previous games. The owls are sick of DK’s destruction of their homeland, justified or not.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Getting ready to smash a banana

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Smashed banana

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Donkey Kong and Dixie freak out

The mother owl has ice powers and uses them to attack DK. Presumably she got them from the Snowmads. The owls were fed up with DK’s violence and enlisted the help of the penguins. It appears in this final battle that the owls and the penguins have come to a mutual respect for each other.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl uses ice attack!

DK defeats the owls, and prepares to leave Autumn Heights.

What does the next island, Bright Savannah, have in store for Donkey Kong?

Game on,
~Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 1 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

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.

DK and friends eating banana cake.

The party is cut short by the arrival of the Snowmads, arctic Vikings looking for new lands to conquer.

Snowmad ships arrive across the ocean.

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.

Lord Fredrik blows the ice horn.

The monkeys come outside to investigate, but are immediately blown off the island.

Donkey Kong, Dixie Kong, Cranky Kong, and Diddy Kong investigate the Snowmads.

The monkeys are blown off the island!

Lord Fredrik parks his ship on top of the volcanic island, and ice coats the land.

Donkey Kong Island is frozen.

Donkey Kong Island is frozen.

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.

DK lands in broken airplane.

The mangroves are littered with discarded wreckage of a previous era. The planes sit in the trees, on the ground, even underwater.

DK finds plane parts 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.

Sunked ship in Mangrove Cove.

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.

Snowmad ships explore 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.

Snowmad crates

At the end of Mangrove Cove, DK destroys three Snowmad ships, letting them know that they aren’t welcome here.

DK destroys Snowmad ship.

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.

Snowmad camp and fish barrel.

The Snowmads have docked a ship and are once again unloading their property.

Snowmad ship.

However, this level also features a sunken ship, so the Snowmad’s prospects for survival are in question.

Sunken ship in Shipwreck Shore.

After completing the second level, players can now visit Funky Kong, who sells extra lives, monkey barrels, and power-ups.

Funky Kong in DKC Tropical Freeze

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?

Ancient inhabitants

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.

Banana shrine.

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.

Banana shrine.

The monkeys were here first, and these temples prove it. Additionally, each level contains secret bonus rooms, all with similar architecture.

Bonus level.

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.

DK flies past Blue Hootz.

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.

Cannons in the background of Canopy Chaos.

Grinding machines in Canopy Chaos.

The Snowmads have some slight interest in these machines, as we see evidence of their cargo crates once again.

Snowmad crate in Canopy Chaos.

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.

Mine cart in Trunk Twister.

Sunken ship in Trunk Twister.

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.

Mine track in Trunk Twister.

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.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

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.

Snowmad ship in the background of Busted Bayou.

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.

Entrance of Swinger Flinger temple.

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.

Monkey statue at the end of Swinger Flinger.

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.

Battle against Pompy the Presumptuous

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.

Game on,
~Dennis

Retro Review: The Gummi Ship Levels of Kingdom Hearts II

Video game reviewers have a tough job. They usually receive the latest games a few days before they are released in stores, forcing them to binge play the game, trying to get through as much content in as short a time as possible.

Video game reviews are also written for the general video game playing audience. They have to cover all the bases: game play, story, controls, graphics, sound, etc. To use the tired expression, they give readers a view of the forest, not the trees. Or to update the metaphor: video game reviews give readers a view of the world map, not the levels.

Well, I want to focus this retro review of Kingdom Hearts II (KHII) for the PS2 (2005) on a certain type of level: the gummi ship levels. I recently played KHII for the first time, and while the game was enjoyable in many respects (and frustrating in others), I found the gummi levels to be one of the most intriguing parts of the game, given their disastrous history in Kingdom Hearts I.

Disney magic hat

My roommate basically grew up in Disney World, so he brought me his magic Mickey hat. Yes, I wore this almost the entire time I played KHII.

Poorly conceived and poorly executed

For those who are unfamiliar, here’s Kingdom Hearts in a nutshell:

The forces of evil are stealing peoples’ hearts. When enough hearts are gathered, they can open Kingdom Hearts, a sort of godlike energy source at the center of all worlds.

And what worlds are we talking about? The worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy, of course. The Kingdom Hearts series is one of the oddest universe cross-overs in any medium. You play as the stereotypical anime kid Sora, partnered with Donald Duck and Goofy, trying to save all worlds. Each game features a variety of Disney-themed levels (e.g., Little Mermaid, Lion King, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Alice in Wonderland), and Final Fantasy characters like Cloud, Yuna, and Leon stop in to help you out.

It’s a strange game, but I highly recommend it to action RPG fans.

Anyway, the first game connected the various Disney worlds with “gummi ship” levels. What’s a gummi ship? Ehh, just a blockly looking ship with a primary colors paint job. The gummi ship levels were basically a poor man’s Star Fox. You fly through space on rails, blasting away at easily destructible enemies until you get to the end of the space corridors, opening the passage to the next world. The gummi levels only take about 3 minutes to complete, and you only have to complete them once. You probably spend 30 minutes on them out of a total 25-30 hour play-through of the game.

Gummi Ship

The gummi ship levels of Kingdom Hearts I. They psychedelic colors are about the only interesting thing about these levels.

So what’s the problem? Well, first let’s amend that sentence to “What are the problems”?

  • The levels are too easy. In many of them, you literally just mash on the X button; you barely have to move the ship to avoid enemies or obstacles.
  • The gummi levels have no explanation. Why do you need this ship to travel between worlds? Who are you killing, Heartless? Innocents? Nobody knows.
  • The characters never acknowledge the gummi space, aside from the first time you get the ship. No cutscenes take place in the gummi space. Essentially, the game seems to have forgotten about this part of the world.
  • The base gummi ship can be edited and customized, but the ship editing system is extremely complicated and lacks enjoyment. Throughout your adventures, you’ll collect hundreds of gummi parts to create your own ships (think of combining Lego bricks). Considering how easy the levels are to complete with the base ship, customizing the gummi ship is not needed. The game offers, then, a potentially deep ship creation system that has no purpose: hence, there’s no reason to use it.
Gummi ship construction

Construction of gummi ships is just as complicated in KHII.

Doubling down on a losing formula: Kingdom Hearts II makes significant improvements

When I learned that the gummi levels made a return in KHII, I was shocked. After their painful rollout in the first game, I felt sure that Square Enix would trim the fat of their KH game design and eliminate these mini-games.

I was wrong. And I’m glad I was wrong because the gummi levels were significantly improved in KHII.

Gummi Ship battle

It’s hard to really understand why these levels are so much better because nobody has really tackled this subject before. Like I said in the opening, video game reviews give you a gloss of the game, and then reviewers move on to the next game. Rarely do game journalists look back and really analyze what worked and what didn’t in a video game. I oftentimes wish that reviewers would write a “post game” review, something to be read after the game is completed. Then the review could include spoilers and everything.

But alas, these retrospectives rarely exist, so I write my own.

I checked out old KHII reviews, just out of curiosity to see what they said about the gummi levels in particular. Not surprisingly, not much.

Most of them devoted only a paragraph to the subject, and two-thirds of that paragraph is spent explaining how the levels work. Then a verdict is rendered. Here’s a sampling:

  • There’s something distinctly unimpressive about the gummi ship levels, and it’s likely that after you play through each level once, thereby unlocking it, you won’t find reason to go through again. GameSpot
  • Remember that pathetic attempt at a shoot ’em up … that was the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts? It’s back, and it’s back with a vengeance. This time around, it passes as a decent Shmup, rivaling the latest titles from the genre’s hottest Japanese developer Cave. Okay, maybe not rivaling, but the point is that this is a really fun mini-game. RPGFan
  • The gummi ship sequences are satisfying, can be enjoyed for dozens of hours, and are just more fully realized than they were in the original game. GameSpy
  • This is the way the original title’s Gummi section should’ve been. IGN
  • The Gummi Ship sections in the original game were most definitely broken, and they have been comprehensively fixed – gold stars all round. Eurogamer

Gummi Ship battle

In general, the gummi sequences in KHII were praised. The question I want to know, though, is why? What makes the gummi levels so much better the second time around? They still don’t fit with the rest of the game. There is still no story explanation for why these levels are needed, who you are shooting, or what the stakes are.

I’ll attempt to answer this question. Full disclosure: if you want to speedrun the gummi levels, you can–you’re only required to spend about 30 minutes on them to complete the 30+ hour game. I, though, spent a good five hours replaying the levels over and over again.

Gummi level completion

Completing the gummi levels unlocks the next world.

A break in the pacing

The gummi levels are essentially a mini-game, a game within a game. What’s the purpose of mini-games? Lots of video games have them. Their ultimate purpose, I believe, is to break up the monotony of an epic length game, which, this statement in and of itself should give you pause. If your game is getting monotonous, so much so that you need to concoct new games within your game to keep people from getting bored, then perhaps the main game is unfocused, bloated, and over-thought.

KHII, though, does get monotonous. The game play is simple. Each level in very linear: there’s nothing to explore. All of the platforming elements from the first game have been removed. And combat mostly consists of mashing on that X button. The levels themselves are varied, but many of the locations are repeated from KHI, so it feels like you’re playing the same game again (only this time around, the repeated levels, like the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Nightmare Before Christmas levels, are shadows of their former selves, stripped of any charm they once held).

Most annoying, though, is that you can’t progress more than 3 minutes in a level before you are greeted with a cutscene. This game is FILLED with cutscenes. ATRileyProductions of YouTube fame stripped all the cutscenes from the game and put them together in three long movie files. How many cutscenes does this game have? Approximately 11 hours. I spent 35 hours on KHII, so subtracting the 11 for cutscenes and the 5 I spent on gummi levels, that leaves 19 hours of legitimate gameplay.

Wow. I know this is a Square Enix game, but common!

In short, the game starts and stops, starts and stops. Now, I don’t mind a lot of cutscenes. Final Fantasy XIII has about 9 hours of cutscenes, but that game takes 50 hours to complete, so the gameplay to cutscene ratio is over 4:1. For KHII, that ratio is more like 2:1. If you’re going to stuff the game with cutscenes, though, you have to tell an interesting story. The story of KHII is interesting, but it’s also so convoluted that it talks itself in circles, rarely explaining anything. Plus, half the cutscenes are simply quick retellings of the Disney movies each level is based off of, stories we’ve all heard before, making the cutscenes even more of a chore to get through.

Kingdom Hearts II world map

The world map is basically laid out the same way as KHI, levels separated with gummi zones, but now your ship can fly anywhere (though there’s nowhere to go). It’s a small change that (kind of) makes you feel in control of your destiny.

The gummi levels, though, offer a reprieve from the frequent tedium of cutscenes, linear level design, and mindless combat (I’m making KH sound like a horrible series, but it’s really not! It’s the best “deeply flawed” game series I’ve ever played).

What’s great about the gummi levels this second time around is that, not only can they be replayed, but they can be replayed in different ways. Each level has three missions that involve 1) killing certain enemies to find prizes, 2) killing a certain number of enemies, or 3) attaining a certain score. Basically, they all involve blasting away mindlessly, but there’s some skill in completing the various missions.

At the end of each main level, you’re given the option of going wherever you want. You can go onto the next level or replay past levels. There’s no reason to replay past levels, for the most part. The gummi levels, likewise, can be replayed. When I got sick of the cutscene-2-minutes-of-gameplay-cutscene-2-minutes-of gameplay routine, I frequently departed from the main quest to play and play and play the gummi levels for about an hour at a time.

There’s no cutscenes in them. Each level takes about 5 minutes to complete, but it’s solid action, and when I’m finished, I can do it again with hardly a break in between.

Exquisite graphic and sound design

The gummi music was at least catchy in the first game, but in KHII, the music is far more varied. Even better: the graphics have been significantly improved since the first game. In KHI, it really felt like you were flying through an empty vacuum. There were a few floating boulders that sometimes got in your way, but that’s about it. In KHII, each world was constructed with an incredible amount of detail. This level design approaches the complexity of Star Fox now. These screenshots don’t really do justice to the beauty of these levels.

Gummi ship battle

More than that, check out these levels in action through this short video from Cliochu:

Differential object speeds

Now, let me point out to you something interesting in these levels. Let me explain what to look for, then watch that above video again, just 30 seconds or so.

On the one hand, these levels are intense: lots of stuff flying around really fast. But not everything is flying past the screen at breakneck speed (as tends to happen in Star Fox 64, for instance). Rather, objects move at different spends, what I’m calling differential object speeds.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Your ship moves very fast, but is not necessarily the fastest moving object on the screen.
  • Lasers fly the fastest, both from you and the enemy.
  • Some enemy ships fly slower than you, but some fly faster than you.
  • In the background, objects close to you–like the ground, walls, and chunks of space rock–fly past you at a moderate rate. Slow and steady.
  • In the far background, the psychedelic background, moves by pretty fast, but again, it’s not the fastest moving object on the screen.

So what’s the point? The point is this: the gummi levels are on the one hand fast-paced and intense, but on the other hand, slow and relaxing. Some objects move fast, but your overall pace through the level is slow and leisurely.

It’s like driving a car on the highway. You might be traveling fast, but relative to other cars around you, you aren’t going that fast. Some cars move a little quicker than you, some a little slower. The dotted center line whips by quickly, but objects in the distance, like hills and trees, approach slowly. That’s why, even though you drive very fast on the interstate, the actual motion of driving can seem slow and relaxing.

I played these gummi levels, then, to calm down, something I wouldn’t have suspected of these levels at first. In five minutes, on any given level, you destroy hundreds of enemies, and likely tens of thousands of lasers fly around the screen. The game seems frantic and intimidating, something likely to raise your blood pressure.

But the levels actually have the opposite effect on me. The combination of differential object speeds, lush graphics, and calming music gave me a peace that I didn’t have playing the rest of the game. I even tested my blood pressure and pulse about 20 times when playing the gummi levels just to make sure: they did not physically stimulate or excite me. I was completely calm when I played them.

Gummi Ship battle

More than mindless entertainment

These gummi levels, as I’ve just analyzed them, might leave you thinking, “They are nothing more than mindless entertainment!” And that’s true on some level. They are relatively easy (though require some skill to fully complete the missions), calming, and are nothing more than a cheap shoot ’em up. But I wouldn’t call these levels “mindless.” In fact, because the gummi levels require so little cognition to complete, my mind is actually free to think about all manner of things that I normally can’t think about when playing the regular game.

What I was thinking about isn’t so much important. It’s only important that I was thinking: about life, about what I need to accomplish that week, about school and work, about people I know. The gummi levels provided my eyes and ears visual and auditory stimulus so that I could clear out the accumulated gunk in my mind. I was free to reflect in ways I don’t normally do (Tetris has this same effect).

When I was a younger man, I used to think that having a “mindless” job that didn’t require thinking would be great during the summer between college semesters. So I worked at a print factory. And it was a mindless job involving simple, repetitive motions. Because the job required almost no cognition on my part, my mind was free to think about tons of stuff.

By the end of the summer, I found that job to be the most taxing job I’d ever had mentally.

KHII’s gummi levels allowed me to return to that state of “mindlessness,” but in a good way. The levels offered a much needed break in the game play, they gave my mind a safe space to think and reflect, and they were even quite a bit of fun to play in and of themselves.

Game on,
~Dennis

Gummi ship mission complete