Extra Life, the 24-hour gaming marathon for children’s hospitals, is coming up. I thought of no better way to spend 24 hours with my friend Crosstix than by making him play troll levels in Mario Maker. To provide him with the best trolling experience possible I have immersed myself within the troll level culture. The descent into darkness has given me a new perspective on the underbelly of the Mario Maker community.
Internet trolling has given trolls a bad name. There was a time when troll meant weird toy with jewels in their belly and vibrant hair. Now, after YouTube comment sections and Twitter shade battles, trolls are seen as retched leeches on society’s joy.
Friends, I have come today to advocate on behalf of troll level brethren. There is art in their tomfoolery. A troll level, properly done, can be a work of art.
The Art of the Troll
Art evokes emotional responses in its audience. A story with no feeling is quickly forgotten and dismissed. Evoke emotions and the level will be remembered and noticed. The trick is to know which emotion you want to create and why. Many levels seek out nostalgia by remaking classic Nintendo levels. Kaizo levels aim to provide a challenge so that players get a sense of accomplishment upon completion. A story level, where Mario plays out the Grinch Stole Christmas or takes on the role of a Firefighter, is about a shared experience and reenacting a known story. Story levels use the player’s experiences to evoke past emotions. Confusion and mystery are the tools of the puzzle level.
What emotion should a troll level hit? The answer here is twofold. The first is merriment, or laughter. Comedy is very difficult to pull off. It takes timing, skill, and quick wit. In a troll level, comedy comes with an unexpected end. The challenge here is that most troll levels use the same tactics. The player expects offscreen Thwomps and fish to the face. The real trick is to capture the unexpected.
In the 1997 thriller, “The Game”, director David Fincher demonstrates this principle in action. The movie toys with the expectations, perceptions, and emotions of the audience. He reuses items, such as a clown, in new and unexpected ways. Just when you think you have things figured out, reality is flipped on its head. Over twenty years later, I still remember and enjoy this movie as a result.
Fincher expertly uses the second emotion in the movie when he builds tension, anxiety, and suspense. The troll level can strive for the same suspense. Watching the sweat collect on the faces of streamers as they anxiously anticipate coming trolls is priceless. The audience knows a troll is coming, but where and how!? The tension builds. Get them with an unexpected spot with the tension high and comedy ensues. In watching CarlSagan42 play Mario Maker troll levels on youtube, you will hear him call out “I’m scared” in the troll levels. Those creators have mastered the art form.
Unfortunately, too many troll levels miss the mark and cause rage in the audience. There are several important keys to hitting the mark in the art of the troll.
No matter the genre of level, good design is crucial. Level design, even in a troll level, needs a few core elements. The most frequent omission of budding level designers is lack of direction. All levels need hints and guidance to help players finish the level. When a player becomes lost and stuck, they will likely quit the level immediately. Now the player misses hilarious planned trolls. To alleviate this, give the player some direction to eliminate their frustration. In Mario Maker, creators can give direction through coins, arrows, or even items imbedded in the walls. That built up trust is always fun to play with too!
Aesthetics matter, even in a troll level. Reality is that player’s first impressions are crucial to completion. The first five seconds in a level will often dictate if a player will attempt the level or not. Take some time to create some interesting visuals for the player as they work through the challenges. For a troll level, the background can also work as a distraction for the real trolls.
Mario Maker tutorial lays out many of the other keys for a well-designed level. One obstacle at a time works well in troll levels to maximize the comedy and anticipation. Testing the level is essential as it helps to figure out where players will stand, hesitate, or run. Using friend feedback will allow for fine-tuning and cheese prevention. Crosstix is always happy to test all your troll levels so tweet them to him here.
The most memorable and enjoyable levels hinge upon creativity. Creativity comes through mastery of the tools of the game. This takes extensive testing and tinkering. Watch streamers to discover the tricks and techniques that other creators put in their levels. Play through puzzle levels to discover new techniques and tricks to use in your own levels. They are often the best source for interesting ideas to exploit for trolling. Make sure though not to just rehash the ideas, but play with the tool and make it your own. As an example, I saw an interesting technique in a level to make a Thwomp move sideways and chase Mario. Instead of just copying the idea, I thought it would be fun to have Mario have to ride a moving Thwomp through obstacles. Same tech, different purpose and use.
Avoid the classic level design pitfalls. Thou shall not spam enemies! Creating areas with millions of enemies seems funny, but feel chaotic for players. The level will be skipped if it looks and feels as though no thought went into the design. Do not leave things up to random chance for players. Spamming enemies and creating challenges that require luck and not skill are no fun. Needing Bowser or Magic Koopas to shoot (or not) specific spots is obnoxious. Avoid tedious elements like bomb excavation, long track rides, and star spike mazes. Pick a pipe or door is never fun. It is not tricky, just infuriating. Do not do it. Finally, when making a good troll level, or any level, hidden power ups and dev exits are lazy and worst possible design. If you cannot beat a level the way you want players to, then do not upload it at all. Simple as that.
Players you are not off the hook. Experiencing art requires two parties, creator and audience. The audience, or players in this case, drastically impacts the experience of the creator’s level. Have you ever been to a comedy with a friend in a bad mood? In high school, I went to the movie Cast Away for a date. One of my best friends came along too. He was in a crazy mood and mocked every scene. I thought it was hilarious. Unfortunately, my girlfriend at the time and the rest of the theater did not share our humor. We were lucky to make it out alive! A mood at odds with the genre can ruin the whole experience, like leaving the sugar out of a birthday cake.
Accept your fate now. Troll levels are going to kill you. Once you have made peace with the trolling, then relax and enjoy the comedy. Allow yourself the freedom to laugh at the comedy and enjoy the suspense. Otherwise, you could be turning an incredible Pixar movie into homemade video of a toddler tantrum. Know your mood and play the right genre of level. It will be best for everyone.