For The Goomba, What's Their Motivation, Again?

Boss battles are critically important to most video game genres, providing climactic story points as well as the kind of challenge for which the game was bought in the first place. But what about the minor foes of a game?

The personal blog 2-Bit Wasteland takes a sometimes irreverent, sometimes idealised look at the grunts of gaming's enemy forces. They're different that a boss and his motivation exists in a game either "to build sympathy for the protagonist and encourage the player to rally behind him", or "to flesh out the enemy and make him a more three dimensional character, often furthering the player's understanding of the hero's ordeal."

Waves of grunts? A different story. Or non-story. 2-Bit Wasteland seems to indicate they represent an opportunity - more characters through which a game may extend the narrative. In many games, I could see how integrating everyone into the story would make it prohibitively dense. But if only for the humour, let us consider what might motivate anonymous, ubiquitous cannon fodder like the goomba.

The Life of a Goomba: A Grunt's Motivation? [2-Bit Wasteland, Dec. 18] This raises a lot of questions, for example why are Goombas working for Bowser? Do they simply obey out of fear? Does Bowser have some kind of mind control? Or does he offer a great BUPA health insurance plan with benefits? Here lies the major flaw with games today: bog standard enemies have no motivation for their actions, and players disregard this flaw as if it's ok. Perhaps it seems trivial to consider this when talking about Super Mario Bros but the fact is very few games have evolved from this extremely basic premise. If you stop to actually think about it does anyone else consider that Mario might be the bad guy? Almost every single creature in several different worlds seems to pit themselves against Mario and put their lives on the line. Nobody stops to deliberate that he might be the evil one. Just because Bowser looks a bit nasty everyone thinks he's a baddie. Maybe he was just trying to overthrow the monarchy, Perhaps Peach raised the taxes too far. Perhaps she sent all the Koopa peasants to live in the lava world whilst she got the nice castle off their hard working backs. Doesn't seem so unreasonable now does it? Perhaps Bowser was a freedom fighter and maybe Mario was a puppet knight of the monarchy who mercilessly went world to world slaughtering all who passed him. Maybe not, the point is we don't know.

Some people just never admit when they're in the wrong

There are games that do this right, Gears of War pits you against the fearsome Locust race who rise from beneath the earth to lay waste to humanity. The genius of this race is that whilst you don't agree with their motivation you can understand it. Humanity landed and ravaged the surface of their planet and then destroyed a large portion of their species when they emerged from beneath. Furthermore the race design paints them as some giant mutated insects - they all obey a "Queen" and think as a single mind. In a twist the bosses in Gears tend to have less motivation and are more often larger creatures often who The Locust cant control themselves e.g. The Berserker, a blind charging beast, who thinks of nothing else other than tearing you limb from limb. The genius of this and Gear's story is that it gives you just enough information leaving the player to speculate. This becomes particularly effective in the 'Sires' section of the second game. So why don't other games do it? Laziness? Probably not, it's more likely the design and time constraints of game creation naturally result in shortcomings such as these.

Worth note is Shadow of the Colossus which pits the player against large roaming beasts that traverse the land. The brilliance of these creatures is that they pose no direct threat to you and are simply there for you to kill for your own selfish deeds. Its a unique dynamic where the player's motivation takes a back seat as Wanderer destroys these creatures to restore life to his love. The complete lack of 'grunt' enemies gives the game a sparse feel which results in a lonely journey that is accompanied with a constant feeling of dread. A brilliance not paralleled in any game since. Anyway back to the task in hand.

Evolution is required. No longer can we face off against meaningless enemies without reason. And I know games are fundamentally about the gameplay and that is the most important factor but I feel insulted by constantly being fed character development that is surpassed in every conceivable way by The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Imagine a game where every enemy had an agenda, a back story, where no two were the same, perhaps they have a family. What if you came across a Goomba with a wife and kids? Would that make you think twice before so carelessly jumping on their head and crushing their skull into the pavement?

- 2-Bit Wasteland

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears on Saturdays.. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


    well they are definitely bowsers minions, its not like they are territorial animals or anything. so they either follow bowser because of stuff in said article or are just hired goons. in newer games when you talk to goombas they seem to have some sort of intelligence so they may not be simply dumb goons but paid minions or strong followers to whatever bowsers cause is, which is;.......

    1. steal peach
    2. ....
    3. profit?

    It's like in Austin Powers, whenever he killed a henchman it cuts to a scene of the henchman's family. Brilliant stuff.

    I've thought about this is the past. Most games write the enemies off by saying things like "they're mindless clones", "they're paid mercenaries", etc.

    I initially didn't want to play Prototype because all the footage implied it was just you going crazy killing random US Army troops. I mean... I have a friend in the US Army in real life, I don't want to kill him, they're "the good guys"! I could calm my conscience after I saw there were infact 'bad guy' soldiers, willing to shoot civilians etc. So I spent the game avoiding the regular guys whenever possible and only taking out the bad guys.

    In the Mario RPGs, no specific reason is given, however it seems Bowser is indeed King of the Koopas, that Bullet Bills do not think, and that everyone else is pretty much ruled by fear. Boos, though... I think they don't follow anyone but King Boo.

    I think I actually know why the Goombas serve Bowser. If I remember correctly, they were mutated from Toads into their current form by Bowser, and so were scared into being slaves.

      First I've heard about them being mutated, but they were originally just residents of the Mushroom Kingdom, like Toads, but turned traitor for some reason.

    At least the Goombas had a bit of a mean look on their faces - I always felt kinda bad for the Koopas, who always just looked a little confused and scared to me. Poor little guys, they've heard a rumour that the other side has a super-soldier that keeps jumping on dozens of their fellow Koopas and kicking their corpses into pits - and if the soldier does die it only costs them 100 gold to buy another one! I'd be scared too - I bet the ones with wings are deserting their posts.

    I think you're reading into it too much... it's a Goomba.

      It's not just a Goomba, it's a HUMAN BEING!


      Way to miss the point.

        It's ok I see the point to the article, but personally I don't think it really matters if something so small as a Goomba has no real back story. Obviously if we are talking something highly story driven like Fallout etc, then yeah, back story on everything please. But a Goomba, we are talking about a game where your sole purpose is to save a princess, everytime, in the same way.

        Its casual gaming, I don't need an indepth view into each characters mind.

    Good article. I agree with the point about the Locust - for me they weren't just the typical "alien race invades, desperate struggle ensues with gallant space marine" enemies, but they appeared from the earth itself and therefore created a struggle in which you felt like your soil, the towns and parks you raised your young in was betraying you by unleashing this menace.

    Also I liked the enemies in Fallout 3. While some of them were indeed far-fetched, plenty of them, like the mutated animals and Raiders and Slavers just wanted food and water, trying to survive in a ravaged, desolate land. So your killing enemies not only destroys their chance, and whoever's relying on them's chance for survival, but it's also increasing your chances, as each person that fell by your salvaged and sometimes improvised weapons would lead towards more supplies for you.

    Great article.

    Wow, nice read.

    I agree that not enough thought is given to the backgrounds and motives of enemies in games today. Unfortunately, a lot of the games with established roots are the ones that don't put thought into it. Mario and Zelda, for instance have huge numbers of enemies that often have no motive for attacking you, yet do it anyway. The problem is that these games were originally designed when games didn't need a story, and killing things was a given, regardless of motive.

    For me, Bioware has been good at giving their characters motives. The Geth in Mass Effect were given a reason to be attacking you, and whilst there wasn't motivation on a real macro level, there was a lot more depth than just "These are the bad guy's minions".

    I thought that the Halo series handled this well too. Rather than all of the enemies being mindless grunts (*rimshot*), we actually get to the point where the elites defect because they're not happy with the treatment they receive. Good writing.

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