[The Spoony Bard is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by writer James Bishop that probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. This week, it comments on an unfortunate narrative trend in role-playing game hybrids like Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story.]

The premise behind the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter ads is simple. The substance in the bucket tastes so much like butter that it is hard to believe—wait for it—that it’s not butter. Though it may not seem like it just yet, I promise I am going somewhere with this.

The ads only work because the compound in question performs, behaves and otherwise is identical to the product it is imitating. In theory, it has all of the benefits with none of the detriments. That’s what they try to sell you, anyway.

In reality, it is often hard to produce identical results from disparate parts. True, one plus four and three plus two both equals five, but combining larger, more complicated and possibly abstract forms adds a seemingly infinite level of complexity to the situation. The more moving parts in any given process, the more likely it is that one of them will malfunction and bring things to a grinding halt.

Thus is the sad, sad case of the multitude of RPG hybrids in video games.

A Difficult To Reach Core

In order to not step too much on the toes of Mr. Matulef’s primary concern, this column intends to look more closely at the narrative present at the core of most role-playing games like a creamy, nougat-filled center and how the gameplay in hybrids can get in the way of said nougat.

Did someone say ludonarrative dissonance? Sure, if the jargon fits, why not use it.

In the case of some games, however, it isn’t so much that the gameplay opposes the narrative as it is that it actively hinders it in seemingly unintentional ways. There is less of an element of opposition and more of something similar to a drowning person pulling their supposed savior under with them.

Similarly, if it were to suddenly become an actual chore to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, even an anthropomorphic owl in a classic commercial wouldn’t bridge the gap. At some point, it just isn’t worth it and all the charm in the world won’t change facts.

And the fact is that most hybrids, like Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, are poor substitutes for a traditional RPG.

The Specific Problems Of An RPG Hybrid

Having never played the previous incarnations of the Mario & Luigi series, I’m not particularly qualified to comment on their particular hybridizations. What I can say for certain, however, is that the “doing and learning” didn’t quite work for me in this one. I have fought the game itself for 17 hours and can’t bring myself to finish it no matter how adorable I find Fawful, the main villain, or the world he inhabits.

The problem is the schlocky, glossy RPG veneer that the developers insisted on laying over top of what might otherwise be an enjoyable game.

Chris Kohler sums up my feelings on the matter perfectly, saying that “classic RPG gameplay doesn’t really exist in Bowser’s Inside Story... Sure, the form is there, but the function is not. You gain levels … but it doesn’t matter, because your character doesn’t really change. You find new armor and items … that are only marginal upgrades. You earn new special moves … but you don’t really need to bother using them.”

Even with these problems throwing up roadblocks at every turn, I still managed to plug a great many hours into a game with multiple different gameplay mechanics that, in effect, either don’t matter or never see regular use.

I wanted to see how it ended.

Why RPG Players Play Broken Games

Apparently, this is not uncommon. Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Entertainment has noted previously that “mechanics really don’t matter” to a great many RPG players. Furthermore, they “will gladly march through a game that they hate if they enjoy the writing and story.”

In some cases, it feels like the promise of an RPG hybrid experience works more like a trap and less like an actual mechanic. Once it manages to lure a traditional RPG player into the game, it doesn’t matter how awful the gameplay is as long as the writing is witty and the world is engaging.

Bowser’s Inside Story failed in fooling me as I gradually became aware of what it was trying to accomplish. The lack of actual RPG progression, beyond lip service, left a general malaise over me whenever I tried to power up my DS. I had absolutely no desire to play a minigame for the 4,278th time in order to make it to the next area where I would surely be given a marginal upgrade of an existing ability that I had no intention to ever initiate. In a word, the game’s mechanics were and are redundant.

But to give credit where credit is due, the game is certainly full of charming characters, quotable dialogue and overall silliness that forced my trek through its literal bowels to continue for longer than I expected. Long after I have stopped spewing vitriol about the game’s mechanics, I’ll be quoting Fawful. “I HAVE CHORTLES” is just way too amusing to ever let die, even if I’m the only person alive that thinks so.

The writing can’t carry the entire weight of the game, however. Much like a stew, a game is only as wonderful as the different elements from which it is composed. Some consumer reviews might wave off this column’s criticisms as being unable to see the forest for the trees. To these detractors, I have but one question: is a forest not made of trees? In other words, a stew with rotten meat inside can still be a bad stew even if the vegetables are amazing.

Hopefully, given time, developers will begin to realize that providing a full experience is more profitable than merely waging war on the psychology of their consumers. With games continuing to gauge addictiveness as a valuable attribute, it does seem like there is a slippery slope ahead. This shouldn’t serve as a warning, though, but merely an observation: be mindful of what design practices you’re promoting with your wallet.

[James Bishop is a freelance writer for various outlets, holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University Southeast and is not fond of the Oxford comma. He can be reached via Twitter or at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]