This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.
In the Legend of Zelda series, three is a very magic number. The Triforce - a central unifying image - is a triangle comprised of three separate triangles, representing Power, Wisdom, and Courage. In each game, Link must find three items from three dungeons: Twilight Princess - three Spirit Gems; Ocarina of Time - three Spiritual Stones; A Link to the Past - three amulets; Phantom Hourglass - three pure metals; and in Wind Waker Link must rescue three spirits from three temples.
In Majorca's Mask the entire gameplay mechanic is centered around a repeated three-day cycle, during which Link can transform into three different species: a Deku scrub, a Zora, or a Goron. In Wind Waker Link must extract three Triforces from three main characters, after searching for three Goddesses' pearls and taking them to three Triangle Islands. To accomplish all this, Link can equip up to three items and play/conduct songs like Zelda's Lullaby or summon Epona by playing three-note tunes.
I could go on, but you get the point. By the way, you're reading the third paragraph of my essay. Just saying.
Of all these trios, the most important is the one comprising the three central characters of the series: Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf. Much of the narrative continuity in the series stems from the relationships and tensions that persist from game to game among these three figures. I believe the next Zelda game would do well to explore these characters more fully and exploit the rich history they have shared through previous titles.
Before proceeding with this argument any further, I fully understand that for many players the core Zelda gaming experience is not about characters - it's about dungeons. For these players, the characters and their stories may add color, but the real focus (and real genius) of the the Zelda series has always been about exploring clever, well-designed dungeons; solving puzzles and strategic challenges; overcoming enemies and defeating dungeon bosses. After all, the dungeon is where the action is. It's where you use the weapons you earn, and it's where your skill is tested. The story is basically window dressing...and isn't it essentially the same story every time anyway?
I believe it's possible--even necessary--for the next Zelda game to enhance its story and characters, but this needn't come at the expense of the core Zelda gameplay. In fact, I believe a sturdier narrative and richer characters could make the dungeons even more interesting, especially if the stakes for failure in the dungeons were higher than "game over" and return to the entrance. What if each failure meant one additional day of imprisonment for Zelda? What if uncanny success or quickly solving a puzzle meant one day less?
I can imagine a segment of the Zelda fan base growing frustrated by attaching too much story to gameplay. To me, they ought to go hand in hand, but I realize not everyone feels this way. I'm brainstorming here, but how about this: the player is given a choice very early in the game to enter one of two buildings: a temple or a museum. You can only choose one, and when your choice is made the other option disappears. In the temple you are drawn into a story and ultimately asked to accept a quest involving many other characters in a detailed narrative. If you accept it, you get a Zelda game that structurally resembles previous titles, but this time with a more complex RPG-like story.
If you choose instead to enter the museum, you will be given a map and asked to find your way to a destination (dungeon) you must explore to bring back certain artifacts. Success in each mission results in you receiving a new map with new exploration goals. In this version of the game you are essentially moving from dungeon to dungeon within a basic narrative structure, but without all the story and character interactions of the other version. All the dungeon fun without the Deku Tree whining! ;-) Zelda meets Tomb Raider? Maybe.
My intention here (perhaps ill-conceived) is to envision a new Zelda game that gives me what I want without forcing the "skip cutscene" player to climb over a lot of unwanted material standing between him and the game he wants to play. I frankly have no idea if this idea is good or even viable.
So how, then, to enrich the story and characters? Here are a few ideas I would love to see implemented in the next Zelda game:
- Make better use of Ganondorf. One of my readers recently wrote: "Link and Zelda are both just incessantly reincarnated tabula rasa's. They're dull by default. Ganon, on the other hand, is an immortal demigod who has spent eternity trying to gain absolute control over Hyrule. What would happen if someone else conquered Hyrule and only Ganon could stop them? Why does he hate these people so much? In 'Wind Waker' he mentions that it's because his race was also excluded in Hyrule, why not go into that more?" The reader went on to suggest that the game provide the option to play as Ganon. I'm not sure I would go that far, but giving Ganon(dorf) more to do than simply "be evil" would be a good start.
- Make better use of Zelda. Her appearance as Tetra in Wind Waker broke new ground for Zelda as an active, decisive character with autonomy and personality. I would personally love to play a Zelda game as Zelda, but what if I could play as both her and Link? How about 2-player co-op? (I'll discuss that in my next post on gameplay.) Zelda's position as a smart young woman emerging into a man's world suggests many storytelling possibilities, including rebelling against her own father. Again, Wind Waker knocked on the door with her disguise as Tetra, but she disappears for long stretches of time in that game for no apparent reason.
- Populate Hyrule with NPCs that talk to me in more interesting ways than, "Hey, boy, the gate to castle closes at night." Give NPCs more functional purpose in the world--I'll even accept dialogue trees--and let me impact them in meaningful ways. Telma the barkeep in Twilight Princess is such a saucy character. I wish my interactions with her weren't so severely limited. I'm not looking for Mass Effect; I just want a bit more substance.
- Text dialogue must disappear for good. Voice the characters with good actors and hire talented localization teams. See Dragon Quest VIII for how to do this exceptionally well.
- Let Midna point the way. I won't reveal any spoilers, but Midna in Twilight Princess serves as the best example of exactly the kind of character enrichment I'm looking for. Her tragic history, her sensibilities, her frailty mixed with courage - she may be the most complex character in the Zelda universe, and yet she is not overwrought or misplaced in a series that always contains a healthy dose of whimsy.
- I'm always moved by the overarching themes of the series, but the way they are wheeled out through a highly predictable and often rehashed plot has become increasingly tiresome to me. I'm hungry for a different narrative, and I think the Zelda universe and characters are plenty big enough to accommodate such a shift without distorting the core Zelda mythos.
And then there's Link. What to do with him? I believe the answer is nothing. Link is our conduit into the world of Hyrule. He is the solitary hero, the blank slate, the reincarnated hero upon whom we project ourselves and our hopes and dreams. I believe he must remain silent. If the world, and characters, and choices surrounding Link are more interesting, then Link will be more interesting too.
I realize I'm in choppy waters here. The Zelda games are immensely popular, and who am I to muck around with a formula that works? I'll discuss the tension between tradition and innovation in my next post and take a look at gameplay in the series. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.