Legend of Zelda

The Zelda liturgy


A Legend of Zelda release is my drop-everything game. I grab it on day one and dive right in, no matter what else I'm playing at the time. Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite game of all time, my brain impulsively rephrases the question as "What's your favorite Zelda game?" (It's Wind Waker, by the way.) Such is my devotion to the series, I even imported and played Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland. God help me.

For a mix of legitimate and admittedly sentimental reasons, I love the Zelda universe and the design formula these games rely on. Despite my awareness that the series has grown increasingly conservative over the years, the magic still works on me. The game design nut in me knows the series must evolve to survive; but the Zelda nut in me delights in receiving the sacraments.

Thenatural For me, it's a bit like watching Roy Hobbs hit that climactic home run at the end of The Natural. I know it's coming, and I know it's formulaic Hollywood melodrama, but I eat it up every time because the setup and delivery are so perfect. You can dismiss such manipulation as tripe or you can give in and let the story wash over you. Call me a sucker, but I choose the latter. Engagement is a choice. If a game/film/novel makes it worth my while, I'm in.

And that's the thing about Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. It makes partaking in the Zelda liturgy feel like a thing worth doing. Despite the familiarity - Edge Magazine aptly describes it as "the narcotic realms of pure ritual" - the game delivers such a blissful combination of whimsy and rock-solid gameplay that once you've crossed the threshold and learned your first song on the Spirit Flute, there's no turning back.

It's final exam week here, so my writing has been limited lately by end of semester work (and I've been playing and judging a pile of IGF games I can't talk about yet). But who says teacher can't fire up the ol' DS while students slave over blue books? Heh heh. 

I have much more to say about Spirit Tracks and several other interesting, lower-profile games I've played recently. I hope you'll stay tuned.

The future of Hyrule - gameplay and final thoughts

Zelda22This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.

What makes a Legend of Zelda game fun? What exists at the core of a Zelda game that keeps us playing? How can this core experience be preserved without stagnating? How much innovation is too much?

In the creative process, the decisions we make are often the consequence of the questions we ask. Asking the right questions - the ones that truly interrogate the fundamentals of the pursuit - can make all the difference.

Triptomoon An illustrative example can be found in the work of silent film pioneer Georges Méliès. In all his dozens of films he never once tracked the camera. Even in his classic "A Trip to the Moon" the famous shot of the space capsule plunging into the eye of the moon was shot by moving the entire moon apparatus toward the camera. He could have simply moved the camera, so why didn't he? Because it never occurred to him.

As Méliès explained later in his life, he had been a stage magician. In a theater we move objects on stage in relationship to a stationary audience, so that's what Méliès did on film. It never dawned on him to ask how the effect might be achieved differently with a camera.

I bring this up because it seems to me one of the great strengths of Shigeru Miyamoto's design philosophy is his uncanny ability to dig down to the nucleus of a game to understand its playful essence. Together with Eiji Aonuma, producer of the Zelda franchise since 2003, Miyamoto has been thinking hard about the Zelda "point of origin" and what makes Zelda Zelda:

Miyamoto: The most important thing is that the game director not lose sight of the point of origin, the reason they're creating the game they're creating. Every game starts off with some core element that you want to create and you want people to experience, but gradually a lot of times when people are creating games, things don't develop the way they expect them to, so to solve that problem, people gradually add new elements to make that game better. In doing that, you can end up going down this path where you've added all these different elements, and the game changes from what it was originally intended to be.[1]

In his startlingly frank presentation at last year's GDC, Aonuma reflected on the Zelda series and concluded that by the end of Wind Waker the designers had essentially lost their way (from Gamasutra):

Although stylish, the game design was barely changed over previous Zelda games. In fact, Aonuma realized, the Zelda series as a whole had not seen any "really new ideas" since at least Ocarina of Time. Instead, he and other designers had simply stacked content on top of the familiar template, making the games all the more vertical and convoluted. The result was that gamers familiar with the series were growing bored, while the barrier to entry was getting no shallower.[2]

Windwaker22So what exactly is the "core element" we are meant to "experience" in The Legend of Zelda series? Miyamoto's description is telling because he isolates two distinctive features: a design component (gameplay) and an experience (interactivity) that the series has relied on over the years. But the secret isn't one thing; rather, the so-called "core element" is actually a cocktail of many elements blended together.

The Legend of Zelda series features a matchless blend of interactive gameplay - framed within an exciting adventure narrative - combining action, exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, platforming, stealth, and a bit of role-playing. Add stellar controls, high production values, a delightful sense of whimsy, and a series-long fidelity to what my friend Corvus Elrod calls "the triumph of youthful innocence and delight over the cynical, power-mongering forces of adulthood" - and there you have The Legend of Zelda's "point of origin."

To conclude this series, I'll return to my original question: what is the future of Hyrule? I believe the next console Zelda game must reformulate the "Zelda cocktail" in ways that breathe new life into the series. Prepared for the pummeling I may receive from Zelda devotees, I offer a few suggestions - one big and the rest relatively small:

  • It's time to play together. The next Zelda game should incorporate meaningful co-op play. In addition to standard single-player mode, I recommend two co-op modes:
    • A similar but more robust "helper" mode ala Super Mario Galaxy. Nintendo has recently begun to refer to certain of its titles as "bridge games," which “let video game novices and veterans play and have fun together.” I would love to have the option of letting my wife or child jump in at any point and help me navigate a dungeon and overcome its obstacles.

    • Full online co-op play. Imagine walking across a bridge high atop a Fire dungeon and seeing Midna (or a Goron or Tetra, or whomever) hundreds of feet below working her way through another part of the dungeon, controlled by a live player. Imagine the possibilities of truly cooperative play in which you and your partner (who has full access to the dungeon just like you) work together to enable, unlock, or otherwise gain access to important areas by helping each other. I obtain an item you need, so I can either leave it for you in a certain spot or locate you and give it to you myself. You're having trouble with a pernicious Octorok, and I come and help you defeat him. 

      I believe this kind of co-op play, if properly implemented, could be a pivotal transition in the history of the series. Voice chat is a must, obviously, but it might be fun to enable and disable it depending on where in the dungeon you are. Oh, the wide-open possibilities this kind of gameplay opens up, and how exciting it would be to have the option to play as someone other than Link with an entirely different set of tools and skills.
  • Give Link his weapons and let him use them from the beginning. Doling them out one at a time--followed by the predictable set of tasks using the newly acquired weapon--is a worn-out system. If I have a variety of weapons, deciding which to use when and where should feel like more of a challenge.

  • Stop giving me red rupees with big treasure chest animations and music, only to inform me that I can't carry any more money.

  • Link needs a new, way-cool weapon. I'm not clever enough to know what that weapon is, but he needs something we haven't seen before with tight, useful motion control.

  • It's time to retire the light world / dark world play mechanic. It was refreshing and fun in A Link to the Past, but in Twilight Princess 15 years later it felt like going to the well once too often.

I believe the latest Zelda game, Phantom Hourglass for the DS - as well as recent comments by Aonuma - offer a beacon of hope for Zelda fans like me who wish for the series to evolve. While Phantom Hourglass doesn't exactly overhaul the standard series formula, its innovative control scheme is so perfectly integrated with gameplay that everything old feels new again. Throwing a boomerang, moving blocks, executing a spin attack - all the standard Zelda stuff - take on a smooth tactile feel, combined with a terrific visual style perfectly suited to the hardware. It's one of the best Zelda games ever made.Phantomscreen

And it is very much Aonuma's game. Phantom Hourglass is the first Zelda game made outside the shadow of Miyamoto. He approved the final design, but according to numerous reports left the game entirely in Aonuma's hands from beginning to end. Given his comment quoted above and others made more recently, Aonuma may have something in mind for the next Zelda game that will make me very happy (from an interview with MTV's Stephen Totilo):

Aonuma thinks of saving the world, and what the fun way is to do that. "When I think about exploration and saving the world, if you do it alone it's so lonely. So if it's a game I'm involved in, there probably will be some allies in there." He wants Link to always have some friends to fight at his side.[3]

Did somebody say co-op?

I've enjoyed this little reflective romp through Hyrule, and I hope you have too. I offer my observations and suggestions as a longtime fan, hopeful for a long and happy future for The Legend of Zelda series. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read the other two related essays here and here.

Here's to Zelda, with love.

The future of Hyrule - characters and story

Midna_2 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.

The future of Hyrule


[All three essays in this series can be found here, here, and here.]

Rescue Zelda, defeat Ganondorf, and save Hyrule. Across nine game systems over more than twenty years, this formula has served as the core narrative in The Legend of Zelda games, perhaps the most beloved series in video game history.

This year marks two Zelda milestones: the 10th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game many consider the greatest of all time; and the series has reached 50 million units in total worldwide sales.

So now may be an opportune time to pause and carefully assess the Legend of Zelda series, both where it's been and, more importantly, where it might go next. I propose to do just that in a series of posts that will consider key elements of the game--overall design structure, gameplay, interactivity, music, and narrative--and suggest ways these traditional components may be preserved, revised, or discontinued in future games.

As a confessed devotee of the Zelda games--okay, I'm probably teetering on the brink of fanboy--I believe the series has reached a critical and pivotal juncture in its development. Certain predictable aspects of the game need to change, in my view, in order to continue the game's long history of peerless design and vitality. A recalibration of the franchise's balance between core Zelda gameplay and innovation is necessary to maintain the game's liveliness and relevance to today's gamers.

I'm not suggesting we throw everything out and start from scratch, but as I'll propose in coming posts, some parts of the Zelda experience may have stagnated in recent years, and I believe it's possible to move the series forward while preserving its fundamental spirit - as Super Mario Galaxy proved so brilliantly.

I hope you will join me for this project and offer your suggestions and insights. We Zelda gamers can be a rather passionate bunch, and I welcome that enthusiasm into the discussion. We carp and we defend because we love, right? ;-) If I neglect a particular aspect of the Zelda games that you feel is important, I hope you will let me know that too. I can't wait to get started.

First on the docket: sound and music in the Zelda games. More tomorrow.

image Hyrule by `treijim courtesy of DeviantArt