This 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.
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.
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.
So 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.
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.
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.