Zelda Facets (3): Hyrule

Last week, how the player’s tenacity is represented in Link’s courage. This week, how the character of Link is inseparable from the world of Hyrule. Contains minor spoilers for Breath of the Wild.

Hyrule PaintingIn John Boorman’s 1981 retelling of the Arthurian mythos, Excalibur, the secret of the grail is that ‘the land and the king are one’. This motto could equally apply to narrative videogames, where the player character and the world is inseparable precisely because the avatar – the player’s capacity to take action in the fictional setting of the game – links the player to the world via a representation of a character (often a visual model, effectively a digital doll). As we saw last week, in the mind of current Zelda franchise master Eiji Aonuma Link’s name is precisely a reference to his role in linking the player to the world of Hyrule.

The elegance of the Zelda franchise’s solution to the problems entailed in facilitating avatars is such that it has many imitators, although it is worth noting that the 1986 Metroid – released by Nintendo in the same year as the original Legend of Zelda – has essentially the same relationship between character and world. It can be described as follows: the character starts with only the capacity to explore and to defend themselves (or, equivalently, to enact violence but without a huge degree of efficacy). Through exploration and survival, the player overcomes challenges that grant them an increase in their power, which can involve making the character tougher, increasing their capacity for violence, or granting them a way to access parts of the world that were previously inaccessible. Once the player has acquired sufficient powers in this way, they have a final showdown that tests their ability to deploy all the powers of their character, after which the game story concludes.

If this reads like a description of any videogame, this is a mirage caused by the extent to which this structure has permeated the player practices of digital entertainment. Note that in a Mario game, there is no gradual acquisition of power, and neither was this the case in arcade games, which were not able to pursue exploration because of the time limitations of the coin-drop economy. Similarly, the classic CRPG structure does not necessitate the relationship between overcoming challenges and gaining power, since experience systems permit players to grind against weaker monsters to increase their power and these games almost never increase the character’s capacity to access new parts of the world that is central to both the Zelda and Metroid structures. It is also worth remembering that while there were earlier save game mechanisms, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid had ratcheted progress that was entirely novel in its day, for all that we take it for granted now. This developed in time into an elegant unified save system, and then in Breath of the Wild to an innovative set of six autosaves that allow the player to restore any time in the last few hours without any requirement for the player to manually manage their save library.

In the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda back in 1986, the increases of power that are central to the formula of the franchise are acquired from within dungeons, which are hidden around the world. Although the player is unaware of it, there is an implied sequence of these dungeons, but this order can be easily subverted – the first few can be done in any order, while the later dungeons require tools acquired in a different dungeon in order to progress. This made progressing in the first Legend of Zelda much more of a puzzle than in either Metroid or any Zelda that followed, and is the reason it is sometimes described (somewhat misleadingly) as an open world. In Aonuma-san’s recent interview with Game Kult, the point was raised that he found the original game too stingy with its clues, while in a Game Informer interview during the promotion of Skyward Sword, he noted that it was the exploration in the third Zelda game, A Link to the Past, that really drew him in – and set his career on its path.

Even under Shigeru Miyamoto’s control, the Zelda franchise was to move away from the obscurity required to complete the original game and into a comfortable formula that addressed this problem. This entailed a fixed sequence of dungeons, each containing a new tool that was required to complete it and that afterwards provided access to new parts of the world, including the next dungeon. Thus bombs that could blow holes in damaged walls, a hookshot that allowed crossing gaps, or a blue tunic that allowed Link to breathe underwater. This concept is already there in the original game, what is new is the strict sequence making it more apparent what is expected of the player, and thus reducing the obscurity of the puzzles – as well as opening up the games to a far wider audience. (I confess, that while I did complete the original The Legend of Zelda this was only in retrospect; my first Zelda game was A Link to the Past and if the puzzles had been more obscure than they were it mighthave ended my interest in the franchise then and there. In Ocarina of Time, the puzzles very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the game entirely.)

With Breath of the Wild, the formula that had sustained the Zelda franchise since the beginning was completely subverted. The tools required to overcome puzzles are not paced out over the length of the game but delivered to the player in the first few hours, within the Great Plateau that serves as the tutorial area for the game. Rather than dungeons being in a strict sequence with each one unlocking a new capacity, the four dungeons in the latest game – the Divine Beasts – each provide the player two extremely useful advantages (one that applies to the entire world, and another that weakens the final boss) but completing these challenges is entirely optional. Indeed, nothing prevents the player from completing the Great Plateau and then proceeding to defeat the boss straight away, something that was on paper possible in some earlier videogames (such as the original Fallout) but which has become exceptionally rare, and certainly was never possible in any previous Zelda, including the 1986 original.

Much discussion around Breath of the Wild has focused upon the claim that it has moved closer to the practices of the open world genre, typified by the structure established by Grand Theft Auto III (as discussed in the introduction to this serial). But this is a mistake: almost nothing that the new Zelda does is in the form that is codified and conserved by the mainstream open world genre. This is most apparent in the narrative design, which in the GTAIII formula is a chain of waypoints some of which require challenges to overcome, and which are often arranged in an act structure with separate terrain allocated to each act. Whether Vice City and San Andreas in 2002 and 2004 or Witcher III in 2015, this structure remains fundamentally unchanged. Yet Breath of the Wild does not use this narrative design at all, and instead invents an entirely new structure with two parallel elements, both of which are entirely optional to completing the game. The first of these are the memories, which we will discuss when we get to the question of Zelda herself. The second are the Shrines, which represent a total subversion of the standard Zelda character advancement structure, and a corresponding new vision for Hyrule itself.

Shrines are equivalent to individual rooms within dungeons in any earlier Zelda game i.e. they present either a puzzle, a combat challenge, or just a straight reward to the player. In the standard Zelda formula, dungeons are intricate puzzle boxes, much admired by fans of such things, such that the elegance of the design often transcends the individual rooms. The Divine Beasts retain this dungeon structure, and are an excellent example of the form, although as already noted – unlike every preceding Zelda – you don’t have to complete any of them. The same is true of the Shrines: the player must complete the four Shrines on the Great Plateau, after which they do not need to complete any Shrines to finish the game. If your interest as a player does not include puzzles, you can just complete the combat shrines (as I did in my second playthrough), and if you don’t like fighting you can just focus on puzzles, but if you simply want to explore the world you can bypass all but the first four Shrines. True, you will face a much tougher challenge in the final fight if you do not complete any Shrines, since the Spirit Orbs you earn from them are tremendously helpful. But all challenges except the first four Shrines and the final boss fight in Breath of the Wild are optional. This is not the standard open world structure at all, but an entirely new and innovative structure, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

This freedom comes with a significant cost. Side quests in Zelda have always held the possibility of getting either a Piece of Heart (a quarter of a health container in every Zelda except Twilight Princess, which unwisely inflated this to five) or an Empty Bottle (that is, a significant inventory expansion). In Breath of the Wild, every side quest is entirely irrelevant from the perspective of powering up the player character since Heart containers and Stamina vessels are earned from Spirit Orbs acquired exclusively in Shrines, and inventory expansion is achieved by finding Koroks, solving a relatively simple puzzle or challenge and then trading the seeds they give you for equipment slots by speaking to the musically-minded Korok giant Hestu. There are side quests that earn Shrines, and a side quest that earns a useful item of clothing, but to a surprisingly great degree, completing side quests has been downgraded in Breath of the Wild to the single least important element of the challenges the player is afforded. For the first time, Link can be played as a total misanthrope... the other people in Hyrule barely matter in terms of the design.

Another aspect of the new structure is the way the game copes with the massive size of Hyrule. In point of fact, Hyrule has always been – from the very beginning – laid out as a patchwork quilt of different encounters. A monster here, a hazard there, a hidden chest here, a Great Fairy Fountain there, someone to talk to here, a town over there, a dungeon over here. The world of Hyrule is a carefully curated distribution of things to find, fight, talk to, or puzzle over. With Breath of the Wild, the sheer enormity of the world makes it far harder to maintain an even distribution of content – even allowing for 120 Shrines to discover and 900 Korok mini-puzzles. Building on the collection element introduced in Skyward Sword, where the player is rewarded for stockpiling ingredients and monster parts that are acquired from various enemies and locations, the new Zelda spaces out monsters, group-fights, secondary bosses, Koroks, and Shrines with areas to forage for cooking ingredients and hunting zones with non-monster animals that provide meat (which is also the most effective way to earn money within the game, excluding a few mini-game exploits). The result is that as long as the player remains interested in the collection, they can set out on any route at all and discover things worth finding.

The downside to this is that as soon as the player ceases to be engaged in the collection, the intrinsic greed that originally kept them searching falls by the wayside and the longer journeys can begin to become tiresome unless the player is able to enjoy the sheer aesthetic beauty of the landscape – and this becomes much tougher when the player is intermittently accosted by enemies. In the early stages of the game, the rewards for searching are substantial since the player’s lack of capabilities makes cooking for meals and elixirs that boost their abilities or restore Hearts or Stamina utterly invaluable. As the player completes Shrines and earns Heart containers – and even more so as they acquire Stamina containers – they gain in power (as the essence of Zelda requires) but consequently lose motivation to engage in gathering. A sense of fatigue therefore sets in at some point during the process of play for almost all players (an experience remarked upon by Jed Pressgrove in his review), one that either encourages them to achieve completion and make a break from the game, or requires them to think differently about their play from then on in.

One last aspect of the new Hyrule is important to discuss: climbing. Aonuna-san, in numerous interviews in connection with Breath of the Wild, stresses the importance of the climbing experience to the game, aligning with the Japanese marketing message of “Climb, live, protect” as the essence of this new title. In the Game Kult interview, he notes:

From the beginning of the adventure, Link is able to climb high enough to allow you, once you reach the summit, to observe the landscape and head for the place that caught your eye using the paraglider. This loop made of climbing, contemplating and gliding is the essence of exploration in this Zelda, and I really wanted to make getting lost in this world a pleasure.

Although climbing has been a part of Zelda since Ocarina of Time, it takes on an entirely new meaning in Breath of the Wild both because this Hyrule has been carefully designed for it (as the above quote attests) and because of the limited Stamina. Thus, in the early stages of the game, climbing functions as a puzzle with players required to identify ledges to rest upon in order to complete difficult ascents (or, alternatively, stockpiling meals or elixirs that restore Stamina, costing the player their time and effort). Great flexibility comes into play here, with each climb offering either an environmental puzzle to solve or a logistical supply issue to address. Then, in keeping with the essence of Link as the character who gains in power as the player persists, acquiring Stamina vessels makes every climb radically more manageable, until the experienced player can effortlessly defeat any mountain in a manner parallel to the way they defeat a strong enemy, through the combination of Link having grown in power, and the player having grown in skill. Some players may object to the restrictions that Stamina applies to climbing in this game – but no-one can justifiably complain that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Zelda as a franchise.

As with Boorman’s King Arthur, Link and Hyrule are one – the capacities the player acquires for Link through their persistent overcoming of challenges and puzzles only make sense in the context of a world that yields to that increase in power. While Breath of the Wild mostly disrupts the standard Zelda model of providing new tools that grant new ways to exert increased agency, the Stamina system provides a unique way of making climbing parallel to combat and exploration, creating a Hyrule that offers more capacity for exploration and mastery than any before. In providing the player choices to apply their skills and the powers they have earned, the new game continues the traditions of the Zelda franchise, while simultaneously carving out an entirely new approach to open worlds.

Next week: Weapons


Zelda Facets (2): Link

Last week, the production history of the Zelda franchise. This week, we examine whether Link is a character, and how he is used in Breath of the Wild.

Link and the Master SwordAccording to an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto in 2012, the original concept for the 1986 Legend of Zelda had involved the triforce being electronic chips from the future, and the hero of that game was thus a link between the past and the future. However, Eiji Aonuma, who took over the series from Miyamoto-san, provided an alternative explanation in a 2007 interview (quoted by Darrin W. Harr in a discussion of Link’s role and identity) that is more consistent with how the character has developed across the years:

When a player is playing a Zelda game, my desire is for the player to truly become Link — that’s why we named him Link, so the player is linked to the game and to the experience. Of course, the player can always change Link’s name to their own name to further that notion should they want.

On this understanding, the name ‘Link’ has a parallel to the term ‘avatar’ that, with some debt to the Ultima player character with that name, has been used to discuss the connection between players and the fictional world of games. However, the avatar concept is easily misunderstood. As I discuss in Imaginary Games, the term avatar describes the player’s capacity to act within the fictional world, but it is used most often to describe the in-game model of the player character, the doll that is being played with. Since not all videogames that allow the player agency in an imaginary world have visual representations, the avatar cannot necessarily be something visual. The term stands for the link between the player and the game – hence Link – and that can cause problems when the avatar is also a character.

Broadly speaking, there is a spectrum of approaches to the player character within videogames from a clearly defined character (in the narrative sense) that the player is invited to take on as their persona – Ryu in Shenmue is an excellent example – to a mask that the player wears that lets them act out in the world – Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, for instance, who has almost none of the qualities that would be ascribed to a character in the way this term is used in discussions of narrative, and is really only there as a surrogate for the player and not as a character, per se. Typically, this leads to a perverse schizophrenia. C.J. in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for instance (and any other GTA player character for that matter), is a mask for most of the time the player is in the world of the game but then transforms into a character for the cut scenes. There is almost no fidelity at all between the player’s thuggish antics and CJ’s personality. In other words, a mask is an avatar through which the player acts out, while a player character is an avatar that asks the player to role-play; combining the two by distancing the player from the character (by having all narrative aspects of the character occur solely in cut scenes) is schizophrenic, although also ‘business at usual’ in contemporary videogames.

Link is a particularly interesting case because with the singular exception of Skyward Sword, Link is not developed significantly as a narrative character but functions primarily as a mask for the player to act out with. Yet Link does not fall into the schizophrenia of the GTA franchise and its imitators, nor the player-led genericism of Elder Scrolls that defines a role for the player but lets the character fulfilling that role exist solely in the player head (which, all considered, is a perfectly reasonable solution to this problem). Link is a mask who remains consistent with the character he is intended to be. In other words, Link the character – Link the denizen of Hyrule – is designed to be consistent with Link the mask – Link the avatar of the player. The alignment is never perfect, of course, but the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.

Tied up in this is the fact that Link is not an adult. His age in all the Zelda games varies from 9 to 17 years of age. He is never an adult, in part because no adult could be excused from the relentless smashing of pots in search of rupees (or arrows in Breath of the Wild) that Link doggedly pursues under the player’s guidance. Link behaves badly because the player behaves badly, but everything that the player can do with Link (with any Link in any Zelda game) is consistent with this idea of who Link is, namely a rather unruly teenager. The series even disrupts the player’s expectations in this respect by occasionally having a character challenge Link about their anti-social behaviour. Thus Mila’s father in Wind Waker charges the player rupees for the pots they smash in his house – much to the shock of the player! – and Pumm, the landlord of the Lumpy Pumpkin in Skyward Sword, blows his top when the player breaks his chandelier in order to get a Piece of Heart, and indentures link into a delivery boy in order for him to repay his debt.

Of course, the reason for the close alignment between player and character in the case of Link is that the qualities that are ascribed to Link the character are either the qualities that we can expect the player to show because they are a mask (and thus free to act out) or those that the player must possess to play him effectively. In that latter case, we’re talking about qualities that players are expected to possess if they hope to succeed in most challenge-oriented videogames (which Zelda always is), but which are (uniquely) represented as the character in the case of Link. Most significant here is that Link has, as it is described in Skyward Sword, an “unbreakable spirit” – which is to say, the player must keep going, and Link is undaunted by any challenge that faces him. (Conversely, in my CRPG scripts, I sometimes have the player character comment on the absurdity of the challenges that the world is throwing at them, and mock the player’s willingness to keep participating in the charade.)

In the world of a Zelda game, Link is associated with the Triforce of Courage and the fearlessness it embodies, but as a player, no such virtue could be implied because the player is never in any risk. Rather, Link’s courage and “unbreakable spirit” is embodied in the player’s tenacity in continuing to play the game – and rewarded by Link constantly improving his capabilities as they progress together through the challenges they are facing. This is the essence of a Zelda game, as confirmed by an interview in French for Game Kult (translated by a reader at Nintendo Everything), which raises the point that Miyamoto-san (the old master) and Aonuma-san (the apprentice becoming master) had always debated what the core of The Legend of Zelda might be:

It’s indeed always a source of debate with Mr. Miyamoto, simply because we both think about what defines Zelda and we’re not always on the same page. We eventually agreed this year, when we went to New York for a promotion tour. As we were talking, Mr. Miyamoto found the right words by saying that the essence of The Legend of Zelda is an environment where Link evolves and gains power, which the players will directly feel through the actions they can take as the story goes on.

Thus the acquisition of Heart Containers in all Zelda games is symbolic of the player having overcome challenges to gain in strength, and so too with Pieces of Heart for which commitment to exploration often replaces challenge-completion. The green Magic Meter (although white in Adventure of Link where it first appears) and the green Stamina gauge that replaces it from Skyward Sword, are also typically improved by the player’s continued persistence – in Breath of the Wild, Pieces of Heart being replaced with Spirit Orbs that can be used to acquire either Heart Containers or Stamina vessels. The Game Kult interview suggests that Stamina might have been adopted from Shadow of the Colossus, and Aonuma-san’s reply to this question is telling:

It’s funny that you’re mentioning this game, because we are friends with Mr. Ueda and he’s always said that he wanted to make a game like Zelda – hence the similarities in Shadow of the Colossus. Mr Ueda was kind enough to send me a copy of The Last Guardian late last year and as I was playing it, I could notice the moments when you climb on Trico’s head to find a path, and jump to reach places that were inaccessible from the height you were at. Without seeing each other or talking about it, I realize we had the same idea. It’s amusing to see we had the same inspirations, the same gameplay velleities at different times.

What can be seen here is the point made last week about the insular quality of the development practices of the Zelda team at Nintendo EAD: Aonuma-san barely plays any other games, and remains utterly embedded in the player practices of this one franchise. Shadow of the Colossus, as he alludes, has parallels to Zelda because Fumita Ueda is also participating in the player practices of Zelda; the idea that influence might have flowed in the opposite direction is effectively beyond belief for Aonuma-san.

The Stamina system is one of the most significant and divisive changes in the Zelda franchise. The conservation of player practices that underpins the design of all games creates particular challenges for an insular development community like that that makes the Zelda games each time the outcome of their process makes it out ‘into the wild’. Precisely because player practices are habits, they are conserved, but at the same time this creates resistances when players encounter constraints that they are unfamiliar with. ‘Why am I hamstrung by limited Stamina when (say) Assassin’s Creed lets me climb freely?’, the logic goes, and this resistance is apparent in Jed Pressgrove’s review of Breath of the Wild, Tim Roger’s complaints about Skyward Sword, Luke Plunkett’s commentary on his son’s responses to playing Breath of the Wild, and numerous forum posts along the same lines.

Such complaints are understandable, but arguably misguided: the Stamina system in Breath of the Wild (far more so than the one in Skyward Sword) are effective extensions of Link’s character – and are even more effective than Heart Containers at representing Link’s identity. This is because Heart Containers are something the player requires only to absorb their mistakes at playing the game, and as the player’s skill increases the usefulness of Heart Containers decreases. Conversely, there is no level of skill at which more Stamina is not more beneficial than less, and indeed experienced players almost universally argue for spending Spirit Orbs on Stamina Vessels not Heart Containers in the newest game. (I concur: in my second play through, I acquired only Stamina Vessels, and my enjoyment and appreciation for the game was greatly enhanced by this approach).

To fully explore this point, however, means to go beyond consideration of Link as a unique concordance of character and mask and to begin to look at the relationship between Link and Hyrule. For every avatar that can be considered, the relationship between world and character is essential because the avatar is what allows the player to take action inside the fictional world and the world is what responds to those actions. Thus while Link and Hyrule are two halves of the same whole, this is not a unique claim about The Legend of Zelda at all but a fundamental truth of the videogame experience: the avatar and the world are one.

Next week: Hyrule


Zelda Facets (1): Introduction

Visual History LinkConsidering the franchise goes back more than thirty years, The Legend of Zelda is not a huge commercial powerhouse for Nintendo, as the Mario and Pokémon franchises undoubtedly have been. Despite not kicking off until 2007, more than twenty years later, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has racked up more total sales than Zelda has in its thirty year history, some 93 million to Zelda’s 85 million. The Zelda games, however, have been hugely influential throughout their long and chequered history, inspiring Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver, Beyond: Good and Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Darksiders, Binding of Isaac, Hyper Light Drifter and more besides. But the real influence of these games is not felt by those that borrowed its template wholesale, but in the way professional game designers constantly check the new Zelda releases for how it will shift the landscape of videogames – make no mistake, even now, games in production are having their directions altered as a result of Breath of the Wild’s critical and commercial success.

This serial looks at key facets in the Zelda series, how they are used in Breath of the Wild, and the relationship this newest game has to the player practices and fictional worlds of its predecessors. My purpose is to try and reveal both the essential aspects of what makes Zelda what it is – and why that is so influential – and to apply the game design lineages method of historical analysis to Zelda in order to show how the conservation of player practices, the influence of material constraints, and the subversion of expectations through creator vision have all affected the path of this venerable franchise. Before looking at specific elements of the Zelda experience, however, it is necessary to put these games into a production perspective, by examining the circumstances outside the game that shaped the path of the series’ development.

The franchise roots are in two highly successful NES games, The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in 1987. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted the second title to feel distinct from the first, presumably in part because the technical limitations of the NES meant following the same style at that time would have resulted in a very derivative game. As a result, The Adventure of Link feels like the black sheep of the series and has had little influence on the play of future games in the franchise (it borrowed much from platform games and the newly-popular JRPG lineage, kicked off primarily by Dragon Quest), although it still contributed significantly to the still-developing lore that shapes the narrative space of each Zelda game. Conversely, the original Legend of Zelda not only provides the template for its 16-bit successor, A Link to the Past, released in 1991, but also for Breath of the Wild. Featuring what has come to be known as an open world, The Legend of Zelda was actually a little late to this party, since most of the key early open world games were released in 1984 and 1985. It also seems as if the ‘openness’ of the title might have been partly a consequence of the material constraints of the NES rather than express intention: Miyamoto-sans later Zelda games, A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, are much more locked down in their structure – a structure that had huge influence in the 3D combat and exploration games that followed.

The Legend of Zelda’s 6.5 million unit sales (which were meteoric for 1986) were not surpassed until 1998’s The Ocarina of Time, which brought the core player practices of A Link to the Past kicking and screaming into polygonal 3D, selling 7.6 million units, and (along with Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007) making the Nintendo 64 into a hit console. Ocarina of Time also set world records for high review scores, although personally I do not like the game very much, apart from two elements – the titular ocarina, which was perfectly designed for the controller and taught the player some actual musical skills, and the horse Epona, about which I will have more to say later in this serial. This was the first Zelda game that future franchise mastermind Eiji Aonuma worked upon, and its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask in 2000, was the first time he was handed the reigns. Far too arcane for the mainstream, Majora’s Mask’s labyrinthine temporal structure and impressionistic ending mark it out as a creative masterpiece, and it is not surprising that Miyamoto-san felt comfortable passing the franchise onto Aonuma-san, while remaining a stalking presence in the production of every Zelda game since.

It is 2003’s Wind Waker – Aonuma-san’s first major Zelda title (since Majora’s Mask was a spin-off from Ocarina of Time, reusing the same resources) – that begins to pave the way for Breath of the Wild by ‘failing’ commercially at ‘just’ 4.4 million units sold. This is actually twice what the best selling game I’ve worked on sold, and was still a good sales figure in 2003 – but on the budgets Nintendo affords a Zelda title, this was probably not much better than breaking even. The poor performance of the GameCube console was a factor here (as with the Resident Evil remake) but another problem was the choice of cel-shaded art. As Tom Hoggins touches upon in his Zelda retrospective, the choice flowed naturally out of the interior decisions guiding development but sat badly with many gamers, despite offering beautiful aesthetics throughout:

Many Zelda fans were aghast but those who fell for it fell hard, whisked away on the waves of colour. For Aonuma, the decision to switch wasn’t difficult. “Many developers were looking at ways to incorporate cel-shading into various games at the time, Nintendo too,” he says, simply. “One of the experiments was whether we could include these visuals into the world of The Legend of Zelda. When we finally decided that Wind Waker would feature child Link as the main character, we decided cel-shading was appropriate for the game and the more cheerful child-Link.”

The unique art style of Wind Waker has its own side-lineage in Zelda’s portable incarnations, Phantom Hourglass (2007) and Spirit Tracks (2009), which act  as sequels. But the die was cast for the core of the franchise: the audience wanted a more realistic looking Link, and that is what they would get with 2006’s Twilight Princess, originally developed for the GameCube but then painfully reconfigured for the Wii. In the Hoggins retrospective, Aonuma-san only half-jokingly remarks that after the platform change his job was reduced to cheerleader: “From that time on, rather than actually making the game my job was to approach each staff member to convince them we could do it.” Twilight Princess was a success, setting a new high watermark for the franchise’s sales at 8.6 million units (1.6 million of which were on the ailing GameCube). This pattern was repeated two titles later with Breath of the Wild, which also launched on a troubled older platform (the struggling Wii U) as well as launching the new Switch, and by January 2018 the new game had sold an impressive 7.8 million (1.1 million of which had been on the Wii U).

Just as Twilight Princess’ heading had been altered by the sales of Wind Waker being blown off course, the radical vision for Breath of the Wild was a response to the disappointing 3.7 million units that Skyward Sword had sold in 2011. Unlike the GameCube, the Wii had a massive install base to draw against – but the majority of use that the Wii was getting that that time wasn’t with the kind of core gamers that typically buy a Zelda… The focus on newly-improved motion controls probably did not help the 25th anniversary game’s performance, since this had been something players had merely tolerated in Twilight Princess and wasn’t enough to lure them away from the PS3 and Xbox 360s that were enjoying the benefits of well-developed online services by 2011. In a GameInformer interview, Aonuma-san tells a story of how one fan’s reaction to Skyward Sword resonated with him:

There was something that fans said before starting development that changed what I thought. There was a fan that said he really, really loved Zelda. But, while playing Skyward Sword, he missed experiencing this huge world where he could just ride Epona around. During Ocarina Of Time, he really loved doing that. Somewhere within myself, I felt the same way. So for Breath Of The Wild, it’s something that I definitely thought about.

The point also came up in an interview with Aonuma-san by Mike Diver that discussed the role of fan-feedback in influencing the creative vision of the franchise:

Actually, we did have in mind, from the start of development, that we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world. And part of the reason for that comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. The way that game world was set up was that you had kind of separate areas, separate strongholds, that you'd sort of land in and explore. But they were all self-contained, and they weren't really connected together.

We listened to a lot of opinions, from people who played Skyward Sword. And a lot of people said to us how they found the game… Not exactly unsatisfying, but they wish they could have explored the areas between the strongholds. So taking that on board, from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.

Skyward Sword was an outstanding example of the polygonal 3D Zelda form that Ocarina of Time had popularised, with improvements over Twilight Princess in almost every significant aspect, and substantial experiments in modifying the formula – including a much more explicitly constructed narrative. Link still did not say anything the player could hear, although for the first time we saw him talking to other characters (i.e. we saw Link’s lips move), and those other characters formed a much more coherent base for storytelling (helped by the single village, Skyloft, that served as hub). Review scores for Skyward Sword were incredibly positive, but the sales did not emerge on the back of it. It is possible that nothing could have lured gamers back to setting up their Wii at this point in time, and certainly not a game that relied upon newly improved motion controls. Speaking personally, however, playing with the butterfly net in Skyward Sword was a far more compelling experience of immersive presence than VR, which relies merely upon visual illusion and is not able to overcome the limitations in controls this entails. But whatever Skyward Sword’s merits, it hadn't been enough. It was time for Zelda to take a giant leap out of its comfort zone.

In one of the few reviews of Breath of the Wild willing to take issue with its problems, Jed Pressgrove calls out a “dubious decision to draw inspiration from prototypical open-world games” seeing this as producing “a conflicted combination of marketing logic and staggering artistry.” This was, all in all, the only interesting review of the new game I’ve seen, since most have merely swooned over its ample pleasures. Jed’s review is the reason I’m writing this serial: there is indeed an aesthetic conflict within Breath of the Wild, as he alludes to, but I contend it is not the result of marketing interference (although don't get me wrong: this is a very tangible force at work in the videogame industry, and one that should never be ruled out prematurely). Jed’s only mistake is to see in Breath of the Wild problems brought about by borrowing from the open world genre lineage as codified by Grand Theft Auto III (having built upon firm foundations established by Elite back in 1984, right before the first Zelda).

However, Breath of the Wild moves into open world territory in near complete ignorance of the GTAIII open world template that fed into Oblivion, Skyrim, and all the Assassin’s Creed games. In respect of these particular games, the only evidence that Aonuma-san had played any of them is for Skyrim (e.g. in an interview for Le Monde, and also for Game Spot), and then only to get a feel for how such worlds work in practice. The other chief source of external influence upon the open world leanings appears to have been technical assistance from Monolith, who had already assisted Nintendo’s EAD developer (which makes the Zelda games) on Skyward Sword. (On a minor, pedantic note, the camera feature in the new Zelda can hardly be borrowed from other open world games – as Jed alludes – since it originates in Wind Waker.)

The bottom line is that unlike other franchises, Zelda is not beholden to marketing influence because it is a flagship franchise that exists in a strange limbo of isolation from the rest of the gaming world. Aonuma-san barely plays other games – and has little interest in making anything other than Zelda games – as this internal Nintendo interview makes clear:

As I get closer to the retirement age, people ask me if I’m ever going to make anything other than a Zelda game. And so sometimes I think maybe I should. But Zelda games really have everything in them that I would want to make in a game. The way the main character grows and develops. The puzzles and the minigames. I don’t think there’s much point in me making something other than Zelda, if I did it would only end up being something just like it. It’s a problem. So I think I’ll just keep making Zelda games!

Putting aside the billions of yen and hundreds of developers involved in making a contemporary Zelda game, at the core of this franchise – unlike any other that we know of – is the relationship of master to apprentice that has passed from Shigeru Miyamoto (age 65), to Eiji Aonuma (age 54), and is currently being passed along to Hidemaro Fujibayashi (age 45), who has worked on Zelda since 2001, firstly for Capcom on The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages for the Game Boy Color before joining Nintendo, co-directing Phantom Hourglass, and then directing both Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. This is not how major commercial videogames are made, but it is how Zelda is made, and provides the reason that the franchise is primarily governed by the conservation of its own player practices, and the creative vision of a succession of apprentices that subverts these in subtle or radical ways in each iteration.

Over the following weeks I’ll be examining individual facets of Breath of the Wild’s game design and narrative design, situating it in the unique – and insular – game design lineage of the Zelda franchise, and showing how the new game’s content emerges from the effects of a single additional constraint: the desire to transcend Skyward Sword’s functionally-isolated wilderness segments. The resulting serial endeavours to show how to understand Link as a character (and how Breath of the Wild’s Link is consistent with that character), why Hyrule is integral to this character, in part because of the way videogames necessarily represent player characters, how the horses are simultaneously one of the new Zelda’s greatest achievements and strangest failings, and why Breath of the Wild can lay better claim to the title ‘The Legend of Zelda’ than any game before it.

Next week: Link


Which Cover for The Virtuous Cyborg?

The publisher has kindly sent me four variants of the new cover for The Virtuous Cyborg and asked me to pick one to run with. I have a favourite… but I do so like to procrastinating a decision by asking for advice that I agonise over before disregarding. Here are the options:

Four Covers.ihobo

So what do you think? You can either vote using the embedded Twitter poll, or leave me a comment.

The choice is mine – but you can influence it!


Playing with Money

Playing with Money was a three part serial looking at currency and shops in videogames, including their relationship to the tabletop role-playing games that were the first to make shopping a key part of their play experience. The serial ran from January 24th to February 7th 2018. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The three parts are as follows:

  1. The Adventurer Shop
  2. Space Trading
  3. Arms Dealers

Thanks to Dan Cook, Patrick Davis, Adam Hurd, Raph Koster, Jack "LateTide", Minh “Gooseman” Le, Nicholas Lovell, Romley Panable, Felipe Pepe, Paul Wake, Rich Wilson, and José Zagal, for their assistance in the research that led to this serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!


Playing with Money (3): Arms Dealers

Previously, the origins of videogame money with the Adventurer Shop, and the space trading game Elite. Now, a look at the infiltration of gun games by shopping.

CSS Buy MenuIn the early 2000’s, the celebrated Resident Evil franchise (known as Biohazard in Japan) was facing cancellation. Despite the excellent quality of the remake of the first game in the series for the GameCube in 2002, and prequel Resident Evil Zero that came out in the same year, sales were disappointing and Capcom needed reassurance that the series could still make money for them. As a result, project director Shinji Mikami was placed under pressure by his superiors, which resulted in a change of direction for the franchise:

With Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, and all the rest of the series before Resident Evil 4, I was always saying to the staff, ‘Scaring the player is the number one thing.’ But for the first time, in Resident Evil 4, I told the team that fun gameplay is the most important thing. That’s what I said. Then the second thing [would be ] nothing. And then the third thing is to be scary. That’s what I said to the team. That all came out of the commercial failure of the Resident Evil remake. And then of course Resident Evil 4 sold really well. I have kind of a lingering trauma there, because the Resident Evil remake didn’t sell – much more than people would think.

However, a note of caution is required here. The remake sold 1.3 million units on the GameCube, while Resident Evil 4 sold 1.6 million units on that platform (based on figures quoted by Destructoid). 300,000 units is not the difference between success and failure on the budgets such games are developed upon. The reason Resident Evil 4 ultimately went on to enjoy commercial success was that it was ported to other platforms; the remake could not be, because it was part of an exclusive deal between Capcom and Nintendo. The breakdown of this agreement allowed Resident Evil 4 to be distributed more widely – if this had happened to the remake, the situation might have been very different.

Nonetheless, the way events unfolded took the Resident Evil franchise away from its roots, and with a mandate for ‘fun’ it is hardly a surprise that this meant bringing in more CRPG elements. RPGs have always been the favourite genre in Japan, as every CESA report confirms, and Mikami-san, in an interview by Xav De Matos in 2011, singled out one title in particular as influencing the direction of the Resident Evil franchise:

“For BioHazard 4 (RE4) it came from playing Onimusha 3,” he said, remembering that he enjoyed the game but thought it could be better if a few elements were different. “If only the camera was behind the player, it would have been so much better,” he thought at the time. “That stemmed the idea for creating the camera system – the [third-person shooter] style – in BioHazard 4.” “Probably if Onimusha 3 had been better, I wouldn't have thought of BioHazard 4,” he laughed.

Onimusha 3 had a character advancement system based around collecting different coloured souls after certain characters defeated enemies, with red souls being used to enhance equipment at a Magic Mirror. Evidently, this supernatural justification for what amounts to a modified form of shopping would not work in a sci-fi horror setting like Resident Evil, where the nonsense is justified using technobabble rather than (wholly equivalent) magical explanations. The solution was the addition of the Weapons Merchant (just ‘the Merchant’ when the game was translated from Japanese). The player collects treasure scattered around the world and sells it to the Merchant with the money earned then being used to power up their guns – a practice clearly descended from Onimusha, the practices of which were entirely conditioned by character advancement in Japanese RPGs.

This is one of several notable examples of shopping making its way into gun games, which had long resisted the player practices of currency and shops. This is ironic, since the first person shooter was itself an offshoot of the CRPG lineage. Catacomb 3-D, John Carmack’s project immediately prior to Wolfenstein 3D, was a straightforward dungeon crawler of the form popularised by Dungeon Master in 1987 (as discussed in the previous Game Inventories serial). Those dungeon crawlers, however, had differentiated themselves from other CRPGs by being interested solely in the dungeon, and discarding the village and overworld (wilderness in the tabletop precursors) that had structured the play of non-dungeon crawlers (see the first part of this serial, discussing the Adventurer Shop, for more on this point).

Resident Evil 4 was to prove influential, most obviously in the case of Dead Space which adopts almost all of the player practices of the Japanese horror game – including the shopping, which becomes a Store where players exchange credits for upgrades. BioShock is another example, although in this case, the game was already enmeshed within the CRPG lineages, and the critical success of Resident Evil 4 merely reassured the developer that their combination of horror, action, and RPG could work. Although I can find no explicit mention of it influencing Tripwire’s Killing Floor, it seems a virtual certainty that the creator of the original 2007 mod that lead to this game, Alex Quick, had played Resident Evil games, and the wave-based zombie slayer feels very much like an interweaving of the practices of Resident Evil 4 with Team Fortress – with shopping occurring after each wave at a Trader that the player must locate in a manner reminiscent of the Merchant in RE4.

There is one other example of shops being added to gun games that pre-dates Resident Evil 4 and runs down rather different lines: Counter-Strike. Starting life as a Half-life mod and developed by Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe, the highly successful multiplayer game was presented as a battle between terrorists and counter-terrorists, although this scenario only goes about as deep as children playing cowboys and Indians, which is to say, it provides the excuse for fighting with guns rather than offering play focussed upon the events and contents of a fictional world, as with CRPGs. More significant than its imaginary world was the way Counter-Strike pushed multiplayer gun games closer towards the player practices of sports, with tightly focussed play over a series of rounds involving (from the counter-terrorist perspective) either hostage rescue or bomb disposal that lead to winning an overall match. The sport-like aesthetic in no way suggests that this would in fact be a game that features shopping, albeit a stripped-down, abstract form of shopping that essentially consists in trading money earned in previous rounds for firearms and equipment while standing in a designated square known simply as a ‘Buy Zone’ (the menu for which is pictured above).

Design decisions for the project were mostly made by Le, with Cliffe working on maps and, perhaps more importantly, coordinating the community of players – an increasingly vital role in game development. Le had played a lot of CRPGs when he was younger, but had found them too great a drain on his time as he got older, so there was a definite possibility that the shop concept was influenced by Adventurer Shops. However, as with all cases of shopping in videogames, there was also the possibility that it was simply everyday currency practices that provided the point of reference. These cases are difficult to judge, and prudence suggests erring on the side of the more general explanation in the absence of any specific evidence.

I asked Minh Le over Twitter about the origins of the shop, since none of the existing interviews had touched upon it and it stands out (from both a historical and a game design perspective) as one of the most unique inventions of the franchise. His answer reveals that the Counter-Strike buy zone was a result of a need to provide some internal balancing to the game:

Originally I planned on letting players pick any gun but came up with the idea of putting a price tag on the weapons cuz I needed a way to differentiate them without having to arbitrarily fudge their performance (ie rate of fire, damage, etc). Like how certain games do. Some games balance the weapons by making smgs more effective in close quarters and making assault rifles have high recoil but you can only do so much to try and make all the guns equally attractive to use, so I just put a price tag on the guns in hopes of making some guns used more. Like if I didn't have the buy system, the ak47 would get used All the freaking time. TBH it should be more expensive to mitigate it's all around effectiveness but by the time the game had gotten so popular, it was too late to make drastic changes to the game without incurring the wrath of the player base. I also liked how a money economy added a mental game to the shoot aspects of Cs. Teams had to consider wise spending in order to maximize their chances of winning the match.

This doesn’t settle the question of possible CRPG influence (nor, to be fair, was it likely to) but this discussion brings out another aspect of the conservation of player practices: the resistance of player communities to change when a game or lineage of games is effectively meeting their play needs. This point is also apparent in Joe Donnelly’s account of the making of Counter-Strike:

By Version 1.3, says Le, opinions as to what worked and what didn’t were so staunch, so resolute, that even a whisper of revision heralded waves of protest from the ever-intransigent camp. It got to the point where even the thought of change had become almost trivial. By Version 1.6, the latest and final overhaul of significant degree, the team realised it was time to step back. “It wasn’t until Counter-Strike 1.6 when everybody - myself, Valve, everyone involved in CS – sort of noticed that the community were beginning to become resistant,” says Le. “It became much more difficult to change the core gameplay. I think at that point we realised it’d become the perfect game and we shouldn’t mess with it too much. It was then we realised this was basically Counter-Strike from now on.”

This represents a microcosm of the situation at large regarding player communities. When a game provides a compelling, engaging experience for a particular community of players, those player practices become conserved precisely because they are effective at meeting that community’s play needs. In this case, quite distinct from game design lineages where specific features (e.g. inventories, control schemes, power-ups) become conserved but can appear in radically different kinds of game, it is the complete set of player practices that are being conserved – what might poetically be called the essence of a particular game. The essence of Counter-Strike was in place by 1.6 in part because it had, right from the outset, a community of players who could act to conserve the practices of its play. There have been few significant changes since beyond graphical tweaks and further attempts at balancing: Counter-Strike: Source added largely unnecessary achievements, while Global Offensive added a competitive mode where the teams ‘change ends’ (switching between terrorist and counter-terrorist), and controversial micro-transaction monetisation. The game design process was essentially concluded when 1.6 launched in beta in 1999; what came afterwards was only refinement to those player practices that Le, Cliffe, and their original player community had established at the outset.

Throughout this serial, the process of using game design lineages to track the player practices of shops and money between games has been complicated by the fact that we are all embedded in the practices of currency and shopping (the ‘game’ of money, if you will). This means that it was always possible to add a shop into any game at the designer’s whim. Yet, despite this ever-present possibility, this is not entirely what has happened. Whenever creator vision has added a shop – whether it was the weapon shops added to the imaginative practices of fantasy adventure stories, space trading being used to maximise player agency, horror games borrowing from CRPGs, or gun games seeking innovative balancing solutions – it has set into motion a community of players whose practices have been conserved. Where those players include game designers (or future game designers), these practices have gone on to inspire other games that have partly conserved those practices, and partly subverted them for creative purposes. This is the path the history of videogames have taken, a path that carries on from tabletop games before them, as well as from literature and films, with whom they share imaginative practices. We all play with money, we imagine its value, acquire it and spend it – both inside and outside of videogames.

With thanks to Dan Cook, Patrick Davis, Adam Hurd, Raph Koster, Jack "LateTide", Minh “Gooseman” Le, Nicholas Lovell, Romley Panable, Felipe Pepe, Paul Wake, Rich Wilson, and José Zagal, for their assistance in the research that led to this serial.


Playing with Money (2): Space Trading

Last week, we looked directly at the invention and influence of the Adventurer Shop. Now, we turn to another key play experience of early videogames: space trading.

Space OperaThe imaginative practices of Dungeons & Dragons, which allowed a group of players to create dramatic stories around a tabletop using dice to resolve combat and certain tasks, immediately spawned successors – both in fantasy settings like Chaosium’s 1978 classic RuneQuest, and in all kinds of other fictional worlds. There were many early attempts at a science fiction tabletop RPG but none of them stuck until 1977’s Traveller, created by Marc Miller and published by his company Game Designer’s Workshop. Whereas Michael Scott’s Space Patrol (also published in 1977) took a great deal of influence from Star TrekTraveller’s influence was far more obscure, but as Michael Andre-Driussi patiently deciphered, a great deal of the concept for the setting (including the name) was inspired by E.C. Tubbs sprawling Dumarest of Terra books. This series was structured around the idea of the protagonist, Earl Dumarest, arriving on a new planet and having to earn enough money to buy passage to the next world, and it provided a name for the people who live like this: travelers (using the US spelling, modified to the UK spelling for the game). This core idea alone was more than enough to adapt the D&D adventurer into space.

Traveller itself was to immediately spawn successors, most notably Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera (pictured above), which shares with its predecessor a sprawling character generation system that was a game in itself (I too was influenced by this in my first science fiction RPG design, Outlands, which had its definitive edition in 1995, and the cover to Wikipedia Knows Nothing is also a tribute to the minimalist cover of Marc Miller’s game). Space Opera had its fans and its critics: co-authored by Edward E. Simbalist, who had also worked on the complex fantasy RPG Chivalry & Sorcery, no-one could call Space Opera easy to play, but what it offered was an immense wealth of different game systems for simulating a vast variety of science fiction elements. These did not fit together particularly well – perhaps in part because unlike Traveller this was not a rulebook recording the player practices of a gaming group since the designers had worked remotely via correspondence. It was thus up to players to synthesise Space Opera into coherent practices – but then, this was how tabletop RPGs tended to work anyway, since written rules are never a perfect translation of what is played, and it was always up to the players to ‘fill in the gaps’.

These two sci-fi games, Traveller and Space Opera, were to go on to inspire one of the most influential videogames of all time: 1984’s Elite, created by Cambridge University students David Braben and Ian Bell. A space trading game, its play consisted primarily of buying goods at one space station, and flying them to another station while enduring pirate attacks en route. It offered the player tremendous freedom of choice within its world, supporting everything from asteroid mining to bounty hunting with little more than a tight and flexible design – a design that descends directly from the early science fiction tabletop RPGs. This connection is frequently overlooked, most likely because of the tendency to ignore the relationship between early videogames and the tabletop games that lead to them – Francis Spufford offers a detailed account of the Elite design process in his book Backroom Boys, yet never mentions tabletop role-playing games at all and, writing for the Telegraph, Adam Lusher dubs Elite “the game that changed the world” but once again fails to understand how this came about as the conservation of player practices from tabletop role-playing games. Consider these remarks in Lusher’s article:

Elite was different. It was…, as that mesmerised eight-year-old discovered, “the first game that did not feel or behave like a game. It was much bigger. You were immersed in this world and it literally became reality for the time you were playing it. It was fun, but carried all the other characteristics of reality, like intensity and drama, too”.

Players also had more autonomy – including moral autonomy – than ever before. They could either plod along trading in legitimate goods, or try drug and slave running for high-risk, high returns. They helped decide what the story should be – and they didn’t have to start again from scratch each time they “died”; they could save their position, slowly progressing through a narrative partly of their own making.

The last point made here – the role of save games – is unique to videogames, and in no way relates to the tabletop RPGs, which all operated on the principle that eventually became dubbed ‘permadeath’, but which was at the time simply called ‘dying’ (a terminology that points to the extent to which save games disrupted this aspect of the player practices of the tabletops). But the sense of autonomy and moral autonomy, and the carving out of a narrative that the players themselves crafted, these are the definitive player practices of tabletop role-playing games. As technically innovative as Elite was, it existed against a backdrop of games that already achieved what it is remembered for – Braben and Bell’s accomplishment was in finding ways to make the immense agency of tabletop RPGs function in the immensely limited resources of 1980s computers.

Players of Traveller immediately suspected a connection between the two games – for a start, the default character in Elite is called Commander Jameson, while the default character in Traveller is named Jamison. But the connection continued to be brushed under the carpet, in part because David Braben downplayed it. For instance, in a reader-contributed interview run by Alec Meer, he was asked directly about a connection with Traveller:

RPS: @glowingslab asks “How much was Elite influenced by the Traveller RPG?”

David Braben: Not at all. It was influenced by RPGs, because there were quite a few around and I had played a few, but not influenced at all by Traveller. I think Ian played Traveller a little bit, but I’d played Fantasy Trip which is essentially men in tights fantasy, there was Space Opera, there were lots around. They from people like Steve Jackson, who went on to do GURPS, although that wasn’t released at that time, and all sorts of others.

Konrad Lischka managed to complete this story by asking Bell about it:

I used to play Traveller. David played Space Opera. So the Elite Trade Goods at least are more Space Opera than Traveller. Maybe the Planet Govt types too. Jameson is definitely a nod to Traveller though, I changed the i to e to make it a little less blatant, and also reference the whisky.

The significance of the tabletop RPG connection here should not be understated or ignored (as Spufford and Lusher do) because the way in which Elite goes on to have its influence is precisely in the imaginative practices that it had inherited from the tabletops, namely the provision of autonomy. As Braben notes in an interview with Logan Booker, Gary Penn (producer of the Elite sequel Frontier) was to go on to work at DMA Design on Grand Theft Auto, which he called “Elite in a city”. This influence was also confirmed by DMA developers Matthew Smith (in an interview with Dean Takahashi) and Sam Houser (talking to Ben Mckelvey). The open world game, of which Elite and its contemporaries The Lords of Midnight, Mercenary: Escape from Targ, and Paradroid are the prototypes, can trace its lineage back to tabletop role-playing games, which are the most truly ‘open’ games imaginable, precisely because of Elite – although the lack of tabletop influence in these other games is a sign that this inheritance was circumstantial rather than inevitable. That said, it cannot be ignored that Elite’s influence outstrips that of its contemporaries.

What GTA and its sequels achieved through scale of content, Elite had to achieve through very limited resources. Indeed, material constraints are an important part of the story of this game – and the reason why money is key to understanding Elite’s design. With tight hardware limitations, it is impossible to give players anything like the choices they face with a live Games Master to moderate decisions. Elite circumvented this through adapting two of the key elements that had made tabletop role-playing games function as flexible narrative systems: maps and shops. In Elite’s case the two were fused together, since the innovative Fibonacci-inspired procedural generation Bell had developed with Braben supplied qualities to each star system – qualities that drew against the material drafted for Space Opera – that in turn set the prices for commodities in each space station. This provided the basic engine for space trading (the initial source of money for all Elite players).

To deliver the high illusion of agency, the game needed to provide ways for players to choose alternative paths – and the only practical option was a shop. Players could buy mining lasers and fuel scoops and become an asteroid miner, or choose powerful weapons and turn to piracy or go hunt down pirates for a bounty. In practice, these four choices are the only ways to play Elite – as space trader, miner, pirate, or bounty hunter, although the trading also allowed agency since some goods (like slaves) were illegal in certain systems. But the game never presents any of these options as an explicit choice: they are merely offered a shop, form which different choices of equipment are purchased. The fact that the choices are concealed in this way did much to cultivate the impression of ‘go anywhere, do anything’ that became the hallmark of the open world genre. The shop design in Elite – quite unlike the shops of tabletop RPGs – became the engine of player autonomy. This was entirely the product of creator vision overcoming material constraints.

Elite was by no means the first game to feature trade – they had been well established since at least 1944’s SHOC, a share trading game run with two decks of cards, one of which represents shares, the other being used to randomly adjust share prices. (My family owned a copy of this game when I was growing up, which was much more enjoyable than its simplistic design suggests.) Even in videogames, there was 1982’s Taipan! as a precursor – but Braben and Bell hadn’t played this, or indeed many other early videogames. They were not influenced by videogame practices at all, and that made it far easier to innovate in their own game, creating a fictional world with a blend of combat and trading that would go on to inspire Federation of Free Traders, Wing Commander: Privateer (also influenced by Steve Jackson’s Car Wars), X: Beyond the Frontier, Freelancer, , EVE Online, and Sunless Sea.

This last example may raise another possibility: were other naval trading games influenced by Elite? Here, once again, we run up against the problem that the ‘game’ of money (and the practices of trade) are something we are all embedded within, and so despite the tendency for influences to be passed down in the conservation of player practices, there is always the possibility of it spontaneously recurring. This appears to be the case with 1987’s Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which might have been Elite in the Caribbean were it not for the inconvenient fact that Meier was completely unaware of Braben and Bell’s masterwork, as an interview in Rolling Stone makes abundantly clear:

Today, we kind of package things into these genres that have well-defined boundaries, and you can build your game inside this box. But we didn't have genres. Pirates! was probably the second open-world game after Seven Cities of Gold. It was like, “Let’s toss in some role-playing and some action and some storytelling and adventuring.” So it was really about the fun of breaking new ground, or exploring a new territory, creating a design territory. It was a time when we were really experimenting and trying new things.

Seven Cities of Gold was released in 1984, the same year as Elite and The Lords of Midnight (which arguably make a stronger claim to being the first open world games), and one year before Mercenary and Paradroid. All four of these latter games were British-made, which may suggest Meier’s game knowledge was limited to the US, but more likely reflects that he was playing games on a PC and missed out on all the home computer games that had such great influence in the early days of videogames. He did, however, have knowledge of British boardgames, as one of his key influences outside of videogames appears to have been the tabletop strategy games of Francis Tresham, particularly Civilisation, which invented a player practice Meier was to have the most influence in spreading: the technology tree.

One strange aspect of the story of these early open world games is that they each had their own ways of elevating the player’s agency. Elite, Seven Cities of Gold, and Pirates! mixed trading and combat. Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight used recruiting military commanders and parallel adventure and strategy elements (inspired, like Dungeons & Dragons, by Tolkien). Paul Woakes’ Mercenary and Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid had stealing ships or taking over robots (foreshadowing a core aspect of GTA’s play). Only the first three of these games seem to have been influenced by the tabletop games (although the lack of interviews with Paul Woakes makes Mercenary’s influence hard to judge), and only the first three games provide a key role for the shop. Whether this is circumstantial or an artefact of the key role money played in tabletop games, we can only speculate. What is clear, however, is that in the way the history of games actually unfolded, it was those games that conserved the imaginative practices of tabletop role-playing games that went on to have greater influence.

Next week, the final part: Arms Dealers


Playing with Money (1): The Adventurer Shop

Dragon Quest ShopIf you’re anything like me, you've spent a rather disturbing amount of your life in videogame shops, making purchasing decisions or selling the piles of weapons looted from the corpses of your imaginary enemies. This three-part serial traces game design lineages for videogame money and shops, focussing on the key titles that established shopping as a central feature in contemporary videogame play.

The two key lineages in the early days of videogames are the arcade games and the descendants of TSR’s hugely influential Dungeons & Dragons. The player practices of the arcade, however, being based around fast-paced play that ended suddenly to encourage further coin drops, rarely involved shopping – although Atari’s 1986 top-down racer Super Sprint is a notable exception. Tracing the lineages of money and shops in games always suffers from the general problem that the imaginative practices of money are something we are all embedded within every day, and thus game shops could appear anywhere, in any kind of game, with no clear influence of a preceding game. Nonetheless, even with game money and shops, the conservation of player practices remains the norm, even if our everyday money is not considered a game (which could certainly be argued: we are required, after all, to imagine the value of objects that have no value apart from what we collectively imagine).

A game design lineage is a historical tracing of an element within games that shows both the conservation of player practices (which give us the patterns that become labelled as genres) and the hallmarks of creator vision, which subverts those player practices to create variations on the established patterns, often conditioned by the material constraints applying to games at the time of their creation. These lineages can spread beyond games: plenty of book and film influences create imaginative patterns that are then sustained in the fictional worlds of games – from the utter dependence of Halo: Combat Evolved upon James Cameron’s Aliens to the massive debt Dungeons & Dragons owes to Tolkien, Moorcock, and the other twentieth century fantasy writers.

However, the Adventurer Shop seems to be purely the invention of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The preceding rules, Chainmail, designed by Jeff Perrin and given a fantasy supplement by Gygax, were purely a wargame – and this martial theme carried over into D&D’s preoccupation with ethnically cleansing goblins, kobolds and such from underground lairs for money and experience. What the monsters did with the coins they were hoarding is never made entirely clear, and no D&D module has a weapon shop purely for the enemies (which, logically, would be an excellent place for belligerent players to attack, since it would hold both money and weaponry). Adventurer shops, however, are present from the beginning, most notably in the scenario that shipped with boxed versions of the game from 1979, Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, which already shows the division of the game world into a village with shops (the keep), a wilderness (the overworld in CRPGs), and a dungeon (the Caves of the Unknown).

In addition to the Adventurer Shop, D&D also creates a vast range of coins to give out as loot. While the Gold Piece (or GP) is presented as the standard currency, treasure tables for the original tabletop role-playing game specified rewards in Copper Pieces, Silver Pieces, Electrum Pieces, and at the top of the scale Platinum Pieces. This final currency eventually got a starring role as currency in 1999’s pioneering (and rough around the edges) MMORPG EverQuest, although historically platinum currency was generally worth less than silver (when the Spanish invaded South America and found it in use there, it was largely considered a nuisance as it got in the way of their obsessive search for gold). Mostly, these different currencies merely tied players up in conversions into Gold Pieces, although in campaigns where encumbrance was enforced (mostly in the later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules) it also led to incidents of ‘treasure dumping’, as players discarded that pile of Silver Pieces they had pilfered to make room for better coins they found later. Regardless of what was found out in the dungeons, shopping prices remained set in Gold Pieces, which remains the primary currency in Dungeons & Dragons even now. 

While it is Tolkien’s Moria that gives D&D its dungeon template, the act of shopping never directly appears in the stories of his legendarium, and neither does it appear in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, although Fritz Leiber does have a shop of magical treasures in the 1963 Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser short story, Bazaar of the Bizarre. Even this case, however, doesn’t parallel the Adventurer Shop concept, since it is more a source of adventure than a means of supplying the expedition. Horses and supplies do feature in stories by Moorcock and Tolkien, especially in The Hobbit where the company of dwarves never manage to hold onto their food and ponies for more than a few pages, but buying weaponry, wooden poles, and near-endless yards of rope is not a part of any fantasy story prior to D&D’s publication, and no shopkeeper gets even one line of dialogue outside of Leiber. Even in D&D, the shop was mostly elided into backstory – part of kitting out ‘heroes’ (I use this term reluctantly in this case) with weapons and armour before setting off on the next cash-earning pogrom.

When early commercial computer role-playing games come onto the market in 1979-1980, the Adventurer Shop was part of the design because it was also part of D&D’s design, and the creators of these games were inspired by the practices of the tabletop game when putting their software together. Both 1979’s Akalabeth and its 1981 successor Ultima have a shop for buying food and weapons, with Ultima splitting up the full list of items for sale such that each shop has half of the total items on offer. 1980’s Wizardry goes as far to give its shop a name – Boltoc’s Trading Post – and adds to buying and selling the capacity to identify magical items and remove curses. In all these cases the player practices of D&D are conserved, with only minor tweaks. The ambiguous qualities of magical items, for instance, was a part of D&D’s original play, and paying someone to identify items (since they could be cursed...) is a simple twist on this, which also has a role in Rogue, from the same year of release as Wizardry.

In all these games, including D&D, the shop is rapidly superseded in practical terms by the magical treasure looted from the poor unfortunate denizens of the depths. Getting better weapons through accumulating money is not part of the Western RPG lineage at all. It is when early CRPGs like Ultima and Wizardry spread their player practices to Japan (which had almost no experience of D&D) that we get the idea of later shops holding better weapons. Both Dragon Quest in 1986 and Final Fantasy in 1987 – the latter inheriting Wizardry’s D&D-style multi-character parties, the former copying Ultima’s lone adventurer – have a series of shops, each offering better armaments and armour than the last. This concept, along with the episodic, chapter-based storytelling that facilitate it, became foundational to the Japanese RPG lineage, because their creators were riffing off fantasy adventure stories for inspiration and not D&D’s imaginative practices of player agency, where letting the players seem to be in charge of what is happening was an important part of the appeal. (The cultural biases of Western individualism versus Eastern collectivism must surely be another factor here, however difficult it might be to adequately expose such influences in any tangible manner).

Thus videogames took a player practice that formed just a small, peripheral role in tabletop RPGs and transformed it into a central, structural conceit for the Japanese CRPG lineage. Equivalently, the Western CRPG created a variation of D&D’s practices where the player becomes, as former International Hobo stalwart Ernest Adams quipped, an “itinerant second-hand arms dealer” – since in the absence of encumbrance rules (largely not inherited from tabletops into CRPGs) looting and selling weaponry became more of an in-game business model than simply stealing the supply of coins monsters had been squirrelling away for their never-to-be-attained retirement. Partly this is a consequence of inheriting the treasure table design from Dungeons & Dragons, but accelerating the rate of play such that fighting is happening every minute rather than (say) every half hour of play – this produced so much treasure that players from the 70’s might have to consider almost all the Western CRPG games that followed a ‘Monty Haul’

It is worth remarking that the Adventurer Shop can only be an invention of the tabletop RPG, because the adventurer itself has its origins there, despite the evident and acknowledged influence of the aforementioned authors. Having developed from tabletop wargames, combat was baked into the player practices of role-playing games from the outset, but the move towards narrative meant playing until victory ceased to be the basis of game structure and became supplanted with the gradual accumulation of power, the first step of which was going to a shop to acquire weaponry. It is worth noting that in a historical Medieval, Bronze or Iron Age context, weapons were not sold as over-the-counter goods, but either made as required by a village blacksmith or produced in large numbers for a nobleman’s armory. It is back projecting our contemporary shopping practices into a simulacrum of such historical worlds that makes sense of the idea of killing monsters to take their money and buy weapons to kill yet more monsters. It is patent nonsense. Yet, at the same time, it is tremendously entertaining.

Next week: Space Trading


Game Design Lineages

catacomb-3dLast year, I published my first paper with José Zagal, entitled Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory. This is the finest academic games work I’ve been involved in, or (as I remarked to José) “the game studies paper I want to be buried with”. But what is a game design lineage and what does it have to do with game design? This piece explains my interest in the lineages of games and how it has informed, in some small but significant way, my professional work as a game designer and writer who will hit fifty published games this year.

Since at least 2011, I have been interested in improving historical research into game design – motivated by my own desire to continuously improve my game design skills, and also to contribute to the academic discussion that has grown up around games. Game studies, the field that engages with games as something worthy of research, has suffered from a number of problems in this regard including a widespread ignorance of the importance of history for understanding games as a creative form, and long standing prejudices that favour videogames over other forms of game. Indeed, until recently ‘game studies’ was a term that has primarily meant videogame studies. As a field, it tends to suffer from a widely held (but rarely spoken) conviction that it ought to be engaged in scientific research, and therefore history is a second class citizen in the academic games world. Yet no media studies field is a science, the methods of the sciences generally produce lacklustre results when applied to games, and historically-grounded discourse about games is arguably the pinnacle of scholarship in game studies right now – whether its focus is aesthetics, tracing relationships between games, or examining hardware constraints.

The earliest piece of mine to voice these views was The Constraint Histories of Digital Games, back in October 2011. It makes the following still-relevant observation about a key issue in historical research for games:

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

In the six years since I wrote this, I can now strengthen this claim: Zaxxon belongs within the various arcade lineages of the late twentieth century that have tremendous influence upon games but that are radically distinct from the lineages that descend from tabletop role-playing games, which proliferated in the wake of 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons. Surprisingly, DOOM is a descendant of this latter lineage and not any of the arcade lineages, since it comes about from modifying the early dungeon crawler form typified by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master, a form that inspired John Carmack to make Catacomb 3D (pictured above) and from this, mostly by raising the pace of play and switching fantasy weapons for guns, creating the FPS form as we now understand it.

In August 2016, I produced my most complete piece of historical work on games to date, a historical investigation of game inventories – the first part of which touches upon the roots of the FPS in the early dungeon crawlers that converted the dungeon adventures D&D had invented into digital forms. Last year, I worked with my good and excellent academic friend José Zagal to adapt this material into a paper, which we presented at DiGRA UK, just a short distance up the road from me at MediaCity in Salford. The paper contracts some of the historical detail in my original blog serial, but with José’s assistance the general method I was pursuing became more robust and clearly stated. The resulting paper, Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory, is not yet included in DiGRA’s digital library but I have made it available in ResearchGate in the meantime (it is also headed to DiGRA’s Transactions journal at some point in the near future). This term ‘game design lineages’ is José’s suggested description for my general method. Here’s an explanation of the term from the paper:

In the context of game studies and game design we feel that little work has been done to explore how best to provide rich and deep insight such that game design knowledge can be understood, communicated, and possibly used, without losing the essential relationships required to make sense of the games in question. We offer the notion of the game design lineage as a means to partially address this challenge by contextualizing game systems within the player practices that provided both the environment that guided their implementation, and the background of understanding against which the game was encountered by its original players.

A game design lineage is rich description of the networks of connections between common designed elements… that is situated within an understanding of the context that conditioned the original design decisions that led to them, understood in terms of player practices. This perspective is important not only in terms of more accurately investigating the historical connectivity of games and their designs, but also because insights from the past remain useful in the future, and can explain problems that are currently misunderstood or taken for granted.

The paper focuses on three specific contexts by which lineages can be traced. Firstly, player practices, which as I have been uncovering through patient investigation (and more than a touch of philosophical influence) are the bedrock of the game design process and the origin of the interrelations between games that give us the genre terms that are themselves too vague to build historical accounts from (as discussed above). Player practices, and not rules as such, are fundamental to games, as I argue in Are Videogames Made of Rules?, since rules are better understood as a means of capturing such practices in words and specifying them more precisely. Material constraints include the kind of hardware issues that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort engaged with in with Racing the Beam, as well as significant commercial considerations that I discuss often as a consultant but which the academic community around games has largely ignored. Finally, creator vision marks the ways that game designers and development teams subvert player practices and adapt to material constraints in new and innovative ways while still remaining embedded within the conservation of player practices. 

I had previously been discussing lineages in terms of Foucault’s work, especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, since his method and mine substantially overlap. I wrote about this in the ‘tin anniversary’ dual serials for my blogs, Foucault’s Archaeology and Player Practices. Disappointingly, Foucault scholars have blocked my attempts to turn this into a paper, requiring me to talk about power (the late Foucault’s obsession), and forcing me to withdraw from using Foucault as a reference at all. To be clear, Foucault’s methods in The Archaeology of Knowledge and mine overlap… I thought it prudent to draw attention to that, the academic community had other ideas, and I don’t have the patience or desire to persist with such a trivial aspect of my work. Easier all around to leave Foucault to the Foucauldians.

Dan Golding has had more success drawing on this angle without being required to talk about power, perhaps by getting at Foucault’s ideas indirectly via film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Dan presented his paper Lineages: Historicising the Videogame at the joint DiGRA-FDG conference in Dundee back in 2016, the same conference that I presented No-one Plays Alone, which has also not made it into the DiGRA library yet but had appeared in their Transactions (linked here). This is the paper that begins to develop the player practices concept, within which game design lineages has been conceived. I view Dan’s work as allied to mine (although he may not), and my means of combining the two methods goes via Walton’s prop theory, which I deployed in Imaginary Games (to very little influence in game studies). At the very least, Dan and I share a perception of the importance of history in understanding games and play, and agree that films and literature are part of the network of relations that have made videogames what they are.

The game design lineages method is the most viable historical research tool I’ve yet encountered for examining games and videogames, although it is only a part of the wider research project into player practices that I have been pursuing for much of the last decade. It began with Imaginary Games, applying Walton’s concept of props that prescribe certain imaginings to games, and then asking about the key props for videogames – such as inventories, maps, and save games, all of which condition the play of videogames in highly significant ways. This also brought out how videogames were dominated by two particular props – guns and goals – leading me to suggest (back in 2011) that authentic artistic innovation in these media would have to subvert the player practices surrounding these props, as Dear Esther, Proteus, and everything by Tale of Tales does to great effect.

As a commercial game designer, I have not had the luxury to explore such artistically-motivated concerns, but my player practices work has had another key influence upon me: it has united the otherwise disparate domains of marketing and game design. When I first pursued the research into play styles that became my book with Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design, it was because of the recognition that marketing was valued more than game design – and with good cause (despite the abysmal state of understanding in games marketing departments...) since marketing expenditure is a much better predictor of eventual sales than anything else. That was why the original pamphlet for this research, which I gave out to (amongst other people) Eiji Aonuma, was subtitled How to Make Game Design as Important as Marketing. The point here is straightforward, but easily ignored: the conditions into which every game appears are set by the games that are already being played, and when this isn’t taken into account, there is a tendency to produce games that – whatever their merits – acquire no audience because they are either too hard to learn or do not offer an imaginative fantasy players will pay for. The conservation of player practices is the dominant flow of the commercial games market, and it is the major forks in this river that become labelled with genre terms.

When I started to give talks about the history of games, I began to see how interconnected their lineages were, and how genre emerges as a symptom of the conservation of player practices, which provides the bedrock for the craft of game design. We game designers do not build games from game-mechanical Lego bricks but from player practices we have learned by playing other games, often expressed in terms of rules or systems because we nerds are trained to think in such terms. Yet when you think about design in terms of player practices, game design lineages become not just a tool for historical investigations but yet another method for creating games, one that is informed by the knowledge that no-one plays alone. It is both these projects – historical research and creative game design – that I continue to vigorously pursue.

For further reading, please check out the papers Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory and its predecessor No-one Plays Alone.