The original guide to writing for games returns! Every chapter has been revised and expanded, and there are new chapters covering storytelling for MMOs, urban narrative, interactive script formats, and the different kinds of relationship players can have with a game's story. Available from Bloomsbury now as a paperback, hardback, or ebook!
Over at the blog for Develop: Brighton today, I discuss the weird double standard that game developers sometimes express about the importance of narrative to videogames. Here’s an extract:
What I’ve come to realise over the last fifty videogame projects I’ve worked on, and particularly as a result of my research into how and why humans enjoy games (I’m presenting my latest findings on this at Develop:Brighton next month), is that “it’s the gameplay that matters” misunderstands the relationship between games and stories. It’s a mistake that scholars in game studies repeatedly make as well – they assume that the ‘game’ is the crunchy designed systems, and the ‘story’ is this kind of wrapping paper that you dress up the mechanics in. There might be a recognition of the importance of that ‘wrapper’ in getting players interested in playing the game, but sooner or later, everyone comes down to the importance of those game systems and the lesser role of narrative.
Trouble is, that doesn’t describe how people play games, much less why we enjoy them.
Zelda Facets was a six part serial that examined The Legend of Zelda franchise in terms of the key elements of the franchise and how these came to be subverted in Breath of the Wild. The serial ran from February 21st to March 28th 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 six parts are as follows:
I would like to extend especial thanks to my friend and colleague Richard Boon for a great many illuminating discussions about Zelda’s structure and play aesthetics over several decades, many of which helped form the arguments in this serial.
If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!
Last week, the triumph and failures of the greatest horse system in videogames. Now, the final part of the serial, looking at Princess Zelda herself. Contains major narrative spoilers for Breath of the Wild and several other Zelda games.
Considering the franchise is named after her, Princess Zelda took a while to take an active role in the series. Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that she is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, simply because he liked the sound of the name. In the 1986 original, which was called The Hyrule Fantasy: Legend of Zelda in Japan, Zelda serves as a framing device in the grand pattern of the ‘rescue the princess’ trope. This is not wholly surprising, since the game’s working title was ‘Adventure Mario’, and the Mario series has almost universally been framed as a ‘rescue the princess’ story. These stories have a long history, with some of the oldest examples being Andromeda being rescued from the dragon by Perseus in Greek mythology, and the rescue of Sita from the demon king Ravana by Lord Rama in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Even if we have recently become suspicious of the implications of ‘rescue the princess’ stories, the Zelda franchise’s thirty year run helps reveal a gradual change of attitude towards ‘helpless’ Princesses.
In the first game, Zelda provides the backstory by having broken up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts before being imprisoned behind a wall of flame under Death Mountain. After defeating Ganon in this game, Link frees Zelda – whose 8-bit appearance (pictured left) is a triumph of lo-res sprite design. The sequel, The Adventure of Link, has another ‘rescue the princess’ framing story, this time a different Zelda from an earlier time who has been asleep and is awakened by Link at the end of the story. Apparently, Princess Zelda was so unimportant a character at this time that she could be entirely substituted by a replacement Zelda without any impact upon the games at all. Even A Link to the Past only barely improves Zelda’s status as an extra in her own legend since at this point she actually has some speaking lines, admittedly to exhort Link to save her from being sacrificed by the dark wizard Agahnim, who succeeds in so doing, although she is still rescued by Link at the end of the story.
It is Ocarina of Time which finally improves Zelda’s status as a character. Although it seems from the outset that the game will work as a ‘rescue the princess’ story, what we actually see in Link’s dream during the opening sequence (and again in person when these events actually occur later in the story) is young Zelda being spirited away on horseback by her bodyguard, Impa, who had appeared in the backstory of the earlier games as her ‘handmaiden’. When Link has his Tom Hanks moment and fast forwards to being an adult after drawing the Master Sword out of a stone hexagon within the Temple of Time, he is assisted by the mysterious Sheik (pronounced ‘sheek’), whose identity is kept concealed. It is eventually revealed that Sheik is Princess Zelda in disguise – subverting the expectations of a ‘rescue the princess’ story, by letting Zelda assist Link in overthrowing Ganondorf.
Although she does not appear in Majora’s Mask at all, the games that followed continued to give Princess Zelda more of an active role in the story. In Wind Waker, the pirate Tetra turns out to be Zelda in disguise, in something of a revisit to the Ocarina of Time plot. In Twilight Princess, the climax has Zelda wielding the Bow of Light from the back of Epona (whom Link is riding) – allowing Zelda to step up to the role of hero (well, co-hero) in this story for the first time. Skyward Sword, which serves as the prequel to the entire Zelda timeline, has Link pursuing Zelda after a tornado whisks her away from Skyloft, but we do see her being trained by Impa and establish that she is the reborn spirit of the goddess Hylia before she ends up sealed in a crystal and reduced to plot device for the rest of the story.
It is only when we get to Breath of the Wild that the series truly lives up to the promise of being ‘The Legend of Zelda’, since for the first time in the series the majority of the explicit narrative materials are Zelda’s story, albeit in direct relation to Link. It also should not be mistaken for a ‘rescue the princess’ story – despite the occasional character that pleads for Link to ‘save Zelda’. The story has Zelda holding the evil of the Calamity Ganon in check through her own power, and having done so for a century. This is not a case of a powerless princess being used as a pawn by stronger powers. Zelda is the one who has prevented Hyrule from falling to the dark force that threatens it, and Link’s requirement to ‘save’ her seems to reflect more the general lack of faith in Zelda sustaining her power that these various characters have, since as the only one capable of holding Calamity Ganon at bay – and, ultimately, defeating it, after Link manages to undermine its power – this is the story of Zelda saving Hyrule with Link’s help, and not the other way around.
The set up for the new story is the polar opposite to Skyward Sword, which was the earliest episode in the overarching story of The Legend of Zelda. Conversely, Breath of the Wild is set at the far end of what is known as the Downfall timeline. Ever since the publication of Hyrule Historia in 2011, fans of the franchise have had access to the general contents of the narrative ‘Bible’ for the series, which has three branching timelines subsequent to the events of Ocarina of Time. The Downfall timeline concerns what happens after Link fails to defeat Ganondorf in that game, and the new Zelda takes place at the furthest point along this timeline. Although it has never been made explicit, the set up for Breath of the Wild entailing endless recurrence of the great calamity known as Ganon implies the Downfall timeline, as do the parallels with the original Legend of Zelda, which also belongs in this timeline. In a Game Rant interview, the Zelda franchise ‘apprentice’, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, confirms that the new game is set in the ‘far future’ of its fictional world:
It takes place in an age long, long after any of the titles released to date. It is the most recent age. And because of this we believe players will be able to easily immerse themselves in the game. Of course, regardless of the time period, the story does unfold in Hyrule so for those who’ve played other titles in the series there will be a lot of recognizable places to enjoy.
As mentioned previously, the narrative design of the new Zelda is radically far from the conventional GTAIII-style open world formula used throughout contemporary AAA open world franchises. That standard formula uses a conventional linear narrative, often with an Act or Chapter structure, and requires the player to crank the plot by visiting the next location where a story event occurs. This works well… and has thus been worked well into the ground. Breath of the Wild instead disconnects the linearity from its explicit storytelling entirely and makes every cut scene part of backstory exposition rather than an advancing present tense plotline. This is framed in terms of Link having suffered from amnesia as a result of his long century of recuperation (which ends when the game begins), although the basic narrative structure here could be deployed in any game with substantial backstory, and does not require the loss of memory to make it work.
There are eighteen locations throughout Hyrule that have a connection to the backstory between Princess Zelda and Link. The narrative structure entails a first Act upon the Great Plateau, completing the extended tutorial and acquiring the four Runes that almost all game puzzles depend upon. A second (entirely optional) Act concerns Impa – now old and infirm, having waited a century for Link’s return – and the Sheikah Slate that is the in-game representation of the player’s Wii U ‘tea tray’ or Switch in handheld mode. This second Act culminates in the player being shown twelve photographs of locations in Hyrule, and after this there are no further Acts save for the Final Act concerning the showdown with Calamity Ganon. The player has to use their growing knowledge of the landscape (with a touch of blind luck) to locate these twelve locations, each of which reveals a flashback to Link and Zelda’s backstory. These can play in any order – leaving the player to piece the narrative together. This has been done in videogame narrative before via journal entries and the like, but never in an expensive to develop feature like a fully animated cut scene.
In addition to the twelve Captured Memories pictures, which are the main body of the game’s explicit narrative, there are six additional memories. Four of these correspond to the Champions who in the backstory (a century before the game’s events) were to take the Divine Beasts into battle against Calamity Ganon, and are the main additional characters to appear in the memory cut scenes. A further memory concerns the Master Sword, and Princess Zelda placing it into a ceremonial stone triangle to wait for Link’s return (this is the last event in the chronology of the backstory, although the player could uncover this cut scene at any point in the flow of the game). When all of the twelve Captured Memories pictures have been located, Impa also provides a final memory – and this cut scene is thus very likely (but not certain) to be the last piece of the backstory that the player unlocks, allowing it to take upon a special significance.
Zelda’s story for Breath of the Wild is as follows: 10,000 years before the events of the game, the ancient hero – let’s call him Backstory Link – defeats the Calamity Ganon with an army of marvellously technological Guardians and Divine Beasts, and the fiend is sealed away by the power of the ancient Princess (Backstory Zelda). Our Princess Zelda is the latest in the royal line of descendants to Backstory Zelda, while our Link is either a descendent of Backstory Link or his soul reborn in a Royal Guard of Hyrule Castle. At the time of the first Captured Memory, Link has already proved himself possessed with the courage and purity of heart required to possess the Master Sword, which he carries with him in every memory-related cut scene. Zelda is supposed to possess the power to seal the Calamity Ganon into captivity but the death of her mother when she was six years old has given her doubts… she feels unprepared and, worse, she has found herself to be something of a nerd and her father the king consistently undermines her confidence by telling her she must abandon “playing at being a scholar” and focus on her training.
Zelda, however, as the Champion Urbosa confirms, has knocked herself out trying to fulfil her duties and has come to despair about ever manifesting her supposed powers. When her father, the king, assigns Link to guard Princess Zelda as she visits the the Springs of Power, Courage, and finally Wisdom, Zelda reacts badly. Although she protests to Link that she doesn’t need his protection (which is clearly not the case), Zelda finds herself frustrated by Link because he successfully – and perhaps even effortlessly – fulfilled his destiny in being able to wield the Master Sword. As the Champions of Hyrule whisper amongst themselves in what is chronologically the first memory, seeing Link is a constant and painful reminder that Zelda is not able to awaken the power to seal the darkness within herself, despite the extreme efforts she has expended trying to do so.
The situation begins to shift after Link saves Zelda from an attack by the Yiga Clan, a cult that serves Calamity Ganon and forms one of the major sub-plots of Breath of the Wild. From this point onwards, Zelda and Link become close friends. She talks freely to him about all the nerdy things that interest her, he shares advice about horses with her (he doesn’t seem to know much about anything except weapons and horses), and she opens up about her anxieties, even revealing that she would like to run away from her duties (even though she cannot actually consider this doing this in practice). At Hyrule Castle, she is watching with great interest the awakening of the Guardians, the machines that ten thousand years earlier defeated Calamity Ganon, when her father appears and openly scolds her, accusing her of playing a “childish game” and suggesting that the people mock her because she is “heir to a throne of nothing… nothing but failure.”
Undaunted by her father’s disappointment, Zelda proceeds to visit the final Spring, the Spring of Wisdom on Mount Lanayru, on her seventeenth birthday, but she is still unable to awaken her power. Mipha, the Zora Champion, tries to tell her that her own powers were inspired by her love (whether for Link or her brother Sidon, it is never clear) – but Calamity Ganon awakens, ending the conversation. While Urbosa wishes to hide Zelda away, she insists that there must be something she can do to help on the battlefield. However, the great battle is ultimately lost – Calamity Ganon possesses both the Guardians and the Divine Beasts, slays all the Champions and everyone in the Castle – and a devastated Zelda is only saved by Link rushing her away at the last second.
At the climax of the story, Guardians have relentlessly pursued Zelda and Link to Fort Hateno, coming in numbers far beyond anything the player faces during the game. A wounded Link tires and stumbles as a Guardian is about to unleash its beam attack. Zelda places herself between it and Link and finally, her power unlocks. For the first time, she is not trying to awaken her power because it is her duty, but in order to save someone she loves. There is a mighty blast of energy, and the Guardians fall silent. This has especial resonance for most players, because the battleground outside Fort Hateno is something they have seen many times by this point, and now it becomes clear that it is Zelda’s power that is responsible for it.
Link collapses, dying, but Zelda finally comes into her own birthright, both as wielder of the power to seal Calamity Ganon away, and as crown Princess of Hyrule. She is about to fall back into despair when the Master Sword talks to her, mind to mind, and reassures her that all is not lost. Zelda then instructs two Sheikah (Purah and Robbie, both of which the player has met by the time they view this memory) to take Link to the Shrine of Resurrection, where his wounds will heal over the next century – setting up the opening to the game. She then delivers the Master Sword to the Great Deku Tree to wait for Link’s return, and proceeds to seal both Calamity Ganon and herself away for the next century, using the power that she has now successfully claimed.
Even if this is not the most sophisticated piece of storytelling, it is still substantially more nuanced than any plot previously offered by a Zelda game, and really does focus on Princess Zelda – her failures, and ultimately her successes, as she ceases to feel trapped by her duty and instead accepts her fate and goes on to successfully seal away Calamity Ganon forever. In a post credits scene that the player sees only if they have collected all the memories, we see the Princess – now Queen of Hyrule – thinking through what needs to be done to rebuild the kingdom, very much focused upon the aftermath of the fall of the Champions that provides the four Divine Beast side plots (and dungeons) within the game. It is a relatively slight coda, but it works.
I was not, I confess, enormously enamoured with Patricia Summersett as Princess Zelda in the English language version: her performance is fine, but her voice feels wrong for the character, too mousy and whingey. The role needs to convey both resolve and commitment, as well as self-doubt and vulnerability, and the tenor of the performance reverses this emphasis. I can see why this casting decision might have been made, however, especially since it aligns well with the Japanese language performance – but should the English language voice performance match the Japanese? The cultural expectations of those two audiences are radically different.
Throughout the franchise, Princess Zelda has transformed from a ‘rescue the princess’ plot device (the first three games) to someone with an active role in the story but only in secret (Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker), a woman with the power to fight Ganondorf alongside Link (Twilight Princess), and now finally a woman who can save Link’s life, hold evil at bay for a century, and swoop in FTW (‘for the win’) as Queen of Hyrule, admittedly with a bucket load of teenage angst along the way. The Legend of Zelda franchise remains one of the most remarkable achievements in videogame history, both for its relentlessly innovative design and its creative narrative design, which in Breath of the Wild offers an entirely new vision for how open world story telling can be constructed.
A new serial will begin later this year.
Last week, the unique experience of fighting with ephemeral weapons. This week, one of the most outstanding features of the Zelda franchise: its horses. Contains a major narrative spoiler for Shadow of the Colossus.
During one of Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table events, near the very beginning of my time as a blogger, I laid my cards upon the table concerning my love of videogame horses. It all began with Ocarina of Time, one of my least favourite Zelda games that was nonetheless entirely redeemed by the presence of the first great videogame horse – Epona. There had been horses in 2D games before this, Mike Fahey mentions the Atari 2600 game Stampede as his first, but polygonal 3D animations give a sense of presence to equine models that hugely transcends anything that sprite animations can achieve, and riding Epona through Hyrule in 1998 was an unforgettable experience.
It is apparent from the moment the N64 game begins that the horse is the star of the show, with the attract sequence focusing on Epona riding across Hyrule to the gentle strains of music by Koji Kondo, who wrote the iconic score for Ocarina of Time and a great many other Nintendo classics. According to an interview with Eiji Aonuma for Nintendo Power celebrating the ten year anniversary of the game, Epona became part of the project largely because Shigeru Miyamoto likes horses. Pegasus Shoes had been considered for travel prior to that point, but Miyamoto-san was keen on having something to interact with. According to a 2011 Iwata Asks, while the motivation came from the original Zelda master himself, it was up to Yoshiaki Koizumi, now Deputy General Manager of EAD, but then 3D System Director, to make the idea work. Apparently, it had first been explored as an idea for Super Mario 64 and had not proved practical at the time, but Koizumi-san persisted in producing a technical demo that cleared the way for the horse to star in Ocarina of Time.
It was Koizuma-san who came up with the name Epona, after the goddess of horses and fertility in Celtic mythology, having apparently been briefly called ‘Ao’, a Japanese word for a blue-green colour with no equivalent word in English, associated with horses because of the exceptionally rare blue roan coloration. An inherent design tension is apparent in the implementation of Epona: on the one hand, Miyamoto-san had dictated that “a Legend of Zelda game doesn’t need any difficult actions”, hence the horse jumps automatically. On the other, the Zelda-creator felt that simply riding the horse wouldn’t be fun without some kind of action, so the horse was given a set of carrots that allowed the player to make the horse go faster, but when none were left it was not possible to jump. It is within this tension – actions that are easy to take but require finesse to use well – that all Zelda games pitch their challenges.
Epona was a huge success with players – who had almost certainly never wanted a game with a horse before this moment – and she reappears in Majora’s Mask (the direct sequel), although has something of a lesser role because the temporal structure of that game tends to de-emphasise the physical space of the world. With Wind Waker, however, a new ‘mount’ was tried in the form of a beautifully implemented sailing boat, the King of Red Lions, but despite the aesthetic success of this design it was not to appear in the franchise again. Likewise, Skyward Sword features a flying mount called a Loftwing, that is unique to that game and does not appear elsewhere. These experiments in alternative mounts are interesting in their own right (especially the King of Red Lions), but the franchise keeps returning to horses as the mount of preference.
In Twilight Princess, Epona makes another appearance (although the player has the capacity to rename her in this game), with far more advanced implementation. In Ocarina of Time, it was possible to fire the bow from horseback but not fight. For Twilight Princess, mounted combat is a significant part of the game, and the final battle against Ganondorf occurs on horseback with Princess Zelda sat behind Link upon Epona’s back. As with the earlier game, Link has the capacity to call his trusty steed and icons to make her gallop faster, but these are now styled as spurs rather than carrots, an iconography that recurs with Breath of the Wild.
While it is possible to get Epona in the newest Zelda game by using a Link Amiibo to unlock her, Breath of the Wild features a far more expansive horse system. Indeed, the implementation of horses in this new game is the most complex and engaging of any videogame ever made, and one of the great triumphs of the development team’s work in this iteration. This is particularly apparent during the time that players are building up their relationship with a new horse, since the mount behaves quite convincingly like a wild horse that has already been broken in (that is, become comfortable with a rider). Rather than the horse simply following the player’s instructions, it resists according to its own fears and concerns, being reluctant to go down certain routes, cross the most precarious bridges, or to ride too fast in some areas. The experience of riding during this rather brief window with a new horse is deeply rewarding in terms of the play aesthetics, creating a real sense of partnership between horse and rider, comparable to authentic horse riding in many respects. Of course, if the player treats game horses as cars on legs, they will be frustrated or disappointed. But for someone such as myself with a lifelong love of videogame horses, Breath of the Wild raised the bar absurdly high.
Yet despite this remarkable developmental success, horses are entirely undermined within the game by the fast travel system, which allows players to revisit at will any of the 120 Shrines, 15 towers, or 3 special locations simply by selecting them from the map. Unlike any Zelda before, this capacity to travel instantly to just about anywhere the player has already visited is available from very nearly the beginning of the game (strictly, from the moment the first tower is activated). This makes travelling by horseback of extremely limited use: while there are places (such as Kakariko village) that can be reached more easily for the first time by horse, this is offset by the fact that when travelling a route for the first time there is a great deal to find and the player is unlikely to feel comfortable simply riding through, ignoring everything on the way. Indeed, in the case of Kakariko, if the player ride there for the first time (as I did) you miss out on the encounter with Hestu, the Korok character who provides the essential capacity to expand the player’s inventories, and for which there is absolutely no funnelling to ensure the player will locate him afterwards.
A generous interpretation of this situation is that it honours the player’s agency in giving them the choice of whether to ride or not to ride. But a pragmatic analysis of the way the game functions suggests that there is no real choice here: riding is inferior in terms of travel time when revisiting (since the fast travel is instantaneous) and disadvantageous when first exploring, because either nothing is found or the player must stop constantly and dismount. There are a handful of side quests that require horses to complete, but beyond these all the beauty and charm of the mounted systems are essentially wasted in Breath of the Wild, having been undermined by the sheer immediacy of travelling directly to any of the 138 locations on the map that can offer a lazy immediacy of access.
In my own case, my initial joy at exploring the horse system was short lived, but I was bowled over by the impact of the first encounter with wild horses. The game asks the player to capture untamed horses by sneaking up to them and then surviving a ‘bucking bronco’ challenge where success is directly proportional to Link’s current Stamina (or supply of Stamina-restoring meals…). There follows perhaps half an hour of riding time where the horse possesses tremendous personality and identity. After this, the horse behaves much like a horse in any other contemporary AAA game (e.g. Assassin’s Creed: Origins) with the capacity to follow paths on their own but otherwise little identity. Don’t get me wrong, they are still enormous fun to ride – but all the unique aesthetic moments the horse system provides are under-represented or squeezed out of relevance.
However, after completing the game for the first time, I made a personal commitment to the horses and for the next ten hours or so did not use the fast travel system for anything. I wanted to experience what the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild was truly like as a mounted adventure – and was extremely satisfied by this experience, which took me more or less everywhere that it is possible to ride a horse. I was particularly impressed, for instance, that it is possible to reach the elusive Korok settlement in Great Hyrule Forest with a horse, despite the difficult problems posed by crossing the mysterious and spooky maze that is the Lost Woods. These were some of my most enjoyable hours with the game, in part because I was freed from its compulsive grip (having already competed it) and felt empowered to enjoy the world for what it was.
There is, however, one last aspect of the horses that provides a significant advantage and that might cause some players to find keeping up their equestrian practices worthwhile. Upon horseback, jumping rockets the player into the air to a degree equivalent to using a stuntman’s trampette. Since the game allows the player access to ‘bullet time’ when drawing their bow in the air (but never on the ground), horses provide the most reliable access to these time-slowing capacities, which can be especially useful when fighting the dreaded Guardian Stalker enemies, whose beam weapons are fatal in the early game and remain nasty all the way through. This small silver lining provides a reason – beyond the sheer aesthetic pleasure of riding – to traverse the beautiful lands of Hyrule upon the back of a horse.
One final point is worth mentioning. Horses can die. This provided the most shocking moment of any Zelda game I have ever played, when a routine expedition along a coastal path went horribly wrong as I took a narrow path too rapidly and my mount stumbled, fell down the cliff, and died. Even knowing that the developers had provided an option for resurrection via a convenient Horse Goddess, I was hurt and humbled by realising that I had brought this imaginary horse’s life to an end. This was radically more upsetting than the death of Agro in Shadow of the Colossus, since that event happens in a pre-scripted cut scene (and thus not as a result of player action), and was also not much of a surprise to me as an experienced game writer. Losing a horse in Zelda, though – that was a powerful and distressing moment, one that forever changed the way I rode around Hyrule. I was not, and still am not, willing to let another of my beautiful fictitious horses die as a result of my carelessness and this serves as another reminder of the incredible polish evident in the horse system in Breath of the Wild. What a shame that it is also so cruelly undermined by the overall design.
Next week, the final part: Zelda
Last week, why the newest incarnation of Hyrule is not a traditional open world at all. This week, the changing face of weapons in the Zelda series.
One thing and only one thing remains consistent across the various armouries of the Zelda series: Link is armed with a sword, a shield, and a bow. There may be other weapons – a boomerang, for instance, or a slingshot – but the certainty that Link’s standard compliment of weapons is a sword and a bow remains unchanged until Breath of the Wild. Similarly, it is not until the latest Zelda that the game features a dynamic inventory capable of holding a variety of items: up until this point, every Zelda game has a static set of items and the only question is whether the player has acquired a specific item or not. This is an element of the Zelda practices that few other games have copied, and the change in the latest game is one of the few cases of Zelda apparently moving towards a more conventional videogame practice and giving up its own unique ways of doing things.
In all the Zelda games prior to Breath of the Wild, there has been a core sequence of blades – typically some kind of starting sword (just called ‘Sword’ in The Legend of Zelda, later Fighter’s Sword, Kokiri Sword, Hero’s Sword, Wooden Sword, or Practice Sword) that later progresses in one or more steps to the Master Sword, which made its first appearance in A Link to the Past. Wind Waker allowed Link the capacity to pick up weapons wielded by enemies for the first time, but it did not permit him to keep them, while Skyward Sword, which is set at the earliest point in the Zelda timeline, is effectively the story of the forging of the Master Sword and thus has a sequence of swords that represent the steps along this path (Goddess Sword, Goddess Longsword, Goddess White Sword, Master Sword, and finally True Master Sword).
In some respects, as already noted, Breath of the Wild moves towards conventional CRPG practices with its grid inventory that holds weapons, shields, and bows for the player to choose between. Yet at the same time, something very unusual happens in the new Zelda in terms of the weapons breaking and disappearing. Weapon durability is hardly a new element in videogames, and even within the franchise it appeared in Ocarina of Time in the form of the Giant’s Knife that breaks after a handful of hits or in Majora’s Mask with the Razor Sword, which returns to the Master Sword after one hundred swings. But the usual way weapon durability is dealt with in videogames involves weapons breaking when durability expires, and then the player taking steps to fix them e.g. weapon repair kits and blacksmiths in The Witcher 3. Controversially, given some players’ highly negative reaction to weapon durability, Breath of the Wild has weapons that break and are gone for good – subverting conventional player practices to such a degree that it creates a play experience almost no player is prepared for.
How powerfully an individual player is affected by this depends on their prior experiences and expectations, but for many of us who would ordinarily avoid a game that would not let us keep our beloved toys, the impact of the weapon system is akin to the five stages of grief. First, anger: they couldn’t possibly have thought this was a good idea, could they? (They did.) Then, denial: these are just the starting weapons, the later weapons won’t break (they do), and surely the Master sword won’t break? (it does, well, it takes long naps at least.) Then, fear: how am I going to keep supplied with weapons, they’re breaking faster than I can find them! (Until you start finding reliable places to get good weapons, which both last a long time and require fewer hits to do the same job.) Then, exhaustion: just how much of my time is going to go into keeping me supplied with weapons? (As much as it takes to get you through thinking of weapons as a fixed resource). Finally, impatience: why aren’t my weapons breaking fast enough to make room for more cool weapons?
Provided you adapt to the player practices the inventory system implies, and don’t fall permanently into one of these disgruntled intermediate states, the result is an experience quite unlike anything else that is out there. Like the best of the previous Zelda combat systems, namely Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the new battle design is simple but still allows the player tremendous mastery when they get to grips with it – and once you do, the experience of fighting in Breath of the Wild transcends anything else in the space of games that are seeking to offer an accessible combat balance (rather than, say, risk-reward challenges e.g. Dark Souls, Monster Hunter). With the core skills under your belt, the weapons cease to matter because you can kill a Keese with a tree branch, overcome a Lizalfos camp starting with a single bow and one Shock arrow, or take down a Lynel with just a couple of half-decent weapons in your inventory. I am not a player with a particular taste for victory in battle, I’m much more of an explorer than a conqueror – but even I became obsessed with mastering each of the foes, and can happily retake a Major Test of Strength over and over again, just to enjoy my own martial prowess. And I doubt, frankly, that I’m really that good at the combat in the game.
It is important to appreciate what the weapon-grind brings to the game that would be impossible without it. If the weapons were all permanent, the player would rapidly exhaust interest in the vast majority of the available blades since the best weapons acquired are the only ones you need. This is a problem I struggle with again and again in the design of my own CRPGs because you want the player to get new weapons, but new weapons invalidate the old ones, which become just things to sell. Not in Breath of the Wild: there’s a role for almost all weapons, as some monsters fall easily to certain types… even the weakest spear is a perfect choice to defend against Keese, a single hit from an Iron Sledgehammer shatters any Pebblit, and a fire weapon instantly slays an ice enemy. You want to keep a balanced armoury so you have the right tool for the right job, but in a pinch a skilled player can make just about any weapon work long enough to get more weapons. You do not hoard weapons like a collector in this game, the weapons flow through Link and you enjoy their passage the moment you get over your certainty that it would be better if they didn’t break.
Instead, all the weapons are interesting, even the terrible weapons up to a point (my son is forever asking me what I can take out with a tree branch), and unlike any CRPG that could be named, the player can rise – and fall – in power as rapidly as they can locate and pick up a powerful blade and then break it. What’s more, this reinforces the open structure which, as discussed last week, is far more open than the conventional open world formula. Thus, the very real possibility of completing the Great Plateau and then immediately making a bee-line for the Calamity Ganon (yes, it’s a silly name – Zelda has always been chock full of silly boss names). The weapons inside Hyrule Castle, where the final boss can be found, are stronger than anywhere else in the game so if you possess the skills to survive there without Hearts to protect you (or, equally possible, you have quickly acquired meals that supply you with a lot of bonus yellow Hearts), it becomes possible to grow in power near-instantaneously and be ready to win the game in just a few hours. Provided, of course, you already spent many times that much time learning where everything in Hyrule is, and mastering anything Link needs to be able to do.
As mentioned, however, the system can be extremely tiring once you have learned reliable places to get good weapons, but lack the confidence that you will be able to make do with the kit that you have brought with you plus whatever you happen to find along the way. The result – as with the collection of cooking ingredients that initially motivates but later risks rendering parts of the exploration rather passé – is an exhaustion with the process of keeping the weapons stocked up. This is rooted less in the design, however, than in the player’s desire to control the inventory as if the weapons do not break. Once the disposability of the weaponry becomes as natural as jumping in a platform game, there is no way to be exhausted by the inventory management because it doesn’t matter. Half decent weapons are everywhere, excellent weapons are not hard to find, and brilliant weapons are not worth obsessing over because hey, they’re going to break too.
If there is a tangible flaw with this arrangement it could be that new players, especially younger players with less videogame experience to draw against, face almost insurmountable problems learning to fight because all of the early weapons do very little damage and break with absurd ease the moment Link touches them. (I guess Link must be holding them wrong, because they never break in the enemy’s hands!) Against this, the only hope of redemption is owning any of the many Hyrule-themed Amiibo, since the daily chest drops from these supply weapons that, while mediocre to an experienced player, are a godsend to starting players, raising them far above the bar required to get the ball rolling. (I found several Zelda Amiibo in a $5 bargain bin in Knoxville, TN, the month Breath of the Wild released, some of which were selling on eBay for close to a hundred dollars at the time – much to my smug satisfaction.)
As this discussion highlights, this audacious piece of design is not for everyone. Players who cannot make their peace with the idea of weapons breaking will be in a perpetual hell of emotional insecurity punctuated with the endless cursing that happens when yet another of your weapons breaks. But remember, you are not some suburban nerd collecting weapons as if they were trading cards: you are Link. Your tenacity is his courage, and your knowledge of Hyrule is the weapon that can never be taken away from you. If you wish for permanence, claim the Master Sword that is your birth right and make sure you carry something in reserve for when it gets tuckered out and needs a nap. The Link of Breath of the Wild is a master of any and all weapons. Accept their impermanence, and you shall be too.
Next week: Horses
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.
In 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
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.
According 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
Considering 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
A letter to students at ARCOS in Santiago, Chile.
Dear ARCOS students,
It came as some small surprise to me when, in a recent letter, your instructor Pablo Gorigoitia mentioned that Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was one of your course texts. This book, written with the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group and edited by myself, has been my most successful title by far, but I never really anticipated that it might be read as far away as Chile, some seven thousand miles away! To put this figure into perspective, we live nearly as far away from each other as the diameter of the planet we co-inhabit.
I’d like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts as to why game narrative is important, and this requires that I first make clear the extent of game narrative as a field. For although it is not often recognized, no game that is made escapes from having narrative elements. The reason for this is that the play of all games generates exceptional narrative experiences, in part because humans are natural storytellers and construct our way in the world by means of narratives, and in part because play is one of our freest emotional expressions and thus inherently memorable. It is no coincidence that sporting events are used as stories-within-stories so often in blockbuster movies: the strong emotions generated by sports – both in its participants and its observers – make an outstanding (if occasionally lazy) scaffold for storytelling.
We must, however, be clear to distinguish an explicit narrative – one that is placed into a game by a writer – and implicit narrative that emerges from the game as a system. I am interested in both these forms, and have made games that pursue both approaches (although the latter – systemic stories from games – is far harder, and usually more expensive to develop). Similarly, we ought to distinguish between diegetic stories that occur within the fictional world of the game, and non-diegetic stories that feature the player themselves as a character. “I won at Chess!” or “I got a Tetris!” are non-diegetic stories that are simply about the game being played, and are not really our principal interest when we study game narrative. That said, if you do not understand why players tell non-diegetic stories, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how to construct those stories that occur within the fictional worlds of games.
At the moment, I teach a module on Game Narrative for the University of Bolton that I will soon also be teaching for Laguna College of Art and Design in California. One of my students at Bolton, James Drake, asked me over the Summer before he took that particular course what he could do to prepare for the Game Narrative module: I told him to read a book or a play. He was rather confused, and could not believe that I wasn’t directing him to play a game instead. But if you want to understand game narrative, you have to understand narrative, and that is a task best approached in media where it is far easier to construct. If you want to be a great game writer, you should begin by reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare – or indeed Eduardo Barrios and Isabel Allende. You’ll have to: we have very few great works of game narrative to refer to, so we must discover the standard of exceptional work in narrative from elsewhere.
What makes game narrative so especially difficult is the player. A novelist or playwright can mostly count upon their characters to co-operate (although there are times when a story gets out of control…!), but the moment we let a player into our story we have lost our sole authority over the narrative. As Street Fighter II puts the matter: “A Challenger Appears!” We now risk fighting the player for the flow of the story, or ruining their narrative experience by giving them no illusion of agency in how the events transpire. This is why it is far easier to mount a narrative on the backbone of something like Grand Theft Auto, where the player is presumed to be an anti-social ne’er-do-well (or rather, that they will act as such in the fictional world!). We can count on players to act badly. Counting on players to co-operate with our story is far more difficult, although not quite impossible. For a start, we can ask them to do so.
I am of the opinion that if we want to make better videogames, we must study game narrative. This is because the experience of these kinds of games (indeed, all games at some level) involves entering into a fictional world, and if we do not understand the mechanics of such imaginary games we are severely limiting what we can achieve. But to understand game narrative, we must also understand narrative – and this requires us to pay attention to those media that have been experimenting with fictional worlds for millennia rather than just a few decades. This is why Game Writing commits a whole chapter to the basics of narrative theory, a field that goes all the way back to Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago.
I encourage you all to wrestle with the fascinating questions of how to leverage the interesting qualities of videogames in the context of the established methods of narrative, precisely because we have not yet produced any unequivocal masterpieces of game narrative. Such future games as might attain to this title could come from anywhere in the world – they are as likely to come from Chile as from Europe and the United States, where commercial pressures make storytelling in games take rather humdrum and conventional paths, more influenced by Hollywood action movies than anything else. Who knows, someone in your very class could be the Pablo Naruda of videogame narrative, a digital poet, taking our youngest medium to new heights.
With infinite hope for the future,
PS: you are lucky to have Pablo as an instructor, so treat him kindly! And tell him he owes me a beer.
I can sympathise with your position in Silent Hill 2: Horrible Survival, Not Survival Horror, in that many of your criticisms are justified. Nonetheless, I shall defend Silent Hill 2 as one of the few times that commercial videogames have dared to push into artistic directions, and I still cite it as a triumph of narrative design within an industry that seldom achieves anything memorable in this space. The key to appreciating Silent Hill 2, however, may well be to place it within its historical context. Indeed, I am not of the opinion that games can be appreciated as artefacts divorced from circumstance (nor films, novels, plays, or music, for that matter!). The artefactual reading of media is, I now claim, always the incomplete reading.
I came to this game having been extremely impressed by the design of the original Silent Hill, which is more open, and cultivates a greater sense of freedom, than the sequel. However, Silent Hill is also a rather conservative game – it has its rather cleverly conceived setting to set it apart, but under the hood is a string of conventional puzzles punctuated with clunky combat. Nonetheless, at the time I was impressed with Silent Hill’s attempt to push beyond the rather limited ambitions of videogame experiences. It aspired to much, for all that it had problems delivering it.
When my wife and I went on to play Silent Hill 2, it annoyed me with its obvious staged linearity and almost total absence of what I, at the time, considered characteristic of game design. Where was the open structure of the first game? The tightly constructed progression? Why am I so constrained in almost everything I do now? So it was with some surprise that, after a few more playthroughs and considerable reflection, Silent Hill 2 eventually came to stand out as an exceptional case of game narrative. Indeed, I am hard pressed to find any game prior to 2001 that fulfils its narrative ambitions to the extent of this game – which is not to say that it is an unqualified success on all fronts. But then, my general view of game narrative prior to 2001, when Silent Hill 2 was released, is rather negative. There are signs of what might be possible… but they are rare, and almost always dragged down by an overbearing emphasis on puzzles or combat.
This is not the case for Silent Hill 2. For perhaps the first time in commercial videogame design (and I make a distinction here that you never do, in my experience), a development team took risks – serious risks, actually – to push their game away from the conventional expectations of the player community in order to explore a more artistic space. I will not argue that it is an unqualified success, but I believe what it does achieve has to be measured against its own contemporaries. This is the year of Grand Theft Auto III and Halo: Combat Evolved, videogames that take movies as inspiration and then… well, fail to reach narrative escape velocity, remaining parasitical on the original works. Silent Hill 2 builds upon the first game in ways that strengthen the originality of its premise; comparisons to Twin Peaks are tenuous: Kafka would be a more reasonable reference.
Crucially, I would never claim that Silent Hill 2 was the epitome of the survival horror genre – it quite obviously went in a radically different direction from the mechanics that support this kind of play. I agree with the others commenting on your blog that should be understood as a psychological horror game. It moves in the same direction as Dear Esther, which it may have been an inspiration for, but it did not have such a radical vision underlying its streamlining. (Indeed, as a fully commercial game, it could not have gone there). In this regard, it's funny reading your account because you obviously brutalised a great many of the entities in Silent Hill 2. I did not. I ran away. A lot. It’s a game that doesn’t require you to kill many of its denizens. It isn’t playing the survival card at all.
And this is what I think is wrong with your commentary here: it is mostly refuting claims made about Silent Hill 2. I don’t think you’ve let the game itself have its fair share, which is always (in my experience) a problem of trying to appreciate something that others have lauded insuperable praise on. This has certainly destroyed any hope of me enjoying various movies. Yes, the voice acting offers less than might be hoped – but in 2001, what game cannot claim this? (Also, should we not take into account that this is dubbed into English? Many Japanese movies dubbed into English are far more atrocious than this!). I can overlook this the way I overlook the melodramatic gesticulations of the characters in the 1920 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or the special effects in the 1960s Star Trek – to give two contrasting references that share in common only the extent of their break from convention at their time of origin.
Silent Hill 2 shares this same merit: it attempts something far beyond its predecessors or contemporaries. Clearly, the team do not manage to deliver an artwork of comparable magnitude to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is their chief inspiration, but to even have chosen this as an ambition in a commercial game project in 2001 – when rivals are choosing The Godfather and Aliens as their template because these are, quite frankly, supremely easy influences to synthesise into a string of violent episodes, Silent Hill 2’s decision to construct a game in which violence can (depending on the player’s proclivities) be a tangential part of the experience is significant. This was four years before 2005, the watershed year for artgames, signified by Shadow of the Colossus, Façade, and The Endless Forest. It is amazing to me that Konami allowed Team Silent to go as far as they did from the comfortably well-trod road of mainstream commercial videogames.
Sadly, the general response to the game at time of release seems to have echoed your grievances, since by Silent Hill 3 the franchise returns to a far more conventional design – an endless string of combats, stitched together with an attempt at extending the story of the first game. Konami seems to have considered Silent Hill 2 a failure, at least in commercial terms; I persist in viewing it as a flawed triumph. Even now, sexual abuse as a theme rarely appears in commercial games, and (in respect of a different thread of the plot) while you are correct that ‘you are the murderer’ is an overused trope, here the focus is on the guilt brought upon by euthanasia, which is far outside of what we expect commercial games to attempt to deal with. Besides, the pivotal scene in this story occurs not at the climax of the story but in the final conversation with Angela at the burning stairwell in Lakeview hotel. Cut scenes are overused in the games of the 2000s, and most are not worth the expense behind them: this one is rich with a symbolism rarely attempted in games. Perhaps, in your ire at the design, you could not appreciate the successes within the narrative.
Regrettably, sharing this viewpoint has delayed my reply to your letter, but I could not stand idly by while you besmirch the name of a game that I still stand by as an early example of the coming willingness to break with the stultifying conventions of commercial videogame development.
With great respect,
Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.