Game Design Feed

Problem-solving

Ten Player Motives #2

2a - Problem-solvingIf the victory motive is about enduring frustration in order to persevere and triumph, its worth understanding than this isn't the only thing players will put up with if it gets them to the win. Victory is the motive of what we used to call 'jocks', the sporting types. But problem-solving is the motive of excellence for what we used to call 'nerds' - and I am frankly disappointed that these days this term is taken solely as an insult, because if 80s movies taught us anything it's that nerds beat jocks and they do it with their mental faculties. Nerds are the smart kids. And they have their own unique motive for playing games.

The problem-solving motive is after the same thing as the victory-motive: but it goes about it in a completely different way. Suppose you have a fighting game. The challenge-focussed player who gets beaten is going to keep trying to win through their own skills and prowess. The problem-focussed player who gets beaten is going to look at it as a puzzle to solve. Did I lose because of differences in reaction times or something else I can't change...? Not interested. But if I lost because of a tactical or strategic error, now that's intriguing, because it means I could play differently, modify my approach, and perhaps get to victory through brains instead of brawn...

The ubiquity of puzzle-solving play in videogames isn't an accident. Programmers and game designers are brilliant nerds, and as such they are drawn to problem-solving. So they make games with conundrums to be worked out, riddles to be decoded, and mysteries to invite that lightbulb moment. In some respects, the pursuit of problem-solving isn't even about the winning - although as I said before, everybody likes to win. It's about that moment of insight, the 'a-ha' moment, when you see the problem from a different angle.

Like the victory motive, this one piggy-backs on the limbic system, but it's a much younger piece of our brains that's involved. There's a direct link up between a region that makes calculative decisions (the orbito-frontal cortex) and the parts of the limbic system that make winning feel so good. This is what makes mathematics so enjoyable - if you're good at it: solving an equation is satisfying. Sure, it doesn't feel as hot and majestic as winning the World Cup, but unlike the world cup everyone with the requisite capacities can solve every equation. This is a huge factor in the appeal of the problem-solving motive: if you're good at solving problems, every problem can be solved. That's just not true of winning in competitive play.

Yet what epitomises the problem-solving motive most of all isn't working out the solutions to puzzles, enjoyable though that may be, but challenging your intellect against systems where ambiguities mean that the solutions aren't as certain as mathematics. This is the immense draw of strategy games for the problem-focussed player: these are designed systems that create an infinite diversity of problems to solve - tactical problems, strategic problems, logistical problems. Their inherent incompleteness means that, unlike a strict puzzle or an equation that typically has a single correct solution, there are innumerable possible solutions, and so mastery entails skills and practice. It's the same reward - the solution to the problem - but once it becomes this intricate and involved, it becomes a source of pride, a seductive process that continually rewards.

But just as not everyone is going to put up with being frustrated in order to attain victory, not everyone is going to persevere with solving puzzles, let alone learn mastering complex systems. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the confusion inherent to incomplete information... and it's the same kind of person that can learn to be skilled at scientific investigation. I still like to call us nerds, but even if you don't, you know what I'm talking about. How can you not! If you read this far, you know precisely why the problem-solving motive is so alluring to those of us with the mental faculty to discover solutions.

Next week: Acquisition


Victory

Ten Player Motives #1

1 - VictoryEverybody likes to win, but not everybody is willing to suffer to get there. This simple truth is perhaps the most ignored tenet of enjoyable play in the entirety of videogames. When International Hobo Ltd was founded in 1999, we found an enormous number of publishers and developers who were absolutely adamant that all that mattered was winning. 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing', as they say. Except when it comes to games, it's just not true: not every game is about winning.

But if that's so, if 'winning isn't everything' in games, why does it get so much attention? The answer turned out to be much more complex than we first thought. On the one hand, it's an absolutely vital part of the story of games that the experience of victory is tremendously enjoyable. As I say, 'everybody likes to win'. But more than this, when a sport or a game makes you strive to win, victory is more enjoyable. 'It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.' It turns out it doesn't even matter if those that lose are imaginary!

Victory is one of several motivations that make use of a particularly ancient part of our biology - the limbic system. The 'fight' in 'fight or flight' is tied to this, and when we strive for victory at play, we are activating the same neurobiology that we would while struggling for survival - just in a make-believe way. Only the victory isn't entirely make-believe, because losing feels bad, and winning feels good, so even though it might not be life-and-death as it would have been for our tiny mammal ancestors, we're still wired up to want to win. However, this 'fight' response is based on anger, frustration - so pursuing victory in the style of a fight is inevitably aggravating. All that frustrating struggle builds up the emotional prize for eventual victory - but it also turns off a significant number of players who just aren't looking to feel like that for just a game.

Nonetheless, difficult videogames are especially good at tweaking us for the victory motive. The trick, however, isn't just to be really difficult. Players who pick up a game that seems impossible to beat will mostly refuse to try, and complain about how unfair it is (even if what's really going on is that they haven't managed to learn how to play yet). This is yet another reason why successful marketing is far more important to success than just encouraging unit sales: knowing that other players have been fighting for victory in a challenge-oriented game gives players confidence that they ought to be doing the same. It dares them into chasing victory, whereas without that marketing story they might never begin to do so.

Victory is an absolutely key experience for a great many players, especially masculine players, which is not necessarily male players - butch lesbians are just as competitive as straight men, for instance! The most successful designs at leveraging the victory motive are those where the player will be defeated but believe they know what they did wrong. Being challenging isn't enough, and being 'too easy' is fatal if you're looking to take advantage of this motive. You need players to fail, but believe that they could do much better if only they could try it again... This 'near miss effect' is central to the compulsiveness of slot machines and other forms of gambling, but it is even more important to challenge-focussed videogames that thrive on 'just one more try'.

Triumph over adversity is a powerful, full-bodied emotion. It makes you feel good, just as losing makes you feel bad. But it's all or nothing. And even though 'everybody likes to win', not everyone is willing to suffer to get to the big payoff. That means videogames can't just rely on victory - in fact, it's commercially dangerous to do so. You need to find other ways to satisfy your players beyond victory... and it turns out, there are indeed a great many other ways to give players what they want.

Next week: Problem-solving


The Ten Player Motives

0 - Ten Player Motives
The ten player motives (10PM) is a player satisfaction model developed by International Hobo Ltd, one that we use as a key tool when helping clients with the challenging process of crafting enjoyable, engaging, and memorable games. Over the next few months, I'm going to write a little about each of these motives and how to apply knowledge of these motivations to your game design process - but first, it's probably worth explaining how this model came about.

The ten player motives grew out of early attempts at modelling player motivations, like the DGD1 - the basis of our now out-of-print book 21st Century Game Design, and BrainHex that followed it. These were primarily survey based instruments, but as a result of taking interest in this field, I had the fortune to meet up with emotions researcher Nicole Lazzaro. Her 'four fun keys' was proving to be influential around the time we were promoting DGD1, and Nicole's method was completely different to ours: she focussed on observing players, we had focussed on surveying and interviewing them. Nicole was kind enough to submit an essay on her approach to my collection Beyond Game Design (our publisher at the time was a sucker for strident titles!), and not long afterwards I was invited to help set up the IEEE's Player Satisfaction Task Force, which was the first academic recognition that what Nicole and I had been doing had merit.

However, engaging with Nicole's methods directly, I hit a turning point. I began to grow sceptical of the merit of models of player behaviour that were based on statistical patterns derived from surveys. "The map is not the territory" as Alfred Korzybski warned, and survey data from players wasn't so much a map as it was a set of boxes built to fit your own prejudices, which then inevitably can only hold what you've decided they can hold. There was clearly a limit to how far this method could go... I wanted to find another path towards understanding our play experiences. I went on to publish a number of crucial academic papers in places that I didn't realise at the time would be hard for people to outside of universities to access. These laid out the foundations for what would become the ten player motives.

By 2017, I had put together what promised to be the closest to a map of the territory of human play as could be put together with the current state of psychology, neurobiology, and aesthetics. It built on our work, on Nicole Lazzaro's, and on Richard Bartle's (who was also kind enough to contribute to Beyond Game Design). But it also built upon research on dopamine, on testosterone, on Paul Ekman's pioneering work on emotions, and on much more beside. The ten player motives isn't the only map you could build, but it's still more than enough to navigate the question of how and why we play games.

Join me over the coming weeks as we look at all ten of these player motives - and what they mean when making games.

Next week: Victory


Game Mechanics vs Player Practices

ASWD vs Arrow KeysDear Pablo,
You asked earlier this week how game designers define 'game mechanic' and how you differentiate it from 'game system'. And this is an interesting question, for a number of different reasons, not least of which is historical.

'Game mechanic' and 'game system' are terms that have a history, and it is 'game system' that appears to be the older term, or at least, the term to have come into common currency sooner. Already, by 1974, Dungeons & Dragons talks about its "combat system", Frank Metzner's War Machine in 1984's Companion rules is a "mass combat system" – even Chainmail in 1971 talks of "The Move/Counter Move System", "two systems of movement" etc. In fact, the concept of a 'game system' is completely an artefact of the tabletop wargame scene that was driven forward to a huge degree by Avalon Hill, and that went onto influence videogames more than is usually acknowledged – not least of all via Dungeons & Dragons, the influence on videogames I've discussed many times, including in Imaginary Games.

Some time around the early 2000s, it became fashionable for videogame designers to start arguing about 'game mechanics', and for game studies academics to begin vaingloriously trying to define this term once and forever. Miguel's "Defining Game Mechanics" shows the problem exquisitely – he can explain at great (and beautifully precise) length what the problem is with 'game mechanics', but his solution is to propose yet another definition, a strategy with failure built-in. Also, neither Miguel nor anyone else has been able to show where the term 'game mechanic' came from, or how it became so widespread. However, I can find reference to 'game mechanics' in a 1973 edition of Simulation and Games, a 1979 edition of Games and Puzzles, and its successor The Gamer. In other words 'game mechanic' is also a tabletop game term.

And that's where and why it all goes wrong for everyone trying to 'fix' game mechanic as a term. Because both 'game mechanic' and 'game system' are concepts from tabletop game design where rules are explicated in written form by necessity. It is a 'game mechanic' in D&D that the D20 is used to resolve a percentile hit chance with 5 percentile increments, and this is part of the 'game system' for combat resolution. It is arguably a 'game mechanic' that pluses on weapons add to both to hit and damage – a mechanic consisting of a great many rules, not all of which appear along with the combat system in the rulebooks. In other words, for a tabletop game, everyone saying 'a game system' is made of 'game mechanics' (bonus points if you spot that 'game mechanics' are also made of 'rules') is continuing the practices of tabletop game design that flourished in the 1960s and reached a turning point in the 1970s – just in time for videogames to join the party and make everything much more confusing!

So the root problem with 'game mechanics' and 'game systems' applied to videogames is that we are applying these terms solely by analogy almost all of the time. Sometimes that analogy goes deeper – when I write a Game Design Document (GDD) for a client, it will be organised into chapters that are conceptually game systems, but nothing inside that design is something I would usually point out as a game mechanic in any formal sense. Conversely, Raph Koster is much happier using the concept 'game mechanic' in his design thinking, but he has a clear conceptual framework that guides his use of this term - and as comments at his blog repeatedly reveal, not one that transfers without friction to other designers! Historically, 'game mechanics' is shorthand for something akin to 'clusters of rules serving a single representative game purpose' in tabletop games. And while some videogames directly parallel tabletop designs, and therefore retain a meaningful sense for 'game system', few if any are specified in actual written rules, because this is not how videogame design proceeds.

So how does videogame design actually proceed? Well, as ever, there are multiple ways of describing what goes on, but I'm just going to focus on how I deal with this problem, as discussed in my DiGRA paper "No-one Plays Alone" (inspired by a brilliant argument I had with Dan Cook!) and explored further with the inestimable assistance of the good and excellent José Zagal in "Game Design Lineages: Minecraft's Inventory". My approach is to recognise that what anchors all the different game design processes are player practices – the things that players learn to do repeatedly. Many of our player practices began as rules, mechanics, or systems in tabletop games – the player practice that you grind for experience points to level up and gain in power, for instance, comes directly from the XP system of D&D. Many other player practices were built up and maintained by the specific design opportunities afforded by videogames. All these player practices form lineages that intersect but also proceed very conservatively… just look at that analysis of inventories in the second paper for a great example!

Most game designers and game studies academics seem to think player practices are an unnecessary abstraction. I don't. Player practices are the real habitual foundation of games and game design; it is 'game mechanic' and 'game system' that are largely abstractions of convenience. They are relevant and useful only as long as they can be applied – which is to say, only with complete confidence when there are written rules. This is always the case at the tabletop, and is sometimes the case with videogames, especially if the game designer has a background at the tabletop and therefore writes their GDDs in the style of a rulebook, or when a coherent conceptual framework allows the terms to be used with local precision. In all other cases, you can invent a set of rules as a mental model for what's going on… but it's always going to be a post-hoc justification for taking the analogies with tabletop design further than ought to be comfortable.

Videogames do not usually invent new 'rules' as such, although they are sometimes conceived of in terms of 'game systems', and 'game mechanics' are solely a way of picking out an arbitrary aspect of the game for discussion in isolation, usually held together by a common representational purpose, or else centred upon the player's choices (also a concept coming to us from the tabletop!). What videogames always do, however, is iterate player practices. Watch the evolution of arrow keys to ASWD and mouse look between Dungeon Master and Half-Life via Quake and you're watching actual changes to actual player practices, reflected in the games being made and how they are being played, none of which involves a 'game mechanic' in the sense that this term was being used in tabletop design, let alone a 'game system' – even though I would have the greatest sympathy for anyone who said that the ASWD and mouse look scheme was a control system because, frankly, that analogy is easy to follow.

Every year, a horde of really interesting videogames die a commercial death because the people making them forgot that new players did not know anything about how their otherwise wonderful game worked. Instead of taking a set of existing player practices and putting a new twist upon them, they invent new player practices from whole cloth… and then few if any players put in the effort required to learn how to play. We don't even provide manuals ('rulebooks') any more to make the learning any easier! Players are dumped into a new videogame with just their prior habits to rely upon – which is why thinking in terms of player practices eliminates in one simple step myriad close-to-hopeless commercial paths in game development. If you don't know any of the player practices your eventual audience has already learned, your project is already in serious trouble! More likely, you know it so well you don't even think about it, precisely because player practices are habitual.

The videogames that succeed combine and iterate player practices to create new experiences – nothing in Fortnite is 'new' except the specific combination of practices each season brings to bear, rooted on practices raided and inherited from elsewhere. Minecraft's core player practices, including its inventory, are inherited from a grand tradition of prior games that also participated in those practices. And all these player practices are sustained in videogames because code and assets were created by developers who had learned the player practices and could create new videogames that reproduced them. Sometimes they did so thinking about 'game mechanics' and 'game systems'… but regardless of how they described what they did – they took the existing player practices, and developed them into a new videogame.

That's the game we play as game designers – and it's a game with a long history.

Many thanks for kicking off this discussion,

Chris.

In response to Pablo J. Gorigoitia's tweet on Monday 29th June 2020.


Zelda Facets

Zelda Logo.transparencyZelda 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:

  1. Introduction
  2. Link
  3. Hyrule
  4. Weapons
  5. Horses
  6. Zelda

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!


Zelda Facets (6): Zelda

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.

Princess ZeldaConsidering 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. 

princess_zelda-8bit

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.


Zelda Facets (5): Horses

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.

Zelda HorseDuring 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


Zelda Facets (4): Weapons

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.

Lynel duelOne 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


Zelda Facets (3): Hyrule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Weapons


Zelda Facets (2): Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Hyrule