Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

An open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Dear Caroline and John,

Caroline-and-JohnThank you for your presentation yesterday at Develop: Brighton, “Relatable Characters, Depth, and Agency: How to Make Players Care About Your Story”, which left me feeling rather animated – albeit largely because of the depths of my dissent with the perspective on game storytelling that had just been presented!

However, I should like to open by expressing my deep agreement on two key points. Firstly, that theme is poorly understood and executed in game narrative; I cannot adequately express how great it is to hear other game writers make this crucial point. Secondly, that the majority of game writing falls short in terms of characterisation: far too many people working on game stories think story is synonymous with plot and therefore fail to adequately provide interesting characters. The model of wants and needs provided in your talk will certainly be helpful for anyone getting to grips with the tools of character arc construction.

Outside of these points, however, I must express my intense disagreement with the fundamentals of the way the two of you are presenting the task of the game writer. I should like to take this opportunity to make clear why I disagree, but also to recognise that on many of the points I am going to raise, you might well agree with me – it may simply be that the structure of your talk obfuscates some of the subtleties I want to draw out in this blog-letter. For this, I can only apologise in advance, and hope that the discussion itself will prove its own reward.

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

A fundamental proposition of your talk was that “for maximum impact, players should be able to influence the protagonist’s arc.” You talk about the importance of agency – and it is correct that agency is a powerful player motive, as I made clear in my Develop: Brighton talk the previous day “What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity.” But I fear the grail of narrative agency that most screenwriters coming to games seek is a rather narrow way of understanding game stories; it risks confusing the possibilities inherent in a particular kind of game for the potential of games as a medium. It elevates choice-making above the other experiences of games. Good game writers must understand the motives and experiences that are entailed in videogame play in order to not fall prey of the temptation to throw away most of the game design toolkit in order to align with the screenwriter’s toolkit.

You mentioned Sid Meier’s famous (mis)quote “a game is a series of interesting choices”… for your purposes, what he actually said would have been even more applicable: “a good game is a series of interesting choices” (i.e. he did not intend to define game, but rather make a claim about what was aesthetically valuable in games). Sid’s maxim is deeply misleading, however: it suggests that Guitar Hero is not a good game, since it requires no choice-making whatsoever. More worryingly from my perspective, it plays into the disgruntled chorus that complained of Dear Esther that it was “not a game”, instead of recognising the genius entailed in the thin play of Dear Esther, which did more to advance the possibilities of game narrative than any AAA released in the same year. Not that AAA games cannot do the same: The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild has one of the most innovative narrative structures I have yet encountered, and I have written at great length about how the central character in its story is Princess Zelda and not Link, per se, and how the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.

For me and my company, narrative design is the key skill that game writers must master if they are going to get to grips with our medium. We were the first consultancy to put game design and narrative talent under the same room (back in 1999), and the first to use the job title ‘Narrative Designer’ (back in 2002) – the term later spread out into the industry via the IGDA’s Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I founded and lead for five years. Narrative design, as myself and my colleague Richard Boon understand the term, is about understanding the inherent story potential in game structure and crafting a story that aligns with that potential.

I first presented on the topic back in 2001, presenting four examples of different structures for games – two of which (tree and ‘Christmas tree’) you included in your talk. (Another point of intense agreement with the two of you here: branching tree structure is suicide for videogame projects; the combinatorial explosion of content spells doom for both production and QA.) Your ‘Christmas tree’ structure is what I’ve called the parallel path approach… I think I misunderstood in your presentation that you meant those parallel paths to be solely reflected in dialogue, and not in content (hence my question at the end). For this I apologise… we are perhaps more in alignment on this matter than I gave credit at the time.

A fundamental tenet of the way Richard and I came to understand narrative design is that different games require different story techniques. If I look at the three games my company worked upon that are being released this year, for instance; Shadows: Awakening is a series of vignettes connected by the theme of whether the past irrevocably conditions who we become; Tropico 6 is commedia dell'arte set against the backdrop of a strategy game; The Persistence is a two-hander theatrical play set within a VR experience of numbingly recurrent death. Not one of these games could have succeeded by implementing your choice-driven three act structure technique – although that too, of course, is a solid model for a particular kind of game story, and your advice to structure three key choices against the same character question is insightful.

Near the end of your talk, you suggest that “writers have to abandon their god-like control over the protagonists destiny and story.” This is a true statement of the challenge of game writing…. but crafting a character space conditioned by choices is not to abandon that god-like control at all, but to become the god of a tiny multiverse instead of one corner of a universe. If you truly want to engage player agency, you have to find ways to allow players to exert their agency freely, without the writers sculpting those possibilities in advance – and that can also involve a kind of letting go, but need not involve yielding character stories to players. Indeed, it can provide new ways of bringing out the potential for character arcs precisely by placing them in a different relationship to player agency.

From the very beginning of my career as a narrative designer and writer, I was using choices to deepen the player experience, and I do not want to suggest that the choice is not a valuable technique in game writing. (All three of our games releasing this year make use of choices in various roles.) What I do want to suggest is that marrying choices to the protagonist’s arc is not the only way to draw upon agency in stories, nor to get players to care about stories. My first game as lead writer and designer was the award-winning Discworld Noir, for which I had the honour of working with Terry Pratchett (not then knighted!) as script editor, and from who I learned immeasurably. The site of agency in this game was not within the character arcs, but with the investigation – the player has tremendous freedom to advance the story through their choices of where and how to pursue their leads. Indeed, many players found ways to advance the story threads that I didn’t know were possible: I had successfully given up my ‘god-like control’ to the player by pursuing a game structure that might well have been slightly insane, for all that it did in fact work. But then, as Terry understood, “There’s a streak of madness in everyone who spends quality time with gods…”

Wishing you all the best in your future writing projects,

Chris.

My thanks to everyone who attended my talk at Develop, and to every presenter who endured my questions after theirs!


What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity (Develop 2018)

At Develop: Brighton this year? Don't miss this essential talk by International Hobo's Founder Chris Bateman!


10PlayerMotivesWhat Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity

Tuesday 10th July: 17.00 - 17.45 : Room 4

Everyone who makes games is in the business of designing for an audience, but understanding what players want has become increasingly difficult the broader and more diverse the audience for videogames has become. Combining cutting edge psychological research with practical game design techniques, this How To talk puts player enjoyment into a more concrete perspective by answering three questions. 

What do players want? The ten psychological motives players have for enjoying games, from the victory motive to the narrative motive, provide every possible reason for players liking the emotional experiences of games. The most common mistake game designers make is assuming they are a typical player: they’re not, and neither is anyone else.

Does my game have what players want? The most reliable way of tracking audience preferences is to look at what players are already playing. Here, marketing and game design have to learn to work together to find the all-important balance between the familiar and the original.

Could my game appeal to a wider audience? You can make changes to a game to help it appeal to a wider audience – but you have to be certain you aren’t destroying the core experience just to go fishing for the mass market. Commercial videogames today have to court and keep an audience, and to do that you need to know which player motives your game can deliver, and which other motives are compatible with it.

Don’t guess at your audience: understand them, and yourself, and learn to make better games.

Takeaway

  • Understand the Ten Player Motives, and how to design games that satisfy these needs.
  • Estimate your game’s potential sales by recognising how to relate your design to games already in the marketplace
  • Maximise your audience appeal without destroying your core experience through careful design tweaking

 


Best of E3: Shadows

Best of E3At this year’s E3 in Los Angeles, one of International Hobo’s RPG projects received two Best of E3 nominations, one from RPG Fan and one from WorthPlaying. The game, Shadows: Awakening – the latest instalment in the cult Heretic Kingdoms franchise that began in 2004 – is developed by long-time ihobo client Games Farm. Featuring an original narrative design and script by International Hobo’s founder, Chris Bateman, the game features characters voiced by Tom Baker, Sally Knyvette, Robert Ashby, Joanna Wake, Ramon Tikaram, Marc Silk and many other talented actors and actresses.

Due for release later this year by publisher Kalypso, Shadows: Awakening is an action RPG set in a dark sword and sorcery world. The player controls a Devourer, a kind of demon that can swallow the souls of the dead and manifest them as puppets. But who is really pulling the strings? Find out later this year!


Why Players Love Stories

Shadows AwakeningOver 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.

You can read the entirety of Why Players Love Stories over at the Develop: Brighton blog.


The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to MUDs to World of Warcraft to Pokémon Go, encounter our strange relationship with games and technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Develop 2018: What Players Want

Develop Brighton LogoInternational Hobo’s founder Chris Bateman is at Develop Brighton this year with a talk entitled What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity. This session is a culmination of more than a decade of work in player satisfaction modelling (not to mention game design experience from fifty published games), and presents a new way of understanding the psychology of videogames in terms of Player Motives. As well as helping clarify effective videogame design, the model can help studios make tough commercial decisions about which audiences they can or should be pursuing with a specific design concept.

For more details, see Chris’ speaker page at the Develop conference website.


Cyborg Living: The Virtuous Cyborg Book Launch

Cyborg Living

How often do you go out without your smartphone? What’s the longest you’ve gone without the internet?
Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we have become cyborgs – human-machine hybrids. Whether it’s Facebook selling our personal data to be ‘weaponised’ by Cambridge Analytica, or Google suggesting answers to questions like “are women evil?” to people who asked for no such thing, our lives are affected by the machines we are living with. Cybernetic networks are all around us – and thinking about ‘neutral tools’ is no longer helpful. You’re already a cyborg… join us to help find out what would make a good cyborg!

Thursday 10th May 2018, 6:30 pm to 9 pm

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NU - order your free tickets here!

Speakers.ihobo

  • 6:30 pm Are You A Good Cyborg?
    Game designer and philosopher Chris Bateman takes us on a journey through the strange world we now live in, asking what the good life might look like for us cyborgs.
  • 7:30 pm Cyborg Living Panel
    Lively debate about our relationship with technology, the internet, robots, and machines.

A special night as part of of Justin Robertson’s “It’s Alive!” Exhibition, and Book Launch Event for Chris Bateman’s new book The Virtuous Cyborg, from Squint Books. Order your free tickets here!


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