Jul 23 2014

What an Open World Could Mean for the Zelda Series

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

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Nintendo games are a bit like Mom’s cooking. You can criticize it behind their back all you want, but as soon as you smell something familiar cooking up, your mouth inevitably starts to water.

Case in point – the announcement of a completely new Zelda game for the Wii U. Everyone, myself included, freaked out when they saw this breath-taking trailer. People have been taking potshots at the core Zelda mechanics for years, but now that a shiny new one has been teased, hope yet again springs eternal.

This reaction occurs because no matter how much people want to bitch about Zelda, it’s still Zelda …dammit. The series produced some of the most refined, fun, and art-driven games ever created on God’s green earth, and it’s only by examining the amazing qualities of some Zelda titles that the others may appear inferior.

That legacy has led to early extreme hype surrounding the new Zelda for Wii U. Series director Eiji Aonuma promises a return to the exploration of the older titles, as well as a commitment to toning back the incessant nagging and interminable tutorials.

These factors, however, aren’t exciting in and of themselves. Most of us have played Skyrim, loved it, then found ourselves wanting more variety from the content. While this feeling wasn’t enough to keep me from playing Skyrim for countless hours (I just started a new character), it does bring to light that Nintendo’s announcement isn’t exciting because there’s going to be another quest-driven, open-exploration fantasy game, but because a Zelda game is going to have these things.

So why does the gaming community and press have such high hopes for introducing an open world to the Legend of Zelda series? Let’s dig a little deeper to find out how this anticipation translates to what changes people are really asking for…

 

More Player Control

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For a medium about interactive experiences, games sure seem keen on dictating how those experiences will unfold. Campaigns for extremely lucrative FPS franchises like Modern Warfare have become a series of endless tunnels and bland rooms. The level design teases you with massive environments, then funnels you through a narrow path within them.

Design like this becomes a game of Greyhound racing; follow the fake rabbit and get a prize!

Older games like Super Mario Bros. used to introduce seemingly simple mechanics, then let you figure out the complexity within them as they ratcheted up the difficulty. Newer games substitute challenge with gimmicks. Less nuance is applied to each mechanic and instead several, shallow mechanics are used in conjunction. The game has you switch out new hats every few seconds to prove that you’re following along rather than letting you learn on your own.

Zelda games have become notorious for this egregious sin. Every single room has tasks for you to perform. Get the key, go to the next room. Find the item, beat the boss, go to the next dungeon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Instead of funneling players through objectives and artificially restricting access, players should have the freedom to determine what challenges they want to seek out next and whether or not to complete them or postpone them and go off on a side quest.

Skyrim delivers this experience beautifully, for the most part. Players inevitably receive two or so quests deemed “important” at a time, but on the way they can feel free to investigate any random dungeons or ruins they happen upon along the way. Also, players are able to become wrapped up in extended crusades that don’t contribute to the main story line, such as joining the Thieves Guild or running errands for your friendly neighborhood Daedra.

 

A Whole New World

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These choices allow players to have a unique experience every time they play. They also allow an individual to define their own progress rather than having the game do it for them. A player’s accomplishments are marked by their overall accumulation of personally-chosen quest rewards rather than a path marked by a set number of Oracle Medallions. One playthrough may look completely different than another, and ignoring the main quest indefinitely becomes a distinct option as one becomes wrapped up in what they decide is important.

There are many positive examples within the Zelda series. The original The Legend of Zelda obviously allows full exploration of nearly the whole map at the onset, with only a few restrictions because of necessary travel items. A Link to the Past allowed for some switching around of dungeon order, in addition to random items peppered throughout Hyrule, such as the Magic Cape.

Majora’s Mask is the best example I can think of; nearly every mask requires a side quest. Some are as simple as listening to a complaining organ grinder, but others are so involved that they require as much effort as completing a typical dungeon.

Each task du masque brought Link a little bit closer with the people of Termina, and helping them typically affected a positive change on the landscape. Every mask became a marker of your progress, and completing the set earned you the right to become an ultra-powerful version of yourself that looked so cool it defied explanation.

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The problem with Zelda ignoring tangential possibilities, besides each playthrough feeling generic and predictable, is that towards the end of the game the player’s progress feels as if it has come to a screeching halt. Once the player has acquired most items in the game, the end results often feel less tantalizing, such as Ocarina of Time saving the nigh-useless hoverboots and mirror shield for the last two dungeons while giving the cooler stuff such as arrows and hookshots up front.

A low-point in the series could be Wind Waker‘s islands. The game feels impossibly huge at first, with an endless ocean and lots to discover. Unfortunately, once you’ve progressed through the game and seen nine tenth’s of all the big islands, most of the smaller ones turn out to only yield more rupees and heart pieces, which become redundant late-game.

What’s more, the emphasis on “lock and key” puzzles that demand a one-dimensional solution via an acquired item ruin a lot of the mystery as the game unfolds. The immense potential of exploring Hyrule’s fields becomes mundane once all the locks have found their keys.

 

Stranger Means Danger

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Seriously, though. How varied were the side quests in Skyrim? Lots of exploring the same-looking barrows, caves, and Dwemer ruins, in addition to lots of pulling levers, jumping through traps, and fetching quest items. I swear I must have seen eight million loading screens while fulfilling the Thieves’ Guild odd jobs.

Skyrim made the slog feel rewarding because of the extensive supply of random loot, coupled with intricate customization options, oodles of shops to sell unnecessary stuff to, and an addictive leveling system. I personally don’t think the Zelda formula leaves much room for any of these things.

The joy of many Zelda titles comes from the themed dungeons and the deviously brain-prodding puzzles within them. Oracle of Seasons had me scratching my head throughout the last half of the game, and Twilight Princess knocked me back each time they introduced a new dungeon complete with unique architecture and aestethics.

I’m all for scaling back the lock-and-key puzzles (which reared their ugly head in Skyrim with those ridiculous panel puzzles and literal “locks” and “keys”), but not at the expense of variety. Zelda does not need to add that much in terms of inventory management, and demanding copious small dungeons may encourage repetition.

As a compromise, the new Zelda should retain the series’ captivating dungeon designs, but reduce the dependency on obvious or trite solutions. Each “puzzle” should have several approaches to solving them, or circumventing them entirely with clever planning ahead.

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For instance, maybe bring back the option to use small keys in any dungeon? This could encourage postponement of easier dungeons in favor of quicker progress with the more advanced ones, at the expense of eventual backtracking. While I haven’t played A Link Between Worlds, the item rental system seems to be breaching this threshold.

Zelda games thus need several available options and a choice on which order to perform them in, with perhaps some different outcomes as a result. With a set of clustered story arcs, one could mix and match and achieve unique-feeling playthroughs. Alleviating Hyrule’s problems in order from easiest to most difficult could create more story opportunities than jumping ahead to one area before returning to the “beginning.”

For example, imagine if in Ocarina that you saved the Gorons from starving first, but that meant that the Deku tree already died and that Kokiri forest was now under attack. Or, imagine if you could defeat Bongo Bongo in the Kakariko well but then had to face a more powerful foe?

This freedom would necessitate a different measure of player advancement. Specifically, while in the old Zelda games each new item garnered you new skills, perhaps in this new one Link should have many techniques for already available areas of expertise like swordplay and archery. More difficult awards could provide a nifty situational combat advantage, while simpler ones form the basis for basic attacks that make the game generally easier. This tactic would prevent players from being frustrated from entering a new area only to find out they hadn’t “unlocked” bombs yet.

 

Save the Environment

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If the new Zelda successfully dials back on the locks and keys, the landscape of Hyrule will be allowed to appear genuinely organic. The best aspect of open worlds is that places can appear legitimately lived-in. Villages and communities feel as if they have existed for years before you came along, rather than simply being structures waiting to be plundered by our “hero.”

The addition of random encounters hints that these type of narratives are a possibility. Those enemies have their own agenda, and should you happen to run into them it’s because it’s a fact of the landscape that such things happen, not because you had reached “scripted story event 1-19-a.”

This richer narrative could tip Zelda over the edge of maturity, and shift the series from feeling targeted at children who want structured playground lands to a more general sense of immersion and consequence. The possibility that you could be wandering around and get your ass handed to you suggests more responsibility on the player to devise their own survival tactics instead of walking the game’s predictable path.

Coupled with legitimate environmental markers of a player’s decisions, this dedication to reality-building could make Zelda feel more like a true “next gen” experience. I think that this transmutation is what incites butterflies in people’s stomachs while watching the new Zelda trailer– the removal of obvious barriers and the substitution of player choice and responsibility.

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Nintendo should keep the well-defined dungeons, and keep the repertoire of awesome skills, but should allow people the option to play the game how they want rather than checking off the box of requisites. Adults don’t like being praised for jumping through hoops; they want to find the hoop sitting in a field and decide whether or not to play with it or just sell the damn thing and use the money for better ways to stab people.

Hopefully, Zelda will evolve in this more dynamic and interesting direction while retaining the charm and sharp design of its predecessors. If not, it will still be a damn good game, win tons of perfect scores and awards, then have cynical people like me complain that it’s not different enough to be the same as the old Zelda games. Maybe I should hold out for the one after the next?

 

Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and puts them on a pedestal even though new ones are perfectly fine.





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2 responses so far

  • Margo Williams

    Great post!

  • Vonter

    I thing the main dilemma is the conflict between story and game design. The first Zelda had a barebones plot (although for it’s time was good enough) so actions didn’t have consequence in the conclusion of events. The last Zelda games were linear because they had plot and lore more focused in their quests. ALBW FYI has less of a plot than Spirit Tracks or even the Minish Cap, most of it’s uniqueness is at the beginning and end (kinda crammed).

    So it’s a thing to consider since it may be likely that this new Zelda is more game than story. The solution to this IMO will be like in Majora’s Mask to have ministories adding to a more simple main plot.

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