Monday, July 27, 2009

Wuhu Island and the Magic of Free Exploration

One of my favorite modes in Wii Sports Resort is definitely the Island Flyover. Not only because it is a very relaxing mode and the perfect diversion from exhausting gametypes like swordplay. They should have included more like that, Fishing for example would have been a perfect fit for the setting. However, the real reason why I enjoy it so much, is because I am a Zelda fan. And Zelda fans love free exploration and collecting stuff. It's in our nature. And the way, Wuhu Island was designed is really great. Everything flows in naturally and I love, how the different places are connected. Especially the locations around the mountain with the mountain paths and the cave tunnels. Whoever designed the island, did a great job at Nintendo's and should work for the next Zelda game.

No, really, what defined the original The Legend of Zelda game, what made it Zelda in the first place, the original idea the game was built upon, was free, non-linear exploration of a coherent world. As an opposite to the linear level design of Super Mario Bros. You could do most parts of the game in any order. And that's something, that got more and more lost over the times in the Zelda series and found its absolute anti-climate in Twilight Princess, which is the most linear Zelda game up to date. They gave up, what Zelda originally was about, and let the player now go on rails over the world just so they can tell their stupid storyline and show us boring cutscenes. I never played Zelda for the story or the cutscenes, I hate cutscenes, because they take control away from you. A game should always be about control, you should be in control of what to do next and where to go next.

And now look at Wuhu Island. What makes the flyover mode so great is, that you can go anywhere you like. There are no ingame rails forcing you to go to the lighthouse first and then go collecting the i-Points at the castle. Why can't the world of a Zelda game be designed like that? Why do I have to be trapped in a forest and why can't I just go to the mountain and the fire dungeon first? Why is the overworld designed like chambers inside a dungeon with all doors locked except one? Only a few Zelda games after the first managed to give a you a more open, non-linear world design. In A Link to the Past you were able to swap some dungeons. The adult part of Ocarina of Time was mostly non-linear, though not a lot of people noticed this. Did you know, that you can go play the Ice Cavern first? Or the Water Temple before the Fire Temple? Yes, it works, but only a few people really tried it, because the annoying ingame guide wants you to go to the forest first. Which is why it doesn't happen often, that someone accidently plays the dungeons out of order. In the original Zelda game you had absolutely no guide and sometimes it just happened, that you came across a dungeon, whose level was above your head. But this article is not about the annoyance of ingame guides, it's about open world exploration and non-linear game design. The Wind Waker had a very open world, too, but the dungeon order was still linear. Though it would make sense, if you could swap the Wind Temple and the Earth Temple, but I never heard about, that this is actually possible. The second half of Phantom Hourglass was totally non-linear, you could play the last three dungeons in any order, which is the way it should be. But the overall linear design of the dungeons theirselves destroyed a part of this feeling. The other Zelda games offered a mostly linear dungeon order and world exploration. Some games managed to compensate that somehow, like Majora's Mask with its large variety of sidequests or the GameBoy(Color) games with their non-linear dungeon design.

But overall it would be nice to have an overworld again, which is absolutely coherent and which lets you explore itself any way you want. There's no real reason to force you to play the dungeons in a specific order except if you need the item from one dungeon in another. But you don't have to design the dungeons that way. Story is not an excuse for linear game design, Ocarina of Time managed to tell its story with a non-linear dungeon order. What I also liked about Wuhu Island was the large island setting. It makes the world feel even more coherent. There are clear border and there's no spot you can miss. You can go everywhere. The overworld in Twilight Princess is the exact opposite. It shows you many places, where you simply can't go. Like Death Mountain or large parts of the Zora River. Fields and woods in the background. Also, you are not allowed to explore the world freely. You have to go to Kakariko first, all other paths are blocked and it continues that way. This always gives you the feeling of restriction. "You're not allowed to go there." But the overworld in Zelda should give you the feeling of freedom.

So, hopefully the Zelda team working on Zelda Wii right now will be inspired by the design of Wuhu Island. Hopefully one of the paths of Zelda Wii is to remember the roots of the The Legend of Zelda series. Non-Linearity and free exploration.

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