Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Change for the Overworld

This post isn't about Aonuma's plans for Zelda Wii to change the dungeon-overworld pattern. This is about something more general, something that has become a major issue in the series since Ocarina of Time. I'm talking about that Nintendo always uses the same field/ocean style overworld design, where you would travel with a horse, a boat or a train and where all the other places are just islands in the water or the grassy fields. They've done that for the 3D and the Nintendo DS Zeldas. And the overworlds became much more empty and boring.

It's really obvious in The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, where you use artificial means of transportation and where you just travel over an ocean to the next island. While the islands are fine, do we really need the filler landscapes between them? But the best example to describe this problem is probably Twilight Princess, where it isn't so obvious at first hand. Who else was disappointed by the overworld? That there were no open forests? That the fields were mere rooms surrounded by rocks? That the fields were empty and that there was nothing to do? Zelda fans especially were disappointed, that there was no open forest, like the one shown in the E3 2004 trailer. So, let's picture something like it:

Beautiful, isn't it? I believe it's from Fable 2, but I'm not an expert. So, why can't Zelda look like this? And I don't mean the graphical details, of course the Wii isn't powerful enough to begin with and doesn't have to be. I'm talking about the overall environmental and visual style, it has a certain magic to it. You want to explore it. And that's how environments in Zelda games should look like, like something that makes you want to explore every corner of them. Well, instead of making a similar open forest in Twilight Princess, Faron Woods was just paths through tree covered cliffs again, much like the woods in the Nintendo 64 times. Probably because it's easier to navigate through these areas with Epona, while in an open forest you would bump into every second tree. The same would go for rocky areas or mountains or swamps. There are areas in the game, where you can't go with Epona, but these are basically just islands again in an ocean. An ocean of grassy fields made for Epona. That's all there is to it. Epona is your boat and Hyrule Field is the ocean. It's just a little prettier and more interesting than the Great Sea in The Wind Waker, but it's basically the same thing.

Well, I'm not saying that we should get rid of Epona and the fields entirely. Epona is an icon of the Zelda series and fields are of course a natural part of a landscape. But it shouldn't feel like it's 90% of the overworld and there should be more to it than just some Poes to collect and maybe some hidden hole caves, which all look the same. In Twilight Princess they could have added some more interesting stuff to every single field. For example some single buildings like a windmill here and an hermit's hut there could have added so much more. Or the ocean in The Wind Waker feels not only empty, you get the same small islands everywhere, as well as those pirate lookouts. It's repetitive and not very inspired. Where are the big islands? Why am I the only boat on the ocean? And in case of Twilight Princess, the warp system spoiled both Epona and the fields anyway. It was too powerful. So, we have the massive fields made for the horse and you don't ride through them, because it's much simpler to teleport between the villages and key areas. A tighter overworld with a restricted warp system, something like the warp holes in Link's Awakening or the warp gates in Ocarina of Time, could help to utilize Epona much better. Epona could even work in an open forest, if you have some paths like in the picture above. You just can't go with her everywhere, but her purpose should be to get from A to B faster and not to explore the overworld.

Of course the fields and forests and the ocean are not all there is to the overworld in a Zelda game. What's also very important are villages and towns with life in them. Something like Clocktown or Windfall Island and not something like Hyrule Castle Town in Twilight Princess. But this is a different chapter, which I will open in a later article.

Also, the exploration of the overworld itself should be as non-linear as possible. I can't repeat it often enough of how much importance non-linearity is. Ocarina of Time did it right, in the moment where you leave the woods you don't have to go straight to Hyrule Castle. Go fishing to Lake Hylia, if you like. Or fly through the Gerudo Valley with some Cuccos. Explore the farm or Kakariko. It's your choice. It's an open world and a massive playground. The feeling of freedom and exploration. Games like Twilight Princess or Spirit Tracks don't offer that, you proceed through the overworld exactly as the developers want you to. This takes away the feeling of freedom and exploration.

As a conclusion, the overworlds in games like The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are massive, wide and impressing on first glance. But they are also empty and filled with repetitive things. And this is something, that has to change. What I want for Zelda is dense overworld with large open forests, where I can get lost, rivers running through them, lakes, mountains, all open for exploration. And where everything is intertwined and connected. With a certain magic to it that says "explore me". This magic was lost over the course of the newer Zelda games and has to be regained.


Even Steven said...

Excellent post! My feelings exactly.

TourianTourist said...

Thank you.