Saturday, January 23, 2010

Zelda and Choices

Yes, I'm really in the mood for "how to improve Zelda"-articles lately. This one was inspired by one of Sean Malstrom's latest posts. There he says, that the content of a game is all about the interesting choices you can make. Like in a FPS game it's all about what weapons to use or if you play more defensive or offensive. Tetris is all about where to place the next block. These choices define the fun of the game. And the problem with Zelda lately is that fails to offer interesting choices. The only part of Zelda that offers choices are the sidequests, but these aren't essential for the main game. It's like in Spirit Tracks, where I said I enjoyed looking for the hidden stations and solving some of the harder puzzles, but going through the dungeons was mostly boring, because it was so linear. It didn't offer any interesting choices like the simple choice of "where to go next?". And this isn't simply something that should be added to the Zelda franchise, it's something that already has been an important part of the franchise and something what made earlier Zelda games so great. It's something that has been lost over the time and now should be regained.

First of all, when I talk about "choices" I don't mean any game-altering choices in dialogues and events like in Role Playing Games. I know, a lot of Zelda fans want that, but something like this always leads to missable stuff and I personally prefer it, when I can see and get everything in my first playthrough. The Oracle games for example did that with the choice of what game to play first, only if you play the games in both directions you can experience all events and get all 64 rings. And the Oracle games had the animals, you can only have one and this alters a part of the overworld. If you want to see all possible results for the overworld, you have to play through both games three times. It adds something to the replay value, but I should want to replay a game, because it was awesome and fun and not because I missed something.

The most important and interesting choices in Zelda always have been "where to go next?" and "what to do next?". The main concept of the first Zelda game was creating a non-linear game experience in contrast to the mostly linear Mario games. It was all about freely exploring a world. It was your choice, where you would go first, which dungeons you would play in what order and what items to get next. Twenty years later the game (Twilight Princess) tells you all that and you have no freedom anymore. You have no choice, you have to go to this place, play that dungeon and solve this puzzles with that item. You can't even explore the overworld freely, the overworld exploration itself is just as linear as all the dungeons in the game. It's aweful.

If you go to a Zelda forum and talk about that, you get laughed at and they say that Zelda has always been linear with the exception of the first game (take a look here for example). But they have no idea and they couldn't be more wrong. The games don't have to be as non-linear as the first Zelda, but they should at least offer some freedom. Take Ocarina of Time as an example. The game really shines here. Sadly a lot of people don't notice, how non-linear the game actually is. Like the guy in the thread above, they think that Ocarina of Time is totally linear, but it isn't. For example the moment you will leave the Kokiri Forest is a moment full of interesting choices. You're told to go to the castle, but you don't really have to. You can go to Lake Hylia and do some fishing. You can go to Gerudo Valley and catch some Pieces of Hearts, you can visit the farm and Kakariko. It's freedom and it feels great.

Try doing that in Twilight Princess. There you have the exact same scene after you leave Faron Woods. The northern path leads to the castle. Awesome. But wait, you can't go there, the road is blocked. The path in the west (or east in the Wii version) leads to Lake Hylia. No wait, you can't go there either, because the road is blocked again. The only road left is the one to Kakariko. This is where the game wants you to go next and you have no other choice than following this path. It's boring. I'm not saying, that I want Zelda to become a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto, Zelda games always have a clear goal. But that doesn't mean that everything on your way to this goal has to be experienced in a linear order, that you have no freedom at all. It's the right mix, that is important.

But I'm not done with praising Ocarina of Time yet. The moment, where you enter adulthood is the most non-linear part of the game. What to do first? Most people will play the Forest Temple. But you can also choose to rescue Epona and then you can play the Gerudo Fortress. Or you can play the Ice Cavern first or go for the Fire Temple. Or you can play the Water Temple before the Fire Temple, even though this would be a bad choice. But it's your choice. Most people don't notice this, simply because they're told by the stupid fairy to visit the forest first and so on. But the constant hand holding is a different issue. After you've beaten the first three dungeons, you can choose between Shadow and Spirit Temple. However, try playing dungeons out of order in Twilight Princess or The Minish Cap or Spirit Tracks. It doesn't work.

But a non-linear overworld design and dungeon order are not the only important things when it comes to non-linearity in Zelda. The dungeon design is important, too. The second half of Phantom Hourglass is very non-linear, you can get the third and the fourth seachart in one run. Then you can basically go straight to the fourth sea, play Mutoh's Temple and finish it, then play the Ice Temple and then the Goron Temple at the end. It's entirely possible. Also, you have lots of optional islands to visit. That's great. But still Phantom Hourglass is hardly remembered for its non-linear game design and for its freedom. That's because the dungeons theirselves are totally linear and boring. You have a locked door, you solve a puzzle to get a key, you go to the next room and the process repeats itself. You're always guided through the dungeons and it's totally boring. Link's Awakening on the other hand has a linear dungeon order, but the dungeons are really great. There are multiple ways and solutions through all of the dungeons. A speed runner really has to map his perfect route and some dungeons can be beaten without even visiting 50% of them. You also can get totally lost in those dungeons and a dungeon should be able to do that to you.

These dungeons are interesting and fun. They offer choices. You can also do "dungeon breaking" by just getting the item and proceeding to the next dungeon. Some people choose to do that in the Eagle's Tower, so they can beat the Eagle boss more easily with the help of the Magic Rod from the next dungeon. You can't do that in games like Twilight Princess, The Minish Cap or Spirit Tracks, because there they make sure that you've completed the last dungeon, if you want to go to the next. Mostly because there are some stupid cutscenes waiting for you. Or some people choose to play Misery Mire in A Link to the Past first, so the Ice Palace becomes easier, because with the help of the Cane of Somaria they can skip the nasty block puzzle at the end, that requires tons of backtracking through the dungeon. These choices are what makes the classic Zelda games so much more interesting and magical.

Of course non-linearity is not all there is to offer choices in Zelda games. I said the most interesting choices in FPS games is what weapons to use. In Zelda games it was once interesting to choose what items to use. Now you use your sword for the next Chuchu and the Bow for the next distant crystal switch. The bosses all have an obvious weakpoint that requires a specific item (mostly the item from the dungeon) to expose it. Then you have to use the sword to attack the weakpoint. So, you mostly don't even have a choice here and all the bosses became boring. Well, you were getting some alternative weapons like the awesome Ball and Chain or the Whip. But there should be more of that and more use for them, there should be more variety when it comes to combat in Zelda.

There are probably many other factors in Zelda that can lead to interesting choices, like how to solve a puzzle. But I think the most important one will always be the level of non-linearity in a Zelda game. The feeling of freedom and exploration, the choice of where to go next, the choice to explore the game all by yourself. It has been one of the most important elements of Zelda. And if the Zelda team can't manage to bring this back, the Zelda games will more and more lose their appeal.


Even Steven said...

Again, I totally agree. We really seem to be on the same page as far as Zelda is concerned.

It would be great if the revised "structure" of the next game fixes this, but I expect them to try and make it more "accessible" by controlling the experience even more. At best, maybe they will make the linearity more logical to the setting, instead of creating a big open world and then dragging you around by the scruff of your neck.

But you really need to look elsewhere for that old brand of discovery that Zelda used to do so well. If you haven't tried it yet, I heartily recommend Spelunky. It is FREE to play on Windows! Later this year a new version is coming out on XBLA. It is not in the Zelda genre, but it is pretty sweet how you discover cool stuff as you play. It really gets at that treasure-hunting nerve. It will surprise you as you play, and make you smile!

TourianTourist said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Even Steven. I might check it out.

There are probably many other games, that do certain elements of Zelda better than Zelda. Fable, Gothic or Monster Hunter for example. Or this new game Darksiders. But in the end they're all not Zelda. This might sound fanboy-ish, but it's the Zelda games that got me interested in playing video games and it's the Zelda games (and to a certain extent the Metroid games) that keep me playing video games. If Zelda isn't fun anymore, I will probably lose interest in video gaming alltogether.

Right now Aonuma is playing Monster Hunter Tri and he wants to find out, why people love this game so much. I hope that he will realize that the freedom of this game is really an important part of the fun and that he will try to give the Zelda games some more freedom. It's so easy actually, all they have to do is reflect what made the first Zelda game so popular. The game was built around non-linearity and I really don't get why they try to avoid this in the newer Zelda games except for "omg, the player could be forced to use his brain and look for himself where to go next".

Even Steven said...

I hear what you're saying. Zelda is still my favorite series, and if Nintendo makes another Zelda game as great as Link's Awakening or Ocarina of Time, I will be ecstatic.

I just can't get my hopes up, though. I'm glad they are revising the formula somehow, even if the results are poor I applaud them for trying to change. But I don't expect that Aonuma's idea of improving or changing Zelda will be anything like mine. Remember this is the guy who felt that Twilight Princess was too similar to previous games, and his big idea to fix that was to add a wolf mode. Which was implemented in a very confining way, basically just a mandatory skulltula mission every time you enter a new zone.

The concept art has that Master Sword-looking girl, which is an obvious continuation of the "chaperone" tradition that includes Navi, the talking boat, and Midna. Great, now it's your sword. Something that you should be able to just use in the word to discover its properties, but Nintendo decides it should talk. And what do these characters talk about? Mainly, they tell you where to go, and where you can't go. They're there to explain everything to you when you're oh-so-confused. And they are handy in exposition cut scenes.

So I'm totally with you really, but I am just venting my own skepticism because I find Nintendo pretty clueless about Zelda recently.

TourianTourist said...

Yeah, I agree with you. I briefly mentioned in my article above, that the constant hand holding is a big issue, too. The sidekicks can be annoying and spoil the fun. I mentioned, that only few people notice in Ocarina of Time, that you can play the dungeons out of order. Or that you actually have a lot of freedom in the game. It's because the annoying fairy tells you all the time what to do next and most people listen to that.

I also would like to see some fresh wind in the Zelda team. For example a different director than Aonuma. His first game as a director, Majora's Mask, was simply great. It's one of my favorite Zelda games next to Link's Awakening and Ocarina of Time (those two seem to be your favorites too, eh?). But lately he seems to be stalemated in his ways, the creativity is gone. "Replace the boat with a train, genious!!". I would like to see another Zelda entirely directed by Tezuka (who directed Link's Awakening) and I still have hopes, that Retro Studios is also working on Zelda Wii. They would definitely be able to make Zelda fresh again.

As for Zelda alternatives, I'm looking forward to Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii right now, which comes out in April. It looks like a solid and open Action RPG. I've never played Monster Hunter before, because I never owned a Playstation, so I can't say much. But it looks very promising. There are no experience points like in round based RPGs, you "level up" entirely by new weapons and armors (like in Zelda, just much more). And it's very open, not linear. Should be fun.

Generally I'm interested in other Action RPGs and Adventures, that play like Zelda. If you check my blog, I've written here about two of my favorite Action RPGs, Mystic Quest and Terranigma. Especially Terranigma is great, I absolutely love this game. If you haven't played it, do it now. Metroid would be another example, I primarily got interested in Metroid because the core gameplay is similar to Zelda (explore coherent worlds, collect items to proceed, etc.) But Zelda will probably stay my all time favorite and I hope it will rise back to its old glory one day.

Even Steven said...

I'll try to check out the games you mentioned. I'll definitely read your articles.

I do love Majora's Mask, even though it is tedious in parts. I love the 3 day system and the whole atmosphere of the world on the brink of destruction. I replayed it recently and again thought about how great it is.

You're right about Aonuma, he is just reusing stuff that he believes has to be in Zelda. I heard him say he got the idea for the Twilight realm because "every Zelda game has 2 worlds" ... uhhhhh what? Because it was done awesomely in LttP and poorly in Ocarina you think it's a necessity?

Anyway, you're writing some good articles, I hope you keep it up.

TourianTourist said...

Thank you. I'm always glad if someone enjoys reading my little blog. ^^

Well, if you read the posts about Mystic Quest, I apologize in advance, because they're quite shabby. These were my first posts on the blog and my English was even worse back then. :D The article about Terranigma, however, should be fine. It's also the better game. Like I said, if you haven't played Terranigma, it's a must. I'm sure you'll like it.