I embarked on my first journey into Hyrule a little under twelve years ago. Much like the hero I would come to identify with, I was a boy of merely ten at the time, ripe for the adventure that awaited. I remember my excitement as I fell into that world with a sense of curiosity and wonder, and the fantasy story and setting brought my childhood imaginings to life in a way I had never before experienced. Another twelve years before that, my spiritual predecessors, those of the previous gaming generation, unboxed the original Legend of Zelda and ventured on quests of their own.
Since then, the beloved franchise has grown and evolved. While some of the more recent titles have focused on adding specific novelties to the game world in order to produce a unique experience, such as Wind Waker‘s ocean or the vehicles in the DS outings, Skyward Sword reportedly intends to put the innovation in the control scheme while returning to the basics otherwise. Setting aside the question of whether what we’ve seen so far hits that mark: what exactly are the core features of the Zelda series?
The best way to find this answer is, as one might expect, to go back to the very beginning. Most would think to start by dissecting the original game, but in truth the history of the series goes back thirty years further, to a young boy living in a small countryside village…
Our hero found himself entranced by the vastness of the territory surrounding his home. Eager for adventure, he explored every nook and cranny of the region, finding his way to quiet lakes and secluded hilltops in the process. On one particular excursion deep into the woods, he discovered the mouth of a large cave. Though fearful at first, he eventually gathered his courage, and with the light of a lantern to guide him he ventured into the cavernous depths.
This boy, the subject of our story, is of course the young Shigeru Miyamoto, and these adventures served as inspiration for the setting and gameplay of The Legend of Zelda. Miyamoto’s self-stated goal for the series was to package that sense of wonder and playful exploration into something that everyone could discover for themselves.
How did the original Zelda accomplish this feat? Foremost was the structure of the world itself. Hyrule was a blatant recreation of Miyamoto’s childhood experiences, complete with vast forests, high mountains, hidden lakes and caverns, and- well, that’s about it. There were no villages, no wide and open fields, and other characters were scarce. Unlike more recent installments where a Certain Important Event set the stage for Link’s journey, the original (and its sequel) started off when the true adventure has already begun and set you immediately against the dangers of the world. No elaborate tutorial, no string of storyline outlining what path you should take. Just you, your tools, and a bold wilderness to conquer.
While many today chalk this up to technological limitations, consider that other contemporary games such as Final Fantasy were still able to tell an elaborate story using the NES hardware. The choice to scale back storytelling must have been deliberate. Again, the answer goes back to the imaginings of children. When children play at adventure, do they craft out elaborate exposition about how things used to be tranquil before the monsters came and ruined the peace? Do they construct elaborate villages full of friendly folks who just want things to go back to how they ought to be? Of course they don’t! They are not concerned with “how things should be.” They are concerned with beating up bad guys.
Miyamoto constructed The Legend of Zelda in much the same way. Players didn’t know much about Hyrule aside from that it was a good place where there was a magic triangle you needed to recover and a beautiful princess that needed you to rescue her from the evil king. Aside from that you were left alone to dive into Hyrule at your leisure. Although, that’s not entirely true – the few NPCs scattered throughout the land were there to sell you helpful goods, point you to places to explore, and occasionally thank you for paying to fix their door. Even finding them was a trick, however, as they often settled in some of the more out-of-the-way niches of the world, and usually in the company of more than a few hostiles.
It was very easy to get lost on your first trip through Hyrule. The only available map was a small grid that told you where you were relative to the edges of the world. To find your way, you had to either memorize the geographical features of the land or wander aimlessly in search of a new dungeon entrance. The dungeons themselves were just as difficult to navigate – so much so that the manual referred to them as “labyrinths.” Finding the map and compass was essential, because without them it was a struggle to keep track of which doors you had to follow to reach the end of the maze.
As a result of this precise mix of story, characters, and good ol’ game design, the setting of The Legend of Zelda felt very foreign and therefore perfectly emulated that classic childhood experience of breaking out and exploring the outside world. In hindsight it seems to have done this to an even greater extent than was apparent at the time when compared to the more recent games, which all seem to revolve around the same formulaic world elements and story rather than that original adventuresome feel.
I would go so far to say that this aspect of exploration, this sense of “becoming Mr. Hero” and “entering the Land of Legends,” is at the very heart of the Zelda core experience. And, as I’ve elaborated on previously, this element needs to undergo a resurgence for the series to stay true to its roots, rather than favoring a forced linear progression with no room to deviate, as is often the case in the more recent games.
The culprit of this linear design? Surprisingly enough, the reason behind the trend has less to do with Miyamoto or Aonuma and more to do with the fanbase. We find that fans who grew up with the series expect the series to “grow up with them” in a sense – and I will be the first to admit that I once found myself among them. Just as a teenager quickly tires of the bedtime stories of his youth once he discovers the breadth and depth of a full-length novel, so do Zelda fans, many of whom are now full-fledged adults, wish for their cherished series to progress from a Peter Pan fairytale of sorts to a Tolkein-esque epic both in scale and in significance. The result is that grander storytelling style forces a comparable trimming of the “adventure.” It only makes sense: if more of the game is composed of narrative events, particularly cutscenes, there will be less room for interactive scenarios, those events that the player generates and that make each individual experience seemingly unique.
Extrapolating too much from this might lead one to conclude: “There should be less of a story in Zelda.” But this is simply not true; the story is not at the root of the problem. Plenty of games have successfully weaved together fantastic stories without sacrificing the core play experience as compensation. A famous example is Metroid Prime, which told an immensely complicated story while including no spoken dialogue whatsoever. It was able to achieve this because of Retro Studios’ ingenuity; they defied the typical standard of storytelling and hid the plot inside the player-generated events.
The problem lies not in story, which is essential to creating a cohesive, believable setting for the game, but in an overemphasis on narrative. Games have become less about the player playing the game, experiencing it as their own adventure, and more about the character as articulated through a preset storyboard. Things that players were once left to figure out on their own, such as how to get around the overworld, are now dictated to them via required cutscenes – the irony being that the overworld was not so complicated that such directions were particularly helpful. So where people might have expected a stronger narrative to make the game come more alive, instead it breaks that essential connection to the game by shifting the focus from the play experience to the NPCs and to these “required events.”
And fans are growing increasingly privy to this. While few would argue that it is a bad game, there was a strong backlash from much of the long-standing membership of the Zelda community to Midna’s domination of Twilight Princess‘s plot. People did not buy the game hoping to see the Legend of Midna; they bought it in order to dive into the supposedly “rich world” if offered in order to tell their own story. But the biggest change to the overworld was not that it was richer – although it certainly was larger in scale – but that more story events took place there.
Going back again to the Metroid series, we see that a similar phenomenon plagued the more recent Other M. The game was meant to bring the 2D arcade-style play experience of the earlier Metroid games to a more modern audience, while at the same time weaving the intricate drama of Samus Aran’s history through powerful cinematic sequences. In the end, however, it not fully succeed at either, and fans wound up with a game and a story that were both full of holes. That’s not to say the pieces that were there were poorly-conceived by any means – again, see Twilight Princess – but they were not as strong or memorable as perhaps they could have been.
What the modern video game needs is not more story, but a dense gameplay experience placed in a setting more suited to that gameplay. With a stronger setting, a good story is bound to come naturally. Even if the plot is not especially lengthy, we know from the earliest Zelda games that a short story can be good (and still deep!). Majora’s Mask serves as perhaps the pinnacle of the Zelda story as expressed through allegory and imagery and not through dialogue and plot – to the point that even today people still peel away the layers. To demonstrate how strong the impact was, consider that we released what is now a rather famous article called “The Message of Majora’s Mask” back in May of 2008. If you look at the comments section of the article, you’ll see that the latest post is only a week-and-a-half old. Very few video games have had this kind of impact. Yet the plot – the narrative – of Majora’s Mask was very short.
Clearly the breadth of the narrative is not the issue. The issue is how deeply the story involves the player’s input. This brings me back to the misguided expectations of fans. The problem is not so much that they want a more narrative tale – the problem is that this is not what Zelda is. Zelda is the swashbuckling adventures of a young boy. We, the players, are responsible for crafting the “narrative” from our own imaginations while we undertake those adventures.
And of course, veiled in plain sight, is another essential piece of the Zelda puzzle that seems to have been overlooked by the fans: the fact that Link is a child. That’s right; I said it: Young Link is the “true incarnation” of Link. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Zelda titles have depicted him as such, starting with the very first. The image of Link as a child is crucial because, at least originally, Link was supposed to reflect that essential curious and adventuresome spirit that can only belong to a person of that age. It’s true that he’s also appeared as an adult as early as Zelda II, but that game also focused more on Link’s courageous side – the increased role combat played in the gameplay reflects this in particular, as does the introduction of the Triforce of Courage.
But, for whatever reason, the fans seem to believe that Link ought to be “mature,” even though the series was inspired by experiences that have absolutely nothing to do with those of grown men. Nintendo obviously understands this; since The Wind Waker was dismissed as being “too kiddy” by many longtime fans of the series it seems Nintendo wants to keep the “Child Link” as far as possible from their console installments – the ones that they know matter most to these fans. (This is too bad; Wind Waker was more like the original Legend of Zelda than any of the other recent games in that the central element was Link’s exploration of the seemingly-endless sea.) We see the same trend in the Smash Bros. games, where the adult Link takes the foreground while the child Link is either “Young Link” or “Toon Link.” Hell, even the creator of this article’s banner chose to use the adult Link as the depiction of “Mr. Hero.”
What has happened here? On the one hand, Nintendo knows that Ocarina of Time, the game to most prominently feature Link’s progress towards maturity, is the most popular game in the franchise; as a business strategy, it therefore makes perfect sense to frame his character in light of that presentation. On the other, however, the move still seems troubling, as though the creators are afraid to embrace the series’ roots and would rather start fresh with Ocarina. The fact that Skyward Sword‘s introductory retrospective only depicted Link from his Nintendo 64 incarnations onward, and that the game claims to be a “back to basics” title while still basically resembling Ocarina in terms of gameplay design, seems (at least from what we’ve seen so far) to fall into a similar trap.
I submit that if Skyward Sword really intends to go back to the basics, it ought to more closely resemble the original Legend of Zelda than to become Yet Another Ocarina of Time Spin-Off. After all, the series monicker is “The Legend of Zelda,” not “The Hero of Time Saga.” (At least we can rest assured that the game is not being called the “spiritual sequel” to Ocarina as Twilight Princess was, as if the series needed such a thing.) I am hopeful for what the new game will bring, but also skeptical that it may fail to capture that true spirit of Mr. Hero and his journey into the Land of Legends.