I love the Legend of Zelda storyline. There were a number of things that have kept me coming back to the series, but as someone who’s been obsessed with writing fiction since I was in preschool, the story is definitely up there. My first real encounter with real Zelda fandom was a fanfiction piece I wrote back in 2002 called “Partial Realities.” It was set to be a sequel to Majora’s Mask, and had I had the dedication in those days to finish it would have detailed the rest of Link’s quest to find Navi.
At the end of the day, though, the Zelda series is more than just a collection of stories – it’s a video game, designed to be played first and foremost. The way the story has unfolded has somewhat progressed over the years, from a vague backstory that leads into a single dungeon-crawling scenario – “get the Triforce and save Zelda” – to fully-fledged plots with twists and turns, betrayal and sacrifice, and everything else in between. But what approach is best?
The Nintendo Stance on Story – Gameplay First, Story Second
The most important thing for me, is that the player get sucked into the game. I want the games to be easy to understand, and that the people appreciate the games content, its core. I will never deny the importance of a great story, but the plot should never get that important that it becomes unclear.Shigeru Miyamoto
A couple years ago, I was adamantly calling for a rethinking of this approach – now I’m not so sure. We have to remember that essentially no one comes to the Zelda series for the first time because they’re curious about its story – I know I didn’t. I was more concerned with how cool it was to go on a real adventure in a video game. I wanted to run around kicking ass with a sword – it’s definitely the main reason why I’m trembling with anticipation for Skyward Sword.
It’s this gameplay first approach that gave birth to gaming legends like the original Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past. and Ocarina of Time. Sure, the latter two did have excellent plots, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that the story got quite the center stage its received in the games that have followed. A Link to the Past mostly told its story through expository dialogue with NPCs hidden in caves and at the end of each dungeon – but we still got a strong sense of what was going on. Ocarina of Time added quite a bit, particularly in the cutscene department, with dynamic plot progression that advanced the game where experimenting with items in unexplored areas did previously.
That these two titles stand among the most beloved in all of gaming should say something about what they accomplished in terms of balance between story and gameplay – but which one would you say achieved the better balance? I personally have to lean more towards Ocarina of Time. A Link to the Past was great, but the plot was a little too expository for my taste. It felt more like a bit of flavor splashed in with the gameplay than a seamlessly integrated part of the game world.
Consider also how both games approached the process of reaching the dungeons – in A Link to the Past it was a matter of getting to the spot marked on your map and (when applicable) using the correct item to open the dungeon. In Ocarina of Time you still had to use your items to get past obstacles on your way to the temples, but there was more to it than that – you had to unravel the mystery of what happened to Zora’s Domain or how to get permission to cross the Haunted Wasteland as well. The result was a game experience that felt much more like a story.
The Other Side of the Proverbial Fence – Story First, Gameplay Second
At the same time, there’s a growing sense that the games’ stories aren’t quite as thought out as they could be – the confusing state of the timeline being just one example of this. In a world where modern RPGs have literally hours and hours of full cutscenes, there’s a lot of pressure on the Zelda series to offer something similar. The series’ stories are still revered, but in many ways they seem outdated in comparison.
When thinking about how to approach my fanfiction, one of my core concerns is how to establish a coherent and meaningful mythos. Is Link’s involvement in the events of the story really believable? Are his relationships with the other characters memorable and interesting? How can I take the foundational concepts that are iconic to the series and make a story that feels brand-new? I find that this outlook trickles into my experience with the games as well – often the games don’t quite live up to the grand view my imagination concocts as I move through the story.
I rip on Twilight Princess‘s story quite a bit, but I’ve got to admit that there are a number of moments that really nail it in terms of what a plot-heavy Zelda game could be like. For example, I really enjoyed Ilia’s character development early on – the way they fleshed out her role as a thorn in Link’s side and yet only because she cares so much for him just worked. The Twilight Realm invasion was presented well – I remember being really excited the first time I saw the cutscene showing Zant and his forces overtaking Hyrule Castle on GameTrailers back in ‘06. Moments like this are great, and future titles should really push them as the preferred way to drive the story.
At the same time, though, we’ve got to be conscious that the gameplay has to be able to keep up with the story. Take The Wind Waker, for instance – there are tons of places where you can tell that the story was doctored somewhat to fit time constraints. The removal of the Nayru’s Pearl dungeon is probably the most obvious. That’s not to say they didn’t handle it well – the whole “Ganon got here first and trashed the island” was probably the coolest filler material I think I’ve ever seen – but it’s clear that they cut some corners with the story since they took its scope beyond that of the gameplay content.
With well-constructed cutscenes and deeply thought-out characters and scenarios, I think a more story-heavy approach could work extremely well. While I don’t think that Twilight Princess absolutely lived up to this prospect, I know a lot of fans feel that it did, and so that’s reason enough to give it another shot in Skyward Sword and the games that follow. As long as the creators don’t try to push cutscenes so hard that gameplay scenarios get shoved aside (for example, scenes that show Link doing something that the player would rather prefer to have handled directly), the series’ track record speaks for itself.
Interestingly enough, we heard that this time around, the basic story was actually laid out back in E3 2009, before they really had anything to show in terms of gameplay. I wonder if this means they’re going to deliver the epic tale a lot of fans have been wishing for. I know, however, that whatever the case, I’m excited to find out later this year.
So, which approach do you like better? The gameplay first, story second philosophy that’s guided most of the games thus far? Or a more story-centric approach with a greater volume of cutscenes and dialogue to drive a strong narrative? Let us know in the comments section!