The dungeons of The Legend of Zelda series are some of the most unique and interesting creations in videogames. Wanting to learn more about their design, Mark Brown, of “Game Makers Toolkit” on youtube, decided to do a whole series centered around them. The series, called “Boss Keys”, examines one game per video, and digs deep into the design philosophy that went into every game. Being a fan of this series, which has gotten a lot of positive feedback, our very own Gooey Fame had the chance to interview him, and he was excited to say the least. This is what he had to say:
Gooey: Hey Mark, Thanks for doing this interview. I’m a big fan of your channel. What inspired you to start your channel and your series, “Game Makers Toolkit?”
Mark: Thank you! Well, I’ve always found game design to be absolutely fascinating. The way tiny design decisions can change the way we interact with a game, and how designers can teach, guide, and inform the player without them ever really knowing.
When I started seeing video essays on movies, such as the excellent Every Frame a Painting, I realised that I could do a similar thing for games. I gave it a try, really enjoyed it, and now I’m still doing it almost three years later.
G: In regard to your series “Boss Keys”, What is it about Zelda that made you decide to focus a whole series on its dungeons?
M: So, my favourite Zelda dungeons are the ones where the entire dungeon must be manipulated – like the Water Temple in Ocarina, Stone Tower Temple in Majora’s Mask, and Sandship in Skyward Sword.
These are crazy mechanical puzzles. I’ve described them as like solving a Rubik’s cube from the inside. They require a certain type of spatial reasoning that makes my brain very happy.
And there’s really nothing else like this in video games. You get games with backtracking and interconnected levels like Metroid and Dark Souls, but there’s almost nothing like the Water Temple, which makes them so intriguing to me.
My research was originally going to be about that type of dungeon, but I decided that I needed to see where they came from so decided to look at every dungeon in the series.
G: What has been the most fun aspect of doing this series?
M: It has been really enjoyable to see how Zelda dungeons have changed over time, and to try and chart the history of this one element of the Zelda series.
So, to see how the formula shifted. How the order of the dungeon became more predefined over time. How different types of dungeon seem to go away, only to make a triumphant return later down the line.
G: I know the series was originally started to be your research for just one video, but you have obviously put a great deal of effort alone into these videos. Do you feel like they’ve evolved in any way?
M: Absolutely! When the series started, I was mostly talking about the number of keys and making small observations about interesting puzzles and items. To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
But for the Oracle episode, I decided to create an entire graph system that could quickly visualise the structural complexity of the dungeon. And then I realised the graphs sucked and made a new version for Minish Cap.
I also established a number of criteria for differentiating between complex and simple dungeons (such as branching paths, player choice, and backtracking), and realised that all Zelda dungeons could be grouped into three categories.
So, I’m definitely talking about the dungeons with more confidence now, and with lots of theory to help guide my process.
G: In your research, have you been surprised by anything you’ve discovered about the series, about a game, or both?
M: I never fully realised before how Link’s Awakening really established the Zelda dungeon formula. Things like the boss key and backtracking with items were all introduced here. The way dungeons work in, say, Skyward Sword is pretty much the same as Link’s Awakening.
I was also surprised to see my favourite type of dungeon design – those nifty mechanical puzzles – make a comeback in Skyward Sword, which is a game I generally don’t enjoy. But replaying dungeons like Ancient Cistern, Sandship, and Sky Keep made me realise that there’s perhaps more to that game than I’ve given it credit for.
G: Which game do you think is the most influential or innovative in its dungeon design?
M: Ocarina of Time has certainly been influential. For one thing, it used this hub and spoke system where all the key rooms fork off from one central plaza – and Zelda dungeons would keep copying that for ages. It’s also where those puzzle box dungeons really got their start, with the Water Temple.
And with it being Eiji Aonuma’s first Zelda game (he was a dungeon designer no less), it’s not surprising to see Ocarina’s legacy show up in future games.
As for innovative – I’m going to give some credit to Phantom Hourglass. The Temple of the Ocean King is, for me, kind of a pain to actually play and full of weird choices and frustrations. But as a dungeon that you return to over the course of the game, it completely tears up the formula for Zelda dungeons.
G: Without giving too much from your Breath of the Wild video away, how do you think BotW stands up to the other games in the series? Can you even compare it?
M: I think Breath of the Wild is fascinating, and Nintendo really tried to make the dungeons fit with the wider goals of the game. So that’s why we get things like the shrines, and the dungeons being extremely visible from the overworld.
I really enjoyed playing the dungeons back when I played Breath of the Wild for myself – but I’ve certainly got my work cut out for me when I try to link them in to the other dungeons in the series.
They’re definitely about manipulating the entire dungeon – but the way you do it (from a button on the map screen) is very different to, say, playing Zelda’s Lullaby in a specific spot in the Water Temple or shooting a light arrow into a specific spot in Majora’s Mask. Being able to move these Divine Beasts at any moment really changes things, and I look forward to digging in.
G: Thanks again for talking with me. I can’t wait to see your Breath of the Wild video.
M: Thanks for having me!