Interview:Armchair Empire E3 2005

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If there was ever a time I was unprepared for an interview, this would be it. Figuring that a lowly writer from the Armchair Empire would never have a personal, one-on-one audience with Eiji Aonuma, Producer on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, I had all of two questions prepared before heading in.

I’m not sure how it happened, but in my mind I pictured myself and at least two other journalists in attendance. With translation time between questions, I was sure that two questions would be more than enough. But then I found myself – just me – sitting in the meeting room with a Nintendo rep and Bill (Mr. Aonuma’s translator). (Heck, even IGN joined other media during their meeting time!) I realized I needed more than just two questions so I turned to Bill and asked what kind of questions had already been asked that day – ostensibly to ensure I didn’t cover old ground but really to get some ideas for questions.

“Well, people have been asking about Link turning into the wolf,” he said.

“Link can turn into a wolf?” Every pore on my body started sweating. Next to missing my flight to E3, this was a nightmare come true – being at an interview and knowing practically nothing about the game beforehand! (But at least in reality I have sense enough to wear pants.)

“Didn’t you see the trailer?”

“Ah, no.” I actually had to make a conscious effort to remain seated and not run from the room.

In my own defense, the meeting was in the early afternoon on the first day and there was so much happening I hadn’t worked my way over to the Nintendo booth and I hadn’t arrived in LA until after the Nintendo press conference the day before. Fortunately for me, Bill had the trailer on a DS card and I got to see the wolf. The trailer was just finishing when the door behind me opened and Mr. Aonuma entered. When I looked up, I suddenly relaxed and questions started to form in my mind. There’s something about Mr. Aonuma – the man exudes a certain “regular guy” aura that, even though there was a definite language barrier, I’m sure we would have hit it off after a few beers.

What follows is a more or less complete transcript of the interview. I’ve had to make a few guesses here and there on specific words because the tape quality isn’t great and E3 is known as the Place Where Noise Learns to Explode so some of it I just couldn’t figure out. (Luckily we have a team of Nobel Laureates on-call 24/7 who were more than ready to decipher what was said through the noise, clearing up the confusion.)

If you could explain – to somebody that has never played a Zelda game – what is a Zelda game about? If I was trying to get them to buy a Zelda game?

Yes. If they asked, “What will I find in a Zelda game? Why should I play a Zelda game?” To me Zelda is a game that isn’t really a game. It’s really a place that you go – a place where you go to touch things in the world and interact with them and you explore and you experience this vast world all around you. And that’s really what it’s about. It’s about experiencing something you can never experience on your own. And while the game does have fighting and enemies that you battle against, it’s also about learning new skills and learning new ways to attack and fight these enemies, thereby finding ways to defeat them more easily. So, it’s a place where you go – this vast field, this vast world that you go to experience and see what’s there and find the hidden secrets.

Link’s transformation to the wolf; will that be something that happens on a cycle, like night time, full moon or any time he wants to turn into a wolf, he can turn into a wolf? I think a lot of people probably were guessing that perhaps the moon comes out and Link transforms into a wolf, but that’s not actually the case. This time, in the game the kingdom of Hyrule has been transformed into this twilight realm – a dark magic power has overtaken the land. Link, who has grown up outside Hyrule, when he enters this twilight realm, its in there that he gets transformed into the wolf.

Is Link able to jump between these two realms? It’s not two worlds really, what it is is one world and a section of the world has been covered in this twilight. So, when Link goes into the twilight then he gets transformed. And in order to get back out of the twilight he has to find a way to drive the twilight back – push it back further toward the source.

Do the mechanics of the combat change when Link is a wolf? Compared to regular combat? The other games have always had strong swordplay. With Wind Waker we added a lot of very special moves that were unique to that game where depending on how you were fighting the enemies you could do certain special moves to swing around and attack in different ways. So one thing we’re focusing on doing this game, is really expanding upon that so that we can help the game feel more realistic. So that’s going to be a very strong focus, whereas with the wolf gameplay what we’re doing is, in addition to improving upon that kind of standard Zelda combat we’ve seen over the years, building upon that with the wolf, we can really change that around. Obviously, the wolf can’t use a sword or shield. Instead he partners up with this mysterious character that you saw in the trailer riding on the wolf’s back. Together those two characters are able to fight the enemies in the twilight realm.

Are there going to be a lot of side quests alongside the main quest? As I was explaining before, Zelda is really about the full experience. Instead of just being a simple game where you go from one dungeon to the next and work your way to the end of the game, it’s really about the entire world – the events that are going on outside the main quest and things that we’ve hidden throughout the land for the players to find. We will be providing a lot of those sidequests and things like that.

I read somewhere that you’d love to create a game that includes cooking and baking. Could we expect to see something like that in Zelda? [laughter] That is kind of a personal thing that I still think about. If Link were to cook, I think that would probably surprise a lot of people. But who knows, maybe it will happen. In the game, Link has empty bottles and he can put items and liquids in. And when he’s got liquids in the bottle you see him drink the liquid – so you can see Link drinking, but you never see him sitting at a table and eating. That would be kind of fun to add to the game.

What has been the hardest part about bringing Link from the toon-shade style to the more mature, dark look it is now? One thing we were focused on in Wind Waker was creating a seamless cartoon experience. In doing so, it required this deformation of the animation where you had to really create character models that were very cartoon-like and then animate them in ways that were very natural and cartoon. And we found in shifting from toon-shaded graphics to the realistic graphics, a lot of the functionality that we built into the Wind Waker engine in order to achieve that very fluid and smooth animation actually got in the way of trying to create realistic graphics. Essentially we had to build upon the Wind Waker engine and almost replace it with a new type of engine that was better suited towards creating realistic graphics and doing more realistic animation.

In Wind Waker there was such an emphasis on music and harmony. Will music and maybe use of an ocarina be used for anything in this Zelda game? One thing that you can see in the playable version here at the show, is that in the game there are reed whistles – grass that forms reeds that Link can pick up an blow into. The sounds that they play are kind of set from the beginning but each of the different types of reed whistle will do a different thing. You can pick it up and blow it and it will play a song and cause something to happen. That’s one element where music would be important – music has always been an important element of all the Zelda games. Another idea we have, in terms of being able to control sounds yourself is doing something with the wolf that might have some effect. We’re not showing it here at the show but [you should look forward to that in] the future.

Are the familiar musical themes going to appear in Twilight Princess? And who is composing the music for the game? The Zelda music in general has been handled by a gentleman Koji Kondo. And while he has moved on and is more a sound producer now, it is his team that will is producing the music.

But the themes will be recognizable? I remember when Ocarina of Time came out, I was actually doing demos for it in movie theatres. And when people heard that familiar tune there was quite a reaction to that – people have quite an emotional attachment to the music. Will those references be strong in terms of getting an emotional response from people? Zelda has a very strong musical past. With a lot of the past games, including Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, we have taken themes from the original game and reworked those in ways that make it sound new and fresh, yet they still sound familiar. And think that’s a very good way for us to continue to create music for the Zelda games.