Posted on December 31 2008 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
Beyond simply the “player factor” is the game world itself. While the
integration of gameplay into the world certainly “makes the game,” the
game would not exist without a world to play in in the first place. In Zelda,
Hyrule is the traditional game setting—and the ways in which the
developers present it to us have a tremendous impact on our reception
of the game experience. There are three primary modes in which the game
world itself is created: first and foremost is the art design, the
skeleton for the world that we immediately perceive; second is the
environments, the places and things that we interact with; and the last
and perhaps most important is the storyline, the who, what, and why
that drive us on our quests.
Ocarina‘s game world is a
revolution for its time. Its cast of characters rivaled that of many
full-scale RPGs, its environments were varied and diverse, and its
storyline was among the most compelling of video game history,
achieving a renown that has lasted even now, ten years later. A new Wii Zelda
would need to bring equally impactful changes to the table to gain the
stature that the “greatest game of all time” managed. Unlike the
gameplay most of these changes will have little to do with the hardware
and everything to do with the creative process. As a creative artist
myself, these are my hopes for the future of the franchise.
One of the most noticeable features of Ocarina of Time was the strong sense of realism. While prior games used blatantly cartoonish sprites and artwork, Ocarina
incorporated a landscape and cast of characters that were as
photorealistic as the hardware would allow. This approach allowed
players to insert themselves more deeply on a mental and emotional
level into Link’s mind as they explored the world around them and
served arguably as the most immersive update the series has yet seen.
The realism avenue left a lasting impression in Zelda fans’ minds—as their reaction to the very first trailers for Twilight Princess
in 2004 indicated. It was certainly more successful than Nintendo’s
other experiment in art design, the “toon shading” style seen in Wind Waker and the Four Sword games. Most fans and newbies to the series will say that they preferred the realistic graphics of Ocarina and its successors than the cel-shaded cartoons of the other games.
What can the Wii Zelda do to entrance audiences as Ocarina of Time did? While I and many others would love to see a toon-shaded game on the Wii, it would seem that realism is the way to go.
Even beyond the 3D environments, Ocarina‘s
colorful characters are among the most timeless in the series’ history.
Many of them have been recycled in future games, such as the Lon Lon
Family, Anju the cucco lady, and most notably the Gerudo King
Ganondorf. The characters in Twilight Princess, many of them
twisted versions of other noteworthy figures—namely Purlo, Tingle’s
doppelganger—hold the same kind of visual charm.
of Time to a starring role in its sequel, Majora’s Mask.
One of Ocarina‘s prime accomplishments—the introduction of the major races of Hyrule—was expanded upon considerably in Twilight Princess. The Zoras are perhaps the best example. Whereas in Ocarina they were all nude and had essentially identical designs, some of those in Twilight wore armor and there were some differences between males and females of the species. The next Zelda
could take this to the next level by adding even more visual
personality to each individual member of the tribe, not just to the
Imagine a cast of characters developed with
such care that a sizable number of them are recognizable on sight, from
random people and shopkeepers in the marketplace to the various members
of each tribe, who previously were difficult to distinguish from one
another. We’ve seen examples of vast casts of fleshed-out,
carefully-crafted NPCs in RPGs such as those by Square-Enix, the makers
of Final Fantasy and Star Ocean. This idea has been toyed with in The Wind Waker—every
character had a name, personality, and unique design—and this approach
needs to be undertaken on a wider scale. No more cookie-cutter
townspeople or hordes of stock-image Gorons and Zoras.
Nintendo’s philosophy is that everything should add to the overall
player experience, then each element should be fleshed out to its
fullest potential—its cast of characters especially as they are the
players’ primary form of interaction with the world they explore. The
more ambitious RPGs have accomplished this with some consistently since
time immemorial—why not Zelda?
The world of Hyrule is one of Zelda‘s
most recognizable icons. Hyrulean locales such as Death Mountain, Lake
Hylia, and the Lost Woods all carry a tradition of mystery and majesty.
Players have explored each of their depths to numerous extents, but Ocarina of Time
brought them to life in full 3D in a way not replicated in any other
game to date. Death Mountain was not just the mountain peak to the
north of the world map—now it was an active volcano with a village of
rock-eaters and a temple nestled in its massive crater.
Another of the successes of Ocarina of Time
was its depiction of the change in Hyrule’s climate during the seven
years in which Link rests in the Sacred Realm. Castle Town no longer
exists, destroyed by Ganondorf’s attack, and its citizens have moved to
Kakariko Village and find themselves crammed—we see that several
unrelated characters dwell in the same house. Zora’s Domain is frozen,
having suffered the effects of a vile curse. Monsters now run rampant
in the once-peaceful Kokiri Forest. We saw that Hyrule was adaptable,
that it could change over time.
Twilight Princess took the Hyrule shown in Ocarina and exploded it to epic proportions—its sheer size more than tripled that of Ocarina‘s
world. Hyrule Field was especially telling—it now spanned four large
gameplay regions, all connected by canyon pathways. The game
appropriately labeled its regions as “provinces,” exemplifying how
large Hyrule actually is in a way that Ocarina could not have
accomplished in its time. We also got to explore regions outside of the
Hyrule we know and love—Peak Province to the north and Ordon to the
Sure, it looks great, but does it live up to expectations? Three of the
six so-called “provinces” in Twilight Princess didn’t even
have cities in them.
But at what point does preserving the series’ icon go too far? The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap, and Twilight Princess all started off with forest and fire dungeons just like Ocarina of Time, and the pattern has become apparent—and annoying—to many hardcore fans of the series. Twilight Princess, despite promising to have a fuller overworld, featured the same number of settlements as Ocarina,
two of them mostly abandoned. If Hyrule is to appeal to both the casual
player and the hardcore gamer, it needs to evolve further and branch
out into unexplored areas.
The most glaring problem is that
while Hyrule’s field map is large, the lack of settlements within its
domain takes away from the majesty the kingdom supposedly possesses.
After all, how powerful can Hyrule be if it only has two or three real
towns within its jurisdiction? There are plenty of ancient ruins and
temples that give testimony to its legendary legacy, but it is people
that make a country, not buildings. Some may argue that Goron Village
and Zora’s Domain are technically settlements, but we for the most part
do not see the dwellings of their denizens—we only see a bunch of
people walking around inside of a cave.
Here, again, Zelda
could take a leaf from the book of many RPGs, most of which have more
towns than they can handle. A good number of fully developed villages
(seven in total) appeared in The Adventure of Link, and if the new Zelda
were to have a figure somewhere in that ballpark and scattered them
around the main field map it would definitely flesh out the overworld.
Let us see villages subordinate to the King’s rule, let us see
encampments of travelers at the side of the road, and let us learn a
wealth of history of these places as we do in the RPGs.
Tales of the Abyss, an RPG for the PS2, had over 14 towns and
settlements. Could we see a world like this in a
Zelda game someday?
Another problem is that Zelda has departed somewhat from Ocarina‘s
style of crafting bold and looming landmarks in each of the
locales—every village and every dungeon had a unique and recognizable
face. Such highlights include the Kakariko Windmill and the Desert
Colossus in the middle of the Haunted Wasteland. Rather than sticking
to the same plain village or dungeon surroundings, these landmarks
added personality and a sort of true-to-life feel to the game.
took this trend and ran with it, with the Clock Tower marking the
central hub and unprecedented dungeon concepts like a temple in the
middle of the ocean. Wind Waker included some interesting and fresh environments, such as the Tower of the Gods and Forsaken Fortress. Twilight Princess,
on the other hand, while it showed some of the lands outside Hyrule, in
large part stuck to the same-old, been there done that Hyrule formula.
Once again we found ourselves facing fiery volcanoes, mysterious
forests, and zombie-filled crypts. Frankly Zelda fans are sick of continuous rehashes, as the largely negative response to Twilight Princess‘s attempts at fanservice should demonstrate.
I think it is time Zelda
environments once again employed bold, stunning landmarks as a means of
establishing the player’s sense of connection to the Hyrule universe.
Overuse of ancient and abandoned ruins, castles and palaces, or secret
caves in the forests or the mountains or at the bottom of a lake isn’t
going to create a new and interesting experience, at least not for
longtime fans of the series. Give us a wrecked ship on a coastline and
a pirate village surrounding it. Or maybe we could see a treetop
village connected by interlinking branch canopies. Oracle of Ages showed us an underwater Zoran village—a 3D translation would probably be visually stunning.
If the Zelda team is really considering “bold new ideas,” we can hope this will include new and improved world environments. Games like Majora’s Mask pulled it off before—Nintendo’s definitely capable of doing it again.
Since the Bombers are generally theorists and story analysts, the Zelda
storyline is obviously something we take very seriously. Our cult-like
devotion to deciphering the mysteries buried within the series’ lore
yearns and craves for well-crafted and constantly refreshed plotlines,
backstories, and the like. As such, most of us love Ocarina of Time
and its consistent storyline, with compelling plot twists that make
sense and a villain who does not fall under the control of a higher
evil. Amidst a series whose recent installments have been plagued by
plotholes, distracting fetch quests, and puppet-villains, Ocarina shines as a beacon in darkness.
plot itself speaks to us, too—the idea of a boy raised among a tribe of
children who never grow up having to take the plunge into adulthood
hearkens back to the stories of our youth. Time travel between past and
future, bringing bits of knowledge back and forth and attempting to
influence the course of events, helps us to learn about the
consequences of our actions and their role in the great cosmic game of
life. In this respect, the game forces us to grow up a little bit as
well, whether we realized it when we played the game at eight to ten
years of age or not. We take a time warp into the future alongside Link.
It was the most intricate plot yet undertaken by the Zelda
team. Previously the games had amounted to little more than
accomplishing a goal set out from the beginning, usually to save
Princess Zelda from Ganon’s evil clutches (and if not Ganon, then from
an evil curse or monster). Ocarina of Time was the first title
to establish an underlying sense of doom—Princess Zelda herself was
fairly safe as the game opened, with the threat against the various
denizens of Hyrule instead. Other games have followed the example, most
notably Majora’s Mask with its ominous falling moon. Just when
we thought the world was saved, however, we were surprised to find that
we played right into the villain’s hand, and then we plunged into
Watching the other characters Link interacted with as a child in Ocarina of Time
mature to adulthood helped foster changes in their disposition and
their motives. No longer was Darunia merely the stern old man,
distrustful of outsiders—he was a stalwart warrior willing to accept
help from his fellow Hyruleans, even those from far away from his
mountains. Princess Ruto was not the stuck-up child players encountered
in Jabu-Jabu’s belly—she was still in love with Link, but her nobility
now joined with a sense of duty and purpose.
The hot-headed thief, Nabooru, turned out to be the sage of the Spirit Temple.
This was the first time the series ever saw dynamic character development. Previously, in games such as A Link to the Past,
the characters were mostly flat and served only to deliver key clues
and background information to the player or to direct him or her to the
next destination. Ocarina‘s characters existed to entertain and to offer interaction, not just exposition.
Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker
both followed the same philosophy. The former developed its characters
through a serious and dark set of interconnected plotlines. The latter
showed more outrageous changes, such as a rich family and a poor family
literally swapping lives after Link rescued their daughters from
Ganon’s clutches. And who could forget Twilight Princess‘s
Midna, who went from frankly a manipulative b-witch to a kind-hearted
saint who all but sacrificed herself for her people and for those of
the light world.
Ocarina of Time‘s storyline and
characters are timeless, and they remain the most recognizable in the
entire series. The game has three official sequels, more than any other
Zelda title, and has become the main focal point of the series’ “split timeline.” Of the nine new Zelda games released since 1998, all but one—Four Swords for the GameBoy Advance—feature the Gorons, who made their debut in Ocarina. Clearly the game got it right as far as story was concerned.
Other games have done well, but it is clear that the hardcore Zelda fanbase needs more than the most recent and most ambitious title, Twilight Princess,
had to offer in terms of story. The game was chock-full of cool ideas,
like the Twilight Curtain spreading across Hyrule and transforming it
into a twisted otherworld or the undertones of corruption by dark
powers. These elements ultimately fell short of fans’ expectations,
however, whether because of the game’s overhyped release or otherwise.
Again I must point to the examples set by the larger RPGs—Final Fantasy, Tales,
and so on. Each of these has an extraordinary story, clearly the
products of years of hard work and painstaking revision. Many times the
story is largely completed before work on the game has progressed even
to demo stages. Zelda, on the other hand, has built its story
in a reverse way—the gameplay is built from the ground up, and the
story is crafted to fit the gameplay.
Final Fantasy XII displayed many intricately-designed and beautiful
environments, and each was full to the brim with
NPCs and sidequests and general storyline
tidbits that made the game world seem that much more real.
the biggest improvement that could be made to the series storyline
would be for Nintendo to abandon this philosophy and instead build
gameplay to fit the story. Instead of programmers and gameplay planners
first developing a system of magic and attempting to incorporate the
magic into the storyline, the magic system could be crafted in
accordance with already-set story concepts. Rather than inventing
dungeon themes before establishing their plot significance, fit the
dungeon theme into the story. Link could travel into the “Deku jungle,”
for example, and the dungeon’s design could be based off of that
environment—complete with vine-swinging and other jungle-based
activities. This way the story cannot be reduced simply to motivation
to complete a series of gameplay tasks—the “dungeon crawl” as gamers
have come to call it, which has plagued Zelda for the last several games.
While Majora’s Mask‘s
storytelling would be difficult to incorporate outside of its cycling
three-day system, its interwoven character relationships are the
best-crafted in the series. Applying the same intricacy to future games
is a must if the Hyrulean society we see next is to be believable to
players. Give us our love triangles, petty thieves to stop from
stealing old ladies’ purses, shops for pawned goods, feuds among
bureaucrats over what to be done about the catastrophes, and the like.
As of Twilight Princess
the story has best shined in fleeting glimmers of excellence, such as
when Renado expresses his annoyance with Telma or when we discover Rusl
injured in his home after he goes after the captured children. Let the
story shine in every scene, not just the small touching moments. What
might Twilight Princess have done to present a better story?
most fans loved the Twilight idea, many were disappointed with the way
in which it was pulled off. Most areas were too empty to really feel
the effects. Faron Woods had two residents altogether while under cover
of darkness, and while their fear at the twisted impact of darkness on
the land was done somewhat well this was not enough to impact players
in a meaningful way. The same was true for Kakariko Village, indeed,
Eldin as a whole—it also was too devoid of inhabitants to really set a
tone of fear.
deliciously creepy, but did not maximize that prospect.
if that were not enough, the threat of Twilight didn’t seem all that
ominous, as those consumed by it were, as Zelda put it, “unaware that
they have become spirits.” In other words, the people often didn’t even
know anything had happened to them. Another prime example of this was
about halfway through the game. Hyrule Castle is encased in a demonic
force field, but the inhabitants of Castle Town don’t appear to pay it
any mind at all. From all this, as far as many players were concerned,
the doom and gloom aspect, which was one of the game’s selling points,
was disappointing at best.
A new Zelda needs a
well-developed, professionally-written story, not a “write it on the
fly” script full of obvious plotholes and subject to constant
“upending” by Miyamoto. Recent Zeldas have suffered too much
from sloppy writing and sloppier translating. While Nintendo’s
philosophy, that the fun factor is the most important element in any
game, should definitely be upheld, that does not mean that story
writing should be given anything less than the best care. While we here
at ZeldaInformer really have no say in the direction the series
storyline will go in terms of plot, we would like Nintendo to at least
put more energy into developing a cohesive tale that fans of all ages
can enjoy than they have with recent iterations.