Thoughts on an Open-World Zelda game
Recently, I have been playing the highly polarizing entry in the Legend of Zelda series, Skyward Sword. Anybody that follows my twitter (which is to say, nobody except for personal friends and robots attempting to sell me pornography) knows that I have had quite a few unkind words to say about the game’s design choices. Nearly every time I turn on the game and find myself getting more accustomed to the game’s many flaws, it does something new to baffle me. Between Fi’s constant flow-breaking interruptions to state and re-state the obvious, the muddy motion controls that only seem to work nine times out of ten, and the game’s constant efforts to remind me that I am a lonely nerd holding a controller instead of a rad-as-heck sky elf man adventurer, I can’t help but wonder about the recently announced upcoming Wii U Zelda game. So far all that we know about it is that the game will be non-linear, it will have co-op online multiplayer, and that Eiji Aonuma, the man upon which most of Skyward Sword’s problems are attributed, will be directing it.
The promise of non-linearity sounds like it has potential, but as I go through Skyward Sword I see many opportunities for it to be messed up. Reading interviews with the team responsible for Skyward Sword seems to indicate that they are under the impression that the only thing people were frustrated with in Skyward Sword was the motion controls, when this simply was a single problem in a massive pile of them. Skyward Sword’s patronizing attitude towards the player in terms of explaining gameplay elements and pushing the player along through the story completely ruins the game for me, frustrating me in some places and boring me in others. Skyward Sword does so much to make sure that the player knows exactly what they need to be doing at all times that it completely destroys the sense of satisfaction the player recieves when solving a problem and it ruins the sense of adventure in general. This is what worries me so much about this new Zelda game, because you can have a massive open world for the player to explore, but if you have that little buzz in the player’s ear telling them where the game’s designers want them to be at this point, you’re defeating the purpose of having an open world to begin with.
Fi gets a lot of criticism from fans of the series for being the face of the Skyward Sword’s hand-holding, and I can totally understand where this hate comes from. If an important conversation takes place between two NPCs, she will often pop up to re-state the conversation in its entirety, and then highlight the important parts of it in bright red. When a player obtains a new item and the little blurb explaining the mechanics of the item pops up, she will often re-explain the mechanics using exactly the same words. If an area is dangerous, instead of allowing the player to discover this themselves, she will explain exactly what the danger is. This sort of pace-breaking explaining of everything ruins the sense of wonder that you get from exploring the environments. Instead of learning that some parts of a room might set you on fire by getting set on fire in that part of the room, Fi will stop you for thirty seconds to explain to you that you’ll be set on fire, and exactly how to put yourself out in case that happens. It just isn’t fun that way.
Let me compare Zelda to a surprisingly similar game, Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a dungeon crawling open-world adventure game that markets itself on its difficulty. The game presents very little information past the basics of the player and then, after a short crash course through the starting area, plops them in the world’s hub where they may access any area in the game as they please. This starting area more effectively teaches the player everything they need to know about Dark Souls in under an hour, whereas Skyward Sword never stops trying to explain everything to the player over the game’s 50+ hours.
The starting area in Dark Souls is a short, fairly linear area that runs you through the combat basics with very weak enemies, gives you a small group of enemies to fight using the skills you learned, and then gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the leveling up system by leading you to the game’s upgrade station/checkpoint, a Bonfire. Once you use the souls you gained from beating the previous enemies to make yourself slightly stronger, it drops you in to a hopeless boss battle with exactly one prompt: “Run!” The player is usually hit by the boss at least once, which does a lot of damage but not enough to kill you, and then escapes through the door behind the boss which closes behind you. You learn that there are really tough enemies in the game that you can’t beat yet, and sometimes it’s better to run away. The game gives you a proper weapon, some armor, a means to heal yourself, and then, while ascending a flight of stairs, a trap is triggered and a ball rolls town the stairs which hurts you if you are off-guard, and you learn to be careful to watch out for traps, which is almost immediately rewarded by a trap closely following it that can be avoided by simply paying attention. Then, you approach the boss you ran away from earlier, and with your new equipment you are able to beat him, and then the game transports you to the hub world and the game starts proper.
All of those events happen in under a half an hour, and already the game teaches you everything you need to know about playing it: Be cautious, pick your battles, know where to look, etc. From the hub, you explore until you find an area where you are able to defeat the enemies, you solve the puzzles, you progress through the game, and you get the sense of satisfaction from doing all of those things. Nobody told you where to go or how to solve any particular problem, you learned it all yourself by playing the game, as it should be. This game, which touts itself on its difficulty, teaches the player how to play the game in ten minutes far better than Skyward Sword teaches the player over the course of the entire game.
So, now we come to the topic of Zelda’s future. We have been promised an open-world Zelda game where there will be no set dungeon order and the player will be allowed the freedom to tackle the game however they like. The last Zelda game to do something similar to this was A Link to the Past, which does have an intended dungeon order, but more skilled players can tackle the dungeons in whatever order they please and are rewarded for doing so by gaining all of the best items first, allowing for earlier access to things like pieces of heart. Going through the dungeons out of order leads to scenarios where a player with five hearts can be put up against an enemy designed to fight a player with fifteen hearts, making skill a requirement in order for these enemies to be effectively defeated. Dark Souls takes a similar route in allowing the player to go anywhere they please but having enemies in certain areas be designed for players of a certain level with certain “tiers” of equipment, leaving it down to player skill to determine how they play the game. A very skilled player can have the game’s first major objective, ringing the two bells, done in under twenty minutes, where the average player will probably spend several hours going through the dungeons in the intended order.
Ideally, the new open-world Zelda game will take these design queues from LTTP and Dark Souls and allow the player’s skill to determine their direction in the game. However, given what Skyward Sword has to offer, it seems very unlikely for this to happen. Nintendo has made no effort to acknowledge complaints about the hand-holding in Skyward Sword, instead choosing to believe that the complaints originated solely from motion controls. Conceptually, an open-world Zelda game sounds like a step in the right direction, but until I hear an acknowledgement of the hand-holding issues or confirmation of a “hard mode” that is unlocked from the start, I will not hold my breath.