In light of the back-to-back releases of the newest iterations of both the Legend of Zelda and the Elder Scrolls (both, by the way, 5 years in the making) this month, IGN recently published a list of features that the notoriously conservative Zelda series should borrow from Bethesda’s open world oeuvre. Unsurprisingly, given the source, it is quite bad; recommend either adopting certain facets where ES games falter (like Bethesda’s tendency for shallow excess) or reducing certain aspects which make the Zelda games unique in the modern gaming marketplace (more RPG-elements! more costumes! more brown!). The inadequacy of the article is unfortunate, though, because there is a lot that the Zelda games could gain from adopting certain features of its fellow epic fantasy series (the reverse is also true). Here are just a couple elements from Bethesda games I would not mind seeing adopted by the inevitable next Zelda game (excluding the obvious ones that would bring the series into the 21st century, like a workable dungeon map):
1. A Quicker, More Compelling Introduction
Many RPGs (and Zelda games especially) have overly long introductory segments before the “real game” begins. The designers slowly build their openings across multiple hours, drip-feeding narrative and gameplay elements one-by-one. If my memory serves, the Twilight Princess spends almost 9 hours having you run about a single village, encountering all of the aspects of the game individually and explicitly (this is the section where you learn to ride a horse, there is the section where you learn to use a sword), all while occasionally inserting narrative developments that only tangentially relate to the game’s actual plot. I can understand why Aonuma and the Zelda team chose this route: it ensures that the player is familiar with every aspect of the control and context before the game proper begins. The problem is it is hardly a gripping way to begin a game and a massive expense of the player’s time for little payoff, causing them to be minimally invested in your game once you finally let things start rolling. It took me over a year to get through Okami’s tedious intro section but less than a month to blow through the rest once the game picked up (despite the former lasting just 5 hours compared to the roughly 60 hours of the latter).
Bethesda, by contrast, seems to understand this, and begins their games with a brief section that blows through the major gameplay elements, the narrative scaffolding, and the central motivating impulse of the plot (usually all implicitly too) before booting the player out into the world at-large. For instance, in Oblivion, you determine who you are, watch the king die, and perform most of the necessary skills all during a prison escape that lasts less than an hour. Opening with a bang is necessary to the proper pacing any narrative to ensure the involvement and commitment of the reader/viewer/player, but it is especially important for 50+ hour fantasy epics like the Zelda and Elder Scrolls series that are almost guaranteed to contain swathes where one’s interest lags. Thus, strong openings tend to correlate with people’s judgments of good game. What more, A Link to the Past ably demonstrates that abrupt and succinct intros do not detract from the distinctive elements of the Zelda series. One hopes that the Skyward Sword has taken notice and trimmed some of the glut that has been packed into the front of more recent Zelda games out of unnecessary precaution.
2. A More Open World Sooner
A corollary to the above point, directed specifically at the games of the Aonuma era. Eiji Aonuma seems to prefer to slowly and rigidly unfurl his game worlds, keeping the areas that the player can visit tightly controlled and doled out in meager packages over the course of the game. This is, of course, a valid method for structuring games, even ostensibly nonlinear ones as with the Metroid series. However, it contrasts sharply with the spirit of the Zelda series, which emphasizes the freedom to explore and the pursuit of billowy sidequests away from the main plot line. Majora’s Mask, Aonuma’s first game helming the series was able to make this approach workable due to its unique structure and a judicious use of gating, but subsequent entries have been handicapped by this tendency. The Windwaker, for instance, despite its primary visceral appeal stemming from charting its vast ocean, bars the player from poking around on their own until almost halfway through the game. Even after you gain the boat, sail, and wind necessary to propel you across the seas (which themselves consume a considerable amount of game time), the game obtrusively and unnecessarily forces you to follow straight lines to your subsequent destinations until it arbitrarily decides to trust you to make these decisions independently. This neglect of much of the game world until the back half likely precipitated the despised endgame multi-island fetch-quest, backloading all of the exploration the player could not engage in earlier.
Bethesda seems to take an alternate approach, opening up virtually the entire overworld immediately following the introduction and concerning themselves more with delimiting where the player cannot go early on than where they must. This approach frontloads the exploration process and allows the player the chance to take stock of what is still off-limits so that it can be properly assessed later, rather than giving the player access to areas simultaneous with their discovery. It should be noted that this is also how previous Zelda games handled exploration and this process is an integral element to the appeal of the series. Aonuma should follow the lead of the Elder Scrolls games and his predecessor and not confine such an important part of his games to the very end.
3. Contextualize Settings, Dungeons, and Side Missions
Context is one of the most necessary elements to selling a believable fictional world. We notice in our world that most places, people, and items have a certain purpose or history associated with them (or else why would they exist?) and we thus have similar expectations of such things in any fictional worlds we encounter as well. However, in Zelda games, things (especially those with a purely gameplay-related purpose) seem to exist in a vacuum, with not sense of past or future and certainly no hint of interconnectedness between them. Some of this tendency scaffolds Zelda’s unique and understated sense of strangeness and I would certainly not want an overcorrection towards Bethesda’s tendency to didacticly overexplain (show don’t tell, people!). But at the same time, some contextual baseline is necessary to convince people to buy into your world and give your plot real stakes. Often times, Zelda games have the player wander through some lava-filled dungeon that exists solely so that we may wander it, find an item which is there just for us to find it, solve puzzles with no external purpose except their own solution, and finally kill a boss who lives solely to die by Link’s hand. This problem exists outside of dungeons as well. Inhabitants of towns seem barely cognizant of Hyrule outside of their ambit and sidequests float without explanation untethered to the remainder of the world. The Twilight Princess, for instance, had a number of caverns stocked with a series of traps separating the entrance from a piece of heart, with not even a hint of from whence they originated or why they might persist.
Of course, Bethesda games excel at providing context to their environments, but Nintendo need not stock Hyrule with libraries of complete books or populate its towns with encyclopedic automatons to achieve a similar effect. Often, a just a fragment of color or a hint of constancy offers the imagination a sufficient anchor to latch onto and provide the remainder. A good example of this effect in Zelda also comes from the Twilight Princess. Towards the end of the game, one comes across a Yeti couple living in an abandoned mansion that serves as one of the later dungeons. The whole area works because it all coheres thanks to a dash of context. Link has a reasonable motivation for exploring deeper that slots with the broader plot, the dungeon itself is constructed not unlike an actual house would be , most of the puzzles flow naturally from the setting, and finally the final boss is a character we’ve met previously and whose conflict with Link would seem logical. One of the strong points of Okami was how well it weaved together the overworld and the larger narrative with the dungeons, puzzles, upgrades, and enemies that are the basis of the traditional action-adventure game. Every dungeon had a specific purpose or history, one’s tasks while therein organically grew from the area’s context, and every boss received at least a mention prior to one’s encounter (and usually much more than that), so that the conflicts had greater stakes than simply “get my heart container and leave.” This meager level of world-building is certainly available to Zelda games, if they choose to grasp for it.
4. Minimalist yet still useful HUDs
Seriously, Nintendo, this has to stop.
Of course, there is a concomitant list that runs in the other direction and is probably more damning for Bethesda, but altering just a few of these things would make the modern console Zelda titles significantly better without sacrificing what makes them unique.