Thursday, February 24, 2011

Analysis: The Legend of Zelda

One of the classic Nintendo franchises, "The Legend of Zelda" represents the classic "high fantasy" concept of mighty heroes and fiendish villains mixed with the child-like freedom of exploration and discovery. It makes use of a lot of iconic, well-defined imagery and design choices - Link's green costume, the Triforce, the Master Sword, and so on. It may have changed styles over the years, but there's no doubt that the underlying stylistic elements of The Legend of Zelda make it one of the most recognizable games on the market.

Zelda's inspirations are pretty classic, too. An interview with Shigeru Miyamoto revealed that much of the game was themed around his own experiences in nature, exploring his backyard or delving into a cave. This, I think, is part of the reason it appeals to a lot of people - it always tries to feel like an adventure, rather than a routine occurrence. It's an attempt to turn understandable real-life elements like fields and caves and forests and rivers into a child's imagined version of those places, with monsters and dragons behind every rock and tree. It's a world of magic and intrigue, but it's never quite as dark and hopeless as more "mature" settings, nor is it as predictable and logical as more "routine" settings.

In this sense, its "believability" is a bit skewed. On the one hand, it can't be logical, because that would take away from the abstract magic of the concept. On the other hand, it has to be sensory, because it's attempting to connect to real exploration and discovery. The appeal of the series is reliant on appealing to pre-existing knowledge, but avoiding predictability and regulation if it would negatively impact the game's concept. Instead, it focuses more on creating a recognizable gameplay dynamic that's internally consistent while still being at least somewhat plausible.

I'd like to make a note in advance here: when I talk about the setting and design I'm talking exclusively about the games themselves early on. I examine the other works later in the article. Please keep this in mind.

The majority of Zelda games take place in Hyrule, a genre-standard fantasy kingdom of sweeping castles, bustling towns, and quaint villages. In that sense, Hyrule serves exactly the purpose it needs to serve - it is a standard fantasy backdrop for standard fantasy adventures. There are a few things that are "unique" to Hyrule and the other Zelda countries, such as Gorons, Zoras, and the mix of medieval technology with things like bombs and cameras. In essence, though, Hyrule and its citizens are people for Link to save; they are not there for the sake of a logical backdrop.

One of the things I don't like about Hyrule, even keeping that role in mind, is how empty it feels, despite also being remarkably small. There's towns and villages, but not a lot going on between them - there's no sense of travel or commute, no mines or farms apart from those infested by monsters. The bustling market of Hyrule Town in Twilight Princess was a neat step away from this, but most of the game just felt very empty. There were isolated pockets of humanity - the villages and the fishing hole, for example - but no sense of travel between them. This was due in part to the circumstances of the game, but even in friendlier times (such as the "child" part of Ocarina of Time) there's no visible travel and few people outside of town. This may seem like nitpicking, but I think it's important to establish that there's an actual world to save, and to add some weight and credibility to Link's quest.

To me, Zelda feels like it has a setting that does what it needs to do, and nothing more. In other games, there's a background political structure that suggests that other things are happening besides the immediate things that the player is dealing with; Final Fantasy XI had the histories of the various kingdoms, Lost Planet had the larger concept of T-ENG and pirates, and so on. The Zelda games have a lot of lore, but not a lot of what I call "room to grow". Hyrule is a tiny country with limited places - if you wanted to do anything else there besides Link's main quest, you'd have to make places up on other parts of the map. It's so enclosed and limited that it's stifling. I never really get the sense that I do with, say, FFT, where there's a large world beyond the boundaries of visible gameplay. What you see in Zelda is pretty much what you get, which means there's a bunch of leftover issues about infrastructure and population.

This is especially unusual because of the fact that there are a lot of tabletop adaptations of The Legend of Zelda, ranging from D20 adaptations to independent systems. In most of my other articles, I analyzed how a game's setting could be expanded with different modes of play. With Zelda, I feel the opposite - the setting exists only for the gameplay, and would fall apart without it. Yet, there are enough recognizable concepts (such as the different races) that people are willing to play in the setting. Of course, even that brings up another issue - the races are hardly balanced, either. They don't have access to the same sort of tool-usage that humans (or Hylians) do, which is shown in Majora's Mask where changing races is more of an alternate form than an alternate play-style.

In essence, my complaint is that Hyrule as depicted in the games is a very limited, fantasy-standard setting. The things that make it different from, say, Dungeons and Dragons are "proper nouns" - i.e. using "red potions" instead of healing potions. It reminds me of Metroid - everything outside the immediate gameplay is meant to be generic. You have "wise old predecessors", the "Galactic Federation", and "Space Pirates". Other than identification and brand recognizability, there's nothing innately unique or interesting about the setting as a whole. Yet, people are willing to play in that universe, not to explore those concepts, but just for a chance to have characters specifically in Hyrule or on Zebes or whatever. I suppose part of this is that they have very solid concepts to work with, since they've spent a bunch of games exploring the locations and interacting with the characters, but it still feels very limited.

One of Zelda's biggest draws is the concept of exploration, adventure, and acquisition. It's a classic setup - there's a place full of stuff, navigate traps and monsters to get it. It draws on a lot of child-like feelings of mystery and curiosity, symbolized by the classic image of delving into a cave with a lantern and your wits.

On the other hand, I really never got a sense of that specific idea, even though it's implied both by Miyamoto's background and the art. While I can see the inspiration, Zelda dungeons after a while stopped feeling like sacred places and ancient ruins and started feeling standardized. The aesthetics tended to be very impressive and looming, but it never really felt logical, even in the usual "dungeon deathtrap" terms.

That's an opinion, of course. There's plenty of solid "dungeon" concepts in, say, Twilight Princess, such as the ancient desert prison or the Hylian temple. But the abundance of, and perhaps over-reliance on, gadgets tends to make them a bit questionable. I'm again reminded of Metroid, where the design choices in the levels tended to be "what's best for gameplay" and not "what actually makes sense". Like Metroid, Zelda's dungeons are designed for the protagonist's equipment, and while that's fine in a game sense, it also brings up the question of how the inhabitants get (or got) around.

As far as "tense, isolationist adventuring" goes, I always feel like Demon's Souls did that a lot better (although obviously that's not a fair comparison because it's far more recent than most Zelda games). In Zelda there's the sense of preparation (getting your gear ready, making sure you have enough arrows and bombs) but I never really felt like it was "an expedition" per se. It's just a bunch of obstacles that you work your way around with the gear you have at the time. There's not enough sense that this is an existing place that Link is going into - it seems tailor-made as a level for a game, with everything specifically adjusted to the equipment Link will need to get through it.

In essence, I feel that it's possible to make a dungeon feel like an actual ruin or temple, rather than "a video game level". I just think that's hard for Zelda to do specifically because it has to adjust for all the gear that Link accumulates in a given game. Everything encountered has to be solvable with one of those tools - it's just how it has to go for the game to be what it is. Hence, it always feels like "exploration" to me, because it's not "Link delving into a pre-existing place", it's "completing the next dungeon".

As a series, Zelda is one of the most diverse series in terms of visual style. From its pixelated beginnings, to the more concrete style of the N64 games, to the cel-shading of Wind Waker, to the quasi-realism of Twilight Princess, Zelda's tried a bunch of different things, and ends up relying more on identifiable elements (green clothes, the Master Sword, etc.) than a distinct artistic approach. This ends up being a bit confusing in terms of defining Zelda's design concepts, but does provide a pretty wide range of options for fans of the series.

As you might assume from my focus on sensible design and tangible materials, Twilight Princess was my favorite Zelda in design terms. Link's costume alone is an excellent example of design concepts. The clothes, apart from the hat I suppose, are sensible traveller's gear, and there's even some armor - an underlying bronze/brass mail shirt (which is visually striking as well) and leather arm guards. Even the normal sword looks more sensible than usual, being made of solid steel instead of the somewhat unrealistic Master Sword's materials.

The sensibility of the other designs in the game varies, but it was definitely the most tangible game in the series regardless of everything else. Twilight Princess did a fantastic job with making materials look like what they were meant to be, and even with somewhat abstract costumes it was easy to tell what it was meant to be made of. That doesn't mean there's not some use of unusual materials - it just looks like unusual metal instead of some weird kind of plastic.

The interesting thing, though, is that if you took the graphics away, Twilight Princess would be a pretty standard Zelda game - and the same's true for Wind Waker. The universe itself stays consistent, it doesn't get more "realistic" or more "cartoonish" based on the design style. You're still swinging a sword around, you still use hearts for health, etc. The gameplay is essentially unchanged, but the design choices make the difference. Not that this is entirely positive. In fact, Eiji Aonuma believes that the choice to make Twilight Princess realistic in design may have negatively influenced the game as a whole, because it sets a standard that the gameplay can't realistically live up to. When things look more real, you expect more real concepts out of it. Zelda is a cartoonish game, and hence cartoonish things must happen.

I agree that it was easier to find things to complain about in terms of believability when talking about Twilight Princess if only because of expectations: the fact that the world looks realistic brings up questions when it's not. It's almost an uncanny valley concept - it's too close to realistic to be excusable as cartoon logic. Still, in general, I appreciated Twilight Princess in aesthetic terms, and appreciated the artistic decisions made. Like Dragon Warrior, though, it creates an immersion that can be hard to deal with - once things look realistic, you have to expect and deal with the rules of reality.

The role of mages and sorcerers in Zelda is a pretty big example of what I'm talking about when I say that Zelda is necessarily illogical in order to preserve the real sense of wonder that permeates the setting. There's plenty of good and evil wizards in Zelda, ranging from Zelda herself and the various sages to foul sorcerers like Aghanim, Vaati, and Veran. It's also the historical background in a few of the games, such as Twilight Princess, where the Twili are the descendants of those who dared to use magic in the past.

Despite all these spell-slinging characters, though, magic in Zelda is incredibly vague. There's no established set of rules about what can or can't be done, or what elements are used. Magic does what magic needs to do for the purposes of the narrative. It's the kind of thing that shows up in a lot of myths and legends - the limits and powers of a magician are never clear to the audience, and it's pretty much acceptable that something can happen "because it's just magic".

While this isn't great for the internal logic of the setting, it does accomplish what it's clearly intended to do: be magical. It's about what trick's going to be pulled out of the bad guy's sleeve next, not about using magic as a rational part of the setting. While that does somewhat undermine the threat level of the enemy ("If he could do that, why couldn't he just blow Link up"), it does maintain a sense of mystery and wonder that's necessary for the exploration-based concept of the setting. It's the kind of over-the-top warlock-style sorcery that's necessary to make magic unknowable and incomprehensible rather than just another part of the setting. I wouldn't endorse it for every setting, but it works for Zelda.

An important aspect of this is that Link is not a sorcerer himself. Magic is used by NPCs and occasionally bestowed in the form of a reliable magic item (like the crystals that house different spells in Ocarina of Time), but Link cannot create or use magic in the way that these characters can. This is important because magic represents a vague concept understood only by those who use it, and if Link could use it, the player would necessarily need to understand the logic of it. As soon as limits are in play, "magic" becomes much more limited - unless you account for every conceivable use of it, as with cantrips in D&D.

As befits a series about exploration and magic, Zelda is limited primarily by what it can and cannot show. The world of Hyrule, on some level, needs to be grand and natural - yet to accommodate gameplay and technical limitations, it can't be. The fact that Link needs to be able to investigate every nook and cranny and leave no stone unturned means that there's not a lot of room for the "off-screen background" of games like Final Fantasy Tactics. Instead, everything's right there in front of the player, and as Eiji Aonuma pointed out, that can lead to problems with suspension of disbelief. It makes the world feel too small when you know you can explore every corner of it and still not find the logical underlying systems you'd expect.

When I said that Zelda would make a bad tabletop setting, I suppose I wasn't being entirely fair. For example, the manga adaptation of A Link To The Past does a pretty good job working with the basic story and concepts established by the game and then expounding them in ways that make sense given the different constraints of the story. The camera follows Link, hence only the places Link goes to are relevant. There's a whole kingdom out there, but only the part Link goes to are important.

The problem, I feel, is that when a tabletop adaptation tries to rely heavily on the literal interpretation of the games, rather than their themes. I've seen people try to map out Zelda in Ocarina of Time for use as a tabletop setting, and considering that it takes like ten minutes to run across the entire map, it's not exactly a huge, open setting. Instead, you could use the theoretical concept of "Hyrule" as a basis for populating a fantasy kingdom and filling in the gaps that the games can't show. Zelda needs to be about not knowing. There always has to be a frontier, whether exploratory or magical. There always has to be some new artifact, some new temple, some new spell, or some new land, because the game is about exploring. Relying on established concepts undercuts that theme so much that it's not recognizable.

I really, really hate to bring this up, but one thing I liked about the Zelda cartoon NO WAIT COME BACK one thing I liked about the Zelda cartoon was that the episodic nature of the show meant that there was always some new adventure to find or enemy to defeat. Ganon was always the bad guy, but it felt like new things were happening. That's what the series is about: "new things". It's what inspired Miyamoto to delve into that cave, it's what's inspired explorers and cartographers throughout history, and it's what will push the human race into the depths of space. There always has to be a frontier.

So, To Sum Up:
1) The Legend of Zelda is a series themed around exploration and discovery. Hence, it relies on environments that are new and exciting without being logical or, more importantly, predictable.
2) The technical limitations of the game can constrict that exploration in ways that end up being uncreative.
3) Therefore, the goal of new works (whether official or fan-made) should be to find ways to expand that universe rather than retaining the same limitations as the games.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks fro the article Mr. Shea. Great to see you not so grumpy here. Can I recommend a video that highly criticizes the much beloved Ocarina of Time?