Zelda Game Design Talk

Something completely different: my take on the game design of ‘The Legend of Zelda’. On the most basic level this is a game in which the player is presented with a game world to interact with. The goal is symbolic growth through new ways to interact with the game world. In other words: collecting and using new items.

The great thing about action-adventures like Zelda is designers can always come up with new obstacles and abilities to overcome them. A random thought: wouldn’t it be nice if the game would show Link’s symbolic growth with the character getting slightly more mature after each incremental item upgrade?

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the hurdles the series has to overcome. My girlfriend, the archetypical non-gamer, has recently completed ‘A Link to the Past’. It was her first game of this type and it took her quite a while — according to the credits, she died more than 300 times.

This reminded me of just how complex games have become and how the experts tend to forget this. My girlfriend had to take a huge leap before she got comfortable with the game mechanics and understood the type of thinking the puzzles require. Attacking a one-hit enemy or bombing a wall are basics I’ve been taking for granted, but they form a major hurdle for newcomers.

Somehow this got me going about something that annoys me. It comes down to this: when I acquire a new object, I experiment with its uses. I suddenly remember a lot of places where I can do something new. For example swinging from one side of a hole in the ground to the other with a handy rope. These are peak moments in each Zelda game.

My problem is the next time I want to reach the other side of the hole, I have to once again choose my rope from the menu, switch to target view, target, and swing. The second and third time I can handle this. The fourth or fifth time it becomes a bit of an annoyance. The sixth or seventh time I start to theorize: I already solved this puzzle, right? So why can’t the game throw the rope for me now? Or at least let me use a context-sensitive button?

‘The Wind Waker’ had a game balance problem. The creators seemingly skipped some some previously planned dungeons, using the collecting of Triforce parts as filler material. It’s not hard to fix this problem in the next episode — Nintendo could make the game more compact, or obviously fill it with more content.

To solve my problem Eiji Aonuma and his team have to take a bigger risk. Starting with ‘Ocarina of Time’ for Nintendo 64 the series has been bogged down by constantly having players re-invent the wheel with already-solved puzzles. But knowing the way people think, these players probably got attached to this.

The problem of novices having trouble getting into modern games even if they really want to is of course much bigger. Both Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto have made it clear that they know this problem exists — at the same time comforting and worrying. Comforting because they’re apparently still in touch with their potential audience, and worrying because I wouldn’t want my beloved Zelda series to change. Well, not too much anyway.