Monday, July 13, 2009

For the Protection of My Sacrosanct Realm

With the penetration that a franchise such as The Legend of Zelda has had on the gaming population at large, one would imagine the fanatics of the series being willing to accept the series’ evolution. This isn’t the case however, as even the most sensible of us tend to have a very convoluted relationship with the series at this point. The games as a whole serve as an excellent paradigm for what happens when developers become too stringent (*coughnintendocough*), the industry becomes too budget-focused, and the fans become for lack of a better term, crazy.

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Even the aesthetics stand on trial at this point for some reason...

As gamers, most will probably admit to holding one or two of the titles above the rest while only being able to relatively enjoy the remaining games (if not flamishly hating them). Many only become interested in stroking erections of nostalgia while others fall into a lump category of judging the games on some newfound merit of individual accomplishment. Well, I call foul on both of those myself because the former is cheap and selfish, leaving the latter ideal to wallow in fashionable game-judgment that your average ten year old can do far more productively in this context.

So what the hell is a Zelda game anyway? What really encompasses and composes the experience consistently? That’s not such an unreasonable question and the answer is not simple by any stretch of the imagination. Also, don’t get lost in rational thought either, because I’m not talking about the technical answer which can currently be yanked off Wikipedia. No, I’m alluding to what consistently engorges the player’s psyche when they sit down to play any game in the franchise (whether they end up coming away from it blown away or spiteful is irrelevant at this point).

To begin answering this question however, I’ll start with the most basic of the entire idea’s exploration, its own inspiration. The games have all communicated what inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to procreate the titles to begin with. As a young child, Miyamoto had an experience which included him apprehensively exploring a cave with a handheld lantern. This was really just the pinnacle moment among the many explorative childhood experiences he had, but it was that youthful desire to explore that he really captured, plain and simple. He literally captured a singular moment in time and it’s been on display for over 50 million people ever since 1986.

Over the ages, this idea has been dolled up so many times, neither it nor “Shiggy” really knows what the hell it even is anymore (at this point, it’s just “bank”). It’s a damn good idea that has become twisted and exalted for many commendable reasons…and many condemnable ones as well.

So now, I actually invite some pragmatic thought into the mix; to bring that lantern back, even to the most sharpest literal point. What I really need at the moment is someone who detests the series as a whole, but is willing to respect it nonetheless (which rules me out by default). I’d need them to point out what speaks in the game as an admirable element of play for them and them alone. The sick irony here is that there are rarely people who just flat out hate the series overall. Even if they hate nearly every single game in the series, it’s very likely they have at least one which actually means something to them (destroying any supposition that they genuinely dislike the titles overall). This means it’s very hard to find someone who genuinely just hates Zelda, that endearing will to discover. Further absurdities suggest that while everyone is easily able to pinpoint their favorite game in the series, they are just as fast to downplay the surrounding titles; games which are virtually built in the exact same format (mostly).

So, at this point I want to launch into an examination of things I’ve seen in the franchise to consider, change, channel, capture, and cancel out altogether.

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It’s about time we started treating Shiggy as simply the kid among us all that created a cool game. You’ve all deified the poor man past the point of no return, you’ve no right to complain about that reality now.

The Pin Marks of The Past & of The Ocarina

Most people hold either Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past as their personal pinnacle point in the series thus far. There’s a reason for this because both games stand as the top marks for the formula basically becoming an exemplar for an “interactive fairy tale”. A more positive side note on this is that Wind Waker’s maturation process is warping people’s perception of it. The aesthetic has allowed that title to particularly grow very slowly, which confuses most people because yes---most of them still care about graphics more than anything else. This care is not specifically contingent upon the shallowest sense of technical prowess, but individual accessibility. As a general rule for video-games, the digital art is what allows the gamer to step into another world; it’s the front door for the game as whole. So, because titles like Wind Waker (my personal second favorite) are stylized past realism, they will stand the test of time when compared to their brethren.

Getting back on point, Link to the Past was the real progenitor for what the main console games are doing currently. Firsts are always spoiled when it comes to praise, usually due to nostalgia and innovation; the latter being the only one with true merit. To its credit, Link to the Past is one of those games that is as every bit enjoyable as the day it came out. Though it’s my least favorite Zelda title in the franchise overall, I respect it in the same manner that I grant Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake to this day. Even its aesthetic design holds up now, with sprites oozing the same exact appeal it gave everyone nearly twenty years ago (and that really does say something).

Ironically enough however, my favorite game in the franchise is Ocarina of Time, the game that basically started the trend of ripping Link to the Past off and re-wrapping it in a new package. My love for OOT is not some hidden romantic and delusional grasp of me playing it first. No, I played the series in the exact order they were released and I was repulsed with every one of them, until Ocarina of Time that is. My love for OOT stems from it being the 3D successor, I can certainly admit that. Personally, I’m a person who enjoys the world of Zelda far more in a 3D environment. Every single nuance and strip of detail is communicated to me exponentially in a 3D construct (another argument for another day I imagine…).

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Together, both LTTP and OOT are games representing two firmly pinned thumbtacks holding the entire legacy of Zelda up as a poster.

Change is Inevitable

There are a lot of people I hear complaining about Zelda’s stagnation over the years and I’ve never understood it. Yeah, I understand wanting something different after sucking down title after title, but at some point, “getting burned” is the fault of the fool and their fault alone. This doesn’t justify wrapping the disdain for that stagnation in idealistic demands. Why? This is because nearly all of these complaints I’ve seen simply wish to toss out conventions which would rob Zelda of its namesake altogether. I’m all for a change in some areas, but I do not want Zelda to go the route that Resident Evil is on right now. Twilight Princess is a game I enjoy, but I do regard it as the lesser of two evils in the big picture (change against the conventional). Mainly this is because I first played it in tandem with my initial play through of Okami and it really made me look at the concept of what makes both games tick while apart from each other.

I’m of the mindset that a Zelda game must always retain a significant amount of traditions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the games can't appear to be vastly different from one another, it’s just a hard feat to pull off successfully., it’s just a hard feat to pull off successfully. Now, if a fan wants a sidequest or a deviating entry into the series, that’s just fine (e.g. Majora’s Mask is still an excellent game). However, there’s no place for complaining about Zelda as is; it’s like complaining about having to defecate on a daily basis. Socially the act is considered taboo now, but its biological relevance is gargantuan in the total worth it provides, so the attempt to downplay it is just plain stupid.

There’s plenty of ways to offer up a transformation in the Zelda series while honoring this. I’ve actually been outspoken on the allegorical example I’ve provided three times in my blogs over the past few years. One could take Zelda totally out of the fantasy-medieval context and yank it backwards in time or even forward to a contemporary story (turn the damn lantern into a flashlight if you have to, I don’t care anymore). It’s obvious that Nintendo even realizes this, as they tried to push Twilight Princess past boundaries it simply wasn’t ready to cross. For example, Zelda was NOT the tragic figure she was repeatedly praised as (by both the media and Twilight Princess’ developers); that description goes to Midna if anything. If they want that kind of emotional tug, it’s more understandable to make Zelda the villain and Ganon the ally (another thing I’ve been whining about for ages). This is also a key example in the point I’m trying to make. The formula for the eternal connection between Link, Ganon, and Zelda is a formula that shouldn’t be disrupted, ever. Rearranging that same problem however, is something I’d die to see.

It’s about damn time to finally let Zelda herself lay hands on the Triforce of power and fall to corruption, or better yet---keep in tradition with her gaining wisdom and having the player face another type of antagonistic force altogether (as opposed to Ganon simply accessing the Triforce of Power for the umpteenth time).

Change for change’s sake should never happen, but a natural transformation is something to be nurtured which is far more important today than ever before. Just because video-games fall into the realm of digital chemistry doesn’t mean it belongs to the whim of consumers. Past a certain a certain point, even the creators themselves are only meant to hold a fairly loose grasp on their dear and precious babies.

It’s About That Time

You know---it’s odd, ever since Link to the Past, it’s the Zelda series that has repeatedly used time as a thematic means of play. The games are certainly not alone, but even titles such as Prince of Persia get wrapped up in the novelty of their own mechanics, which leads to another problem altogether (see the next paragraph). For me, Ocarina of Time is what presented the closest grasp of this notion (Link to the Past is a debatable point in my eyes), while Majora’s Mask actually played around with the established mechanic just a tad more. Like I just stated, Zelda certainly isn’t alone with this, but for the sake of an argument, let’s pretend that it isn’t simply chief among the few surrounding it.

This is something that can be better explored in a formal Prince of Persia analysis, but I’ll use it anyway. Titles like Prince of Persia and even recent lower key emergences such as Braid use time in vastly different constructs. They’re definitely enjoyable and even amazing at some points, but ultimately superficial, as they’re delegated to mere abilities that are granted to the player. In the Zelda franchise, time is fittingly shoved to background noise, consistently enough to hold it as an expected theme of the franchise overall. Titles like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask present the most obvious presence, but it’s still only integrated into the course of the world itself; the player has but one effect on it, which they must use to the best of their ability to operate within that playground. Even past that, titles like Wind Waker use the same background noise in different variances (Wind Waker’s only fault in my eyes was not addressing the eroded maritime theme in depth). Ironically, most of the games are also superfluously long, granted one isn’t relying on a guide to get them through it. Nearly all games after OOT all feature a day-night cycle as well, providing an admirable atmosphere in each respective title.

Since this presence is consistent, I think it’s yet another trademark that the series must never disregard, ever. The placement of time on the player (rather than the other way around) helps to mold the overall experience. What I’d imagine being a reasonable desire at this point is the subtle presence of time. This means more than a juxtaposed presence (OOT and MM), or an after effect which governs the playtime theme (Wind Waker). The problem with this is that each time this is attempted, the ideas get degenerated by specific mechanics. If one is going to pull off a time-based world, it has to be built methodically around that construct to nearly bury it entirely (how buried that is would be where the artistry truly kicks in).

The Legend of Zelda remains a mythical force among gamers because of a wonderfully placed time theme, which very few games are even able to aspire towards now.

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Prince of Persia lets you control time. The Legend of Zelda only lets you affect it.

Lighting the Lantern

The most obvious way to evolve Zelda’s exploration origins would be to attempt an open world experience. Granted the time and skill, it would certainly be plausible for a dedicated studio like Nintendo to pull off effectively now (even though we all know they won’t). I don’t really think this is necessary however; realistically it seems more like overkill for something that can be done with a lot less resources (considering that an open world Zelda to me would mean nearly making a fucking offline MMO). The hub-like fields of Hyrule don’t really have to change at all for this to happen, nor do the countless contextual landmarks of the series (e.g. Hyrule Castle). What does need to be tweaked however, are the dungeons. Their accessibilities, structures, and overall design should be earnestly questioned to the point of total deconstruction. Of course the story itself would have to shift to reflect this as well, but the possibilities in these categories are nearly endless, especially considering the change one would have to make to one of the most important things in the franchise, the items and weapons.

For the poetry of Shigeru’s tale of discovery, “the lantern” has not been shifted since the late 1980’s. All the items have ever done since are work as keys to progress. With OOT’s 3D debut, the possibility poked its head out of the ground just quick enough to glimpse but not grasp. Indirect emphasis should find its way into these games to empower the items even more.

This is a section I could spend days explaining, but I’ll stop and try to make it the shortest. Remember how fun a fucking stick was as a child? What if that visceral ability to grasp an item could be translated into a game? Of course the hookshot was fun for the first five minutes, but after a certain point, the player knows exactly when and where they’ll be able to use it, downgrading it’s presence to a mere key in their inventory. Even the iconic sword could use some contextual twisting here. Imagine a game where an enemy can knock Link hard enough to send it flying across the room, leaving Link to deal with them in a different way. Of course some enemies could steal or disable items already, but if there’s always just one or two ways to kill them, then they’re just another puzzle; much like the dungeons themselves, which I already demanded be gutted and revamped.

What if a big Darknut’s weight truly factored into a fight? Rather than some mythical understood notion that the Master Sword withstands all, I’d rather see it given an “instinctual crave” I’ve always felt lingering in the games, but never seen properly. Don’t even get me started on the magical backpack that holds the entire world inside of it either (that’s a responsibility all games answer to now, not just Zelda)

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There are more dimensions to a lantern than it simply providing its intended uses. How long will it take for a Zelda game (or any game for that matter) to further recognize that?

Trivial Traditions

If you’re one of those people that stands by some weird ideal that Link should never talk, then thank you. Your craziness makes me not appear so insane myself. I don’t necessarily think that the next Zelda should become Metal Gear Solid, but the aversion to making Link talk is founded in irrational inconsistencies. Samus for example has a reason to not be so chatty, but Link is usually operating in worlds where he is meant to interact with characters and the world on a frequent basis. The novelty of him shutting up has aged horribly and since Nintendo is so god damn stubborn (and its fans even more so), Link has remained a perpetual vegetable.

Why do you think characters like Navi, Tatl, and Midna become so crucial in the games they’re in? I realized with Midna that it’s about time Link opened his mouth. It was fine in the 80s when games couldn’t stand on the feet they have now, but today---it’s just a weird disconnect when I see it. The balance of Link talking is something to be considered surely, as it IS in his nature for him to be mostly silent, but he’s not a definitive mute. This is actually just one among many of the silly things that fans of the series tend to hold on to. I’m not advocating for their entire removal, just the sense of dogma gamers tend to incite when they hear something like: “Link will talk now”. There’s enough weird belief systems in this world without gamers trying to construct arbitrary ones themselves to exist in between the development of the games in the franchise. You crazy assholes…

Aesthetic Schisms

When exactly did realism become so tied to the idea of maturity? Gaming has grown up with its fans, so much to the point where the average adult may be able to realize at the very least that it’s not simply a children’s hobby. Ocarina of Time and Majora Mask established extremely solid foundations for the 3D Zelda universe. However, after the infamous eleven-second Spaceworld 2000 demo video, fans somehow latched on to Zelda moving into some parallel fucking dimension of realism that has never existed in life…ever. Cue Wind Waker, a game that looked so magnificent for what it was, people are only just starting to realize how pleasing the visuals really are. When fans finally got their return to form in the appearance of Twilight Princess, the response was slightly underwhelming; partially due to some newfound understanding that Zelda has gotten old. By that logic, Zelda was “old” by the time OOT rolled around, so that argument is specious at best. Zelda didn’t simply just become old on its own, the fans did; that and the fans only grew up in body alone.

I do agree that the more looks the series can collect the better. I don’t believe pressing for another Wind Waker or the opposing “darker” realism (and calling it realism is stupid in itself) will help anybody. The look should be a reflection of whatever type of game it is, not the other way around. Also, where is it stated that Link must keep growing up? I don’t mind the time shifts of course, but “Adult Link” remains an overblown anomaly in the Zelda universe, as he’s only ever appeared prominently in Ocarina of Time (one could certainly argue Twilight Princess as well I guess). I’ve also not seen any effort for the art/marketing/overall reception to truly embrace a child Link. This is because of the interpretation one could make on his pre-OOT appearances and his Super Smash Brothers and Soul Calibur cameos. For all of the given subtext and obvious themes the games have put forth, there’s been no real attempt to present the gaming population with the brave little boy we’re assumed to have met already. He’s simply been rammed down our throats in many different schizophrenic depictions. Parental neglect Nintendo, tsk tsk…

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To mature or not to mature, that isn’t the question---at all

Musical Malady

I will side with those that think something needs to happen with the music motif. It certainly worked well for Ocarina of Time, but the subsequent games have twice attempted to shove the music-play into the overall game as if it just fits across every title. The baton was cute but ultimately unnecessary and the entire wolf thing just rubbed me the wrong way altogether. Also notice that I said the motif needs to change, not disappear. What I’m responding to is the act being used as a tactic to serve as interactive play. Think about it, context withstanding---how different was blowing, waving, and howling? It doesn’t have to be a colorful underplayed gimmick for the player to wrap their hands around it. Juxtaposed against the overall plethora of Kondo’s work (i.e. the rest of Zelda’s music), the sequences just couldn’t get away with what they wanted to after OOT.

Something that is really creative would be to have no music at all. Stick with me on this for a minute. Imagine a game where the music actually existed within its own world. This means the tunes would still be up front and center, just not thematically idealized. Hyrule Castle tends to hold 24/7 festivals of games, music, and celebrations. So, what if Hyrule field didn’t have a theme? What if the player could hear volume variances in these festivals and activities by the music wafting over the castle walls? These themes and songs could change and differentiate throughout the experience with whatever is going on at that particular moment (with the technology now, the possibilities are endless). Whatever populations exist in the Zelda world could create their own music to dance to and personify themselves (e.g. hearing faint Celtic music in the woods could mean one is near a village). In a game such as that, the only music that could be allowed to exist would be extreme ambient themes. The dungeons of this hypothetical world would be silent as well, allowing only the sound itself to create music.

When I imagine this, music more akin to Silent Hill fills my head (ambient industrial noise). The water temple doesn’t need serene and relaxing tracks anymore; I’d rather the music, enemies, and surrounding material create the acoustic makeup. If the developers saw fit to still tag dramatic tracks to the boss battles, then how much more powerful would those compositions become? The inspiration for this actually stems from a Zelda game ironically enough, as wandering up Ganon’s Tower is an experience which I always look forward to in a Zelda game now. Scaling the stairs in his tower during Ocarina of Time was specifically inspiring, considering it was Ganon actually playing an organ himself.

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I want a Zelda with absolutely “no music at all”. What would that do for the sound design of the series, let alone games at large?

The Arbitrary Perplexities of the Hyrule

After my last post, someone questioned me in the time-management area, since I basically argued for the existence of frustration in video-games (fittingly the person who contested me has the AIM screename GanonsFoot). Anyway, that frustration-love post stemmed from a revisit of Link to the Past, which I just finished---again. In that game, I noticed an aging fault which comes off now as an arbitrary means to extend the game overall. It was finding the flying duck that allows the player to enter the Mire Temple (sixth dark world temple). To accomplish this, the player has to play their flute in front of a woodland boy’s father. After the father speaks to Link, he leaves no clue where Link is required to play the flute in order to move forward---UNTIL the second time you speak to him. Now, I certainly could have questioned him again, but I decided not to probe his lamentation of his son’s condition and left the bar. I then wandered around for days until I whimsically decided to go talk to him again, which led to him directing me towards the statue in the middle of Kakariko Village.

Now, if someone has any other advice on how I was supposed to figure that out without a guide (did I miss some other clue in the game?), I’m more than up for hearing it. Right now, I’m going to take it as an arbitrary presence in the game and develop my anger at it since I’m a dying breed of gamer that doesn’t run to Gamefaqs when he/she’s a bit peeved (I much rather prefer yelling at the screen thank you very much). The threads connecting the world of Zelda should never be so damn singular. There should always be more than one clue for certain situations, and less weird humps for the player to get stuck at (“Remember the Water Temple”). The designers should make it much harder for people to write guides for their games now. An experience can be better developed in Zelda these days than the stupid web of cause and effect structures the games are predicated upon. If nothing else, it would stop the games from being cheaply and overly long.

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STUPID FUCKING DUCK

Forming a Link

Corporeal Form Changing has been present ever since Link to the Past where Link was running around as a pink bunny. One of the most admirable appearances to date has been Link’s different alterations throughout Majora’s Mask. My entire perception of wolf Link was destroyed by playing Okami, so the only thing that saved those sequences was Midna. Having Link actually change form is tricky business because there should be some shift in the perception of his abilities in relation to the surrounding world. Well, one would think that already exists right? Well, not for me. All I’ve ever seen are “things I can do in this form and things I can’t”. Sometimes the game even offensively acknowledges it by creating puzzles solely reliant on Link’s form. That’s not wrong in design, but in action it has an extremely low threshold of exposure for the player until it becomes pseudo-metapuzzle.

The first example that jumps in my head would actually be one of the most well done versions of this I’ve seen in the franchise thus far. It belongs to Ocarina of Time and involves Adult Link having to travel back in time to examine a well in Kakariko Village. Form-changing is s portion of the games that I remain indifferent to and with Twilight Princess, the series doesn’t seem to be shy in acclimating itself with the concept overall. My only real problem with this is that no real meaning is given to the forms themselves. With Majora’s Mask, the concept got a free pass because it directly carried on the world established in Ocarina of Time. This means being a Deku scrub meant more when Link had a proceeding context (i.e. OOT). It was a cheap byproduct that the game managed to pull off with grace, which is why I don’t argue with those who hold Majora’s Mask up with such high accolades (that and the time “thechanic”).

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By the way, has anyone had the pleasure of experiencing Majora’s Mask before Ocarina of Time? It would be nice to have someone’s insight completely shatter one of my theories for once.

Tell Me a Story…

I kind of covered this already in the change section of this post, but I really want to enforce that Zelda is a game of tradition. This hasn’t been established yet, because as gamers we can’t really look at the franchise in hindsight yet. It’s just not on the scale of progression that will be available in say…twenty years from now at least. Zelda is a story that must remain a myth. Anybody that has taken a mythology class can attest to the flexibility included in the progression of such things. Zelda must remain the same story, but can be seen and told from the thousands of different perspectives available (this is all while creative innovations may be added to the franchise as well). For this to happen, we have to be willing to embrace and help the change flourish (while being able to call bullshit when it’s necessary).

I don’t have the strength to reignite the games-writing argument, but a Zelda title doesn’t require much, although it does necessitate a mandatory presence. Carefully designed resources must be manipulated to extend the reach of the games. This does not include whatever wacknut theory can roll off the designer’s head in order to compliment the game’s mechanics. The games that most of us cling so dearly to are all built on stories which at best become creative afterthoughts in the design process. The stories that are grander than life usually cripple under the medium’s own limitations (I could be cruel and say it’s the artists’ limitations, but I won’t, I’ll just put that in your head =D). I stand by the notion that bad writing is only as bad as we allow it to be. The writing for games hasn’t even begun puberty yet, so we can do it a favor and stop whining about the reality. Instead, it’s about time we elect the will to cultivate the long road games will have to travel in order to evolve.

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With a series like Zelda, how many other series of games are fit to pioneer that space? Just saying…

~sLs~