“Choking On it’s Own Tail”

I’ve only recently been made aware of “Saving Zelda,” an essay by Tevis Thompson, and the follow up graphic novel that resulted from that essay, called Second Quest, released this year on April 22nd.

Second Quest is a masterwork of graphic story telling and both Thompson and the artist David Hellman deserve all the kudos and respect they get for such an amazing story.  The book exposes the flaws of not just the stale and tepid design that dominates game design (and the Zelda series in particular), but skewers the game culture that reveres those designs above all else, in such an effective and efficient manner, it deserves an essay all on it’s own.

Today though I wanted to talk more about “Saving Zelda,” and since you don’t have to pay to read that (the book is entirely worth the 10 dollars I spent for it in e-form and easily worth the 20 dollar hardcover as well), the essay may be a little more reachable for everyone right now.

There are so many things that I agree with in Thompson’s essay, it’s hard not to just cheer-lead for it unapologetically.  From his breakdown of the cookie cutter design that the series has been trapped in since A Link to the Past, to the polished, balanced, sterile, narrative and design path that herds players along, willingly or not.  There are so many things that he nails on the head.  For example, characters:

“Zelda doesn’t even have central characters.  It has echoes.  Repetitions with variation.  Only one-off characters, like Midna, have a singularity that matters.  The rest are foregone conclusions.  At their best, they can offer nuance or temporary affect, but the very nature of Zelda’s iterative narrative makes it hard for anything to stick. Even the more vibrant versions of characters (Wind Waker’s Tetra, Skyward Sword’s Zelda) are hamstrung by the larger narrative’s conservatism.  Get your crown on, princess.  Go to sleep.”

A pointed and sharp criticism.  The essay is full of similar observations.

Sadly, I can’t unapologetically cheer for the essay because I do have a few disagreements with Mr.  Thompson.  Not enough to argue against his central thesis, but instead more to point to the differing interests of different gamers.  He lionizes the original Zelda as a paragon of game design and challenge.  Citing the many secrets the game held along with the general difficulty of the game as reasons to raise it up.  He points to the modern versions of the game as failures of player progression by forcing players to make use of the “key ring” of items they gather to progress through the closed off sections of the game and the cloistering narrative that pushes players ever onward in their hero’s journey.  For example:

“Zelda would be better if it had no story.  Or more precisely, no plot to structure the adventure.  The first Zeldas barely had any plot, and they were the better for it.  With plot, sequence matters too much.  The early Zeldas had situations, worlds and scenarios that framed the action, gaps to be filled in by the player, sequences to be broken.  Optimal paths and shortcuts weren’t a given; they had to be earned.  Items were the most prominent plot devices, and even they were not unduly strict about order.  You could be slow and steady or blast straight through with a little know-how.  The basic rules of the gameworld were what bound you, not some artificial necessity imposed for the sake of plot.  You could even play through the entire first Zelda up to Ganon without ever getting a sword.”

Perhaps it’s selective memory, or perhaps I’m misunderstanding his statements, but item-locked areas of Zelda games have been a staple of the series since that very first game.  Let’s not forget that in order to even get to the 4th dungeon in the game, you needed the raft from the 3rd.  And in that 4th dungeon, you got the ladder which let you get to the 5th dungeon, and so it went.  So while you didn’t need a sword for most of the game, you certainly needed a lot of lumber.

Perhaps Mr. Thompson was referring to the plot structures that are often wrapped up in the items that modern Zelda games force on you.  You’ll get no argument from me that the extraneous plot is often a detriment to the games.  I’ve railed against the poor plotting in the modern games, more than once.

I think that Mr. Thompson’s fondness for Demon’s Soul give his preferences away.   He’s seeking a return to games that let the players inhabit them, but refuse to hold their hands.  Where the difficulty is a feature of the game, and rewards exist to help push the player on through that difficulty.  I’m a fan of difficult games myself, and his fondness for the first sequel for Zelda, The Adventure of Link I found a near perfect match for in Shovel Knight, a game I talked endlessly about in 2014.  Where the difficulty in gameplay is the main challenge to progress in and of itself.

However…

I am no fan of wandering the land for hours/days/weeks desperately searching for the next place I need to go, or the next spot I need to jangle my key ring in front of, to figure out what to do next.  Especially when I’m given a task and expected to complete it.  Nothing frustrates me more or will make me quit faster than a game that says, “Here’s our giant world, go out and do stuff.  By the way, the world is ending, do something about that when you feel like it, okay?”  This is why sandbox games fail so much.  Let’s build a world where you can do anything, and ALSO make them do a main quest in it too, thus missing the point of the sandbox entirely.

I loved the original Legend of Zelda.  And I loved the first issue of Nintendo Power, which published a full and complete map of the overworld and all of the dungeons for the Master Quest.  I never would have attempted it without it.  I do not consider needing a map to complete it a failure at all, rather for me the thrill was in seeing all these awesome tricks and traps that were put in place and how they worked together.  I’ve often wondered, for a puzzle-maker, does the thrill come from stymieing a player or in the eventual defeat of the puzzle?  How clever can you really be if no one can figure out what is going on?  But that’s MY preference, for a resolution to the puzzle, for the answer to the question.  For others, the thrill is in the chase.

Neither are wrong and both have their place.  It’s these differing design preferences that I think make games and game making so fascinating.  Despite this difference of preference, I think Mr. Thompson’s essay is an amazing critique and worthy of spreading as far and wide as I can.  And as good as it is, Second Quest, is even better.  Go get it, you won’t be disappointed.

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