Zelda Games Petty, Domineering

September 10th, 2008

Remember the first Zelda? Yeah! That was a cool game.

These old guys would give you clues. You’d walk into a room and he’d be there, and just spit out two lines. Never with any further explanation. It was cryptic, sure, but we liked it that way! More to think about. More mystery!

Like I said, brevity. Dropping the article, here.

Well, the Zelda series has come a long way since the mid-eighties. Last year The Phantom Hourglass was released for the Nintendo DS. It got good reviews. I’m only just getting around to it. I used to be a big Zelda fan, but the Gamecube installments forced me to confront certain grim truths. I’d grown, yes, but Zelda had changed as well. A series that started out rugged, minimal, nonlinear and downright mystical had become crowded, cloying, authoritarian and formulaic.

As Tim Russert liked to say, “Let’s watch!”

Here we are in Phantom Hourglass, on some island, with a palm tree. My fairy companion is hovering around a stumpy carved stone, helping me notice it. I’ve seen these before, and know them to offer wisdom when struck.

With a tap of the stylus, I direct Link to strike the stone with his sword. It’s snappy. The stone wobbles and produces a “boing” sound.

The camera dollies in, a text box appears, and the stone begins to impart its message. The first thing it says is actually “Boing-oing!” This follows the audible boing by a second or two. So I’m already kind of past the boing. Presumably this is meant to draw attention to the absurdity of the convention, the stupidity of hitting rocks for clues, and the sheer silliness of a stone talking to you in text, the same medium as any human character you encounter. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, it seems to be nudging us grinningly towards the realization that every person in the game is nothing more than a lump that spouts heavy-handed clues or blithe trivialities when tapped.

In any case, we can move along to the real meat by tapping the screen.

Now the stone is asking us if we want some valuable information. Well, yes, my expectation was certainly that something valuable would be offered for my initiative. But an opportunity to choose has been deliberately placed before us, so as a matter of inquiry, let’s say “no” and see what happens.

The stone said “fine” (in a somehow passive-aggressive tone, it must be said) and ended the exchange. That was it. So that option didn’t really go anywhere. I guess I’m supposed to really, really want that valuable information! I’m supposed to be happy, and know it, and clap my hands, before the stone wastes its breath.

We’ll try again …

… and say “yes” this time.

Okay, there it is. That’s the hint. It’s not as cryptic as the old Zelda hints, but sounds like it could be valuable.

Getting more descriptive now. Maybe taking some of the mystery away, but he does make it sound nice.

Now if you ask me, here’s where he’s gone too far. It’s starting to sound like a public service announcement. If the first island was not on my map, I’m capable of inferring that other islands might not be on my map. Wow! Just imagine the tingling sensation of tripping across that discovery, of an anomaly shaking up your well-worn, drowsy expectations. In the original Zelda, the first time you burned a tree and discovered a hidden cave, the world got so much bigger. “If this tree can be burned, can other trees be burned?” That game preened over its mystique. With the most economical touches, it insinuated depths as profound as the player’s imagination.

Oh right, there’s more.

Yeah … Like I was saying, there is such a thing as being too clear. “You never know what you’ll find.” Thanks for summing up why I’m playing in the first place. “You might have some fun!” Again, it’s kind of implied. Ease up.

Holy fucking Christ!

Now, my big question to Mr. Aonuma and the whole Nintendo family is, why couldn’t that stone have just said two bubbles worth of text? Why so much padding? Why the ‘tude? Am I the hero of this game or not? And why do you offer me a choice that is completely meaningless? With some sensible editing, this whole message could have been over by the time the question was posed. And why so coy? Can’t you just give me your goddamn hint without dangling it in front of my eyes and making me clap for it? Just give me the hint!

Why does this matter? Why am I so irritable? Because I still like Zelda, but it’s being strangled by this oppressive, repetitive needling that negates the player’s agency and trivializes his imagination.

13 Responses to “Zelda Games Petty, Domineering”

  1. eric-jon waugh Says:

    My anti-spam word is “charming”!

    Is this message sponsored by Google?

  2. Axiom Says:

    I see where your coming from and agree. In Ocarina and Majora’s Mask for the 64. Those exact stones would react the same way. You hit them, they boing and say boing. But the only thing the text says is the hint and nothing more. And on top of that it’s very vague and you have to make the connection yourself. Which is the way it should be. Staying with the original way that works and made the games good in the first place.

  3. David Hellman Says:

    Yeah. And I really need to elaborate on this more, because I know this can come off as whingeing to people who aren’t already thinking the same way. The thing is, Zelda games are crowded with characters who address you in this pushy, condescending way. It’s like being the black sheep in an overbearing family. It reflects a really low opinion of the player, and an underestimation of what a game can and should offer. It drags down the level of conversation between game and player.

  4. Robert Says:

    I think this form of overpadding is the biggest problem with modern Nintendo-games. What Nintendo always have been good with is creating an interesting world with solid rules backing it and letting you explore it, but it seems they have a big relucatance letting the player run free now-a-days. If you for excample compare Ocarina of Time to Twilight princess, the latter really lost that sence of adventure you got in the first one by having both the gameplay and storyline hold your hand much too tighly.

    What really amazes me is that Nintendo actually managed to make Mario Galaxy the way they did beacause i think it holds very true to how the big Nintendo-games originally where. Without trying to kiss any ass, i think Mario Galaxy and Braid are two of the most balanced games ever in terms of having a great difficulty curve. There’s also no padding, and even though the story is kind of forgettable it doesn’t get in the way of gameplay like other recent nintendo-games.

  5. mad Says:

    well, looking at the larger picture, while many like to comparse games to movies and other entertainment/art, the truth is that games are very much software; they share the same history and inform one another.

    compare unix to vista, and you can say pretty much the exact same things: unix was cryptic and minimal, but filled with the promise of great power for those who were curious and patient. vista is verbose and bloated, and filled with over-bearing designs that seek to protect stupid people from themselves.

    whereas music, movies, books, and art, have a history that worked the other way around. they all started slowly, teaching the audience how to understand them while they entertained. older entertainment often seems ponderous and staightforward to modern audiences.

    today’s games and software are still struggling with how to get things done while staying out of the users way. i doubt that we’ll see better games until we see better software, and vice versa. lessons learned in either field can inform the other.

  6. Dustin Says:

    Ah, the game-review-by-stream-of-consciousness. Reminds me of: gamesforlunch.blogspot.com

    Thanks man, I wish there was more of this kind of criticism of details in games, in general. So many bad, bad interaction techniques that get glossed over.

  7. Brittany Says:

    I liked that this installment of Zelda pissed you off so much you had to blog about. Although, no description of how annoying the hand holding is can be topped by your original impression: “Hi boys and girls! I’m Lucky Loo! Don’t go north just yet! First you need to find out where you’re going! Oh! Now you know? Now we can north! Hurray! I’m Lucky Loo!”

  8. matt Says:

    poor zelda. i feel the same way. i remember playing the early zelda games and literally tearing my hair out cos i didn’t didn’t have a fucking clue what to do. you had to dig this mad random patch of grass to find the ocarina in like any old place. i think i dug up the whole of Hyrule before I found that fukn thing. now i feel sad. its actually what inspires me to be a game designer since i don’t find those feelings anymore. i’m pretty aware Braid might get me there (and Galaxy probably would too) but I can’t just justify 2 console purchases for 2 games. i swear, the introduction of navi the fairy was the death of zelda. they should just have two modes. fairy, or no fairy. pissweak or OGZ.

  9. tim cooper Says:

    okay i actually think you guys are a bunch of nerds that need to get a life and stop complaining about a game and start maybe blogging about starving scandinavia children or something useful. THE END. ps: loztp owns

  10. Variable Gear Says:

    @ tim: …Because blogging about starving children would certainly solve that problem!

    I agree, David. I couldn’t bear to finish Phantom Hourglass because of its domineering nature. And I’ve loved most Zelda games. Zelda II is the black sheep of the lot, but it’s still more deserving of respect than Phantom Hourglass and Twilight Princess, which were pitiful examples of interactive entertainment. And, also, Majora’s Mask had a fairy that was unhelpful, so it’s kind of unfair to say that, matt.

    As an aside, I’d love to see a panel at GDC or PAX about the conversation between the player and the game. This is something I’ve thought about in the past, but your phrasing was just perfect, David. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new world of criticism.

  11. Harry Says:

    You are right. But I think Nintendo can’t take all the blame for the diminishing feel of magic, from Zelda. The internet and the modern spread of information too must take some credit. I try to keep away from internet, when it comes to games I am really interested in. Its like reading the score, prior to watching the game.

  12. // Write something witty here » Blog Archive » Okamiden Says:

    […] for a bit since Okamiden has a particularly clear display of a common error in games nowadays. David Hellman wrote about something similar a while ago and the brilliant You Have to Burn the Rope is an interactive demonstration of the […]

  13. On a Zelda without Words « Everybody's Talking at Once Says:

    […] hell up. Much as I love those games, the last several have been awfully heavy on wordy exposition, pointless dialogue trees, and of course, jerks like this: Forever in debt to your priceless […]

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