The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Published by Nintendo (2013), for Nintendo 3DS

I'm Not Sure If I'm The Target Audience Or Not :)

Some quick thoughts about this game, which I'm partway through.

Very hard for a game to measure up to LTTP (Zelda: A Link to the Past) in practice. Very hard to evaluate a game that so strongly references LTTP when your nostalgia is this strong. That alone is an interesting thing.

I keep wondering: how different must this game be to experience it if you've never played LTTP! Just a thousand tiny things, but in particular, being so familiar with LTTP means that ALBW suffers a little bit because it's extremely easy. You just know how to approach almost every enemy and almost every situation; the differences are usually slight.

Bosses

Bosses remind me a tiny bit of those in Link's Awakening, in that they are very cool mechanically, but perhaps not that difficult. (I should write a journal on Link's Awakening, while I can still remember some of my thoughts on that.)

Difficulty aside, though, they are very imaginative and create some wonderful moments.

Reverse Puzzles

I remember partway through The Real Texas, realizing that in particular the Snow Frog Lab area was much, much more difficult to design than it was to solve. In effect, that area has the effect of being very intimidating due to it's mathematical nature, but in practice solving it is always just a matter of combining whatever new frog you got with whatever ones you had before. Designing it, however, was rather difficult, because the unlock mechanism depends on a certain algebra, so combinations had to be considered very carefully.

So it was a reverse puzzle, in a way: not a hard one to solve but a hard one to make. (In fact, for various reasons, trial and error is probably the most reasonable way to solve it: even if you realize how to read the meters and how they add up, for the most part, it's tedious to go back and forth to check them out. That's just a design flaw.)

I feel that Zelda: ALBW suffers a little bit from this. For instance, the Ice Palace (which I finished tonight) promises to be terrifying and difficult. In fact, though, you rarely need to make more than one conceptual leap at a time to solve it. Contrast that with LTTP's ice dungeon, which required a really surprising (and infamous) realization that you could backtrack a huge section of the level in order to push a block a certain way. Figuring this out was really wonderful!

I want to touch really quickly on that. Suppose you have a problem. The player will execute a few actions in sequence to solve it: for instance three in order, call them A -> B -> C. It's important to consider what meaningful choices were available at each junction. So: rather than A, could they have done something else that seemed like it could lead to the solution?

In a game with relatively free control, something else is always possible, but almost all actions will have easy qualifiers that the player can use to throw them out early on in their decision making process. For instance: it's possible the player will leave the dungeon to find the solution, but (at least in all but the first Zelda game) the solution will never lie outside. That's a convention that is fairly clearly communicated.

Likewise, if the player has cleared out a room, they know that going back there won't yield anything.

(ASIDE: How can the player know they have cleared out a room? Well: in Zelda: ALBW, there's a compass item you can fairly easily get in each dungeon. If there's a chest still left in a room, it might be worth going back. If there's a "trigger door", we might have missed a trigger, for instance by destroying all enemies or hitting a switch, so we can try clearing the room of foes and of skulls that could be hiding a switch. Ultimately, there are just a few conventions in Zelda that delineate what's possible. As a rule, then, it's thus relatively simple to deduce that a room has been cleared. (At least if you understand the conventions!))

Getting back to the main point, if the player could quickly deduce that A was a starting point, then there was only limited problem-solving involved to figure out the first step. Subsequently, once A was deduced, could they have reasonably tried something other than B? Again, if B is the only action likely to yeild fruit, the problem-solving required is not too big.

Zelda: ALBW has a lot of problems for the player that follow this format. Simply put, most alternate choices can be relatively easily put aside, so you rarely have to think more than one step ahead. You almost always can deduce, at least, which room you need to search.

As a result, completing the dungeons are not like weaving something but rather like unweaving it; you simply pull at the obvious thread until it comes undone. This isn't super satisfying, because you don't usually know where that thread will lead. It feels like you are doing it because it's been put there for you to do.

Satisfaction comes from anticipation, perhaps; so you might be able to see "aha, I can unfreeze these blocks to continue on" but if you don't already know why you want to get past them, the effect emotionally is a bit muted.

This doesn't show lack of ingenuity on the part of the designers: really the opposite! Creating these dungeons must have posed great challenges, because to make the correct option (somewhat) obvious, the designers must have carefully made sure to close off other options, which is very difficult in practice.

Also, and of course: my own ease in eliminating choices (as a player) could well come down to general experience playing Zelda games. I'm so familiar with the conventions that it becomes very obvious where I need to go. Again: I'm so curious what the experience of someone unfamiliar with Zelda, or in particular with LTTP would be. Am I the target audience, or is this a remixing of old ideas meant for a whole new set of players? An unanswered question! :)

Steps Ahead

Another way of looking at it: when the player makes a choice at a critical juncture, how far ahead do they have to look (in terms of "number of steps") to evaluate their choice? If there's only one obvious choice, then that number is zero. If there seem to be more than one way to proceed, the player might need to look further ahead to consider the outcome of their actions. Maybe this looking-into-the-future is what seems to be missing from some of the puzzle design in ALBW.

One challenge in creating problems which require the player to see more than one step into the future: they need to understand enough about the mechanics to determine what the outcome of those future steps could be, without actually needing to perform them. This means that it's better to rely on existing mechanics than to introduce new ones, since the new ones can't be chained in the same way.

The player might have a sense that they could try something, but if they can't forsee the outcome, it's hard for them to perform a mental experiment consisting of a few steps ahead. (I think solving these mental experiments create a lot of satisfaction: you know what's going to happen, becuase you figured it out; the performing of the sequence is pleasurable because it confirms your own problem-solving abilities.)

This is a broader problem with game design: how do you design the reward or outcome for a particular action such that, not only does it open up the next action, but that the player could understand 1) what that reward or outcome would be, and 2) how it could help move them forward. This is one reason that "boring" patterns like (literal) key-door can still be effective: the player knows they need a key to get through the door, so if you can suggest to them ways to get the key, and then ways to open those ways, you can chain together a pleasing puzzle.

Memories of Overworld

Similarly to dungeon conventions, experiencing the overworld having played LTTP is very different. I confess I missed a sense of exploration, having already known the overworld in detail. The dark world is more satisfying, since the differences here are much greater, but at least some of the key problems are the same.

It's enjoyable to return to a world you remember so well, and see it subtly changed. In a few places, for instance with the baseball diamond, it's really a delight because the designers have put something surprising in a conspicuous place. But for the most part, the problem is that the enjoyment of remembering what to do is less than the enjoyment of figuring out what to do would be.

So I remember that I need to use the dark world to reach certain cliffs near the desert-slash-marsh; this echoes clearly the situation from LTTP (even if the location of the teleporters, per se, are changed.) However, the initial discovery (in LTTP) that you could use a teleporter from the dark world to gain access to an inaccessible cliff with a cave in the light world is much greater than simply remembering that you could do that, and then finding out that yes, it still works.

Light World/Dark World

Another thing, relating again to available choices: LTTP had a marvellous mechanic whereby, you could enter the light world from any point you could reach in the dark world (by using the mirror), but not vice versa! This meant that if you could mentally overlay the two worlds clearly in your mind, you could make intuitive leaps about where to position yourself in the dark world to access a previously inaccessible spot in the light world.

So the "possible choices" here are very large: virtually anywhere in the dark world you can use the mirror. Second, it will work reliably; the player can predict where they will end up. So, the designers could set up a problem solving chain this way:

  • Show the player something in the light world: a heart, a cave, etc. that they want but can't get to
  • Show clearly that it (probably) can't be accessed directly from the light world
  • This tells the player: they need to access it by reaching the corresponding point in the dark world
  • Now, devise an indirect path from a teleporter (entry point) in the dark world, to this otherwise seemlingly innocuous spot, again in the dark world.
  • Voila! You're done.

This design is great because the player can predict with absolute certainty that if they can just get to a certain spot in the dark world, they'll be able to use the mirror, and that will put them at the spot in the light world where they can see their reward. So then, reaching that spot in the dark world then becomes a secondary problem for them to solve.

But the catch is, since there is no clue in the dark world per se, it's not as if they would think to try the mirror on it's own just to see. It's always 2-step, and it's always repeatable for the designer. Great!

Zelda: ALBW can't do this, because the warp points are all set in pairs, in both directions.

Cardinal Directions, Enemies

Other small things. In LTTP, since the sprites can orient only one of four directions, there is a bit more interplay between the player's facing direction and the enemy's. The soldiers can be approached reliably from one side, but not the other. Because they can only face on of four directions, it makes certain subtle movements advantageous, once you realize it.

In ALBW, since all the characters rotate smoothly, the movements are actually less subtle, and effectively combatting enemies revolves more around special items than positioning. The possibilty space for special items is a lot smaller than the one for movement, so the "micro puzzles" of devising a good strategy for dealing with a certain kind of enemy are simplified somewhat.

Pacing

Another interesting change: the pacing is a bit snappier. Bushes take a shorter time to dissipate in ALBW than they do in LTTP. The cooldown on a sword attack feels a bit less, so it's possible to swing your sword more frequently.

The dungeons also feel a good deal smaller, but I don't 100% trust this impression-- they are certainly much easier, so they are shorter to play. I may go back and play LTTP after this to compare this in particular (along with other things.)

Getting In And Out Of Videogames As An Adult

I think a lot about how "pick up and play" is probably the single most determining factor in game design if you are interested in capturing an adult audience. People are highly irrational when it comes to time-- if you ask almost any adult who has interest in playing videogames, in my experience, the only reason they ever give for not doing so is "I don't have the time." (note: it's almost never, "they are too expensive," although they sort-of are.)

And yet, many adults (some of us are busier than others, granted) spend hours and hours watching television, surfing the web, or otherwise freely spending time on recreation day-in and day-out. I know adults who happily plough through novel after novel yet don't have time for games. Why don't videogames make the cut?

I think there is a large mental hurdle that games have to overcome, because by their nature they are a bit challenging. This helps explain the popularity of Let's Players and streaming; it's videogames, but without, well, you know, having to actually play them.

As designers I think we need to look at this really seriously. It seems adults can (sometimes) more easily connect with games that have simple, repeating gameplay, and where there are only slight barriers to entry (mobile games clean up, here.)

Of course, I'm not saying games need to be simple (I'm just not the person to say games should be one thing or another; also, there is lots of evidence that complex-mechanical games can be very popular-- but this doens't contradict, exactly, what I'm saying; I think some games with very complex mechanics are nonetheless super easy to pop into and out of.)

I just mean that this is how I interpret it when someone says to me that they "don't have time for videogames."

What they really might mean is: "Games are kind of taxing; I can't muster the energy to mentally shift gears and remember everything I'm supposed to remember to play them."

(ASIDE: I think Nintendo overall has a good handle on this, and has for some time. I think you can see this in a lot of ways, from how they approach mobile games, to how they seem to do so well with the handheld market, to what they were trying to do with the Wii U, and lastly to what they have done with the Switch. And remember they invented mobile gaming in the first place, sort of.)

What I am trying to say is that perhaps the less underlying context that the player has to remember, the easier it will be for them to pop in and out. That could be a good thing depending on your design goals.

I think it's also partly a courtesy and partly an accessibility question. I believe on the whole adults have more free time than they think they do, although they rarely realize it.

What is true, though, is that adults have lots of responsibilities that can chop up their time or make it unpredictable. Easy to turn off a TV show if you need to (or fall asleep to it); you can always come back later. Harder to pop into a game for a half hour here and there if you have to remember the button combinations for all the special moves. Even just sitting through a long publisher splash screen or dealing with load times will perhaps be enough to say, "no."

Put another way: does it feel like I need a solid 2 hours to play a game? Is the game unintentionally telling me that I don't have enough time to really get into it, for instance as a side-effect of trying to create drama or a heightened sense of immersion (e.g., through lengthy cutscenes, or even a weighty title screen sequence.) That might be problematic, since even if I have those 2 hours in fact, I might not know for sure until they are up. So I might not feel the game is worth starting, and therefore I might opt for something that seems to be asking less of me up-front.

Making a game easier to get into and out of is a design problem that may affect a game on virtually every level; but it's also a "life design" question of how the player will actually be able to approach it in the first place.

WEIRD ASIDE: Assassin's Creed

Speaking of games heavily influenced by Zelda (or not), this is where Assassin's Creed games, as far as I have played them, work against themselves.

On the one hand, these games are fairly easy to play in small segments. (the Ubisoft "open world formula" is excellent for this!)

On the other hand, they tend to have a lot of mechanics which, while streamlined, are somewhat complex to remember.

The strong part of these games with respect to getting into and out of them quickly, even after not having played for a long time, is the movement and streamlined fighting systems. There's not much to remember here in terms of button presses or sequences. (I think they do suffer, a bit, because they look much more complex than they are.)

But these are frustrated somewhat by then giving the player access to a variety of tools which are comparatively difficult to switch between, and also not always neccessary. If you put down an AC game for a few weeks, and come back, it's going to be hard to remember exactly how you access and manage smoke bombs, blow darts, or how to supply them properly.

To a lesser extent, the story context is a problem here, too. I think the stories are well written but actually the whole "meta" layer is confusing and overcomplicated. I get that they probably can't change this, though.

Bottom line, I think these games would work better if they were streamlined even more.

Ravio!

This all brings me to: the item shop. A lot of people have commented that the item shop works well, is a bold design choice, and is a welcome change. I think it's important to look at why that change could have been made.

Traditionally, Zelda games follow the formula of new items opening up new areas.

So for instance, in a dungeon in LTTP, typically the dungeon will be separated throughout by some obstacle that can't be overcome by the player. The player will proceed through the dungeon, up to a point where they obtain a key item (e.g., the hammer.) This item allows them to then access the previously-inaccessible part of the dungeon.

This is a great design choice because showing the player all these inaccessible areas builds up tension, which can be released then when they finally obtain the key item. The key item then usually ties in thematically with the dungeon's boss, or some of the other challenges, so that the backtracking is made easier (also very satisfying.) Finally, these key items then unlock areas on the overworld that lets the player proceed (among other things) to the next dungeon.

ASIDE: The Big Key, Big Chest, Boss Door sequence

LTTP also uses an intermediate goal, the Big Key, as a requirement for not only the dungeon's boss, but the key item.

The key item is always inside the Big Chest (which can be shown to the player early on) so that the player is really working toward the Big Key. After LTTP, the designers started to put the Big Key inside the Big Chest. I think this is weaker for a lot of reasons.

In particular, though, it doesn't really simplify anything, and makes it less clear the role that the key item has. Further, the original design is a straightforward and satisfying cascade once the player gets the Big Key. This sequence (in LTTP) is roughly:

  • i) explore the dungeon blind, trying to build knowledge, and usually finding the map and the compass, noticing the Big Chest, and finally finding the Big Key
  • ii) anticipation and enjoyment working their way back to the Big Chest, where they know the key item will lie but not neccessarily what it will be, and
  • iii) gaining the key item, allowing them to access the rest of the dungeon and the boss (and by now, they have a good mental map, as well as the in-game reference map, so they feel empowered) and explore it more easily (since it is normally effective against monsters.)

Putting the Big Key in the Big Chest, as with subsequent Zelda games (at least that I have played) basically undoes this, and makes the design a bit mushier:

  • i) explore the dungeon blind, building knowledge, and eventually finding the key item, map, and compass,
  • ii) continue to explore, somewhat less blind, but still without a clear objective other than to access those parts of the dungeon that were inaccessible before gaining the key item
  • iii) find the boss door, or perhaps the big key, in one order or another
  • iv) proceed to the boss.

I don't like this change, I think the originally design is actually more straightforward since the player has better knowledge of where to go next; this is really empowering and satisfying by comparison.

The Item Shop

Okay back to the item shop. I think this design change was intentionally done to make it easier for the player to pop in and out. In particular, there is a mental load on the player to try and remember what areas they could not previously access. It can be easy to forget the bridge on Death Mountain that you need the hookshot to cross. And so, playing a game like LTTP where the key items play a pivotol role in the order of exploration requires you to remember the world map in some detail.

If you step away from a game with a fairly complex weaving of problems like LTTP, coming back can be intimidating because you will have forgotten half of these important connections.

By putting all the items in a shop, the designers are basically saying: "proceed in any order you like, you can just come and get the items you need, when you need them."

I think this change makes a lot of sense and has the intended consequence of removing barriers to entry for playing in shorter periods (assuming this was the intended consequence.) In particular, if a character says "go to death mountain", you can simply go there, and if you encounter and obstacle you can't pass, normally you can just go back and get whatever you need.

This breaks down just a little bit later on in the game (note: I still have about 2 dungeons left to complete.) where you e.g., need the Stamina Scroll to enter the desert palace-- but it still works overall. (Another note: I'm curious whether the special items you find in the dungeons, e.g., the master ore, stamina scroll, and so on, are really fixed per dungeon or are just gathered in a fixed order.)

The lack of ammunition or automatically recharging magic meter helps here too, since it removes any supply management, which is another layer of planning and remembering for the player. If nothing else this lets you get on with the primary tasks more quickly.

One final note. I think the way that Zelda handles actually using items is close to ideal, anyway, for allowing the player to pop in and out of the game. In particular, every single item is used the same way.

There really are not very many special combinations to remember in Zelda games, or at least in LTTP or ALBW. Simply equip the item you want to use, and press the button. The items are equipped from a pause menu, so there's no pressure to remember anything on the fly. You can always just open up the pause menu to look at what you have and try to jog your memory what the items do. Contrast this with other games, where different weapons can have totally different interfaces or control schemes to deal with.

The Legend of Calvin: Return to Link To The Past. (How can I not!)

It has been interesting to play Zelda: ALBW. I think after I'm finished I will go and play LTTP and maybe make some more design notes. I'm curious especially whether LTTP feels as easy as ALBW does, and how the overall scale of the game is different.

- Calvin

5:32 PM, May 20, 2017
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