Ocarina Opening

Thoughts on the first hour or so of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

It has been years since I've played Ocarina of Time. Tonight by a waterfall under the stars I finally cracked open the 3DS remake.

First: I think Ocarina of Time is the most influential videogame of all time. Deconstructing the opening is one way to illustrate why, but that's not my intent; I just want to write down my thoughts while they are relatively fresh.

The initial narration is broken as Link shudders, asleep. The quiet anticipation of the introduction works very well in the context of the original game release, which was deeply looked-forward-to.

Because of this, the designers knew that they would fully, fully have your attention for this sequence. At the same time, they knew that they were presenting something that was fundamentally unexpected, an experience that people could not really be prepared for.

This shudder is extremely effective in this context, because it foreshadows the minute detail put into Link's emotional responses, something that elevated videogames at the time. I think this emotional realism-- and by this I mean the attempt to create a sense that Link is a living and breathing being-- is a main design goal of the game.

I remember reading that an entire team was devoted to building Link's control over a period of years. If aspects of Ocarina of Time feel somewhat standard today it's only because it made them that way.

A bit more on this point of player expectation. At the time, I remember, people had some idea that this would be like Mario 64, but Zelda-themed, and an RPG. If this seems comical today, imagine what Souls games-- which owe immensely to Ocarina of Time-- would be like if they controlled more like Mario 64. This is the world we might have had!

The creators of Ocarina must have felt deep pride about what they were about to show people. I think this shudder is the opening note in a very grand and intricate symphony of ideas.

The nightmare showing Ganondorf and Zelda on horses didn't have a powerful effect on me this go around, so I won't try and analyze it too much.

I don't think Ocarina is compelling on a narrative level. As a design goal, stripping down the story to broad gestures is probably the right decision, since it grounds the rest of the experience in a lot of clarity. A cutscene of Princess Zelda escaping on a horse works, but is not part of the reason for why Ocarina is emotionally compelling.

Following this is a sequence where the Great Deku tree explains to Navi that she should help Link, the Boy Without A Fairy. From the start, the narrative is that Link does not belong in the forest; he's alienated from the other Kokiri. When Saria says it's so nice you finally got a Fairy, you know that somehow it's not enough to make you fit in. This is strongly themed in how all of the Kokiri relate to you, and helps build sympathy with-slash-for Saria who shows you affection and understands Link's aparted-ness.

This is effective; Gravity Rush uses a similar narrative device, even more strongly alienating Kat from her environment. Another game that does this wonderfully is Klonoa.

Many RPGs had used "you are banished from your hometown" but the alienation in Ocarina is handled with a more subtlety. I believe this works well in the context of a single-player videogame. This may be because setting the player avatar apart as unbelonging to the game world overlaps the player's experience as an outside participant in it.

The next sequence is a first person fly-through of Navi through Kokiri forest. This is playful and works as a bit of a tech demo.

A subtle point here: at one point Navi flies under a fence but then just barely misses a gap in another one, bonking up against it. This is surprising because we don't expect this fine-grained realism. It foreshadows another design goal which set Ocarina apart, which is attention to detail in the physical environment.

A few examples of this include:

  • When Link climbs a ladder, his feet always hit the rungs. I remember clearly how convincing and unbelievable this was at the time.
  • Link's feet use inverse kinematics on slopes, so that they always touch the ground.
  • Link's ledge climbing always matches the ledge perfectly (IK again I think)
  • Link's sword strikes against different materials all behave differently and consistently
  • Link's jumping and running speed is realistically (or at least believably) proportioned to his body size

On the last point: I remember quite clearly how people were outraged intially to learn that Ocarina would not have a "jump" button-- in retrospect of course the auto-jump works incredibly naturally and is a stroke of brilliance

Everything in videogames is illusory-- in Ocarina it is evident that an immense amount of hard work went into making the physical appearance of the world match how it interacts with the player avatar. Most videogames today still do not even try to approach this, or at least not so broadly.

The "kokiri training area" has a very nice touch.

When you enter, you can hear an ominous rumbling which turns out to be a boulder. I'm not sure if it was partly that I could vaguely remember this detail about the game from previous plays, or whether my impression would have been such at the time I first encountered it, but the framing here clearly makes you expect to have a boulder roll across if you step forward.

In fact, the boulder is calmly making a square circuit safely to your left.

The tension created here is quite novel, because you can't use the sound of the boulder to determine when it's safe to run across it's presumed path-- the sound is more or less a constant rumbling, and the boulder itself never passes your view. So it forcees you to "just go for it" even though you sense danger.

Of course, this is part of a set up to teach you the "shoulder button look" mechanic, which involves facing the direction you want to look and pressing L to look around corners. The area immediately across the path you dash across has a sign that explains this. In principle, I think the intent is that after reading the sign, you then look around the corner, and see that boulder is rolling a fixed circuit. In practice, though, I think most players will just experiment a bit here and get run over by the boulder, and then turn and run around confusedly.

Still-- this is a really playful design and I think the first part of it (forcing a "mad dash" where no threat actually exists) probably works most of the time.

Speed-running is a wonderful (if maybe a bit painfully obsessive) way to celebrate games, but one negative effect of a game like Ocarina being speed-run incessantly is it might create the impression for spectators that this is a glitchy or bug-ridden game. The glitches are of course real, but they exist as a result of tying very many responsive, realtime systems together simultaneously. So anyone who is familiar with Ocarina primarily through speed-running deserves to know: there are no obvious bugs in the N64 version. Basically anyone's actual experience with this game in 1996 would have been flawless.

I actually first frowned when I used the "camera nub" on the 3DS here and it didn't do anything, remembering that this was added only with the N3DS and most games don't use it. But then it dawned on me— Ocarina never had a freely-steerable camera. Instead, it relies on near-perfect tracking that almost never clips into the scenery, augmented with a very simple device of pressing L to center the camera behind you. Finally there is a "first person look-around" mode which is exclusively for observation, filling in the last gap of being able to really point the camera when you need to. (You can't move or act in this mode.)

Almost any other 3rd-person-viewpoint game I can think of has a steerable camera.

Scientists sometimes like to think in terms of degrees of freedom. This means, I think: how many variables could be set arbitrarily for this system?

A steerable camera has a high degree of freedom. In almost any situation and at any time in most games that have steerable cameras, the camera can be adjusted to almost any viewpoint. The camera control multiplies the complexity of the games control scheme, since it's universal.

Higher degrees of freedom mean the player has more options. But the ubiquitousness of the camera then means that a large proportion of the player's mental energy is spent orienting it in different ways. This then becomes part of the experience, so in Ocarina we might feel like something is actually lacking.

But consider that the player's attention is a bit of a zero-sum game. If you practice mindfulness while playing most games, you may start to see how much of the actual experience is orienting the camera. The question is whether a better experience would be had engaging in other ways.

It is a near miracle of design to make the camera in a 3D-view game "disappear", so it's no wonder that most designers will just defer to player control here, in particular given that even a near-perfect implementation would likely suffer player complaints. I wonder if this is still the best camera system we have seen-- I don't know if even the newer Zelda games do this anymore.

(Related thought: the lack of a jump button works similarly here. In a game with a jump button, you can almost always jump. So jumping is another attention-slash-control multiplier. But does this verb make sense in all contexts, for all games? In games with a jump button but very little purpose to it, for instance Dragon Age: Inquisition, the player will often feel compelled to jump continually. This is painful especially in YouTube videos. Maybe there is a design rule here: if the player is performing some action continually to no meaningful effect, the action may be a distraction that should be removed. Players do not typically jump pointlessly and nonstop in Mario 64, for instance, since jumping at the right times and in the right way is sort of the whole experience...)

Anyhow-- this is as far as I played tonight: just bouncing around Kokiri forest. I got the sword and shield and will go talk to Mido.

Two thoughts to leave you with:

First: a person could create an interesting YouTube channel by playing games that were contemprary with Zelda: Ocarina of Time alongside of it for contrast, and then maybe games that came out 5 or 10 years later.

Second: I'm not sure why it took me until now to consider that the right way to play a portable game is to find a location in the real world that will help bring out the feelings you most associate with it, but it sure was nice laying on that chiseled rock next to that small waterfall, looking up at those stars, playing Ocarina. An obvious thing to do with a book, but during the day. With a portable game, it's better to do it at night when you can see the screen so clearly. I guess games are the shadow-partner to books.

September 24, 2020; revised October 19, 2020

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