A Link Between Worlds
Work on Second Quest has been going great this winter. David’s drawings continually surprise me in how they transform my script into vibrant comic pages. They are really quite stunning. And those pages are adding up! The final count is right at 100, double what we originally envisioned.
While work on the comic has gone very well, David and I did have a disagreement recently that we’d like to share. Not about Second Quest, but about the new Zelda — A Link Between Worlds. As you know, this whole project was born out of our common disappointment with Skyward Sword and our many shared criticisms of the entire Zelda series. But that hasn’t meant we see Zelda in quite the same way. In fact, these differences have been a crucial dynamic in the development of Second Quest.
Rather than have me recount both of our takes on the new Zelda, we’d like to share a bit of back-and-forth instead. So I’ll turn it over to David first. What did you think of A Link Between Worlds?
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David: Hello! Well, first of all I found all the individual units of interaction to be very fun. Running around, slicing enemies and grass, jumping into painting mode to traverse the walls — everything felt very fluid. This is helped further by the music, which contributes to a lively atmosphere from the very start. But fun interactions are not unusual for Zelda games. What took me by surprise was how these strengths were allowed to shine.
I'm used to Zelda games that shoot themselves in the foot, squandering their native dynamism with disjointed, interruptive and patronizing quests. It's the "helicopter parent" mode of game design, as you described it. You can sense the developers wringing their hangs behind the scenes: "will the players understand this? We'd better explain. Will the player be bored here? We'd better highlight the next activity. Is there enough for the player to do? Let's throw in some fetch quests so the experience isn't over too quickly." As you play those games, you sense how much is being artificially withheld. It's an experience that is administered to the player, piece by piece.
By contrast, A Link Between Worlds lays its cards on the table early on: the map is familiar from a previous game. Most of the items are familiar, as well, and you can rent them all before too long. Very little is artificially withheld. I think these design choices required confidence on the part of the developers – confidence in the inherent appeal of the game they were making, and confidence in players to thrive with this level of freedom.
I didn't expect this at all, and it made this the first Zelda in a long time that I enjoyed without reservation.
I'm curious whether you agree with what I've said so far as a factual description of the game. I'd also like to know what you came to the game looking for – what would have satisfied you?
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Tevis: I do know what you mean about the feel of the game. It is fluid, spritely, every detail spit-shined to Nintendo perfection. It all feels a bit rubbery for my taste (so bouncy!), but the game certainly does get out of your way early on and just let you at it.
The feel of its mechanics are in step with a larger problem I had, though: the game never resists me. It is such a well-oiled machine, so very effortless, that I just pass right through. The lack of challenge is part of this, but it also comes in just how eager to please the game is. Every little movement is built for my pleasure; every space and object has been designed just for me. It may not helicopter parent as explicitly as before, but A Link Between Worlds sure knows how to take care of me and make sure I’m never too frustrated or bored. The game is bent on delighting me to death, but as I move from one moment to the next, I keep wondering: what are all these tight mechanics for? To what end?
I think I might appreciate its pleasures more if they weren’t so familiar. But I’ve done this all before, 20 years ago. It’s been updated, sure, but more like a product gets updated over time. There is no surprise, no wonder, only smoother interface. Even the new wall-melding feature, a potentially transgressive 2D power in a 3D game, is mostly just another way to solve puzzles. Convenient roadblocks are always there to keep me from wandering too far off.
I didn’t have any particular expectations coming into A Link Between Worlds. Perhaps only that it needed to justify itself as a sequel. A sequel can’t just be MORE. It needs to rethink its own premises and seek out new lands. Otherwise, it’s just DLC.
Did the familiarity not bother you? Did the game really feel like an adventure to you?
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David: It felt like an adventure in the "living toy world" style that Nintendo does better than anyone. Super Mario 3D Land and Luigi's Mansion are the two other great examples I would point to on 3DS. Compact, bold, meticulously organized, and buoyantly reactive dioramas. I appreciate challenging games, but challenge here is not the main appeal – it's aesthetics. Snagging a shower curtain with Luigi's vacuum and pulling, pulling until the curtain snaps off the rod and a flurry of dollar bills fills the room is a brilliant aesthetic experience. The feel of it. The tension and release, expressed through animation and activated, somehow, through a circle pad and an A button. On the scale of artistic high-mindedness I'd peg this example at "charming and delightful", which is a few notches below "causing me to think deeply about mortality and love" but still an honest and worthwhile thing!
You say that a sequel can't just be more. I think the real problem with "just more" is that it appears to reflect creative stagnation. When inspiration is gone for the creator, it will probably not be felt by the player, either. We can sense when an artist (or even a game franchise which is the collective work of various artists over time) stops taking risks and retreats to familiar ground. That's when a career highpoint transforms into an artistic impediment.
When I check out the latest album from a favorite band, or the latest installment in a favorite game series, I'm always asking: do the stewards of this property appear to be in good health, creatively? Are they still living in the moment? Do they appear to be in contact with a muse? Are they taking risks? The apparent well-being of the artist almost matters more to me than whether I personally enjoy the work. It makes me feel good to know that artists whose output I've found sustaining are still going strong, still doing their thing, whatever that thing may have become. In my early 20s I learned about Bob Dylan "going electric" and what an outrage that was to the folk community. They thought Dylan belonged to them, but he said no, screw you. I'm going to move towards what's moving me. He wouldn't stay in place in order to satisfy anyone's expectations.
That's why my response to Skyward Sword wasn't just boredom or frustration. I really felt disheartened by its continued reverence of Ocarina of Time and how every fun, lively thing about it was conjoined with tedium. I took it personally. I cared, because of my continuing attachment to Zelda and the significance I've foisted upon it as a trial of whether inspiration can be renewed forever. I'm asking Zelda, what are the chances, for me specifically, of escaping that spiral into self-regarding irrelevance? In some real sense, I am looking to a videogame franchise marketed to children for answers about the longevity of an emotion and the resilience of an idea (If I lose this debate I may take up smoking).
After playing A Link Between Worlds, I want to say that maybe repetitive self-regard is not really the main problem. Maybe you can get away with a little self-regard if you happen to be charming at the same time? ALBW sure does cover the hits, but it covers them well, without the sanctimony and ponderousness of other recent titles. Hey, I'm having fun again in a Zelda game. And it's that Zelda-fun: go where you want, hit monsters, go into caves, find treasure, hit things more fluidly. It embraces non-linearity and eschews hand-holding more than any other Zelda since… the original? ALBW is a "rediscover your strengths" kind of game, and at the moment that is more than fine.
For the next game, "rediscover your strengths" alone will be less than fine. The recycled overworld was at least novel in that no Zelda overworld has ever been as recycled as this. I expected to be more bored with it, but it remained a suitable stage. Next time, I want to go somewhere totally new.
Now that I have revealed the psychological mechanism that makes me look to The Legend of Zelda franchise for truths about the nature of art and the demise of inspiration, I would like to ask you, why do you still care? About Zelda, specifically. Also who was your favorite NPC?
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Tevis: My favorite NPC, in fact perhaps the only one who left any impression on me, was the sage Osfala. I like characters with real human flaws, not just the charming quirks of most Zelda denizens. Osfala’s arrogance and self-regard as a would-be hero reminded me of Groose, my favorite character in Skyward Sword (before they turned him into a sweetheart the second half of the game, that is).
You know, your response definitely gets at a difference in our relationship with Zelda. I don’t think much about the creators when I play. And certainly not their creative health. Partly because I’m not convinced creative health has a strong correlation with great work. Partly because I question our ability to ever really know much about the creators without going outside the game. And partly, well mostly, because I just don’t care.
What I care about is my experience with the game. Both because it is mine and thus unavoidable, but also because I care more about the players of videogames than the creators. I’m pretty insistent on this in my games writing. I’m interested in your experience with A Link Between Worlds precisely because it is yours, but it doesn’t really change my own experience. I don’t see those rediscovered strengths you describe as the core of Zelda-fun (they simply weren’t much fun to me), and I don’t play Zelda for its aesthetics.
Messing around in a charming toy-world works for Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon because it is a slow-paced, thoroughly domestic series of dollhouses. And in Mario 3D Land, that contained, isometric-ish perspective is all at the service of Mario’s dynamic jump (it activates the environment, making it more than merely aesthetics). But A Link Between Worlds is supposed to be an adventure. This may sound like I’m harping on one word, but unless all Nintendo games are supposed to be these charming toy-worlds just reskinned with different themes, then I take seriously what Zelda says it’s about.
I don’t only want more challenge, though I do think it’s pretty vital to a hero’s journey. I want Zelda to frustrate me, confound me, surprise me, humble and awe me a bit. I don’t need Zelda to say something about mortality or love, which it’s never been about anyway. I just need it to be what it says it’s about. It’s been saying one thing (heroes! legends!) and doing another (grab this! bomb here!) for so many years now that we’ve sidestepped the dissonance and come to think of Zelda-fun as something merely pleasant and charming. Sure, you can remove the explicit handholding and let me tackle dungeons in any order, but it doesn’t really change anything. Everything is still in its right place and there’s no room for me. I’m the same old cog in the same old machine. Nothing roused, nothing provoked.
Why do I still play Zelda? It’s a good question. I didn’t write about Skyward Sword because I was so disappointed, as you were. I really didn’t expect too much at that point. I wrote about it because I played Demon’s Souls a few months earlier and something actually was roused within me. Finally. The contrast was so striking that it sharpened my longstanding critique of the series, and of gaming. That’s part of why I still play Zelda – because I’m a game critic. Many of the faults of Zelda are faults of gaming in general, and as the series I know best (along with Mario), it provides me a way in.
Don’t get me wrong – part of me does still care about the series itself. With every entry, I hope to be surprised and compelled again. But I think franchises are pretty inherently uninteresting. The repetition question I asked you is always at play for me. Much of my enjoyment of Dark Moon was predicated on never having played a Luigi’s Mansion before. Mario 3D Land succeeded in part because it offered a new perspective, literally, for Mario to jump through. But recent entries have been more polished retreads. Mario 3D World, like A Link Between Worlds, plays to perceived strengths from the past, greatest-hits-style, and ultimately falls back on the charms of a cat suit.
Where would you like Zelda to go next? You mentioned somewhere totally new, but would we be doing the same things there, that old lock-and-key dance? What might Zelda become if it, like Dylan, ‘went electric’?
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David: I hear what you're saying about franchises being inherently uninteresting to you. When you describe what you would like to see in a new Zelda, it sounds like it could just as well be a totally new game. Even a brand new game can call upon our memories of other experiences, but they do so with a different sort of liberty, a different context. A game like Double Fine's Hack 'n' Slash can appropriate all it likes, but it also defines the terms of its appropriation. Conversely, a Zelda sequel invariably contends in the minds of players with all other games known as "Zelda". Engaging with that history is tricky. There are many traps and temptations along that path. But it's also a position of privilege, because we have history. We are already acquainted.
As long as Nintendo has financial incentive to create games called "Zelda", I have no doubt that we'll continue to see that original spark of inspiration refracted into further variations. I just want each one to be vital, true to itself. Free from perfunctory nonsense. And when these sequels draw on the past, they must do so without sanctimony. I would be thrilled by a deep reinvention, a rebirth – and I think any long-running franchise requires this from time to time – but I can also enjoy a well-executed tribute.
I suppose I'm more lenient.
I have my own daydream notions, of course. On the one hand, I do want that radical reinvention. But since we're talking about ALBW, I'll make a rhetorically riskier proposal: Nintendo should build out from ALBW with a direct follow-up. It would retain the presentation and play feel, but put us in a new world with somewhat different organizing principles. Instead of neatly filling out a rectangle, the world would be irregular, with unpredictable branches. The mechanisms would be new and require new kinds of thinking. Maybe some puzzles are larger scale, world-spanning, rather than isolated by room. It would be weirder, and harder. By resembling A Link to the Past but working by different logic, it would actually be using its heritage not to appease players, but to startle and unsettle them.
In fact, I would like to see you hired as a consultant for this game, to ensure that it is an adventure not only in its theme and story, but in its dynamics. Because what it would absolutely need is some surprise and challenge. Otherwise we would be seeing the birth of the "New Legend of Zelda" series — like the New Super Mario Bros., a "perfected" template for future level packs. (I actually think there might be a 40% danger this will happen.)
Suppose this project exists, and I'm the project lead asking for your input, beyond the general stuff we've already talked about. What are your top two or three features for this new game?
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Tevis: A ‘New’ Legend of Zelda series is certainly a horrifying (and likely) prospect. Mario has nearly been run into the ground in a few short years, and the logic of a ‘New’ series is not limited only to the games carrying the label. You can see marks of the ‘New’ all over Mario 3D World too, and the result is such sad, stultifying delight. Much of gaming seems beholden to a similar sort of tribute logic. And as you can probably imagine, I have no interest in tributes, however well-executed.
I’ve covered many of my ideas for future Zeldas in “Saving Zelda” – more fighting, more challenge, no puzzles, a world that is mysterious, illegible, and not designed just for you – but it’s that last part about the world that matters most to me and really ties together all the rest. Hyrule has essentially become a predigested world, one that been chewed over for almost 30 years now. And one that A Link Between Worlds specifically sets out to redigest. Everything is discrete and solvable. There is no ambiguity, and it’s all very comforting. But I don’t want a videogame to serve as a security blanket. Certainly not one that claims to be an adventure.
I’ve long wanted a more fundamental change in Zelda, and that’s why I constantly talk about its world, its ethos, and my play-experience. We might all agree on the bothersome handholding of Navi or Fi, but to me these are only symptoms of a disease that infects the entire system of modern Zelda design. It’s a deeply paternalistic, near-tyrannical approach to game-making that often makes me wonder whether Hyrule is really a place worth saving. It’s a suspicious peace we always achieve in the end, you know?
Sometimes it’s all excused as just the stakes of making games for children, but I’ve never bought this line. Children are crazy! And this is to be celebrated. Have you seen how they play Minecraft? How deeply they dive into it without a hand to hold? Kids are tough, resilient, obsessive, full of wonder. And they should be respected by their games. If Nintendo gave players of all ages more room to explore, to fight, to fail, to find their own courage, then you might have a Zelda that felt vital, essential, that left a deep impression on our still-adventurous hearts.
That all said, one simple approach might be to just tell a new story. Meaning, not Link’s. At least, not as we’ve known him. Wouldn’t A Link Between Worlds have been more intriguing if we’d played as Lorule’s failed Link? Or as some figure on the periphery of the usual heroics who transgresses (actually transgresses, not the fake-out of some wall-melding ability) and uncovers a stranger Hyrule lurking within the one we’ve known? Or even if we could just play as Zelda, as glimpsed in the end credits of Skyward Sword? (And obviously part of our thinking for Second Quest.) I don’t mean a simple palette or gender swap with a couple new abilities. I mean a fundamental rethinking of how the world would respond to our presence and how the whole adventure would unfold. No familiar locks and keys. Actual dead ends and actual secrets. The constant threat of becoming lost.
I guess I just find A Link Between Worlds so deeply unadventurous in the end. Everything is expected. Everything is known. But an adventure is a journey into the unknown. This is why people do not simply embark on adventures every day. Adventures require courage. And I want Zelda to find its courage.