Monday, August 4, 2014

Zelda Dungeons

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was one of my favorite Zeldas, probably second after Link's Awakening. I finished Wind Waker HD over the weekend, and I have to say that the remake is exactly what a remake should be: fixing problems and weak points and updating the graphics without losing any of the things that made the game great to begin with. It was really fun to experience the game again, this time with a more critical eye toward game design.

However, there was one part in the second assault on the Forsaken Fortress that bugged me a bit: the fortress is all locked up tight with no way forward. And then an enemy appears. When you defeat it, the doors all unlock and a treasure chest appears containing the Skull Hammer, which further allows you to proceed into the fortress. This exchange baffled me.

Why would the defenders of the fortress open their doors or provide a way forward to their attacker? That doesn't make any sense. The hammer simply appears out of nowhere and just happens to be the perfect tool for getting the rest of the way through the fortress and defeating the boss at the top.

If the monster at the entrance had been using the hammer against Link, that would have made it awesome: Link procures this valuable tool from his fallen foe and uses it in his assault to overcome obstacles that were previously insurmountable. It would make you feel clever as a player, using the enemies' weapons against them; something which you actually have the opportunity to do a lot in Wind Waker.

Instead, though, the whole thing seems arbitrary, like the enemies actually want to fail, and they're just testing Link to see if he's worthy of being the one to beat them. They open doors and provide clear paths as you progress, giving you the tools you need to get to the top. And that's all technically true from a design standpoint: as a designer you want the player to succeed while being challenged. However, in an assault on an enemy fortress it shouldn't feel like a testing ground to the player: the odds should feel stacked against them, and success should be because the player overcame the enemy somehow.

The Zelda series has plenty of actual testing grounds, by the way. Most of the relatively few dungeons in Wind Waker are literally that: a rite of passage for young Rito aiming to earn their wings, or places for "the hero" to prove his mettle. For these sorts of dungeons, it's expected that they will feel carefully crafted for the purpose of testing a set of skills. Such places can and should provide validation for mastery of whatever skills it's testing or a learning experience if those skills haven't been acquired yet. There are several games that use this type of dungeon, but none use it so much as the Zelda series from Ocarina of Time and onward.

Ancient ruins are a more common type of dungeon found in more games, including the older Zeldas. The "testing grounds" found in later Zeldas might also be presumably ancient, but the ancient ruins I'm talking about serve different, myriad functions. Some are labyrinths built to protect some special artifact, some are crypts, some are ancient, abandoned cities or temples and nothing more. Many are filled with traps or populated with monsters, thieves, or worse. Regardless, these places are not going to assist in your exploration of them. The traps will serve their function, which is often to deter or slay intruders. The inhabitants will likewise attempt to impede your progress, though inhabitants kind of get into a third kind of dungeon:

Enemy fortresses are the most hostile kind of dungeon since the structure and inhabitants are presumably working in tandem to prevent you, specifically, from entering. This is naturally an incredibly dangerous environment, and it's very difficult to convey believably, as noted with that Forsaken Fortress story that started this whole thing.

My point is that designers should carefully consider what a player should be feeling when they're in a dungeon, and that involves understanding the purpose of the dungeon and designing it and all of the encounters within it so that they reinforce that feeling.

There's lots more I could mention about modern Zelda dungeons specifically such as their annoying hand-holding and predictability, but I think Egoraptor did a pretty good job summing that up in his Link to the Past vs. Ocarina of Time episode of Sequelitis.

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