Putting A Bow On It
Have you heard about this game The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild? A couple folks around these parts think it’s pretty good and said a whole hell of a lot about it over the last few weeks. But I promise, after this article right here, that’s it. We’re done and on to the next thing.
This week brought a close to my essays about the game, as well as a little discussion between myself and Internet Culture Editor Clayton Purdom about whether we think it ranks among gaming’s canonized classics. As has been the case throughout the entirety of our Zelda coverage, there was ton of great discussion going on below thos articles. One of my points in our Crosstalk discussion was that Breath Of The Wild seems nearly impossible to iterate on in the usual way we see out of video game sequels. Jakeoti chimed in on some of the series’ options for a future direction:
Where does the Zelda series goes from here? I’m not sure. There’s a lot to be said for simply taking what has worked with Breath Of The Wild and trying something similar but different. Replace the Shrines with one big underground dungeon, maybe. Bring back more standard dungeons. Add underwater exploration. Make it take place among floating islands. Make it all set in one massive city, where characters and interaction become more important. But my concern is how much of this would still feel bold and new. Part of why Breath Of The Wild feels so good is that it all feels unexpected. Will the next Zelda game be just as good if it’s “another Breath Of The Wild“?
Honestly, it’s why I kind of want them to go a completely different route. And I really mean completely. Just throw the rulebook out the window and do something crazy. Maybe make a more action-oriented game, where combat is combo-heavy and relies on you switching up between Zelda quest items. It might be an alienating decision, but it could also be a reminder that part of what makes Zelda a great series is its potential to go anywhere. There’s a reason why it feels like a series where fans most frequently fight over what the best entry is. They get into the series for different reasons.
Elsewhere, Will Riker’s Soggy Finger thoughtfully followed up on my discussion of Hyrule Castle’s place in the game:
The ending really seems like nothing more than that: a somewhat arbitrary endpoint to a story that is itself little more than a framing device for the experience of gallivanting around Hyrule, digging up all its unexpected discoveries or just enjoying the freedom of traversing an enormous world. Hyrule Castle isn’t even much of a dungeon: There are no puzzles, and you can barrel to the top without too much trouble, if you’re a bit careful. Its real function is as an enormous, perilous treasure cave, where players can go excavating at any time for powerful weapons and material. The game openly encourages this: One of the first people I met after leaving the plateau (I think on the approach to Kakariko Village) talks of explorers sneaking into the castle in search of equipment. This, in turn, subtly keys you into how the weapon durability system is best used, specifically why hoarding powerful weapons is pointless when they’re readily available, so long as you’re willing to take a risk. Use them strategically (I use weak weapons to knock enemies down/initiate a flurry rush, then switch to a powerful one to do major damage before switching back), but certainly don’t be afraid to use them.
The castle itself is more or less plonked in the middle of the map, and you can see it from most elevated positions, providing an essential reference point to get your bearings. The structure itself is key to so many different parts of the game and in a brilliantly unspoken way, perhaps (literally) central to the functioning of every major mechanic of the game—navigation, exploration, combat, narrative, etc. In an entirely unspoken way, it’s perhaps one of the most brilliant pieces of design I’ve ever seen.
And Sandler’s List took issue with one of my pet peeves from the game:
I have to respond to one offhand remark that Matt made: that “cooking should be a snappier process.” I disagree with this. I think the mechanics of cooking are really instrumental to the immersive nature of the game, and their somewhat cumbersome nature is actually a feature and not a bug.
The fact that cooking is your main way of refilling hearts pushes you to work a certain amount of hunting and gathering into your game. You’re not shooting elk and gathering mushrooms in an effort to 100-percent the game, you’re doing it because you plan on needing those things to live later on. It doesn’t dominate the game, you never feel like you’re having to take time out of things you’d rather be doing to track down ingredients, but it’s always there as a low-level need that you at least have to keep an eye on. That creates this great immersive effect where you actively simulate all the “living off the land” stuff that Link would have to do on this adventure, just finding moments here and there to hunt, gather, and cook so you can stay alive.
One element that I think is key to that effect is the fact that the act of cooking is actually somewhat laborious. That sounds counter-intuitive, but imagine the alternative, if you could blast through a series of menus and whip up a dozen apple pies in a few seconds. All that living off the land stuff would fade from the game. Your incentive would be to kill everything in sight early on, cook a million restorative items, and then not worry about it again until many hours later. The system in place is just inconvenient enough to make you not want to sit there and do it until you’re overflowing with meals and elixirs. You just want to cook what you think you’ll need for the foreseeable future. That, in turn, eliminates any real need to go apeshit farming ingredients, encouraging you instead to hunt and gather at regular intervals, without immediate pressure and in a focused and intentional way. To me, that’s one of the more impressive and subtle ways the game draws players into its world.
Elsewhere on the site, William Hughes continued to work through Torment: Tides Of Numenera, delivering the second part of his ongoing review. He’s started to find that the game’s main storyline isn’t quite as ambitious as the sidequests surrounding it. In the comments, ~Swinton took a look back at the game’s acclaimed inspiration, Planescape Torment, to figure out where Tides went wrong:
As impetuous as it is to say, I have to wonder if InXile really knew what distinguished Planescape as Best Written Game Ever by so many metrics. Because all the things that Tides Of Numenera has—voluminous prose, surrealist imagery, a certain kind of choice on offer—are things that are easy to perceive on first glance and win accolades for. Those are things that made Planescape unique at first glance (and make Tides a little less unique as a result) but I don’t think they’re what made it great in contrast to other games. What made Planescape special was how it rendered all of its wild elements toward a coherent purpose. Spoilers for Planescape follow, I guess.
What it really nailed down that very few games have attempted in the interim is a unity of message and theme. These are literary accomplishments that I think a lot of people intuitively recognize even if they don’t articulate it much. Planescape had a central conflict: “what can change the nature” etc. And the real meat of the game was built around this conflict. The message of a story is the answer to the question its conflict raises, and Planescape allowed the luxury of letting the player provide their message from a predefined list, honed down by how they’d played the game. (Some examples were “belief” and “regret”). Most games, including Tides, are satisfied in giving players interesting worlds to get lost in and a plot to follow but not a real, weighty story for them to illustrate.
The little side quests may not have touched on it, but every companion backstory and every significant subplot in some way reflected Planescape’s central conflict and the importance of it. “What can change the nature” etc. was not an interesting conflict because it was heady and philosophical and abstract, but because the nature of The Nameless One (TNO) was significant to the game and the player was made to answer for it. The beauty of TNO’s story is that we don’t initially assume it to be ours, but it’s made clear little by little that the player is held responsible for all the things the character had done before his present consciousness. You meet all your companions and at first they’re like every ragtag group of misfit heroes until you realize that they’re all suffering and/or trapped in perpetuity by the carelessness of TNO. Suddenly you’re responsible, and all of those stories, like the core story of the game, become about how you account for unintended consequences. The point of every companion story is: You are responsible. The big ending of the game is: You are responsible, how do you deal with that? The subplots add their weight to the central plot so that by the end, it is not just a question but a very heavy imperative, and it hits hard.
Tides is sort of a strange and sorry duck because it gets at a veneer of what made Planescape special, the topography of the game as defined by rote signifiers (Amnesia! No longswords! Planes! No death! Odd objects as potions! Action-defined alignment!) without understanding how so many of those elements cohered in the game’s conflict and message in such a beautiful and compelling way. We get a game that has elaborate threads that aren’t woven together. And so Tides, beyond its role as a tribute to Planescape, fails as an interesting story in its own right. In other words, Planescape is the Simpsons, Tides is this.
That’ll do it for this week, my friends. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all again next week!