This article was originally written in 2014 for Nintendo Enthusiast.
In the latest Zelda-themed episode of internet cartoonist Arin Hanson’s Sequelitis series, Arin says that there’s no mystery in modern Zelda games. For the most part, I agree with this.
Mystery is something that’s very important to me in games, movies, books… pretty much everything! With the recent announcement of Zelda for Wii U and how it will be open-world—as in, even more open world than all the other Zelda games that are open world—I’ve been thinking a lot about how it could finally be the game to bring mystery back to Zelda. But what made old Zelda games so mysterious in the first place? And why is the mystery gone now?
In NES Zelda, the player is dropped into a world with no direction whatsoever. All they have to go off of is the game’s intro text, which they might have read if they waited at the title screen for long enough:
…But what does that even mean!? I need to find eight… somethings… and that’s it!? The player has almost no idea what they’re even supposed to be doing when they start the game. And keep in mind what games where like when NES Zelda first came out; it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for the player to have to wander around for an hour, find eight arbitrary objects in obvious locations, and then get a congratulations screen and credits. Little did they know the adventure that they were about to go on.
Sure, they did have the game manual to go off of, but even that didn’t explain every secret. It’s never explained to the player that they can use bombs to find secret caves, for example. Most likely they’ll find this out by seeing a crack in a dungeon wall and bombing it, and then later trying a bomb on a dungeon wall with no crack and finding a secret entrance, and then trying it on the overworld. But there’s no guarantee the player will ever figure this out! All of the secrets hidden behind the game’s terrain run the risk of never being seen—and for a game that wants to be mysterious, this is a good thing.
Compare this to the Wind Waker, the Zelda game that I believe has come closest to matching the original in terms of exploration. In the latter half of the game, it isn’t afraid to make the player think a little bit. The King of Red Lions tells you where the two dungeons who need to get to are located, but figuring out how to enter them is entirely up to the player. Granted, it’s just a matter of talking to the Fishman at every island and going where he tells you, but compared to Fi in Skyward Sword giving the player explicit directions, the small bit of trust that Wind Waker puts in its player’s ability to think is admirable.
However, simply having to follow the Fishman’s advice to find where to go still makes for a pretty linear game. It isn’t just the Fishman either—the whole game is planned out like that. It’s sure to make you pass Fire Mountain on your way to Dragon Roost so that you don’t forget about it later. Being restricted in your exploration from the beginning of the game in the first place says a lot about the experience that the player was intended to have. As Arin says in his Sequelitis video, no longer is the player on an adventure—they’re on a tour.
Simply letting the player go wherever they want wouldn’t fix the game’s lack of exploration either. This is due to a trick that most Zelda games are guilty of: disguising locked doors as mysteries.
If you come across an island with a giant boulder on it, you instantly know that you need to use a bomb. There’s no mystery or puzzle involved; the game isn’t asking anything of the player. It’s simply a matter of checking the player’s progress. “If you’ve gotten past the point in the game where you acquire bombs, then you’re allowed to enter this cave.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s a boulder, a spinner track, or a hookshot target: if the player encounters a dead giveaway out in the wild that they’re looking at something they can’t access yet, the designers might as well have put a locked door there. Coming across these “doors,” dedicating them to memory, and then returning to them when the player has the correct “key” is just a matter of crossing items off of a list.
This is where NES Zelda’s brilliance is most evident. Look at the candle, for instance. When the player realizes that they can use the candle to burn trees, their entire perception of the game world is changed. What seemed to be a completely aesthetic part of the game world suddenly turns out to be a keeper of secrets. There’s no meticulous logging of locked doors in the back of the player’s brain. The player is given a legitimately meaningful new way to interact with the game world that raises as many questions as it does answers. It creates mystery. If a dumb tree can hold a secret, what can’t?
I’ve often heard this relationship between discovery and mystery described with the metaphor that, if your current knowledge is represented by the area of a circle, then the perimeter of that circle represents what you’re able to understand that you don’t know. As you gain more knowledge, the area of the circle grows—but so does the perimeter, and you’re able to see that there’s even more that you’re ignorant about than you thought.
The only game that I’ve come across which matches the original Legend of Zelda—and in many ways, surpasses it—is Fez. The player is dropped into a world and allowed to explore. The trick is that exploring the world isn’t just a matter of filling in a map, because as the player learns more about the nature of the world they’re exploring, they realize that the world is denser than they would have imagined. Solving all of Fez’s puzzles provides the player with a series of epiphanies which create entire new dimensions for them to explore—sometimes literally. Nothing is as it seems, and unlocking the game’s deepest secrets requires players to change how they perceive the game world.
Even though games are finite, including any mystery at all automatically creates never-ending mystery. Jim Crawford, creator of Frog Fractions, gave a talk at GDC this year on mystery in games where he pointed to the Minus World in Super Mario Bros. as a weird hard-to-believe secret that actually came true. In doing so, it lent credence to all of the other weird hard-to-believe secrets that people would talk about. Maybe you really can find Mew under the truck in Pokemon Red.
Remember: if a dumb tree can hold a secret, there’s nothing that can’t.
So, can Zelda for Wii U match the original Zelda in terms of mystery? Absolutely! It’s just a matter of letting the player discover things for themselves. Hide a dungeon under a bush. Let a hand in a toilet guard a Triforce shard. Don’t have a pause screen that lets the player estimate how far into the game they are. Just break convention and let the player explore! Limit them by their skill, not by their item collection.
Nintendo could even create an interesting difficulty balance by doing this. What if there was an ice area with giant deadly yetis who are weak to the fire rod? The player can go there before getting the fire rod if they want, and if they’re good enough they might even emerge victorious, but if they don’t feel confident they can decide not to go there for the time being. This would encourage the kind of self-imposed challenges that we see hardcore NES Zelda players take on all the time with sword-less playthroughs or reverse dungeon order playthroughs.
I’m really excited to see what Zelda for Wii U does with exploration and mystery. If the designers at Nintendo are truly committed to making that kind of Zelda game, there’s no doubt they can come up with something a hundred times better than I can! The game is supposed to come out in 2015, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets delayed—either way, we’ve got a long wait.