Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Time to dust off the NES

Way back in the day I played a lot of Legend Of Zelda. I mean a lot, and I mean the first one. Found some swords, set some trees on fire, cursed that damned Wizzrobe time and time again. One of my prized possessions is a hand-drawn map my brother made of Zelda's second world, done to a scale of 1 screen = 1 page of loose-leaf notebook paper, with every tree and rock drawn and colored by hand.

That makes me the target audience for this essay by Tevis Thompson, which looks at how the Zelda series has changed and how he'd like it to change back. The main thrust of his piece -- and the part that might interest roleplayers -- is that Zelda used to be about exploration and now it's about story. In terms that resonate right now, Tevis says the old games were a sandbox and the newer ones are a railroad.

I think he's right. I'm not an expert on modern Zelda, but as much as I enjoyed Ocarina of Time, it did fence me out of much of the world until I passed some predetermined thresholds. In original Z, I could wander all over the place to tangle with monsters way outside my weight class. I could explore dungeons out of order. The only narrative drive was "there's a Bad Thing and you have to get some stuff from these places to stop it."

His thoughts on the relative merits of exploration vs. story are worth checking out. I don't know whether they'll change any minds, but they do cast these different types of gameplay into sharp relief, and Tevis's points mirror some of the things I've seen in the old-school-D&D community. I don't entirely agree with his preferences; sometimes I want freeform exploration, but other times I really enjoy experiencing a directed story. Either way, though, it's a good read -- thoughtful and detailed and dancing on the edge of academic without quite falling in.

But there is one major difference between Zelda games and RPGs, and this gets to the heart of my problem with a total exploration model. If Link dies, he pops back into play with his gear and his history intact; his story continues. The player is mildly set back, but they still get to be Link. In a typical RPG, if my character dies, I have to discard everything I enjoyed about him (or her) and start from scratch. I don't get to keep being the dude I wanted to be. Maybe it wouldn't matter if I was someone who just played himself-with-a-funny-hat every time. I'm not. Some of my favorite roleplayers do that -- I even married one -- but I like being a character. Total freeform sandbox exploration would be more satisfying to me if it had a Zelda-style character reset. I enjoy that a lot more than a character meatgrinder. Can it be done? Has it been done already?

(I should credit Penny Arcade for pointing me to the essay. PA is an essential read.)


  1. The sense of exploration and adventure is what I liked about the old 2D Zeldas. The 3D games were certainly more linear, but Skyward Sword takes it to the extreme. I now turn to games like Skyrim for my exploration fix.

  2. What I'd really like is a single game experience that allows you to have both of these points on the spectrum. Sometimes I want to explore, but other times I want a neat someone-else-planned-it-for-me story. Which is why I like tabletop RPGs, I guess.

    In the back of my head, the original X-COM is suggesting itself as a game that managed to hit both of these targets. But it's still to early in the morning for me to put it together coherently.