Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Serviceable Legends of Zelda

My favorite video game series is The Legend of Zelda. Here is how much so: I bought the newest game, Skyward Sword, and I don't even have a TV.

Why buy the game when I don't have a TV? Truthfully I would've waited if not for the limited edition bundle including this sexy Zelda Wiimote:

I might get destroyed for saying this, but Zeldas usually have weak stories. Lovable characters, colorful dialogue, but very rudimentary, cliche fantasy stories. And I'm hoping that's changed with Skyward Sword.

I moved across the country in a mini van a few weeks ago. Rather than occupy precious cargo space with my big boxy TV, I decided the lack of room was a perfect excuse to leave it behind and find myself in need of a huge flat screen (soon...soon...). Of course all my games and systems made the journey, so Skyward Sword (or "Skyward S Word" - Shiiiiiiiiiit!) sits safely in my sock drawer giving me dreams of a richly detailed, twisting and turning Tolkien-worthy fantasy narrative.

I've played every Zelda game save for a few: Oracle of Seasons/Ages, Spirit Tracks, and the crappy CD-i games, and although the gameplay is routinely masterful the stories are always far too simple. Perhaps they're best likened to fairy tales, being good stories efficiently told, only drawing outlines and leaving the player to color them in, and that's fine. After so many years and so many entries in this series just once I'd like to defeat Gannon and feel I finished a mature, intricately-woven literary tome that I would enthusiastically read were it adapted into book form. But even Ocarina of Time is young adult reading at best.

And I say that with Ocarina being my favorite game ever. My brain just swelled with dopamine at the thought of it right then! The older Zeldas had an excuse as they were among the first in the series in a medium so new itself. Now with games passing the forty-year mark the industry has a strong storytelling foothold, and the number of great-read games could fill many bookshelves, but still not one of those books is a Zelda.

I think the closest Zelda's ever come to achieving pageturner status is Majora's Mask, and the reason is they clearly started development with an intersting narrative quagmire - having to relive the same three days saving the world - and not simply an inspired gameplay design a la Ocarina. I once heard that when developing the revolutionary Super Mario 64 Miyamoto's team started with perfecting Mario's control, then built a game around the fun maneuvers they'd developed. It seems to me Zeldas are generally developed the same way: wouldn't it be fun to alternate between worlds (Link to the Past), shrink to ant size (Minish Cap), or slow time (Phantom Hourglass), and the story is then "painted over" the established mechanic. There's nothing narratively compelling about the mechanic itself. Majora's Mask's three day cycle is a gameplay device sure, but it's also in and of itself an intriguing nugget of a story with questions that immediately spring to mind: What happens in those three days? Why does Link repeat them? With such a strong foundation informing the gameplay and the narrative equally, the game as a whole can only get better from there.

I have great hope for Skyward Sword because I think it begins with a similarly promising story and central gameplay mechanic, those being the origin tale of the Master Sword and the 1:1 swordplay controls. For a cohesive end product, story and gameplay must sprout from the same seed and be inseparably codependant. If the gameplay is so spectacular I feel like I'm affecting a virtual world, then I want the narrative depth allowing me to do unforgettable, fantastic things in it.

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