On Zelda, Pokémon and Not Wasting the Player’s Time

E3 2016 is now behind us, and what a show it was! Between Ubisoft’s carnival Dance Central 2017 performance, Microsoft’s assortment of Xboxes and games you can play on your PC instead, and Sony not understanding what the definition of “show-stopper” is, there was a lot to draw– if not interest– then at least attention. However, if social media statistics are anything to go by, none of those happenings were as noteworthy as the mere presence of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

There were several reasons that Breath of the Wild doubled the amount of social media buzz as the next most-talked-about title, whether it was the strikingly beautiful, anime-inspired art style, the introduction of new and interesting game mechanics like being able to climb virtually every surface, or the ability to run around Hyrule in undies while burning everything in sight. But the most significant reason it drew so many people’s attention was how open the world was and how little direction the game gave the player before setting them loose upon it.

It’s that kind of game design that absolutely respects the players time– which, while apparently an obvious rule of game design, is something that two of Nintendo’s flagship series– Pokémon and The Legend of Zelda have not done all that well. In fact, two of the biggest recent games in these franchises– Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire and Skyward Sword, are the best examples of such poor design.

Handholding and Linearity

Criticism of Skyward Sword is nothing new. While widely praised at the time of release, most fans of the franchise have come to terms that it does suffer from serious problems in both the consistency of its main control scheme, and the design of its story.

As the Zelda franchise has evolved from its original inception, The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System, each iteration has found itself more capable– with newer technology– of telling a more intricate story. And while the handheld titles have followed this trend to a degree (with the 3DS title Link Between Worlds as the first to true attempt to break from the mold), the most drastic development in this regard can be seen in the home console iterations.

With the type of success Ocarina of Time found, it seems the mechanics and game design used in the title became streamlined, further being pushed in The Wind Waker and becoming very apparent in how tightly-knit the linearity appeared in Twilight Princess. But it wasn’t until Skyward Sword, that the effects of this streamlining became grossly apparent.

In those past two titles, the problems are apparent from the very beginning of the game. In my most recent run of Twilight Princess– the HD remake for Wii U– I spent a good few hours just getting to the first dungeon in the game. Both Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess force the player through a handful of unnecessary mini-games and meager quests in the starting areas that stretch on for far too long before finally letting you go out on your adventure. 

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It’s a result of the producer, Eiji Aonuma, fearing the player getting lost. In the past, he’s noted how hard it can be when you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing– specifically pointing to the very first game in the series. The problem is that the further he pushed this, the more restrictive the gameplay began to feel. By Skyward Sword, it felt like you were visiting a wide, open world that you desperately wanted to explore, but were forced to the main path by an overly-protective, motherly hand.

In Skyward Sword, this came to a head when at virtually every moment, the helper character in the game, Fi, over-explains everything and jumps out of the sword to give you additional useless information. Even when she doesn’t pop out, her icon flashes and a ringing sound plays to get your attention– something most players, albeit irked, likely tried to ignore.

Lack of Exploration

The rest of Skyward Sword pulled what I like to call an “Assassin’s Creed 1”. Players, once, they’d traveled to the 3 distinct, beautiful areas, were tasked with visiting each of them two additional times. Traveling back there each and every time brought up the remnants of a feeling I’d experienced when playing the original Kingdom Hearts, where the game required me to backtrack multiple tames to the same locations in the Tarzan world just to retrieve a single item each time. Despite bringing me to a new area within the previous area, and bringing me into an interesting and fun dungeon each time, I still felt that part of my time was being wasted each time I did it.

It was the feeling of “I’ve been here already, why couldn’t I go here before?” This feeling is something that can be either a joy or a menace depending on how it’s implemented. Metroidvania-style games often let you explore new areas from places you’ve been before despite it being blocked off on your previous time through. The difference is that in those games, you’re often not required to go to that area. It’s often a secret you’re finding for yourself, a place you’re brought to naturally through the progression of the story, or that’s easy reached due to fast travel, or other new means of transportation.

When done poorly, it’s a chore. Axiom Verge, at times, did this to me when I realized that the fast travel system involved waiting on a giant moving head for a minute as it sped across the map– it was faster than if I had traveled there myself, but I still felt like I was wasting time going halfway across the map for what could possibly be a pointless trinket. It wasn’t until the movement abilities in the game improved greatly that I stopped caring- as it had become enjoyable just to use the powers to move around the world.

Skyward Sword had that initial problem, and it never quite solved it. In a twist that Nintendo pushed since first showing the gameplay off, much of the overworld in the game was puzzle-oriented, meaning that just to progress in the world, you needed to complete tasks, even if you had traveled through that area before. Bird Statues offered fast-travel-like locations to bypass some of this, but there were always these sorts of puzzles between where you fast-traveled to and where the new area was.

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And once you got there, there was a good to great chance that what you acquire wouldn’t be anything interesting– crafting materials you didn’t need to play the game or rupees you likely had enough of. For the most part, any new item you could get or want would be placed in a dungeon.

It’s something that, after playing and thinking through it, I started to realize that the creators of the game might have realized– besides those very small discoveries, the entire overworld in Skyward Sword seemed to be a place designed for me to travel to in order to get to the next area. There weren’t really any side-areas at all. Like one review that I recall said of the game at the time: everything was in its place. If there was something I saw that I felt like exploring, there was no point in going there, because whatever I found wouldn’t help me at that time– the story would get to it eventually.

Yet, like The Wind Waker, it wasn’t the land you traveled to that could be seen as an overworld, but the sky your home floated in. The problem, again, with that area, is just how empty the world there felt. Outside of the few places you need to go in the story, the sky held nothing of note outside of a small area for mini-games and a shop for pumpkins– the latter of which seemed of pointless existence due to everyone else in the sky living on a single island anyway. In my first time flying around in the sky, I tried exploring to find new areas only to realize that there was nothing to discover. I returned to the story, again, feeling like I had wasted my time.

Wild Encounters in Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

The problem with Pokémon is that the series is so deeply rooted in the design of the original game, that now– as we near the release of the 7th Generation– any poor game design decisions that remain from those early titles aren’t likely leaving. Every generation seems to just add a new coat of paint, add a few new bells and whistles, and put the game out to massive sales. It’s a strategy that has worked in the past, but it wasn’t until the Ruby and Sapphire remakes that, at least for me, the façade began to crumble.

Pokémon titles are very passive affairs– rarely do they provide the kind of challenge that requires the player’s full attention at any given moment. A lack of real and constant challenge in Pokémon titles is such a common fact that the community developed the concept of “Nuzlockes” that create self-imposed guidelines in order to increase the difficulty of any given playthrough.

When a game puts a player into a situation where the challenge isn’t there to draw the player’s attention, it becomes even more important to make sure that the player isn’t becoming annoyed by the game design or made to feel that they are wasting their time. It’s a balance that Nintendo has succeeded at in the past with titles in their Kirby franchise. While those games are well known to be very easy titles, they succeed on the strength of the fun gameplay and adorable characters. Pokémon often succeeds on the same strengths.

It’s why I’m often perturbed as to why one of the most nuisance-filled mechanics in the entirety of Pokémon, wild encounters, hasn’t been significantly addressed.

When considering why a player will go into tall grass, there are only a few logical options that arise: to train Pokémon, to find and/or catch wild Pokémon, or because it is in the way of something else. However, training Pokémon in tall grass is only really useful early in the game, as very quickly, battling trainers whose Pokémon are higher leveled than those in the grass raises your own teams’ levels to the point where little is to be gained by wild encounters.

Of course, in just saying this, I am implying that players wouldn’t otherwise go through the tall grass– which, logically, is true. If you’re not going to battle or catch the Pokémon in the tall grass, constantly having to run into wild Pokémon just to hit the “Run” option is a significant waste of time– especially if a player is doing it hundreds of times in a single playthrough. Pokémon’s own designers even understand that the player will want to avoid the grass– designing multiple paths into the game where a player will be caught by the eyes of an out-of-sight trainer if they try taking the one with less grass.

It’s a smart game design decision to use it in such a way, and grass is an interesting dissuader for players looking to check every nook and cranny for a hidden item. The problem is that grass is constantly placed in front of the main path on routes as if it acts as some kind of obstacle. Which, as I stated earlier, outside of the first few minutes of gameplay: it doesn’t. Instead, it just forces the player to deal with a nuisance when walking down every route in the game- constantly having to run from wild Pokémon that bear them to challenge.

This is compounded by any times the player needs to backtrack in the game, where the grass remains a nuisance with Pokémon that are now even more significantly under leveled. And again, it’s clear that the development team understands the importance of giving the player space when they are attempting to get something done. It’s no coincidence that since Gen 2, when breeding was first introduced as a mechanic, that there is a long path just outside of the daycare that is devoid of any grass. In fact, from the succeeding generation and onward, that path has also been completely straight, letting the player go back and forth undisturbed until the daycare man finds an egg.

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And this is where Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do their worst. Random encounters are bad enough when they’re contained to patches upon any given route, but when random encounters can happen any and everywhere, they stop becoming a nuisance and start becoming extremely frustrating. There’s a reason that Zubat and Tentacool are two of the most hated Pokémon in the entire series, and that is a direct result of random encounters happening no matter where you are in caves or on the open water.

It’s a mechanic that I’m actually more okay with in caves, since those, like dungeons, feel like the kinds of places that should be unwelcoming to players, which is exactly the effect that unrestrained wild encounters that pose no challenge have on players. But on the open water, it is a mechanic that feels out of place. Open water seems like the kind of areas that should draw players and keep their interest, not push them away. And in games like Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, where open water is the majority of the latter half of the game, it’s something that just shouldn’t happen.

Many jokes have been made about IGN’s criticism of ORAS being overly simplified in the closing statements by the phrase “too much water,” but in Pokémon, where water legitimately sucks to travel on, having a third of your game world be on open water is too much. The joke is that the area with water that makes sense to have random encounters everywhere, the deep diving sections of the game, instead just has grass patches limiting where wild Pokémon appear.

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Of course, usually when I finish making my points about wild encounters, I’m immediately met with the response of “but you can just buy Repels to avoid this.” Which would be a nice argument if it couldn’t be rephrased as “but you can spend a whole lot of currency that could be used on something more useful in order to make a larger portion of the game not extremely frustrating.” Repels are nice, but they shouldn’t be the preferred solution over just fixing one of the most frustrating parts of every Pokémon game.

Handholding in the Pokémon Series

I’ll keep this section short, but Pokémon often suffers from the handholding problems that Zelda does.

Because the series is designed for kids, it seems that each title assumes that it will be the first in the series for enough players that the game must go through the motions of teaching players exactly how Pokémon works. This means a tutorial explaining how to catch Pokémon, and extensive text conversations explaining every detail imaginable. It certainly couldn’t hurt the franchise for a title to ask the player from the very beginning whether they’ve played a Pokémon title before and skip out on certain unnecessary content if they have– especially considering a likely majority of their player base probably has.

Also, while I’m talking about it, and since it ties into the idea: playing through the recent Fire Emblem titles have made me realize the benefits of offering the ability for players to skip cut scenes and even battle animations by simply pressing the Start button. I understand that there are options to make text faster (which I do use) or to turn off battle animations (which I do not), but I would definitely like a choice in-battle. Sometimes it feels good to watch Charizard Fire Blast the opponent to oblivion, and sometimes I would rather just not waste my time.

Evolving in Different Directions

The reason I’m writing this article now instead of earlier (I’ve wanted to express my feelings on Pokémon’s wild encounters for some time now) is because of the two franchises I’ve discussed in this article, both had new games demoed at E3 2016 last week. And while Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon seem to be evolving in much the same way the series has for 20 years, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is working off of the criticism of past games in the series, rethinking the conventions of the franchise and taking it in a new and exciting direction.

When I first saw an overhead picture of the first island in Sun and Moon, the very first thing I noticed was a significant lack of grass in the middle of the road through most of the island– sure it was there in spurts, but from the look of the map, those places are offset by completely different, clear pathways that the player can take instead without worrying about wild encounters.

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But besides that interestingly possible change, it’s clear that Pokémon Sun and Moon are not rethinking many of the core changes to the series. The story still seems very controlled and linear– and if it isn’t, the creators of the game do not seem to want to talk about that, which suggests nothing has changed– and the formula that has sold millions of copies every release appears to be kept intact.

Of course, like I said earlier in the article, there are new bells and whistles. There’s a new battle type, introducing a free-for-all battle system that, from a simple explanation and a quick demonstration, will almost certainly be poorly implemented and ignored by the greater community and left by the wayside in future releases. A more insightful change is a less invasive way of teaching newer players the complex Pokémon type-chart by simply signaling to the player on the battle menu which moves are super effective if the opponent’s Pokémon is one they have run into previously.

No matter what they are, though, such changes range from interesting, but poorly implemented, to smart, but not altogether necessary. Nothing that will significantly change how the series is played and enjoyed, which will be fine as long as the series keeps selling. People still buy Nintendo handhelds for these titles, which is a feat in and of itself.

Zelda, on the other hand, has not had that kind of luck in recent years. Twilight Princess might have been the last game to seriously sell consoles back when Wii launched, but not since Ocarina of Time has any other game in the series really contended itself as a system-seller in its own right. That is, quite possibly, until now.

Shedding the shackles of its extremely constrained, linear, and hand-holding roots, Breath of the Wild lets Link loose upon a completely open world immediately, adding mechanics specifically designed to allow the player to explore places that in any other Zelda title, would have been completely out of reach. It’s a bold statement, and a direct result of the criticism the director of the series, Eiji Aonuma, gathered from fan reactions to Skyward Sword.

As he stated in a recent interview with Wired, Aonuma used to think, “letting the player get lost was a sin. […] A lot of the feedback that I received from the players of Skyward Sword is that they saw these pockets of land, but couldn’t explore what was between them.” While Aonuma’s explanation strays a bit from my point, the resulting game fixed most if not all of the problems I laid out before.

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The game is much less linear, now that the player can travel the land in whatever direction they want and can even go fight the final boss from the very beginning. There are missions that the story will send you on, but you can ignore them if you want and go do other, interesting things. Items that you pick up will not stop you every time with a description of what they are, even though you already know. The world is so open and complex that you can explore over and over to your heart’s content. It’s not a struggle to travel through the world, and the fast travel system that was shown off in gameplay footage appears to be easy to use and helpful to the player.

Aonuma has even implemented an interesting way to make exploration worth it. Normally, in Zelda, when you find an item off the beaten path, it’s likely rupees or something you don’t necessarily need, and the same could have been true for this Zelda as well. But the implementation of weapon durability and the stockpiling of many different weapons makes sure that whatever they happen to dig up is something that they could make use of. Add in a crafting and cooking system and there’s interest to be had no matter what you find.

The inclusion of such a system makes me even more intrigued to see how the dungeons will function in Breath of the Wild, considering items like bows and the Fire Rod are usually items you gain to complete a dungeon, that won’t break like the ones you find in this title.

The only worry I have, like most do, is whether that will be enough to satiate the need to explore– will the world feel empty when the game finally releases? While something that can be easily avoided, there is always the fear that you’ll be traveling a wide and distant land only for most of it to be empty. Instead of exploring and seeing what you come upon, a player given an empty open world will just spend too much time traveling from point A to point B without anything to do or get lost into along the way.

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It’s the main question I feel will need to be resolved for the final product. Because otherwise, by all accounts and from all we’ve seen, it does exactly what any good game should do:

It respects the player’s time.

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