This is the first post in a new series I'm calling 'mustard's musings'. I really want to talk more about game design on this here blog and this is the vehicle I'm going to be using. These pieces will tend to be short-ish and will lack the glossy sheen and thorough editing of my videos (which are totally still happening). As a result these may be a little ramshackle but hopefully I can get my points across!
So to start I'm going to be talking about The Legend of Zelda and how something as simple as an overworld's design can drastically change the tone, pacing and focus of a game.
The Legend of Zelda, originally released for the Famicom Disk System in 1986, is one of my all time favorite games. It's been suggested that it's Shigeru Miyamoto's most personal game and maybe so. I'd definitely argue that it's his magnum opus, it's a real testament to his inventiveness and ability to direct a team. The reason I love it so much is that not only was it born out of a great idea, but the team working on it clearly thought about how every aspect of the game would work with that idea in mind. That is to say, the game was clearly designed around the themes of exploration and adventure, and as crazy as it may sound, the structure and mechanics of the game all helped to reinforce those ideas.
It's no surprise then that I have mixed feelings about the more recent Zelda games, particularly the 3D entries. They chucked out the open world exploration in favor of a more focused, linear quest, driven by narrative rather than an open ended adventure driven by the players curiosity and game mechanics.
But there's talk of change with the latest entry to the series, Zelda on Wii-U. It boasts a large open world, and from what we've been told the player will receive little direction from the game. Some are saying this will be the return to the series roots that fans like myself have been hoping for.
I'm not convinced.
There are similarities, sure, but there are also big differences.
(We haven't seen too much of this new Zelda game, so all of this babble is based on this short demo)
On paper the structure does indeed look to be the same. Both games feature a large overworld for the player to explore, with an underworld/dungeons scattered about. I am going to take a stab in the dark and say the goal in the new game will be the same as it was in the original: explore the overworld, find the dungeons, complete the dungeons, and then defeat Ganon. Unfortunately, whilst I'm terribly curious to see how they approach dungeon design in this new game, I have nothing to go on. However, dungeons haven't changed all that much throughout the series so I'll hazard a guess and say they'll stay pretty much the same.
The big difference to me lies in the overworld, how it's designed, and how the player will perceive and interact with it.
To start let's look at the overworld in LoZ.
It sure does have one big ol' overworld, but the neat thing is that it's broken up into all these little areas. See, the world in LoZ is only ever presented to the player one screen at a time. This is interesting for a number of reasons but most importantly it limits the amount of information given to the player. So?
Sooooo you can't see where you're going, you don't know what lies ahead of you. Because of this you don't even have a destination in mind most of the time, you're simply walking from one screen to the next, hoping to uncover something new. So what prevents this from being mindless, aimless wandering?
Enemies, mostly. The challenges and adversity that arise from enemies. Near enough every screen has something to do, a challenge to overcome. This negates the aimless wandering, now you're going from screen to screen fighting monsters. Each screen presents the player with a new challenge, and due to the nature of how the game presents itself it's easy for the player to understand what they're up against. The screen based layout makes this a lot easier for the designer/developer as well. Since each screen is self contained you simplify the whole thing. You know every possible way the player can approach it, and without worry of any bleed over from previous screens (enemies aren't free to wander from screen to screen). This allows you to treat each screen as its own self contained level, essentially.
See, the neat thing is that the overworld in LoZ operates a lot like the underworld, the dungeons. The main difference lies in the fact that the dungeons have definite ends, a real goal. The overworld is far more open in that regard, but the way it presents itself is near-enough identical.
And that brings us to Zelda on Wii-U.
So as I mentioned, the structure is looking to be the same, but the design and presentation of the overworld is completely different. It doesn't have the 'clunky' screen to screen layout of the original game. Now the world is TRULY open, contiguous and laid out for the player to see. So what does this change? So, so many things. For starters I guess I'll talk about how this affects how the player explores the world.
In the video you can see them talk about how there are higher areas in the game that will offer good viewpoints for you to scan the world. You may spot something curious in the distance and choose to wander over there and investigate. You can even set a waypoint so that you don't get lost. Cool! But now this isn't about exploring the world, no discernible destination in mind, completely unaware of what may lie ahead of you. Now it's about setting a waypoint on a map and making a beeline for it. These games are already seeming totally different. But wait, there's more!
The world in Zelda Wii-U looks open. Like, REAL open. Like, you can literally go anywhere. It also looks sort of empty, which I feel is an inherent problem with this style of overworld design. See, whilst the world in LoZ was open ended in the sense that you could approach the game in any multitude of ways it still restricted the player to the boundaries of the screen. This meant that each screen could (and usually did) have enemies, there was never really a dull moment. Due to the scale of the world in Zelda Wii-U (as well as the truly open ended approach) it is a lot harder to create adversity everywhere. Now as a designer, you have to worry about things like enemies following the player to areas they aren't meant to be, or running the risk of enemies being so scarce and spaced out that they're really easy to avoid. And now with it being so open it's not as if enemies really CAN present a reliable obstacle, it's going to be a lot easier for players to run around them and avoid confrontation. And considering the player is going to be focused on heading to their destination that's precisely what they'll end up doing a lot of the time.
See, since the player didn't have a destination in mind in the original Zelda it was conflict and adversity that drove them forward. Now it seems like enemies will serve only to hinder the player or else provide some short bursts of action to spice up the otherwise uneventful journey.
I think it's important to recognize that two games can share the same structure and goals but still instill completely different senses in the player based on something as simple as how an overworld is designed and presented. It's important, then, to pay close attention to every component of a game; to make sure it's all working towards the same theme.
You know, that thing I praised the original game's team for doing.