Zelda Wii U: Non-Linearity is More Than Just Dungeon Order, Has to be the Heart and Soul of the Game

This is a staff response piece to this week’s “Weekend Wondering” community poll question: “Are You More Excited About Non-Linearity or Multiplayer for Zelda Wii U?” Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments!

When Eiji Aonuma announced two of the central features that the Zelda team is preparing for Zelda Wii U, I was absolutely floored to hear that non-linear game progression made the cut. I started my journey through the series with Ocarina of Time, and one of the things that keeps me coming back to the game to this day is just how malleable the experience is in its second half – you can move straight from getting the Hookshot to the Fire Temple if you wish, instead of following the suggested path and returning to the Lost Woods.

After finally discovering the original NES games and A Link to the Past years later, I was able to discover the full value of that richer, more endlessly replayable open-ended and exploration-driven kind of experience. I may be almost 25 years late to the party, but I now understand that that feeling of open-ended adventure with unlimited player possibilities isn’t just about dungeon order: it’s part of the heart and soul of The Legend of Zelda.

Inevitably, of course, the end result of a non-linear experience is that you can complete its main levels out of order – that’s definitely true – but in order to actually achieve out-of-order dungeon completion in a game like Zelda that features items and weapons that have different effectiveness against certain enemies or in interacting with the environment to solve puzzles, the developers need to extend their non-linear thinking to more than just the dungeons. It has to be present in every obstacle players encounter as they explore the world and every enemy and boss they face both in dungeons and in the field.

loz-non-linearWhen describing the design theory behind the non-linear elements in the original Legend of Zelda, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto told Superplay that the team aimed to make Zelda the “total opposite” of the Super Mario Bros. series, where it’s typically clear which direction players need to go.

“We started to work with Legend of Zelda at the same time as Super Mario Bros, and since the same people did both games we tried to separate the different ideas,” he said. “Super Mario Bros should be linear, the next step in SMB should be obvious. Zelda should be Mario’s total opposite.”

Instead of another world where players are guided from level to level, with a few maze-like areas designed to test players’ mastery of the game later on, Hyrule itself wound up more like a maze, with only limited instructions about where to go. Player had to master that world to progress. In 1986, it was a bold step, but The Legend of Zelda went on to be a huge success and has spawned over 15 sequels in the years since.

When Mr. Aonuma said that Zelda was going to move away from the more recent convention that dungeons must be completed in a certain order, for most players, he probably evoked memories of the original Legend of Zelda. That means that, whether he intended it or not, Zelda Wii U is going to have to rise to meet the standard set by that game for what it means to offer an open-ended experience.


Setting the player free in a vast world

Originally, the concept for Hyrule was to create a “miniature garden” that players could play around in at their whimsy and put away when they were done. One of the ways the team managed to achieve this was by limiting the number of barriers between players and whatever areas they could see as they traveled the overworld.

From the moment the game gives you control, you can travel to virtually every corner of Hyrule. If a river blocks your path, there’s a way around; if a forest seems to be impassible, hunt for rumors of a solution to its maze-like pathways; if the enemies on the mountain keep you down, find a sharper sword and practice your fighting abilities until you’re ready to defeat them.

The items you find as you travel aren’t so much the keys to reaching new regions and areas, as they have been in some of the more recent games, but tools for helping you find hidden secrets and treasures and get around more efficiently. For most of the game, the only things keeping you from reaching new areas are overlooking untreaded pathways and falling prey to powerful enemies. It’s your increased familiarity with the world that leads you to recognize places you haven’t gone before, and your skill at vanquishing (or avoiding!) enemies that will help you survive as you venture into dangerous territory.

zelda-bombable-wallZelda today doesn’t do this. Instead, it’s gone the path of Mario, making it clear what the next step should be and offering little to no opportunity to meaningfully deviate from that path. Want to head to Zora’s River? You need Bombs to blast open the barricade. Want to travel to the desert? You can’t until you reach a certain point in the story and trigger the plot events that will lead you there. Sure, the game gives you some freedom to pursue the occasional sidequest and secret, but that’s not an adequate substitute for non-linear exploration.

Non-linearity is going to require that Zelda remove these restrictive elements – both the item-based obstacles that require certain tools before you can progress, and the obtrusive plot progression that forces players through a particular sequence of events.

Making story less obstructive and more constructive

This doesn’t mean doing away with the plot altogether, of course. Story can be a powerful tool for engaging players in the game world – but it needs to be used to that end, not as an excuse to keep players from accessing content they might have been curious enough to find on their own otherwise. I think an ideal expression of how story can be used to enhance a game rather than restricting it exists in the adult half of Ocarina of Time.

Once you awaken from your seven year sleep in a Hyrule ruled by Ganondorf, Sheik suggests that you travel to Kakariko Village and from there to the Lost Woods, but you don’t have to listen right away. The game gives you complete freedom to explore the transformed Hyrule as you wish and see what troubles Ganondorf has wrought across the land. You can even walk right to Ganon’s doorstep!

oot-frozen-zoras-domainThe story’s still there, of course. Each of the various regions you explored as a child has its own tragedy to tell: the monster infestation problem plaguing Kokiri Forest, the recent mass abductions at Goron City, and the deep freeze at Zora’s Domain which has trapped most of the resident Zoras beneath the ice. The difference is that the story’s not nearly as in-your-face, and not nearly as hand-holding or restrictive, as it has been in more recent games.

It also doesn’t force a lot of lengthy dialogue on players who might not be as interested. There’s a lot of depth to be found through close examination of these affected regions, and through the emotional impact that seeing them so dramatically transformed can have on players who’d grown attached to them, but there’s no need to force that depth and those emotions on players through copious cutscene interactions.

Let players embrace the story and the environment as much or as little as they’d like. It’s a strategy that clearly worked wonders for Ocarina of Time, which even now is still renowned as one of the best games with one of the most revolutionary game stories of all time. Give it another try with some next-gen tune-ups like dialogue trees, decision-driven story branches, and other enhancements in Zelda Wii U, and I think it’ll achieve similar results.

Items should be mostly useful, rarely forced

Items in Zelda started off as helpful implements that would occasionally be used to solve puzzles or defeat enemies with specific weaknesses. You have a Bow whose only “required” uses were to take out Gohma and deliver the killing blow to Ganon with the Silver Arrows – but apart from that, its main purpose was to kill things from a distance to reduce the risk of a close encounter. Today, the Bow’s still pretty useful in terms of picking off enemies from afar, but its real purpose is to shoot at anything that resembles an eyeball.

This kind of “lock-and-key” syndrome now plagues pretty much every item to appear in the modern Zelda. You need those dungeon items to progress through the game, because the game is designed so that you can’t make it past a wide variety of obstacles without them. Wouldn’t people be much more astounded if the designers came up with ways to make items useful against certain enemies and obstacles, but not the only solution for overcoming them?

The original Legend of Zelda delivered on this approach with nearly every in-game tool. Sure, you need Bombs to blow up Dodongo or open up the road to Death Mountain, but they start to show their real worth when you put them to use against large groups of enemies, against certain bosses, or in hunting the world for secrets. In the later games, the secrets are still there, but they’re hardly “secret” – bombable walls are pretty universally obvious.

zelda-overworld-riverAt the foot of Death Mountain in the original Legend of Zelda, if players approach from the eastern half of Hyrule, players will run into a river that apparently blocks their progress. But the truth of the matter is that crossing the river with the Ladder isn’t the only way to reach the other side. If you go around from the south, venturing through the Lost Woods and past the graveyard, you can come around the long way, too.

This kind of open-ended exploration just isn’t possible under the “lock-and-key” approach to world design seen in modern Zelda games. I think it’d be okay to have those item-based obstacles to encourage players to investigate areas they might have passed by earlier on again with their new tools later, but offer alternative routes to the areas beyond those obstacles.

And that goes for both the overworld and the dungeons, by the way. There was a time when Bombs allowed you to bypass entire portions of a level if you could find the right shortcuts. It made for not only a way for less skilled players to make it through the game without having to tone down the overall difficulty, but a fun element for speed-runners to exploit for faster playthroughs. It’s definitely a critical piece in achieving the kind of non-linearity that fans have been begging for.

The best obstacles are those that can be overcome by skill, not by progress

Just because I think much of the overworld should be accessible right from the start doesn’t mean I think the entire game should be populated by easy enemies and obstacles so that players can just go wherever they want willy-nilly. While I think it’s important not to place arbitrary restrictions on players’ exploration, I think it’s just as important to stagger the difficulty so that “later” areas are still more difficult to overcome, even if players discover them at the beginning of the game.

The trick is to add enemies and traps that aren’t defeated simply by having the right equipment for the job, but that players can vanquish even without the “correct” or the “better” weapons. The original Legend of Zelda did this well: the early areas of the game were populated by basic Octoroks and Moblins, but the later areas had more dangerous enemies like Lynels and Armos. There’s still a sense that players might not be “ready” for a particular area, but there’s nothing technically preventing them from going there if they’re driven enough.

master-using-itOne of the ways that the original Legend of Zelda leverages this approach is by including hidden item upgrades, such as healing potions, better swords and armor, better shields, and upgraded or sometimes totally optional items, so players with “less skill” can still make it through those tough areas by simply becoming more powerful. It’s sort of like how players can overcome their struggles to master a particular boss in RPGs by just grinding, except instead of repetitive enemy-smashing, you’re tracking down desirable and often well-hidden new weapons. With the proper emphasis on exploration, this design strategy can make for an intensely satisfying game.

More recent games, on the other hand, have largely discarded this approach: you’ll get better items at a pre-determined point in the story, at which point the enemies are scaled specifically for that item. The result is that, by the time you run into those supposedly higher-level enemies, they’re usually just as “tough” as the enemies you fought previously. Skyward Sword attempted to break from the convention shift through its recipe-based upgrade system, but the game difficulty just wasn’t balanced enough for it to reach its full potential, and Link’s sword still followed a mandatory upgrade path.

I think for Zelda Wii U to make better use of staggered difficulty in a non-linear world, it’s going to need a lot more options in terms of equipment. Certainly I don’t expect large-scale RPG levels of customization, but enough options to let the kinds of equipment players choose to bring on the journey significantly impact the combat difficulty would be enough to achieve the same kind of effect that shone through in the original Legend of Zelda.

True non-linearity requires that the developers consider everything

Non-linearity isn’t just something that can be achieved by letting players complete dungeons in a certain order. It has to run through the entire design process, from the overworld to the dungeons, and from the enemies to the items. If Zelda Wii U is to make good on the potential offered by non-linearity and surpass the pedigree of its predecessors, it’s going to need to fully embrace everything that it takes to make a successful open-ended game.

It’s going to be a challenge for the development team, but it’s a challenge that I hope they’re willing to rise up and meet. The world is waiting to see what Nintendo has in store, and with the next-gen leap it’s going to be more important than ever that they deliver a universally impressive experience. While I’m excited for the possibilities, I’ll have to see the future before I believe it.

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