Why I’m not in love with Zelda: Twilight Princess

In his excellent book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson uses Zelda: Wind Waker as an example of why today’s complex video games are cognitively and culturally important. Like Sopranos episodes that follow a dozen storylines, he argues, the layered objectives of games like Zelda are engaging players in a way that early games didn’t — and are teaching those players a new way of thinking and problem solving.

To illustrate what a Zelda player has to keep track of during the game, Johnson lays out the tasks involved in completing one larger task in Wind Waker: finding the pearl of Din. He writes:

To locate the items, you need the pearl of Din from the islanders. To get this, you need to help them solve their problem. To do this, you need to cheer up the Prince. To do this, you need to get a letter from the girl. To do this, you need to find the girl in the village.

With the letter to the Prince, you must now befriend the Prince. To do this, you need to get to the top of Dragon Roost Mt. To do this, you must get to the other side of the gorge. To do this, you must fill up the gorge with water so you can swim across. To do this, you must use a bomb to blow up the rock blocking the water. To do this, you must make the bomb plant grow. To do this, you must collect water in a jar that the girl gave you.

Zelda I’ve been thinking about this while playing Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii. Johnson is exactly right in the way he describes a game like Zelda, with its “telescoping” objectives, as he puts it. But his description also explains why Twilight Princess isn’t much fun or particularly original.

I’m about five hours into Twilight Princess, and I’ll continue playing. But I’m not sure I’m having any fun with it.

Part of it is the controls. It’s frustrating at times to have only one joystick, because the camera doesn’t always turn when you move Link around. You have to keep pressing the Z button to re-orient the camera to a straight-ahead view. The actions are also context-sensitive, rather than always available: to pick up a rock or a creature, you have to be standing just so in front of it so a prompt comes up saying “press A to pick up.” But because the movement controls are dodgy, it can be hard to stand in exactly the right place every time.

Normally this is fine; you can just adjust until you’re in front of the item. But in pressured situations, it’s really annoying. In one board you have to attack a spider creature, which then loses its legs and becomes a bomb; then you pick up the bomb, run to another area, and throw the bomb into a creature’s mouth. You have to be quick or the bomb will explode in your hands — but if you press A to pick up the bomb while you’re slightly to the creature’s side, you’ll do a somersault instead of picking it up. Then you have to wait for the bomb to explode and a new creature to emerge, and do it all again.

Linkwolf_1 I’m also not wowed by the game’s similarity to Okami (Zelda is the top screen grab at left, Okami’s on the bottom). In both games, you’re trying to bring light back to a world that’s been taken over by a villain of darkness. In both games, you play as a wolf (though only part of the time in Zelda). In both games, the shadow villains are strange-looking nightmares, and you fight them in a fixed circle of battle (unlike the rest of the  non-boss battles in Zelda, which aren’t bound by a specific Okami_1 area).

Worst of all, in both games you have a sidekick that “talks” via incredibly annoying chirps (I described the Okami voices as “an inarticulate babble that’s a cross between a rooster’s gobble, adult bleats in the Peanuts cartoons and the pasty-faced teen voice-cracks on The Simpsons”). It must be some anime thing that’s catching on, but I find these sounds incredibly grating.

But those are all relatively small things. Mostly I’m not enjoying Zelda much because it’s exactly as Johnson describes it. But where he sees complexity and cognitive challenge, I see tedious task-completion and cliched, derivative game design.

It’s important to note that he doesn’t view telescoping objectives as complex narrative. He writes, “If you approach this description [of a series of objectives] with aesthetic expectations borrowed from the world of literature, the content seems at face value to be child’s play.” But the lack of an original story doesn’t bother me — well, it does, but that’s an even larger issue. The lack of original and fun objectives does.

At the start of Twilight Princess, you need to buy a slingshot. But the shop owner won’t sell until her cat comes back. So you have to catch a fish to give to the cat. You need to get a fishing rod from a woman in the village. But she won’t give you the rod until you retrieve her baby and basket, which a monkey stole. You have to call a hawk to attack the monkey to get the basket. This is exactly the kind of telescoping Johnson talks about. But as I was completing it, I didn’t think “wow, this adds up to a rich cognitive adventure!” I thought, “Just give me the bloody slingshot!!!!”

The controls make it extra hard to retrieve the basket: it falls in the water, and you have to nudge it along to shore but if you aren’t directly in front of it you’ll pass by and have to clunkily turn around as the camera jerks around, making it harder still to line up in front of the basket. Also, it seemed to be random whether you’d catch a fish, which made for a frustrating several-minute fishing expedition that should have taken 30 seconds. If these telescoping tasks aren’t building a larger narrative and are frustrating or  seem like unnecessary barriers to moving on, then they become make-work.

Worse, they’re make-work that’s been done dozens of times in previous games and that doesn’t even follow the logic of puzzles. Johnson’s descriptions of Wind Waker’s objectives include filling up a gorge with water to cross it; lighting unlit torches to get a key; and bombing a rock to get to a new area. In the first five hours of Twilight Princess, guess what “puzzles” I’ve had to do? Yup: fill up a corridor with water to get past some spikes; light unlit torches, in this case to make stairs appear; and bomb a rock to get to a new area.

It’s frustrating to have to complete these tasks that I’ve done in countless games before. It’s getting even more frustrating because many of these aren’t puzzles in the traditional sense of the word — they follow video game convention, not logic.

The water puzzle does make logical sense. If you think of it as a word game, anyone could figure it out: “You’re in a room and the corridor is blocked with spikes. There’s a door at one end, and a closed sluice grate on your side with water behind it. How do you proceed?” The bomb puzzle works, but only if you know that certain rocks can be destroyed. I know because I’ve played a million games like that, but would that be clear to new players?

But the torch puzzle makes no sense at all. Imagine it as a word game: “You’re in a room with two unlit torches and a door on a raised platform that’s out of your reach. How do you proceed?” There’s no logical answer to that. In the real world, lighting torches doesn’t make stairs appear. You would only know to think of that solution if you’ve played video games and know the convention.

I just solved a section where there are catwalks, across a chasm, that turn when wind blows. I got to a point where there were catwalks that didn’t turn, and I couldn’t figure out how to make their propellers spin. I tried shooting them with the slingshot and rolling into the posts to make them shake, but it didn’t work. I knew there was some solution I hadn’t found yet, so I backtracked until I got to a mini boss monkey throwing a boomerang that also makes the wind blow. So if you think of the catwalk puzzle as a word problem, the answer is “Find the gale boomerang that you don’t know exists.” Oh, right! I should have thought of that from the start!

I’m hoping the puzzles get better and the whole thing gets more fun. But this is a problem that’s bigger than Zelda. The range of video game “puzzles” is so narrow that any game using them — whether an adventure game, a shooter, or a side-scroller — seems to repeat the few that have already been used a million times.

There are huge categories of puzzles — word games, real logic puzzles — that aren’t touched (I don’t know how most video games could incorporate word games, but still). The puzzles that do constantly pop up are often simply challenges of solving video game conventions. All of this makes ostensibly varied games seem much more similar than they should be. It makes games, like Zelda, that rely more heavily on problem solving seem rote and unoriginal. In the worst case, it can create a barrier to new gamers who aren’t familiar with video game conventions and might get frustrated not being able to solve them.

Steven Johnson says figuring out what the problem is and how to solve it according to the video game’s internal logic — “probing,” in his terms — is part of what makes video games so engaging. But I wonder if probing a logic that doesn’t accord to any outside the game’s world is really helpful or fun for beginning gamers.

— January 3, 2007

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