We know remarkably little about the next entry to the Legend of Zelda series. Eiji Aonuma, the series producer, has let loose an extremely small amount of information over the years through interviews, small discussions in Nintendo Directs, and most recently, during Nintendo’s E3 Digital Event. It was there that he broke down some of the design philosophy the team is taking towards development while also showing off the visual style and some of the world through a teaser trailer. By and large, however, the game is still an unknown entity and likely will be for a while — so in the meantime, we as fans can break down the many different possibilities of where the game could go. Today we’ll be talking about the story.
A generally well-known fact of Nintendo’s development cycle is that they start with gameplay first. They focus on how the game feels, how it controls, how it plays. Then, they design their world and visuals around that gameplay. The story, so far as we know, is very nearly an afterthought and looking at past Zelda games, this is not a surprise. The stories are, to be perfectly blunt, told quite poorly. Don’t get me wrong: when looking at the big picture, they are pretty awesome and offer great motivation to get through the games. A world being taken over by evil with the only hope being a child in way over his head is a fundamentally appealing tale and every Zelda game knocks it out of the park while offering their own unique takes.
The Wind Waker tells of a long-lost kingdom beneath the waves and a boy who is just trying to save his sister before being pulled into something far greater. It tells of a king and a thief who long for the days before the world was nothing more than endless waves. Majora’s Mask is about a world doomed to destruction, saving people who, time and time again, you leave to die, and fighting against a seemingly insurmountable foe. Twilight Princess is about a world being overtaken by another and fighting to restore an entire land being doomed to a life of eternal terror and darkness.
Nintendo has created a world unlike any other, one that spans the course of millennium, with these stories. The thing is, we have become a part of this world. We have seen its history, its story, so even though the plots themselves may not have been extremely notable in any other medium, they have created a dedication and passion in the fanbase towards something that is supposedly a near afterthought in the developer’s eyes. Why else would we spend so much time crafting complex theories as to the lore and history of this land?
But the strength of Zelda‘s stories goes beyond the big picture, of course. Throughout Hyrule’s history, we’ve seen incredible characters; hilarious, intense, heartbreaking dialogue; stunning, enrapturing, beautiful moments that are etched into our brains forever. Though always flawed in this regard, Zelda games usually have no problem crafting an appealing, overarching narrative and placing memorable moments, characters, and dialogue into it. The ultimate problem comes from how these stories are told. Older Zelda games didn’t really have to worry about this. The Legend of Zelda was literally “Here’s a sword. Go beat up dudes and collect stuff” and that was fine. That was great! By the time A Link To The Past came around, though, gaming had reached a point where more complex stories were becoming more of a normality, and so ALTTP set a standard for Zelda‘s storytelling formula that has not really been changed since.
Like nearly all stories, it begins with an incident that establishes the quest for you, the player, and for Link himself. The events up to or through the first dungeon are a swirl of development and knowledge. Then, it slows down — your goal is then to find two more objects or accomplish two more of the same fundamental task. For the next several hours, nothing much happens to advance the plot. You go to new parts of the world and complete a couple more dungeons in an attempt to collect the things needed.
A big plot twist strikes around this time. Perhaps the story is changing throughout the next dungeon or maybe just for the next portion of the overworld. Whatever the case, after this point is where the game tends to rest on its laurels the most. This is usually the meat of the game and where, from a gameplay perspective, the opening is officially done and now it’s time to pick up the pacing. From a story perspective, this is where absolutely nothing happens. The player once again is tasked with tracking down a set amount of objects, usually anywhere from three to five. Once these are collected, there is either another plot twist followed by the final dungeon or just the final dungeon on its own. The story comes to a finish soon after.
You see the problem? For large portions of the game, the story comes to a standstill. The entire purpose is to collect multiple things to advance the story proper. There may be small advancements in the story — the newer titles have done better at keeping the overarching narrative moving, to some extent — but they are minimal at best. You are going to these areas, interacting with these characters, completing the dungeon, and retrieving the item there so you can advance the story, not to experience the story.
Essentially, at multiple points in every Zelda title, it feels like a very obvious formula. Opening. Plot twist! Retrieve three objects. Plot twist! Get a few more objects. PLOT TWIST, MAYBE! Final dungeon and battle. The end. Some of the smaller titles don’t even have more than one twist and your goal at the beginning may be the same throughout. As much as I might criticize Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they did do a somewhat better job of making the tale feel like a consistently developing one — I feel the Twilight Palace is a particularly notable break in the formula — but they are still far from perfect in this area. Really, every Zelda game has its exceptions to the formula and that’s a very good thing, but in the end, they all follow it quite rigidly.
A good reference point for how to improve this situation would be how JRPGs structure their stories within overworld-to-dungeon designs. Let’s look at an older game like Chrono Trigger or a newer one like Xenoblade, games that hopefully you are familiar with — no, there are no real spoilers ahead, so don’t worry. Now, JRPGs don’t have the same things to worry about that Zelda games do. Though there are exceptions, the fundamental gameplay stays exactly the same in every area. The battles are basically the same; the enemies just look different and have different amounts of attack power/effects. All you really do is look around the room, collect everything you find, fight every enemy that attacks, and move on. The developers can allow themselves more time to devote to making the aesthetics and world fit with the story, as those are the entire point of these games’ existence. The gameplay and the world are two separate entities. That is not a bad thing.
So although these games are built around the story and not vice versa, Zelda can still learn much from them. What we see is essentially that every area and every dungeon has its own purpose. Each time you make your way somewhere, you feel like you’re advancing, like what you are doing has a present and immediate effect on reaching your goal. You make your way to these areas in order to actually do something tangible. Though you often know your long-term goal — reach Prison Island or stop Lavos, for instance — you don’t know how or why. Along the way, you constantly meet new characters and new enemies. You constantly gain knowledge as to the nature of what is occurring. You see first-hand the big baddies doing horrible things and NPCs fighting back. You see characters get kidnapped or killed. Stuff is just happening!
It’s a hard thing to do and I understand that. Even narrative-driven western action adventure games like Batman: Arkham City have segments where your goal is to destroy a set amount of objects around the city. In Chrono Trigger, there is a point where you must go back in time and do a long thing so you can get a red rock to meld a sword, which you’ve already spent time getting, back together. That kind of padding is necessary and understandable. Of course there will be periods where the story goal is to collect stuff — that’s gaming. It should not be allowed to take over the entire experience, though.
Brief diversions in the story in order to contrive a reason for a major segment of the gameplay is generally a necessary evil for any game not built with story in mind, but the folks at Nintendo ought to do everything they can to keep the story of Zelda U moving. A massive fetch quest shouldn’t be half the game. Keep that sort of thing small and isolated while doing everything possible to make the immediate goal one that can be accomplished somewhat quickly, so that the tale can actually develop.
The fundamental thing that needs to change is why you’re traveling to certain areas. Maybe you are pursuing the big baddie; maybe his minion is about to unleash something dreadful; maybe you need a specific item to beat a bad dude; maybe — and this is the worst case scenario — you just need to pass through to get to an area with one of the earlier mentioned objectives. Whatever the case, it better result in something meaningful. If you are pursuing an item, it ought to have a purpose beyond simply owning the item; it ought to be a reward you can use throughout the game. It should feel like a noteworthy advancement within the context of the story or at least be worthwhile for gameplay, not as a pit stop. I feel Nintendo has the ability to make this happen continuously throughout the entire experience.
The problem – if it can be called that – comes back to the fact that Nintendo develops gameplay first. They figure out an interesting dungeon design idea and then decide what setting would be a good fit. They create a reason for the player to go to said setting after such decisions are made. Not that this is always the case, I’m sure, but from what developers have said in interviews and the like, that seems to be the common approach. But there are ways around that and Nintendo certainly isn’t stupid. Should they feel it necessary, if they deem an improvement to the story is something that Zelda needs, they will be able to make that story fit into the dungeons they have designed. They’ve done it before with the occasional temple, but usually they make their dungeons just the goal for a fetch quest. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.
Every single paragraph I’ve written above comes down to something very simple: the story of Zelda U needs to be constantly developing. Don’t make the goal a fetch quest. Make it something ever-changing, ever-interesting. Don’t fall into a predictable pattern; keep the players on their toes. Make a great story and tell it well. Games are capable of telling incredible stories in incredible ways and I think Zelda could be one of those experiences.
All this said, there is another problem. Though still not confirmed, we do know that the next Zelda title will take a more open approach to overworld design and if it is anything like ALBW, that means the dungeons may be tackled out of order. Needless to say, this poses a serious threat to a constantly progressing narrative if different parts of the story are completed at different times. If they take this approach to design, there won’t be much of a way around it, but it does bring up another point that is quite interesting: dungeon arcs.