I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

Last week we republished Tevis Thompson’s extensive look at how Zelda, as a series, was broken at its core. This isn’t a retort, more like a defence — surely there is something still worth saving?

I am 10 years old. I look longingly at the point which I cannot reach. I throw bombs in the periphery. I swing my sword. I launch my entire body weight behind it, attempt to it bend to my will. But nothing.

What is behind that door, I wonder? Will I ever find the key?

Hours later, shivering with excitement, I have it in my hand — the ‘key’. A hookshot, a boomerang, the ability to lift a stone block four times my size — but it isn’t enough to simply have the ‘key’, you must know where to use it.

And that’s when you remember — the time you spent staring longingly at that point which you could not reach — throwing bombs in the periphery, swinging your sword. Everything snaps into focus. I can go back there. And if I go back, with this key, I can get behind that door.

Then suddenly, whether you’re ten years old or ten feet tall, you feel superhuman. That is Zelda; that is the Zelda I grew up with. And that’s the Zelda that resonates with me today.

I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

Tevis Thompson wants a different kind of Zelda, and that’s fine. He no longer dreams of Zelda. He wants a blank canvas. He wants a sparseness of design, the kind of difficulty that allows him to prod and occupy a universe. He wants the search for a different logic, the search for new rules. He wants a fight for survival.

In short, Tevis Thompson wants Zelda to deliver an experience it hasn’t delivered since Zelda II — a game that was released in 1987. Considering that game’s direct sequel, A Link to the Past, sent the Zelda series on a completely different trajectory, creating a design template that was followed, almost to the letter, by every Zelda since — I wonder why he continues to play after 25 years of disappointment? Tevis mentions Dark Souls as an example of what he hopes Zelda could be. That game exists. He should continue to play it.

Reading Thompson’s criticisms of the Zelda series was a strange experience. I really enjoyed the piece, but spent my time disagreeing with the vast majority of what was being said. And I mean that in the nicest possible sense.

So I felt a need, not to necessarily dispute what Tevis Thompson has written, but to defend Zelda as it exists today, as it has always existed for me — the structure, the design, the pacing, the feel. Because — like it or not — that is what Zelda is, and what Zelda has been for over 20 years now.

I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

After hearing the story of how Miyamoto first conceived of Zelda as a child — tales of a young boy scrambling through undiscovered, secret caves — I was instantly taken back to my own childhood and my own experiences after playing A Link to the Past.

I too lived near caves, near forests and open spaces. I would also explore. But after A Link to the Past something clicked — real life and all its idiosyncrasies began to feel hideously under designed! I had no idea whether the cave I had just entered even had an exit? Would there be light at the end of that tunnel? Was there a key for this lock? Fun could be killed stone dead in an instant.

That is the nature of our reality, but Zelda is not meant to be a direct replication of wasted hours in search of adventure, it’s supposed to be an adventure — the perfect adventure; the kind of adventure where one cave leads to a series of caves, where every dungeon has a cunning contraption to be solved, or a secret to be uncovered. In short — it’s supposed to be designed. It’s supposed to be paced. It’s supposed to provide players with the illusion of feeling clever. It’s not about the search and it’s not about survival.

There are plenty of games about the search for adventure, and there are plenty of games about ‘survival’. Both Skyrim and Dark Souls are great recent examples of games that allow players to tinker and prod in threatening gargantuan worlds, to learn their own limitations and strengths then adjust accordingly. Both games throw you into a universe with little guidance and force you to learn the rules as you progress. That’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not what we expect from Zelda and — I would argue — it’s not what most of us want from Zelda either.

In fact Zelda is exactly as Tevis Thompson describes it: a “giant nest of interconnected locks”. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I dream of a world where every lock has a key — that’s why I still dream of Zelda.

I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

Bernard Suits claims games are a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” and no series represents that conceit more succinctly than Zelda. At its root Zelda really is little more than a “giant nest of interconnected locks”, but that’s precisely what is so appealing about the game.

Zelda is not difficult, but it can appear difficult. It doesn’t require any great deal of thought, but breaks a seemingly enormous task into a small set of manageable puzzles. Eventually you look back and feel bewildered at what you have just achieved. No matter how simple the game is as a series of singular, discrete actions Zelda feels mammoth in hindsight — a slow build reward. You’re shown the massive puzzle box you just solved and that moment of realisation — that moment of ‘feeling smart’ — that’s the hook. That’s Zelda.

It’s a slowly clicking nest of interconnected locks, but unlocking provides its own reward. First you find the key, which may involve the creative use of other keys, but then you must figure out where said key should be placed. That’s not to mention the tangible joy of using the object: hooking the Hookshot, blasting the Wind Bellow. Reductionist thinking can suck the joy from any action: music is more than a dull series of notes on a scale.

I Dream Of A World Where Every Lock Has A Key, That’s Why I Still Dream Of Zelda

Zelda is precisely designed. For the most part that’s why it’s fun. Games need design. That’s why, as children, we clamber over the countryside in search of fun. Playing Zelda is the end of that search, not the beginning — because Zelda simply is fun. It’s a video game, not a universe for us to occupy. If you’re looking for struggle, if you’re looking for survival, you’re — quite simply — looking in the wrong place. New York is that-a-way.

You could make a compelling argument that Zelda is overdesigned, and I might agree with you. Skyward Sword squeezes Zelda’s nest of interconnected locks to the point where there is literally no room left to breathe — no areas to explore, no world to inhabit, only puzzles. Skyward Sword is the strangled endgame of the Zelda template, and maybe someone does need to take a step back. Just not all the way back.

And as for the cues we recognise in a heartbeat — the cracks in the wall, the blocks and the switches — perhaps Zelda does need to write itself a new language, a new set of verbs, but what Tevis Thompson is suggesting is the complete eradication of that language; a Zelda void of design density. That’s not the Zelda the vast majority of fans could ever know or understand. This may be conservative, but I don’t want to play a Zelda without puzzles; I want to play a Zelda that makes me feel smart, even if that makes me stupid.

But perhaps we’re are both caught in a different nostalgia — Tevin in search of the Zelda that was cruelly snatched from him, me clutching at the only Zelda I know. Most likely the series will continue to change whether we like it or not, either choking itself as a series of increasingly interconnected locks, or reinventing itself as something else entirely.

Regardless, I’ll still long for a world where every lock has a key, and I’ll still continue dreaming of Zelda.


  • Very well thought out piece. And I agree with all of it, bar the Skyward Sword bits because I haven’t played it and have no opinion.

    And your remark on reductionist thinking is great!

  • A great article Mark. Articulates why I get a great sense of joy from the Zelda series, even as I feel it doesn’t quite reach the heights of other experiences.

  • If the rumours about Retro developing the next Zelda are true, then it will be interesting to see which direction they go for.

  • Really well put. I don’t think I truly realised it before, but I think I share a lot of that sentiment. The Skyward Sword comments are spot on too in my opinion.

  • This paragraph is particularly well written:

    “That is the nature of our reality, but Zelda is not meant to be a direct replication of wasted hours in search of adventure, it’s supposed to be an adventure — the perfect adventure; the kind of adventure where one cave leads to a series of caves, where every dungeon has a cunning contraption to be solved, or a secret to be uncovered. In short — it’s supposed to be designed. It’s supposed to be paced. It’s supposed to provide players with the illusion of feeling clever. It’s not about the search and it’s not about survival.”

    An excellent response to Tevis’ article. Thanks, Mark.

  • Nice reply Mark, just as I’d hoped for. It may not have clicked with me the way it will for many of your readers, which is to say I’m not empathetic with your point of view on the series in general, but I still enjoyed your imagery and passionate words.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I would like to see a combination of both ‘Zeldas’
    Let face it, this is nintendo, i have a feeling the next Zelda will surprise us in ways we aren’t expecting

  • Let’s hope Tevis Thompson isn’t like John Walker and gets all pissy that you politely disagreed with his article ;P

  • Ah, Mark Serrels, the Baby Bear of Kotaku Contributors.

    People read Papa Bear Rogers’ article – “This article is too long and self indulgent”, they say.

    Then they read Mama Bear Plunkett’s article – “Oh, this ‘article” is too short, with nothing satisfying about it at all” they gripe. “Why did he bother?”

    But then they read Baby Bear Serrels’ article – “This is just right. Thoughtfully written, sets out to make a clear point with some injection of personaltiy, but doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m enjoying this”. Then they read the whole thing up.

    In short, great article Mark. I enjoyed that.

  • I think I agree with bits of both arguments…if there is an argument happening at all.

    I do think that Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword missed the mark. I love adventure and exploration in a game, the discovery of the new, but then also becoming familiar with these discoveries as the game progresses. I do like puzzles in a game, and simple elegant combat that becomes second nature, that I do not need to dread or dwell upon more than necessary. I enjoy not knowing how to solve something, and then having that eureka! moment. I like getting cool new stuff, but more than that I enjoy mastering each item and using it often. Too many items makes this hard.

    My favourite(and first) Zeldas are Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I think these games could also be my favourite games ever, but that does not mean that there could be something even better one day. I think part of what makes these my favourite games is they were my first Zeldas, and because they were my first, the universe and its carefully designed rules(that we’re all very familiar with by now) were completely new to me, and I had mastered them by the ends of the games.

    I think where newer games fall down is that by using the exact same rules again and again in each game, there is nothing new to discover. And when you also lose the magnificent, rich, but simple overworld at the same time, there’s not much adventure left in the game – the design is exposed, and we’re just jumping through hoops and reading text.

    That being said, if each Zelda game threw every single convention from previous games out the window, I would probably be bitterly disappointed, and there would be no common ground to tie them all together. Some things need to stay, but other things need to be new. The real trick is picking what to keep and what to change. I think the best example we have so far are the differences between Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. Each game was brilliant, but different.

    On another note, I would have loved to see a Skyward Sword where the world above the clouds had several interesting little nuggets of fun, similar to the larger islands in Wind Waker, but when you dive through the clouds, you stumble upon the Hyrule we know and love, wide open field and all, though something has happened to it and we need to restore it to its former glory. That would have been a wonderful game to play.

  • A great response to a great article.

    Is it wrong that I can agree with both articles? Not entirely with the first one, but some of it. And most of this one, too!

  • Great article Mark 🙂

    I never read what Tevis Thompson said but wanting Zelda to be like Dark Souls? No thanks. Zelda is Zelda and Dark Souls is Dark Souls. I love both series and both games but if you like the way Dark Souls plays out then hope for another Souls sequel, not a Zelda game that plays like it. Zelda should remain Zelda. Each game does something differently and although I still thoroughly enjoy each title, I can’t help but to feel something is missing from each new instalment. It’s like they take out something I like but put in something new that I also like. Why can’t I have both?

    I’ve always felt like 2D and 3D Zelda games are completely different beasts and I really fear that there won’t be anymore 2D Zelda games. The more recent “2D” (more 2.5D) Zelda games were the two titles on 3DS. They didn’t have the same 2D feel as later 2D Zelda games did. Something about them just seemed wrong… Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are by no means terrible games but I feel like they’re the worst 2 Zelda games (CDi doesn’t count :P).

    The 3DS is a powerful little thing and with the way it easily handled OoT3D, I really feel like we might not get any more 2D Zelda games (along the lines of ALttP, LA, OoX, MC etc.). I feel like we’ll just end up with 3D Zelda games on the handheld as well as 3D Zelda games on consoles….

    TL;DR – Zelda should remain ‘Zelda’ and ‘Zelda’ consists of 2D and 3D Zelda games and I really wish we continue to get both types.

    • Pretty obvious but I meant to say DS

      The more recent “2D” (more 2.5D) Zelda games were the two titles on DS**

      • I also prefer 2d zelda to 3d/ The reason – with 2d you can instantly and easily view the entire room you are in – see the entire puzzle, how everyting connects. Puzzles, even the minor kind (i need to hookshot over to that ledge) just work better in 2d.

        With 3d you have to stand there rotating your camera around for ages in order just to see whats up.

  • I both agree and disagree with both articles, perhaps because one doesn’t properly acknowledge real problems with the series, and the other was possibly wanting something that I’m not sure was in the series at all.

    To my mind, there is a serious problem and the games have been on a steep downhill trend with each iteration. I haven’t finished the last three titles, which I never expected to happen. They were just so bland.

    I disagree with the original author in that the problem is too much handholding. Mark is right: Zelda games are all about tight design. However, that has been absent from the series for quite a while. The puzzles and maps have been far too simple since Ocarina, they’ve been too linear and repetitive to give any real thrills since Twilight Princess, even for children. The pacing has been really lousy since windwaker. The combat is increasingly dull. This doesn’t speak of tight design – it speaks of really, really poor design.

    I’ll still buy the next game though, because I love me some Zelda’s.

  • All I want from Legend of Zelda is to be able to play it without having to struggle with the gap between what the Wii control system promises and what it actually delivers.

    I shelved Skyward Sword after a few hours. I know I’d have completed it if it didn’t have the asinine stamina meter and if I could have played it with a proper controller. Wrestling with MotionPlus sucked whatever fun remained in the game out of it for me completely.

    On a different note, I wonder how much of Zelda’s appeal is rooted in nostalgia? Personally I grew up without any Nintendo games, the first Zelda game I played at all was Ocarina (on my PC with a N64 emulator) and I’ve only played the games released since (with the exception of Majora’s Mask which I have not played). Wind Waker was by far my favorite. I enjoyed Twilight Princess a lot, especially the combat (I have the Gamecube release) and my main take-away from it was that the lack of voice-acting was jarring. Skyward Sword is the first one I couldn’t derive any enjoyment out of the gameplay mechanics at all. So I’d argue that it’s not Legend of Zelda that’s broken, though elements of it are fairly archaic, it’s that Skyward Sword is a misstep, born out of a desire to be the justification and culmination of Nintendo’s motion control concept and to be accessible to everyone imaginable.

  • You explain Skyward Sword in a way that I’ve been trying to ever since I finished it.
    Now I understand why I didn’t enjoy it, thanks!

  • man there are too many Zelda articles around atm. I am Zelda’d out.

    Will come back to this when my stamina bar is full again

  • I just wish the combat was more unique for zelda, and much harder – similar to but not exactly like dark/ demon souls, have ways to intimidate enemies, sneak past them, defeat them with different methods, and bosses who react differently to different weapons/items

    there needs to be more secret areas like in Oot and even ‘secret dungeons’ and more sidequests
    the survival part should come from harder enemies and bosses, not by making them obvious puzzles

    the world just needs to help us suspend our disbelief and draw us in
    dungeons need to be achievable in any order with multiple entrances and we have to find them ourselves instead of padding and obvious dungeon entrances
    they should not be lock and key planned but have other ways to solve rooms, cross referencing other information previously encountered through the use of books etc, logic puzzles and so on

  • Zelda isn’t hard? That’s sorta true.
    That puzzle to get into the Temple of Time in Twilight Princess almost made me want to murder people.

  • I feel the same way as Tevis. Too many obvious cracks in the wall and too much highlighted text: “I wonder if some kind of explosive globes could break down that wall!”
    The enemies of Skyward Sword weren’t very fun. Imagine if they were aggressive instead of completely passive, and you had to use the sword to parry. Skyward Sword was not tremendously engaging.

  • I seriously don’t understand the people that complain about bottlenecks and locks, though I get that they were spurred into action by Skyward Sword’s rather shameless employment of those.

    However, without bottlenecks or locked spots -a whole explorable world where you simply die wherever you are not skilled enough to be yet- the game would become an endless series of ultimate pointless travels as you go around poking your nose until you find the place where you are supposed to be. How fun can that be after the first couple hours?

    Obviously, that’s a problem that the first iteration of the game didn’t have with its 2D graphics and rather smallish world. However, in an expansive 3D world, exploring the whole map until you find the next place you are supposed to be takes endless hours of running and killing enemies (or more likely, getting killed.) At least, in J-RPGs you get EXP out of it. In an action-adventure game you have to make most of your monster encounters tailored to be relevant to the time and place you experience them because your only reward is the satisfaction of defeating or outsmarting them -a reward that grows thin each iteration.

    Bottlenecks are not there to baby-leash you. They are there to spare you hours of fruitless search, of increasingly-boring enemy encounters, of frustratingly helpless defeat. If any, Nintendo needs to up its bottlenecks-disguising game, especially after all this years of conditioning that immediately expose the nature of the solution.

  • I commented on Tevis’ article and I think I put myself at about 80% agreement… and I’d say I’m probably 40% agreeing with you. I do think that obviously there needs to be design and purpose for everything in the world (no caves that have no purpose, etc.)… but I really dislike how everything is now handed to you. I want there to be *some* mystery. *SOME* discovery.

    Skyward Sword almost seems impatient with the player. “Go here and do this. Now. Ok, now do this.” I understand and agree that the ‘interconnected system of locks’ is a great part of what makes Zelda fun, as opposed to our real world… but I don’t want the camera to show me a door and then show me the key before I’m even allowed to take 3 steps inside of a room.

    I do want there to be a ‘key’… but I want to be allowed to find the key, discover how to use it, and solve the ‘riddle of the world’ and actually feel like I solved it.

    I think a great thing that was pointed out in the previous article is the flexibility of the original Zelda’s formula. You could finish the game without even getting a sword, was an example. I think Ocarina of Time was great because it still kept some of that flexibility intact. You can reflect Ganondorf’s energy attacks back at him using a BOTTLE :-P… and that’s awesome. You can use a hookshot to zip to any point on a wooden ladder.

    Flexibility like that, as well as respect for the intelligence of the player, has been drained from the more modern Zelda games.
    If The Legend of Zelda is on one end of the spectrum with Skyward Sword on the other, I think we need a severe shift back towards the middle. Otherwise we’ll basically be playing Heavy Rain with a Zelda coat-of-paint in just a few more iterations 😛 and nobody wants that from Zelda.

  • This has turned into a good discussion.

    Personally I’m struggling through Skyward Sword. I want to like it, but I just don’t. And I think that has to do with it feeling too linear. Which isn’t to say that I want it to turn into Skyrim, or that I’d like to wander into a whole lot of pointless caves with dead ends. It just needs some openness.

    I think Wind Waker got it right. When playing it, I could pretty much go and explore any island I chose (except the ones with magical barriers). There were a heap which seemed useless but later you’d come back with a certain item and it would make sense. Like OOT, there were also a lot of moments where you got to decide where to travel next. Even if it was a decision between two places, it still makes it feel less like you’re being guided.

    I definitely agree with some of the earlier comments – enemies and bosses should have more than one viable tactic for defeat. The whole “use the item (which you’ve just unlocked) on the boss three times” thing gets very old. I’m not saying you should have Assassin’s Creed-type combat options, but more than one would be good.

    …and there should be more moments like the barrel fiasco in Wind Waker. Losing all your weapons and breaking out of jail is awesome.

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