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.
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.
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.
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.
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.