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Zelda, Gameplay Progression, Recurring Elements in a Series, the Human Brain, and Video Games

February 1, 2010

One of Many

The Nintendo DS has seen the release of two Legend of Zelda titles: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. As always, they are excellent games with great design, but not many would argue that they are better than their predecessors (mainly the critically hailed Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 64). After getting a chance to play Spirit Tracks, I got to thinking about what made Zelda such a great series, and why we love the “classics” on the Nintendo 64 more than the newer titles. It seems to be a generally accepted assumption that long series such as Zelda will never return to their “glory days.” We remember the golden age of games, which never seems to be a single time period depending on who you ask. Logically, no series is condemned simply for being long-running, and so I became curious why some series reach a peak, even when they use the same tactics and designs as the games that came before them.

In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, you go about the world collecting various items to aid you on the long journey ahead. One of the items featured in the game is called the “Spirit Flute”. The player can learn songs to play on the flute which open up new areas of the world, and helps with smaller tasks as well. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game that was released about a decade earlier, featured nearly the exact same item, but in the form of an ocarina. You used the ocarina to cause special events to happen, and open new paths and trigger changes in the environment. This gameplay piece isn’t exactly fresh, but that much is obvious. Why should using the same idea worsen the game? It worked then, shouldn’t it work now?

Well, the main issue here is a lot more complex than it may seem. The problem isn’t simply that the same idea is being used over again, but rather the complications that arise from reusing ideas. In Ocarina of Time, the Ocarina plays a very vital role in the story and gameplay progression. The story revolves around the progression of time. Without going into too much detail, the Ocarina is used in the game’s story to give the main character, Link, a method of overcoming the obstacles that lie in his path, while tying together multiple characters and plots. But the instrument serves not only as a story device, but as a gameplay device as well. The player can use the Ocarina to open new paths, communicate with other characters and manipulate the world around them. The wonderful  thing about this is how connected the gameplay ideas are to the story, making the player very attached to the Ocarina, and giving it real weight in the plot. Part of the reason that this mechanic felt so embedded in the experience, and the reason the world was so immersive, is because of this integration of the story mechanics into the gameplay.

Unfortunately, the strengths of Ocarina of Time are the weaknesses of Spirit Tracks. Before I get into Zelda in particular, it’s worth going over what it even means for a game to be in a “series.” A series, as defined by video games at least, is a chain of multiple separate experiences held together by recurring ideas and motifs, such as characters or gameplay elements. However, one very important balance to keep is the amount of new content versus recurring content. Most games in a series stick to a pretty simple format: create a game, and add new characters, areas, weapons or what have you. A sequel also allows the developer to improve areas of the game that need it, and to add new and interesting elements. A sequel cannot simply be the same game in a new light. What I mean by this is that a game cannot simply present different scenarios in place of new ones. A game that is merely different than its predecessor is flawed in concept, because it means that the gameplay elements are interchangeable. Swap out an old character for a different one, or replace one world for another. Without fundamental structural changes, the game will simply not ascend to as high a level of success, or even fail completely. The reason for all of this is really not very complicated. Our brains require stimulation, in some form or another. When we learn something new, our brains are happy; when we sit facing a wall for three hours, our brains are sad. Basic human instinct has us constantly craving new materials and thoughts. This is why words like “repetitive” and “monotonous” are so negative; we don’t like to repeat an action over and over and over without any progression or mental gain (some repetition is very good for us, but only when we are learning from the process).

So, what does any of this have to do with video games? Well, video games are essentially learning devices. They teach us about morals, teamwork, or blowing zombies’ heads off. We play games for many reasons, but the one I’m interested in for the time being is the fact we learn from them. Of course, this is at a very basic level, and games being fun, interesting or imaginative all stem from that idea of learning. This isn’t true for everyone, but most people only pay attention to a game as long as they’re learning. Remember, learning in this context is a very general concept, and can be applied to many different parts of any game. You’ve no doubt (assuming you’ve played a game or two in your time) felt the repercussions of when developers forget (or never knew) this fundamental idea. You know it in the form of boredom. When our brains lack the stimulation provided by learning new concepts, boredom kicks in to tell us we’ve had enough. Summing it up, we like patterns, but not repeated experiences to the point that they just become simplistic and monotonous tasks.

Most games fall into this trap before you even have a chance to play through them, but as far a The Legend of Zelda is concerned, it’s a bit of a different story. The Zelda games manage to stay fresh throughout the experience by giving you new obstacles to tackle, and new tools to overcome these challenges in new ways. However, The Legend of Zelda is no longer a single game; it’s a series. And therefore, anybody who has played through the games will begin to notice this gameplay progression style repeat itself, making the reemerging pattern blatantly obvious. Many elements of the Zelda games carry over into the sequels (such as items, characters and dungeon puzzles). Yes, after playing through three or four Zelda games, and using the same item to accomplish the same task in each one, it does tend to feel like a repeated experience. But this isn’t really the biggest issue. Sure, you might be using the same weapon in three different games, but often the setting, dungeon progression, puzzles and surrounding elements (dungeon themes, such as rising/lowering water levels, or wind) make each scenario seem somewhat different. It doesn’t help that so many areas of the game are recycled, but at the same time, each successive game manages to bring something new to the table, sometimes making this less of an issue, or at least disguising it. Reusing specific elements of the previous game isn’t actually the largest recurring parts of the series. The bigger problem, at least in my opinion, is not the specific gameplay tools that appear time and time again, but the way they are presented, and how it plays into the overall flow and progression of the game.

When one plays a video game, they complete a series of objectives (whether it be complete a level or mission, or just move forward) and progress further into the plot, or just further through the experience. The way the player continues through the game is called the gameplay progression, and varies quite a bit from game to game. When video games first emerged on the home consoles, gameplay progression was generally pretty uniform and simple. On the Atari, usually the player was tasked with getting as far as he could, trying to get a “high score.” An example of this would be Space Invaders or Donkey Kong. On the Nintendo Entertainment System, many games adopted the simple “get to the end of the level” style of gameplay progression. The number of games that had you try to get from one side of the stage to the other is enormous, and many still exist like that today. In recent times, with the emergence of 3D systems especially, the variety of gameplay progression methods have boomed. Some games have you complete multiple missions or quests in any order you choose, some are expanded versions of the “level-to-level” style, some don’t give you any definite or ultimate goal at all, and many more methods exist.

Zelda has a very signature form of progression. The player travels to a new location, acquires a weapon or item needed to proceed, overcomes a series of challenges and puzzles in a dungeon, defeats a boss, and repeats the process six to eight times before the game is over. If you remember my original point, regarding the repeating elements in the series, this is what I was talking about. Once the player has been trained to follow these patterns, they are able to figure out how to proceed in the game almost instinctively. This overused process is made only more repetitious by repeating puzzles and tools. Simply put, the player needs new experiences to make the game feel fresh, and no matter what the game is filled with, if the mold is identical, it will always feel at least somewhat old, giving the “been there, done that” mentality to the player. Now, keeping the same general formula isn’t always bad; sometimes, it can be very beneficial. It can help keep the player grounded, and guide them through the game without any confusion. However, when the method of gameplay progression is tied to closely to the difficulty and main draw of the game, it becomes hard to overlook the fact that the game seems to just play itself. This is in the most extreme case, and Zelda doesn’t always suffer from these tired patterns, it just simplifies the experience, which isn’t what a lot of people look for in a game where they are expecting challenge and stimulation.

This hasn't changed in a while.

I think that part of the problem here isn’t simply the fact that gameplay elements are being reused, but rather that they are being used for the sake of being used. What I mean is this: certain traits have come to be expected of the Zelda series. For example, most followers of the games come to expect dungeons, specific items (some instrument, or the hookshot), bottles, switches and Princess Zelda. In fact, the only game where you never come into direct contact with the titular princess is also my favorite. A game that seemed to break the mold: Majora’s Mask. It was certainly a breath of fresh air. But as I was saying earlier in the post (if you can remember that far back), many of these elements and patterns played very specific and genuine roles in the gameplay and story. With each new entry in the series, these elements have become diluted with less meaningful mechanics and forgotten purposes. If these areas of the game were still given the level of meaning they were created with, it probably wouldn’t stick out as much. As it stands, many of the things propelling the game forward are somewhat empty. Mechanics become interchangeable, and elements lose weight and significance. Some “staples” of the series are fine left as they are; for example, Zelda games are about adventuring and puzzle solving. There’s no need to change the ideals that the series is known for, just the parts of the game that make it feel stale, such as recurring elements,  and progression patterns. Rather than simply focusing on finding something new to toss into the game, I believe that Nintendo should place more value in creating gameplay that once again contains a true sense of purpose and importance; feeling “fresh” should be a side effect.

It isn’t hard for a long-running sequel to become formulaic. Making a original and fun game is a feat; making significant improvements and changes in a sequel is another feat; but keeping each game in the series meaningful and unique is perhaps the most difficult of all. Yes, the Zelda series is guilty of stagnation, but it isn’t alone. More current series such as Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, and Tony Hawk are seeing the same issue as well, and no, adding a plastic skateboard doesn’t count as innovation. The series’s creators need to take a step back and look at how their games ask the player to progress through them, and most importantly, which parts of the game hold no significance to the gameplay and themes of their title or series. It seems easy to just stick to a formula and plug in new mechanics and elements for the sequel, but by the third or forth installment, these patterns become almost routine, leaving behind any element of surprise, excitement, or uniqueness. Each game, in a series or not, should feel like a new and interesting experience that brings something fresh to the table. This is what makes a video game significant, and why they matter. Innovation is the key to success, and it can be easy to forget this when you have a popular money-making series: the need to stand out isn’t as obvious, but it’s still important as ever. A series that can make a large number of games, where each experience ties into the themes of the series while still feeling different to not only the series but all video games in general, is a series that is bound to stand out and be remembered. If such a series exists, I bet that people would know about it.
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