Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

My initial reaction to the E3 2016 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild was to jump and down ecstatically until I had a stomach ache. Just from the trailer, there was so much see, so many ways in which this game was the ultimate fulfillment of all my hopes for the franchise. Needless to say, I am very excited for this game.

First of all, let’s just establish what the purpose of games is for me. Games are story generating engines. A good game is one where the player experiments with the game’s mechanics and stories shake out. Great games are ones that prompt the player to try hard to get the coolest stories, and rewards the player for their effort. To be clear, by “stories” I’m not referring to scripted in events that are placed into the game by a writer, but instead to the emergent narratives that are the aggregation of player actions and their results. This distinction is very important; a game that depends on having a script written into it for narrative has more in common with film than a “game” (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that).

Prime examples of these “story generators” are games like Minecraft, Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and even chess. Let’s look specifically at Minecraft. It creates a huge story space by giving the player a simple set of things they can do: move, collect blocks, place blocks, and fight monsters. There are obviously other things on top of that, but even with these four simple concepts, you get the core of Minecraft’s gameplay. The player has a space to discover a myriad of stories involving the collection of resources, and turning them into whatever the player may value. For me, this usually means delving into deep caves to find building materials in order to build opulent, walled castles. Because the narratives are mechanically driven, Minecraft has a very large (practically infinite) number of permutations on the specifics of how a particular narrative may go.

At its core, the Zelda franchise is also designed to work in this way. This is easiest to see with the first game in the franchise, with its non-linear progression and utter lack of scripting to direct the player (and no, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” does not count as direction). This openness allowed for players to simply go whichever way they wanted, and create narratives out of the events that unfurled. Shigeru Miyamoto has always said that the central theme of the Zelda franchise is discovery, and it was one of the first games to show us that this discovery really meant the discovery of interesting stories that are enabled by the mechanics.

(That’s not to say that a lack of scripting is necessary for players to discover the narratives enabled by the mechanics in a game, per se, but it does make it easier. It’s much easier to explore and discover when you don’t have a fairy ringing in your ear, constantly reminding you that Zora’s Domain seems freakishly cold or whatever.)

While the handheld installments of the franchise always seemed to tack true to the original theme, on home consoles from Ocarina of Time onwards (excluding Majora’s Mask), this discovery of narratives took a back seat to stories that were scripted into the games. Development was more concerned with creating catered experiences rather than opening up a world of possibilities and allowing the players to find the enjoyment for themselves. This has been the biggest blunder that the developers of Zelda have ever made. The franchise that helped to invent the concept of emergent narrative had abandoned it, and it has felt stale and groundless because of it.

Luckily, it seems like Eiji Aonuma has always understood this premise at some level. The first game he directed was Majora’s Mask which had an (overly) ambitious system that was supposed to allow players to play and replay the game over and over to discover and rediscover many stories and their nuances. Unfortunately, that intention was not well signaled to the player, and scripted narrative RPGs like Final Fantasy were getting a lot of attention, so the genius of system was not well received by many players. After that, the narrative structures of the next three major console releases were basically clones of Ocarina with some tweaks this way or that to bring some game specific flair (admittedly, I loved the story of Skyward Sword. I wish it were a movie).

It seems that those days are behind us, however, as Breath of the Wild returned to the core theme of Zelda to breathe life back into the franchise. Everything that has been shown and said about this game reinforces that its purpose is for the player to discover all the different sequences of events that are allowed by the game’s systems.

art034gxff

The first thing I noticed is that this game invites you to go EVERYWHERE. The first thing you see after leaving the area designed to make sure you know how console controllers work is a skyline that is practically a dessert menu of points of interest, just begging you to go and explore them. Next you learn that you can climb on most surfaces (and pretty much all outdoor surfaces) in the game. So there aren’t really any walls in the outside world, either, at least, none that can’t be overcome with some perseverance and a complete disregard for Link’s knees. This game doesn’t have a script it needs you to follow, you’re invited to find the stories that are inherently in it.

They’ve introduced myriad new mechanics including (but not limited to): Link’s new stealth abilities, his various powers that allow him to manipulate landscapes, a fully functional physics engine, reactive AI for NPCs, and a revamped character simulation that allows the environment to affect Link in ways it never has before. The interactions between these many systems create a HUGE narrative space in which to discover fun and exciting stories.

I could go on to talk about how these specific mechanics work to enable this huge narrative space, but I’m going to conclude for now by just saying that Breath of the Wild is the breath of fresh air that the Zelda franchise has been needing for a long time now.

Advertisements

Warcraft Review

Warcraft Review

*Here there be (some) spoilers*

Warcraft is a mixed bag of good and bad parts. The orcs were amazing, some of the action choreography was great, the production design was (mostly) on point, and several of the actors were very convincing. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the critics have claimed, but it also has some very deep seated issues that are bigger than this particular film. These issues go much deeper, and are part of the development of the franchise itself.

The good parts were mostly when the orcs were on screen. Visuals aside, the orcs’ stories were interesting, textured, and multidimensional. Each of the orc characters were bundles of conflicting motives, and the way they responded to these conflicts felt natural and organic. That’s surprising considering that they were represented on screen by completely imaginary imagery, but the state of the art motion capture technology did a very good job of bringing the actor’s performances to life despite all this.

Something I found enjoyable was how, for the most part, the design of the orc’s material culture reminisced to earlier times when grunts would run around on screen saying “zug zug” to you every two seconds. This simple visual call back to the early games of the franchise was well blended with visual elements that were introduced later in World of Warcraft.

Other visuals in the film were equally good. The set design for the Alliance cities filled my inner fanboy with glee (seeing Ironforge on screen nearly had me jump out of my seat), and the armor for the humans was a good blend of historic, utilitarian, kit and fantasy art.

Action scenes were generally good across the board. I was particularly impressed by the restraint shown by the director when choosing fight choreography. This could have quickly escalated into something ridiculous that would be more at home in the Final Fantasy franchise, but instead all action was direct and to the point without unnecessary embellishment. In particular I enjoyed the dual between Durotan and Gul’dan. It was just very satisfying to see a combat scene where I felt actual dangerous intent between the combatants rather than the flourishes that can be typical in other fantasy pieces.

In general I felt like the film was paced pretty well. Similar to the action scenes, the story was direct and to the point with relatively few melodramatic embellishments, with a few exceptions.

These exceptions lead me to the parts of the film that I didn’t like. Most of this was on the human part of the story. Every time the human characters were on screen I stopped caring, and that’s not because I’m a Horde elitist (I play humans in WC3, I played a dwarf paladin in WoW). The issue was that these characters did not have nearly the drive or complexity that the orc characters had. This can be attributed to the simple story telling of the game that this film was based off from, but attempts to make the characters more interesting came off as flat.

Lothar was just another brooding hero type guy, but it felt melodramatic and forced. Maybe an extended director’s cut could fix this, but for the version I saw, I couldn’t be bothered to care about him. Also, Star Wars should have taught us that watching heads of governments talk to soldiers about things rarely makes an interesting script.

Medivh’s storyline made very little sense to me, and I would have much preferred to see the kinds of conflicts of interest and lapses in judgement that happened all the time on the orc side. Also, the duel with him and the golem at the end was pretty dissatisfying because it required accepting a bunch of things happening at once just to force the plot. I would have preferred to see the well thought out and organic actions that were elsewhere in the script.

Khadgar was fun to watch at least. I did like Khadgar. Although, his little expedition to Dalaran started to feel like some of the worst kinds of things that can happen in fantasy films.

In general, the pitfalls that the film avoided with the orcs, it fell straight into with the humans. While much of the production design of the film was good, some of the worst of it was the unarmored human costumes. They looked more like cosplay than clothes in many ways (especially Medivh’s gettups). The magic in the film had a tendency towards “way too convenient,” a general problem in fantasy media that has the effect of murdering any kind of stakes. The stilted reciting of incantations started to grate on me, even if they were necessary so they could show the “silence” mechanic in live action (which I didn’t really find that fulfilling).

In general though, I don’t think the film did anything worse than what the franchise as a whole has done. In the pursuit of making the Horde and Alliance ever more obvious foils, the dichotomy has become more and more interesting vs boring instead of the original distinction of civilized vs barbaric. The Horde is no longer barbaric, and the Alliance is no longer a bastion of civilization, instead the Horde is interesting, and the Alliance is boring.

In the film, the Alliance is shown as a more or less concrete group of people that, while they don’t agree, sit around tables discussing the logistics of moving resources. In actuality, each of these three human kingdoms, multiple dwarf clans, and factions of elves would all have their own motivations and agendas that are enough to start conflicts of their own. An interesting Alliance would illustrate those conflicts, but instead we were given a room full of angsty senators, and the assumption that these were just a bunch of unruly grouches rather than representatives of fully fledged independent cultures.

Compare that to the Horde, which, even in this story about its beginnings, is hopelessly fractured and desperate. There’s no way a room full of senators will ever be as interesting as that. This is a general problem with the Warcraft franchise, and possibly with the fantasy genre itself: it romanticizes civilization and magic without saying anything about the conflicts that can arise when independent civilizations clash. Instead (because they’re so boring) you need the hopelessly uncivilized Horde to come and make some kind of conflict.

This film did not have enough dwarves.

That basically sums up my impressions of the film. I felt like it had some very good parts and some not so great parts, but those troubles can be tied to problems with the franchise’s development as a whole and not placed squarely on this film’s shoulders.

If you need a number I give this film 7 out of 10.