Master Sword: Additional Thoughts

After looking at several of the weirdnesses of the Master Sword, a couple can be explained as being Japanese influence. For example, katanas have relatively short blades for a two handed weapon, so the Japanese designers may think the longer grip looks right.* Additionally, the katana’s tsuba (guard) is usually a round or oval disk, so perhaps the Japanese designer thought having a round interface to the hand would makes sense. However, katana guards are VERY light–they don’t alter the mass of the sword much–and their grips have rectangular or oval cross sections for edge alignment. Lastly, the blade could also be influence by katanas, because the katana has a fairly simple wedge shaped cross section with a thick back edge. If the designer imagined a two edged sword as being basically the same as two katana blades pushed together back to back, you would end up with the thick, bulky cross section that the Master Sword has.

The grip wrapping is also somewhat reminiscent of the wrappings around a katana’s grip, however, similar grip wrappings can show up on European swords, so that’s really neither here nor there.

* It should be noted, that katanas do not have pommels. They do not need them to balance the weapon when the grip is so long compared to the length of the blade.

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Everything Wrong with the Master Sword

FeaturedEverything Wrong with the Master Sword

Let me just get this out of the way: I love The Legend of Zelda, and the Master Sword is an icon of much more value than its ability to murder monsters. I get that.

Regardless, today I want to look at the Master Sword as an object, outside of its place in the Zelda lore, or even outside of its place as an icon in the minds of its fans. I would like to inspect each of its parts, compare it to swords from real life, and critique it as a piece of steel created with the purpose of defending the life of its wielder and murdering scary things.

Here’s a handy reference of the different designs of the Master Sword throughout the ages. Obviously each game has a different take on the weapon, but I’m going to be looking at the Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild designs, because they are all very similar (and relatively recent).

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The kind of sword that the Master Sword is based off from has three basic parts: the blade, the guard, and the grip. Each of these parts should be designed in a way to compliment the function and purpose of the sword. Let’s take a look at how real life medieval swords have accomplished these goals, and then compare it with the master sword.

First, let’s start with the blade. The blade is (obviously) the most important part of the sword, as it is the backbone which the rest of the components are mounted on to. Many different blade types have existed across time and geography, but the Master Sword has a few specific characteristics. It has two edges, which are basically parallel, that come to a triangular, reinforced point. The cross section is mostly hexagonal, but it has a rectangular ricasso. It’s rather broad, thick, has no fuller, and there is a small amount of decorative etching or engraving. Lastly, it doesn’t seem to be extremely long, probably about as long as what is often called an arming sword today ( 30-33″ or so).

I don’t know of any blade in real life that has all of these characteristics at once (if you know of a blade that does, feel free to share), however all of those characteristics exist in different combinations on different European swords from the European Medieval period and early Renaissance, so I think it’s entirely possible that this blade could have existed, although, I think there are some other things about it that might make it less than ideal.

My first critique of the blade is that it looks quite heavy. It’s very broad and thick. Normally, a trade off must be made between a sword’s broadness and its thickness. A thick, narrow, stiff sword is specialized more toward thrusting with the point, where as a broad, flatter sword is better for cutting. The Master Sword doesn’t seem to have made that compromise, resulting in a very heavy looking blade. The width and thickness of the blade doesn’t seem to taper at all from its base to its point. The edges and the flats of European swords taper along the length of the sword. Said another way, both the edges and the flats of the blade near the point are closer together than at the base. A fuller was also often placed in the blade to reduce its weight while keeping the edges of the blade stiff and sturdy. By adding these features in, the sword creator can control how the weight of the blade is distributed and reduce mass. The Master Sword has none of these features, so its blade is going to be very hefty.

Next let’s talk about the grip. The master sword has a narrow, cylindrical grip which is encased in some kind of blue material which is then embellished with some kind of green stuff. The grip is fairly long, which allows for the user to hold it in two hands. I assume that the tang goes fully through the grip and pommel, and is peened* at the end to hold the pommel in place.

A grip of this length on a blade of this length is not unheard of. There are many examples of “hand and a half” or “bastard” swords that still exist today, although they frequently have a “scent-stopper” or teardrop shaped pommel. The benefit of combining this pommel with this kind of grip/blade configuration is that it allowed the pommel to act as an extension of the grip when holding it in two hands. However, I don’t think the Master Sword needs to look like it can be used in two hands. Link always uses it in one hand, and, it is always used with a shield.

Given the huge size of the blade, the grip looks a little undersized to me. The end of the grip is used to offset and counter balance the blade. This can be accomplished either by lengthening the grip or by adding a heavy pommel, however, even with the longer grip and a reasonable sized pommel the huge blade of the Master Sword makes the grip look off balance.

My biggest critique of the grip, however, is that it is cylindrical and narrow. The narrowness is part of what makes it look unbalanced, and it would probably be uncomfortable to hold. The shape of a cylindrical grip is itself quite problematic. Straight, two edged swords, almost always have a grip with a rectangular, oval, or octagonal cross section. What this allows you to do is sense in your hand where the edge of the blade is at all times, just by the way the grip feels. Using a grip with a round cross section, it’s impossible to determine edge alignment without looking at your sword, and it’s easy for the sword to spin in your hand.

Lastly, there’s the guard. Honestly, the Master Sword’s guard looks completely ridiculous. Not only is huge and bulky, which, once again, messes up the weight distribution and total mass of the sword, but it actively blocks the wielder from using the weapon effectively. The round cone shaped thing beneath the cross keeps the fingers away from the cross guard, further preventing the wielder from knowing which direction the edge is pointing. Additionally, the round disk above the wielder’s hand prevents putting the thumb up on the flat of the blade, or wrapping their finger around the guard, two things which can be extremely useful.

Larger, heavier guards do exist in real life. They were invented at about the same time that people stopped using shields with their swords, and they are designed to protect the sword hand. Before the invention of protective complex guards, the shield was used to protect the hand. Swords that are meant to be used with a shield have smaller or almost non-existent guards (for example, notice that most “Viking” era swords have minimal guards). As noted above, Link always uses a shield with the Master Sword, so it would be reasonable to assume that the sword would have a light, reasonable guard to accompany it.

To summarize my points, the blade is too heavy. It is very thick and very broad; it should be one or the other, but not both. The guard is unpractical, being both heavy without providing extra protection for the hand, doesn’t help with edge alignment, and prevents the wielder from holding the sword in useful ways. The grip is the wrong shape–the user cannot feel the edge alignment in their hand, and the sword can easily spin in the hand–as well as too long and narrow for a sword that is used the way that the Master Sword is used. Overall, the sword looks too heavy. Medieval swords weigh about 2.5-3.5 lbs. The Master Sword looks like it would weigh about double that.

Thinking about how the Master Sword could be designed as a practical weapon, I came up with this:

Master Sword mk3 Cleanup-small

The blade is an Oakeshott type XVI**, which shares some similarities with the Master Sword blade. This blade is designed to give good point performance in the thrust with a minimum sacrifice to cutting ability. It’s a good generalist type of blade that would be the exact kind of thing an adventurer like Link would want. Like the Master Sword blade, it’s double edged, and comes to a diamond section, reinforced point. It’s different from the Master Sword in that the tip is longer and narrower, and the blade tapers, reducing mass toward the tip. Additionally, the blade has a fuller running through the majority of it which reduces the overall weight while reinforcing the cutting edges. In contrast to the bulky look of the Master Sword blade, this blade profile conveys the idea of a lively and dangerously swift weapon in the hand.

I kept the ricasso and decorative space near the base of the blade. While I have never seen a blade of this type with these elements, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to me to consider that somebody somewhere could have decided that they wanted to make a sword this way. By modifying the ricasso, the sword maker could manipulate the mass near the hand, and the decorative section were the Triforce is etched/engraved shouldn’t really effect the handling characteristics of the weapon at all. Additionally, the part of a blade near the guard is used almost exclusively in defensive actions, so making it more robust and removing a delicate edge actually makes a certain kind of sense.

The guard has been drastically reduced to a simple bar with upturned tips that imply the  wings on the Master Sword. This has the benefit of further lightening the look of the sword, and increasing its wieldiness. Additionally, this guard allows the hand to be in contact with the quillons, so the wielder can orient the edge of the blade more easily. Lastly, because the guard is so much smaller, it would be much easier to wrap a finger around the guard, or move the hand into many other useful positions near the guard. The simpler guard also matches better with the fact that the Master Sword is always paired with a shield.

The “gem” in the middle of the guard is there mostly just to make the sword more recognizable as an incarnation of the Master Sword, and it is made out of the same piece of steel as the rest of the guard. These kinds of embellishments are not unheard of on surviving medieval swords (although they were usually a quite a bit smaller). If I were to do another pass at this redesign, I would probably focus on that part of the guard specifically.

I’ve modified the grip by shortening it, improving its geometry, and adding a proper pommel. The shorter grip makes sense given the length of the weapon and the intended usage (with a shield). Rather than a straight cylindrical grip, it tapers from guard to pommel, following the shape of the tang which it encloses. Additionally, the grip is shaded to give an impression of having an oval cross section which would allow anyone holding the sword to immediately know which direction the edges are pointed at all times.

Last thing of note is that I replaced the Master Sword’s rather forgettable pommel with a striking wheel pommel. The pommel needed to be heavier due to the reduced grip length, and a wheel pommel is hefty while having a classic martial austerity that lends the design an implication of action and danger.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the redesign. I feel that it keeps most of what makes the Master Sword unique and recognizable, while suggesting a practical weapon that looks like it could be used effectively in the defense of a Hylian hero’s life. Looking at the Master Sword artwork, I see a clunky, unwieldy object, but with just a little creativity and knowledge of European swords, the Master Sword can be reincarnated as something beautiful, iconic, and deadly.

 

* Basically, when constructing the grip, the tang is placed through a hole drilled through the pommel and it sticks out of the pommel a little bit. Then the sword maker expands the tang into the pommel by heating it up and hammering it into the pommel.

** Specifically, I based my drawing’s blade off the Squire and the Prince from Albion SwordsNext Generation line. Oakeshott typology is a system for classifying medieval European sword blades, and can be handy to know if you’re into that kind of thing.

Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania is a pretty big freaking deal for me. I may not be the biggest fan of the franchise, and I may not have played every game (especially not the 3D ones; this franchise did not make an elegant transition from its two dimensional beginnings). Regardless, the 2D Castlevania games are creations that really get what games are and execute very well in that medium. So to say that I was excited when I found out that Netflix was getting a Castlevania anime* would be an understatement.

Does the show deliver on my expectations? The short answer, “In a way. Kind of. Mostly. Depends on what you focus on.” I’ll start with the stuff that worked for me, just in case you’re the kind of person who gets bored easily and doesn’t finish this short review.

What really worked for me, in general, was the aesthetic of this show. You can tell that the creators really poured over the source materials and pulled out all the inspiration they could from the artwork released with the games. The main characters’ designs harken back to the lavish artwork that came packaged with the games, and the setting had the same kind of atmosphere that you would get while playing.

This show is also very violent (and at times just straight up horrific), which doesn’t necessarily add a lot to the experience, but I feel like it’s one of those situations where to leave the violence out would have created dissonance between the goals of the story and its visual representation. There is a little gore just for its own sake, but for the most part it seemed like it was working toward the goals of the visual story telling.

Another thing that was pretty awesome was the animation… during the fight scenes. The gratuitous flourishes of the Hunter Whip filled my inner fanboy with delight, and the choreography was convincing enough that it never felt like a staged fight. As the characters battled with each other, they carried real weight and impact that is missing from so much fantasy animation these days.** Each footstep shifted the character’s weight, every parry and counter attack had momentum and drama. It was obvious that the people animating the action scenes had watched some martial arts and knew enough about it to make their scenes look like a fight.

Which is why the animation during the rest of the show is so disappointing. When the characters aren’t fighting or there isn’t some big magical effects show going on, the character’s motions are just ugly. They look like the cheap fast crap that you’d find on TV too late at night or too early in the morning. During these moments it became obvious that the characters were designed to look cool standing still, but when you try to get all those little details moving, it looked really bad. The walking animations were especially confusing. Why did everyone in the show stomp around like they couldn’t extend their knees all the way? They didn’t have that problem when they were fighting.

The writing was pretty bad, and despite the fact that Richard Armitage has the voice of a musky, angelic badger, most of the lines sounded really stupid. The number of times Trevor Belmont said, “I don’t care” to show us how non-chalant and “cool” he was (despite the fact that we know from the beginning that he was going to end up murdering a bunch of monsters because that’s what Belmonts do) was trite. Often a character would say something, just to have it repeated again by another character, or the conversation would just go around in circles to fill time.

The plot and pacing felt like a half hearted fan fiction more than a professional production. There was a lot of soliloquy and drawn out talking head scenes in the middle two episodes, which was particularly weird when you think about how the last episode rushes headlong through a battle and then an underground adventure all in twenty minutes. It seems like the pacing of dramatic moments could have been handled much better in order to prevent the need for filler blabber in the middle (especially considering that the whole series is under two hours long).

To end on a high note, I’ll end by saying that I liked all the parts in the first episode when they made Dracula’s head appear in various ways (first formed out of fire, and then created from a flock of crows/ravens). I also thought it was kinda cool that they showed him as more of a tragic character than a simple metaphor of “evil,” but I feel like the presentation of those ideas could have been more eloquent. Maybe trust the audience to pick up on ideas sprinkled tastefully throughout the story rather than smacking us with an info dump when all we really want to see is a Belmont whacking things with a whip.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. The series is really short, so it’s hard to think of anything else right now. Trevor Belmont is sexy. Richard Armitage is my bishi. This show’s writing sucked, but I liked the parts with the whips and the swords.

* I’m gunna call it “anime”, because it obviously follows the Japanese animation tradition. Fight me.
** I blame computer games and computer animation. CG always looks so dang floaty.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I may be a little late to the party here–I’m not a professional game journalist, so I don’t get games before release, and I didn’t want to rush through just to get a review out quicker–but that’s not going to stop me from writing a little bit about the biggest release of the year.

In brief, I love this game. It’s basically the game I’ve been wanting for years, and it delivered on my dream. Is this game amazing? Yes. Is it the best game in the Zelda franchise? Objectively, yes. Is it the best action adventure game I’ve ever played? Definitely. Does that make it above critique? No. There are a couple of small things that I’d like to to talk about that I saw as small flaws in an otherwise flawless experience. To be fair, compared to all other games like it, it’s by far the best, but that doesn’t make it perfect.

If you forced me to give it a grade, I would give it a 10/10 when compared to other games available, and a 9.6/10 when compared to my specific taste. I guess it just depends on how you want to grade it.

As a game, it does many things well. In case you didn’t see my reaction to the trailer and demonstrations at E3 2016, you can find it here. Basically everything I said there about gameplay turned out to be true and implemented exactly as well as I hoped, so I won’t go over how all that stuff is awesome again.

Visually, it’s amazing. We’ve known that since the 2014 E3 trailer, though, so I’m not going to belabor this point, other than to mention that the technical art is pretty awesome. I love how Link’s hands and feet would move to be correctly positioned on climbing surfaces, even in awkward little nooks. The rag doll effects when Link falls are also surprisingly impressive, and I actually enjoy watching him get flung off cliffs and fall like a dead leaf. These little details didn’t necessarily add much meaning by themselves, but they do help prevent players from being distracted by potentially weird looking moments.

Character designs are on point in this game, and I feel like the characters are iconic in ways that haven’t been seen for a long time. I loved how the use of simple silhouettes matched with a diversity of body shapes creates a diversity of instantly recognizable characters. There is no need for giant helmets or pauldrons to create recognition, because the game was brave enough to allow its people to look like different people rather than super models or body builders. Even the Zelda character (who is off the charts adorable, btw) is shorter, larger hipped, and less willowy than your run-of-the-mill Marvel or Blizzard heroine. By leveraging a larger scope of the human (and nearly human) form, the game creators have made characters that are both instantly recognizable and memorable without the need for idiotic ornamentation.

The soundtrack is pulled off in an equally tasteful way. Rather than try to force you to feel anything, it is reserved and holds off until only the exact moments when impact is desired, and does it ever create impact. The sparse music of the game world helps to reinforce the feeling of space and freedom that the game is trying to create by not imposing any conceptions about how the player should feel at any given moment. Anywhere that has constant background music is instantly more atmospheric and emotive than other places. This is most obvious in Hyrule Castle, where the combination of iconic motifs from previous Zelda scores come together to create an extremely moving piece to underpin the finale.

The story, especially the story of Link and Zelda’s interactions, is adorable and notable for the Zelda franchise, if not particularly unique in the larger scheme of fantasy stories in Japanese media. I feel that it is a very good performance of an already established genre, and I have no problems with it being what it is, even if it’s not particularly mind blowing.

So that’s the short version of the things that I love about this game. The exhaustive list is, well, exhausting–both for me to write and you to read–so I won’t go through it all.

Moving ahead to the critiques! Just to reiterate, this game is amazing and I love it. Even the largest flaw in this game is much smaller than the smallest flaws in other games, but there are a few things that I feel could have been different.

The one big critique: Zelda is not in the game. Now you may be saying, “Of course she is, she talks to you in your head all the time,” or, “Literally all the story moments in the game have Zelda or revolve around Zelda,” and that is correct. What I mean is that Zelda is non-interactable, she’s not part of the gameplay. Instead, she is relegated only to the filmic elements in the game. This isn’t true of any of the other characters from the main plot. The king is a ghost you can talk to, the companions each lend you a special power that allows you to summon them, and every other character in the plot is an NPC you can talk to whenever you want. Zelda is none of these things.

The reason this is a problem is because it basically removes Zelda as a “real” entity in the game. She is incapable of any action, even simple ones, like talking to the player. Robbing the primary female character of her ability to act continues to perpetuate the idea that men take action, and women can only react to the actions that they take. Basically, not allowing Zelda to have any kind of gameplay actions reflects and reinforces a larger cultural trend of not seeing women as agents with agency.

In the future, I would actually LOVE it if Zelda and Link were seen more as partners. The best model for the kind of relationship I’d like to see between them is a Frodo and Sam kind of dynamic, with Zelda being very obviously the person with a duty to fulfill, and Link being the devoted servant who does everything he can to make her desires come to fruition. I just find those kinds of stories very touching. In that kind of framework, it would also be pretty easy to make either Link or Zelda the playable character (which would be the best thing ever), or even to have a co-op mode.

My second critique is that the game ends like all Zelda games do. You defeat Ganon, and then the game ends. If you load the save file that’s created when you finish the game, you’re put back right before the Ganon fight. The problem I have with this is that this isn’t how open world adventure games work. The entire time the game is teaching you that you can do things and then they’ll be done and you can move on to the next thing. Except that doesn’t happen with the biggest, most important thing in the game. Because of this, you never get to feel like that quest is finished. Zelda is never REALLY saved, Ganon is never REALLY defeated.

The peskiest part is that there is so much potential for awesome stuff in a post-Ganon game. In the (spoiler warning) extended, “full” ending, Zelda even says (basically), “Omg, so much work to do, Ganon really messed everything up!” Rather than telling that to the players in a film, why not let them beat the castle, have it be cleaned out, then they can go visit Zelda there (or wherever her NPC sets up camp), and discover that idea for themselves. The whole point of the game is to discover stories, so why not allow the main story to behave the same way that the rest of the game does? It would also set the stage for a bunch of really cool “post-Ganon” DLC or expansions.

Those are my only two big critiques, what comes after are small things that could easily be resolved in future games, or just require a few more iterations of thought to perfect.

The first is that it’s kind of silly that I can just carry infinite extra health (in the form of food and elixirs) in my backpack, and that it can be instantly applied. I have nothing against the idea of items restoring player power, but I do think it’s kind of silly, and a little bit cognition breaking, to be able to apply them all at once. Other games have ways around this: the recovery items either work over time, or they have cooldowns, or the player can’t act while using them, or (like previous Zelda games) you can only carry so many of them. Any of these would have fixed the gameplay problem of being able to take infinite beatings. Of course, some of this is mitigated by the fact that the player is often brutally murdered in one or two hits (which I’m totally a fan of), so it doesn’t seem like a huge flaw.

The second small critique is that the English localization could have been better. That’s not to say I thought the voice acting was bad. Obviously, some of the voice actors were better than others (Zelda’s actor did pretty dang well, the King….. not so well), but that’s always going to be the case. I’m referring more to the classic localization problem of matching voice actor performances to on screen character motions. In English this causes all kinds of weird sentences, and is just an unfortunate side effect of localizing films. However, this is a game, not a film. They could have, pretty easily, written the English script, gotten a solid, unfettered performance from the English voice actors, and then gone and matched the animations to the performance. Unlike in traditional cell animation, where that would have required redoing literally all the work, with 3D game animation, most of the work is the creation of the art asset and getting it to move nicely. That work would not have to be redone. The animators would have to do a little more work, but it would be more like using a puppet than redoing the whole thing.

As it is, I kind of wish I could have the Japanese voices just so that the vocal performances matched the animations. Since Japanese was the original language for the work, I don’t think it’s a ridiculous request to make, and maybe the ability to switch to the Japanese vocal script will be available for download at some point.

That’s my review, and I’m sticking to it. In spite of the critiques I put forward (nothing is above critique), I love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a great game that demonstrates what’s possible with the franchise and genre, is great fun to play, creates deeply moving and emotional experiences, and makes me excited to see what’s to come (those DLC can’t come soon enough).

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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.