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.

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).

 

 

 

Warcraft 4 before Diablo 4

Warcraft 4 before Diablo 4

There’s been  a rumor floating around that Blizzard Entertainment will be announcing the next installment in their Diablo franchise at Blizzcon this year. I find this highly unlikely, but the idea of a Warcraft 4 announcement along with a new Diablo 3 expansion (or stand alone) pack is much more probable.

Here are the reasons that Warcraft 4 makes sense right now. Warcraft has immense brand recognition. There are many, many people out there who love Warcraft, but who don’t want to play World of Warcraft (for many different reasons). World of Warcraft is still earning plenty of cash and lots of people still like it, but it’s a known quantity and everyone who wants to play it already is. It’s reached its maximum potential.

Warcraft 4 would be able to appeal to the audience of disenfranchised Warcraft fans. There are literally millions of players who have already tried out (and like) the Warcraft franchise, but who aren’t currently engaged with it. That’s a lot of mental real estate that Blizzard has invested tons of marketing and franchise development in that isn’t being leveraged.

Another reason for Warcraft 4 to come next is that the Starcraft 2 team recently finished their great big awesome project, and its time for them to move onto a new one. Blizzard representatives (including Mike Morhaime during a Blizzcon interview) have teased multiple times that they would consider a Warcraft 4 game once the Starcraft 2 expansions were complete. Guess what, that time has come, so it’s time to see some Warcraft 4.

The Warcraft film recently came out, and while it wasn’t super mind blowing, it had some very good moments, and lots of advertising. Right behind that was the very successful World of Warcraft: Legion release. The franchise has some very serious momentum right now, and it would be wise to keep riding the wave as long as possible.

The fact that Heroes of the Storm exists could be seen as another indicator that Warcraft 4 is around the corner. It’s entirely possible that Blizzard has been using this game as a technology playground to experiment with new tech / art / ideas to be used in a Warcraft 4 game.

Additionally, it’s been twelve years since the last NEW game in the Warcraft franchise was released. That’s about on par for how long Blizzard takes to make sequels to their games.

Now here are the reasons that a Diablo 3 expansion pack is more likely than Diablo 4. The first one is that Diablo 3 only came out four years ago, and for the last twenty years, Blizzard has never released a next installment in a franchise that quickly. Diablo 3 only recently started to get a stable leg underneath it. Now it’s in a place where it can strike out with some cool new content to bring back some of the audience that was missed during the shaky launch cycle. An expansion pack would be able to do that with a much smaller development cost.

Speaking of that missed audience, I believe it is very unlikely that Blizzard would invest so heavily in an IP that is currently hurting the way that Diablo is. It needs to polish the franchise up a bit more before it makes sense to make the huge investment that it takes to develop and market a brand new game.

Lastly, if Diablo 4 is in the works right now, it is highly unlikely that it will be the game that the people disappointed by Diablo 3 want. The last three new games that Blizzard has released have been competition oriented, money chugging machines, not the individual focused deep experiences that role playing gamers prefer.

These are the reasons I’m more excited about the prospect of a Warcraft 4 announcement over Diablo 4. Blizzard’s been teasing us about a Warcraft 4 for years, and Diablo isn’t in a position to support the amount of cash that it would take to bring a new game to market.

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard of how hard and unapproachable it is. What I find more interesting about it is how it has shed many of the things that people have come to expect a game to be. At the same time, it remains one of the most captivating game experiences ever created. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to write something about it to share some thoughts on why that might be.

The first thing that people notice about dwarf fortress is its graphics and UI, or, that is to say, its complete lack of graphics and UI design. Most people have come to expect games to be at the vanguard of user experience, and graphics and games seem to exist in a world where one cannot be without the other. It’s at this first barrier that many people are turned away from the game.

But the graphic and user experience aren’t the only (or even the most fundamental) assumptions about games that Dwarf Fortress forgoes. It does without things like creating “choices” for the player, designing mechanics to let the player feel powerful, or creating reward loops to manipulate the player into feeling good about spending their time playing.

Now you may be saying that Dwarf Fortress has all of these things, and it’s true that all of these things exist in the game. The fundamental difference is that these concepts aren’t placed there intentionally, but are instead emergent properties that come from a much more deeply important goal for the game. The most important thing, the thing that captures the attention of its fans, is the huge volume of narrative space to explore.

I’ve talked about narrative space in the past (I’ll do it again in the future), but for people who are confused by the term, here’s a brief rundown. A narrative space is the fundamental feature that defines a game and differentiates it from other narrative mediums. It is the collection of all possible narratives that can be created given a state, and a set of rules for interacting with that state. In other words, it’s the set of “world lines” through a game’s configuration space (if you’re into that kind of talk). In other other words, as you play a game, the sequence of events that happen in the game by interacting with the rules forms a narrative. The narrative space is all the different sequences that can come from playing a specific game.

In Dwarf Fortress, the number of different narratives to explore is ENORMOUS. It’s larger than any other game I’ve ever experienced, because the game creators have been specifically spending their time to make it that way.

This narrative space is where literally all of Dwarf Fortress’s value comes from. The game is given away for free, but there are players that find the game valuable enough to just donate money so development can continue. Remember, this is a game developed by two brothers, with no marketing budget, no graphics, and basically the same user interface as the vim text editor. Compare that to the many, many, many games on Kickstarter that fail to reach funding goals with the advantages of being pretty, and having a budget.

Dwarf Fortress shows us that many of the things that people believe must be designed into a game are really just emergent properties of a narrative space that has many compelling narratives inside it.

There is no system in Dwarf Fortress that was created to reward a player for doing specific tasks. Instead, the game models tasks and behaviors that are interesting to the players, and as players interact with the simulation, they are rewarded when things that are intrinsically interesting to them happen.

Many games assume that they must manipulate players into wanting to play more by exploiting reward circuits in players’ brains. In reality, players are motivated to play games because the process of voluntarily exploring the different stories that a game can produce, and finding the ones that appeal to the player is a feedback loop. The player chooses what to want on their own, then explores the narrative space to find it. When the player finds what they want, they feel so good that they go back to exploring the game. Repeat. The designers didn’t have to tell the players what to want, because the player just decided that something that was in the game was what they wanted.

The game doesn’t care about player choice, but in order to have a large narrative space, there must first be many different ways of interacting with the state. A large narrative space will necessarily give the player many different choices while playing. This is because, in order to create a larger narrative space, there must be more game interactions, that is, rules.

A metaphor for this is to imagine that a game is a two dimensional plane. The rules are the things that define the two axises, and specific game states are represented as points on the plane. Adding another rule to the game is akin to adding another axis to our spatial model. Now there are many different planes, and the number of different states was dramatically increased. The player has many more rules and interactions to play around with, narratives to choose between.

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It’s commonly accepted that a game should be designed in such a way to let the player feel empowered and assertive. Often this means that the game will be easily approachable, will allow the player to quickly understand it and how to do things, and has “easy parts” that are created purely to help reinforce the sense of empowerment.

Dwarf Fortress does none of this. Its UI is great for players who already know all the keystrokes, but it’s horrible for helping new players feel like they know what they’re doing. The game will often randomly throw impossible challenges at a player, and there are hundreds of little ways that a fortress can go belly up without the player noticing until it’s too late. Yet the word that players have chosen to describe all of these barriers and things that can go wrong is “Fun” (with a capital ‘f’). They really mean it, because they just keep coming back for more. With every new attempt, something new is learned, some previous barrier overcome, and it’s EXTREMELY rewarding. This can only happen because the designers decided to focus on creating a large narrative space over “balance” and “player progression”. Compare that with bland industry games where you know what to do from the beginning, and the only thing that changes is the size of explosions on screen.

In the end, playing Dwarf Fortress is an extremely fresh experience that really stands in stark contrast to the shovelware that dominates the AAA games industry. It’s a dramatic case study into what really matters in a game, and how to achieve it. Luckily, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it looks like some of the good ideas that inspired Dwarf Fortress are finding their way into the mainstream industry. Here’s hoping for a revolution in the way we understand games, and to the role that Dwarf Fortress helped play in bringing it about.

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.