Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Zelda and Limitations Collide

January 07, 2010

Link and Spirit Train So, yesterday I listed a bunch of limitations that my game has to contend with:

  • Looting required
  • Simple system or one people are familiar with
  • Generally short attention spans
  • Almost certain attendance issues
  • Needs some role playing for the GM

To which I need to add one more limitation that I’d forgotten about:

  • Fantasy setting

I also said that I found my answers with a Zelda game, specifically Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Although, I’ll admit Phantom Hourglass also informs my thoughts (but it strongly informs Spirit Tracks, so I guess that’s okay.)  “Wait,” you say? “I thought you said video games were largely soulless, and you’re going to them for inspiration?  How doest that work?”

Hopefully really well.  Well better than D&D 4e managed it anyway.  It doesn’t fix all of my issues, but it gives me some very strong design guidelines that fit well with a good portion of my limitations.  This is pretty easy to demonstrate.

Zelda is a fantasy setting (despite the existence of Trains) with some looting — certainly there are treasure chests and pots to break all around, and they drop health and any of the consumables Link uses.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a DS game.  That means it’s designed to be eaten in bite-sized chunks, perfect for short attention spans or the time you have to play a portable game.  It also has a structure that’s fairly tried and true, and you can leave it alone for days or weeks, and come back to it, still reasonably certain what has to be done next.

How does all this work, and how does it help for me? Well, the first thing to understand is that Zelda has a cyclical and fractal plot structure.  It’s a huge queue of things to do, each moving you forward from goal to goal, but each bit is basically the same in expression as the last bit.  That might sound boring, and it could be, but it’s also comfortable.  As Girl told me when I started playing Twilight Princess (my second Zelda), “Every dungeon,” she said, “has a map, a big key and a special item.”

She meant more than though, you need the big key to get to the boss, and the special item to defeat him. Defeating him gains you a heart container, upping your maximum health (the only thing Zelda has that’s like a level).  The special item is also often necessary to transit to the next area, and opens up new opportunities of exploration.

Here’s how this works in Spirit Tracks.  Ultimately, you’re quite locked down in this game — you can move fairly freely within a village or dungeon, but you can only move between them by following the tracks that were laid down magically by the spirits.  Opening up these tracks is necessary to continue forward. Each quadrant of the world has a map, each map shows part of the tracks.  Solving a problem gets you to someone who can open up the rest of the map, solving another tells you something about navigating the tracks.  Then you get into the dungeon, which when solved, opens up the last bit of tracks, back to the tower.   The tower is where the next map piece is.

Even more importantly, solving the temples fixes the tower which is your ultimate goal. It cycles through these steps,  at least four times ( I haven’t finished it), until the tower is fixed, and you can get there to defeat the enemy and recover Zelda’s body.

Opening up pieces of the map and getting the special items, creates shortcuts on the map that bypass the navigational challenges you had.  You can go to many of the same places, but now you can do it faster.  The Temples follow a similar design.  A dungeon might have three sections: the left section is open at the beginning, and solving it opens up the right section in a way that allows you to bypass or ignore the left section.

Doing a section of dungeon is a bite sized piece that can be done in a few minutes, and then the game saved.  Sure you go back to the beginning of the dungeon, but now there are parts you no longer have to do.  Right before you get to the boss, a portal opens up to the beginning (and back) you can leave, and shop and do other things and then go face the boss, which takes about as long as dealing with a dungeon section (or faster if you grasp his trick)

Dungeons thus become a microcosm of the whole world.  The special item for the whole world is the map itself in this case.  Completing it gets you access to the end, just like the boomerang or other item gets you to the boss in the dungeon.  These patterns are repeated throughout Zelda.

The other thing that happens with Zelda is that while you often have multiple tasks, but they are arranged in a chain: You  solve the village chief’s riddle so you can get the instructions that get you to the temple so you can fix the tower to get the next map.  Anything else you have as an option to do is a side quest (until it rarely becomes required and part of the main quest chain).  You’ve got one thing to do at any one time, and it’s very much like the thing you did at this point in the last cycle.  Not exactly, but close enough for comfort.

This then needs to inform my game design.  We’ll have areas which need to be “opened up” which have navigational issues which need to be solved.  There’ll be a big dungeon, with killing and loot, but which can be done in pieces, with perhaps more, smaller battles instead of a few large ones.  Special items become magical gear for the party, and hearts become levels they gain as they move through the game.  Having it in chunks like that, means that if someone misses a bit (because they’re out smoking or working), they can come right back and pick up where they left off without a lot of questions about why things are going on.

Sure, my plot may be more involved than a Zelda one, the particular tasks simpler than figuring out which two statues are looking at each other, but the basic idea, that it can be solved in a few minutes (30-60 minute chunks) is important, and hopefully keep everyone entertained.

It doesn’t fully answer my personal goals for role playing — there’s still very little of that in Zelda or any CRPGs. I’ll be answering that over the next couple of posts, however.