What can PC RPGs learn from Zelda: Breath of the Wild?
Breath of fresh air
Regardless of platform, when you've got so many people rushing to call a game 'possibly the best game ever', it's worth taking a look. This week then, what can RPGs learn from the 1994's Rise of the Robots - the action brawler that combined ugly rendered graphics with ridiculous AI, and a musical score produced by the Queen's own Brian May sitting uncomfortably on his keyboard for a while.
Hmm. I can't think of anything. Fine. Let's talk about the new Zelda instead. In particular, how its devotion to freedom goes well beyond simply giving you a map to play. Inevitably, spoilers follow, though it's not really a plot game. Neverthless:
WARNING. I'M TALKING ABOUT THE FINAL LOCATION/VILLAIN
THIS IS A THING THAT WILL BE TALKED ABOUT IF YOU READ ON
COMPLAIN ABOUT SPOILERS AND I WILL LAUGH AT YOU
(A LINK TO THE PAST IS STILL THE BEST ONE)
So, yes. There's a joke going around at the moment, courtesy of Friend of RPS Tom Hatfield. It goes like this, and it is, one might say, really rather Witty and On Point.
Bethesda: "See those mountains? You can go there"
Blizzard: "See those mountains? Kill six"
Bioware: "See those mountains? You can fuck em"
— Tom Hatfield (@WordMercenary) August 1, 2016
If we were to add Zelda on there, it would probably be something like "Zelda: See those mountains? You can sequence break them." Part of the fun of the series, even at its most structured, has been how malleable it is. Traditionally, the structure is laid down relatively cleanly by using obstacles to gate your passage, and then putting the objects you need to get past those obstacles into the dungeon to provide the basic pattern for the game. You can't get across a gap without getting the Hookshot, but you can't get the Hookshot until you've got- and so on and so forth.
Players have long twisted this in various ways though, including outright cheating through going 'out of bounds' on the map, creating additional challenges like 'no sword' or 'reverse dungeon' runs, or finishing the time-looping Majora's Mask on the second cycle. The most recent 3DS Zelda however, A Link Between Worlds, broke the classic structure by taking key items out of dungeons and making them available for cash.
And then there's Breath Of The Wild...
There's no getting out of the tutorial, in which you as Link wake up in a strange place without so much a perverted scientist calling for thermal bandages. The game starts on a high plateau that's lethal to fall off, where the basic gist is to learn the arts of stuff like cooking and surviving the cold and being gently mocked by a giant beard with an old man attached to it, while raiding several shrines for what will turn out to be, basically, most of Link's abilities - freezing water into ice blocks, time manipulation, creating bombs and so on. All of these are special runes downloaded into his, snnk, 'Sheikah Slate', as developed by an ancient yet incredibly advanced culture that mastered the elements but died out before inventing things like anti-aliasing. Anyway. Collect those, and you're rewarded with a paraglider for conveniently getting down off high things without breaking every bone in your body.
And at this point, you're ready to start the game. The map is huge. Packed with shrines to discover and recipes to make and weapons to quest for; villages of characters to meet, a whole army trained specifically to kill Link, and four Divine Beasts to harness as part of the final epic battle to to save the day. It's Zelda, only much, much bigger than we've ever seen it before. "Hyrule Field" indeed. Piss off, Ocarina of Time.
Right there though, highlighted from almost the start, is the final location. Hyrule Castle, where the big bad villain Calamity Ganon awaits. Yes, right there, and not as you might have thought, somewhere behind the ice level and the fire level. You know. The Deadwood stage. You're told that it would be a very bad idea to go there while Ganon, Lord of Malice and Darkness and All That is at full power and you're a three-heart weakling in your underpants, with the idea being to go on an epic adventure that starts way over thataway in distant Kakariko village. Shocking exactly no Zelda fan.
But here's the thing. If you want to go to the Castle right away, you can go to the Castle right away. And I don't mean if you know some special cheat, because I am exactly the kind of asshole player who hears 'Don't even think about going to the Castle yet' and immediately runs to the castle. Not only is this very possible, I promptly got to the end of the castle and got two out of five boss fights down before running out of equipment. There's no big force-field to keep you out, no locked door you can't open without the Master Sword. You don't even have to mix some kind of recipe to survive the heat or cold or radiated evil from the purple slime splattered around literally everywhere.
Just think about that from a designer standpoint. Most games won't allow you to skip company logos at the start of the game. And here's Nintendo, openly inviting you to skip the entire game by plonking the villain right in the middle of its world and outright declaring "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!"
Now, I won't say it went well. The gimmick is that if you haven't fought one of the Divine Beasts, they show up now as one of Calamity Ganon's alternate forms, which means four additional boss fights with no chance to save or resupply, and that's before getting to the main event. I took out two and a half of them though, and felt pretty good about that. Needless to say, looking up speed-runs of the game after that, speedrunners are doing rather better, stocking up on some of the high end equipment in and around the castle that I didn't know about, as well as taking a short-cut inside that skips basically all of the castle content. Like a sucker, I went in through the front door.
The fact that I was able to get this far on my first try does of course say something about the difficulty of doing it. I've talked before about my inability to play Dark Souls, so the fact that I was able to get this close to the Lord of Evil without even finding proper trousers doesn't say a whole lot for the security systems. Being one hit away from death doesn't matter too much when nobody knows how to lead a shot, and even with just basic stamina, it's crazy easy to sneak past everything by climbing walls around obstacles instead of facing them head on like some kind of hero.
Still, I respect the hell out of Nintendo for making it possible, and make no mistake, it's clearly a deliberate piece of design, unlike, say, Two Worlds, where the developers didn't think through the problem of putting the villain (even masquerading as a friend) outside the first village, allowing for speed-runs of literally two minutes. Breath of the Wild is a game entirely built on freedom. Do any or all of the shrines in whatever order you want. Get the Master Sword, or don't. Fly anywhere you like. Climb up and over anything. If there's a rule, it's made to be played with, with my favourite example being that if you throw a Cucco at an enemy and they attack it, they get to experience the ferocious chicken-beating that Link To The Past bullies faced way back in the 90s. That playing also extends to the designers, with elements like the weather making vertical surfaces slippery, or the physics providing more comedy than anything in the script.
Next to all this, of course you can just walk to the boss. Anything else would be a self-betrayal. And if some players decide to skip the entire game in favour of just throwing themselves against Calamity Ganon, then not only is that treated as "Well, it's your £60", but Nintendo even quietly helps by filling the castle with stuff like frost swords and the top quality gear. Calamity Ganon himself remains more annoying than being repeatedly smacked on the back by Doris Day while just trying to drive your fucking carriage from Illinois, and yeah, ideally you want to be ready for that fight, but Nintendo clearly made a choice to make it doable by the average mortal rather than cranking things up in the name of making a point to the casual rushy-roos.
Now, I do think it could have been done a little better, to reinforce the importance of actually playing the game and not make the rest of the game feel so unnecessary. In case you're wondering, speed-runners are currently down to around 50 minutes, which consists of roughly 20-30 minutes getting the skills on the Great Plateau, then about 20 making a beeline for the Castle and kicking Ganon's balls so hard that they create yet another new split-timeline. I've yet to beat Ganon this way personally, but I was making good progress when my Wii U pad - sorry, my Sheikah Slate - ran out of power. I'm pretty sure one more go would have done it, but I couldn't face fighting his previous forms again. I'll get round to it some time, maybe after playing some of the actual game.
Certainly, it's not just for the elite players, but speaking as a very much not elite player, I... actually kinda wanted it to be. Or at least, a good deal less obviously doable.
In the 'odd how things come to mind' category, I'm reminded of Punch-Out! on NES, where just about every magazine would print the code to skip straight to the final, basically impossible fight with Mike Tyson. I always suspected that this was a deliberate ruse so that players would get both the satisfaction of actually seeing the star of the game, and see just how good they'd have to be to meet it. Going back to the start to play properly then became less a case of just racing through to see Tyson. Ganon and Hyrule Castle I feel should have been similar - not the closed door of impossibility, but certainly a harsher form of 'haha, no, come back when you're ready'. Even though the boss rush can initially provide that, the castle itself isn't particularly scary when you know you can get around it in complete safety.
Again though, that's execution. I'd love to see more games experiment with this kind of concept though - the player deciding when they're ready. It's obviously been done to some extent before, though I do think there's a big gulf between something like Fallout where you can use player-knowledge to run straight to the ending and Breath of the Wild, where the goal is so openly There. In most other cases, you might technically know where everything's going to go down, but it's not feasible to get there, like Mass Effect 2's suicide mission that only becomes available at a certain point, or the thing/person you're after doesn't actually exist until it's time. Far Cry 2 for instance could have been a fascinating cat-and-mouse game between yourself and the man you're there to kill, but you can kick down every door in the open world and you'll never find the Jackal sitting there going "Wow, wasn't expecting you."
The closest I can think of to the Zelda example is Chrono Trigger, where you can fight the final boss whenever you like. Unlike Zelda though, you really don't want to try that without some serious level grinding or a New Game Plus under your belt.
It's of course very unlikely that this will happen. Not only is expecting the player to, y'know, play the game the kind of wish that most designers have deep within their core, I'm sure even now there are people complaining that the new Zelda is only five hours long. That other hundred hours of beautiful scenery and characters and the entire childlike joy of discovery? Pffft. That's just 'optional content'. Though on the plus side, at least anyone complaining about that probably not isn't also bitching about the Nintendo Switch's battery life. So, a definite win there. But to have tasted the kind of freedom that the new Zelda offers, on both a micro and macro scale, makes for the kind of experience that everything that comes after it can't help but be shadowed by. When Plato came up with his allegory of the Cave, he probably never envisioned the shadows suddenly putting on green tunics and going "Excuuuuse me, Princess!"
Too pretentious? Too pretentious. Still, 'freedom' just got a whole lot freer.
Except for the part about costing sixty ****ing pounds.