Thursday, January 08, 2004

Game :: Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Originally posted: Thu, 08 Jan 2004 10:06:50

Okay, this isn't an academic book, it's a game. But I just finished it and I think console games have become fairly mature narrative genres, so I want to talk about it.

First, let's put the game in perspective. The Legend of Zelda series is one of the older ones around, going way back to the mid 1980s. But the landmark game, and the gold standard of gaming, is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. This is the one I first discovered, and it took up a considerable amount of my time in Lubbock during my second year at Texas Tech. How I managed to do research and teaching I don't know. With an epic storyline, innovative 3D gameplay and targeting system, clever puzzles, specialized tools, and a wide, fleshed-out world to explore, Ocarina was and is remarkable. It's been called the Citizen Kane of console games. Personally, once I finished the game, I actually felt emotional attachments to the characters I had met along the way. Hope that doesn't sound too fanboy.

Ocarina was followed up with Majora's Mask. Superficially, it had the same elements as Ocarina, including the same graphics, targeting system, types of puzzles, etc. But it fell flat. A big part of the problem, for me, was the time factor. You had three "days" to keep the moon from crushing the Earth. Sure, you could reset the clock with your ocarina of time, but then you have to relive everything -- like Groundhog Day, but with enough persistent elements that you could win the game eventually. You even had to keep an appointment book, for crying out loud. That's the last thing I wanted to do after an overscheduled day of teaching, research, and web development. So I quit in disgust.

One can imagine that I felt some trepidation at picking up the new Zelda game, The Wind Waker. After all, it couldn't match Ocarina.

It didn't, but it was a strong effort. The game's authors returned to the epic story arc that had been used so expertly in Ocarina, setting the gameplay on a vast unexplored ocean that turns out to be the flooded remains of Hyrule, the setting of Ocarina. The flood, we are told, was the gods' attempt to defeat the enemy Ganondorf, who had been defeated in Ocarina and mystically imprisoned, only to escape somewhere between the end of Ocarina and the beginning of Waker. (You'll recognize the borrowing of the flood story from the Bible and Gilgamesh; Waker borrows freely from world myths.) For someone who has battled their way through Ocarina to save Hyrule, this realization -- and the walk through the remains of Hyrule Castle, weirdly preserved in a vast bubble under the sea -- is breathtaking.

Breathtaking is also the word to describe the graphics. Although initial demo footage in 2000 suggested thatWind Waker would feature photorealistic rendering, the finished product opted for a cel-shaded animated look. This choice has been controversial among fans, but I appreciated how it lightened the mood of what was really a very dark story. (If you want a photorealistic Link -- the hero of Ocarina of Time -- you can buy Soul Caliber 2 instead.) But it also made the game seem more childlike and child-oriented. The puzzles are easier too.

You don't quite get the same wide open feeling of world exploration in Wind Waker that you did in Ocarina, but it's close. You also don't develop the same attachment to the characters you meet. And, honestly, the ending was not satisfactory. I have to place blame squarely on the game's designers here: the story arc, which was very strong up to that point, petered out in the final movies. Waker shoots for the same bittersweet mood that Ocarina's ending provided -- but we aren't invested enough in the characters, the land, or the gameworld to have that depth of reaction. And -- how do I say this? -- compared to the final battles of Ocarina, this one was anticlimactic.

Nevertheless, a strong game, and one that I would recommend to others -- after they play Ocarina, which is now available for the GameCube. Next I'll be working on Eternal Darkness, a game that has obviously drawn from Ocarina's third-person perspective, puzzles, targeting system, and complex tool use. It strikes me that gaming has replaced fiction reading in my life.

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