Playthrough :: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
This article was originally written over the Summer of 2010 with the intent of a full play-through with commentary--However, that never happened, and so the article will only be published in its first part. Enjoy! -J
The Legend of Zelda series uses a recurrent formula. Over eighteen years ago, A Link to the Past was released as the third game in the Zelda series, and since then, the Zelda formula has been more or less set in stone: Wake up with little more than the clothes on your back, find a sword and a shield, progress through several initial dungeons in order to gain power-ups, encounter a story reversal at around dungeon #3, and then complete several more dungeons to fight the ultimate boss and restore balance to the world.
Although this formula has been well-used, the fourth game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, was the very first game after A Link to the Past to continue to build on that formula, bridging a gap between the 2D Zelda games and the then upcoming 3D Ocarina of Time.
Through particular design choices, Link's Awakening crafts a prime example of what makes the Legend of Zelda series as engaging, stimulating, and successful as it is today.
(With Analysis & Commentary)
How do you motivate players to do something? Why should they jump across a pit, stomp on a bad guy, or crack open a crate? The reason players do this is because they are faced with the prospect of reward, whether it is narrative progression, health power-ups, or extra ammo.
So let's say you want players to talk to NPCs in your game, either to dish out narrative or world exposition, and you also want players to explore your game world. How do you get the player to talk to NPCs out of his or her own free will and how do you get him or her to explore the game world?
The very first room of Link's Awakening uses the concept of gameplay rewards to encourage the player to talk to NPCs. How? By asking a NPC how he knows the player's name, the player receives his shield back as a reward. This sets up a correlation with the player: talk to NPC; get a reward (my shield). The presupposition of a reward through NPC conversations is thus encouraged by the game, prompting the player to continue to talk to more NPCs later, even though they may just respond with a "Have a nice day, Sir!" However, by setting up this correlation early on in the game, it creates an incentive for players in the back of their head to continue to talking to NPCs, resulting in both narrative and gameplay information relayed to the player.
What about rewarding exploration? By giving the player a map with the entire island in shroud, Link's Awakening creates a goal for the player to achieve--uncover every square inch of that map by traversing every screen on the island. When the player enters a new screen, she is rewarded with the addition of that screen revealed on her world map, creating a sense of accomplishment. Also, crucial items, such as the player's sword, are only discovered after exploring the game world for several screens--they are not found immediately without any effort. These two features set up an automatic reward/explore system that gives a small sense of achievement to the player as she explores the game world.
Thus, for both talking to NPCs and exploring the game world, Link's Awakening uses a system of reward so as to give the player incentive to apply its game mechanics.
In creating puzzles, there is a certain "A-Ha!" moment that is so coveted to implant into a player's mind when they discover the solution. If in Portal the goal is to jump across a chasm much too long to traverse, and the player finally discovers the tiny bit of portalizeable wall that allows them to attain enough forward momentum to jump, it creates that "A-Ha!" moment when she realizes she's solved the puzzle. This occurs because the player first knew the problem (the chasm), which then prompted her brain to search for the solution. Upon discovering the solution (the extra portalizeable space) it creates the "A-Ha! I found it!" moment, resulting in a satisfying conclusion to the puzzle.
Link's Awakening does something similar by establishing a series of problems before presenting their solutions. For example, a little Bow-Wow creature wants to be pretty; a young couple needs a Yoshi doll for their child, an Alligator wishes he had dog food, etc. These problems are then implanted in the back of the player's head as a check-list of items to attain or search for. When the player finally does find an item in question, for example, the can of dog food, a light then springs on in her head, resulting in the "A-Ha! I found it!" moment, giving the player further satisfaction.
What's worth noting in Link's Awakening is that all of these needs or wants are firmly established in the introduction, much earlier than the solutions are found, giving players the room to explore and find those solutions on their own as a satisfactory gameplay goal.
Link's Awakening is on the GameBoy, it has many technical limitations. One of these is the small, pixelated font, which can only display about 4-6 legible words on screen at a time, until it prompts the player to press a button and scroll down to see the next part of the sentence. While this may been seen as an outdated, lo-fi, feature, in retrospect, it actually forces the designers to consolidate each message and expository point of the game into its purest, least-amount-of-words form.
Just think of games today that are able to display pages upon pages of information, but how much of that information is actually useful to the player or even relevant to the game or the gameplay? Why should the player have to read one page of contextualized exposition in order to arrive at the one message of "Go Right and Kill the Reactor!" Instead, Link's Awakening takes each bit of expository information, and distills it down to only the vitally necessary bits so as to speed the player through to her goals.
This goes to show that restrictions, although many times obligatory, are actually useful as they force designers to think around the box to come up with even more creative and efficient solutions.
Zelda games--and nearly all other narrative-based games for that matter--exist on two axes: story and gameplay. Both story and gameplay have their own independent structures, features, and progressions, which should be equally balanced when transmitted to the player. If a player goes through a series of eight dungeons over twenty hours, but nothing happens in the story, it creates a sense of futility, that none of the player's actions have any ultimate consequence on the narrative axis. Or, if the player successfully restores balance to the world by simply slaying one monster without even trying, then the narrative axis supersedes the gameplay axis. Games then, have to maintain an appropriate balance between their narrative and gameplay axes to complement the player's progression.
One moment in Link's Awakening that embodies this balance is when the player rediscovers his sword on the beach, which is linked with the introduction of the Owl character, who guides you in the game's story. The Owl is the one character who relays information to the player about the island, the player's goals, and the mystery surrounding the egg. By introducing the Owl with the discovery of the sword, the game correlates gameplay progression (the sword) with narrative progression (the Owl), making sure that both the narrative & gameplay axes progress at the same rate. The Owl, who orders the player to take heed to your journey, and the weapon, giving the player an attack ability, come together to move forward the story and the gameplay together at the same pace.
Finally, the Owl presents an interesting character, often present in most video games: the one of the helpful, insightful, yet unacquainted stranger. The Owl is first presented to the player at the discovery of the sword, and then orders the player to embark on a quest to the forest in part of a larger goal to wake the egg and escape the island. One factor that attributes to the Owl's trustworthiness is the fact that he shows up at each location he sends you to, rather than not show up at his spoken location. If the game did not do this, then the player would be less willing to trust in the character as the Owl continues to give the player advice and guidance throughout the game. Unacquainted side-kicks are often used in video games, and Link's Awakening reinforces that trustful relationship by having this new stranger follow up on each promise he makes.
Link's Awakening, though by now over 15 years old, still contains inherent design principles that attribute to a meaningful player experience, many of which are still in use in modern games today. Whether it is a simple gameplay-story correlation, or even a technical limitation, Link's Awakening is a prime testament to the excellence of Zelda's design.