The following is a successor to an earlier piece, “An Argument for a More Mature Zelda”. All opinions contained herein are those of the writer and do not reflect Zelda Informer as a whole.
There are numerous components necessary to a functional story – characters, events, context, etc. In fantasy and science fiction however, a specific component of the usual story formula is typically elevated to a higher status than in other genres – the setting, or the world.
More so than any other factor, it is the world that draws us in to tales like these. An original and convincing world is considered by many to be the most essential part of any successful fantasy or sci-fi yarn. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Middle Earth? Star Wars without its trademark galaxy?
If world building is such a central part of fantasy and sci-fi books and movies, then it is even more important for video games; as video games allow us (as the players) to truly interact with the worlds they portray. Some of the greatest video games of all time are heralded for their remarkable atmospheres and respective universes – there is something about them that draws the player in more than usual.
But what is it that draws our attention? What is the difference between a video game world that excites and immerses us and one that we ignore? The answer is realism.
Realism, contrary to popular belief, does not constitute a world or setting meant to resemble real life. Rather - in purely literary terms - realism is the idea that a convincing world needs to be held together. It must stay true to itself.
A realistic world is one that lays out its functionary rules and follows them. For example, a fantastical setting that’s completely “unrealistic” by our standards can in fact be a realistic world if it follows its own rules of engagement (so to speak); its own laws of physics and logic and being. As long as the world stays true to itself and draws connection between its various parts - and ensures it feels united - it’s a realistic world; which makes all the difference.
What this realism results in is a more heightened sense of immersion. If the world presented to you is cheaply made and doesn’t follow through on its own account, how can you be expected to immerse yourself in it? A realistic world allows for an easier suspension of disbelief, and therefore a smoother transition into becoming immersed in the game.
For example, let’s look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. At first glance, Skyrim isn’t in the least realistic – it’s home to dragons, magic practitioners and more. Yet in the world it presents, all of this is treated as a cohesive unit. The land of Skyrim has its own rules and laws of existence that, while opposed to our own, are perfectly followed throughout the game. Well… except for those mountain-climbing horse glitches, but those don’t exactly count.
The point is that Skyrim is a convincing, engaging and realistic world. When playing, you are more likely to be immersed – the setting clearly received a lot of thought from its creators and it feels like a real entity that can be interacted with. This example highlights the flow from realism, to suspension of disbelief, to immersion. This three-part cycle can be examined in some form or another in any game world that truly captures you and draws you in.
Another example is the land represented by any of the Pokémon games. Again, the world of Kanto (or Johto, etc.) is completely insane and impossible by the standards of reality applied in real life – yet the world presented in the Pokémon games sets its rules of existence and follows them expertly. There is no horrendously out-of-place component – it all feels like one cohesive setting (the mentioning of other regions in games throughout the series is a great boon to this).
The world presented by Pokémon treats itself like a real entity with its own laws of existence, leading to the player suspending their disbelief and being absorbed into the game, which finally results in immersion.
Unfortunately, the same that can be said of these games cannot quite be said of The Legend of Zelda. While the Zelda series has showed us lands filled with all matter of amazing locales and brilliant regions, it doesn’t quite follow through in making the world truly cohesive.
For example, let’s use The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In a part of the game I’m sure most of you are familiar with, Link learns the Song of Storms from the man in the windmill – in the process realizing that he was the very one who enraged him in the past. By returning as a child and playing the song once more, Link acted out his part on what is clearly a linear line of time; one that can’t be “edited” be returning to the past.
How does the game finally meet its resolution? By returning to the past and editing time so that it splits in two directions; the ending given to our Link being the one where he changes events and so alters the future. This is but one of many examples where the universe of Zelda contradicts itself, and thus breaks the sense of realism.
More recent examples from the cohesion end of the spectrum come from the latest entry in the series, Skyward Sword. Here we are introduced to a world made of three striking and interesting regions that have absolutely no connection to each other – there is no real link between them. The lands of Faron and Lanayru might as well be on other planets for all the attention given to their cohesion.
On top of this, little sense of true meaning is given to the locales. We are introduced to a wide variety of bizarre and interesting places and races, but we cannot even discover what they really are or why they’re there. The questions aren’t even raised in-game. How did the Ancient Robots come to be? Where did the three dragons come from?
The worlds portrayed by the Zelda series have always been interesting and exciting, full of bizarre sights and characters – but they’ve never quite made that jump into being realistic places. Hyrule has never fully crossed over from being a series of portals leading to amazing gameplay experiences, to a realized locale that has a real sense of place.
This is not necessarily true of every entry in the series (The Wind Waker in particular crafted a wonderful world), but it’s an unfortunate pattern woven through just enough to show. It’s fully understandable – and admirable – that Nintendo continues to show so much love to the pure gameplay elements of Zelda. The experience remains as pure as ever
However, if the series is to continue to evolve and grow, it’s important that more time is spent behind crafting the world this experience takes place in. The land of Hyrule holds so much promise for far more than it already delivers – it holds promise for being the greatest, most immersive video game world of all time.
If Nintendo can deliver a game in which they take that small yet massive step into putting more thought behind the universe and its cohesion – a more realistic world – then they could take Zelda even further than it is now, and secure it as the undisputed king, er…princess of gaming.
Agree? Disagree? Confused combination of both? Comment away!