Before we can begin to discuss the fate of the overworld concept in Zelda, we must first draw out what exactly it even is. Some would say it’s the bulk of the world – all but the separate off-map areas (like caves or dungeons). Others would tell you an overworld is a relatively blank “field map” from which the various regions of the game world are accessible.
In the history of the Zelda series, we’ve seen both of these notions of an overworld used. The prior example is apparent in titles like A Link to the Past or The Wind Waker – games where the entire world was a single cohesive unit. The latter option is utilized in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, as the comparatively empty “Hyrule Field” that exists as a space between the meatier parts of the game.
As video games have evolved, the notion of the overworld has changed drastically. You can see these sorts of growing pains in Zelda. The overworld, once one of the key aspects of a more open “questing” game, exists in limbo. Will we see it return in glory, or is it time for the concept to be retired?
Let’s delve into each of the three blanket possibilities for the future of overworlds in Zelda.
The Illusion of Freedom
It wasn’t so easy trying to craft a real sense of adventure by means of a convincing world back in the earlier days of gaming. Of course, it’s hardly simple now, but the means to make this sense of adventure are completely different than what they once were.
Unlike in the modern day where we have the technological tools capable of rendering convincing digital worlds, older developers had to rely on building up an illusion of freedom – a façade crafted with the purpose of drawing players into the world and story of the game.
You can see this idea applied in basically every NES and SNES-era RPG, where towns are scattered about on a big blank overworld map. Truthfully, there wasn’t really much content on this map – it traditionally existed as an exceptionally large hub that connected the various towns and dungeons together. True, this map may have had no in-game functional reason for existing – but that wasn’t the point. The purpose of the overworld was to cast an illusion of freedom.
Take the classic Chrono Trigger for example. When you shift the time period, the layout of the world continents would shift with it. Did this really add more to the real gameplay? No. What it did was create a convincing illusion of a free world, one that would help to immerse the player into the world.
This concept is applied liberally to Zelda games like Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. In both of these games, there are “meaty” side regions filled with interesting content and characters that are attached to a much larger and emptier Hyrule Field.
In truth, nothing really much happens in Hyrule Field. There are a few caves scattered about and you can ride Epona to your heart’s content, but there’s no truly significant content. But the comparative lack of content isn’t the point, not in the slightest. The purpose of Hyrule Field was to make the player feel as if the land of Hyrule was a more real place; to draw the player into the illusion of freedom. Here was a mighty expanse of wide open lands – the geographical heart of Hyrule.
Look back to those introductory moments of Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. The camera zooms far out, and shows deftly angled views of the field that further exaggerate its size. You could walk (or ride) all the way around this great expanse – it helped to immerse the player. This was the purpose of the “façade” overworld in Zelda.
In some ways, creating an illusion of freedom is even more difficult than actually making a fully connected world. There’s less time put into the actual graphical creation of the game, true, but much more time has to be spent thinking about every aspect of the game and how it will reflect on the illusion.
Coming right off that last point, here is the true world. This is an overworld that doesn’t need to engage in the illusion of freedom because it exists as a truly cohesive unit. We can see this type of video game world utilized in modern “open world” games like Red Dead: Redemption and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Why is the illusion of freedom necessary when we can now really build the worlds such older games sought to pretend existed?
This is the type of world we see used in games like A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker. Both of these titles boast unified world maps in which all the odds and ends are truly one organism. A Link to the Past achieved this through a comparatively small map which allowed for more detail to be placed into it. The Wind Waker went about this by using its seemingly endless ocean as the grand stage for its constituent islands.
As stated earlier, this type of overworld has become part and parcel of the modern gaming experience. Single worlds – whether they be massive expanses of land like Skyrim or incredibly detailed urban areas like Liberty City – have become the new vogue. It only makes sense, now that we have the technology to actually render such environments.
But is this the best direction for Zelda? In a way, this specific type of overworld (commonly referred to as a “sandbox”) was actually invented by Zelda back in 1986 – and yet, the series hasn’t had a world like this in almost a decade.
On one hand, it would only be logical to make this the next step in the series’ world evolution (being the original type of world Zelda played host to); but this depends entirely on what type of game Nintendo would like to make. Perhaps Zelda is moving away from its adventurous roots into something entirely different.
Maximum Content, Minimum Space
And here is the last basic type world structure seen in Zelda – the concept applied in its most recent entry, Skyward Sword.
The idea behind this type of world structure is based off of the illusion of freedom seen in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess – only with said illusion stripped away. If the meatier parts of the game are the side-regions and dungeons, why not make them the entirety of the game and be selectable via a hub?
Interestingly enough, this type of world design was popularized by Nintendo’s father series – Super Mario. Skyloft acts as the hub (akin to Peach’s Castle or Rosalina’s Station), and the regions below take the part of the traditional Mario levels.
This allows for the various levels (such as Faron Woods and Eldin Volcano) to contain much more content than the usual Zelda region, at the expense of freedom and a real sense of adventure. It’s a tough trade-off, but it’s certainly the most logical type of world when Skyward Sword’s gameplay is taken into account.
Unlike past entries which could be more easily classified as action-adventure titles with a focus on exploration, Skyward Sword is an action-puzzle-platformer that hones in on the parts of the Zelda series that set it apart (namely dungeons and puzzles). The hub/level structure is starkly different from the series norm, but might it be the best way forward for a series with a potential new focus?
Where Does Nintendo Go From Here?
We have three different general types of worlds in the Zelda franchise: regions and dungeons separated by a field which casts an illusion of freedom, singular worlds in which everything is connected, and a hub/level layout which makes excruciating sacrifices and reaps wonderful rewards. All three are unique, and there’s no real consensus on what anyone really wants.
Obviously, we have no say on this and it will all come down to what Nintendo feels is best for the next entry – but what do you think? There are convincing arguments behind all three, and each have their merits and pitfalls.
What type of overworld do you think is best for Zelda? Comment away!