Renjaku and I were talking about what the future of the Legend of Zelda is on Wii U, which got me thinking about where I'd like to see the series go. Is this all likely to happen? Probably not, but I think it's always fun to play the "what if" game. I used to do it all the time as a kid. I've done it before with my ideal Mario game, so I thought it'd be fun to do the same with Zelda.
I don't want to get bogged down in what the story would necessarily be, as I want this to be more of an ideal game in terms of gameplay.
First, I would like to see the series return to its roots in a couple areas. This is primarily regarding non-playable characters. In my ideal Zelda game arriving in 2014 (wishful thinking? probably), the game would have very, very limited NPC interaction. Yes, you heard that correctly. Unlike previous games like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword, Link would not have that cavalcade of characters to talk with, trade with, and complete tasks for. This world isn't unlike the original Zelda before it. Monsters roam the land, and Link explores a section of Hyrule (or a new land) that is largely uninhabited. Maybe you stumble upon a man or woman in a cave, living their lives as best they can, but for the most part, there aren't many characters in the world.
Why do this?
1.) It makes the world seem more dangerous. The land is so perilous that people simply can't set up towns and camps. Perhaps there is a small refuge that Link finds later in the game, but for the most part, it's all Link, on his own, in a perilous land. 2.) It allows Nintendo to focus on other areas - world design, game progression, hidden secrets, etc. 3.) With fewer characters, each character could become more important/memorable. Having recently played the Oracle games, I remembered just how many characters there were in the games, and how largely forgettable they were. "Who was looking for this item? Who am I supposed to talk to?" I think a smaller cast can allow for some better character development.
Second, is that the world would more or less be completely explorable (is that a word?) from the get go. In the most recent Zelda games, the player has been locked down to certain areas, restricted mostly by either the story, or by Link's equipment. In my future Zelda game, you could basically just go wherever you want. Maybe some final areas are restricted, but the player would be free to roam and explore as they wish, not unlike the original Zelda game (and to a lesser extent, A Link to the Past).
Third, is that Link does not have a "partner" character. There's no fairy flying around with him. There's no spirit in his sword. Link doesn't have a stone that lets people talk to him telepathically. Link is on his own. I think Nintendo can figure out other ways of giving the player direction, but they can do so without having someone tag along with Link all the time.
Why do this?
1.) Again, this can make the game feel more dangerous. When you're out there on your own, it's all about you and your wits. To me, this is what Zelda was about from the beginning - being out on your own, in the woods, with nothing but your sword, your shield, and some other fancy equipment. 2.) Nintendo hasn't done this in a while. The past couple games have given us Midna and Fi, who were always with us throughout the whole adventure. Let's shake things up a little bit and take the "partner" character out of the equation.
Fourth, is that the game's overworld is not a hub. It's not a ring of land around a castle. It's not an ocean with (IMO) arbitrary islands peppered conveniently in squares throughout the map like a grid. It's not a world sectioned off into isolated areas, connected by a hub area. It's a sprawling, organic landscape with rivers, cliffsides, forests, and mountains. If you see an area in the distance, you can go there. I'd like to see this for a couple reasons:
1.) It makes the game world feel more natural. You don't see those "puppet strings" that the developers use to design the world. You don't think "Well obviously this is a hub designed to make travel more convenient." In a Zelda game, the world should be half of the star. If that world feels believable, and that suspense of disbelief is in full gear, then it starts to become an experience. 2.) It makes the game world unpredictable. Zelda veterans won't be saying "I feel like I've been here before." With an uninhabited world and no feeling that the game is too "mechanical," the player is surprised around every corner. It makes that sense of discovery very rewarding.
So, those are just some things I'd like to see return from Zelda's roots. Limited NPCs, with Link mostly on his own, in an organically designed world that begs the player to explore and adventure.
And in this game, Link does not have a central gimmick around his gameplay. No, this isn't "that game where Link turns into a wolf." It's not "that game where Link controls the wind." It's not "that game where Link controls the seasons." It's not "that game where Link can turn into a drawing for some reason." There isn't some overarching "thing" that acts as the core of the game. This is a game where Link is armed with a sword and a shield, and various other tools that each get their own time to shine. If this game is going to have some sort of core "gimmick," I'd like to see that translate more into the world or story (see something like A Link to the Past or Link's Awakening or the original Legend of Zelda).
Regarding the story (I don't want to get into it too much), I think a more "hands off" approach would be refreshing. Think something like Shadow of the Colossus, where you have an initial premise, and then are free to do your own thing. Some scenes happen throughout the game that inform the player of what is happening, but there isn't much lore introduced by other characters. The lore is created more by what you see in your environment. There's some cool stuff IMO in Skyward Sword that is effective in this way. When you see ruins, you think "Oh wow, this place was really important." There's some suggested history there, allowing the player to infer the importance of a location, but it isn't force fed to a player through 5 minute long cutscenes.
Now, regarding the gameplay...How do you control the game? Is it motion controlled? Or does it feature the Gamepad, allowing the player to write down notes, and navigate their maps and inventory? Will the player be holding the Gamepad up to the screen, looking into another world?
I personally don't want to see the Gamepad be too gimmicky. That is, I don't want them using certain features of the Gamepad simply because they can. For instance, perhaps the Lens of Truth makes an appearance. One idea would be that the player holds the Gamepad up to the TV screen to see what is "actually" there. In my opinion though, not only would this prove cumbersome over time, but it's also largely a superficial feature. If I can only look at one screen at a time, what do I gain from a "window" on the Gamepad, other than heightened awareness that I'm holding a controller? I know some people are fans of this mechanic, but I personally don't see much of a difference between this, and toggling a view on my television. All I feel I get out of it is an inconvenient way to do something that I could've done with a button, and a chance to look at a screen that doesn't look nearly as good as the TV I'm playing on.
So, if they go the Gamepad route, I don't think they need to be too crazy with it. Inventory management, and map navigation. I want to be able to put little icons on the map, reminding me to return to areas later. If I see that something in the game world is odd, I want to leave myself a little note to return there later. The game would be smart enough to remember all of this, so all of my notes on my map would stay there. I'd also greatly appreciate the ability to move the camera with the right stick. This was my favorite part of Wind Waker, believe it or not. I didn't feel claustrophobic at all. I could view Link's world however I wanted to. Sometimes it was fun just to stop and smell the roses. In other games, you'd have to turn Link and keep hitting the Z button just to get another view. It wasn't always the most successful way of viewing the world.
If they go motion controls again, I think having an evolution of Skyward Sword's controls could work great. I'd like to see aiming become easier, but overall I did enjoy that control scheme. I think the swordplay felt a little too mechanical at times ("Oh look, an enemy that conveniently is built around the exact way I can swing my sword"), and I think they could push the mechanic a little more so that it doesn't seem so "lock and key," if that makes sense.
What I'm kind of beating around the bush with all this is....the control method is not the thing that gets me excited about the next Zelda game. I couldn't care less if I'm using the Gamepad or if I'm using the Wiimote. What I care more about is how the game unfolds, and how the world is designed. Those are the things, IMO, that matter the most. The control method is merely a device to get us INTO that world, and I think regardless what that control method is, the other aspects of game design are more important. You can have the controls be as different as you want, but if the game still unfolds exactly as the other games have, you'll still get that "been there, done that" feeling. Metroid Prime 3 had different controls than Metroid Prime, but we all know that wasn't what made MP3 different than MP. The main difference was how the world was designed, and how you progressed through the game. I think once you nail that kind of stuff, the rest is just gravy, especially in an adventure game like Zelda or Metroid.
There are some other things I could get into....how are puzzles laid out, how do Link's items interact with the world, etc, but for now I'll leave it at that.
tl;dr: My ideal Zelda game has: -Limited NPC interaction -A sprawling, natural, non-hub game world -No "partner" or "buddy" character -A "hands off" approach to storytelling - show, don't tell. -Gamepad usage would be an evolution of what we have - inventory management, map navigation, camera control. The Gamepad basically becomes Link's bag that he keeps all of his stuff in. And no, Link does not obtain a magical item that conveniently looks like a Gamepad. -Wiimote usage, if there, is an evolution of Skyward Sword. A second player could then use the Gamepad to help Link stun enemies or move things around.
While I think the tragedy of a console top down viewed 3D zelda will come to pass, it would make them more comfortable with ideas that you have here.
On the other hand LTTP2 was already an opportunity to return to Zelda's roots and they're still doing stupid things like Link turning into a painting. Zelda Wii U might be just like Zelda 3DS just like 3DW and 3DL.
For the most part I liked your thoughts, Pogue, and I agree with many of them myself. But I do have a few hang-ups about some of the things you're suggesting.
For example, a lack of NPCs means a dearth of sidequests and mini-games. It may aid atmosphere to some extent (and I can see the argument for it aiding exploration too, though I think that same type of exploration could be achieved with NPCs present... also it may have no particular negative affect on story or combat if Link can learn those things from glyphs or carvings or whatever throughout the world, but if not, it would hurt those too), but the game would lose a lot without NPCs. We would essentially be forced to get almost all of our items from dungeons again for one thing, and when that happens, Nintendo tends to skimp on the boss difficulty... just making the boss of each dungeon a puzzle to be solved by that dungeon's item.
And if we're factoring in getting rid of NPCs to aid Nintendo's development process (specifically forcing them to focus on exploration, etc.), we have just stepped outside the realm of "ideal game" and into the realm of "adapting ideal game to reality". And if we are trying to adapt an ideal game such as this one to reality, there are several other steps that would probably need to be taken.
For example, the game you have described would be way too difficult for Nintendo to ever make it. There would have to be NPCs to give the player hints on where to go next or a partner. But I think you could mitigate this. It's entirely possible to just have a non-intrusive partner. Give Link a partner that is stripped of humanity or sentience and you'd probably be able to get around that.
One idea I've thrown around for a long time is that of an enchanted book as Link's partner. It would have pages for lore Link finds in the overworld, pages for the songs, spells, and sword techniques he's learned, perhaps pages for the monsters he runs across and defeats, and a page specifically for giving the player hints, but only if the player actually turns to that page and requests them. The book still does everything a partner does, but it doesn't have the ability to intrusively interrupt and tell you what to do next. And because it exists and comes with a built-in hint function, there's no need for NPCs whose only purpose is to point the way, and the game is able to be more difficult right away.
I like the idea of a completely explorable world from the get-go, but I have my reservations, especially where size is concerned (and even more so if there aren't any NPCs around). For example, I loved the exploration in Skyrim, but the land was simply too big, IMO. It certainly felt natural, but because I knew I was playing a game, it felt more like the developers had just implemented some random terrain generator to create the overworld rather than planning the areas out, and that was a little bit of a turn-off because if I didn't look at my map, I often didn't know where I was... The world was so same-y throughout and all the areas blended so well together (and, again, it was huge), and not many of the areas were particularly distinctive in the way they looked, that I often didn't know where I was or where I had been, even with the icons on my map. One of the biggest problems was simply not knowing if I had explored a certain area yet. Did I actually explore that area on the map, or did I mostly just quick-travel around it, and I've found enough locations in that area that my map tricks me into believeing I've fully explored that part of the land? I'll never know because when I go back to that area, it looks exactly the same as twenty other areas in the overworld, and I can't remember which of those twenty I've fully explored and which I haven't.
So I guess I want an overworld that is just video game-y enough so as to be distinctive, so that I don't run into any of those Skyrim problems in a Zelda game. Sure, we don't want the land to be a hub, but maybe we want to keep certain environments in one or two spots rather than having them pop up intermittently throughout the entire overworld. Then again, we could have something a little more intermittent if we had NPCs or towns, etc. in each of these places to differentiate them and remind the player which is which.
My own ideal Zelda does look a lot like this one, but it includes NPCs, sidequests, minigames, a living, breathing world (rather than the terrifying wasteland of your ideal game; and that's not a jab... both of those types of worlds are very appealing to me, and they evoke different kinds of atmospheres, but I think the former type of world allows for the other positive things that the Zelda series has incorporated into itself in the later games while still going back to its roots, where as the latter is strictly going back to the series's roots hardcore, in spite of the later innovations in the series), and so on. But regardless, your post was a good read, and I would be happy to get a Zelda game like that even if it did leave some of the other elements I love about Zelda at the wayside.
I like your thoughts as well, though I still think there's room for a Zelda game with less characters. Maybe even a cast similar to LttP. I think we've had Zelda games that focus a lot on NPC interaction, so I think there could be room for a Zelda game that focuses on something else. The series is just so nuanced, I think you could have a game that pushes some extremes at the risk of sacrificing others.
The book isn't a bad idea. I was trying to think of something like Shadow of the Colossus that doesn't completely rip off Shadow of the Colossus. Rather than having some light point you where to go however, maybe there could be some hints in the environment to push you on you way. Maybe clouds in the distance or something like that, idk. I just wonder if the age of "figuring out where to go" has been gone since A Link to the Past, or if we're just trained too much to have a destination on our maps.
I suppose part of this comes from one of my favorite aspects of Skyward Sword. Once you hit the surface, you really get that vibe that no one has been there for quite some time. Maybe ever. The lack of people on the surface kind of hammers home the idea that the whole world is untouched, and that YOU are the one discovering things for the first time. I love that! That's kind of how I felt in the original Zelda, and in the Dark World in LttP. Just this whole world that no one has really set foot in, and you're the one making the first real footsteps there.
It won't happen with Aonuma at the helm, but I really like a lot of these ideas. The Legend of Zelda is my favorite in the series, after all.
I do agree with some of V_s's comments, and I think the book idea is a great one (Zelda never really had that sort of bestiary/encyclopedia section that other games are starting to get, and I always love those).
I absolutely agree with the "no more partners" thing. Since Link doesn't speak in the games, partners have been there to talk for him and tell him how he should be feeling in any number of situations, and it's gotten really old and basic-feeling. While there have been people to guide Link before OoT (Sahasrahla and Zelda in LttP, the owl in LA), partners really became a thing with the 3D games: Navi, Tatl, King of Red Lions & Tetra, Midna, Fi, then Ezlo, Ciel, and Zelda in the handheld games...that's really a lot of people Link has become saddled with. Time to get the guy to go it alone again.
What did you guys think of the way Xenoblade's world was laid out?
From an aesthetics point of view I'd love a world like Xenoblade. Natural cliff sides and canyons and rivers, etc. on the other hand, that world is enormous.
I do think though, that Xenoblade offers something Zelda used to offer - exploration for exploration's sake. Even if you couldn't do anything at a certain area yet, it's cool just to see something new. The scenery, music, etc can be its own reward. That's why I was so excited to find the one area in Skyward Sword (I believe it was Lake Hylia?). It was cool just to find it, even though there wasn't really anything to do there. Sometimes it's just fun to take a look around.
I thought Twilight Princess was starting to head in the right direction with its cliffs and bridges and stuff. I'd really like them to push that way further. Hyrule Field didn't just feel like a big empty grass lot, but had cliffs and bridges, some caverns to explore, and goodies to find here and there. It didn't feel nearly as utilitarian as the two fields in the N64 games.
I maintain that that's only because of its size. Shrink TP's Hyrule Field down to OoT size, and it has loads more personality, plus more things to do. (Plus, Hyrule Castle Town was the hub in TP way more than the field attempted to be, so I don't think we can really compare the hub qualities of each to one another.)