Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cracked Walls

This post is mainly a plug for Tevis Thompson's essay "Saving Zelda." It's one of the best pieces of game criticism I've ever read (not to mention beautifully written in a more basic sense). I've written and studied the Zelda games for a long time and it is great to watch someone synthesize so elegantly the myriad problems stifling the series. It's truly a wonderful read.

My nitpicks are few, but there is one I'd like to highlight. Tevis' main critique of the Zelda games is:
"Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.
Overall, I agree: the games have gone from adventure-focused to routine-focused. Most modern Zelda games eschew exploration in favor of rediscovering tradition and fulfilling predestined roles. However, the example of the cracked walls is a bit more complicated than it appears.

I'm replaying A Link to the Past for the first time in years (and loving it, of course). I'm remembering things about the series that had slipped my mind over time. The way cracked walls work is one such example. Like Tevis said, LttP gives you a clear visual clue in regards to what walls and floors might contain hidden passageways. Once you get the bombs and figure out they can destroy walls, it's tempting to reach for your "keyring" every time you see a suspicious crack. It's easy to remember this rule because modern Zelda games never let me forget: See a crack? Use a bomb. It's an unconscious reflex.

However, LttP poses a challenge to this behavior: sometimes, cracked walls aren't hiding anything. You can bomb them all you want and all you'll have to show for it is an empty bomb bag. Yes, the game gives you a clue, but it's a clue that suggests a possibility instead of an eventuality. Seeing a cracked wall means you still either have to use a bomb or strike the wall to see is it is hollow (something that I don't believe the game ever explicitly teaches you to do). And what if it's a cracked floor? Well, there's only one way to find out: test it! Once you find out, you'll have to remember what you learned, as the only markings delineating a hidden treasure trove exist in your head (or on your handwritten notes).

It's this balance between approachability and challenge that makes LttP a great game. It gracefully walks the line between offering the player convenience and demanding a minimum amount of effort. The map is more detailed and interactive than the NES games, but you still can't mark it or see warp points on it; you have to learn the terrain. Certain enemies are devastated by the hookshot instead of the boomerang, but you have to find that out. The dungeons have fairy rooms, but these are well-hidden and the fairies themselves only partially replenish your health. All of it feels respectful towards the player; minor annoyances are smoothed out without leveling the entire game into one long, bland recitation exercise.

Bombs still function as keys, but the world's details are not determined by the function of these keys. The cracked walls in LttP gives hint at secret passageways, but sometimes a cracked wall is simply a cracked wall and not a locked door. Regardless, this still fits within Tevis' overall point: Hyrule used to be a place you explore, now it's more of a place built specifically for you. The danger, the mystery, the respect both for the player's time and curiosity has ebbed.

I've been working on a few Zelda-related posts for a while (surprise, right?) and Tevis' great work has inspired me to keep plugging away. I don't know whether anyone at Nintendo is listening, but Tevis' piece is a great reminder of why criticism is valuable: it explains why certain games affect us and why they are (or were) important.


  1. I seem to remember there are a handful of secret rooms in LTTP that can be opened by bombs that aren't marked, but I could be misremembering.

  2. Great, now I have to go back and bomb all the walls. Thanks. ;-)

    Whether it's true or not, this is exactly the kind of sentiment that makes LttP brilliant. Because there is no single rule for how walls behave, the potential for mystery is always present.

  3. I don't know about this piece at all...you ready for a bit of ranting about the rant?

    It just feels a lot like many other pieces of vg criticism out there which basically follow this structure:

    1) Outline the fact that you're a hardcore gamer since the dawn of time.

    2) Underline this fact by casually mentioning Demon's Souls in the first paragraph of my piece which foreshadows the fact that I think the game that I'll be talking about in my piece should be more like Demon's Souls

    3) Insert 80s console or 90s PC franchise of your choice

    4) Describe how awesome the first installment of that franchise was

    5) Don't mention the fact, that when you thought that game was the best thing ever there was also nothing else to do or play

    6) Rant about how sequels/games of that genre ever since are too easy.

    7) Say "harcore" and "hand holding". Maybe mention Call of Duty.

    8) Don't forget to mention Demon's Souls in your last paragraph, since that way your hardcoreyness will stick to peoples minds more

    Admittedly he does fill this structure with a lot of insight of how Zelda game actually work. I totally disagree with him on his conclusions of how Zelda games should work.
    Also, crapping on the designer's (totally legit) criticism of how the original Zelda was way to frustrating and close to unplayable? Not cool man...

  4. Nice counter-rant! I think you raise a good point about how game criticism itself can easily fall into predictable patterns.

    Many of his criticisms have definitely been levied before, but the reason I enjoyed the piece was how focused it was on exploring Zelda rather than try to fit the entire medium into a single framework.

    It also hit on some reservations I've had about Zelda for some time: the games have become increasingly about waiting for secrets to be revealed instead of searching out those secrets for yourself. I think Skyward Sword was an extreme example of this and that the next major game will probably be a bit different, but I can't help but shake the feeling that Nintendo has lost its faith in players' ability to deal with challenging material.

  5. when i experienced cracked walls it caused a big problem that is why i am very alert specially when i know calamity is coming...

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