The Missing Link
Imagine for a brief moment a simple imaginary conversation between you and one of your gamer friends:
Friend: “Dude, you absolutely have to play Doom 3. The game absolutely rocks.”
Stop the tape. What would you say to this question? Quickly now, or your friend is going to declare you a fanboy for blindly supporting a series. You’ve got five seconds and fifty words to do it in. Good music? No. Get to kill things? You do that in Doom too. Great storyline? That won’t even buy oceanfront property in Arizona. Think, think, think, what would you say?
There is definitely one advantage that most genres—especially those found on the PS2 and XBox—have over Nintendo titles in general, in particular Zelda. Fans of FPSes, war games, spy games, auto theft games, the works have it easy when trying to argue what makes their genre great. You get to do “cool” stuff in it. (How killing people and stealing cars got to be the “in thing”, I’ll never know.) But while Zelda is perhaps the second most purchased game genre in existence (a distant second to Mario), not to mention that Link himself is now the three-time winner of GameFAQ’s Character Battle, medieval combat has never quite achieved that mainstream “cool” factor. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You hear medieval roleplay, and quite often the first thing that springs to mind are all those nerds playing Dungeons & Dragons on a Friday night rather than going out on dates. (I’ll raise my hand as being guilty of that one at one point in my life.) It doesn’t exactly help matters either that we have to justify those “strange” decisions that Nintendo makes, like cel shading Wind Waker. Explaining why you like the Zelda series in general… just doesn’t seem quite as easy as everyone else has it.
This of course, begs the question: What makes Zelda so… Zelda? Why has this legendary set of games captured the hearts and minds of millions of gamers? What sets Zelda apart from the rest of the pack?
The answer, of course, is bound to be different for everyone. (Yes, there’s bound to be someone out there who plays Zelda just because Link wears a floppy, green hat. The green tunic is, no doubt, just icing on the cake.) But consider for a moment Zelda’s main rival, Final Fantasy. Now I don’t mean to pick on Final Fantasy at all, for they make some very good games. (I myself am really looking forward to FFXII.) However, even though, by a very loose definition, both Zelda and FF are RPG games (and I don’t want to hear any argument over this; I’m sure we’ll have an article about this another day), there is some unalienable difference between the two series. With the Zelda series, other than Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which is arguably quite different from the mainstream Zelda titles, die hard Zelda fanatics have thoroughly enjoyed every Zelda game ever created. But look at Final Fantasy; more specifically, look the most recent ones. FFVII was an absolute hit. FFVIII is loved by some, but only a fringe; it’s hated by most everyone. FFIX received a lukewarm response. FFX was another hit, but its sequel FFX-2 bombed. What gives? Zelda overall has really no bad track record, whereas Final Fantasy sometimes messes up and doesn’t give the fans what they want.
What do we make of this? Unlike FF, there’s something that Zelda has that is consistent from game to game, something truly Zelda-like that makes people flock to the game stores by the truckload to buy the games. Despite our individual differences in taste, there’s some core quality about the Zelda series that achieves some level of universal appeal. But what is that appeal? What makes Zelda… Zelda?
I firmly believe that the true merit of a great game is that you don’t notice how great a game is until you’re done playing and you get a chance to reflect upon that. Take Super Smash Bros., which by far is a classic in its own right. At no time while you’re playing are you actively thinking, “Oh gosh, this game is absolutely awesome!” Rather, what you’re usually doing is either concentrating obsessively upon the game, wailing curse words at whoever just killed you, or laughing like a hyena that someone just stepped on your land mine. Sure, once you turn off the power to your archaic N64, you think, “we’re going have to do this again soon!” But games that are great draw you into the game so much that you forget you’re playing.
This is what I believe to be the prime component of any great game regardless of genre: immersion. For a game to truly be great, somehow it has to pull the player into whatever environment it is trying to convey. It has to connect the players and the characters in this unifying bond. Player and character must interact so cohesively that all semblance of reality is completely destroyed.
We mentioned that a few of the Final Fantasy titles choked and died, so let’s look at one. Where did FFVIII go wrong? Answer (or at least one of them): Junctioning. Now my roommate likes junctioning, so I know one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but the art of junctioning magic and skills to you is about as complicated as putting together a NASA space shuttle. The only real way to do it is to head over to GameFAQs, look up all of the junction tables, scratch a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, and then bring it back to the game and properly apply the math. It wasn’t a simple system like the days of Secret of Mana or ChronoTrigger where all you really have to do is that 215 attack is distinctly more than 207. No, you get stuck with this unintelligible system… that is difficult to use… or requires you to break away from the fantasy realm and plunge back into reality to make it work properly. Immersion is destroyed, and so too is the overall potential of the game.
However, even in the games like FFVII and FFX where reality need not be consulted, Zelda does something rather unique that most other modern RPG/adventure games don’t do. Zelda makes very little use of voice acting… and what’s more, the main character Link gets zero lines of dialogue. Most major characters in most video games have their personality defined for you; Squall from FFVIII, no matter what you did, was going to be quiet and reclusive, Selphie would be bloody annoying, and Rinoa… damsel-in-distress Rinoa winds up with would-be-hero Squall. There’s no other story that’s possible. All the characters, everything that happens during FFVIII (and any FF game) is predefined. Destiny wills it; thus it must be done.
With Zelda, Link doesn’t speak. Zelda herself doesn’t get many lines of dialogue. Really if you were to do some Freudian analysis, you’d come to find out that Link and Zelda really are character templates rather than fully fledged characters. Those of you who read fanfiction will know exactly what I’m talking about. In my reading, especially Ocarina of Time fanfiction, I have seen Link’s personality vary from dashing prince to hard-working farm boy, from killing machine of doom to aimless and lost hero with no direction in life, and the list goes on. Zelda has been portrayed in a variety of ways as well, from proper princess to spunky tomboy to cold and heartless wench. You name it; someone’s written it.
This is what I think is really what makes Zelda completely unique in the gaming market in a lot of ways. Final Fantasy and most games out on the market today only provide a half-immersion. The player is the character, for after all, the player is controlling him or her. However, those games do not seem to want to let the character be who the player wants. Cloud is Cloud, Squall is Squall, and Tidus is annoying; they’re facts of life. With Zelda, you get the chance to write your own dialogue, to draw your own conclusions about the motives of those involved… there’s a lot of freedom to be found here. There’s a lot more immersion to be had, and that just makes you forget even more than you’re just playing a game.
What makes Zelda Zelda? There are probably many more things, yes, but I believe that immersion compromises a big chunk of what Zelda is all about.Follow This Entry | Read Other Posts by The Missing Link