The Themes and Design Pillars of Zelda over time

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Occasionally I post some social media threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

How the goals goals and approaches in the #Zelda series change over time is a favorite topic of mine!

I think that through a certain lens Kat (quoted below) is right, but there are interesting distinctions to be made between different eras of the Zelda franchise.

“I see a lot of people drawing a distinction between “Classic Zelda” and “BOTW/TOTK” but imo that’s a mistake. On one level or another, I think Zelda has always wanted to have the scope of a work like TOTK. Think about the first time you ever step into the field in Ocarina.

I’m finally on the point of being able to finish TOTK. It’s hard for me to draw a distinction between it and “classic” Zelda. Its lack of structure is a feature in games like A Link Between Worlds too. Depths, Sky, and building don’t feel out of place in a classic Zelda.

At the same time though going back to the more rigid structure of like Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess would feel like a step back. Tears of the Kingdom showed that you could have grand dungeons and strong storytelling beats AND the freedom and exploration of BOTW.

The thing I like about TOTK’s story, by the way, is that it feels like myth. It’s a legend in the tradition of the Odyssey. The “Legend” aspect of Zelda tends to get overlooked, but I think it’s quite key to understanding its world and lore.

– Kat Bailey

The Zelda series has been around for over 35 years. Any long-running series like this contains myriad visions, goals, designs. Like Final Fantasy, there is no canonical “true version”, no ideal you can point to to prove that other versions are “wrong”.

Miyamoto has spoken a lot on the themes and goals of the first Zelda. He has referred to it as a game “about hiking”, as being about a “boy becoming a hero”. He’s described it as being about tresure hunting, and it being a game where players need to _think_ about what to do next.

Fujibayashi has been the director of many Zeldas, including Skyward Sword & Breath of the Wild, two games with polar opposite design strategies. He says that the “universal experience” at the heart of the series is the feeling you get when you solve a puzzle.

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All of these themes have been true for Zelda games across eras:

– coming-of-age
– Feeling of exploration & adventure
– treasure hunting
– thinking about how to proceed
– the satisfaction of solving a puzzle

BUT

They have used WILDLY different strategies to achieve these goals.

Zelda 1, A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Breath of the Wild are the biggest inflection points where major changes to game design occurred that changed how the series was made for years afterwar
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There are a million details we could talk about, but the most important in my mind are:
1. Player navigational freedom/Gating mechanics
2. Puzzle/Mechanical design

Player Freedom and Gating

Zelda 1 was very freeform; not only was “sequence breaking”, or doing things out of order, possible, the intended sequence was very lightly conveyed.

This was a game about searching, navigation and discovery.

In a Link to the Past, they thought about doing the same thing, but for a variety of reasons, including telling a story about a hero coming of age, they moved more towards the “metroidvania” gating: your access to new areas would be blocked until you found items.

In Ocarina, they mostly kept A Link to the Past’s progression structure, and the game was such a stunning success that it basically set in stone a LOT of design convention for the series, for years afterward.

(See my article Ocarina’s Image: Fundamental Challenges of 3D)

But the cracks began to show in the subsequent games. People like Miyamoto, Koizumi, Aonuma, and others talked about grappling with making 3D games that hit the approachability bar they wanted. 3D was complex enough to bar many players from playing.

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This culminated in Skyward Sword, the most linear of all the 3D Zelda games, with the least navigational play. Aonuma talks in an interview with Wired about how at the time, he thought they couldn’t afford to let players get lost while playing the game.

“I thought that making the user get lost was a sin.”

– Eiji Aonuma

Around the time development began on A Link Between Worlds, they saw that this approach wasn’t going to keep working and began purposefully looking for new progression structures for the Zelda series, and ALBW strongly informed BOTW.

Breath of the Wild, of course, went WAY FURTHER in this direction than ALBW, completely eschewing almost all progression gating at all. It was an intentional return to the series’ roots, but honestly it was even more freeform than Zelda 1.

The 2nd topic is Puzzles. Put simply, since the very inception of the series, most puzzles in most Zelda games were hand-crafted with a single possible solution.

Fujibayashi talked about both progression and puzzle design with terms like “confines of a pre-prepared mechanism”.

In Breath of the Wild, they very intentionally pursued a game built out of emergent interactions that would allow “puzzles” to be solved in a variety of ways, based on consistent rules about how the world works.

Though the themes of the series at the highest level have always been consistent, Breath of the Wild was a drastic change in their approach to those themes.

And, like Ocarina before it, it was so successful that we’ll see it’s innovations reflected in all future Zeldas.