Class Prompt: Engaging the senses

In fall 2021 I taught a “World Design” class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

One of the ways to create a sense of place and make environments more memorable is to engage more of the player’s senses. As game creators we don’t always have a lot of avenues to do this! We can’t actually provide smells, for instance. If you’re working on a pen and paper game, as some of you are, you may not have direct access to ANY of the player’s senses, and need to instead evoke them with words.

So some useful angles to look at this from: 

  • We have a lot more than the mere 5 senses that Aristotle identified. Depending on the framework used, we as humans may have up to 55 unique sense receptors. So it’s never as simple as just “engaging the sense of hearing”, or “sight”. This website I found with a quick search has an interesting breakdown.
  • We can evoke sensations in players’ minds through association, memory, or description, which can be prompted in all sorts of ways. 
  • People’s minds process and understand sensory information differently. People with aphantasia may not react as strongly to written description, whereas it may be all that’s ever needed for people with hyperphantasia. People with synesthesia may associate senses in wildly different ways than we expect.  
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Ocarina’s Image: Freedom in Breath of the Wild

“When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1993¹

Fifteen years after Ocarina of Time, the Zelda team finally retired its time-worn solutions to the problems of 3D. They shifted their philosophy, drew from the inspiration for the first Legend of Zelda, and rebuilt the beating heart of the franchise from first principles.

Previously we examined the challenges of building the first 3D Zelda, and the tradeoffs that Ocarina made to maintain approachability. These compromises attempted to balance two unsolved problems: decreased readability, and greatly increased complexity. In this final article, we’ll see how Breath of the Wild found new solutions to those problems.

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Ocarina’s Image: Formulas Etched in Stone

Ocarina of Time was a seminal masterpiece. It was a model for how to make a third-person, 3D adventure game that was approachable and ambitious. It broke new ground in camera control, 3D melee combat, 3D level design, and immersive worlds. It maintained a high standard for readability and approachability. It sold 7.6 million copies on the N64 and 11 million altogether. Nothing like it had ever been made before, and it set a high-water mark that wouldn’t be surpassed for years.

And it etched in stone, in gamers’ expectations, and in developer’s minds a blueprint for what a Zelda game was supposed to be. It cemented formulas that Nintendo would follow for fifteen years.

“…Ocarina of Time became the standard for me for home console Legend of Zelda games. The series built up from there and nothing ever got made from scratch. I think subconsciously there was a strongly conservative voice saying, ‘This has to be this way,’ and, ‘If you change it too much, people won’t like it.’” – Eiji Aonuma, 2011 ¹

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Ocarina’s Image: Fundamental Challenges of 3D

 

 “I wanted something that players could get so lost in, it would take them a whole year to finish.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1992 ¹

I thought that making the user get lost was a sin.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2016 ²

The Zelda series has a storied, 30-year history. Shigeru Miyamoto created the first game with a team of six people; it released in 1986. A decade later, Eiji Onozuka’s first role was the director of dungeon design for Ocarina of Time. He later took his wife’s family name of Aonuma, directed Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, and went on to become the producer for the franchise.

There are almost 25 years between these two quotes, and they reveal a stark shift in the design philosophy for the Zelda franchise. I have long felt that the franchise lost something crucial in the games after Ocarina. It’s easy to blame Aonuma’s leadership. But I have a different take: The move to 3D in Ocarina was uniquely challenging and the Zelda team solved those problems imperfectly, then doubled down on Ocarina’s path for years after.

Until Breath of the Wild. It went open-world, had a non-linear narrative, and re-imagined how dungeons and items work. But those changes required a more fundamental shift: they needed to solve Ocarina’s problems, trust the player, and build their gameplay out of emergent systems.

This is the first of three articles, originally written for the audience of Zelda fans at Zelda Universe. In this series, I use my own experience as a game developer and extensive reading of interviews to infer why Zelda development decisions were made, and how Ocarina’s design shaped the series for years afterwards. But I wasn’t there! This is ultimately an act of speculation. Keep that in mind as you read!

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