The New Zelda, The Future Of Video Games, And Empathy

Despite the fact that I love video games, I don’t really keep up with news about them — I just kind of hear about games, play them, and if I like them, keep playing them. So I didn’t know about the preview of the upcoming Zelda game that aired on the Game Awards on the 5th of this month until yesterday. Forgive me, Frisky readers, but I need to nerd out about this for a second. When my boyfriend showed me the preview, I was sitting on the couch with my jaw on the floor grinning like an idiot for four minutes while we watched the clip, and then afterward I launched into a short lecture on player demand for realism in the Zelda games and the compromises Nintendo is making to have a realistic-feeling game without sacrificing the fantasy-inspired design the series has always embraced.

Things that are awesome about the new Zelda title:

  • Realism in gameplay, if not in design. For some reason, some Zelda fans really want realistic character design. The design team moved toward that in the Gamecube/Wii title Twilight Princess, but still stuck to anime-style faces. The next Wii title, Skyward Sword, moved back into very sort of cartoon-y design. The upcoming title still looks animated (“not realistic”), BUT there are details they’re adding that help to make the gameplay more efficient and more realistic, like not letting your horse run into a tree (horses IRL are too intelligent to run into trees). Something as minor as that is just good design, because it allows the player to suspend reality more fully and become more fully immersed in the game.

  • Open gameplay. The first few Zelda titles allowed you to access any part of the map and play the dungeons almost in whatever order you wanted. Although the Nintendo 64 title Ocarina of Time is still — in my opinion and many others’ — possibly the best video game ever, the rules programmed into it were limiting: You had to get certain items in a certain order for the game to work. There were a few shortcuts you could take to get items early without using glitches, but by and large the story was extremely linear. This was the product of programming limitations that the Zelda team has apparently overcome. The new Zelda title is returning to the M.O. of the original games, wherein you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want, and possibly defeat the dungeons in whatever order you want.

  • Contribution to the Zelda story. As GameXplain points out, the new title appears to be taking place directly after Skyward Sword, which functions as the sort of creation myth for the Zelda franchise. At the end of Skyward Sword, we’re left with the impression that our hero Link is going to be tasked with building Hylia, the world in which almost all of the rest of the Zelda games take place. Several landscape features return from Twilight Princess, which takes place toward the end of one of the known Zelda timelines (per the Zelda encyclopedia, Hyrule Historia), but very little of the GIGANTIC map seems to be populated, so it appears as if the foundation of Hylia is underway, but is not complete. This prospect is very exciting to me, because it fills in a huge gap in the history of Hylia.

I could go on: the design is beautiful, the enemies give me a hunch that we might possibly find out more about the Dark Interlopers from Twilight Princess, I’m interested in knowing how they’ll handle the passing of time. But I think it’s enough to focus on those three points above, because they get at the heart of what’s really wonderful about video gaming. To explain, I’m going to have to take a small detour and talk about art.

The direction visual art has taken over the last century is to move toward participation and engagement. That started with minimalism, wherein the viewer of an artwork would encounter a massive, unusual object and have to try to understand it not only by looking at it — as they had done with paintings and sculpture in the past — but also by processing its relation to their body. Conceptualism expanded upon that idea, by creating artworks that functioned as experiences for the viewer, such as the works of Robert Barry, in which the viewer would be present while the artist undertook an action (like releasing gas into the atmosphere). The rise of performance art in the mid-twentieth century combined visual art and theatre in a similar way. The neo-concretist Lygia Clark created more participatory artworks, in which, for example, she would construct an environment for the viewer to move through in order to simulate an experience, like the experience of being conceived and born. In the ’90s, participatory artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres asked viewers to take pieces of the artwork with them, thereby incorporating the artwork into the viewers’ lives. Today, theorists like Nato Thompson talk about the idea of “living as form” — whereas form 150 years ago might have meant “a painting on canvas” or “a sculpture made of bronze,” artwork has progressed to the point that artwork encompasses actions we go through to affect social change. Our lives can be the form of an artwork.

Likewise, I think that video gaming is a progression of literary fiction. Video games are stories; like stories, they have a plot and characters. Like games, however, those stories only progress through the participation of the player. The player has to make decisions within an underlying set of rules for gameplay. Creating those rules well is one of the most effective ways a game designer can tell a story: If you design the rules of the game such that the player is forced to have experiences that are foreign to their narrow lived experiences, it is possible for the game to expand the player’s mind and make them more empathetic in real life.

The viewer of a painting can only consume the artwork with their eyes. It’s their choice whether or not to dissociate themselves from the underlying message of the artwork; they don’t have to empathize — the viewer can say, “Well, that’s the artist’s opinion.” But participatory artworks, for example, create a situation that is bound by rules that the artist decides ahead of time. In that situation, the viewer has to make decisions that force them to reckon with their priorities and values, and empathize with the artist or the artist’s intentions. Similarly, a book allows a reader some distance from the characters and the plot; a reader can say, “Well, I enjoyed it, but it has nothing to do with me.” Video games force the player to make decisions as another person, force the player to empathize and to grow out of that empathy.

That’s why Zelda creating realism that makes the gameplay more immersive for the player, expanding into apparently very complex open gameplay, and continuing to expand on what is already a very good story about courage, kindness, inquiry, and the value of practice is real-world important. Pulling the player in with gameplay that isn’t interrupted by weird technicalities like having to move your horse away from a tree or constantly pausing to equip a different set of boots makes the player feel much more like he or she is really living and making decisions as Link. The open gameplay expands the number of options and decisions the player has and has to make, which grants the player more emotional intimacy with Link and more autonomy as Link. It makes it feel less like you’re playing by someone else’s rules, even if you are, which erases some of the biggest obstacles to empathy.

We’re moving closer and closer to virtual reality in video gaming. Google bought a VR company a few months ago, and the speculation is that they’re looking to create a version of Google Glass that can project VR images directly onto your eyes, smoothly integrating the image into the real world around you. That progression of technology combined with the progression of programming and design that the Zelda team is offering has some really wonderful potential to be used as a barrier-breaking tool. Imagine a Zelda game in which you are no longer playing as Link, you are Link, and the situations imposed on Link are now situations that are imposed on you. I prefer not to even talk about the dangers of equipping people to carry and use what feels like real weapons and empathize with anti-heroes, but instead to look forward optimistically and hope that game development moves toward equipping people to become more open in heart and mind, and be their best, most heroic selves.

[IGN]

[Polygon (1), (2)]

[Zelda Dungeon]

[The Verge]

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