Choice

After breezing through Super Mario Odyssey and slogging through Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I found myself without another new Switch title to really grab my interest. Looking at what I have in my collection, I decided to fire up Breath of the Wild again, to see if it still holds up on a second playthrough.

Short answer – yes. Even a year later, after the initial hype has worn off and we’re all getting excited about the next mainstream Pokemon title (…eventually…), Breath of the Wild is not only an amazing game but one that I suspect will come to be seen as a major milestone in game design and history.

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It takes my breath away, every time

As with any true masterpiece, Breath of the Wild has a lot to teach us about good game design, specifically what makes a good adventure game. That’s what Zelda games are, at their core – the original in-development nickname for what would become the Zelda series was “adventure Mario.”

What makes a good adventure game? Or, even more concisely, what makes a good adventure? It’s a simple yet extremely difficult question. Each society has been working on it for millennia in the form of stories and legends passed down through the years. Clearly, this is a topic of great study, but a short laundry list of items an adventure should have could be:

  • Some number of protagonists, who are working towards some “good” goal.
  • Opposing them, adversity in some form. Either an “evil”, consciously working against them, or simply the natural adversity of life.
  • A trajectory of growth for the protagonists. Rewards for passing each trial along the way, both in tools needed to oppose their adversity and in skills learned in doing so.

From only these three aspects, we already have a rough outline of an adventure. There exists a goal that needs to be accomplished. An evil defeated, an object found, or perhaps just a world explored. A protagonist is chosen, by fate or chance, to accomplish this goal. However, at the start of the tale, they are not nearly ready to simply accomplish the final goal. They lack the strength, or the knowledge, or the resources. These things they lack become sub-goals that must be accomplished before the original top-level task can be attempted. Thus, the protagonist sets off to attack these subgoals. When they are finally ready, they can attempt to complete the original task, achieving their good end and completing the story. Everything that happens in the middle – the friends they make, the places they travel, the skills and knowledge they acquire – is the adventure. A good adventure game, then, is one that allows the player to do all of these things.

That’s what makes a good adventure game. What makes a great adventure game, however, requires allowing the player to feel like they are the adventurer. That’s a good deal harder.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an adventurer, and you need to slay a dragon that’s been torching the kingdom on the regular. So far, sounds like an adventure, right? Now suppose that in the center of the town square is a large red button labeled “SLAY DRAGON.” Your adventure consists of walking to the button and pushing it.

Doesn’t feel very adventurous, does it?

Unfortunately, plenty of adventure games are more like this than what you were probably imagining before the big red button part. In an attempt to make accomplishing the final goal feel awesome while keeping the game accessible, the adversity is removed. As we’ve noted, though, the adversity was the very source of the adventure: removing the adversity removes the adventure. Cosmetic changes involving the protagonist (“only the fated hero can push the button!”) or the nature of the button (“It’s actually a magical orb from the dragon-slaying dimension”) don’t help, no matter how much lazy game studios wish they did. No adversity, no adventure.

Back to the hypothetical scenario. Let’s remove the button since that’s an obvious dead-end. There’s still a dragon to slay, but no obvious, easily accessible Deux-ex device to utilize. However, this time, after asking you to slay the dragon, the king hands you a long parchment, detailing the exact steps you’ll take to do so. First, you’ll travel to the northern marshes to find the lost breastplate of fire-proofness. Then you’ll head east to the dark forest where the elves craft the strongest bows in the land. Along the way, you’ll meet a new acquaintance who will initially be skeptical of your abilities but will become a true friend in time. From there you will turn south to the great ports, where any good can be had for the right price. You will eavesdrop (completely by chance, of course) on a conversation between two merchants, letting you know the location of the illegal midnight market where the most contraband items are sold. Upon arriving, you will learn it was all a setup. You’ll barely escape with your life and, crucially, the very item you came to buy: the famed cowl of invisibility. (In the process your love interest will die. Just a heads-up.) Your checkbox-style inventory completed, you will track down the dragon in the steppes of the south-west, and after a long confrontation slay it with a cinematic shot through the eye.

If you were this protagonist and the king actually handed you this list, your eyes would probably glaze over halfway through the list. (If you actually read the whole paragraph above, your eyes probably actually glazed over halfway through the list.) If you were playing a game where you then had to actually go and do all of the listed things, the feeling of adventure would be dead on arrival. It would feel more like grocery shopping than adventuring. What’s the problem then? The above story has all of the things we need for an adventure. There’s a protagonist who wants to adventure, an evil that needs defeating, and a well-thought-out trajectory of growth and challenge to get the protagonist from A to B. What’s missing?

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Aww, he wants a hug!

Choice. Choice is missing. The single biggest implicit prerequisite for any adventure is the ability to make choices in how to go about it. Without choice, everything else falls flat. Adversity loses its teeth, as you will only ever encounter adversity that you have the tools to beat. Protagonist growth goes out the window, as you have no need to learn and grow. As long as you remain locked on a railroad traveling towards the final goal, everything you’ll need at any point along the way will be effectively spoon-fed to you at just the right moment.

Boring, right?

The presence of real choice is where Breath of the Wild sets itself apart. For years, adventure games have tried to lay out series of events to create ever stronger senses of adventure. Bosses got badder, twists got twistier, and terrain more extreme. In doing so, though, they became more and more scripted, which has a way of killing the very adventure the script was supposed to create.

There are many ways Breath of the Wild breaks this mold. The extremely well disguised “tutorial” section of the game essentially hands you all of the mechanics in the game, restricted to a small part of the map. After completing that, you’re able to travel to literally any part of the map, completely ignoring the plot if you so desire. You can even travel to places you are woefully underprepared for and promptly have the shit kicked out of you. The main part of the plot of the game is broken up into discrete chunks, which can be tackled in any order (or, as noted above, simply ignored). The sub-goals, designed to increase your power and knowledge and prepare you for the final confrontation, can be completely ignored. If you want to, you can run straight to the final confrontation without so much as putting on pants. Not like a real adventurer would, but like a real adventurer could in a real adventure. You have complete freedom of choice in how to progress, in a way unlike any game I’ve ever played before.

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Breath of the Wild – a game about climbing cliffs.

If I had to credit the abundant choice found in Breath of the Wild to a single game feature, it would be the ability to climb. Most games use cliffs as walls: If you’re walking down a road between two vertical cliff-faces, you’d have no choice but to take the road one way or the other, as those would be the only options available to you. Not so in Breath of the Wild. Just as in real life, you can decide you’re done with the road and try to climb one of the walls. Many landmarks you want to travel to in the game present no easy path, so climbing becomes a necessity. This creates a subtle but massively important shift in how the player thinks about exploration. Instead of seeing a far-off fortress and thinking “How can I get there”, or even worse, “How can I get there that the game will allow”, or even worse yet, “Will the game allow me to get there”, the player is faced with the choices involved in planning a route. Is there a road that makes sense? If not, what path is the shortest and the least steep? (In a symbiosis of realism and good game design, the stamina system allows the player to climb further when the ascent is less steep, incentivizing planning a route over blind climbing.)  Will taking a less standard path allow you to stumble upon something noteworthy? The presence of climbing alone in the game changes travel from logic and possibility-elimination into, for lack of a better word, adventuring. You feel like you are truly exploring Hyrule, limited only by your strength (health and stamina), the tools you’ve found so far, and your wits. You feel like an adventurer.

I don’t know how long it will take for another game to come along that captures the spirit of adventuring as well as Breath of the Wild does. I can only hope that game developers are paying attention to Breath of the Wild’s massive success and will try to emulate it in all of the right ways. That they will realize that engaging world design goes further than elaborate, scripted cutscenes in making us care about what’s going on. That they will give us a few multi-use tools instead of many single-use ones, as only multi-use tools allow for creativity. That rather than boxing us in, they will allow us to venture wherever we want, even when the plot turns right and we turn left. I hope that when the time comes to create the next great adventure game, these developers trust us, the players. Because they’ll have to trust us, in order to give us the ability to choose how we play.

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Because It’s There

Every so often I stumble upon a game that I immediately know will be one of my all-time favorites. More and more, the games that fall into this category are indie games that only take me a single digit number of hours to clear. Despite being short by video game standards, they manage in this short time to demonstrate the very best gameplay qualities and innovate further within their chosen genre, as well as present a compelling and deep narrative, all along with art and music that link the two together. It seems like a tall order, but back when I started this blog I had just started Bastion and knew instantly that it would forever be one of my favorite games. Later on, Axiom Verge and Undertale joined the list. This week, the new inductee is Celeste.

Madeline: There's no way this ends well.
It doesn’t.

A glowing review from a co-worker convinced me to buy Celeste on Switch (though it is available on most consoles and Steam), and within mere minutes I was loving it. Celeste is a puzzle-platformer with a platforming difficulty level somewhere above Super Mario Bros but well below Super Meat Boy, which puts it right in the sweet spot of challenging but not sadistically punishing. That may intimidate some who aren’t huge platformer fans, but about half of the challenge (and in particular the hardest parts) are purely optional. Strawberries are distributed throughout the levels in hard-to-reach spots that will push your platforming skills to the limit. They’re there if you want to get them, but the game even goes out of its way to let you know that they don’t matter other than that.

Strawberries – the hardest way to impress your friends. Seriously.

So then what’s the point of the strawberries? Why do I (the player) feel such a gut-level need to at least try to collect them?


In Celeste, you play a girl named Madeline who is trying to climb the titular Mount Celeste. Along the way you meet a few other characters, including social-media-obsessed fellow climber Theo and a crazy old lady who seems to be more with it than she lets on. At the start, the lady warns you that strange things happen to climbers who attempt to summit the mountain and urges you to turn back. Of course, Madeline stubbornly pushes ahead, insisting to both the lady and herself that she “needs to do this.” It’s only in a later chapter that you meet the reason why – A physical manifestation of Madeline’s mental illnesses (mainly depression and anxiety) who springs from Madeline’s mind in a nightmare and retains physical form even after the sun has risen.

Rude.

The girl (nicknamed “Badeline”, though this name is never used in the game) haunts Madeline at every turn, insulting her and telling her repeatedly to give up. At every success, she urges Madeline to quit while she’s ahead and at every failure trumpets her foresight and warns of even worse consequences if Madeline doesn’t throw in the towel. But Madeline persists, and persists, and persists.


There is a very interesting connection between platformers and depression. In any sufficiently difficult platformer, even the best player will “lose” to the game hundreds of times before they eventually succeed by the skin of their teeth. With every successive failure, the game is effectively telling you, “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Quit. Turn the game off. Give up.” I am no expert in anything mental health related, but I wonder if these same feelings of frustration and hopelessness are what people who suffer from depression deal with constantly in their everyday life. If so, the game not only destigmatizes depression but praises those who carry its burden while continuing to push themselves to reach the highest heights. Within the game, continuing to play is telling the game that it is wrong. That after every failure you will try again. That you have the ability to succeed and the fortitude to see it through.

The fact that the mechanics and the narrative are intertwined at the deepest of levels really drives this point home. I yearn to collect strawberries just like Madeline yearns to reach the summit of Mount Celeste. Neither poses any reward of any sort, yet the very existence of the mountain (and the strawberries) issues a challenge to any who would dare lay eyes on it. Simply walking by would be admitting defeat, and neither I (the player) nor Madeline the character are ready to give up just yet.

Towards these ends, the musical score is truly magical. It seamlessly fits into the mechanics and themes, while also subtly re-asserting the plot throughout the game. For an example, here’s “Scattered and Lost”. Each of the songs blends light acoustic sounds (mainly piano and acoustic percussion) with heavy, dark and dissonant electronic sounds. In a way, this combination symbolizes the state of Madeline’s mind, with the acoustic sounds representing her optimistic and confident personality and the electronic ones representing the weight of her depression. Throughout each of the songs in the soundtrack, these two elements do battle, each vying to gain dominance over the other yet both unable to fully declare victory. The plot of the game, which I won’t spoil here, comes to the same conclusion.


One of my favorite parts of games as an art form is that they are able to unlock emotions in the player that other art forms (for example, books, movies, and paintings) struggle with. Platformers excel at causing the emotions of frustration and (in the non-medical sense) depression when the player fails while bestowing elation, confidence, and pride when the player succeeds. Celeste capitalizes on this unique ability of platformers to weave a narrative of challenge and suffering, of rising only to fall and yet still getting back up onto your feet. It instills a deep empathy for Madeline and respect for all who struggle with depression but despite its burden still continue through life.

In a way, the very frustration and challenges set up by platformers like Celeste make them the most optimistic and encouraging of games. By setting up challenges they make us better players by allowing us to overcome them. We collect the strawberries because they’re there. We climb the mountain because it’s there. We strive to make tomorrow better than today because that’s what it means to be alive. If the mountain could see our faces at the top, if it could feel our elation and our pride at conquering it, I don’t think it would curse us.

I think it would be proud.

Impulsive Decisions

This Thursday, I sat outside a Best Buy for four and a half hours! To tell this story right, I have to tell it as it happened. I wanted to blog as I went, but my phone died in the middle, so I have to rewind a bit. So here we go..!

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Let’s do the time-warp agaaaaaain!

Friday, March 3rd at 12:01AM marked the release of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s new console-portable hybrid. For the non-nintendo-fanperson, here’s a rundown: The “Console” itself is a medium sized tablet-looking rectangle. At home, the console can be placed in a dock which is then attached to a TV via HDMI cable. The controller is then two controller pieces with buttons and a joystick, each attached to a controller frame that provides the hand grips. On the go, the console can be removed from the dock and the controller pieces can be attached to the console, resulting in a device similar in style to a PSP.

The concept is exceedingly novel, but until Thursday at around 7PM (PST) I had decided not to buy a Nintendo Switch. More out of laziness than an actual lack of desire, I felt that I didn’t need a Switch. I had basically moved away from console gaming towards the glory (and sale prices) of Steam, and didn’t see a huge reason to change that policy now.

But gosh, LoZ: Breath of the Wild. That’s a link to Google results for “Breath of the Wild Reviews”. Click it. Seriously, click it. In addition to quite nearly flawless reviews across the board, we get link previews like:

So when I say Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild not only gatecrashes the list, but probably beats the lot as the greatest of them all, I hope you realise how serious an achievement it is. (source)

And

If everything remains the same, there’s a case to be made that Breath of the Wild is in the top three best reviewed games for as long as review … (source)

I was finally pushed over the top when Aaron (thanks Aaron!) sent me a compiled list of Breath of the Wild’s scores across some twenty-plus game reviewing platforms.

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Anyone notice “Time” in there? Yeah, that’s Time Magazine.

Thus, at 7PM PST, with both the game and the system launching in five hours, I decided to jump on board. At that point, preordering was long past possible. The only way to get my hands on a Switch and the absurdly-well-reviewed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was to take matters into my own hands.

By which I mean wait in a line outside of Best Buy for four and a half hours.

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Nerds. Nerds everywhere.

To be honest, I got very very lucky. The first place I called (a Best Buy) said that their line was too long, but to try a different best buy half an hour further down the road. I called them and they said if I arrived then I had a very good chance of being early enough, so I immediately called an uber. Upon arrival, I was at position forty-seven in line, which made me fairly optimistic (as fifty is a nice round number to have shipped to you).

And so we waited.

This is what I’m really writing to talk about. Not the Switch and Breath of the Wild (I’m sure I’ll get to it soon enough), but the experience of waiting in line for a new console and game. I’d never done it before, and after doing it once, I can say I’d absolutely do it again! (And that I’d prepare better).

I was surprised by how friendly and outgoing everyone around me was. After a few minutes of awkward silence, we started talking about our favorite games and systems and why we liked them. One of the guys who lived nearby left and came back with snacks for everyone, which was amazing because my hastily thought out plan didn’t include provisions for sitting in one spot for four and a half hours. One couple came with a huge fluffy puppy who immediately took a liking to me (along with everyone else) and spent the night moving from person to person and licking our faces.

[Picture of Dog would go here, but my phone died before I could get one. Just imagine a huge dog with long black and white fur and little sharply pointed ears. You doing it? Great! Good imagining. Who’s a good imaginer? You are!]

At around ten thirty they handed out tickets guaranteeing us at least a Nintendo Switch and a copy of Breath of the Wild. This, of course, raised everyone’s spirits and made the rest of the night fly by. The fact that I found a Game of Thrones book in my backpack didn’t hurt.

Finally, the time arrived. The doors opened and we were herded inside into yet another line. Slowly, the line progressed as people exchanged their tickets for products and walked out, tired but triumphant. A little while longer, and it was my turn.

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“Aha!” You’re thinking, “a plot hole! You said your phone was dead.” Great detective work, hypothetical reader! I plugged it in when I got into the Best Buy.

Reflecting on the whole experience, waiting in line for four and a half hours was really, really nice. I cannot recall a single instance of assholishness. No one tried to cut, and when people left to go to the bathroom or pick up supplies, no one got angry at them for resuming their former position in line. When the time came and we were let into Best Buy, everyone proceeded in an orderly fashion. No one threw a fit when the specific version of the product or a specific add-on was no longer available when they reached the register. Everyone picked what they wanted out of what was available, paid, and left.

The contrast to standard Black Friday decorum in America could not be more stark. With that in mind, I have to wonder, what made this shopping experience so different? Some of it was the weather and the duration of waiting. We were waiting in the fifty-degree chill of a mild Californian winter, and for a mere six hours at the most. I assume that the atmosphere of waiting in a multi-day line in the snow would be exceedingly different. We’re also only waiting for a single product, and one who’s company makes a conscious effort to be family friendly and on the whole “nice”. I have to wonder what the same line would have been like if we were waiting for a new Playstation or XBox. (Here’s one theory).

There’s plenty to ponder, for sure. But for now, on to Breath of the Wild!