Living in Hyrule

A subjective (but thorough) analysis of
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

"In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule..."
An ode to Deku Nuts

Kokiri Forest

The first few times I played this game, it was with a computer keyboard. That was, shall we say, not ideal. A few years later I got the game for the Gamecube, and still something felt "off" about it. Now I play on a Nintendo 64, which I got in large part so that I could play this game as it was originally designed. This might just be the snob in me talking, but it does make a difference. The Nintendo 64 had an idiosyncratic controller, and the game was made for that specific input device. (The reverse may also be true: the development of this specific game at Nintendo may have influenced the design of the controller!) The controller's left handle was included to offer developers an old-fashioned and familiar alternative to the analog joystick (which is essential for 3D movement), and as such it is not used in this game. But even without those controls, there are still an overwhelming number of buttons in different colors and configurations -two standard buttons, four smaller direction buttons, a shoulder button, a "start/pause" button, a trigger button for the left index finger- and every single one of them will be used frequently in this game.

The basic interaction between player and game is much more complicated in Ocarina of Time than in its predecessors, mostly because of 3D. Before, the camera was always fixed above the action. Now, the player will need to manually aim the camera in whatever direction he wants. Before, the player would shield himself against enemy attacks by simply facing whichever of the four possible angles the attack was coming from. But now attacks may be coming from offscreen, or from the air above, etc.; and so the player will have to hold a button to defend from many angles at once. Even where there aren't new buttons, gameplay is more nuanced: for instance, pressing the "attack" button may yield a vertical slice, a horizontal slice, or a jab, depending on what other buttons are pressed at the same time. This is less obviously necessary. But perhaps a player will naturally expect more depth from an experience that looks more real, in which case this too is a result of the added dimension.

It would have been possible to scale back the game's complexities and keep the experience closer to the old formula. The camera could have been kept in one position for the entire game, or it could have followed a preset track like Super Mario 64's camera. (It seems probable that this approach was considered at some point: development of Ocarina of Time began on Super Mario 64's game engine!) The flying enemies could have stayed at shoulder-level. The gameplay could have been exactly as simple as the earlier games, which -it should be pointed out- were never all that simple to begin with. But instead, Ocarina of Time added climbing and diving and automatic jumping and backflips and forward rolls and outfit-swapping and three simultaneous items, all unlocked from the very first section of the game!

By all rights, Ocarina of Time should be unplayable. It is too complex. A decade later the Zelda team found that many players were overwhelmed by the series' gameplay, so they significantly simplified the formula for the handheld Zelda games to pre-1998 levels. In 2007's Phantom Hourglass, the camera is always kept in one place (even though the graphics are 3D), flying enemies stay at shoulder level, movement is simplified, etc. But that was nine years after Ocarina of Time. In the interim, the Zelda games just kept piling on more systems to learn without significantly simplifying much. It is remarkable that Nintendo's vision for a more intricate Legend of Zelda didn't crash and burn from day one.
As soon as the cutscene ends, the camera switches to a fixed perspective showing the entire room from above as a pre-rendered image. Link's house is a giant hollowed-out tree. Link stands on his wooden bed at the bottom-right of the screen. There is a small tree stump in the center of the circular room serving as a table. At the top left is the door. The player leaves Link's house.

The camera shows Link as he walks out of his house. Text appears: "Kokiri Forest". Then the camera swivels to the right to show (for just a second) as much of the forest as it can. A girl with a fairy runs toward Link's house. The camera zooms in on her. "Yahoo! Hi, [name]!", she says. Control returns to the player. Link is standing on a small platform outside his door, with walls on all sides restricting movement. The camera stays in one spot facing the tree, but its angle adjusts to keep Link centered as the player moves around the platform. The only exits are the door and a ladder, both of which stay visible from any point on the platform. The player descends the ladder. The word "Down" appears in a blue circle at the top of the screen, and if the player presses the A button Link will jump down.

At the base of the tree, on the left side, is carved a child's drawing of a warrior (with a fairy hovering over him) standing up to a monster. The left side of this drawing is cut off by the camera until the player moves to the left. When the player moves in any direction, he will see Saria, the girl who greeted him, with a blue arrow pointing at her. If the player presses the A button while standing next to her (as indicated by the text on the top of the screen), he will speak to her. She congratulates the player on receiving a fairy, and then encourages him to go see the Deku Tree.

And here's how they pulled it off: with nothing more glamorous than a properly-designed difficulty curve. At this point in the game, the game expects that the player has never picked up a controller before in his life. Before it puts the player in a fancy 3D world, it first gives a simple 2D room in which he can learn to maneuver a character around an obstacle using an analog stick.

The game is focusing on characters rather than places or gameplay, to prevent the player from feeling overwhelmed. This also distracts from the tutorial which is still in progress, by presenting the ladder as a way to get to a character rather than a task in itself. Having the player, upon leaving home, immediately be greeted by name (and with a smile!) at once paints Kokiri Forest as a friendly and welcoming place, even if we don't know who this girl is yet. The difficulty of interaction here is just slightly greater than it was in the house; we're still working our way up to the real thing. Only when the player succeeds in maneuvering Link to the ground will he have proven he's capable of handling 3D movement. Of course, for those who have already played 3D games, this is over so quickly that it doesn't even register as gameplay!

Talking with Saria is entirely optional. It gives no new information, and says nothing about the relationship between Link and Saria other than that it's a friendly one. The main point of this conversation is to teach the player to use the A button for interactions. A cutscene was used to create curiosity about Saria, the text on the screen gave the curious player a way to figure out what to do, the movement to get to her is simple enough, and if the player succeeds in speaking to her he is rewarded with pleasant chit-chat that points him in the direction of the next task. Actually, there are a few things the player needs to do before he can get to the Deku Tree, but for now he just knows that he needs to move forward.
There are walls on both sides, leaving just one direction for moving forward. There is a yellow path on the ground going in that direction. As the player moves forward up a ramp, those walls have ended and the yellow path goes left and right. Straight ahead, there is a gate blocking movement, though the player can walk around it. There are now visible buildings in all directions.

The twins' house has two pots in it with rupees inside (one green rupee and one blue), which can be lifted and thrown. (Unlike some other kinds of objects, pots can only be thrown and not dropped.) One of the twins is sitting inside, and if prompted she tells you how much the different kinds of rupees are worth. She also tells the player her sister is at "the store that has a red roof".

The sign outside Mido's house reads: "House of the Great Mido, Boss of the Kokiri". Inside are four chests which can be opened to get rupees and hearts.

Saria's house contains four "hearts". Outside her house, a boy is trying to pull out the grass. He says in unskippable text that Mido had him cut the grass after promising Saria he'd do it himself.

The way to the Deku Tree is blocked by Mido until the player has a sword and shield equipped.

Many of the Kokiri standing around have useful information: they point the player to the "Forest Training Center", they teach how to pick things up, etc. A girl sits above the shop and tell the player to try locking on to her with the Z button. Unlike other tips in this section, this dialogue triggers automatically. More tips are contained on signs, such as an explanation of the automatic jumping. The player is rewarded for jumping across platforms with Rupees that appear from out of nowhere.

The House of the Know-it-All Brothers has three Kokiri sitting in it, which between them have five tips to choose from. Each one is a detailed explanations of some aspect of the interface: the use of C-buttons (with a separate tip for C-Up, which toggles between camera modes), the use of the A button, how to consult the two map systems, and a description of the three different types of items the player will encounter as well as instructions on how to equip them from the menus. The last two tips come with a warning: "Don't ask unless you want to hear a long explanation.". If the player chooses to avoid these instructions, he is instead told how to save his game.

Two directions, with neither one seeming more obviously "correct" unless the player was paying close attention during the opening cutscene. So even though the player is being restricted to a small tutorial area, he doesn't feel restricted. The choice of direction gives a sense of freedom, and the player will react to this freedom in one of two ways (depending on personality):
  1. A greater sense of urgency to get to where he's going.
  2. Excitement at the chance to wander around aimlessly.
This section will likely be more fun for the second type of player, who will react to all the little details in Kokiri Forest with amusement rather than irritation. But all players will ultimately be wandering around semi-aimlessly no matter their intentions. This both sets a good pace for the rest of the game, and encourages new players to take the time to figure out this complicated game -even if they don't think they need it!

The most significant character here is Mido. Several Kokiri have nasty things to say about him, and he prevents us from getting to our destination. This suggests a small rivalry with Mido which is not developed much but adds a bit of isolation amidst the friendliness. I think this relationship could have been taken further; but perhaps it would not have been beneficial to this tutorial. Certainly more could have been done with Saria, however - the player might not even know her name yet. Later she will represent the memory of childhood, and a stronger connection between the two here would have added much to the emotions at that point.

Like any piece of complex software, games come with instruction manuals. Most players don't read them even if they need to.- hence the Know-it-All Brothers, who give the same sort of guidance you'd find in the game's manual. (They and the signs are similar in design to how some of Super Mario 64's early abilities are taught.) Some useful aspects of the interface are hard to grasp for the newcomer: for instance, there are so many options and sources of status information that the game requires four separate menu screens to contain them. But most of this information is not essential, and the player can figure out much of it through trial and error. So the developers have placed this information off to the side, available for those who want it but not intrusive for those who don't need it.

A lot of the advice ends with bits of encouragement like "Try it!" or "Stop in many spots to see the different things you can do.". Though the developers are explaining a lot of the gameplay through bits of dialogue, they understand that just telling the player what to do is not going to be enough. Until the player -of his own curiosity- plays around with this system they've built, he will not understand it intuitively -and little of what they're teaching will be remembered. So the explanations are not as important as providing opportunities to use the skills. Kokiri Forest contains (somewhere in it) every basic kind of interaction in the game, so that the player can learn by experimenting.
The shop owner informs the player that he has the shield but not swords. The shield costs 40 Rupees.

The Forest Training Ground is a short maze contains signs which explain the details of combat. (The player will get Rupees for successfully carrying out the maneuvers described.)

At the end of this maze is a small hole in the wall, with a sign next to it explaining how to go through. When the player presses A, the camera switches to first-person view as Link crawls through a tunnel. When he gets through, the camera switches back to third-person to show that he has emerged. In front of Link is a sign explaining how to use the Z trigger to control the camera:
Walking sideways can be a very important technique in dungeon corridors. Turn around and try doing this right now.
Next to this sign is a passageway with a boulder rolling through it. Proper usage of the Z trigger will help the player get through it. On the other side of it is a nook with a treasure chest in it. When the player opens it, a small cutscene is triggered in which music builds up excitement, followed by a triumphant fanfare when the item is revealed. (This cutscene will be repeated many times over the course of the game.) The player now has the sword, which he can equip using the menus. Next to the chest is a sign pointing the player toward the house of the Know-it-All Brothers.

At the entrance/exit of the Forest Training Center is a sign that says:
Don't recklessly cut signs -- read them carefully!
A nearby sign informs you of the most effective attack for cutting down signs. Cutting this sign earns five Rupees. Signs cannot be read once they've been cut.

Once the sword and shield have been equipped, Mido reluctantly lets you through to the Great Deku Tree.

The short path turns to the left, such that from the start the end of the path is not visible. Once turning, there is a very short continuation forward with another turn (to the right) blocking the view. When the player walks halfway through this bend, suddenly two Deku Babas pop out of the ground, one on either side of the path. They do not move or attack, but reach into the air as if to eat Navi. A third Deku Baba appears farther in, in the middle. Battle music begins. When the player cuts the Deku Babas down (one sword hit will do it), he gets a Deku Stick for each one.

The path opens up to reveal the Great Deku Tree, who is so big that even with the camera zoomed out he extends beyond the edges of the screen. After some dialogue in which he says the player will need "wisdom and courage", and asking whether the player would like to proceed, the Deku Tree opens his mouth to make a giant doorway. He advises to listen to Navi when she gives hints, and the player enters the first dungeon.

This "supervised playground" approach to teaching will continue until the player gets 40 Rupees, finds the sword and equips both. Generally the player is rewarded five Rupees for each new kind of action they use, while casual exploring will reveal single Rupees. So if the player is able to buy the shield, he's demonstrated an understanding of many of the skills he'll need for the rest of the game. The Rupees encouraging exploration (in the grass, behind buildings, etc.) will lead the player to every nook and cranny of the place, gaining game experience all the while.

The hole in the wall recalls the beginning of the original Zelda, and the caves of Miyamoto's youth. The Zelda series, in its essence, is about a hole in the middle of nowhere that you choose to enter, and what you find on the other side. As I noted (and criticized) in the last chapter, the series was undergoing major changes by the time it got to Ocarina of Time, but the essence remains. The game does not tell you where the sword will be found - it just drops you in the middle of Kokiri Forest, and relies on your own curiosity to figure out where it is. So when the player gets the sword, he has the sense that he has personally achieved something. It's not the character that finds the treasure, it's the player himself. Link is just the avatar he uses. This sense of personal agency in the game world is enhanced by the direct control in the tunnel.

The fact that you can make signs unreadable makes no sense. If a sign's placed somewhere, presumably it's there to tell you something. So why does the game not just allow you, but even encourage you, to break the signs? Because it's fun, that's why. This game was designed with an unparalleled level of precision and deliberation. But if one of the programmers had a random idea which they thought would be fun - to heck with all that, it goes into the game. And these "throwaway" gameplay mechanics, serving little or no function, are programmed with as much polish as if they were essential pieces of the experience!

Even on a small path, the game is trying to enhance the sense of walking into the unknown by blocking the view. Then it tricks the player into feeling that he's reached the end, before surprising him with his first enemies: the Deku Babas. They are risk-free target practice, though their placement and the music create a false sense of tension that can be resolved (and rewarded with a new toy) with the player's newly acquired skills. We're meant to feel that the game has properly begun, but actually we're not done being taught. The game is still building up in complexity step by step, as though the player has never fought a virtual monster before in his life. First he gets signs, then monsters that don't move, and only then the real thing.
"In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule..."
An ode to Deku Nuts
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