Living in Hyrule

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

An ode to Deku Nuts

Inside the Deku Tree

In order to reach this first dungeon, the player has already demonstrated that he can handle the game's basic controls. But he is still not entirely comfortable with the game's conventions, and his confidence is liable to be shattered entirely (at this early stage) if he reaches an obstacle which he does not know how to deal with. At the same time, there's the risk that if the player is not challenged, he will get bored and not feel the need to continue. The dungeon's task is therefore a complicated one: the player must believe that he is overcoming challenges and being clever, even as he is led by the hand from point A to point B to point C. The method is simple in principle, though complicated in implementation:
  1. There will always be only one way forward, though the player is encouraged to think that there are more.
  2. At each point in this linear path, the player will not be allowed to continue until he learns exactly one new skill.
  3. The skill will be learned through the player's own initiative and improvisations, as opposed to merely being "taught" in text.
  4. After the player has learned the skill, he will be expected to be proficient with it in the rest of the dungeon.
These are, of course, the basics of effective tutorial design. The player will move in the right direction without feeling that the game is condescending toward him. He will not be overwhelmed and confused by needing to learn too much too quickly, yet each new task will bring a sense of personal achievement. And by reusing skills in situations which very gradually become complex, the player's self-confidence will be built up. By the time the final boss is beaten, which combines many of the skills learned through the dungeon, the player will feel ready to move on to whatever challenges the game throws at him. (He is not ready, but much of good game design is about fooling the gamer.)
The camera shows the room to be a three-level cavern, before turning to show a ladder to the left of the entrance. If the player walks straight ahead, he steps onto a large spider web in the middle of the floor. When approaching it, C-Up flashes to indicate that the following hint from Navi can be read:
Look, look, [name]!
You can see down below this web using C-Up!
The player looks at the transparent web in first-person view, and sees another floor underneath it.

Progress can also be made from a ladder on the other side of the room. The platform from the ladder spirals upward around the edge of the room, and after a jump the player reaches a ledge extending toward the middle of the room. A heart hovers in the air just off the edge of this platform. The player walks off the edge to take the heart, and lands on the web in the middle of the floor, which wobbles underneath him.

Around the web, on each of the three sides that do not block the player's access to the web from the entrance, is a Deku Baba. Unlike the Deku Babas outside, these will swiftly lunge at the player and snap at him, though they cannot otherwise leave their fixed positions. While they snap at the player menacingly, green smoke comes out of their mouths. This smoke is not dangerous; however, direct contact will take off half a heart of Link's health. The Deku Babas take two hits from the Kokiri Sword to kill; after hitting it once, it is stunned for a few seconds in which the player can safely deliver the finishing blow.

Straight ahead, there is a climbable wall. When the player walks near it, Navi immediately offers this unprompted hint, which cannot be skipped through:
Look at this wall! The vines growing on it give it a rough surface... Maybe you can climb it, [name]!
On the second floor (however the player reached it), there is another climbable wall. The player tries to climb the wall, not seeing the hanging Skullwalltula which is too high up to initially be in the camera's view. The spider chases after the player and knocks him down to the floor immediately below, doing half a heart of damage.

Immediately on entering, there are two obvious ways to go (creating the illusion that this is not a linear path, though both directions ultimately go to the same place). There's the ladder that the cutscene camera pointed out, and there's the direction that the game camera defaults to, which is straight forward from the entrance. Either way the player goes, the game will try to make him aware of the web and its thinness as early as possible. This is the solution to a puzzle whose existence the player is not yet aware of. When the question arises of how to move forward after reaching the third floor, the player will already know the answer and will feel clever for it. It is doubly important that the player should be able to solve this puzzle, because the final puzzle of the dungeon is a variation on it.

The first enemies outside the dungeon did not attack, and therefore only required the sword. This second set of Deku Babas require the player to attack and defend (with the shield), but because they are fixed in place the player still doesn't need to move around as he fights. Beating them will produce a Deku Stick or a Deku Nut. With the slingshot, that makes three C-items for three C-buttons. Any fewer, and the player might get comfortable with using just one or two buttons and ignoring the others. Any more, and the player would be overwhelmed by the need to swap items.

It is technically possible, though difficult, to climb around the Skullwalltulas and reach the third floor without the slingshot. (The player would need to return for the slingshot later.) But with there being another obvious direction to proceed in, the player is expected to quickly give up the attempt. The frustration of the player who tries to climb up is not only benign (because with the option of the other path, there is no feeling of being stuck), it is actually desired. This is why the first Skullwalltula is placed out of view, though the second (which the player will notice first when coming back from getting the slingshot) is closer to the floor. The designer of this dungeon (Eiji Aonuma, I believe) is actually trying to trick the player into climbing that wall prematurely. Aonuma knows that the player will have the means to beat the Skullwalltulas soon enough, and the more frustrating it is to be unable to pass them now, the more satisfying it will be to pass them later. With the slingshot, a single hit (with no risk to the player) is enough to eliminate each one. So the player will feel like he has become a much better player by learning to use the slingshot, even though it is not a particularly difficult skill to pick up. This is a design technique that the Zelda series uses often - we will see it most clearly in this game in the third dungeon, "Inside Jabu-Jabu's Belly".
A treasure chest by this wall contains the Dungeon Map. Continuing to spiral upward, the player reaches a door. More unskippable text from Navi tells the player how to open doors, and reiterates that the effects of the A button are always listed at the top of the screen.

This is the first proper door in the game. In Kokiri Forest, when the player was still figuring out the basics of using an analog stick, putting doors on the houses could have gotten the player stuck outdoors and unable to continue. So the entrances to the Kokiri treehouses were always open. In earlier Zelda games all doors (even locked ones, provided the player had the key) could be entered by simply moving through them. The extra step for opening doors in Ocarina of Time is not necessitated by the jump to 3D: in Super Mario 64, walking into a door would automatically activate the animation for opening the door, unless the door could not be opened - in which case a message would pop up explaining the situation to the player. The only advantage I can see for requiring a button press is that in some very rare cases, attempting to open a currently unopenable door gives a piece of dialogue from whoever is inside, which might seem uncharacteristic as an automatic pop-up message. But even that is grasping at straws; the fact is, it's excessive. If the gamists felt the need to provide unskippable text (interrupting the flow of the game) explaining how to open doors, that tells me that when they tested the game on new players, a significant number of them got stuck at this first door and didn't know how to get through it. The problem should have been fixed not by adding in this intrusive text, but by going back to the simpler doors of past Zelda games.
The player enters a small room, and finds himself locked in on both sides. A Deku Scrub is in the middle of the room -it hides when the player stands in the middle of the room, and shoots projectiles if the player stands anywhere else. When the player figures out how to hit him, the Deku Scrub is not immediately killed but instead runs around the room as though it is trying to escape. If the player does not walk toward it, it returns to the center of the room and resets to its previous behavior. When the player "catches" the Deku Scrub by simply walking next to it, the monster offers an unskippable game hint, ostensibly in exchange for not being attacked further. Then it shrieks and disappears, leaving behind a heart and unlocking the room on both sides.

This third battle, which will get the player to the next level of combat proficiency, is presented as a miniboss: a one on one battle in an arena from which there is no escape. This framing gives the encounter enough weight in the player's mind that he will not feel embarrassed to lose to it and have to try over, even repeatedly. It also makes it clear that despite any confusion the player may have when the fight begins, this is the correct way forward and he is expected to overcome this obstacle eventually. The fight has two stages, and in each stage one new skill is required. In the first stage, the player must hold up the shield (which he got used to in the second fight) while using Z-targeting. Like the Deku Babas, the Deku Scrub stays in a fixed position during this phase so that no movement is required. This part of the battle is a puzzle, because the player cannot -as he has so far been conditioned to do- approach the Deku Scrub and hit it with its sword. Until the player figures out what is required (which Navi hints at but does not spell out), he is perpetually bombarded with projectiles and will get frustrated and confused. The player is the victim in this scenario, but once he solves the puzzle the dynamic between player and monster is reversed: the second stage of the battle has the Deku Scrub run around frantically as though he were trying to get away from the player. The player will intuitively understand from this context that he is meant to pursue (even though no instruction has been given, or even an optional hint from Navi), simply because it suits the story of the scene: a coherent relationship has formed between this little bully of a creature and the clever player he was attacking, and that relationship is resolved with the bully running away in terror. Note that the fiction is clear even though there's nowhere for the Deku Scrub to run to - the story does not make much sense if you stop and think about it (If the Deku Scrub wants to not be hurt, why doesn't it just stop poking his head out of the ground?), but it makes emotional sense. This effective interactive storytelling makes it less obvious that there's a practical necessity to this scene: the player is finally breaking out of the mindset that movement and fighting are separate skillsets. And the hint at the end, which the player accepts unquestioningly as a peace offering from the loser of the fight (due to the colorful dialogue portraying the creature's fear), tells the player that he can handle large jumps (making him more willing to solve the web puzzle).
There is a floating platform straight ahead, which is one jump away from a higher floor containing a treasure chest. When the player jumps to the floating platform, it shakes for a few seconds, then falls to the ground and shatters. There is enough time before it falls for the player to jump across, but if he does not he can climb up to the chest. It contains the Fairy Slingshot. After the explanatory text, Link is automatically turned around. If the player does not press anything, the camera automatically readjusts to get behind Link, an angle from which a ladder hanging from the ceiling becomes visible. (If the player does move around, he may find another climbable wall with a small chest, containing a single heart.) The player sets the slingshot to a C-button, figures out how to use it on the ladder, and exits the room. (There are bushes on the floor which produce extra Deku Seeds for the slingshot.)

The player returns to the first room and uses the slingshot on the Skullwalltulas to be able to climb to the third floor. The floor encircles the entire room, with one door, and three openings to the floors below guarded by Skulltulas.

The door leads to an optional jumping challenge for the Compass. The door is locked until the player figures out (with the help of a hint from Navi, if needed) that he can use Deku Sticks to transport fire. (Additional Deku Sticks are provided via a regenerating, stationary Deku Baba.)

There is now nowhere left to go except for down. One of the three gaps in the center wall has a heart hanging off the edge of the platform, as below. The player jumps at it, and lands on the spider-web on the ground floor, which breaks, allowing entry to the lower levels. The player lands in water (cushioning his fall) in the center of the first room downstairs.

Note that the game expects the player to immediately jump to the platform which is in front of him, just because he can. If the player didn't do that, he'd be able to jump straight out of the room without learning to use the slingshot. But the platform is carefully placed to trick the player into making it fall. In puzzle design, it's always fun to mess with the player. In a similar vein, the little chest on the side with a heart in it is a red herring- the only reason it's there is that's it's funny that it's there, at a time when the player is trapped and confused and has no idea what he's supposed to do next. But while Aonuma likes to pretend the player has messed up and is completely trapped, he will never let a situation emerge where the player is truly trapped. The game plays fair, always providing whatever the player needs to continue. (In this case, Deku Seeds; in the next room, Deku Sticks.)

The fourth battle (I don't count the Skullwalltulas, because they can't fight back.) is with the Skulltulas, who still stay in one place but need to be attacked with the right timing. Either the sword or the slingshot will work, since the player has already been trained to use both.

Starting in the center of the room, rather than either end, disorients the player. He doesn't know which direction to start moving in. At this point, after the ego-boost of having solved the main puzzle of the dungeon, the player will feel like he can handle a little more freedom. Which is not to say that he'll actually be given any more freedom, only that Aonuma wants him to feel less like his next move has been dictated.
A switch lights a torch positioned in a spider web. When the switch is pressed, the web immediately burns and disappears, allowing entry to a chest containing one heart. The player carries the fire to a web on the other side of the room.

Here is another red herring chest, but this one is even more deceptive than the one in the slingshot room. The player sees the switch, and wonders what it does. When it allows access to the chest, the player automatically assumes that that is what the switch was for, and so he stops wondering. The fire seems to be secondary - it is just the mechanism by which the switch allowed the player to reach the chest. This mystery solved, the player keeps looking for what he can do next, believing it has nothing to do with that fire. (This will not trick all players, of course. You can never fool them all. But it'll fool enough of them to be a worthwhile bit of puzzle design.) Actually, both the switch and the chest are irrelevant: what the player is being shown is that webs burn. That, together with the transportation of fire, is the way forward. There is a risk, of course, that the player skipped the third-floor room and has not figured out that he can transport fire. I'm sure there are players who have quit the game at this point for that reason. But the game assumes that if the player gets stuck he'll backtrack, and will eventually play that room. The post-N64 Zelda games would not have taken this risk.
The player encounters a Deku Scrub in a small room. He beats it, and it gives a hint, but the door to continue does not unlock. (The door that was entered through was never locked, making this a dead end that can be backtracked from.) An eye is visible above the door; the player proceeds by shooting it.

The context of the earlier Deku Scrub battle is mostly recreated (round room, Deku Scrub in center, locked door), to fool the player into thinking he needs to do the same thing. As in the previous room, this creates a false sense of resolution, creating some confusion when a hint is given but the door does not unlock. Many players will think at that point that they have gotten all they can get out of that room, and will start backtracking even though there's nothing else in the dungeon for them to find. The solution is not going to be handed to the player; for the first time, he'll just have to figure it out. Will some players quit at this point? Probably. But most players will have their self-confidence built up enough, by all the seemingly-difficult challenges they've managed to pass already, that they'll be willing to persevere.

The switch looks like an eye because the player's being subtly trained how to fight the dungeon's final boss. And now that the idea's been introduced, eyes on walls will be generic switches for the rest of the game and the player will understand the shorthand. Why "eye switches" have been brought back in later Zelda games, I can't say. I would only suggest that perhaps a habit, when left unquestioned, can too easily turn into tradition.
In the next room, the player can only proceed after diving in water to hit a switch, then pushing a block and climbing on top of it to reach the door. Navi explains -in unskippable text that appears automatically- how to dive and manipulate blocks. A simple fire transportation puzzle follows.

After all the delicate and entertaining tutoring the dungeon's been doing, this room sticks out like a sore thumb for its amateurish obviousness. These are two complex bits of the interface which will be needed later in the game, and the gamists want the player to know everything about the interface before they finish the first dungeon. That's not a terrible idea in theory, but neither diving nor block-pushing actually needed to be in this dungeon at all, so (unless the dungeon were specifically redesigned to incorporate the techniques more often) the lessons don't belong here. Besides, the designers should have found a more engaging way of teaching the skills than yet more unskippable text. If no more elegant design could be found to explain the concepts to players, then the interface should have been simplified to make these actions less obtuse.

The problems with these two parts of the interface are self-evident. The diving mechanism is unintuitive, allowing the player to go down (by holding A) or up (by letting go) but never stay at the same spot. It was designed this way to lay the groundwork for the underwater segments in Act II, without opening up the whole sea floor yet in Act I. There were easier ways of doing that - for instance, having Link immediately dive to a predetermined depth when the player starts holding down the dive button, letting the player move around in two dimensions (with the camera on top) at that depth, and then coming back up when the player lets go of the button. (What I am describing is similar to what was done later in the 2D The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures.) Not that there was any chance Nintendo would go that route - they wanted to prove that everything could be done in total 3D. But if they couldn't put together a decent prototype in time (The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask introduced a much more sophisticated and entertaining swimming system two years later.), they should have cut out the diving in Act I. They had a perfectly decent swimming system from Super Mario 64 that they could have adapted, which was too complicated to clutter up the early stages of this game but would work well enough later with minor tweaks. And the underwater parts of Act I are completely inessential: the bottle in Lake Hylia could have been floating, the Zora's Domain warps could have been designed differently, the minigame in Zora's Domain which teaches diving doesn't belong there in the first place (for reasons I'll bring up in the appropriate chapter). I do not know why the diving system ended up how it did. But it's not the easiest thing to control.

The blocks are even worse. Ocarina of Time shows off its three-dimensionality by allowing players not only to push blocks, as they would in earlier Zeldas, but to climb on top of them as well. But there is only one button to control both the grabbing and the climbing. The solution they came up with is, frankly, ridiculous: press A while moving toward the block to climb up; stand still, press A and then move to push or pull. The more obvious solution would be that climbing on a block should not require a button press, since climbing doesn't require a button press anywhere else. But that would create confusion (and did, I'm sure, in testing), because if you want to push a block you might instinctively push the analog stick toward it and then get frustrated when Link climbs up. I think it would be clearer that -to be moved- a block needs to be grabbed (rather than just bumped into) if there were an aesthetic clue of that behavior -specifically, visible handles on all four sides. This would not only give the player the idea of grabbing it, but also explain how Link is able to pull blocks from their middles -a logical impossibility which is allowed in order to prevent unwinnable states. But in the absence of something that would differentiate the two things one can do with blocks, the awkward situation remains where one button does two things, and the player needs to have the subtle difference between those controls explained here.

I know that Nintendo understood the controls were problematic, because the next time they made a 3D Zelda engine, they made changes accordingly. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, they added a second action button for pushing things, as if the interface weren't complicated enough, and diving was taken out altogether.
A big room contains three Gohma Larvae which fall down from the ceiling when the player gets close. Each one is killed in two hits without any special timing, but they move around the room and attack. The player transports fire, crawls through a hole in the wall, and finds himself back in the first lower-level room. There are Deku Babas around a small web on the floor, and a block which can be pushed along a clear track to the floor below. (This effectively provides a shortcut from the entrance of the dungeon to this spot.) There are four ways to set the web on fire, when carrying a lit torch:
  1. Swinging the torch
  2. Roll attack
  3. Jump attack
  4. A defensive crouch
The player falls through to the bottom floor, landing in water.

The player remembers a mnemonic given earlier to beat three Deku Scrubs, and the last of the three gives a tip for facing Queen Gohma. The door to the boss room is then unlocked. The camera shows the expansiveness of the room, then sweeps down to Link as the door closes behind him. The player walks forward to the middle of the room, and rubble falls down on him. He looks up (with C-Up or the slingshot) to find the source of the rubble, and as soon as he looks directly at Queen Gohma's glowing eye, a cutscene shows Queen Gohma climbing down from the ceiling and standing in front of Link.

Here are the fifth monsters to fight, and the first ones that actually move around as they attack you. The player is given lots of room to run away in, if needed.

The three Deku Babas, sitting around a web, should immediately give the player déjà vu. This is exactly the setup from the beginning of the dungeon, so the player knows for certain where the continuation is: down through the web. But there's nowhere to jump from. The player will realize that this is the same room where he burned a web by transporting fire from a torch. The path from that torch to the web requires precise 3D movement to cross, so much so that he may briefly wonder whether what he is doing is correct. (No one will get through the web by accident.) But if he understands that he has solved the puzzle, that logic will keep him trying until he manages to get the fire to where it needs to be. The game will accept any version of the answer, because (unlike many other games with puzzles) it only wants you to understand the situation, not to read its creators' minds.

After having been told about this fight repeatedly, the player knows what's coming. The fact that it does not start immediately, combined with the ominous little cutscene and the dim lighting, raises the tension to the point where the player may start to get worried whether he is capable of facing Queen Gohma. But in fact, there's nothing here he hasn't already been trained to do. He knows how to attack and defend. He knows how to use the slingshot, and will automatically shoot when he sees an eye. He understands that sometimes attacks need to be times properly to hit when the target is vulnerable. All the player has to do is put the lessons together. He passes this final exam, feels a real sense of accomplishment, and is ready to start his adventure.

An ode to Deku Nuts
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