Living in Hyrule

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

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"In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule..."


I can clearly identify the moment I decided to make videogames. I was 13 years old, sitting in front of my computer, and I had just completed an illegally emulated copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As the land of Hyrule and its inhabitants appeared over the end credits, I thought back to what I had gone through in the many hours it had taken me to get there. I had left a life of comfort, I had explored the world, I had formed connections, I had grown up, I had become stronger and solved riddles and defied odds and saved the world. And maybe I had done all that before, in other games, but this time was different. This time, as I thought back to my experiences, the journey I had gone through satisfied me. I felt that I, not a character I was playing but I myself, had survived tremendous ordeals and experienced great triumphs.

And to be fair, that may be because of the context in which I experienced the game. For one thing, I had never played a Zelda game before, or indeed anything like it. The fact that I was playing on a slow and glitchy emulator with a keyboard instead of a controller, and was satisfied by this, should tell you how little experience I had ever had with videogames up to that point. So each new game I discovered was a little revelation, and this magnificent series -with its blend of action, puzzles and exploration- gave me joys I couldn't have expected. For another thing, I was mildly depressed at the time. My life was unsatisfying, it was dull and lonely and uneventful. But when I turned on that emulator, suddenly I could have a different life, one with adventure and danger and maybe even a hint of friendship.

But whatever the reason, I thought back to my experiences with the game and found that what I had experienced in Hyrule was more meaningful to me than anything I'd gone through in the real world in months. So I turned to my older brother, who happened to be sitting next to me at the time, and I said "That was a masterpiece.", a statement to which he did not respond. And I decided that this was what I was going to do with my life.

By now I have made several computer games and am working on several more. They are small and simple, technically unimpressive and artistically flawed. But it's a start. It is a goal of mine to eventually create an experience which is as meaningful to someone else as Ocarina of Time was to me. To that end, I would like to better understand how Zelda managed to give me that experience. In this project I am going to analyze the game in great detail, and it should be understood that I am not an expert providing insights, but an amateur studying this game for the sake of my own learning process. I am going to make especial note of those moments which speak to me personally, to try to understand how I can create similar moments in my own work.

The approach throughout this project will be to hold up Ocarina of Time as a paragon of game design, in order to clarify for myself the ideals I should strive for. And here I run into a problem, because the more intently I look at the game the less convinced I am that it is perfect. It is a wonderful game to be sure, and probably still one of the best, but I see many questionable design choices here, as there always are in a game of this size and ambition. Nintendo did not intend to create a definitive textbook on game design, they intended to create an excellent game. The experience I had when I was 13 was as much a result of my own life and prior experiences as it was a result of the game itself, and not everything I experienced could have been anticipated by the game's creators.

In trying to understand that moment of satisfaction I had, I will be holding this game to a standard which I admit to be unrealistic and unreasonable. It could be said that this undermines the value of the analysis as a learning process, but I would argue that understanding flaws is as valuable as understanding successes. It is as important to find better ways of doing things as it is to imitate the ways which worked before. If you consider this a presumptuous attitude when applied to a masterpiece like Ocarina of Time, I advise you to not read any further. This analysis may suggest ways to better appreciate the game, but it will also suggest that the Zelda series in particular, and videogames in general, still have very far to go before they reach their potential.

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"In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule..."
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