Welcome to “Tech Blabby,” a weekly column that filters tech and gaming news through the cultural lens of Flavorwire. This week, after all the big news from this year’s E3, we look at Nintendo’s changing attitude toward allowing players freedom, as evidenced in the new open-world concept of the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The first Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, the series’ characters — its titular princess, Zelda, and the tunic-clad hero, Link — have starred in 17 of their own games and made appearances in many others. Throughout it all, things have barely changed. By default, Link wore a green tunic and was blond. Zelda was blonde, too. Link always saved Zelda, even when Zelda was a ninja. Link swung a sword, threw bombs, and opened chests that played magical tunes. As we found out at this year’s E3, this is all pretty much the same in the new game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One thing is different, though: Link can jump.
To clarify: Link has been able to jump before, but not freely. In most of the 3-D iterations of the past decade or so, angling him toward a cliff or a gap would prompt some sort of jumping function, but players couldn’t hop willy-nilly. If they could, the precision of the level design would’ve been thrown off. In BotW, they can. And this is important, because it means that BotW is the first Zelda game that encourages freeform exploration without holding players’ hands, which is something the series is notorious for. 2011’s Skyward Sword, for example, featured an opening sequence that could take hours to complete and which served as little more than a tutorial. That sort of thing might end up in BotW as a necessity, but it’s been confirmed by players at E3 that the game is, without a doubt, the most free-form experience of any Zelda game to date.
This could easily seem like little more than a ploy for sales from Nintendo, which has been struggling to find a place in modern gamers’ homes for a while. But when Nintendo embraces any kind of change, it’s significant, and points to the importance of something — similar to when Apple frustratingly adopts preexisting technological concepts and legitimizes them to the mainstream. And what Nintendo has embraced is the need for video games to provide a sense of freedom to players.
To cite freedom as the main appeal of video games is nothing new, and is the entire selling point of something like Second Life, or even the relatively more guided Massively Multiplayer games like The Division or World of Warcraft, let alone single-player titles like Fallout or the Morrowind titles. (And, in the case of the latter series, the more those games have been attached to rails, the worse they’ve been received.) Another one of the most exciting announcements out of E3 was the release date of The Last Guardian, which is the (very, very) long-awaited spiritual successor of 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, a game that did the absolute most with the bare minimum, trusting players to find magic in little more than a horse and a ruined world. A significant chunk of gaming classics have and will continue to bill themselves on freedom. But, for Nintendo, freedom has rarely been a part of the equation, and not just in the Zelda series.
Since Mario’s inception, and the inception of the platform genre in general, players of those games have always been guided, at first out of the necessity of the horizontal, 2-D playing field, and then to serve for nuance in level design. Even something like Super Mario Galaxy, which sells itself as a kind of planet-hopping experience, is only halfway there. You can choose your destination, sure, but once you’ve landed, the choices disappear. This isn’t to discount creative problem solving or the way the best level designers can provide freedom within a defined system. Rather, this is about understanding the difference between the illusion of freedom and actual freedom, which is crucial in understanding the basic escapist appeal of video games.
It’s a difference that’s examined at length in the new book by Simon Parkin, Death By Video Game. The work begins as an investigation in to why so many players have allowed themselves to grow obsessed with video games to the point of depriving their real-world selves to death, and along the way Parkin finds that a strong part of the appeal of life-dominating games is their total freedom, along with the ability to progress within those free worlds much more quickly, and in different ways, than we can within our own “free,” real societies. This is most apparent when Parkin talks of the discovery aspect of games like Minecraft, where, unlike here on Earth, things can still be discovered.
Mac is a popular YouTube user who is recording his journey to the end of his Minecraft world, which will take multiple years. Parkin writes:
“By one measure, Mac’s endeavor is motivated by the same spirit that propels any explorer towards the far reaches of the unknown. Today, we live in a world meticulously mapped by satellites and Google cars, making uncharted virtual lands some of the last places that can satisfy a yearning for the beyond, as well as locations where you are simply, as Mac puts it, ‘first.’ ‘My viewers and I are the only people to ever see these places exactly as they are,’ he says. ‘Once we walk past, we will never see them again.'”
It’s dangerous to conflate discovery with competition, or being “first” at something, but that’s also the appeal of freedom in video games. Players want to believe that they’re doing things in a way that hasn’t been done before. They want to be the first to discover some legendary piece of loot in WoW, or be the first to, say, replicate Game of Thrones’ Westeros in Minecraft . Achievement is at the root of all video game appeal — and also, uh, the American Dream — and it’s been monetized in the form of eSports. But the satisfaction of achievement offered in uncontrolled gaming worlds eclipses the satisfaction of a high score on a leaderboard, because it’s incremental — progress is built on smaller achievements — and also accomplished with a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. It’s a little like the way we want to feel in real life.
This kind of existential pleasure is definitely too lofty a thing to attribute to Nintendo’s change in the Zelda system, which will now also allow for more customization of weapons, equipment, and, interestingly, the environment. Surely the company’s COO, Reggie Fils-Aimé, did not say to his people, “Let’s capitalize on the human need for immersive escapism,” though he did say, “As successful as it’s been, we want more people to join in with the Zelda experience.” In the past, the solution to that problem would have been to up the ante story-wise, or make strides in the game’s graphics, or attempt to integrate the motion control of the Wii and Wii U in some gimmicky way. But, instead, they opted to provide more freedom, more choice, more autonomy. And if that’s what a company like Nintendo sees as a way to appeal to a larger player base, that can only be a good thing.