Game Analogy: The Legend of Zelda vs. Ocarina of Time
Agency is not the most important thing in a video game: just look at Killer7 or Bioshock, games in which agency is not only denied but openly repudiated by their narratives. But agency is the most important thing in a hero’s journey. It’s the first thing that the original The Legend of Zelda offers its player, and the first thing that Ocarina of Time denies them.
In this space, I could not comprehensively critique Ocarina of Time, nor do I want to. I understand that this game is special to a lot of people who played it a long time ago. My point is to simply take one aspect of Ocarina – its opening – as an example in miniature of my entire problem with the game and the direction it took its series.
First, let’s look at the opening of The Legend of Zelda.
Unless you had the manual, which introduced the game concepts and the world in personable but uncertain terms, the first you see of your adventure in the original game is a single screen with three possible paths, a cave, and you. If you take any of the routes without first visiting the cave, you will die. This is important in establishing who holds agency in the game – the player or the story – and how things are taught to the player through gameplay.
Let’s assume that you’re a normal human being and the first thing you do is enter that cave. In it, an old man stands in front of a sword and says these words: “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” This statement imposes a daunting amount of information on the player, but in a way so implicit that it’s as intuitive as thinking of it yourself.
The first thing it tells you is that there will be adversity everywhere, therefore, a difficult path may be the right one. And then, that you will face it alone. You may need to intuit a seemingly empty room for a solution without guidance. The fact that the old man is helping you implies that it’s possible to find help. But ultimately, you will face your challenges with only your wits. There will be no summon signs for a boss battle, no perfect directive clues, and even some NPCs that will be your enemy.
And then he says the most important words in establishing the player’s stance in this world: “take this.” These words place all of the agency in the adventure of The Legend of Zelda in the player, implying that all challenges are solvable with resources that the player has or can acquire. Everything you need to know about your identity as an adventurer becomes clear through the simple act of wanting to face the challenges of the world.
This text prompt at the beginning of The Legend of Zelda isn’t even necessary. A video game player does not need to be told to get a sword: they want swords. They don’t need to be told why they should care about solving a dungeon: it’s self-evident. Just sitting down to play a game implies that these things are important to a player: killing enemies, finding treasure, beating the game. These desires are constants: Zelda does not give them to its player. Its opening simply establishes a through-line between its own goals and the player’s goals. It tells you, just as you begin, that the two of you are on the same page, and that all you need to do to win is to act on a player’s desire for adventure and victory.
The opening of Ocarina of Time not only refuses to acknowledge a player’s agency and innate desire to quest, but openly denies players the ability to act on them.
An intro cinematic introduces a world that is bigger than the player, a story with goals that are unrelated to a player’s agency. For instance, a player does not desire to save Hyrule: that is incidental to their desire to kill, find, and beat. By establishing the world and its story as the primarily important goal, Ocarina starts displacing the player even as it states with reserved awe, that you are the only one who can achieve its goals. It immediately casts you not as its hero but as its errand boy.
Then, when the game begins, you are directed by a guide character to visit the Deku Tree, the story’s narrator. But the entrance is blocked by a boy who demands that you have a sword and shield before you visit him.
There could not be a better example of how Ocarina marginalizes the player’s intentions. Where the presence of the player was a guiding force in design for the original, it’s actually a nuisance to Ocarina, a factor that has to be worked around and made controllable in order for it to tell its story. The sense of adventure you get when you play Ocarina is really a drug to pacify your agency. So long as you’re being told you’re important and that you’re having an adventure, Ocarina never feels the need to provide you with the tools to actually have one.
This thing with the sword and shield is all I need to apply this to the whole game. A player wants a sword and shield. They don’t want to be skewered by a low-level enemy because they have no equipment. They want to explore and beat enemies and find treasure.
But Ocarina explicitly establishes the exact opposite precedent. It sets up a literal roadblock that demands you equip yourself properly in order to hear the story and continue the game, and it never stops setting these up. No matter how far you make it in the story, pushing “A” at the right character or asking the right permission to continue is the only way to make progress. Finding and desiring things are incidental to hearing the rest of the game’s story. It leaves absolutely nothing to intuition or experience, no possible way of facing adversity unprepared. It is impossible for you to enter the shop and desire the shield and farm the money because you want it. The game requires you to have it, and offers no demonstration as to how it’s significant to your adventure for any reason other than that it tells you so.
And then when you’ve been castrated of your agency in the gameplay, and are permitted to visit the narrator and hear the story, does Ocarina leave you agency in that at least? Is your progression through the narrative at least motivated by your desires as a budding hero?
No. The narrator opens by saying, “Listen carefully to what I, the great DEKU TREE, am about to tell thee.” The game offers absolutely no power or influence to the player’s decisions, even openly mocking them by giving “Yes” or “No” dialogue options that proceed the same no matter what you say.
This concept of stringing the player along without ever acknowledging their will to adventure is as common a theme in Ocarina as agency is in the original Zelda. Weapons found in the dungeons in Ocarina are required to find the boss, necessary to defeat them, and explained in the most certain possible terms through text. Secrets in Ocarina are never significant to your adventure or rewards for your exploration. They are always merely the most cold, distant acknowledgement of your desire to do that thing – to bomb a rock and find a little treat. They are never integrated or used to elevate the player to a sense of personal achievement in their own adventure.
Items in the original Zelda are almost never required to defeat a boss, and the dungeons can be played in any order – they can even be beaten without finding the items at all. Your arsenal grows not in accordance with the percentage of the narrative you’ve completed but with your will to find treasure. The original’s non-linearity is an expression of how it views the player’s adventurous spirit. Ocarina’s staunch linear progression with the appearance of an open-ended adventure is also how it views that spirit. But Ocarina views it as an obstacle, as the dangerous possibility of some people not completing a dungeon if everything is not explained, or of not seeing all the pretty graphics because they aren’t adventurous enough.
I understand that Ocarina is important to a lot of people. It succeeded in imparting the feeling of adventure so long as you never pursued your agency in it, and a lot of us didn’t have that when we were six. But Death Mountain was a place you went to because Zelda told you to, not because you wanted to find cool stuff. Dungeons were a place where you could knock out a chunk of obligatory narrative, not a place you chose to go and face adversity and win.
Yet, I still see modern lists call Ocarina the best Zelda game of all time. The best Zelda game, which sucked the adventurous spirit from its series until Breath of the Wild returned to give the player some agency again. The best Zelda game, which could not be bothered to offer the player a single second of intuitive design at the risk that some people would not figure it out. The best Zelda game, which turned adventuring in the entire video game industry from a wild, beautiful unknown into a liability. Ocarina is often called one of the most significant milestones in video game history. On that at least, I cannot argue one bit.