One of these days I’ll get around to really composing myself on how I feel about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But right now I’ll just rant a bit on a small part of it. Navi isn’t why I dislike Ocarina, but she’s my dislike in miniature. Her absence represents the essential shift Nintendo has taken with Breath of the Wild, which is really a turn back towards the days pre-Ocarina.
See, a game has the ability to teach you about its design without talking to you about it. World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. teaches you everything you need to know about that game, but does it have any words at all? Is there a guide character or a text prompt?
The Legend of Zelda is a vastly more complex game, but it was still able to teach without talking. The progression of its design mirrored your understanding of it. Someday, we’ll think of this as Shigeru Miyamoto’s true contribution to gaming.
Here’s what I mean. Super Mario Bros. sends a goomba after you under low-hanging blocks – you have almost no choice but to jump on its head. The game acknowledges what you understand to be able to do, and forces the next step so naturally that you think it’s your idea. The original Zelda locks you a room with a stone block, mentally pressuring you to push it and unlock the door even though you don’t, at that point, know that you can push blocks.
From then on, the platforming or the puzzles can progress in complexity and you can follow them because of what you were initially taught.
But this is all pretty obvious. What I’m getting at is that Miyamoto’s lesson wasn’t simply “you can push blocks,” which is what text would have told you. The real lesson was: the environment can be used to solve problems, and you have to figure it out. Figuring it out yourself prompts you later to burn down over-world trees and bomb caves, without anyone ever telling you to, or even needing to lock you in a room to figure it out.
Navi represents the nerves Nintendo felt introducing the world to a Zelda in three dimensions. They thought that players needed to be carefully and literally guided through the new spaces and mechanics. And they might not have been wrong.
But let’s call Navi what she is: a shortcut. In many instances, Ocarina didn’t know the equivalent of the block in the room. So it leaned on Navi to inform the player where to go, what to push, and when.
The success of that game grandfathered Navi into the design of the entire series, long after players had figured out how to navigate three dimensional spaces and how to target enemies with the boomerang. This reached its inevitable frustrating climax with Skyward Sword, a game whose directiveness is rivaled in my mind only by grade-school typing programs.
What brought all this on? Well I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how Breath of the Wild is the best in the series since Ocarina of Time, and my point is that this statement misses the fact that among the many reasons Nintendo’s new game is good, much of it is good because it is not like Ocarina. Breath of the Wild is actually, in its unbounded freedom, much more like the original.
The guide character represents one of gaming’s most fundamental shifts from the early to the modern age. It’s not about being “annoying” though. It’s about how developers view their players, and how far they’re willing to go to teach you through design before throwing up their hands and just telling you what to do.
Have you ever heard of insertion of the author? This is when a character in a story is really a stand-in for the beliefs or the personality of the author. Navi is an insertion of the developer. The helping hand she offers is practically fourth-wall-breaking in guiding the player through the game’s design using nomenclature like “C-stick” and “B-button” and having this near-omniscience in how the world works as a game.
It’s now gotten so bad that in the remake of Ocarina for 3DS, Navi has been upgraded. She now advises players, not only on the game, but on taking a break from playing too long. What’s next? Recommending Zelda-themed merchandise after every battle?
There are so many casualties in the inclusion of this character. Immersion is one of them. No matter how meticulously the world is crafted to appear genuine, Navi (or Fie) constantly directs the player back to the reality of the controller in their hand. Imagine the equivalent in a movie, of a character who constantly looks at the camera and explains things to the audience in terms of filmmaking. At least Ferris Bueller plays it for a joke, aware that he’s the main attraction in a movie universe that was never designed to be immersive. Tim Schafer games like Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, and Brutal Legends do this sometimes.
But Navi has no sense of humor or idiosyncrasy. She’s pure utility – a safeguard on development so that in case things weren’t designed clearly, the player can still get through the game.
I don’t mean to single out Zelda. Most games today, actually, include a Navi. The little maps that pop up with the button layouts or the over-tutorialized openings to every game you play nowadays are her less charismatic equivalents. Most of the time, these games aren’t even that complex. It’s now a simple matter of the developer’s idea of the mainstream gaming audience’s needs and attention spans. Even games seemingly aimed at more niche crowds, the Batman: Arkham series for instance, can’t resist showing you in text how to use gadgets every time you pull them out. You end up feeling less like the organic Batman than an invisible little controller of the real Batman pushing buttons and reading directions, always on a leash that leads straight back to Rocksteady.
Something is so lost on the modern adventure through this over-direction and player cynicism, something which I’m relieved to see Breath of the Wild hasn’t forgotten. But for all Ocarina’s genuine qualities, it began the very thing that Breath of the Wild makes such a point of forgetting. That’s why I’m getting tired of people comparing them, and looking back at the bold, experimental Ocarina with this idea that it has never been surpassed until now.