A Childhood in Hyrule

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Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Nintendo’s most successful franchises, famously recounted how the inspiration for The Legend of Zelda came from his childhood adventures in the countryside near Kyoto: “I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.” In the same way, the firstborn of the entire adventure game family, Colossal Cave, was the product of creator Will Crowther’s spelunking in Kentucky. In essence, players who grew up enjoying those games were experiencing the creators’ real-life adventures, embellished by imagination and translated through the limitations of the game systems of the time. Miyamoto’s childhood lives on, now in its 13th installment, and has become an integral part of the childhoods of millions.

The striking difference between growing up adventuring in the hills around Kyoto and growing up guiding Link through Hyrule is the former is an inherently creative, idiosyncratic act, while the latter is passive and uniform. We all got the same sword from the same old man, fought the same Octoroks and found the same silver arrow (tucked away in the same corner) to kill the same pig-demon, ending the adventure. It is not particularly significant that the plot was the same for everyone, because at bottom, childhood adventures are seldom defined by meaningful stories. What matters is the experience and the action were not controlled by the players – the way Miyamoto or Crowther created their own explorations and adventures – but instead were formed by some other author. Moreover, for all its thrill, Hyrule was profoundly cramped and constrained compared to unmapped hills or colossal caves.

Endogenous and Exogenous Influences
We can divide categories of creative endeavor at high levels (literature, games, movies, sculpture and so forth) or at relatively narrow levels (say, first-person cRPGs vs. isometric cRPGs). No matter how we define the categories, it is possible to talk about “endogenous” and “exogenous” influences. Endogenous influences come from within the group – the influence that Wizardry had on Might and Magic, for example. Exogenous influences, by contrast, come from outside, like how On Stranger Tides inspired Ron Gilbert’s ideas for Monkey Island.

As should be obvious, non-gaming experiences like childhood make-believe or exploration are inherently exogenous to game design. As computer and videogames increase in prominence, they inevitably supplant other art-forms. For that reason, those who design games today will do so against a backdrop of having played them for much, if not all of their lives. The designers of the next generation of football videogames probably will have spent more time playing Madden than playing two-hand touch or watching the NFL.

Moreover, games have influenced other media, assuring the exogenous influences game designers experience will, in some sense, merely be an echo of games. Sometimes, this leads to strange loops like the game version of Street Fighter: The Movie, the comic books based on Freedom Force or rule sets based on cRPGs like Fallout.

For those of us who grew up in the current era, capturing the thrill of childhood adventures may mean rekindling the excitement of one’s first videogame, not transforming something exogenous into game form.

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Heterogeneous and Homogenous Experiences
Widespread game-playing increases the homogeneity of designers’ experiences in two respects.

First, like the film industry, the game industry is dominated by a handful of prominent titles occupying most of the market. The most obvious example of this is World of Warcraft. Because of the budgets required to make, market and distribute videogames, they inevitably won’t be as numerous or as risky as books, board games or even tabletop RPGs. For that reason, game design tends toward homogeneity. Everyone will tend to have played more or less the same games, and those games will be relatively similar to one another.

Second, within a given videogame, a player’s experience will be much more predictable than it would be within more freeform experiences where the rules are negotiable. The lack of fixed media and the wheeling and dealing involved in make-believe adventures and tabletop roleplaying leads them to create heterogeneous, even idiosyncratic play experiences. The contrast is driven home by an absurd memory of mine from grade school: two friends playing a game that was nothing more than one relating the preordained plot and fixed puzzles of King’s Quest V as the other tried to guess the single solution Sierra had provided in the computer game. It didn’t matter that there were dozens of other obvious conceivable solutions based on his descriptions; the “game master” had been enraptured by what he’d played on his computer.

Autonomous and Subordinate Play
In one of the all-time great moments of fanboy incitement, Nintendo boasted that Zelda was superior to Final Fantasy because the latter was merely a movie to be watched, while the former was an adventure to be played. But while Nintendo surely was correct that Zelda offered more freedom than could be had in linear console RPGs, at bottom, the player in Zelda is still subordinate to the designer. He visits the dungeons in a predictable order, solves problems according to rigid rules of engagement and navigates the world along fairly narrow paths. If one were to write an account of a play-through of Zelda, no one would call the player the director of the action. At best, he’s an actor performing minor bits of improv.

This stands in stark contrast to board games like Axis & Allies or Risk. In those games, players have the ability to define the rules to some extent (which is to say, they are autonomous). Complex treaties or trades can be hashed out in board games, which can immeasurably alter the course of play. In a well-managed tabletop session, players will invent unexpected solutions to puzzles presented by the game master, who will respond not by rejecting the solution but by expanding his concept of the scenario. Tabletop games have a way of ending up somewhere quite different from where the GM planned; Zelda always ends with Link killing Gannon.

When a player is autonomous, his engagement with the game is active and creative. The subordinate player is passive and receptive. That is not to say that the experience of subordination is necessarily less fun or meaningful than the experience of autonomy; reading Hamlet or watching The Princess Bride is subordinate, while playing with stuffed animals is autonomous, yet a convincing case could be made that the former are deeper and more fun than the latter. Games, out of necessity, strike a balance between these poles, because they must permit some freedom but also provide rules. Yet there is a trend to hew toward player subordination, in part because such games are cheaper and easier to make, but also because players may no longer know any better.

Closing Minds, Closing Thoughts
So where does this leave us? It seems that one likely effect of this shift in entertainment is that designers who grew up in the videogame generation will see less of a need for open-ended, flexible games than those who grew up playing in other ways. (The audience, too, will have those altered expectations.) The evidence is somewhat equivocal here. In at least three major genres (adventure, roleplaying and FPS) the direction has been steadily toward less freedom and a more directed experience. But in many ways that change seems to have come more from the pressure to be “movie-like,” not from pressures internal to game design. And there have been exceptional, often blockbuster, titles that have offered considerable autonomy. The Sims, Black & White, Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion come to mind.

But these games are the exception and not the rule. And it seems fair to assume, for example, that designers and players whose formative experience with roleplaying games is Baldur’s Gate (or worse, Final Fantasy), not a tabletop adventure, will see the genre in a totally different light than did the designers who made those games in the first place. The designers of early computer roleplaying games drew from memories of collaborative storytelling with friends. They failed to mirror that experience in computer games, and as a result players and designers relying on those games for inspiration have come to think of RPGs as fantasy cartoons wrapped around random numbers.

You can find a similar progression in adventure games, in which exploring and creatively solving puzzles transformed into walking in circles and looking for hotspots. Focused on the mechanisms rather than the inspiration, designers lost sight of the whole point of the genre. As a result, the evolution of adventure games as adventures or as games simply came to an end.

But the self-inspiring nature of games is not entirely a negative. To be sure, creativity may be suppressed as outside influences diminish and genres become rigid. But cinema did not come into its own until people stopped thinking of it in terms of other media (as recorded plays or moving pictures), and the same may well be true of games. Developing a distinctive idiom and honing core techniques can lead to mature design.

So many factors affect the development of game design that it may be difficult to pin down the significance of this cultural shift. Nevertheless, it seems imperative that designers continue to look outward to bring new ideas and greater breadth to the games they make, as there is still more to be found in the hills than there is an 8-bit cartridge.

Marty O’Hale has written stories for a number of computer and videogames, primarily roleplaying and strategy games. He has also published a number of works of fiction. Currently, Marty’s career is in the law.

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