Insights from Eiji: Game Developers Conference 2004

Eiji Aonuma gave a lengthy speech about Zelda on March 24, and if you haven’t read the transcript yet, you should. There isn’t really any new information, but some of the comments he made are especially interesting anyway . . .

On Link to the Past

It can probably be said that if it were not for this title, the Zelda franchise would never have developed.

This admission is quite an interesting declaration, and speaks for itself.

On Fantasy and Game Interactivity

The result was that I was left with the impression that The Legend of Zelda was not a game that suited me. So, what kinds of games did suit me? Those would be Text-Based Adventures.
To someone like me who enjoyed reading stories, these were games that let you actively participate in the story and let you experience the joy of seeing your own thoughts and actions affect the progression of the story. Plus, these games don’t require fast reflexes, and thus are games that don’t require gaming skills. So I thought that if I were to make games, I’d want to make this type of game.

A man after my own heart! Anyhow, this reveals Aonuma’s gaming personality, fundamentally important for understanding the games he oversees. Note how much more of a story-driven game Majora’s Mask is over Ocarina of Time. You cannot understand the game apart from mood and story, and nearly as importantly, the game is filled with complex character interaction events that impact each other. You become a manipulator of a story, and not merely someone going through the motions of a story, by simply cutting down enemies and solving dungeon puzzles. This in turns absorbs you further in the game world, a wonderful contribution of Aonuma.

This is also a good time to note the importance of text-based adventures on Zelda. And it’s not just that they’re the origin of computer games, for text-based adventures are the origin of Zelda in another way. You see, they set forth the standard fantasy format that Zelda thoroughly adopts. And Text-Based Adventures themselves were directly inspired by the fantasy world of Tolkien. This is why Zelda resembles The Lord of the Rings so much.

In Ocarina of Time I also took on the challenge of incorporating Adventure Elements into dungeon design, by which I mean giving each dungeon some type of theme, such as rescuing the trapped Gorons, or hunting down and defeating the Poe Sisters.

This is a very good specific example of how Aonuma’s gaming personality (which we just looked at) comes into his games.

On Realism vs. Believability

Zelda is a game that values REALITY over realism. In the art world, realism is a movement which faithfully replicates the real world to whatever extent possible. Reality, though, is not mimicking the real world. Rather it’s an attempt to make people feel like what they are experiencing is real. The big difference is that even using more exaggerated expression can be an effective means of making things feel more real.

I think this is a case of bad translation. “Reality” is just another word for “the real world,” so the above paragraph doesn’t really make sense. I think a better word for the idea he’s trying to get across here is “believability” rather than “reality,” although he’s also talking about “immersiveness” in the same breath. (And if you really want to use a jargon term from art history, “naturalism” is a good word.)

But I’m going to use the term “believability.” What he’s basically saying is this: If the game world tried to recreate reality as much as possible, we would have to see so much more in the game. For instance, there would be many, many more characters serving key economic functions in Hyrulian society such as farming. We would see dialogue that is almost never the same. There would be realistic damage in battles. Link would have to eat and sleep. We would even ecological relationships between wild animals. Need I continue? Obviously this kind of copying of reality is impossible given the limiting factors. So instead, Aonuma wants you to think you’re in Hyrule. He wants you to think you’re actually running around a huge Medieval fantasy world, venturing into dark scary dungeons and helping out hapless citizens. He wants you to think you’re at the center of an epic battle between good and evil, with the fate of the world at stake. In order for you to think these things, you have to believe what you’re seeing. To be immersive like that, the game has to be believable.


Aonuma illustrates this perfectly with an example from The Wind Waker:

As you can see, this a scene from the Bomb Shop in The Wind Waker. Let’s take another look at it. First we see the bomb shop shopkeeper. He has a weird looking face, but other than that he’s a normal guy. Next, Link arrives.

In response to Link’s arrival, the shopkeeper says, “Welcome to my shop.” So far, this is the general flow of shopping at any store, and there’s nothing special about it. But I think there may be some here who noticed that the scene in this clip occurs late at night, and Link is just a child. This means that this scene fails The Miyamoto Test.

Then what would be the correct answer to this problem? We’re fine up to the point when Link enters the shop and speaks to the shopkeeper. It’s the shopkeeper’s response that must change to:

“Are you alone, kid? Where are your parents? This is a BOMB shop. This is no place for kids to come to in the middle of the night. You be a good kid, now, and run on home … That’s what I should say, but the thing is, these pirates came and stole my bombs, so business hasn’t been good lately. So I tell you what: I’ll sell you bombs if you promise not to cause any trouble for me or my shop.”

This type of response from the shopkeeper would pass The Miyamoto Test. Of course when I tell you this, I’m sure some of you may think “It’s Nintendo. Of course! They want to make sure that they remind people of what’s proper.” But that’s not the point. The important point here is that people who have been playing the game for a long period of time tend to forget that Link is just a child on an adventure toward some sort of objective.

While playing through the game, there’s no need to be aware of Link’s age and how that age relates to his actions. But when that happens, the things the player does simply become typical game actions and the awareness that the player is just playing a game becomes stronger.

Players who need bombs to progress through the game but don’t happen to have any will by chance find themselves visiting the bomb shop in the middle of the night.

So, when the shopkeeper says “You’re just a boy!”, the player who had not been consciously thinking that Link was just a boy realizes “Oh, that’s right! I’m just a boy!”

The player reflects on the fact that he is walking around in the middle of the night, and starts to feel the loneliness of the middle of the night. That leads the player to become one with the game world, and the player experiences reality.

See that? It’s the details like that that make Zelda great. It’s the details that suck you into the gameworld and not just make it “just another game.”

He then gives another great example:

This scene shows Link blowing up a wall with a bomb in Ocarina of Time. In this case, Link is blowing open the entrance to a dungeon, but that’s not what is important. It’s the sound that’s important. Allow me to explain this scene in detail.

First, the player has an object that he thinks he might be able to destroy. He puts a bomb there, the bomb explodes, and this results in the wall breaking and the room ahead being revealed.

There is a start and an end to the explosion. There are several frames from the start of the KABOOM of the explosion until the smoke blurs your view. The player still does not know for sure what has happened. Once the smoke has cleared, the player can see the result.

It is at this time that the famous Zelda success chime is heard. This chime informs the player that he has solved a puzzle, so in the scene we just saw, this sound was timed to play at the start of the explosion. This also fails the Miyamoto Test.

Please look at the correct answer.

[A scene from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is displayed]

This is the same type of scene, this time from The Wind Waker. Were you able to catch the difference between this scene and the one from Ocarina?

In the Ocarina scene, the Success Chime was heard before the explosion ended. Although the chime indicated success, it was heard before the player realized the results of his actions. As a result, the player did not feel that his actions resulted in the correct answer. It felt more like a mere game mechanic.

In the Wind Waker scene, it was changed so that the Success Chime is played at this point in time [Link is shown detonating a bomb. The Success Chime is heard after the player has seen the results of the explosion]. This way, the player has some idea of the results of his actions when the Success Chime is heard. As a result, the player gets the feeling that he has accomplished something. This is reality.

The Zelda Success Chime is one element of Zelda-esqueness that has been carried on throughout the entire series, but if we think that we can just insert it whenever, it becomes a negative rather than a positive. This is just one example of the mistakes that developers who have grown accustomed to developing Zelda games can make.

See that? The Zelda developers are fundamentally aware that game immersion is dependant upon such seemingly insiginifcant details as when the Zelda chime is played. As he says:

I think these examples give you an understanding of Zelda reality, but these are primarily what we consider to be production techniques and are really quite trivial in relation to gameplay. However, Zelda reality is built by piling on these trivial elements, for these are what draw players into the game world.

It’s these details that stack up to create an AAA quality game:

Of course, all things in balance:

When considering implementing production techniques, what’s important is not adding them everywhere, but instead adding them with effective timing. Anticipating how players will play and how they will interpret different moments helps determine this timing, as shown in the bomb shop example above.

On Developing the Franchise

. . . being able to take the regrets of the last title and make them a theme for the next is extremely effective and leads us to decisions related to Change and Continuity.

A simple observation, but noteworthy.

. . . we thought that this was the best style suited to a younger Link. Our objective was to develop this into new game ideas, so it could be said that even this was changed from the last installment in pursuit of more reality.

Aonuma has hammered this point before-that the graphical style is related to Link’s age. And it’s one that was certainly brought up again when E3 rolled around. While I do see his point, this isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors in Nintendo’s graphical choice.

On “Shameful” Game Elements

It’s difficult to explain clearly, but generally when you combine distinct flavors and textures, the stronger the ingredient, the more impurities that come out when you mix them with other ingredients. In Japan, we describe people with very colorful personalities as having a lot of AKU.

I’m highlighting this because this is a good example of some of the most important attributes of Japanese culture. The trend in the West is that we are individualists, whereas we can see by Aonuma’s last statement that the Japanese are definitely not. I’ve talked about this before. Much of this is connected with something called “shame and honor,” and if you’ve seen The Last Samurai (for example), you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Why am I talking about this? You’ll see why when you see the next article in the “Link in Love” series. In any case, Aonuma goes on to apply the concept of shame and honor to the gameworld:

Even when making a game, mixing different ingredients together into one pot always produces AKU-in games the impurities are the elements that feel unnatural or out of place. I think that making a good game, or being a good chef, means doing a good job of removing these impurities.

By combining together the slow and steady work of removing the impurities, and adding in the spice that is what Mr. Miyamoto calls Zelda Reality, and by doing a good job of stewing in the occasional fresh ingredient, we maintain the deliciousness of Zelda and lead the way to new evolutions in the franchise.


Thank you very much.

No, thank you, Mr. Aonuma.