I was driving home from the airport the other day. I had just spent a week in Michigan and I had a karate tournament (with my girlfriend, no less) to look forward to the next day. When you’re driving on a highway after a tiring day, with nothing much to hold your attention then unfamiliar radio stations (my vans CD player’s broken, so none of my usual music for me), the mind tends to wander. As do the eyes. I found myself looking at these cloud formations ahead of me, looking at the way they curled and repeated themselves, looking at the way the light and the beginnings of the sunset played with them. It occurred to me that clouds… do not look real. They look, and always have, to me, like a painting, or a cartoon, given form and thrust into the sky of our down-to-earth little world. They look like… oh, something from a cel-shaded game, or an anime. This was especially apparent since I had been on an airplane earlier that same day, looking out at a vast and wholly unreal cloudscape, the sort that it looks like you could walk on but of course you can’t.
Then the highway curved, or I took an exit to another route or some such thing, and I was looking in another direction entirely. Unsurprisingly, the cloud formations, and the way the light of the now full-blown sunset rendered them little pieces of art, was completely different.
I absent-mindedly pondered these clouds and others like them on my way home, thinking about the visual effects and sheer variety they could produce, about the fantastic colors and views they could show us. Overturning the way they looked so out of place, as if they were paintings or drawings, and yet still managed to blend in with the rest of the world so well. One thing led to another, and eventually I was thinking about how to apply clouds to video games, or more specifically, the Zelda franchise.
I was a huge fan of the cel-shading in the Wind Waker, and the thought that Nintendo might give into public pressure and suck too much of the stylistic out of their games in favor of “realism” has always worried me, though those fears tend to be unfounded. Look at Twilight Princess – it is dark compared to earlier games, and more realistic than The Wind Waker, but there is no edge to these aspects of the game. The brilliant designers at Nintendo have managed to inject just the right amount of style and atmosphere to make this fit the cartoon fairy tale style that the Zelda series has always had. If anything, my impression of the game so far leads me to believe – or hope, sometimes the two are easily confused – that this will be an heir to A Link to the Past’s atmosphere.
This interplay of pseudo-realism and darkness with stylized and artistic expression reminded me of the way the clouds looked so unreal in our wholly real world, and I decided that a focus on clouds and the sky would be a perfect way to achieve a balance between the two, in some future game. Not necessarily Twilight Princess, since that’s obviously not the focus there, but in some other game.
Imagine climbing to the top of Death Mountain, looking out over a vast and vibrant Hyrulian landscape, and, hanging above it all, clouds, equally vibrant and beautiful. It’d be a sunset, of course, so some areas would be in shadow already, while others, further west, would have more light. Or imagine riding through a vast Hyrule Field, the wind blowing around you, and low-hanging, fast moving clouds flying by overhead, pushed by the wind. I could go on, but you get the picture.
The Wind Waker accomplished a degree of this very well, with extremely well-done clouds that, on a small scale at least, were affected by the wind. But a dynamic, a feeling of an active sky above us, was not as well done as it could be in a future game. There was not enough variety, just a set look to the sky depending on the time of day, the direction you were facing, and whether it was raining or not. The sky was background, and good background, but it did not feel active.
What they need is some sort of system that governs cloud movement and weather in the background. I know that many scientists, especially meteorologists or people studying global warming, have access to monstrously complex computer programs that predict the weather – sometimes around the world – by taking into effect every variable imaginable, from temperature levels to pressure to who knows what. I do not think it would be that much of a stretch for a game developer to make a dumbed down version of something like that, and create a game with weather that reacts with the types of environments the game has, and interacts with itself to create what would essentially be our very own Zelda weather simulator. Weather that progresses naturally, gives the world and the sky an added element of life and breath.
And a complex weather system would be a wonderful thing. Up until now, this entire article has focused on purely visual things. Cloud formations and colors are hard to work into gameplay, after all. But weather is a different matter entirely, and it has been worked into gameplay before. We’ve seen it in Ocarina of Time, with the Song of Storms. The Oracle of Seasons went about it in a heavy-handed way, utilizing whole seasons rather then the weather, but the concept was the same. The Wind Waker put wind, an aspect of the weather, into the spotlight. Weather has been chipped away at throughout the series’ lifetime, different games taking different parts of it into consideration, but we have never seen all of it brought together, and I would like to. Weather and seasons offer endless gameplay opportunities, ranging from stuff we’ve seen before – blowing wind into sails and windmills, filling up an oasis with rain, making vines bloom into handholds – to things such as drying out a pond, or blowing the leaves off of a tree so you can see behind it, to any number of other such things.
And just think how much more atmospheric everything could be if you had exaggerated weather to punctuate it. Remember Ocarina of Time’s final battle? It was just you and the monster, fighting in the rubble of a castle in a ring of fire on an island floating above a lake of lava. That is my favorite battle of all time even as it was, but imagine if you could catch fleeting glimpses of roiling clouds above you, lit by the glow of the fire and the lava, and with huge forks of lightening splitting it asunder, and with wind that would pick up sparks and embers and fling them around. Weather is an amazing force when it comes to creating an atmosphere, and I think that it should be used.