An analysis of Wind Waker’s puzzles: Excerpt from “The Symbolism of Zelda”
by on February 9, 2018

More and more, fans have turned towards their favorite video games in order to pen their own thoughts and analyses of their beloved franchises. Author Jared Hansen has created a book analyzing fan-favorite Zelda: The Wind Waker. The book is titled The Symbolism of Zelda: A Textual Analysis of The Wind Waker, and it analyzes every aspect of The Wind Waker. You can order both Kindle and physical paperback versions of the book on Amazon.

We present an excerpt from this book, shared with us by the Jared. This chapter analyzes the puzzle design of The Wind Waker. You can follow the book’s progress and read other articles by Jared, including a different excerpt of this book, at Jared’s blog Hyrule University.

Puzzling the Player: Strengths and weaknesses of the puzzle design in The Wind Waker

At the core of every Zelda game is the exploration of dungeons and solving puzzles within them. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (WW) includes these elements, however they lack the depth of other games in the series. Shigeru Miyamoto mentioned in an interview that, during the production of the game, the design team had many discussions on how to make the game accessible to new players while keeping the franchise fresh for old players. This is evident in the dungeons and puzzle design, which are not overly strenuous but still approach the challenges of player involvement.

A trope of Zelda games is the introduction of a new item in each dungeon that is used to solve the puzzles within. However, the creative team for WW admitted that an abundance of one-off items can be offsetting for new players and implemented various types of puzzles, including environmental puzzles. These various puzzles challenge the player through interactive problem solving and follow a model for Zelda puzzles.

Sivak’s model of Zelda puzzles

In his analysis of Ocarina of Time, Seth Sivak outlined the four types of puzzles found in the game: memory based, time based, space based, and artifact based. Dissecting the properties of puzzles and their impact upon level design requires an analysis of each category of puzzle. However, I build upon this foundation with the skill based puzzle. While not necessarily a puzzle in its demands on clever thinking, many puzzles in WW require an element of hand-eye coordination to complete, and frustrate the player just like traditional puzzles. Below is a description of each type of puzzle and examples from the game:

Memory based puzzles
These puzzles require the player to recall information given to them at an earlier time in order to progress. Memory based puzzles are typically straightforward but can be difficult for casual players who have multiple play sessions. Examples would be the plethora of mazes (such as the Ghost Ship) that rely upon the player’s ability to remember which turn ends with a malicious rat, and which corridor has not been tested.

Time based puzzles
These puzzles create a sense of urgency by including a timer in addition to the challenging task, and also increase player involvement. There are instances of platforming in WW, where the player must reach a goal before the unmarked timer runs out. There is also a stealth scenario in the Forsaken Fortress that requires the player to appropriately time their movements to avoid being caught.

Space based puzzles
These puzzles involve the movement of an object within space to create a desired outcome. Space based puzzles are typically at the core of each dungeon, where the atrium is designed around a central puzzle. In the Forbidden Woods the atrium includes a great flower that needs to fall through the floor, and the Wind Temple includes various mechanisms that change the wind patterns to unlock various side rooms from the central tower.

Artifact based puzzles
These puzzles require artifacts that are literally the keys to unlock portions of the game or rooms of a dungeon. Within this type are three divisions: items, equipment, and songs.

  • Item puzzles use an active agent, such as the hookshot, to solve a puzzle. In order to enter certain dungeons (such as Fire Mountain, Ice Ring Isle, and the Earth and Wind Temples), the player must first acquire an item, which is then used to unlock the dungeon.
  • Equipment puzzles use a passive agent, such as the mirror shield, to solve. An example would be the light-bouncing puzzles within the Earth Temple, making use of the mirror shield and Medli’s harp to solve.
  • Song puzzles are rare within WW as the song mechanic is not as common as in other Zelda games. The only examples are found within two dungeons where tablets block the way until a certain song is played.

Skill based puzzles
This fifth puzzle type, an addition to Sivak’s model, is the most common type found in WW. Skill based puzzles are not difficult to solve but difficult to perform. They rely on a mastery of button pressing, usually forcing the player to repeat the trial until they finally complete it. Examples include timing the projection of Link from a flower bulb in order to achieve greater heights or using a seagull to press a switch that is beyond the player’s reach. These puzzles require the player to combine skill with problem solving.

Models of puzzle design

Player involvement requires the game developer to understand the challenges of puzzles and challenging the player, who have varying levels of ability. Properly involving the player means balancing their skill and the challenge, as evidenced by the concept of flow. However, Nintendo games include examples of good puzzle design by developing the player’s skill alongside the challenge of the level.

Through analyzing Super Mario 3D World, game scholar Mark Brown described how each level followed a four-step process. First a skill is taught, then it is developed further, then there is a twist as the skill is combined with a different mechanic, and it concludes with a final revision of the skill to ensure that the player has mastered the skill. Each level in the game follows these four phases, with the player being introduced to an ability and guided towards more challenging situations where the puzzle element increases in difficulty.

This pattern is similar to the teaching cycle. Mark Sivak analyzed player involvement within Half-Life 2 but argued that it follows a five-step process: introduction, learning, testing, challenge, and reuse. Mark Sivak also found that player involvement through the teaching cycle follows a bell curve shape with enjoyment waxing and waning. At first player enjoyment is rather low during the introduction of puzzle learning. But as the player grows in understanding, and the difficulty increases, so does the enjoyment.

The Teaching Cycle, which maps how time and enjoyment are related during the process of solving puzzles

During these phases of learning, testing, and challenge, the player applies what they learn in new situations. But then the enjoyment diminishes during the reuse phase as player involvement decreases and the player leaves the state of flow.

In both of these models for puzzle design, the challenges are slowly increased and build upon each other. This build of challenge within the game and skill within the player results in the player entering a state of flow or optimal involvement. Good puzzles in video games are incremental, with the difficulty increasing along with the skills that are gained from completing them. But with the teaching cycle, an additional step to puzzle learning is included: the reuse step. Following the climatic use of an item or a puzzle within a dungeon, players may have diminishing returns on the enjoyment. These two models provide an outline for player involvement and level design as players learn and master puzzles.

Insights from Seth Sivak’s model

By applying Seth Sivak’s model to WW, this case study reveals a reliance on two types of puzzles: space and skill based puzzles. Unlike Ocarina of Time, from which Sivak’s model was based, the puzzles within WW are not overly strenuous mentally nor overly creative in their variety and execution. However, the puzzles of WW reveal that the puzzles’ difficulty can be measured in two dimensions, and that one measure leads to greater player involvement in greater amounts of players.

By implementing skill based puzzles that are easy to solve but challenging to execute, the designers of WW increase the amount of involvement from the players. Examples of games that are easy to learn but hard to master include mobile gaming and gambling, which rely on high levels of player involvement to ensure habitual and repeated playing. This measure of puzzle difficulty, which is not mental capability but hand-eye coordination and skill, appeals to greater amounts of players and avoids the conundrum of puzzle design: not being too difficult for some players while also not being too easy for others.

While there are instances and examples where difficult games such as King’s Quest or Shadow of the Beast II require mental prowess, problem solving, and perhaps a peek at the strategy guide, these puzzles and games risk alienating inexperienced players or players with fewer investigative skills. What this means for game designers is that puzzles can be measured on two levels of difficulty: mental challenge and execution. And designers can also learn that player involvement can be increased through skill based puzzles that are easy to understand but difficult to perform.

Player involvement and flow

The puzzles in this game are not overly cryptic, such as bringing a fish in a bottle to enter a whale’s belly. As a case study, WW exemplifies puzzle design through a new puzzle motif for each dungeon. A puzzle motif is a recurring puzzle that follows the four-step model by requiring the player to solve the same problem, but the puzzles build upon each other and increase in difficulty. An example is the recurring use of fire to burn obstacles and light torches within the Dragon Roost Cavern: first using Deku sticks to light a torch, then to burn wooden planks, then tossing the torch to burn obstacles that are farther away, making use of the limited resources and fire given them in the room. This puzzle motif keeps the player involved through increasing difficulty, and increases their skills or ability to complete the puzzle motif.

The various dungeons or levels within this game showcase principles of level design through their puzzle motifs. WW is a game that engages the player through its level design but is hampered by a lack of difficulty. While the dungeons and puzzles may not be difficult for a seasoned player, the game is still enjoyable due to its rhythm and use of puzzle design.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, individuals experience the greatest level of involvement and enjoyment when they are very skilled and the challenge is high. For developers and scholars of video games, this means that proper level design should engage the player through difficulty and increasing challenges. WW may not be very difficult, but it does increase the challenge through its puzzle motifs and level design.

The intersection of flow (grey) and the four-step model of puzzle design (black)

The puzzle motifs of WW, which implement the four-step process of puzzle design, encourage player involvement through the process of flow. As the player solves each recurring puzzle, their skill improves while the challenge of the puzzle motif increases. This leads to higher levels of involvement and enjoyment from the player, which are achieved through these tools of interaction.

Do the puzzles exploit the player?

When examining this game through the lens of player involvement, does WW exploit the player? The reliance on skill based puzzles exploit addictive behaviors within players much like mobile games or gambling. This human weakness for easy to learn, hard to master challenges is targeted by the designers of WW to make an involving and engrossing game.

The empowering process of player involvement is built through interaction within video games. As players advance towards the feeling of flow, their levels of enjoyment increase and they are engrossed within the game. As game developers the goal is to make products that engage players, and this goal can be met through the principles of computer-human interaction, as evidenced in puzzle design. This case study of WW outlines its strengths in implementing skill and space based puzzles, or puzzle motifs, that rely on appropriate difficulty. These puzzles enable the player to remain in flow by increasing in the complexity of the activity while developing new skills to take on the new challenges.

These puzzles, while not overly puzzling, could be seen as exploitative. Or these puzzles could be allowing the principles of flow to maximize fun and player involvement.

Joshua Lindquist
Joshua is the Content Director of Zelda Universe, a long-time executive of Zelda Wiki, and former owner of Zelda Relic. His passion for The Legend of Zelda burns endlessly in his quest for increased collaboration in the community.