Hard game criticism
Ian Bogost argues for more ambiguity in game design
The first scene in the original The Legend
Of Zelda is one of the best moments in videogames. Not the first moment of gameplay, when Link faces the wiles of monster-infested Hyrule alone unless he descends into the Old Man’s cave to retrieve a sword; no, I mean the title sequence. The rocky mountain cut through by an aqua blue waterfall; the sky, an improbable orange; the title itself, with glowing Triforce backdrop – a thing that yet means nothing to us. Two bars of plaintive music, repeated, and then a fade through blue to black.
Seconds later, everything’s ruined. Scrolling text tells us of Gannon and Zelda and the Triforce, a tale so straightforward that it doesn’t even rise to the level of myth.
The Legend Of Zelda is pure mechanics: go find the treasure and save the princess.
Despite the fact the Zelda intro offers no interaction apart from the ability to press Start to skip it, it sets a tone and mood better than the rest of the game ever manages. Yes, the dungeons feel murky and threatening at times. The cool colours of their walls and floors alongside the brooding musical runs evoke a damp, wet foreboding, even despite the game’s 8bit fidelity. But nothing quite matches that title sequence.
The reason is simple, and it’s one of the commonest techniques in almost every other kind of art, but rarely in games: ambiguity. In those first few seconds of The Legend
Of Zelda, anything is possible. Your mind can’t help but fill in the possibilities. You’re confronted with a strange world, alien but familiar, with a secret of some kind. But then the game gives away all its secrets right up front. The folkloric backstory is told in as bland a manner as possible. While everything the game asks of you as a player is still left to be discovered, everything that it means to ask for those actions is laid bare, and before you’ve even pressed Start.
Admittedly, the original Zelda is almost 30 years old. But today’s games – generally thought to have matured narratively – still
Counterintuitively, more meaning is conveyed by withholding information than supplying it
supply more direct information than we’d expect from a film, novel or painting. The
Last Of Us, a blockbuster game that aspires toward meaningful, adult discourse, spells out every detail of its context through verbal exposition. The game doesn’t trust you enough to allow any interpretive freedom.
It’s too late for Zelda, a game that functioned as a children’s story because, frankly, it was first made for children. But we can still imagine a version of the game that makes good on the promise set by those first few moments. The obvious approach would involve equivocating on the goodness of good and the wickedness of evil – is Gannon really merciless and execrable, a simple allegorical emblem? Indeed, this is Braid’s approach to reinventing the platformer as fine art. Or likewise, what if Link’s own resolve to accomplish such an improbable task as saving Hyrule single-handedly were unclear? There are already moments of loneliness and despair in The Legend Of Zelda – crossing the desert always feels particularly dour – but these moments are left unamplified.
Some of the more successful indie and artistic games have learned this lesson. There, greater meaning arises through ambiguity rather than through overtness.
Journey offers one example. By removing all language and replacing it with iconography and player gesture, the game profoundly magnifies its sensory, affective, and interpretive possibilities. And despite sometimes turgid textual interludes, Braid never directly interprets the ‘correct’ meaning of its game-mechanical, timemanipulation allegories. Counterintuitively, more meaning is conveyed by withholding information than supplying it.
But those are indie games. One might wonder if such a strategy could work for mainstream games. As it happens, an example of ambiguity can be found at the very centre of one of the most successful videogame series of all time: The Sims. The most fundamental question in a simulation of human behavior – what a character is thinking and feeling – is abstracted to the point of nonsense. Instead of voiceovers or hackneyed dialogue, we get abstractions: icons and grunts. Yet this technique makes us more attached to our Sims, precisely because we become involved in deciphering their desires and motivations. As in the
Zelda intro, that work takes place in players’ heads rather than in their hands. As it turns out, the oldest kind of interactivity – interpretation – is often the most powerful.