Saturday, August 29, 2015

[BoRT Aug. 2015] Back to the Home Row

     Half-way through Dodongo’s Cavern I enter a room with a sunken floor. The camera pivots upward behind the Kokiri orphan to approximate the top-down screen of a two-dimensional Zelda game. Behind Link, through the window of my 3DS screen, I watch the future Hero of Time stand in his leather boots on the square blocks stamped with the cross insignia of some by-gone Goron architect. Below him are several square pillars promising to divide the space into a grid of muddied stone corridors. I climb down and listen to the boots making a soft patter against the ladder until they reach the dirt floor of the cavern.

     Immediately, a blade whirs across the screen and slices a quarter heart out of my body. Running in terror only adds to the confusion as the camera smashes into the back of Link’s head guided by claustrophobic algorithms. I guide my avatar to the safety of an even narrower hall as Navi desperately warns to me to spy around each corner with the L-(formerly Z-) targeting system. The sound of razors continues to ring into the room and warns me of further danger as I sidle the walls then sprint across hallways with the blades whizzing inches behind my blonde locks of hair.
These were the Blade Traps. Once I reached the opposite side of the room I could rest, pull a block, then continued on my way deeper into the dungeon. I bested Dodongo later that night. Now, even as I begin my trek to Zora's domain, the the poor design and blinding camera angles built into that meaningless, one-trick trap room stick to the forefront of my memory.

     For the most part, the formulaic rooms of a Zelda dungeon always promise variations on a theme. Dodongo’s Cavern introduces bombs and then teaches the player about all the enemies and environments they can blow up. Occasionally, like some sort of cumulative exam, the game refers back to a previously learned skill such as lighting a row of torches as first introduced in the Great Deku Tree. Otherwise, the player never needs completely new knowledge to pass through a room, only some vague trust in recapitulation.

     The placement of these blades did not align with the aforementioned mantra of Nintendo’s dungeon design. They seem to be relics of previous games in the series and that return from the past made them all the more unsettling.
The difference you will notice in this screenshot from the original Legend of Zelda is that the blade traps appear in an over-the-top grid layout, letting the player navigate the room with precision. In contrast, my experience with the blades proved that the over-the-shoulder hallway incident provides a disservice to the camera and turns the potentially artful challenge of timed accuracy into a chaotic run-and-gun.

     In my re-play through Ocarina of Time on the 3DS I’ve noticed this was not the first time the designers crafted a room with the blatant intention of referencing the two-dimensional space of previous games. Similarly, the Castle Garden’s stealth section and the maze at the entrance to the Sacred Grove both force the camera to pan up and recreate the two-dimensional viewpoint. These sections become bothersome as the multi-directionality of the joystick does not allow me to move in the cardinal directions demanded by a Cartesian graph. The effect is a reference to the franchise’s design history while the player stumbles without the necessary tools for navigation.

     I describe these awkward moments as a form of nostalgia, particularly design nostalgia, which encourage a company to plug-in a pre-existing mechanic or scene into a previously unknown situation. The Greek term quite literally means nostos or “homecoming,” and algos or “ache.” Hidden beneath Hyrule’s new polygon veneer, it is as if Nintendo wanted to assure players that this was the same space they knew from games set in the aerial perspective. The persistence of Hyrule landmarks such as Lake Hylia and Death Mountain further emphasize the notion of returning home to familiar spaces despite how drastically the actual presentation varies between games. For the designers, the comfort of this nostalgia must have simplified the design process despite the end result being significantly sub par to elements of the game that actually acknowledge the new potential of three-dimensions.

     Institutional nostalgia forces itself into the design document of any game at the behest of the marketing department. It is easier to advertise what the audience has already played, therefore a new game must adhere to some model of previous success before even the first line of code can be written:

“It’s like Oblivion but with guns”

“It’s like Grand Theft Auto but in the wild west”
“It’s like Bioshock but in a floating city”
“It’s like Halo, but an MMO”

     These quotations might seem like superficial internet mockery of several triple-A titles from this past decade but, in my view, they also exemplify how our conception of the "New" is always limited by pre-existing paradigms in design. These slogans become a form of trust between players. I can recommend this game to you because it has all the qualities you already know; they’ve only been remixed. Note: I don’t intend to argue that marketing ruins originality since advertisement only emphasizes a certain universal human principle: we like what we already know. No one is immune to the bias of design nostalgia, but it does have a purpose.

     Analogy and comparison offer pause from the unending tsunami of novelty pouring down our newsfeed. Technology can be terrifying; the sheer power and potential of the computation machines we all carry in our pockets and backpacks threaten to overwhelm our minds, so we use design nostalgia to provide comfort in these foreign and digital spaces. No one complains that Microsoft Word insists that a floppy disk denotes the universal symbols for save. Our interfaces depend on phylogeny. The notion of “spiritual successors” promised by numerous Kickstarted games represents another instance of gaming nostalgia promising the comfort of game mechanics we’ve already mastered. Just as our bodies need a home, our fingers need a home row.

     Despite the logic of these decisions, they always threaten to weaken the potential of the gaming medium. As I observed with Ocarina of Time, reliance on past solutions to design challenges leaves certain moments of a game vapid at best and functionally incompetent at worst. Reliance on the categorical archetypes of Tower Defense or Walking Simulator predefines a comfort zone where all members of the trinity: creator, critic, and audience, languish in uncritical stupor.

     I am not the first to call attention to the rupture of design between two and three dimensions, but we should not limit the case study to one moment in video game history. Games are fundamentally iterative, and thus the audience demands that all proceeding copies hoping to exhibit new technology must graft their advances to the comforting mold of the progenitor.

     Franz Kafka once wrote:

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?"

How might a game function to strike us in the head? Would our fingers float wary and unsure over the keyboard? Would we feel useless as unknown systems churn our tepid inputs into unintuitive results? These kinds of wounds are different from the slashing, stale blows of the Blade Traps awkwardly repurposed. I do not play Legend of Zelda or any other game for rooms such as the one in Dodongo’s Cavern where violence punishes my very decision to play games.

     I play games that strike at the core of my rational capacity to figure it out. When we already know what to do, when every first person shooter maps to the same controls, then we've eaten the Lotus and lost the right to call games art. To contrast this redundancy, I point to games such as Problem Attic and Starseed Pilgrim which might begin to represent spaces where nostalgia does not dominate our games. Of course they borrow from a lineage of design (the platformer in this case), but at their core they use design to remind me of my own insufficiency. I do not inherently know what to do when the game begins.

     In a world where technology companies dedicate their resources to comfort and usability it might be valuable to take the time and feel not-quite-at-home. Question all design nostalgia. Does it amplify a concept or simply recycle and make homey a challenge that once gave you thrill? Look for games that make blows not against the avatar but against the player. Like all mature media, games have the opportunity to resist their players; we don't have to understand what our role is in a system when we play. Undeniably the call to feel lost in a new era of game design feels daunting. My challenge fundamentally asks you to move away from the games you grew up with. Like the young boy setting off from the forest he called home, we too must have the courage to leave the home row.

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