Wednesday 3 January 2018

Wish You Were Here... part 4

Scrambling around Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made me think again of vacationing in game worlds, so I thought I’d revisit the topic...

Several years on, it’s interesting to reread my thoughts on the direction of Zelda and the open world genre. I’ve visited some fantastic places in the interim and Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is one hell of a playground. In part 3 I speculated how incredible it would be to blow away the fog of the Ocarina overworld map and explore the connective tissue – Breath of the Wild does exactly that, and does so with a spectacular level of polish. The trademark jank of open worlds has been buffed out entirely. Of course, it’s a video game and certain actions and objects are necessarily abstracted and streamlined (the rattling 1-2-3-POW! of the cooking animation, for example, is pure cartoon, and who knows where my glider goes when I’m not airborne) but it absolutely nails that exploratory feeling you get in a real natural landscape. It’s not perfect but every design decision forces you to interact with its incredible toybox in an environment tailored towards fun, exploration and experimentation. There are no corridors between civilisations – Hyrule Field is the game now and that buzz you felt the first time you left Kokiri Forest in Ocarina of Time now lasts for a hundred hours or more. The gating is gone, replaced by a natural geography crafted so impeccably that the design feels invisible. But it’s there, in every hill, every nook, cave, pond, puddle, tree, dune, bay and vista. It’s tough to find a spot that hasn’t been meticulously positioned and aligned for maximum effect, yet each place feels perfectly natural. Those tidy compartmentalised zones from previous iterations – the areas that used to be locked until you retrieved the Phantom Doohickey from the preceding area dungeon – now push into one another organically and you are tasked with the adventure of exploring that connective tissue, much as I wished in those old articles. One measure of the game’s success is the number of times I’ve been outdoors in the past few months and gone to grab my scope to scout the best jumping point or realised where I was standing would be the perfect place to glide across the valley and sprint up to an outcrop the other side. I spy obvious Korok hiding places in real hills. The game world seeps into real life.

While it has refined the sandbox experience to the Nth degree, BOTW wears many influences. Beyond its debt to Bethesda, it also draws on its own history. The original Legend of Zelda is a noted touchstone, but the weather system from The Wind Waker is felt here too. The elements in this world fluctuate constantly. That feeling I mentioned in part 1 of the tempestuous seas stirring your spirit is found here too as you gallop across windswept meadows, escape the shadow of a cloud or scramble up a slippery rock face as raindrops start falling. The majesty of the setting also reiterates another remark I made, this time regarding the music. Breath of the Wild features a restrained, delicate score lacking the bombast of previous games because, crucially, it is not needed. Indeed, a rousing overworld theme would soon pall in a game where 95% of the (long) game is the overworld. It’s huge, and you can see it all. There are no compartments and the epic fanfare previously employed to augment them becomes redundant. The world speaks for itself.

Other worlds Breath of the Wild brings to mind include Thatgamecompany’s Flower (all that flowing grass and fauna, and now out on iOS!) and the previously mentioned Shadow of the Colossus (another huge, contiguous world.) As well as polish, it’s the detail in BotW that imbues character and gives the game its unique flavour. Little things like:
- the simple, stark black and white loading screen with its Divine Beasts bomping beside the tooltip.
- the way the UI box fade-bounces onscreen.
- the way Link gorges food, one hand after another as you pummel the A button to regain health.
- his red cheeks and visible breath in the freezing mountains.
- the idle animations of the monster masks that mirror their respective enemies.
the way Link stubs his toe while opening a chest if he’s not wearing boots.
- the death scream that accompanies those little red Xs that appear where you died as you replay and retrace your steps in Hero’s Path mode.

There are countless flourishes like these that work to cohere the game into a unique whole. There’s no real defining moment here, it’s just 100+ hours of exploration. It’s not without flaws. With all the obvious care that has gone into fashioning this kingdom, it is disappointing to run up against invisible barriers on some edges of the map. The text ‘You can’t go any further’ begs the response “Er… why?” And, as always, beating Ganon returns your save file to the point just before the battle so, again, you are denied the pleasure of enjoying your success. A couple of years back I finally played Earthbound on Virtual Console and was overjoyed when I found that it DOES let you explore the world post-victory. All the characters have different dialogue. Earthbound is well over 20 years old!! Why is this not the norm yet?!

My holiday in Portugal, not Hyrule.
Overall, smart choices vastly outweigh the negatives. As with previous games, the map is withheld until you’ve had the chance to explore yourself. But even when you manage to scale the area tower, you’re not then deluged with waypoints and objectives. You must explore to find them, and such is the design of the terrain that you’ll find yourself waylaid en-route to your destination by an intriguing cluster of trees or enemy camp just begging to be investigated. It has been noted how this contradicts the Ubisoft open world approach, which opts instead for the laundry list of objective markers to be drudgingly ticked off. I played Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag to completion a couple of years ago and it gave a thrilling rendition of Wind Waker’s sailing. Having never played a Ubi-verse game, I was content to sail the ocean, ticking off those treasure chests on my map while my crew sang shanties. Man, those blue skies and sunsets! The actual assassinating got old pretty quickly, but the world was (and still is) undeniably appealing. But will I ever go back? After Breath of the Wild, it’s hard to imagine. What I can imagine is hundreds of employees at Ubisoft Montreal/Singapore/Saturn sat with their Switches, furiously updating a group Google doc, analysing every square metre of the world. Bethesda's Skyrim also came to Switch at the end of 2017 (I’ve played little else except Nintendo’s latest console this past year) but, as convenient as it would be to have on-the-go, I think BotW has probably spoiled me for it. I’ll just have to wait until the next Zelda, whatever that will be. My money’s on open world again, but with a Dark World version to travel to. Ooooo!

Assassin's Creed: Black FlagLike Wind Waker plus shanties, minus the Octo-Monsters.

Moving on from Hyrule, Yoshi’s Woolly World had me diving again into the textile world of Epic Yarn, this time in HD. I still prefer Kirby’s game, but Woolly World was a thoroughly lovely, patchwork place to go. Playtonic did a great job recapturing the spirit of Banjo-Kazooie in Yooka-Laylee, and I’m savouring my playthrough on Switch. The levels are beautiful, if a little overwrought and less easily-readable when compared to Banjo. For example, Tribalstack Tropics’ walls are constructed from stone blocks. With care, I am able to scale many of them. They seem to lead nowhere and exist purely to provide visual detail in an HD environment. Which is fine, but it confuses the player as to the objectives and the possibilities in the space, and invariably leads to disappointment. ‘Can I climb that wall? Ah, yes, if I’m careful! But am I supposed to climb it? Well, maybe, but there’s nothing here, so I guess not?’ Questions like these create stress and tension as opposed to, say, Breath of the Wild where the questions regarding the environment go like this: ‘Is there something special about that artfully positioned group of trees over there?’ Answer: ‘Yes.’ In fact, the answer to almost every question in BotW is ‘Yes.’ Can I glide over to tha… Yes. What about using fire arr… Yes. And if the… Yes. The thing is, ‘No’ isn’t necessarily a bad answer, but the answer should be clear. Right now, the answer to too many of the questions in Yooka is ‘Er, maybe? Not sure.’ Still, Y-L has buckets of charm and is made by a small team that I’ve got buckets of time for. And it’s got the Grant Kirkhope tunes!

Looks nice from here. No quills to collect, though. Not sure I should be here, but I managed it so... well done me?

Last year Sonic Mania had me revisiting various zones from the classic games, plus some great new ones, all crisp and lovely. It was fantastic to see Sega finally give Sonic to the right team (or teams: in this case, Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest Games and Headcannon.) Lizardcube’s remake/remaster of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on Master System also showcased the possibilities when ports/updates are handled by people who not only give a shit, but also know their shit. At the touch of a button you are able to paint over the original visuals (presented authentically with various optional filters, though in 16:9) with some truly beautiful hand-drawn animation. Another button toggles between the original soundtrack and a new orchestral arrangement. I spent so much time swiping between the old and new, examining the various choices and admiring the art, and I was very glad to have the opportunity to explore a world I would almost certainly never have gotten to otherwise.

Multiple amazing-looking games have passed me by over the past few years, many of which are now getting ports to Switch (though I’m still hoping for Firewatch and The Witness.) I managed to catch PS3 swansong The Last of Us which presented some stunningly detailed post-apocalyptic locales from Boston to Salt Lake City. The sheer amount of stuff in that game is incredible. The number of unique assets in those buildings (and Naughty Dog’s other games, so I hear) is huge… though it’s all a bit dull. I know, I know – I shouldn’t discriminate against games that don’t have blue skies – but I’m left marvelling at the technical spectacle and scope without any desire whatsoever to return. I may give the sequel a whirl – it’ll come to Switch, right? šŸ˜‰ I also tried Red Dead Redemption but couldn't get past the clumsy GTA IV controls. Looked nice, though. Maybe this year's sequel will convert me. Another sure-thing for Switch (Hey, if DOOM and Wolfenstein 2 can make it, anything can!)

The absolute antidote to all that brown-and-greyness is Super Mario Odyssey, a game which throws the kitchen sink at the paintbox and produces a crazy, crazy video game. It goes like this: Mario goes on holiday (well, a working holiday.) Bowser’s plot to kidnap and marry Peach provides the loosest of motivations for Mario to journey across an Earth-like planet chasing maniacal wedding planners as they steal the nuptial essentials (flowers from the greenhouse level, dinner from the food kingdom, bridal dress from the… erm, water world?) Each separate environment is presented in a travel brochure style on the pause screen, with Mario cast as the tourist studying the map and ticking off the local highlights before he departs on the giant hat ship belonging to his new mate, Cappy. Who’s a hat.

I mean, yes. Fine. As previously noted, we don’t play Mario for the narrative, but rather where it takes us, and this narrative takes us to places both wonderful and strange. Of course, Mario has gone travelling before. Super Mario Sunshine saw him visit the beautiful Isle Delfino and a seaside aesthetic permeated that bright, colourful game. Odyssey is certainly colourful, too. And monochrome. And bright. And dark. In fact, it’s everything, often at the same time. Odyssey mashes cultures, styles and environments on a whim. The art design is all over the place. Tin-can comedy cog-robots? Check. Vaguely PS3-level realistic humans from a swinging NY-esque city governed by Pauline, Mario’s original damsel-in-distress from Donkey Kong? Check. Roly-poly snow bears? Sure. Anthropomorphic talking cutlery? Obviously. Realistic T-Rex with a moustache? Done. Yoshi? Natch.
It goes on. And upon completion, all these haphazard characters meet-up in each other’s kingdoms and just party and hang out. There is something glorious about the abandon of it; the anything-goes variety; the inclusion of any good idea. But read that carefully – any good idea. The only way this works is by the mechanical mastery on show – quality makes it coherent. The ability to capture any character (and the occasional object) that isn’t wearing a hat – and the watertight application of that mechanic – makes the crazy world a joy to leap around in. And that’s on top of the trusty Mario moveset we’ve been using since 1995. People gave Rare a hard time when they threw googley eyes on any old thing and called it character design, but damnit, at least those eyes were consistent! The only consistency here is quality. And it’s enough. Whether clambering up a volcano to cook a stew, or facing off against a Dark Souls-worthy dragon while dressed in a clown suit, or… well, you get the idea. I cannot think of another developer with the audacity and the chops to throw all these mismatching elements at the wall, showcase every disparate feature with a mock travelogue presentation… and make it all gel seamlessly. 97 on Metacritic. I haven’t even mentioned the showtune homage to Mario’s very beginnings in New Donk City. You’ve heard the song already, but the moment itself brings a tear to the eye. I’d recommend making the trip. And dat Steam Gardens music!

God knows where Mario goes next. I wrote before that the ‘final frontier’ was his last refuge in the Galaxy games – he had no more worlds left to conquer. But that was when he was resident of the Mushroom Kingdom and its adjoining territories. I underestimated him; it now seems he can skip through the multiverse at will – anything, anybody, anywhere is fair game. Variety is the spice of life, they say. It’s certainly a hell of a journey. One might even say an ‘odyss-’…


No comments:

Post a Comment