Why “The Legend of Zelda” is the best RPG series I’ve ever played
The first roleplaying game in the modern sense of the word is Gary Gygax’s and Dave Anderson’s “Dungeons & Dragons”, based on the wargame “Chainmail”. It allowed players to explore mysterious dungeons, slay horrible monsters and get exciting rewards for doing so. The system included classes, levels, equipment and various other things. Since the first edition of the game (currently on its fifth edition), a whole genre has emerged. Things have changed – not every RPG has classes, not all of them feature equipment in the usual sense of the word. However, one thing is necessary for a game to be generally viewed as an RPG or as having RPG elements – the player character’s advancement and customisation through experience points he gains over the course of the game. It is about this that I want to talk today.
Advancement and customisation based on experience points are detrimental to a single-player RPG’s ability to engage the player.
Note: here, “ability to engage the player” is used instead of a more vague and subjective “fun”. If I mention “fun” later on, it means that thing.
Let us look at a typical open-world RPG (don’t worry, we’ll consider linear RPGs as well). It is divided into various areas and tasks (quests, monster lairs you have to clear out, treasure caches you have to find, etc). Each of those is assigned a level or level range – in the starting village you’ll encounter rats and can find an iron sword; at the
you’ll find demon-spawn hydras and
after completing a long series of quests will get the Infinity Spear. It gives
the player a sense of progression, but at the same time serves as a barrier
between the player and most of the game’s content. Not being able to access
harder areas is fine, the real problem lies with cutting off “outdated” areas. Mountain of Gods
Remember that village you started in? No reason to go back to that secret stash you’ve missed, it contains a minor healing potion which you have hundreds by now. The bandit fort that was a huge challenge while you were still on the track of the Lich Queen? Would’ve been nice to clear then, the Bow of Undead Slaying was a pretty great treasure for its level. Now you’ll just waste your time to make yet another area devoid of life by clicking through enemies that can’t possibly present a challenge to you. And even if you’re going the completionist route and doing all the level 30 quests before starting the level 31 ones, you’ll notice that after doing about a half of the level 30 ones you’ll already be miles ahead of them, because the game designer has to balance the game around you doing only the bare minimum.
And if the rewards and challenges are based on your level (see: “The Elder Scrolls” series), then what is the point of it? If at my level 1 the rats in the cellar were just regular rats, and when I reach level 50 they turn into angelic dire rats of death, then why did I even bother leveling? If that stash contains an iron sword at level 1 and a fiery sword of poison at level 20, then shouldn’t I postpone opening it until I reach the maximum level for maximum rewards? Not to mention it makes the world seem lifeless, revolving only around the player.
One thing levels and experience points do help with is the sense of character progression and the ability to customise him – when you level, you can choose which stats to improve, which stats to get, think about your further progression. Such a system makes implementing vertical (directly improving your already existing abilities) and horizontal (getting new abilities with power on par with the old ones) progression quite easy, but it is definitely not necessary. “Wolfenstein: The New Order”, for example, let the character improve through finding hidden objects (bonuses to maximum health and armour) and completing specific tasks (new abilities and improvements to old ones).
On that note, “The Legend of Zelda” series, while not usually classified as an RPG series, does the job of giving a sense of progression extremely well. Abilities and upgrades in that game are tied to story progression, exploration and mini-games. You delve into a deep cavern to grab a heart piece (which is always a prize, even when you have almost all of them), you win the race to get a bigger coin bag, and if you ever get stuck – you know you don’t need to grind, you just need to progress along the story to get a new ability that allows you into previously inaccessible areas. It does all that and engages the player without ever using experience points or the like.
A game that is heavily inspired by “The Legend of Zelda” – “Darksiders” – has shown the distinction between level-based and not level-based quite nicely, when its second installment added an “RPG” system as the biggest new feature. The result? “Darksiders II” is bigger, prettier, but ultimately more corridor-like. When coming back to old places for newly-available or missed upgrades, you just run past the enemies (that are too low-level to harm or challenge you) instead of, well, playing the game. When getting new treasure, you’ll often go “Oh, these scythes are worse than those I already have. Oh well.” And the game suffers for it. It becomes a slog where the first part was a fun and rather quick diversion.
And as for the linear RPGs I’ve promised to mention? The state of affairs is even worse there. You either have the opportunity to grind – in which case you’ll often be either ahead or behind the level the designer “intended” you to have at this point – or you don’t, in which case why even bother with experience? Could’ve just made it like “you’re getting an upgrade after beating this boss” like most games.
Experience is a holy cow that desperately needs butchering. It works in pen-and-paper games – because there the game master watches from behind the curtains, adjusting challenges, story and prizes as necessary to make the players feel like they’re in a living world, to feel like they’re being rewarded for their efforts –, but is not at home in videogames, where the player’s getting a finished product that doesn’t have the development team bundled inside the box. Look at “The Legend of Zelda”. Imagine what an actual RPG – with character choices, namely – would be like if it had that game’s systems. Wouldn’t that be great?