Rory

September 22, 2022

What's in a map?

I've been finding myself playing Ocarina of Time, in the same compulsive manner that a salmon returns to its place of birth. In part, that's because Nintendo has managed to set the standard for game design for literal generations: time and again, it finds ways of expressing what gaming could and should be, and its expressions often wind up defining entire eras of game design.

In every one of those generations, Nintendo has been criticized for being conservative, overly traditional, too focused on its game-as-toy origins, too disinterested in games as rich experiences or as an artistic medium. People have complained for twenty years about how little they seem to care about voice acting, about "immersive worldbuilding" like actually writing text onto its games' signs, about how slow they are to incorporate "cutting-edge" techniques into their games. Every so often, they briefly catch up with the modern trends—as they did with Breath of the Wild—but they tend to establish a style of gameplay and then stick with it, gradually broadening it for what, in gamer time, feels like an eternity.

And none of those criticisms matter, because I look at the Hyrule overworld map in Ocarina and remember that Nintendo is, very simply, better at caring about the fundamental art of crafting games than anybody else is.

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Here it is, if you've never played (or haven't played for a while). Take in that soothing, minty green. Familiarize yourself with its lo-fi "smoothnesses," its curves that are barely curves. Back when 3D gaming was barely a pipe dream, Nintendo came out with this masterpiece and invented the open world. No, it doesn't feel particularly "open" nowadays, where the thought of breaking a game down into separate maps feels practically barbaric. But everything you need to know about open-world design is baked into this map—and everything about what makes Nintendo brilliant can be found here too.

Explaining why is as simple as 1-2-3...4-5-6-7. By which I mean: you just need to look at all the places where this map can lead.

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You first emerge into this world at Marker #1, nearby the red arrow. That arrow, incidentally, is used to indicate where you entered this map from, while the yellow arrow represents where you currently are—a useful tool for keeping yourself oriented, as you stumble around trying to get your bearings. Beyond Marker #1 lies the Kokiri Forest, where the first chapter of the game—the first residential "town" and the first "dungeon"—takes place. Leaving it, you encounter the broader world for the first time.

Marker #2 denotes Hyrule Castle Town, which is your next intended destination. The entirety of northern Hyrule consists of a single huge castle wall, in case you needed help figuring out where to go next. But it's not just the bigness of the wall, or the way you're introduced to this space with a camera pan that starts there and lands on the forest where you've emerged.

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Look at the way you exit Kokiri forest: through a brief narrow passage followed by an angled opening. That angle lines up almost perfectly with the Castle Town; in fact, it leads you right to the "gutter" on its western side (the bright-green bracket to the left of Marker #2). Travel precisely as the map lines you up, and you get caught right in the pocket that you ought to be in. But wait, there's more.

Marker #3 takes you to Kakariko Village, beyond which lies Death Mountain. On the overworld, you can see Death Mountain's volcanic smoke ring towering above you, letting you know there's something worth seeing there. But there's also a slight preventative measure: much as Kokiri Forest's exit angles you towards Hyrule Castle Town, the entrance to Kakariko Village is tucked away from you, concealing the stairway that leads up to it behind "scenic" walls that merge together from afar. It's easy enough to get to, and it's nearby enough that you might be tempted, but you're given less of a direct visual marker than you're given of the main town.

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That changes when you're looking at it from the Castle Town: suddenly: you have a direct line of sight that includes the tucked-away staircase.

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Now, it's worth pointing out that these aren't the only layers at play. Kakariko Village offers a number of things for you to immediately do, should you arrive at it before you go to Hyrule Castle Town. In fact, its design consists of three layers of gates: the village itself is fully accessible at any time; Death Mountain is only accessible once you've met Zelda at the castle; and the graveyard in between is instantly available, but holds a particularly juicy treasure if you approach it after you've met Zelda.

Marker #4, Lon Lon Ranch, serves one immediately valuable purpose: it closes the map. Areas 1-5 form a self-contained region of the world; areas 6 and 7 are mostly excluded from the game's first half, and don't need to be visited directly until much later. (There's one minor exception, which I'll get to.) By placing the Ranch at the center of the map, Nintendo keeps you from wandering too broadly away, while offering you an inner realm that's rich and open enough not to feel limiting.

Once you visit Zelda, the Ranch offers a few things for you to explore: a mini-game, a song, and seeds for future stories. It's also got one treasure, a Piece of Heart, that you can technically get to without meeting Zelda first, but it's placed at the far side of the Ranch, with a lot of emptiness in between—hinting that you should wait to come back later. You meet two of the three main residents of this place en route to finding Zelda; encountering them there is what gets them to come back here, which also gives them a chance to explicitly invite you in.

(And, of course, that invitation is reflected in the way that Lon Lon's entrance is pointed subtly away from Kokiri Forest, while presenting itself immediately as you exit the Castle Town itself.)

Marker #5 takes you on the winding path towards Zora's Domain, the third of the three lands you need to visit before you finish the "child" portion of the game. Geographically speaking, it's the closest possible destination to Kokiri Forest, though it's the most weakly indicated: the river flowing towards it is a quieter landmark than the others I've mentioned. And it's the only intentionally opaque landing of the five—when you first get to it, there's almost nothing you can do, apart from buying seemingly-useless magic beans from a nearby loafer. You have to make it a fair chunk of the way into Death Mountain before anything else becomes possible.

As a result, this route gradually forms the initial mystery of the early game: the place which you can't access and don't understand how you'd access, pointing somewhere that—unlike Death Mountain's conspicuous presence—doesn't hint at its own nature. The eventual reveal of Zora's Domain, which is crystalline and ethereal in a way that feels less earthly than Kokiri Forest or Death Mountain, rewards you less materially than viscerally, by offering you a place that feels more explicitly magical than anywhere else that you've seen. And because you're offered a plethora of other possible outlets, the inaccessibility of this space doesn't feel limiting, and it doesn't diminish the overall sense of non-linearity to this world. It becomes your final destination as you gradually see that no other destinations are left.

Marker #6 leads to Lake Hylia. It's about as far from Kokiri Forest as Hyrule Castle Town is, which might be why you're angled so sharply away from it at first. In fact, its entrance runs literally parallel to your initial exit, emphasizing that this is not the direction you ought to take.

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Furthermore, its entryway appears to be blocked off at first, unless you do some snooping and find a ladder tucked away in the opposite direction from your approach.

But it's not entirely forbidden. In fact, it offers you more to do than the route to Zora's Domain does. Lake Hylia is one of the larger open regions of the game, and offers you a number of people to visit, secrets to explore, and the fishing minigame, which might be the most involved minigame Ocarina has to offer.

You do visit Lake Hylia once as a child, but you enter it directly from Zora's Domain. Does this make geographic sense? Not entirely! But that doesn't matter, because your proximity to water in both directions makes the two feel logically connected. If you visit it before you arrive at Zora's Domain, your visit "pays off" with the recognition that you're returning to a place those purpose you didn't fully understand. If you've never visited it before, that's fine too, because you technically never left that northeastern enclave. (The magic of teleportation!)

When you return to this world as an adult, Lake Hylia is suddenly inaccessible. The mystery of why you can't get to it is one of several jarring shifts in the landscape seven years on, and turns this into a more central object of mystery—one with a visually-striking payoff.

Marker #7, meanwhile, leads to the Gerudo Valley—by far the most forbidden part of the landscape, as well as the most geographically inaccessible. I mean, look at this density of obstacles:

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You clear out three major dungeons as a child, and five major temples as an adult. The temple that lies in this direction is the fifth of those: you have to re-visit Kokiri Forest, Death Mountain, and Zora's Domain, at which point you can access a temple in Kakariko Village itself—via more convoluted time-traveling shenanigans than you've formally been asked to deal with—and at last you can visit the vast desert, the intermediary fortress, and the final temple that makes up the final broader region of the game. In the meantime, Gerudo Valley is largely just not possible to get to: you can't even think of traveling there until you've completed one of two major objectives as an adult, and even then your access is sharply limited until near the end of the game.

If the route to Zora's Domain serves as the looming mystery in your childhood, then Gerudo Valley serves the purpose in adulthood. And just as Zora's Domain rewards your patience by offering you a vivid shift in locale when you finally arrive, Gerudo Valley pays off in a big way: it's just as self-enclosed a space as the region of Hyrule contained within those first five markers, and offers up multiple storylines, a brand-new town, a set of mini-games, and a final temple that requires time-travel to both enter and complete.

Even its narrative is uniquely self-contained. Every temple is connected to a sage, and the sages of every other temple are revealed to be characters you've met before. The one exception is the sage of Gerudo's Spirit Temple, who you only meet upon finally entering the Valley—and her story is entwined with the Spirit Temple's bosses in a similarly unusual manner.

In your final leg, in other words, just as things might start to seem repetitive and you might start to weary of playing, you're finally given access to the one last place you haven't entered—and you are given a refresh on every possible level. New places, new characters, new stories, all told in a complex and interlocking manner that the rest of the game, because of its non-linear and recursive architecture, can't (and doesn't want to) match.

And all this—the game's structure in a nutshell—is conveyed the moment you enter Hyrule proper, and take your first look at your map. Everything, from the smaller realm you explore as a kid to the final payoff you'll receive as an adult, is not only foreshadowed but mapped out for you. The interlock between locations, the various possible calculuses of which places you'll choose to go and in what order, has been thought out down to the literal mathematical angle. And the byproduct of all this consideration, ironically, is that you don't need to think about any of this—no matter how you go about processing this information, your thoughts and curiosities are guided, seamlessly, by the way this world has been laid out for you. The trickiest part of analyzing how Nintendo did this, in fact, consists of realizing they did it in the first place.

We don't have to stop there. We could talk about the way that the Lost Woods in Kokiri Forest contains hidden connections between Death Valley and Zora's Domain, offering you ways to quickly travel between all three, even before you learn the songs as an adult that will teleport you directly to the mouths of each temple. We could talk about the way that each of these locations gets extended in adulthood, or about the different ways in which items you acquire unlock certain gates—more linearly at first, then in more open-ended ways as you go on. And, of course, we could talk about how endlessly the game introduces you to new techniques, whether it's the early dungeons teaching you new ideas about puzzle-solving or even just Kokiri Forest offering you a number of gentle ways to move about the world, before you've acquired your sword and shield and movement is all there is. (Hell, we could talk about how you leave your room at the start of the game and are immediately confronted with a ladder down, which introduces you both to three-dimensional movement and to the context-shifting A button that you can press to drop immediately down.) Pick apart pretty much any major Nintendo game, and you start to realize how thoroughly and thoughtfully it's been designed: how, on every conceivable level, it has asked itself both how a game ought to play and how its world ought to encourage that.

It's popular to assume that games are so much more sophisticated nowadays that early games must have been crude by comparison, in the same way that early cinema or earlier eras of music are gradually seen as pale facsimiles of what we have today. In truth, oftentimes the opposite happens: both the ease of creation and the bewildering range of possibilities leads people to cut corners, or to overlook possible considerations en route to working out a bigger picture. One reason that Nintendo increasingly lags "behind the times," I suspect, is that it spends far more time ironing out these details than most studios bother with; it's why games like Super Mario Sunshine or The Wind Waker are often met with derision upon release, only to wind up re-released on platform after platform, as successive generations of gamers realize what a joy they are to play. When they take on a genre of game that's only been crudely explored, though, as Breath of the Wild did with open-world environments or Ocarina of Time did with 3D worlds in general, their patience leads not only to unforgettable experiences but to revolutions in the medium. Over time, we take their achievements for granted, because their consideration feels obvious in retrospect—but it's only obvious because, as with the best toys, every piece fits logically together, every component achieves exactly what it should, until the whole winds up so compelling that we stop noticing the parts that added up to its sum.

Don't just take my word for it. It's all right there in the map.