I feel like I should put a spoiler warning for this whole post since it’s a very special moment that everybody should experience for themselves. But then again, this is deconstruction of a moment inside an 18-year-old game, so I’m not going to warn anybody, you all had enough time to play it, dangit!
Right, so, the following video shows my favorite moment in all of gaming, which surprisingly enough, comes from the GameBoy. Unsurprisingly, it’s from a Zelda game: Link’s Awakening.
Now, why was this moment so special for me? After all, you can steal pretty much anything in RPGs like Fallout, even from shopkeepers. What’s the difference?
Simple, my dear non-existent readers, it’s because in most games that give the ability to steal (or any other ability, really) they do so explicitly. It’s always a mechanic specifically showcased to the player or at least made obvious without much investigation. The thing is, the hint doesn’t come from a tutorial or anything of the sort. Here, the ability to steal is subtly hinted at by a few other mechanics.
Let me say that again: The ability to steal is subtly hinted at by a few other mechanics.
I don’t know if I should play games (of the video or the board variety) more often, but I can’t sincerely remember any other game where I identified a mechanic through other mechanics. Not by chance, not by accident, but by pure deduction and exploration of the set of rules.
I feel like I should generalize this a little further, so here’s the same idea in other words: an unspoken rule being discovered by the combination of a set of rules.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid and discovered this, I couldn’t believe what I just saw. It’s only now that I ponder why that moment was so wonderful that I realize quite how masterful the design of this game is. But that’s not the whole story of course, there’s more to this moment. So, to explore it further, let’s take a look at the specific rules that hint at the ability to steal:
- Items can be picked up.
- Link can move while holding an item.
- The shopkeeper always turns to face Link, but he has a delay of a second or two.
- If Link tries to go out while holding an item, then the ‘keep will give him a warning.
One would expect quite a few mechanics or interconnections between them to achieve something that almost no game does. And here it is, with only four basic rules that are very easy to understand and to master. That is at face value of course, but as we’ve seen, there’s something beneath the surface.
Any person can discover the first, second and fourth rules with a little exploration since they are more than apparent. But in order to discover the hidden ability to steal, one needs to observe the shopkeeper first and deduce the mechanics that dictate where he’s facing. Only then can the idea of stealing come to mind. A theory forms in your head:
If I try to exit the shop while the shopkeeper isn’t looking, maybe he won’t warn me again. Something interesting might happen!
Almost every game I’ve played has given me similar experiences of rule exploration like this one, but no other game actually delivered the goods when I tested to see if any of my theories came true. Here, the game recognizes your actions and acts accordingly. Where most games would just slap your wrist for trying to break the rules, here’s a game that encourages this kind of play. Come, explore the boundaries and be surprised when unexpected rules pop up. It’s a very rare sight indeed, even more so in the games of today.
Not since the days of combining every item with every object in the scenery of “Super Adventure Game X: The click-ening” have I been so euphoric to prove a theory of mine right. There’s a certain fun to be had when a theory forms in your head and turns out that it actually works. After all, it’s what made adventure games fun, isn’t it? … and that’s exactly why they were so freaking frustrating.
Why? In order to discover these new rules, the player has to think like the designer, or the designer has to think like the player (whichever view suits your tastes … and yes, there’s a difference*). This, coupled with the wrong design decisions can make any game the most frustrating piece of software on the planet. Or, with the right decisions, my favorite moment in all of gaming.
Here’s what Link’s Awakening did:
- The discovery of the ability to steal is not mandatory. It’s an option.
Yep, that’s it. There are other touches like the scene that plays out when you go back to the shop, but being optional is the main reason why I liked this moment so much: It wasn’t forced on me at any point, so I had the time to explore the environments and the rules that govern them at my own pace, without being constantly nagged by the game designer telling me “There’s something hidden here! Find out what it is or we won’t let you play anymore!”.
I can’t stress it enough: As a designer, when you make leaps of logic a mandatory obstacle to progression, you’re setting up your players for the world’s most frustrating game ever made. Especially if you go by the Gabriel Knight 3’s school of thought. But the death of adventure games (or rather, their suicide, in Old Man Murray’s words) is another topic entirely.
The way this Zelda game did it is one of the correct ways, in my opinion. Sure, not everybody is going to discover the ability to steal but that’s miles better than either making it mandatory, hinting at it explicitly or cutting it out of the game entirely. It rewards players that explore the ruleset and for me, that was enough to make it my favorite moment.
*Which I’m not going to elaborate on out of fear of bloating this post with lots of off-topic babbling.**
**Hey, look! Restraint! That’s something you don’t see from me everyday, so don’t get used to it! 😛
PS: After you steal something, every character in the game will refer to Link as “Thief”. Isn’t that just awesome?