Joseph Hallenbeck

Last week’s reflections on Okamiden upon the game’s qualities resurfaced an old musing regarding games. I am very particular about the games that engross me through thirty or sixty hours. Most games, by some aspect of their design, fail to illicit such a strong emotional response. What are the qualities of these games? What aspect of the design of say Super Mario 64 illicits such a strong response whereas Rachet & Clank brings out little to no response.

The feeling of playing Okamiden is different from playing Call of Duty. I am an avid World at War player and can easily sink a hundred hours of multiplayer game play over the course of a year. Yet, there is no resonance with Call of Duty. There is frustration, truimph, and overall competition. I play such games to build up a skill set and use it to triumph over other players. Nevertheless, victory is fleeting. Like any sport, the match is reset, I play again. Each round is unique with different opponents, different permutations of strategy. It is fun to play such games, but they are not fulfilling. The need to play is endless because each round brings on the next in an endless series that never draws up into some telos.

Massive Multiplayer Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) come in the same spirit as the first person shooter, abet without the sense of competition. In the MMORPG, the player begins the game and progresses up a ladder of levels, exploring new spaces and expanding a repertoire.  In this genre (World of Warcraft, Eve:Online, Graal), I never got into the ‘end-game.’ The repetitiveness of the game-worlds eventually drove me away, but not before I could explore the space where these games take place. These titles are better, but still do not capture the sensation I find in Okamiden.

Okamiden Gameplay

The obvious answer is that Okamiden is a single player title, whereas Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are multiplayer title. This is a correct observation, I only bring up these multiplayer titles as examples of other titles I actively play and to say that while they engross my attention they never leave me wistfully recalling my experiences with the game. 

What is different?

This question, I think is much larger than I first thought. Indeed, in answering I think we ought to dispense first with the rather clumsy system of genres that journalists and developers have hobbled together over the years. First-person shooter, adventure game. platformer, puzzle game. These categories define aspects of game rules whereas I am thinking about something much more ambiguous since this element is found in both the earliest Mario platformer to the puzzles of Ico and combat orientated of Muramasa. Certainly, it would not hurt to transgress the history of games to see where first this element arises.

In the late seventies with the games like Adventure and more importantlyZorkappear on the scene,. I wish to address Zork since this title I do have experience with. Zork is an interactive narrative. That is it. You read the paragraphs of text, pick out nouns such as “mailbox,” or “rock” and then experiment with simple verbs such as “open,” “pick up,” or “throw.” The game world exists on a sheet of scrape graphic paper or only in the player’s mind if they have a memory for it. The text-based adventure game eventually becomes the graphical adventure game with titles like Myst where the player clicks about the screen. The gameplay of Myst is altogther like that of Zork, but what once was a text parser is now represented through icons.

How are these titles related to Okami and Zelda? They rely upon a narrative to drive the game foreward. Gameplay exists as logical puzzles rather than hand-eye-reflex coordination. Zelda is sometimes catalogued as an Action Adventure title for this very reason. Nevertheless, so is Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, and God of War. Zelda shares very little in similarity to these latter titles, indeed there is more ressonance between Zelda and Zork then Zelda and GTA. Action Adventure is not a good definition for Zelda because so often it is Action that is emphasized over Adventure in Action Adventure titles.

The early Adventure games focused upon narrative since their entire world must be expressed to the player through description and exposition. Zelda, like Zork focuses on description and exposition particularly relating to the exploration the space game takes place in. God of War, GTA, however, focus on the action and in particular the actions of the protagonist. Moreover, there is a larger aspect to the spatial arrangement of titles like Okami and Zelda. Namely, that they present themselves as a kind of Zen Garden.

Zen Rock

I need to find a copy of Andre Vestal’s The History Of Zelda or David Shaff’s Game Over. The first, a gamespot article, seems to have disappeared and the latter unavailable to me from the local library. I will have to resort then, to wikipedia:

“The Legend of Zelda was principally inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s explorations as a young boy in the hillsides surrounding his childhood home in Sonobe, Japan where he ventured into forests with secluded lakes, caves, and rural villages. According to Miyamoto, one of his most memorable experiences was the discovery of a cave entrance in the middle of the woods. After some hesitation, he apprehensively entered the cave, and explored its depths with the aid of a lantern. Miyamoto has referred to the creation of the Zelda games as an attempt to bring to life a “miniature garden” for players to play with in each game of the series.” (Wikipedia)

The Legend of Zelda is precisely this, a recreation of the natural world or a “pocket garden” as other Miyamoto interviews put it. This garden aspect makes the childhood encounter with nature a centrifugal aspect of the gameplay. The arrangement of the levels intended to create the miniature abstraction of landscapes found in the zen rock garden. The closer then that a level design adheres to this idea the greater the calming and exploratory aspect the game takes on. Thus we see this aesthetic in the Japanese titles of Okami, Zelda, Mario, Ico, and Shadows of Colossus. We see this less often in the western designs, but rather get God of War and GTA – action driven versus reflective-driven titles. Nevertheless, western developers do approximate this effect in titles like Elder Scrolls, Myst, or Banjo & Kazooie (in fact, I could argue that no platforming title can have good level design without some stumbling upon these principles).

I would call this category the Zen Garden or Exploration Game and I see these titles as the aesthetic pinnacle of game design.

"The Zen Garden - Zen and the Art of Game Design" by Joseph Hallenbeck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.