The Link Effect

The Legend of ZELDA…its a series SO huge I couldn’t help but say it all “woooo.” Ask anyone about zelda, anyone can tell you what makes a zelda game a zelda game. And what a game needs to be a zelda game-

Oh…have you perhaps, heard this before?

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Its been two years since Egoraptor put out his video comparing Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past in an objective manner. I love the Sequelitis series with all my heart, and in fact it probably was a big inspiration to find my voice in writing. The way Egoraptor talks to the audience like they are in the room really spoke to me (No pun intended). The way he would break down game mechanics but still find a way to keep the material entertaining AND educational–that’s what I strive for here on this blog. I remember watching the video (which you can check out here if you haven’t seen it, or perhaps want to see it again) and, much like he expected, I was already planning out my counter-argument against his case even AFTER he pointed out that people that do this are doing so out of bias or blind loyalty. But I had to stop myself when I saw everyone else explode with their own reaction videos or comments and pull back to see where Egoraptor was coming from.

The core of Egoraptor’s argument is that Ocarina of Time tries too hard to be a god-send gift to every man women and child instead of being what all the other Zelda games before it were–a video game. He mentions that formalities such as opening chests, waiting for monsters to lower their guard, be told why you want to go somewhere instead of just going somewhere and more are all things that Link to the Past handles in a better and more efficient manner–which I totally get. After a while I did find opening chests to be a chore and, like he said, you could usually guess what you’d have to do in the boss fight of a particular dungeon just by getting the key item in that dungeon. But I think the real reason why people are so divided about which is the better Zelda is deeply rooted in perspective. Its not an issue about how Ocarina of Time was trying to do so many different things perfectly in its first try, or even that the 2D medium is better than the 3D medium. I think its an issue so complex that it can’t be contained to just any Zelda game, but gaming in general, its a phenomena I like to call the “Link Effect.”

To define the Link Effect I would say that it is “the phenomena of a video game protagonist being both an avatar and a character of their own world simultaneously.” However, there are some conditions that need to be met to make the Link effect happen.

  • A character that is noticeable in appearance to the person playing the game.
    • This can be achieved through any bit of physical appearance that the player can relate to either presently or some time in their life. Customizable avatars are key for this.
  • A character that knows little about the world around them.
    • If the character knows about the world but the player does not, then you are no longer adventuring through the lands but rather, sidelining the player for the character’s agenda. Asking questions is key to immersion.
  • A character that does not talk or has multiple choices in their responses.
    • This one can be stretched pretty far because with games like Mass Effect its pretty clear that you can have a character talk and still identify with the hero. The idea behind it though is that if you and your character’s agenda are not the same, then the avatar is not your own, but a piece of the narrative.
  • A world that acknowledges that character for more than just an avatar and a character that is affected by the world around them.
    • A solider needs to be addressed by his commanding officer as his rank, a child will be excluded from certain areas due to age– in short, you need to be a part of the world and the world needs to be a part of you.

So imagine you are a child playing Ocarina of Time for the first time(which is the target audience by the by), whether it was on an N64 or the new 3DS . You knew nothing about the game going in but have played other Zelda games before and now you are plunged into a world where you play as Link, a child about your age in his home village in Kokiri Forest. The game starts out fairly slow here as you get used to movement in the game but your objective is to go see the Great Deku Tree and answer his summons. So you go over to where he is but it turns out that Mido, the Gary to your Ash Ketchum is blocking your way. He tells you that there is no way a weakling like you could make it on their own, at least not without a sword and shield, which shifts your goal from seeing the Deku Tree to getting a sword and shield. And now the game is boring and dumb because its slowing you down from the real adventure right? Not necessarily.

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You had no idea that you would need a sword here as Kokiri Forest seemed like a safe place but now you learned through elements of the world that the world is in fact dangerous. Also because this happened so early on, you learn that using your sword will be an integral part of the experience. Much like how Pokemon has the appeal of leaving the house at age 10 to start your journey, Ocarina starts with you becoming a hero by simply picking up a weapon. And how do you find the sword and shield? By doing things only a child would do. Crawling into a small spaces, leaping across skipping stones, exploring your home with innocent curiosity–these are all things that children do when they go out and play. Conveniently, doing these things also tells you how to play the game without needing a tutorial, but there are people in the town that talk to you as though they know you and offer tidbits of advice.

I believe that the objective of Kokiri Forest was to both teach you how movement works in the game, show you that Link really is a kid who knows about as much as you do and that this place is their home regardless of where they were born. Its a phenomena that only video games can provide because, in doing things that you feel that you as a player can do, a connection is formed between you and the avatar of that game. The wonder you feel for finding things is one and the same with the game’s avatar and is not something that needs to be described to you. Before playing Ocarina of Time, you had no idea what Kokiri forest was about but now after running and jumping all around it, the forest is your home. Just like your backyard in real life was also part of your home.  That alone, is why I believe Ocarina of Time to be superior.

If you were lucky, you had the instruction manual for Link to the Past when you played it, and in there it described the backstory of the game and who the protagonist was; which was nice, but also let the developers skip on explaining these details in game and made Link to the Past a faster game. You didn’t really know why you had to fight Ganon other than the fact that doing so is what you do in every Zelda game. Agahnim capturing maidens felt more like the same damsel trope we saw in every game so there was no real weight to Link’s quest, only to yours as a player. Meanwhile, in Ocarina of Time, part of the game is seeing in action what Ganondorf is doing to make himself a villain. He’s playing his own little Game of Thrones with the Royal Court and Princess Zelda is politically powerless to stop him. So now you have this goal as Link to stop what Ganondorf is doing AND as a player to defeat him. There is a weight to your quest AND Link’s quest. This is the Link Effect in action.

This shift in perspective is the dividing force between why some people like Link to the Past and others like Ocarina of Time. While I may like Ocarina of Time more, I agree that objectively, Link to the Past is the better game because it builds upon what the original Zelda had going for it. HOWEVER, because of the Link Effect sometimes objectivity is not the defining characteristic of a good game. Games that undergo the Link Effect are subject to players putting said games in higher regard because the experience felt real to them. I believe this to be true because of how often games nowadays attempt to recreate this Link Effect with their own protagonists, some with great results and others…not so much.

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In short, the Link Effect is a core game design mechanic that makes certain titles stand out over others. It also provides interesting commentary as to whether a game is about pressing buttons, or saving the world but, I believe this is entirely subjective to the game at hand. Some of the greatest games focus solely on just being a video game while others attempt to be an experience, neither are wrong, but the commitment to either principle is what will make or break a video game. Going forward I plan to use the term “Link Effect” a lot because its an easy way to describe the good components of a protagonist and I hope this write-up has cleared up the feud between the two games as well as get you thinking about video games as an experience or as a game.

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