Almost every year, I like to digitally “attend” the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, the biggest trade show in the video game industry. Since I started blogging regularly six years ago, I’ve tried to provide readers some written coverage of the show’s numerous press conferences for the benefit of anyone interested in my raw thoughts on the week of product reveals and announcements. This year, I’m pleased to be able to bring my E3 coverage, such as it is, to Eruditorum Press. The following is a part of a series I’m writing on E3 2016, looking at the press conferences and events of three major players in the industry: Bethesda Softworks, Sony Computer Entertainment and Nintendo.
I was happy to learn Nintendo were the last on the docket for the big media events this week. Nintendo were the first company to usher in the modern video game industry as we know it, and Nintendo remain to this day one of the only publishers/development houses in the AAA space who retain a link to the artistic philosophy and sense of creative energy that at least seemed to guide the medium at one time. No matter what else happens at E3, I can always count on Nintendo to give me at least one thing to leave the week feeling charmed and inspired by. The one show I deliberately skipped in recent history out of my abject disgust for the direction the industry has taken, E3 2014, was also the year I sorely regret skipping because Nintendo dominated the show with a suite of bombshell reveals that reminded everyone what video games actually should be about and once stood for. Among them was Hyrule Warriors, Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors spinoff set in the Legend of Zelda universe, which earlier this year spawned what’s become my single favourite game in recent memory and current obsession: Hyrule Warriors Legends. Legends joins an incredibly select group of games that have left a lasting, personally meaningful impression on me and that will stay with me forever. The Elder Scrolls V is on that list, and the rest are mostly other Nintendo games.
Also introduced at that fateful E3 event in 2014 was the game we now know as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which was the big topic du jour. Nintendo didn’t hold a traditional press conference this year, and in fact seem to have stopped doing so entirely. Unlike a traditional stage show or the “Nintendo Direct” digital events the company has relied on to communicate with their fans recently (which Nintendo seem to be slowly phasing out following the tragic death of former president Satoru Iwata last year), Nintendo this time opted to present what they called a “Nintendo Treehouse Live”, an all-day series of scripted interviews and gameplay demos with a succession of PR representatives and developers. And when they said all day, they meant all day: The stream started at 12 PM my time and didn’t stop until around 6 or 7 at night. Given my predilection to occasionally want to do other things with my life, I was not about to sit inside for an entire day watching pre-release gameplay footage and forced artificial banter, so I instead watched the opening segment and tuned in every now and again throughout the afternoon to see if anything interesting was being talked about.
Before the show proper started, the Treehouse took some brief time to showcase another major tentpole release coming much sooner than the new Zelda, Pokémon Sun and Moon. As someone who grew up and still lives in the mountains and whose first passion is nature and the natural world, Pocket Monsters has always been a favourite video game franchise of mine. It’s the series’ 20th Anniversary this year, and the celebratory installment has been looking really enticing since its reveal earlier in the year. Thematically, Pokémon Sun and Moon seems to be taking at least some cues from that last mainline entry, Pokémon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, itself a remake of the original Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire from 2003. This is all fine by me, as it’s my personal opinion that OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire is the hands-down greatest game in the series to date. Apart from that, Sun and Moon interests me greatly for a variety of personal reasons, one of which is that the new region of the Pokémon world showcased is based on Hawai’i. The live event showed off a little bit of the beginning of the story, a new Battle Royale mode that looks to open up some exciting new avenues for strategic play, and two adorable new Pokémon: A woodpecker and a mongoose.
But the star of the show was without question The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And when I say Zelda was the big item on the menu, I’m not kidding. Breath of the Wild is literally the only game Nintendo is showing at E3 this year, either on the show floor or in media events. Which is, well, an interesting decision to say the least. There are a couple of reasons the company potentially decided to do this. Their current console, the WiiU, is an abject commercial failure despite possessing a library of games that is beyond exceptional and being the only console that still encourages local multiplayer due to a textbook example of terrible marketing. The WiiU’s successor, currently codenamed NX, is due out next March, and Nintendo has promised a future event at some point later this year exclusively dedicated to it. If all present and future development is focused on the new console, which is still being kept firmly under wraps, Nintendo naturally wouldn’t have a lot they would be willing to share right now. The question would then be why Nintendo didn’t feel that E3, the biggest trade show in the industry, was an appropriate time to show off the new machine. Which, honestly, speaks more to the relevance of E3 in today’s climate than it does Nintendo themselves.
At least they admitted their new console exists.
As to why Zelda, in particular, the answer is probably that Zelda holds a unique position within Nintendo’s pantheon. Namely, it is, and always has been, the only Nintendo franchise that is made more or less transparently exclusively for the hardcore gamer contingent. There’s nothing particularly in the gameplay mechanics that gate Zelda off in this way, but…There are metafictional and contextual elements about it that lead it to be embraced most often by a certain specific demographic of Nintendo fan. And indeed, even “Nintendo fan” is in and of itself a loaded and revealing term. Nintendo probably figured that the demographics of E3’s audience are going to trend to the more obsessive end of the spectrum, and, of all the games they have in development for the next fiscal year, they may have reasoned, likely wisely, that it was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that an E3 audience would be most interested in seeing every facet of.
The only problem is…The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t quite feel like it merits an all-day succession of livestreams. I’m sure the parched Zelda faithful were happy to drink up any and all details of the new game, and that’s good, because that’s who yesterday was for. But I’m not one of those people. I don’t have that kind of zealous fervor for The Legend of Zelda for reasons that are almost but not quite exactly to do with the fact I grew out of it. For me, yesterday’s event felt an awful like a bunch of highly trained and monitored PR folks spending seven consecutive hours trying desperately not say what I recognised immediately when I saw the first trailer: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim but for Zelda, with some Minecraft thrown in as an added bonus.
That is, admittedly, incredibly unfair of me to say. Although Breath of the Wild positively reeks of Bethesda’s design philosophy from every conceivable angle, that’s only because Bethesda’s design philosophy was originally Nintendo’s, and it’s only remarkable to see that in this game inasmuch as it’s a reminder of how achingly long it’s been since Nintendo has actually fully embraced this side of itself. A substantial part of the reason Skyrim resonated with me at the level it did was that I felt it finally realised the promise and potential the original Zelda no Densetsu was yearning to reach back in 1986, and that all the subsequent entries in the series promptly seemed to distance themselves from. On a more mundanely technical level, Breath of the Wild promises a game world that will probably be substantially larger than the Skyrim of TESV for a number of technical and design reasons, and boasts some unmistakably Nintendo creative touches, such as climbing a mountain and gazing off into the distance at signal fires burning softly in the distance, piquing your curiosity as to what they’re for and who might have lit them.
There is absolutely no reason to fault Nintendo for taking this direction. Zelda is a series for children, while The Elder Scrolls is not. If Nintendo wants to turn The Legend of Zelda into the open-world action RPG series for children too young to yet be weaned on Bethesda’s fair, that is absolutely their prerogative, and furthermore, I would argue it is straightforwardly the correct course of action. One very telling moment during yesterday’s live event was Shigeru Miyamoto describing how he sees this game as being about finding one’s way through nature and, in doing so, finding one’s way in life. The Legend of Zelda is, after all, first and foremost a coming of age story. Yet, something still lingers. There’s still the sense that something remains troublingly missing from this concept. And it has to do with that “Link” himself: An avatar in the truest sense, a manifestation of the player’s agency and personhood who remains counterintuitively and paradoxically static and unchanging.
As Eiji Aonuma confirmed yesterday, there can only ever be one Link due to the Balance of the Triforce. That is, for in-universe canon and continuity reasons.
The Legend of Zelda should be the perfect example of what video games are best at. The Legend of Zelda, like all the greatest video games are and like all video games should be, is not a linear narrative but a postmodern myth-experience intended to remind us of our latent potential. The Legend of Zelda is not a fictional history of a constructed fantasy world, it’s one story told and retold over again as ritual throughout the generations that evolves and self-critiques alongside changing times. Gods, mortals and mortals who would become gods are all shaped by time and place. Even the divine story is shaped by mythopoeic forces, and Zelda twists, reshapes and reforms herself as one with them. And thus while we partake in the ritual over and over again to remind us of the lessons we must keep relearning, the ritual itself is shaped by the material concerns of the world it enters into at any given moment.
But the media artefact component of Zelda, that part of her which bears the baggage of history, remains inescapable. The Legend of Zelda is also about orthodoxy and canon, and whenever such structural hierarchies insert themselves into experiential practice they put dividing walls up between us and our truths. The Legend of Zelda thus becomes the definitive case study for both Nintendo’s greatest triumph in defining and divining the nature of video games as a medium, and also its bitterest failure. Blending our critical logic with our innate abilities allows us to discern the health of the noösphere. In order to do that, perhaps we should follow the lead of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and return to the primordial origins of Zelda, and of the modern console video game industry. And ultimately to nature.