Games in the Zelda series are basically puzzle games with a reputation for complex design. Though some of their dungeons are legendarily hard, all are solvable and enjoyable by both veteran players and new players alike. Veterans have an advantage, of course, but new players are taught the game’s basic mechanics in a very clear and often quite abstract fashion, be it through text boxes explaining controls or via sidekick NPCs as in Twilight Princess, where Midna teaches players what to do. Veterans, though, ignore this and look for clues in the level design that will help them keep every passage in their heads. As newer players progress, the game teaches them to do this as well, so that Zelda players don’t just learn how to press buttons, they learn to make strategies, see opportunities, and plumb new depths into the game, only some of which were intended. This is a reward in itself, and Zelda games accomplish it by teaching players mechanics then demanding significant lateral thinking in order to apply them and solve the challenge at hand in a way that satisfies new and veteran players equally.
It is probably more helpful when dealing with the Zelda series to look carefully at one dungeon in particular as the games are iterative and somewhat similar. In this case, I’ll look at the Lakebed Temple, the third dungeon in Twilight Princess. It’s a good dungeon for non-linear thinking while still being early enough in the game that the designers have to teach players to think this way. Its item, the clawshot (or hookshot for more nostalgic players), is also an ideal example of lateral gameplay. By this, I mean that players are presented with not just one challenge to be overcome in a particular way, but with a series of layered challenges that force players to construct an overarching vision—in this case of water flow within a dungeon. At their most obvious, Zelda dungeons use keys and locked doors within dungeons to force the player to make choices, ration resources, and backtrack. The Lakebed Temple isn’t necessarily Twilight Princess‘ hardest dungeon, but its varying applications of mechanics make it an excellent example of the mind-games players have to play.
Teaching lateral gameplay begins with clues and clear mechanics. Twilight Princess’ mechanics are pretty clear. Items are mapped to specific buttons by the player and appear on the screen, creating familiarity with the controls. Action cues flash. For anything else, there’s Midna, Link’s impish sidekick. Early in the Lakebed Temple, the game reintroduces bomb arrows. Midna reminds newer players that they can shoot the stalactites to make a stairway. This seems heavy-handed and it is, but later stalactites will need to be bombed for particular reasons and at particular times—and there will be no cue. The game isn’t teaching the mechanic here—it’s teaching the strategy: look for hanging things. Stalactites are not the only interactive objects hanging from the ceiling in the Lakebed Temple—this is the dungeon where the player gets the clawshot, after all. Moreover, the bombs and arrows lying around aren’t there just to teach players to shoot stalactites. They’ll be needed to defeat dungeon-specific enemies and one of the bosses.
The teaching mechanic is also characterizing Midna. It is sometimes preferable to ignore her advice in exchange for greater reward or an easier way to solve a puzzle. Midna can be a little loose with the truth sometimes and the designers use her occasionally mis-directed or incomplete teachings to unfold the game’s story. Once the mechanics establish her character, the designers use her to assist again by raising the challenge floor: the player who comes to rely on Midna will find both her and himself stumped very quickly. By the fifth room in the Temple, observation is required to notice the stalactite. By the last couple of dungeons, Midna won’t help at all, offering only a wry statement about the state of the world that always seems to suggest the player should be figuring this out.
The stalactites are just a puzzle required to advance—the important part is that the player knows to look around. On entering the dungeon’s third and fourth rooms, the player is shown the layout of the Temple’s central rotunda. Remembering this layout while wandering through it is essential. For first-timers, it’s an art break, and players run through quickly to the door or off down the stairs. Veteran players notice the lever hanging just out of Link’s reach. Caught up in the artistic fiction through which the water will eventually flow, the untrained player misses the mechanism to enable him to manipulate it. The veteran sees it and marks it for later. Even if a player does see the lever, Link can’t reach it. The frustration ensures it stays in the player’s mind even as he advances. In later dungeons, some objects trigger effects across very large distances sometimes without visual cues, adding new layers of challenge to the lateral thinking. But because of that frustration, players are now looking for hanging objects, and one just beyond the next core challenge (an enemy to fight) is another one. This leads to the map.
The map in most Zelda games is not always terribly helpful. It doesn’t mark key objects without the compass and is often hard to read. But in combination with the player’s own mental notes it becomes useful as a hint. If the map was all-telling, players would just follow it and the game’s detours would cease to provide any strategic challenge at all, breaking flow and fictional believability, and thus immersion. Instead, the player learns one of the Zelda best practices, especially in games like Twilight Princess which have complex camera controls: take stock of the room. Slow down, note interesting objects, and remember them. Veteran players think through a new Zelda game like paranoid level designers, always speculating as why certain objects might be where they are. There are walls in the Temple rotunda. They don’t immediately impede progress but smart players memorize their location because advancing through this room later will require a lot of negotiation to get around those obstacles. Thinking like this is a classic puzzle-solving strategy but it’s hard to teach without forcing the player to slow down the first time where new players would get stuck. Like a good mystery, players receive enough subconscious clues to solve it later. If they miss the clues, the player will get stuck—and fail.
Twilight Princess features an amazing array of item mechanics to solve problems, even early in the game. The game doesn’t just teach players how to use these mechanics, but how to use them in combination with others to create strategies. Clawshot grates are flagged in the UI. The volume of these lends misdirection. When vines, walls, enemies and panels can all be grabbed the player tunes out the hints and can easily make the wrong choice and end up over a bottomless pit with no way out. There is risk in choosing not just a path but in choosing which mechanic to use next. There is sometimes a way out, if the player knows about it. These reinforces much of the game’s observational teaching because the player has to see the escape to take it. In this dungeon, however, there is little risk save falling in the water. Veteran players will be forced to re-do sections, but new players aren’t killed. This adds balance in the escalation of challenges. Rather than introduce the full dangers of the clawshot immediately the game teaches players how to use it to problem-solve strategic problems before changing the dynamics again by adding a second clawshot and removing floors in the City of the Sky.
Lateral thinking is its own reward regardless of playing experience. The game provides hints but also self-realized rewards. For new players there is a sense of “wow” when advancing with a new combination of mechanics, items, and paths. Veteran players know what to do, but can use the same clues and strategies to play faster, discover “secret” areas, and perhaps most importantly, mitigate the risk of dying. In Zelda games it is quite difficult to run fully out of hearts but players can be sent back to the beginning in other ways: falling down the wrong hole, making the wrong choice about a certain path, or dying too often will force players to re-do much of the dungeon. Smart lateral play saves frustration, permits quicker advance, and allows exploration—all intrinsically motivating rewards.
This balance of reward and penalty means the dungeon’s challenge is specifically in the strategy. The dungeons differ from open-world gameplay in teaching players to be aware in order to advance. Taught dynamics like seeing clues, memorizing paths, and combining mechanics can not only provide the pleasure of solving a particularly difficult puzzle but also allow experiences like sliding down the Lakebed Temple’s long, curving waterslide. The game designers provide tools for the player to find these things, but not all the tools. Instead, they teach the player observe, plan, and strategize, making a Zelda game more rewarding for having to think through the puzzles. When the player is taught how to manipulate the game itself, play becomes about more than heroic gadgets.