Back in 2012 Tevis Thompson wrote a lovely essay called Saving Zelda where he argued that the franchise had lost its way. He treks through the history of Zelda and provides some insight as to what precisely was forgotten over the years since the original game:
The point of a hero’s adventure (and Zelda is the hero’s adventure in gaming) is not to make you feel better about yourself. The point is to grow, to overcome, to in some way actually become better. If a legendary quest has no substantial challenge, if it asks nothing of you except that you jump through the hoops it so carefully lays out for you, then the very legend is unworthy of being told, and retold. […] Meaningful difficulty, in which successes are owned and failures chastise rather than annoy, would more deeply engage the player, making her responsible, necessary, worthy of the legend. Not just the recipient of a gold star, the kind you get for showing up.
Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories. It will speak without over-signaling, it will invite readings without being immediately legible, it will become evocative, a space to be occupied by imagination. A place of wonder.
To do this, Hyrule must become more indifferent to the player. It must aspire to ignore Link. Zelda has so far resisted the urge to lavish choice on the player and respond to his every whim, but it follows a similar spirit of indulgence in its loving details, its carefully crafted adventure that reeks of quality and just-for-you-ness. But a world is not for you. A world needs a substance, an independence, a sense that it doesn’t just disappear when you turn around (even if it kinda does). It needs architecture, not level design with themed wallpaper, and environments with their own ecosystems (which were doing just fine before you showed up). Every location can’t be plagued with false crises only you can solve, grist for the storymill.
Behold! My newsletter—sent infrequently—about new things that I’m working on. Every so often it’ll contain notes about web design and publishing things that I’m interested in, too.