In Breath of the Wild, we get a simple introduction to the world of Hyrule and how it is under assault by Ganon. We are told that years have passed and we were locked away in hopes of a better tomorrow. Then we are told to recollect our memories so that we can remember how to approach, and ultimately defeat, Ganon.
In Tears, we get a similar setup, except that we get a much more detailed mystery to uncover. It isn’t our memories we’re finding, but Zelda’s, and we need to find them in order to reveal what happened to her after she disappeared. The delivery mechanism of these memories is effectively the same as it was in Breath, as we still go to a predefined location and we still watch a cutscene there. This kind of “it’s story time now!” cutscene has been used since Ocarina of Time, and Nintendo has always used them fairly sparingly so as not to overwhelm the player with non-interactive videos while they’re playing an interactive game. This is something which helps keeps their stories simpler and more digestible so that anyone of any age can enjoy these tales. They allow you to play freely, and then sit you down for story time only briefly, which keeps player interest high and the game’s momentum going forward. The brevity maintains pacing, but it makes it difficult to tell a story. It’s far easier for a writer to deliver impactful narrative when they can stop the game for a while and really build into an emotion, so why does Nintendo eschew that in favor of short snippets scattered all across Hyrule?
Despite what some may say, a narrative is essential for even the simplest of games. Space Invaders is still a story about defending the earth from alien invasion, even if the game never explores that narrative any more deeply. Nintendo has realized that even if they don’t want to be storytellers in the same way as people who make “narrative” games, they still have to use story to create a hook for their audience. Nintendo’s Fun-First approach to game design means that their goal is to only tell just enough of a story for players to be invested in the gameplay, something we see in practice in the Zelda series especially. The Zelda series demands a complex narrative about courage in the face of terrible threats, and each game demands a new justification for the loop of exploring and ultimately saving Hyrule. Nintendo may want to keep the story minimal, but minimal in this series is quite a lot more than the minimal of a Mario game. In order to achieve this minimum viable story, Nintendo has uncovered some fascinating techniques.
Tears of the Kingdom’s story structure operates on creating a mystery for the player to reveal. Imagine you have a sentence like this: “Link is the chosen hero of time who must wield the master sword to defeat the evil Ganon and return peace to Hyrule by bringing the three pieces of the triforce together at the sacred tower and making a pure-hearted wish.”
Nintendo will then break that sentence into pieces like so: “[Link is the chosen hero] [of time] [who must wield the master sword] [to defeat the evil Ganon] [and return peace to Hyrule] [by bringing the three pieces of the triforce together] [at the sacred tower] [and making a pure-hearted wish.]”
And now you can create a set of cutscenes which establish each piece in the chain.
Link is the chosen hero
Link is the hero of time
Link must wield the master sword
The master sword must be used to defeat the evil Ganon
Only by defeating Ganon can peace return to Hyrule
Ganon has 1 of 3 pieces of the triforce
The triforce can grant wishes
The triforce must be combined at the sacred tower
You must make a pure-hearted wish or else doom will befall the land
Each of these sentences can have a whole scene to establish it, and each of these statements stands on its own. If the very first thing you learn in the game is “The triforce must be combined at the sacred tower” you immediately have a question in your mind: What is the triforce? Where is the sacred tower? If you then learn that the master sword must be used to defeat the evil Ganon, you now have other questions: “Who is Ganon?” “What is the master sword?” “Where is the master sword?” “What does this have to do with the triforce?” etc. etc. and so on.
Each of these statements is related by their connection in the sentence which describes the overall plot, but since players only see them in isolation, they won’t know that yet. Because the writer knows that these elements all work together, they create foreshadowing. “The triforce grants wishes” is a statement which is meaningless for the player when they hear it as the first story moment in the game. It becomes meaningful once they also know that Ganon holds one of the triforce pieces, that impure wishes will doom the land, and that Link is the chosen hero who must wield the only sword which can defeat Ganon.
This type of narrative delivery through foreshadowing works well for nonlinear open world game design, but is also something which even linear stories try to include. The obvious use-case is for mystery stories, but any writer can tell you that foreshadowing is a useful tool regardless of genre. What I’m here today to point out is less that “foreshadowing is good” and more that “Foreshadowing in open world video games will look very different from foreshadowing in a novel”. It’s not like you need to establish X in chapter 3 because then in chapter 10 X comes back in a new, exciting way. In an open world game you don’t even know if chapter 3 comes before chapter 10. Writing for nonlinearity can seem insane at first, but if you establish a few rules it’s quite manageable, and this blog post is about explaining one of the more useful of those rules.
Outer Wilds is an entire game which is made solely of these kinds of disparate statements which you slowly piece together as you play. That one may seem obvious, but even linear games follow these rules. You discover that Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening is actually a dreamscape imagined by a sleeping Link in very much the same way, you just do it all in a particular order. The presentation may be different, but the technique is the same, it’s all just storylets.
What’s interesting in comparing Tears and Breath is that we have two games which tell the story of events long past. Each of them uses a small number of meaningful cutscenes that convey memories which unravel the mystery of what happened here long ago. Each of these scenes is shown to you upon reaching an arbitrary location in the world. The specific interaction at that location is different, but that’s about it. The main story of both games actually happened long ago in the past, and it’s our job to uncover that story.
We also see events happening in the world now, but for those we use a different set of techniques. For current events, we default back to the Majora’s Mask method of creating a space where some visible story is happening, and then giving the player a quirky character who exemplifies the struggle against that event. In those cases, we do often also get a cutscene, but it’s more about introducing the character rather than trying to explain the world building. It’s easier to attach an audience to a character, and so we start with a quick introduction of who this person is, and only after spending time with that person do we reveal what their struggle means for the world. Each character, in this way, becomes a piece of the foreshadowing. Their struggle feeds into the greater overall narrative, and we understand not just what’s happening in the world, but also how it impacts the people living there. Each character is a living embodiment of a plot thread.
What I noticed that’s particularly interesting here is that Nintendo includes side characters like Addison and Penn, who get entire story arcs on their own but those arcs don’t tie in too closely to the core questline. Penn’s does to some degree, because Zelda is present in that B-plot, but Addison doesn’t impact the main questline in any way. Even Penn’s story doesn’t really explore the Zelda B-plot, it just sort of drops that concept by the wayside along the way. All the same, the presence of these characters does still exist in parallel to the main story, and one could easily imagine using a single character for multiple quests in a way that is more important to the central plot. We see more of this technique in Elden Ring, for instance.
Now seems like a good time to remind you that Nintendo’s goal is to tell only enough story to get the player to buy-in. They aren’t using their characters to further the main plot of the game because they aren’t interested enough in storytelling to bother. That said, it’s still Nintendo and their teams are still brilliant designers, and so there’s something here I believe we should all pay very close attention to: Single characters can become the mascot of an entire physical region of the world map, or of a concept which we revisit over and over throughout a game.
Let’s look at Penn, for example. His story is about being a newspaper reporter searching for the truth. In Tears this story goes no further, but imagine if your central plot is about the quest for truth. Penn then becomes an important viewpoint character for that exploration. We might then choose to include another character with another viewpoint. Perhaps Penn’s questline is about finding the truth, but another character has a plotline about hiding the truth. Maybe within Penn’s questline we introduce a rival reporter who’s less concerned about verifying facts. These examples are more complex than Nintendo wants to deal in, but the technique here is what’s important. Your game might find use for this, even as Nintendo’s did not.
One extrapolation of this concept is to look at the use of subplots in other media. I did a breakdown of Moana in a talk I gave a few years ago where I broke down that story into its various threads. The following graphic highlights roughly when we see Moana’s grandmother in that film. In that film, Moana’s grandmother represents staying true to yourself. This is in opposition of the viewpoint of other characters. Moana’s father represents losing one’s sense of self to fear, Tama’toa represents never actually trying to find one’s self, Maui represents changing one’s self to suit others, and Te’ka represents losing one’s self to anger and rage. Each character in the story is a different viewpoint on a single, central theme, and the movie as a whole serves as a journey of Moana coming to figure out who she is.
Each character in the film appears at different times in the story, and each appearance progresses both that character’s arc and Moana’s overall understanding of herself. Each of these plot threads works independently of one another. The main character serves as the connective tissue which brings this all together and into specific focus. Moana’s grandmother, represented on the graph as primarily in Act One, but then having a few scenes in Act Two and Three, shows Moana a path that she otherwise wouldn’t consider, and then she comes back later in the story to reinforce the purpose behind that path, once Moana knows more about herself.
To return to Zelda, we get to see Penn and Addison at various points in the world as we wander. Each time we see these characters we are getting a small reinforcement of who they are and what they care about. Each time we see them is a narratively flat moment, they’re made to be interchangeable so that no matter where you go first you have an equally entertaining experience. That said, just by seeing them again your familiarity and affection for them is increasing over time (or your loathing, perhaps, if you find them annoying). Each beat may be “flat” in that it doesn’t increase in intensity, but your emotional connection still builds.
Now, you can imagine that alternate reality I mentioned before, where Penn’s story is about uncovering the truth. Maybe Addison is about devotion. In the current story of Tears of the Kingdom, those things don’t really connect with the central plot about uncovering Zelda’s memories, but the seeds of truly good narrative design are right there. Nintendo has found a way to keep the story happening while focusing on the player’s play experience, and in doing so it’s found a way for us to add to our stories without getting in the way. Penn and Addison don’t connect to the central plot, but imagine if those characters worked in the same way as Moana’s father and grandmother. Imagine if Penn’s story were about finding the truth, and Addison’s story were about devotion to a cause, and the overall story of the game had a theme about facing down the reality of the truth when it flies in the face of your personal devotion. Now, suddenly, Penn and Addison’s stories are commentaries on the central plot line. This may not be what Tears of the Kingdom has done, but that’s only because of Nintendo’s lack of desire to focus on storytelling. Any other team might take these same concepts and carry them forward. I’m only hoping that in pointing them out, someone will be able to do exactly that.
This highlights something I think we haven’t solved in video games: Side characters, B plots, and how all of this relates to quest design. In films there are always stories happening in the world around the protagonist and which are related to the main plot. Those B plots are important because they explore some other aspect of the main story, they allow the director or the writer to talk about other perspectives. It’s also important to note how this works because films know well that you can’t just flood a story with side characters, the human mind can only remember so many people (we’ll explain more of this in a moment). Because games are so long we often just fill them with side quests that are entertaining, and we try to write those quests to be as interesting as possible. Think back to any game that borrows the World of Warcraft quest structure of “Interact with character. Read 2 or 3 paragraphs. Do a task. Return to get a reward.”. This is a structure we see in dozens of games, and especially open world ones. The problem with this structure is that it lacks emphasis. The writer writing it will do their best to make that quest meaningful, but will be writing that in a void. Chances are the missions team began their work before the writing team even finished the plot, because how else could a game get made, after all? The unfortunate side effect is that means the quest can’t reinforce the central storyline because that central storyline doesn’t exist yet.
In my Moana graph, you see each character with its arc, and you see that arc comes back at various points of the story to reinforce the whole. You also see that there are only 5 of these characters. If you look at Tears of the Kingdom, you get a pretty similar number of recurring side characters, and there’s a strong psychology reason for this called the Dunbar Number. The human mind can only remember so many people, and so we leverage that to build recurring quests. With Nintendo’s sensibilities we may not get much in the way of story reinforcement, however, I hope you can easily enough imagine how this could be changed. Nintendo may not be interested in using story in this way, but your team might. So take Nintendo’s design, and directly compare that to Moana (or whatever other movie you prefer).
Let’s wrap this all together, shall we?
Return to my broken sentence example from earlier, let’s say that the game narrative is this: “[Link is the chosen hero] [of time] [who must wield the master sword] [to defeat the evil Ganon] [and return peace to Hyrule] [by bringing the three pieces of the triforce together] [at the sacred tower] [and making a pure-hearted wish.]” Then you can imagine a world where each of those brackets represents a person. In helping them, we are granted insight into a specific part of the story. As we do more quests for this person, we get more information about their fragment of the above sentence. To give you a specific example, imagine if Penn were all about teaching Link that Link must bring the three triforce pieces together. Each of his quests could explore the idea of Zelda reappearing because she wields another piece of the triforce, and finishing his quest chain would ultimately lead us closer to the triforce itself. We may not understand why the triforce is relevant, but that merely becomes foreshadowing for when we do other quest chains. If we help Penn, we might see various clues that we should collect the triforce, and then if we help Addison and discover a significant event happens at the Sacred Tower, we’ll likely investigate that more deeply, and discover that the Triforce and the Sacred Tower are connected. Maybe Kilton then teaches that you must make a pure-hearted wish on the triforce, and Impa says that this is the only way to save Hyrule from Ganon, and Kohga says this is a task which only Link can accomplish, since he’s the chosen hero of time.
This is the role of foreshadowing in games, and Tears of the Kingdom gives us an excellent blueprint for exactly how to build that into our narrative at many different levels. The game doesn’t use all of these techniques itself, but it sets up for their use so elegantly that I am hopeful that we will start seeing this seep into future Zelda titles.
Anyway, that’s all for today, I sincerely hope this analysis was helpful. Let me know if this has inspired any thoughts, if you disagree, etc.
Thanks for reading!