This is an article. Not one I would call good or one I would call bad, but definitely an article talking about the increasing length of time it takes players to actually “play” the game in Zelda games. Give it a quick read.
The author compares the time it takes to get to the “tutorial dungeon” from the beginning of the game in almost every major The Legend of Zelda game since A Link to the Past up to Skyward Sword (leaving out Wind Waker because the author admitted in the comments to not owning it nor having the desire to buy a used copy and test his theory and leaving out Majora’s Mask but I’m pretty sure that game starts you off in a tutorial dungeon). According to him, it takes 2 minutes to get to the Castle in A Link to the Past and 20 minutes to play through it, 20 minutes to get the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time and 40 minutes to complete it, Twilight Princess taking 60 minutes to arrive to Twilight Castle in Twilight Princess, and 70 minutes to complete it (although I don’t remember that dungeon taking that long), and Skyward Sword taking 70 minutes to get to the Faron Woods and 100 minutes to complete it.
So first of all, the author’s argument that story that as time goes on, the greater emphasis on story has been getting in the way between the start and when the players actually get to play the core experience of the game. As opposed to the game’s becoming more and more complex. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword have a lot of different interactions that, quite honestly, the player’s need to master otherwise they’ll have a hard time throughout the rest of the game. Both games involved a lot of beast riding (horse for TP and bird for SS respectively) in which if you weren’t sure what to do by the time you leave the first area, you’re in trouble until you could figure it out.
I was once talking with a guy in my school’s game design club, who said that flying the bird was a pain because the bird goes so slow to climb upwards. He didn’t know that by shaking the Wii remote, you ascended quickly and was shocked when everyone told him that. For that reason, I think tutorials are of more importance than before, when even some gamers fail to grasp the lessons that are being taught, which relates to an earlier Extra Credit post.
In that regard, I personally think of it as lazy analysis to keep comparing game design between a game made for the SNES and a game made for the Wii. A Link to the Past had only a few button interactions and the game never strayed away from utilizing those options. The D-pad was for moving, the B button was to swing your sword, the Y button used your item, and everything else was either for the map or a menu. Ocarina of Time (and Wind Waker) had included Z-targeting but that was it, on a fundamental level. With Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword I would argue that the game opted to feature tutorial areas and what the author calls the “tutorial” dungeons aren’t tutorial dungeons, they are the first dungeon (and honestly, what the author calls a “tutorial” dungeon for Twilight Princess I call the wolf tutorial. The wolf form actually had no full dungeons dedicated to it).
We can come to this conclusion by analyzing the purposes and distinctions between tutorials levels and actual levels. A tutorial is meant to guide players through the major interactions of the game. When a game has relatively few mechanics then this can be done with a first easy level, but in that case, it isn’t a tutorial, it’s the first level. That’s because a level, in a video game, is a series of challenges that forces the player to apply their knowledge and/or discover what abilities they truly possess. Egoraptor in his Sequelitis videos talked about how the design of the first level in Mega Man X didn’t really teach their players how to perform all the actions in the game, but how it led to discovery. On the other hand, a tutorial level is a where the game does not assume that the player knows how to interact and provides a safe environment for them to learn and try out these skills before having to apply these skills to game itself in an environment in which they can lose.
The author describes the tutorial dungeons in Zelda as the “point when … the player finally gets to try their hand at the core Zelda gameplay experience. Usually after a tutorial dungeon is completed, the player feels like they have finished the tutorial part of the game and finally gets to start playing the “real” game, so the time to complete a tutorial dungeon represents the time until a player truly begins playing the “real” game.” While I see the author’s point, I still fail to see the difference between the tutorial dungeon and the first dungeon. I know there is a difference, because there is a perfect example in Wind Waker.
In Wind Waker, after exploring the island for a bit, the player watches a cutscene of the pirates attacking the Helmroc King who has captured their captain, Tetra. She falls into the woods on top of the island and it is there that the player first experiences simple combat and puzzles. I think when compared to the rest of dungeons in the game, it isn’t considered the first dungeon, mainly because you acquire no new items or fight a boss, but it is definitely a place where you apply your knowledge of combat and how to manipulate your surroundings to solve puzzles without being a full blown dungeon. I do agree that after a point like that and you set out to the Forsaken Fortress, the first real dungeon of the game, the player has felt like they are done learning and ready to put their skills to the test. In other words, the first dungeon does not equal the tutorial dungeon.
As I mentioned earlier, Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess do not have a tutorial dungeon. Twilight Princess actually has a much longer tutorial session if it takes 60 minutes to get to the Twilight Castle, because (again as I mentioned earlier) the Castle is the wolf tutorial. Once you collect the tears of light and become human again does the tutorial truly end and the Forest Temple acts as your first dungeon.In Skyward Sword, the whole area of Skyloft acts a tutorial zone where you learn movement, combat, bird riding, and actually a whole lot of new elements introduced to the Zelda games.
In terms of story taking up this time, the stories have become a lot deeper and more complex over the years, I do admit. From what I see of how fans of the old games look at the new games, it no longer is strictly an adventure game like Skyrim where the game just says go, as time goes on the plot involves more and more characters as well as more mechanics to learn and I for one think it’s for the better. I know I usually am the one saying that a game should be more concerned with mechanics than plot, but the Zelda games are one of those rare games that actually get both down fairly well. My favorite characters in the whole series are Midna, Linebeck, and Groose simply because you see them since the beginning of the game and watch them develop between then and by the end of the game. You really can’t say the same thing about any of the characters in A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and as much as I love Wind Waker, Tetra is the only character with any serious growth and you don’t see her most of the time. Plot does have a major impact on the design of the game and the immersion and investment of the player. It provides context, context from which the players can engage the game in ways that older games couldn’t do before.
I want to conclude this by basically looking at the author’s conclusion. “A player’s first moments should be exciting instead of boring, so while we may fret like a worried parent that the player hasn’t learned enough before they jump into a game, we should remember that a player should be playing a game instead of asking “When do I get to actually ‘play’?” And hey, if you can’t find a way to streamline a tutorial, there’s always the old way of teaching players”
First of all, I don’t think it should be rule that games must start off exciting. While it completely depends on the game, a tutorial areas should be a safe environment from which players can learn the basics. I personally hate it when I have to fiddle around with how something works in the middle of an area where I can actually die and remember, the Zelda games are ones that utilize a lot of different complex actions. Secondly, and I guess this is a matter of opinions, but seeing as in Skyloft you do fight some simple enemies and you have a bird riding race that tests all of your recently acquired bird riding skills, I find it very hard to imagine that people don’t feel like they’ve started playing until Faron Woods unless they are seeing how long it takes to get from the beginning until that spot. Thirdly, I think telling developers to go back to reading the manual (which is the “old way” the author is referring to) is a kind of elitist statement, if simply because everyone knows that most people don’t read the manuals and since doing is much more interesting than reading, there is no way that people would read the manual. I don’t have the Twilight Princess manual offhand so I took a look at the one for Fallout New Vegas and I couldn’t get two pages into in until I just wanted to say “screw it I’m just going to play the darn game”.
So ultimately, (as in the tl;dr version), is story getting in the way between the start of an adventure in The Legend of Zelda games and when the player actually get s to play? No. The story and the plot are well integrated together that you are getting immersed into the atmosphere of the world around you as well as becoming invested in the many characters that populate it and the only people I can see getting annoyed by it are the retro gamers.