Notes on Ocarina of Time, Part 2: Through the Lost Woods

This is a continuation of our Ocarina notes project. You can see all the parts here.

Part 2: Through the Lost Woods

Hyrule Field

Perculia: I initially went to Lon Lon Ranch assuming I’d get a mount (H: well, the title screen does tip you off to the existence of a mount, but you can imagine that the game will make you get more familiar with the world on foot first). Instead, I picked up my first heart piece, had the value of exploration reinforced, and learned a bit more about moving blocks along the way. At this point, I know well enough that Epona’s Song, which seems irrelevant now, will be useful at a later point. I also developed a trend of obsessively rolling into everything–I accidentally rolled into a tree instead of a box, and it rewarded me with another Skulltula, so I got hooked. And while the mini-game to throw chickens seemed unrelated to Zelda’s recent quest, I wanted to practice my puzzle skills and was rewarded with both a bottle and consumable (H: heh). I also enjoyed finding a way to make the mini-game much easier (throwing the normal chickens into a corner away from the prize ones.)

And wow, the world really opened up here. Just running around a vast open green field without any monsters or objectives was freeing.

Hamlet: It’s great that you came up with same way to exploit/circumvent the little chicken minigame that I did when I was a kid.

Hyrule Field is great that way. I think nowadays we look back and it seems drab compared to modern game environments, and it can seem unnecessarily large to run around on foot for an area that’s just a hub. But it actually serves a function in giving a sense of world, and this ties into my earlier remark on the horse. You have to spend some time really in the world and get your hands on different parts of it for a while, before things like a horse let you start to focus on other tasks and move around more quickly. They strike a nice mix though, with things like the shortcuts from Lost Woods to Goron City or Zora’s River preventing too much tedious running. Hyrule Field I think is more carefully designed than it initially appears, to create just this reaction. Also, as you spend your whole game running back and forth across it, you will get increasingly familiar with each path and each odd little landmark. Many hours into the game, you’ll ride past a certain tree or rock in Hyrule Field that you know is always there and that you’ve ridden by a hundred times, and the world is that much more real to you.

P: Upon setting off to Kakariko Village, I took a wrong turn by first heading too far right into Zora’s River. It was blocked by rocks but I was still rewarding for exploring by getting a Skulltula from a nearby tree. As I’m learning, areas that are currently inaccessible will be open at later points.

H: You’ve mentioned a few times how you tried something random (breaking pots/rolling into trees) and got a small prize for it. That’s a theme that will come up through the whole game–Zelda would not be what is without the drive to explore the world. For now, I wanted out point out this one is interesting. You can’t get into Zora’s River get with the rocks in the way, but merely by walking up to them, you find a Skulltula and have a conversation with the owl. So much is happening here:
• Even though you were finally let out of Kokiri Forest and into the world at large, parts are still closed off to you.
• You’re not being wrong or foolish for going somewhere that’s not yet relevant. It was expected, as shown by the owl dialogue.
• In fact, you don’t even walk away empty-handed. A Skulltula is a small thing, but even so, you’re taught that trying to enter this area is behavior to be rewarded. The rocks block your way, but you get a consolation prize for your effort.
• You will remember this spot. When you get a new tool, it will be a place you think to try to come back to.

Kakariko Village

P: This village took off on the day/night significance first introduced in Hyrule Castle Town, playing with the concept in a more sophisticated manner. During the day, a chicken mini-game opened up to me, one that rewarded me with a bottle and taught me how to use slow-fall to circumvent ledges and gates. At night, I collected more Skulltulas (a new concept that mobs were time-sensitive). I noticed that I could only access the Potion shop’s ledge during the day via a slow-fall chicken, but interestingly enough, I couldn’t access it in the evening–seems deliberate that I can’t access this shop currently. There were several other hints that I’d be revisiting this zone, most noticably visible Pieces of Heart that were just out of reach or behind bars.

The side trip to the graveyard was a more elaborate reward for exploration than in the past–I came out of it with not only a free Hylian Shield hidden under a tombstone, but the Sun’s Song. You’ve said it’s a side area that not everyone finds, and changing the time of day isn’t game-changing, but it’s certainly a nice reward and makes playing easier.

H: Getting the Sun’s Song is also key because it’s the first optional Ocarina song. Mechanically, Ocarina songs are just RPG items that you acquire and can use, but obviously the flavor of learning a song is very different from an item. The Sun’s Song shows you the connection–that Ocarina songs can also serve the function of being an optional hidden item like any another, and gives you a sense of how Ocarina songs will be used going forward.

Also, echoing once again my comments about the horse: you were made to travel the world while waiting for day and night, and spend a few nights out alone in Hyrule Field with the constantly spawning monsters. Then the game quickly provided you with the Sun’s Song, a tool to let you manipulate day and night for the whole rest of the game. You’re first made to see what it’s like to deal with it on your own and respect the significance of day and night, making it meaningful when Link is given mastery over that aspect of the world.

P: I really enjoyed the city layout. Hyrule Castle Town had elaborate backdrops and numerous merchants, but exploring Kakariko Village was much more satisfying with all the houses to wander through, rooftops to jump on, and posters lying about. And I also enjoyed the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation the city underwent solely through a different color palette.

Upon leaving the village, I made use of the Mask system. It was a bit new and awkward for me (maybe not for people familiar with the series). Modifying one’s visual appearance isn’t a big component of the game so far, as is understanding the role of masks/disguises in the game’s lore, so I think I’m going to have to be prodding myself to remember I’ve got a mask in my inventory later.

H: The masks are actually new. And the Mask Shop concept is pretty weird, as you say, and ultimately it remains a minor part of this game. But obviously they liked something about the masks, as they become the second predominant recurring motif (alongside Ocarina tunes) in the next Zelda game, Majora’s Mask.

P: You’ve joked that Navi is annoying, so I ignored her hint to let Saria know I was saving Hyrule. Instead, I went through the open gate into Death’s Peak and Goron City. I didn’t realize at first that I was here too early, because there were still things to explore in the city. I started thinking that I was in the wrong place when I wasn’t strong enough to pick the bomb flowers, but explicitly realized it when Darunia wanted me to play a song that reminded him of the forest, and I had none. He danced around to my other songs, so that was a clue I needed to go back and learn another song.

H: Another thinly hinted bit of progression. I don’t remember if anything makes it really clear you need to go talk to Saria in order to move on.

Lost Woods

P: Following the music dynamics was the key to remembering my way through the maze–it was pretty evocative of being confused in the woods, more so than just guessing the way to go, which would have been frustrating and not as clever as well. Constantly hearing Saria’s Theme in the forest reaffirmed that this was probably the song Darunia wanted to hear.

En route to finding Saria, I made note of things to return to later: entrances with rocks and water, Business Scrubs, side rooms with musicians. I’m learning more how characters and objects are placed in the world for reasons, not just for flavor, and that at some point I’ll figure out the puzzle to interacting with it all.
• Business Scrubs: Used to them being somewhat silly, I’m still glad I took the time to read all their deals, as one gave me a Deku Stick upgrade. Even though 90% of the scrubs have silly trades, the knowledge that they *could* have a useful item keeps players from skipping over them in the future.
• Entrances: As I guessed, and later confirmed, the entrance with rocks led to Goron City and the underwater entrance with rupees took me to Zora’s River. Seeing how the entrance was currently out of reach, I assumed that I’d learn an ability that would let me dive further in the future.
• Musicians: These rooms taught players that music is a valid form of communication, one to try out on characters that don’t respond to talking. (In this case—literally–as they run away if you get too close.) Engaging with both musicians rewarded me with two heart pieces and gave me some Ocarina practice.
H: She’s referring to Skull Kid, and and the little skull kids near the Slingshot minigame tree. Interesting that you liked Skull Kid and responded to him–he’s such a one-off side element of the game, but was brought back for a more prominent role in Majora’s Mask, so many people must have found him memorable.
• Gong mini-game: Works less well than the Ocarina game, due to the way the motion controls in the 3DS make it hard to aim perfectly still (H: Yeah, the gyro controls in the 3DS version are a bit tacked-on. It must be cool and immersive for gazing around Hyrule Field, but aiming of the Slingshot should be done with normal controls).

Hamlet was really excited about my exploration of the Lost Woods and kept asking if I had come across fun puzzles. Most of them I had noted to explore on my return trip (and we didn’t want to talk about everything and spoil the exploration), but I did get introduced to the concepts of fairies in bottles and butterflies as visual hints for nearby fun things. Also got prodded to use a mask–I like the concept of them (well, dressing up in general), and I enjoyed putting both the Keaton Mask and Skull Mask on for fun to watch the reactions of town characters, but it’s hard to remember to use them as a puzzle-solving tool on my own.

Going forward in the Lost Woods, the werewolf by the gates taught me about parrying mobs. Navi, as usual, was unhelpful because she gave another literal hint (in contrast to the rest of the subtle clues the game provides). Navi is problematic and I don’t want to gloss over her in the midst of talking about all the fun puzzles–I’ll get to her in the next blog.

H: The werewolf at the entrance to the Forest Meadow (Wolfos) is your first crack at the most typical Zelda combat–the “swordfight”-type enemy where you have to watch for openings while avoiding his attacks. Note how little the game has focused on combat so far. You’ve had to frequently fight various simple things like plant monsters and slow-moving undead, but are almost never thrust into dangerous combat encounters (even your one boss so far, Queen Gohma, was more of a basic puzzle, no fighting skills or movement required). And even the wolf here is given to you in a controlled way–one enemy only, and one isolated encounter between story/exploration sequences so it doesn’t matter if you take damage, and it doesn’t actually attack very often. You know there will be more to come, and that later in the game you’ll have to deal with more complex rooms involving multiple monsters that will actually require some in-combat awareness, and in general be able to fight regularly without taking excessive damage because you have to make your hearts last through many rooms of a dungeon. For now, gradually ramping things up in a nonthreatening way.

P: It’s nice to see how Saria, Link’s friend back when he was just a common kid without a fairy, is the spirit of the forest. It was a touching moment when she gave him the Ocarina upon leaving Kokiri Forest. Currently, it’s interesting to see how their friendship has remained strong in spite of the weightier roles and greater responsibilities they’ve taken on since their days as carefree children in the Forest.

H: You’re starting to get a sense of the sort of whimsical storytelling that’s usual for Zelda. It’s not overly obsessed with making sense as a coherent whole, simply with presenting snippets of characters and events in a way that seems meaningful. Saria doesn’t have a backstory or character development or any particular motivation, or any of the things that Western storytelling generally thinks of part of the complete whole. She’s simply there–dropped in front of you long enough for a few scenes (including somewhat emotional ones like giving Link the Ocarina), and you make of it what you will.

Which reminds me of something I wanted to say above in the Kakariko segment. One of the great parts of Zelda games are really incidental characters, like all the random NPC’s in towns. Typically the only information you have on them is a few lines of dialogue and a goofy cartoonish model. But they have style in a way that’s often lacking in more modern games. Compare: on one hand the Happy Mask Shop owner, with his creepy smile, ridiculous backpack, and over-the-top dialogue; on the other, the generic Skyrim NPC with a voice/model you’ve seen on a hundred other NPC’s, saying a randomly-selected line from a prewritten list you’ve seen every entry in a hundred times. The internet has had enough “arrow in the knee” jokes lately, but that’s so for a reason–one crazy shopkeeper with a few unique handcrafted lines contributes far more to a memorable world than a thousand guards with a generic lament on how they used to be adventurers. One is a character, no matter how minor, the other is a procedurally generated automaton that you can’t even manage to pretend has any life.

P: This went on longer than initially planned–we didn’t even get to Goron City yet–so we’re saving the music analysis for the next blog. We’ve already got some stuff written on it which we think you’ll like.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Ocarina of Time, Part 2: Through the Lost Woods

  1. Two thoughts:

    First, comparing the Happy Mask Salesman to a “generic Skyrim NPC” isn’t really fair; aside from the guards and non-interactable enemy NPCs, all of the individual NPCs in Skyrim have unique dialogue and behaviors. (And in fact, the guards in Ocarina all have the same dialogue as well, if I recall correctly.)

    Second, I’ll avoid specifics so as not to spoil, but the Sun’s Song, by virtue of its ability to command both the clock and the sky, is a preview of two later non-optional songs. (Hamlet will know which they are.) It sets the stage and lets the player know ahead of time that this is a thing this object can do, so that the later songs are a natural progression instead of a surprise.

  2. I don’t know how much I buy that. First of all, Ocarina barely has “guards.” There are the guys in the stealth game in Hyrule Castle before meeting Zelda, whom you never talk to and pretty obviously just pieces in a gameplay encounter (and there’s an exception that proves the rule here–one of them will let you past for 10 rupees if you fail the stealth game enough times). Other than that, the few other knight/guard NPC’s in the game have unique behavior:
    –Two in Kakariko tell you the time if you talk to them and give the history of Kakariko.
    –One in Karariko talks about his son and wants to buy the Keaton Mask.
    –One in the back alley of Hyrule Castle Town gives you a bit of story. He’s only there between getting a Zora’s Sapphire and drawing the Master Sword. Just mentioning since most people never see him (Perc didn’t either I think (she just got the Master Sword in her playthrough)):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgmPa6RUfR0
    –And one easter egg: if you shoot the Slingshot at a certain window in the castle, a soldier yells at you and throws a bomb at you.

    Coming back from that tangent, the point is that Zelda games tend to have few to no characters that are cardboard cutouts. Contrast to Skyrim, where even when someone has unique quest dialogue, when you look at them you can’t help but notice that you’ve seen a prior NPC using the same model, a prior NPC using the same voice, etc. I don’t want to pick on Skyrim too much, but it’s a good example of this, since as many people have observed before, it’s basically a simulation of a video game. I just wanted to highlight how Zelda makes you notice the NPC’s because you can talk to them without having your mind immediately blow through the fourth wall by seeing all the generic elements used in the game’s data editor.

    The game that does this best, by the way, is Link’s Awakening, if you want to think about that example. I don’t want to spoil it for Perc, but remember how the whole central conceit of that game relies on the player actually caring about the denizens of Kohilint Island (who are even less elaborate than the NPC’s here). The ultimate conclusion of that game is so haunting precisely because Link has grown to love everyone on the island, from Marin to the Trendy Game dude.

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “it’s basically a simulation of a video game”; it sounds like the ridiculous-on-its-face “MMOs aren’t games, they’re toys” argument, but I’d like to hear more about it. (It also sounds suspiciously close to being followed by “so you shouldn’t enjoy it”, but that may simply be me reading too much into it.)

      Ultimately, though, I think you’ve hit the target, however obliquely, which is that the Zelda games follow the Law of Conservation of Detail (“any element that the writers choose to introduce will turn out to be important”) far more closely than Skyrim does. And honestly, I skew the opposite way: in Skyrim, I can get lost in the world because not every single character matters to my character’s story, whereas Zelda feels like a video game because as soon as I encounter a character I know they’re going to be important to the plot. In other words, the fact that there are no characters in a Zelda game that aren’t connected somehow to the story makes it very obvious that I’m playing a game in a constructed world.

      • I don’t want to get too far afield on Skyrim, take a look at this piece (particularly the last third, after the video): http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7290527/one-night-skyrim-makes-strong-man-crumble . It focuses on dialogue, but the point is the same: the procedure/systems based world of Skyrim is not conducive to the creation of story or drama. It’s like (or should I say, it is) asking a machine to write a story. That’s how it’s like SimCity (giving credit to the BB poster to came up with this, I think Zoid): instead of having a story like a normal RPG, it has a bunch of interacting rules and systems that you just play with and watch how everything evolves.

        On MMO’s: I don’t know about “not games”–that’s semantics–but they’re different enough from non-MMO games that they strain the idea of being classified in the same medium. It’s like movies and TV–superficially similar, but they have different artistic uses and we expect different things from them. Perc can probably tell you as much as anyone, since she’s just seeing what games can do outside of the very limited world of MMO’s.

        Back to Zelda: Yeah it has a little bit of the Harry Potter effect–the world isn’t too believable because it’s visibly constructed around the main character. Games rarely ever break away from this though, and immersion doesn’t require that the world make total sense. RPG worlds essentially never make sense (where do shopkeepers get the junk they sell you, what do they do with the gold, how can high-level adventurers be literally thousands of times stronger than low-level, why can people be resurrected from combat death but not story death, what does HP even mean–the rabbit hole is endless). We accept the tropes of the medium because when it’s done well, at any given moment the local neighborhood right around your viewpoint is coherent enough for the purposes of gameplay and storytelling as long as you don’t ask too many questions.

        This discussion has gone all over the place a bit, but the point was supposed to be a simple sort of “less is more” idea. A smaller number of handcrafted characters can each have a personality, even a diminutive one emerging through a scant few lines of text, in a way that a large number of (literally) mass-produced characters never will.

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