Time for another post in my game design analysis series! This time I’m looking at The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
Much of what I record here will be obvious to anyone who’s recently played the game, or its predecessor Breath of the Wild. But I’m writing this for future readers as well, and hopefully it can provide some inspiration for busy designers who don’t have time to sit down and play the game themselves.
NOTE: Until such time as this note is removed, this post should be considered a work in progress. (I don’t feel like messing around with a “draft” status and hopefully I can get some preliminary feedback this way.)
SPOILER ALERT: I am going to be making no effort whatsoever to avoid spoilers in these notes, as that would hamper their usefulness. If you don’t want spoilers, play the game in its entirety before reading these notes!
Seems like many of the game’s systems could have been designed separately in Nintendo’s famous “garden” playgrounds. Capturing horses, propping up Hudson signs, and skydiving all seem like selections from the resulting experiments. These systems are mostly orthogonal to each other, too; maybe you could prop up a Hudson sign in the middle of combat but you’re gonna have a bad time.
Much ado has been made about this series’s new weapon durability mechanic. To quickly recap here, some players hate it. But I personally buy into the argument that it’s essential. If the first sword you found were durable enough to finish the game with, there’d be no point to looking for additional swords (and no need to explore).
Weapons do extra damage on the hit that breaks them. Other designers have suggested that this is to make breakage a little less frustrating. I would add that it makes it a little less likely to find yourself facing a monster while weaponless (because the breaking blow is more likely to kill your opponent).
New in Tears of the Kingdom: When you draw a weapon that is on the verge of breaking, a (non-modal) dialog pops up reminding you of this fact. This seems like a good idea, as the state of your weapons is potentially non-obvious otherwise.
Flurry Rush: bullet time something something dramatic. TODO: I know it looks good, but why DOES bullet time matter here? It’s not being used to help you dodge or aim…
Enemies can harm each other, but not with basic attacks; those pass right through allied entities. I’m guessing they wanted the “juice” of fooling enemies into attacking each other, but enabling that for basic attacks would have broken all combat.
Stealing weapons: certain weapons of yours can knock an opponent’s weapon (or shield) out of their hands. You can grab it to deny them the attack power, and you can equip it (using the infinite time afforded by the pause menu) to make that attack power yours.
The Muddle Bud: it’s the classic “confuse” spell. Temporarily eliminates an enemy as an aggressor and causes them to harm un-turned enemies. (With the clever caveat in this case that if you let them see you, they may also attack you.) Frankly it’s overpowered and way too plentiful, but it is a lot of fun.
As with Eventide Island in Breath of the Wild, certain shrines drop you naked (well, in your boxers, this mostly a family-friendly game) into a combat situation. No armor, no weapons other than those provided. (But you keep your magic powers and max HP, so grinding does grant some advantage.) Leveling up can destroy the game’s balance, and this is a way of restoring the challenge for a moment. (For those players who accept the challenge and don’t immediately leave.)
There are two kinds of reduction of max HP. Gloom reduces it in a healable way, through sundelions or visiting a checkpoint (the surface or a Root). The final boss reduces it in a “permanent” way, which practically is only meaningful in that it renders sundelions useless. But damn if that isn’t terror-inducing…
Moonrise works just the same as in Horizon: Forbidden West. Immediately after sunset there is a period of considerable darkness, to the point that it hampers visibility a bit. Then the moon rises, and it’s nearly as bright as day again (but with different hues). Not sure if there’s a gameplay purpose to this?
First cooking pot is positioned right near the entrance to the first Cold area. Spicy Peppers (which stave off Cold) are positioned near the pot.
Initial visit to a cooking pot displays a modal: “You can pass time by the fire.” AFAIK this modal never appears again. Subsequent visits go straight to the modal: “Sit by the fire until: Morning. / Noon. / Night. / Never mind.” Now, why ARE we allowed to pass time? Personally, I think the annoyance of walking around in the dark is reason enough, but are there other reasons? Why is there a day/night cycle at all?
Treasure chest, visible on a just-barely unreachable platform. I’m sure finding the item/ability that lets me reach it will feel rewarding.
Extremely Cold water and unclimbable icy cliffs used as impassable obstacles on path to first shrine.
Ukouh shrine: there’s a moat that you’re unlikely to fall into, but you need a way to climb out in the event that happens. A ladder was placed ascending out of the moat, but it’s positioned such that a player won’t see it unless/until they fall into the moat. So you see the ladder when you need it, but aren’t distracted by it when you don’t.
Levitating platforms cannot be grabbed from below and pulled down. It does seem like using a pair of them might allow a player to scale to any height (albeit in a very tedious way). So this probably keeps them from imbalancing the game even further.
There are significant differences in the effective ranges of the different abilities, e.g. Ultrahand requires you to be quite close, whereas Rewind can be used at range. Designers probably simply offered the maximum range for each ability that wouldn’t imbalance the game (thereby maximizing the number of contexts in which each can be used), but it’s interesting that they saw no need to keep the range consistent between abilities.
If the copious weapons from Breath of the Wild were still available, you’d have no need to use the Fuse ability. So the weapons are explained away by saying they were eaten by miasma during the Upheaval. It’s super dumb but the player base seems accepting of it.
Fires won’t light in the rain. But you can shield the kindling by building a structure above it. I don’t know about other players, but I simply assumed this wouldn’t work (because that seems like an obscure use-case and time-consuming to program). But the game tries to introduce players to the idea gently. First it places a cookpot under an existing structure (all you have to do is place a section of roof). Then again with an important goal blocked behind a row of burnable thorns in a perpetually-rainy part of the map. (With all materials needed for a structure close by.)
Capturing horses may be integrated into the main game, but it’s still basically a minigame. And it has difficulty parameters. More powerful horses move around more, requiring careful timing on an approach. They turn more, meaning their field of view shifts more, sometimes requiring multiple changes in approach angle.
You are given a brief (~1 second) grace period of exposure to Gloom before your max HP starts reducing. Just enough time to realize the danger and get back out.
Insects fly away if you approach at full speed; you have to crouch and sneak up on them. This requires intentionality, not just running everywhere pressing the Grab button all the time.
They are very, very good at providing resource sinks. The Great Fairies in particular come to mind. Everything consumes precious rupies. And specific clothing items require specific resources from a variety of regions, each of which requires a different game mechanic to collect.
When swimming up a waterfall, stamina restores fully. There is no sensible reason this should be so, but there is a practical one: you’ll be exhausted from swimming and unable to paraglide without more stamina.
Dishes made with double the ingredients exactly double their replenishment/duration effects. Dishes made with discoverable, repeatable combinations of ingredients can be significantly more effective than their individual components.
Dishes sell for more than their raw ingredients. Dishes made with twice as many ingredients sell for (a bit) more than twice as much.
Temple of Time entrance: I rolled my eyes in annoyance when I marched all the way over to the Temple, only to be told I must first visit several shrines to gain entrance. But consider how awkward it would have been to be told “okay, go visit these shrines, and that will open the door on this temple you haven’t been to yet.” This could be considered an example of the “lock before key” principle.
How do you present the player with a couple interesting objectives at any given time, without overwhelming them? This YouTube video is actually about Breath of the Wild, but I’m sure these insights were re-used for Tears of the Kingdom.
Learning to use the Recall ability: you are presented with Recall when you are at a dead end in the Temple of Time. There’s a risk players will turn around and leave again, so it’s made very clear to you beforehand that this place holds a mainline quest and that now is the time to be pursuing it. With all this in mind, players will be intently looking around the room figuring out how to proceed, and they have this shiny new ability they’re eager to use. May as well try it on those giant spindles!
Then you’re tasked with finding another shrine, whose location is marked on your map. The puzzle you’re presented with requires two abilities. I personally actually forgot about the Ascend ability, and unable to scale the nearby wall, I started descending waterfalls. But it was soon very clear following that route would make it impossible to reach the marked destination. So, now that it was clear I was staring at a dead end again, I went back to the room and this time looked through my abilities again. I spotted Ascend there, and realized it would get me into position to use Recall. Puzzle solved thanks to subtle guidance from the designers.
After descending from the tutorial island, you are immediately given a waypoint to a village where you are given a tutorial on towns, including on stores. Visiting this waypoint first is optional, however.
Placing a character on the ground straining to look up indicates you need to surmount a wall to find Hoz.
Shooting stars are a highly valuable material that land some distance away from you and disappear quickly. They encourage you to drop what you’re doing and engage in an exciting, haphazard race to collect them.
When you first start out, there are two tabs in the
- button menu marked “Feature not yet available”. An alternative might have been to simply conceal the existence of these tabs. But there are benefits to revealing their existence:
- Keep the number of times needed to press
Rto get from one tab to another consistent, aiding habituation.
- Prevent players from forming a mistaken opinion that the game’s feature set is quite limited.
- Pique player curiosity as to what these features might be, making unlocking them rewarding.
First time stamina wheel runs out: non-modal dialog saying something to the effect of “When your stamina wheel runs out, you’ll be too tired to do certain actions until it fills again.” Doesn’t appear again on subsequent exhaustion; unsure if it ever does.
Flashing red warning as buff wears off: Ascending the sky ruins above Hebra, I was so focused on not falling that I utterly forgot I had cold resistance in effect. The warning was the only reason I noticed the buff was running out.
Great Fairies “know” when you don’t have materials or they don’t have the power to enhance your clothing. They could simply turn you away. But that would prevent players from viewing the menu of their clothing to determine why they can’t upgrade yet. So the fairy declares that they can’t upgrade anything, then lets the player view the menu anyway.
Loading screen tips are context sensitive. E.g. you only get tips on dealing with sludge while in Zora’s Domain.
UI clock: sure, I could theoretically determine time of day by looking at the sky (and the sun and moon do provide useful ambient indicators of time. But at one point I resumed the game after a 12-hour break (gotta sleep sometime!) and momentarily mistook a sunrise for a sunset. That was only cleared up by looking at the in-game clock.
Something I’d like to see that isn’t here; different sound effects for picking up materials vs. weapons/shields/bows. The latter three have limited inventory space and I’d like a clearer indicator of when I’ve just consumed some of it.
Weapons with special attributes sparkle and emit a sound effect to draw your attention to them.
I know this is going to sound crazy, or worse, apologist. But over time the menu buttons started to feel like a mini-game in their own right. E.g. I needed a lot of rupees for armor upgrades. And the way I chose to earn them was by cooking potions.
+: materials menu.
A: select item.
Down, “select for recipe”.
A to choose recipe.
B to exit menu.
A to cook.
X to skip animation.
B to exit modal.
+ to re-enter materials menu. It was all repetitive, and arguably should have been streamlined with “grease”. (E.g. “cook 27 of these potions”.) But I felt skillful while pressing the buttons to manipulate these “tedious” menus. So maybe adding grease here wouldn’t have improved the game?
A brings up a menu for a map icon, and once you’ve done so,
A activates the default menu option, which is “Travel”. It’s the one you’ll want most often. They never explicitly say so, but a double-tap of
A will have you travelling around the map rapidly. It’s very satisfying and I’m pretty sure intentional.
On the first sky archipelago, there are clouds blowing by. Over the land. Because the land is in the sky, right? I love this because it’s a reminder of your elevation and it’s also really cool.
NPCs flinch when you run into them, or swing a weapon at them, or levitate a giant construction over them. That is all they do, but perhaps that’s all it’s reasonable to code them to do.
In the cinematic where Morgaia appears, she is the size of a mountain. Awe-inspiring. Terrifying. Mostly, I suspect, due to the sinister music that plays. And then the music fades out for a loading screen, and the mood is lost… If it had kept playing, it would have been so much more effective. …And then the mood is completely ruined by the ridiculous battle that involves repeatedly launching your friend off the front of a gyrocopter. Maybe they should’ve played comical music throughout instead.