Friday, August 28, 2009

Dreaming Big

Quick update: I haven't had internet at my house for the past two weeks. But the technicians are coming to get us all hooked up tomorrow afternoon, at which point Thumbstruck should be back to its regularly-scheduled programming.

Since the Vintage Game Club is done with Majora's Mask, I'll probably only make one more post on the subject, not to drag things out.

School has started back up and the semester is in full swing. I'm working on getting my research project organized, as well as a very interesting class about using robotics and game-like video interfaces to convey information like a conductor to an orchestra.

Lastly, my peers and I are dreaming big about the upcoming series of independent game festivals we're hoping to enter. I'm sure as we get more organized and actually make progress that I'll have more to say on the subject.

Check back in a few days!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bomber's Notebook, Part 2 - The Ticking Clock

In my previous post, I detailed the first chapter of Link's adventures through time in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Here's chapter 2! For more discussion about this game (from a lot of interesting people), check out The Vintage Game Club.

Since the game's core mechanic revolves around the three-day time limit, it goes without saying that time is an ever-present factor in Majora's Mask. Its predecessor, Ocarina of Time, focused on the protagonist's journey seven years into the future, and the stark contrast between the whimsical world of his childhood and the dark realities of his adulthood. The game required Link to travel through time to save the world. A few puzzles required him to travel back in time and "change the past" (an illusion of some cleverly scripted events). In this case, "time" empowered and enabled Link.

In Majora's Mask, time is an inhibitor. Link can manipulate time in this game just as he could in Ocarina, but he does so only to put off the inevitable. Instead of leaping forward in time to cheat his way into a life he shouldn't be experiencing yet, Link loops time to avoid a near-future he knows is coming and desperately wants to avoid. He has to make as much progress as he can within the three-day time limit in order to reach a preservable milestone, i.e. defeating a boss or learning a song. A countdown clock resides at the bottom of the screen, always reminding the player of the world's impending doom. Time is not on Link's side, and the limitations it imposes can sometimes feel crippling.

This point is evident in how many complaints the game receives for its time limit. Plenty of games make use of timers: Super Mario Bros. limits how many seconds you have per level, for instance, and Oregon Trail counted the days down before winter came, drastically reducing the player's chance of survival. Pikmin's brilliantly inspired design suffered as a result of a 30-"day" time limit to complete the story, a complaint rectified in the sequel. Majora's Mask, similarly, has frustrated many experienced gamers with the limits imposed by its three-day cycle. Each cycle requires some planning on the player's part to ensure that they make efficient use of their time and get all of their goals accomplished.

At the VGC we've talked about how progress in the game is not measured by changes made to the world, but by information Link has learned and the tools he has collected. Link regains his human form, and a slew of new opportunities open up in Clock Town: most importantly, he is allowed to go out beyond the city walls. In the Southern Swamp, it's easy for Link to get lost - that is, until he purchases a map from Tingle. It might take Link a long time to make it to Woodfall Temple, as well, but once he knows the Song of Awakening and the Song of Soaring, getting there is quick and painless. Lastly, the puzzles in Woodfall Temple are on the easier side, but no one's perfect, and it's possible that while the ground is shaking and the clock tower is chiming on The Third Day, the player is still only halfway through the dungeon. That's okay! They can just re-set time, armed with the knowledge they need to breeze through the dungeon at twice the speed they did the first time (I learned this first hand, as my Wii froze after four hours of play - I covered the same ground in less than half the time afterward).

Contrast this with Ocarina's formula for progress, which saves incremental changes to the environment - a door has been unlocked, a mini-boss has been defeated, a treasure chest has been opened. In that game, Link can save whenever he likes; in Majora's Mask, he can only save his personal progress by undoing all the progressive changes he's made to the game world. I can't help but wonder if this unique design suffers from having dungeons that too closely match the formula laid out in Ocarina; after all, a dungeon is only worth the challenge of mastering its puzzles. If any one dungeon had more replay value, the game could capitalize on its own penchant for forcing the player to repeat familiar tasks. Luckily, this philosophy is carried out in the side-quests of the Bomber's Notebook - an aspect of the game I hope to talk about soon.

As Link, I defeated Odolwa, the evil spirit trapping the swamp's guardian giant, and saved the Monkeys and the Deku Scrubs from their various minor perils. They thanked me, but a wise Deku Scrub noted that they can't shake the feeling things are still about to go quite wrong. They're correct, of course - that moon isn't stopping itself. A few in-game hours and a dozen unsuccessful races later, the Deku butler finally yielded and told me I remind him of his son - a boy whose soul I now possess in mask form. These are problems future and past, but only I seem to be fully aware of them, as the rest of Termina is stuck in its three-day bubble. I, as Link, have the burden of being able to see past this bubble in either direction, and the power to act on what I see. In that way, I am alone - my only company is Tatl the fairy, and the ever-present ticking clock.

Three-Day Cycles: 3 (5 total)
Learned two songs; earned three masks; defeated Odolwa at Woodfall Temple; completed first Spider House; got some pieces of heart and notebook entries; restored second Great Fairy and learned the magic Spin Attack; and got the Hero's Bow, Pictograph Box, and Magic Beans.