Since the first Zelda video game, The Legend of Zelda, was released in 1986, the story of Link, Princess Zelda, and Ganon has been embedded in my brain. I still remember reaching Ganon’s castle just minutes before I had to leave for an overnight field trip to Boston’s Museum of Science in fourth grade. I had trouble pulling myself away even for something that cool.
I’ve played—and beaten—each of the Zelda games since, until it came out on the Wii and I realized I had outgrown video games. So why has this game and its story stuck with me my entire life? I broke out the Wii’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to refresh my memory.
I know the basic story—Princess Zelda has been kidnapped by Ganon and Link must rescue her by visiting several castles and defeating bosses before finally defeating Ganon—but even with that knowledge I quickly became frustrated. I wandered around the village at the start of the game talking to people, hopping on my horse, running, and hopping off. I herded some goats. I accomplished nothing.
But my frustration was the result of what could be the most effective storytelling method of video games. Every action in the game creates a reaction elsewhere in the game. I started to pay more attention to what each person was telling me and remembered how video game storytelling—or at least fantasy game storytelling—works. The village was full of tasks I had to complete and each conversation I had gave me a clue as to how to complete those tasks. I had to:
- Use a hawk to hit a monkey who drops a basket, which I give to a woman who gives me a fishing rod.
- Use the fishing rod to catch a fish, to give to a cat so the cat will go home and the upset woman will sell me a slingshot.
- Use the slingshot to take target practice which will get me a sword
- Practice with the sword until another monkey shows up and runs away with the children I have to save.
You Choose the Storyline
More recent Zelda games have hacked this action-reaction formula to allow a player to accomplish tasks in a different order or to play a game within a game. I can remember spending an entire night just fishing in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
All of these elements make me think of really well done infographics in news stories or online magazines. A great interactive graphic is a visualization of hundreds of pieces of data. When presented well, a user can take whatever path they desire. In a story on crime statistics, I can look at crime in one neighborhood. Then I can parse that data by type of crime, age of victim, whether an arrest was made, etc. The combinations become almost limitless if you’re dealing with a large set of data like census information or crime reports.
I also understand the very human desire for competition and game play. I still believe I remember the details of Zelda perfectly because it frustrated me, made me think through roadblocks, and pushed me to compete. The reward at the end was to save Zelda and lift the triforce in victory.
Zelda is not a great story. Yet it is a part of my pop culture psyche that can only be rivaled by Star Wars.
The First Social Network
The potential to use gaming to tell a journalistic story continues to grow as social networking becomes a larger part of journalism. The first instance of “social networking” in my life surrounded The Legend of Zelda. Other students in elementary school, some I was not even close friends with, would trade tips and tricks over the telephone when we hit a roadblock. Couldn’t figure out how to defeat the Level 7 boss? I’ll tell you how to do that if you tell me how to find the blue candle.
I remember at least 20 people being involved in this exchange of ideas. In today’s connected world, a news game—involving an action-reaction storyline and incentives—could spread through Facebook and Twitter unlike anything we’ve seen in journalism to date.