On Flow Control


 Patrick over on False Machine recently wrote a post about "Flow Control".

My intuitive assumption was to - since it’s a house, to have a very open plan with immediate (in theory) access to most of the rooms, or at least, you need to explore to find them and then investigate, but there are relatively few locked doors or hard blocks stopping you from exploring most of the house, the difficulty being in investigating and understanding the collection and dealing with the rituals and mysteries of the house. Largely a very 'open' concept, in which you can go in any direction and where the difficulty increases as you interact with more things, largely as a consequence of you interacting with them.

This post made me want to talk about the original Legend of Zelda because I think it did an excellent job (maybe it's been long enough to say it did a legendary job) of having an "open plan" with "immediate access to most rooms". You "need to explore", and there "are relatively few locked doors or hard blocks". Of course, Hyrule isn't a house, but I think it fits the bill for this.

The last line about difficulty increasing as a consequence of your interaction is excellent food for thought, and I think a very good goal to have with an RPG adventure. In classic Zelda, (likely because it's an overworld and not a single house/dungeon) difficulty was fixed by location. Monsters spawned in specific locations, and their shape and color pallete communicated their difficulty.

But first, I want to pull a relavent quote about The Secret of Monkey Island. It's from user MRY on the rpgcodex.com forums and I'm going to chop it up and bit and rearrange it because it makes more sense without the rest of the discussion that way. My notes/comments in [], and emphasis added.

[Scabb Island from Monkey Island 2 is] not "linear" in the sense of only having a single acceptable order of operations. It's "linear" in the sense that the areas are constructed so that you see the locks before you see the keys, and by the time you've walked around, you know what your goals are. [T]here are no hard constraints on where you can or can't go, it's just that the design is thoughtful about how you position things and use environmental cues, how you foreshadow future puzzles, etc.

[For example] put the monkey at the piano during Part I of the game. .... He will have messed with the monkey and been unable to distract it and that will be in the back of his head for later. [Then, later, when he finds the banana (i.e., key) he should easily remember the monkey, not just because he's seen the monkey, but because he's had fun, but failed interactions with it.]

There it is, emphasis added, the thing I think the original Zelda (and Monkey Island I guess, but I actually haven't played it) did incredibly well, and has continued doing well: Show the locks before the keys. Ideally, let the players interact with the locks and experience fun or interesting "failures" to communicate to them that they've found a lock and are in need of a key. Couple this with a relatively open area to explore where there are other things to do/find that aren't locked. These things can, and should, contribute to their progression.

The image above shows a colored map of the original Legend of Zelda overworld. Each rectangle is a screen. 

  • All green screens are accessible immediately at the beginning of the game. 
  • The grey screen in the upper right hand corner of the map is also accessible at the beginning of the game, but the entrance is so completely hidden that you have to guess/deduce that there must be something there.
  • The orange screens can only be accessed by retrieving the raft from the 3rd dungeon (the small orange square in E8 is the entrance).
  • The orange screen F5 contains the entrance to the 4th dungeon (small blue square). This dungeon contains the step ladder which allows you to cross one block of water.
  • The 5th dungeon is in the light blue screen (L1). This screen can be accessed like a green screen (almost we'll talk about the lost hills in a bit), and the dungeon can be entered, but water bars your way in the dungeon and you must have the step ladder in order to reach the boss.
  • The brown screens are technically accessible, but to get there you must go through the yellow screen, or cross the river in H2 or H3, which is impossible without the step ladder. The monsters in this area are harder than those in the green squares.
  • The yellow screen and teal screens are very interesting. As you can see on the map below they are listed as the Lost Hills (L2) and the Lost Woods (B7). The thing about these screens is that they are "infinite" unless you progress through them in a specific way. To get through the lost hills you must only go up. To get through the lost woods you must go up, left, down, left (north, west, south, west). To get the information to pass through them you must pay an old woman. The women are in A8 and K2. Both say "pay me and I'll talk" and have three options in front of them. They give the information for different amounts. Additionally, the woman in K2 for the lost hills is in a cave hidden behind a waterfall. An old man in a dungeon tells you to "walk into the waterfall".

  • The magenta screen is for level 7. In the orignal Zelda there are 9 dungeons, but only 6 have fancy dungeon entrances. The 7th level is hidden under a lake and to drain the lake you must play the whistle you find in the 5th dungeon. The 8th dungeon is hidden under a bush/tree that must be burned, and the 9th level is in a rock that must be bombed. There are in game clues for all of these, but it does rapidly fall into the "non-obvious bullshit" camp, but thankfully 5 year old me had Nintendo Power to help out.

On the topic of Nintendo Power, and looking at the map above that came in the box with the original Legend of Zelda, one of the semi-consistent things brought up about Hot Springs Island is that the map and Field Guide "give too much away". I totally and completely disagree. 

Take something like the Lost Woods. It's an infinite screen trap. You need special information to bypass it. They call it out as "LOST WOODS" on the map, and then they show you that there's more beyond the screen. They don't tell you how to solve it, but they show you that it's something to be solved. Again, they show the lock. Just because the map of Hot Springs Island shows you where the nereids secret cave is doesn't mean you can get there. And if you can get there you may discover that you're not equipped to get in. And even if you're equipped you may discover that you have no real way to meet with them or interact with them because they think you're there to kill/capture them.