The world is full of bullshit awards.
In a few days we’ve got the Oscars, where an Academy dominated by retired actors will vote for films in which other actors get to showcase their acting, and scripts and directors that showcase acting, and people will call foul because these films, these scripts, these directors and even these actors were not the “best”. That’s a value judgement. That’s not what I’m talking about.
On 8th February, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences gave out its tenth annual Interactive Achievement awards, thirty reasons for the computer-game business to rent a dinner jacket and fly to Las Vegas. The big winners were Gears of War and Wii Sports and Nintendo had a good night all told, with two Lifetime Achievement awards and gongs for Brain Age and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess which picked up ‘Outstanding Achievement in Story and Character Development’.
Now that’s a bullshit award.
Not a bullshit category, mark you. I think it’s fantastic that the AIAS respects and honours excellence in game narrative. But giving it to Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a joke because there’s precious little story in the game and literally no character development, whether you’re talking about the avatar or the NPCs. Nobody learns anything that changes their life. Nobody changes. Nobody matures. What story there is unfolds in wildly inconsistent info-dumps, mostly irrelevant to gameplay.
Link, our avatar, begins the game as an cypher and ends it as a cypher with a few more hit points. He has no personality and never says anything. Over the course of the game we learn almost nothing about him that we didn’t know at the start (lives in a treehouse outside a village, rides a horse, herds goats, has odd taste in clothes and a chest in his basement he’s never bothered to open), other than he’s got some kind of mystic destiny. All that he learns about himself, his past and this destiny is some new combat skills. His relationship with Ilia begins promisingly, then she gets kidnappedÂ and loses her memory (hurrah for strong female characters, eh?) and Link has to find out what happened to her. When he does it turns out to be very boring, and she plays no further part in the story apart from a cameo at the end. Link ends up having a more meaningful relationship with his horse than with Ilia. Another potentially interesting character-arc, that of Prince Ralis, is left hanging after its second act. He doesn’t even get a vignette during the credits sequence.
As for the story, once you get past the fluff about the world of shadow invading the world of light, it’s two sequential hunt-the-magic-jigsaw quests. Link assembles one jigsaw (one piece per dungeon, of course), is immediately told that this jigsaw is no good, and must set off to assemble another one. At one point you do reach a place that promises to explain something about the ancient beings who set up the events that have caused all this mess, and who set in motion Link’s mystic destiny. What we find out there is that these people liked statues and built a lot of traps.
As a rich, interactive narrative experience, Legend of Zelda: Twlight Princess is a pretty good 3D platformer. Lots of jumpy-jumpy stuff. Sliding-block puzzles. A snowboarding minigame that made me intensely nostalgic forÂ theÂ oneÂ in Final Fantasy VII. And okay, I admit the sheer variety of activities (sumo, jousting, horseback archery, flying contests and even the fishing which a lot of people seemed to hate but really wasn’t so irritating) keeps one interested and amused. But that doesn’t make the game an outstanding achievement in story and character development.
There are, of course, side-quests. You can spend time finding every Heart Piece. You can hunt down every Poe soul to receive a reward. You can locate every golden insect in the world to make a small rich girl happy. These side-quests appear to be more important to our hero of mystic destiny Link than saving the world, since the climax of the game will wait indefinitely for him to complete these quests, and he can’t complete them after defeating the final boss. This makes no sense, either narratively or in gameplay.
And the background world is strictly generic: that weird and never-explained post-FF blend of magic, technology and every imaginable kind of terrain that makes no sense and doesn’t work. There is a community with two inhabitants, one of whom is the community shaman. There’s an oil-seller whose business is on a road that nobody except Link ever uses. And there are dungeons filled with vicious monsters that, if left in proximity, should have eaten each other. Maybe they don’t eat meat. Maybe they just hate Link. I know that by the end of the game I did.
I should sayâ€”and it may be obviousâ€”that I’ve not played any of the earlier parts of the Zelda franchise. I suspect a lot of Wii owners won’t have done either. All I can report is that this game gives no hint of having more than twenty years of story and character behind it. Admittedly neither do the recent Sonic games, but then Sonic was never about either story or character, and I say that as someone who wrote two novels and two gamebooks about him in the early 90s.
So why has the AIAS chosen Zelda as the recipient of the award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Story and Character Development’? The only other category in which it was nominated was Action/Adventure Game of the Year, which went to Gears of War. And it’s not a bad game, qua game, but if you go to any game shop and pull any CRPG from the last ten years off the shelf, there’s a strong chance it’ll have more story and character development than LoZ:TP.
So why this award, and why now?
I can think of two reasons. Firstly, the first 2-3 hours give the impression that LoZ:TP is going to have a strong narrative. The characters in Link’s home village are established with confident if broad strokes and it’s suggested they have roles to play in what follows, though most of them don’t. The storytelling is tight and there are hints of great mysteries to be revealed, though most of them aren’t. Although LoZ:TP is a game requiring 40+ hours to finish, for me to suggest that the Academy’s panel has only played through its opening chapters would be unfair. I have no evidence to support it.
That leaves the second reason: it’s a sop. LoZ:TP is groundbreaking, its control systems are brilliantly innovative, and it’s the latest installment of one of the most respected and commercially successful games franchises in the industry’s history. Clearly to a panel made up of industry players it should get an award of some kind, but the all-conquering Gears of War was equally clearly going to win its category, Action/Adventure. What else is there? Art direction? Sound design? Original music? I know, it’s a bit like an RPG and everybody likes Link, let’s give it Story and Character Development.
A brief summary for those who don’t know me: story and narrative in games and interactive media is my thing. It is the drum I bang, and I bang it relentlessly. It is acceptable for an arcade or casual game to have no story (note that story is not the same as backstory: the latter happens before play, the former during it. Many games have both; some have neither) but I believe absolutely that any interactive experience that aims to engage you for a single play-session of anything over an hour needs a coherent narrative. As games get more sophisticated, so should their stories and story-telling techniques. “Our princess is in another castle” doesn’t cut it any more. And yet that’s not a million miles from what the plot of LoZ:TP boils down to.
I call bullshit on this award.
If anyone from the AIAS judging panelâ€”or anyone elseâ€”can tell me why LoZ:TP deserves this award for 2007, having better story and character than otherÂ category nominees like Dreamfall, please do. Otherwise I say it’s a sop, something for Nintendo to take home at the end of the night for a game that deserved a gong of some kind. That’s reprehensible enough, but the fact that they thought nobody would particularly object to a manifestly unqualifiedÂ game like LoZ:TP getting the award for story and character development makes it doubly so, and casts a poor light on the rest of the Interactive Achievement Award winners, who in my experience deserve their trophies.
Meanwhile… a few posts back I described LoZ:TP as ‘gathering nuts in May’ and I’m going to stick to that summary. I’ll leave the last word to the excellent Rebecca Borgstrom, who observed that if you want to play a wolf with an intensely irritating rider, you’d be better off with Okami.