The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom videos have been going viral every day on Twitter, and the things that impress me as a gamer are never the same things that impress actual game developers.
I was amazed when I saw someone. deploy a plane that launched killer drones that infiltrated a bokoblin skull hideout, killing them all with laser beams. But developers are always more impressed with things that don’t seem so special at first, like the sanctuary which tasks the player with welding a suspension bridge to a pair of wheels and then sending it across a pool of lava to create a passable path.
When I played that shrine, I thought it was cool, but it didn’t break my brain. It’s in the same way that I find powers like Recall and Ascend innovative and fun to use, but don’t make me think about how they’re even possible. I don’t know how to make a game; everything seems magical. This is how most gamers experience the games. We only know what is seen in the final product or what is revealed through behind-the-scenes videos. I love reading about weird tricks developers use to solve specific weird problems, but I have very little firsthand knowledge other than a few sessions with games like Super Mario Maker and the easy-to-use design tool Bitsy Game Maker.
I think most players have that amount of experience or even less. While many young Millennial and Gen Z gamers came of age playing Minecraft and Fortnite, those are tools that teach you to be creative with what you see on the interface. Most of us still have little back-end experience, and that affects how we understand and discuss the medium.
Paying attention to the way the developers talk about Tears of the Kingdom has been revealing. It’s the same feeling I got when I saw the developers fawn over Ellie for being able to take her shirt off in a scene or wear a physically accurate wire in The Last of Us Part 2.
I try to work this kind of wonder into my own understanding of the medium. Gamers tend to be impressed by things that look pretty or are obviously flashy. A game that has really detailed graphics or great use of ray tracing tends to impress us. Zelda doesn’t have any of those things. It’s a compelling game in the same way that Breath of the Wild was, with graphics that split the difference between the stylized realism of Twilight Princess and the cel-shading of The Wind Waker. As my colleague Eric Switzer pointed out, it doesn’t feel high-end, and there are clear signs that the game is pushing the hardware beyond what it can comfortably go. The bells and whistles we tend to think of as “next generation” aren’t there.
That’s why it’s so interesting to see Tears of the Kingdom get such an amazing reception from the developers. Games like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon Forbidden West do show up brand new, but Zelda is the title that has earned the shock and awe of people who understand more deeply how meat kabobs are made. Paying attention to his reaction has given me a deeper appreciation for a game that I already loved. And I’m really looking forward to hearing GDC talks that break down how this all works in terms I can understand. For now, I’ll settle for being ignorant but impressed.
NEXT: Everyone’s Going To Learn The Wrong Lessons From Zelda