Sometimes it’s the context beyond the screen that makes a game great

April 6, 2019
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There’s a wonderful dungeon in Twilight Princess which is nothing like a dungeon really. It’s like staying at someone’s house – an old and very comfortable house, up high in the mountains, nestled in the snow. My memory of this place is quite vague by this point. I think it might have been where I picked up the ball and chain, and I don’t recall it being unnaturally devious or punishing as Zelda dungeons go. What I really remember, though, is that there were friendly, people-ish things bustling about as I explored, and there was soup on the boil.

I’m mentioning this because it’s my friend Stu’s favourite Zelda dungeon. And it’s his favourite for quite an interesting reason. It’s his favourite because purely by chance he first entered this cosy winter getaway on Christmas Eve one year. He played the game amongst Christmas lights and brown paper packages and mulled wine and all that jazz, and everything melted together in his mind.

I played that dungeon in Nintendo’s old UK HQ, locked in, it felt, over a long weekend, rattling through a massive, massive game as quickly as I could for a review. I thought the dungeon was clever and charming, but these are distant words. I had to hear about Stu’s experience to truly see it for what it was. And looking back it has made me think about the things that make great games truly great. There’s the design, obviously. There’s an idea so good, sometimes, that even bad design can’t ruin it. But there’s also the world outside the screen. This is much more unpredictable. But occasionally it works a kind of magic.

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