10/12/2014

Narrowing your audience: Zelda vs. Ni no Kuni

Yeah, I know these two games don't have much in common at first glance, but bear with me, as these titles are excellent edge examples of a lot of elements can make or break the game for audiences. Especially for the kids.

Ni no Kuni is just beautiful. The world is perfectly crafted. The locations are breathtaking. The characters... well, all Ghibli characters look the same and Olivier (main character) is just a generic Ghibli boy, but that doesn't bother me. I just won't say they are as awesome as the rest of the world. The story, when you follow it, is also very nice. So what it's basically a Japanese version of Harry Potter. The world you get to explore is original, interesting and full of life.


Zelda, on the other hand, recycles the same story for the… I think it’s 17th time or so. The whole environment is built with repetitive assets that look like stock mobile game models you can buy in packs for 5 bucks. To make sure that the player notices that, everything is placed on a square grid, because gods forbid any of these destructible jars was standing out of line. But all that is perfectly fine, because the grid-based world works perfectly for the gameplay. And in the end, the story is mostly about you figuring out how to use new tools to beat the new dungeons, not about Link rescuing Zelda for the hundredth time.


Both games theoretically have a huge potential to be titles for everyone. Not only graphics, but also themes are quite children-friendly. At the same time, there's enough depth to keep older audiences interested. And both titles had a great chance to reach a very wide demographic. Now let’s see how various tiny things drove the games apart in that regard.

Intros

What makes or breaks these two games is how they are introduced to the player. In Ni no Kuni you start by watching a cutscene that is followed by a cutscene, that's followed by a dialogue, after which you get another dialogue and then you get to run down the street to watch another cutscene. In Zelda, Link wakes up and you're free to run around. Sure, you have to run to a few places close by, but by the time Olivier manages to get out of his house, Link already has a sword and is cutting grass and breaking jars! In the first moments of the game one of the games has already managed to filter out the short-tempered gamers from their audience.


Tutorials and Pacing

Three minutes into A Link Between Worlds I knew all the controls I needed, I had no problems going through the consecutive sections of the game. Whenever a new mechanic or new item was introduced, there was a whole dungeon designed to let me use it and learn all the possibilities that came with my new tool. Each of these items comes with an extremely short description. Bow: "Arrows fly straight to take down enemies! You can also move while aiming!" All I need to know in two sentences, followed by a dungeon letting me figure out all I can do with this bow. Six hours into the game and I still get new mechanics, still have fun experimenting with new things and haven't been confused or bored for a second. On my way to new dungeons I found mini-games, a collectable quest and a bunch of secret areas to keep my explorer and achiever sides happy. Every half an hour or so I feel rewarded with something: a piece of heart, a new secret, a new dungeon, a new quest item, a new mechanic...

Even though Zelda series are famous for their nagging navi, Ni no Kuni has somehow
managed to make its sidekick, Drippy, even more annoying.

Three hours into Ni no Kuni and I still felt I am in the tutorial. Still felt I didn't really know anything about this game. My weird sidekick still kept bugging me with long and overstylized dialogues explaining new mechanics, menus, options, equipment, spells. I have been fed at least a dozen tutorials and I have still been waiting to actually do something cool. Trying out new things limited itself to the sidekick telling you "Now, select the new spell you acquired". You then had to  select it (and most of the time it is the only spell you can use anyway) and the game progressed to another dialogue. Sure, I levelled up a few times, I bought a sword for my Pokemon, err... Familiar and I met some fat cat, but somehow, three hours into it, I still felt like I haven't accomplished anything in this game.

Narrative and language

Writers in Ni no Kuni had a lot of work. Dialogues are chasing dialogues, characters are very diverse and each has their own little way of speaking. We have a classic purry cat, we have an owl that’s having a hoot, our sidekick, our main hero, everyone is speaking just a little bit different. And they are all talking a lot. This attention to diversity and details is very pleasing to all the dialogue-driven game nerds (myself included), but what does that mean for the accessibility? The complexity of the dialogues makes them unsuitable for youngest children. Also, since the game only comes in Japanese and English, non-natives without at least upper intermediate knowledge of one of these languages, will have little idea what is going on in the game.


Zelda doesn’t bother much with the story. There’s a world, there’s another world, we play as Link and he’s the link between these worlds… Link is the link, get it? And there’s Zelda and she’s obviously to be rescued and there’s Ganon that’s obviously to be defeated. And there’s a Triforce and Seven Sages and all that stuff that we’ve seen already so many times. Dialogues and descriptions are short, simple and to the point and even without reading them we can figure out how to progress somehow. I am fairly certain I would have been able to beat the game if it was in some language that’s exotic for me. Swahili… or even worse, Hungarian ;) A Link Between Worlds manages to remain accessible to pretty much anyone with opposing thumbs, but of course, there’s a cost – it won’t really satisfy those in need of a deep, dialogue-driven story.

Gameplay

The type of gameplay is very different in both games and the only comparable thing is the amount of pure gameplay. Ni no Kuni is much more dialogue-driven while Zelda is almost purely gameplay-driven. Obviously it’s a matter of preference here, so the gameplay section of this article is here mostly to tell the nitpickers I didn’t forget about it :)

Who are these games for?

At this point I think I’m already able to answer that somewhat accurately. With Zelda: A Link Between Worlds I have no problems stating that the game can be for anyone that likes good gameplay and isn't repelled by cute, cartoony and well, straightforward childish graphics. The depth of mechanics paired with excellent tutorials make the game extremely easy to get a hang on and entertaining and engaging enough to stick with it till the end. Story geeks that are not Zelda fans will definitely not be satisfied here though.


Ni no Kuni has much more restrictions. People who didn’t accept Zelda for art direction, most probably won’t like Ni no Kuni either. Long and boring tutorials are definitely not suitable for anyone with short attention span. Sparsely distributed save points make it a game difficult to play when you might be yelled at by your parents to stop playing already. Tons of dialogues, written in a very stylized way, will make it hard to understand the game for children who are not Japanese or native English speakers. The topics in the story place the game in a very good position. There's both lots of joy and depth and even though it reeks of a Japanese Harry Potter, it is quite bearable even for adults. Unfortunately, with the dialogue chains going on and on with little interactive elements in between and then long dungeons with repetitive fights, the game feels very, very tedious pretty much all the time. So if we put together all these elements, we see that Ni no Kuni is actually suitable for a very narrow group of cartoony graphics-loving, native-speaker level people that have a lot of patience to go through a ridiculously boring tutorial and then several dozens of hours of similarly boring gameplay just to read/hear more of the story. But… Wouldn’t any Studio Ghibli anime be a more engaging pick for them?



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