The fine folks over at Nintendo Everything have put together a complete interview translation of Eiji Aonuma’s interview with Gamekult, a French publication. This translation helps clarify a few things we have heard in the past. Stay tuned to Nintendo Everything for potential future translations of other interviews, as they do an excellent job in this regard. That being said, here is that interview now fully translated:
Gamekult: What motivated the choice of such an open, systemic world?
Eiji Aonuma: The wish to create an open world game came shortly after Skyward Sword was finished. We realized that the way you flew from one area to another, with no opportunity to walk instead, had frustrated a lot of people who wanted to know what was hidden between the regions. One of the greatest thrills of the Zelda series lies in exploring and looking for hidden things, so after a few preliminary tests, we reckoned that the Wii U had the power we needed to create a satisfying open world – one that would allow players to visit the entire world with no loading times. Everything stemmed from that intention.
On what criteria did you build the world, scatter the key items, place the shrines and temples? Are they linked to personal experiences or any particular philosophy?
When you create an open world, when you take the map and say “I’m going to put this here, that here, and that thing over there”, while paying attention to the distances and estimating travel times between different points, it is important to take relief into account. There has to be a big difference between the 2D representation and the 3D world you explore; you realize that you need to cross mountains and canyons and that it is much more difficult to progress. That’s why we chose an implementation that followed the building of the game, by wandering on the map and deciding when we should place an important element or a secret. If you want to hide areas, it’s even more complicated in 3D because the player doesn’t necessarily know what he’s looking for. So we made all those measures by walking in the game’s world, in order to have a good understanding of the travel times and the distances between all points of interest. It’s not a well-known fact, but Mr. Miyamoto actually did the same thing in 2D to place the dungeons in the very first Zelda.
Since you’re going on that topic, you said in a Iwata Asks that this founding episode was too difficult and stingy with clues for your taste, which brought you to make things easier for players when you started working on the series. Isn’t Breath of the Wild, which pays tribute to the original Zelda in its communication, a modern re-reading of the game?
That’s an excellent question, since the first Zelda is a game where you get lost a lot and I think Breath of the Wild will have the same effect in 3D. I believe there are two ways for you to get lost in a game: because you don’t know where to go, or because you feel like checking out other places out of curiosity. While the former isn’t remotely interesting in terms of gameplay, the latter is something I look forward to making the players experience. In fact, that’s why the game mechanics encourage you to explore. From the beginning of the adventure, Link is able to climb high enough to allow you, once you reach the summit, to observe the landscape and head for the place that caught your eye using the paraglider. This loop made of climbing, contemplating and gliding is the essence of exploration in this Zelda, and I really wanted to make getting lost in this world a pleasure.
Speaking of the climbing mechanic, there is another game that makes heavy use of this feature: Shadow of the Colossus. It was influenced by Zelda, and influenced it in turn since Twilight Princess. Do you enjoy the games and style of Fumito Ueda?
It’s funny that you’re mentioning this game, because we are friends with Mr. Ueda and he’s always said that he wanted to make a game like Zelda – hence the similarities in Shadow of the Colossus. Mr Ueda was kind enough to send me a copy of The Last Guardian late last year and as I was playing it, I could notice the moments when you climb on Trico’s head to find a path, and jump to reach places that were inaccessible from the height you were at. Without seeing each other or talking about it, I realize we had the same idea. It’s amusing to see we had the same inspirations, the same gameplay velleities at different times.
Since we’re talking about inspirations, it’s no secret that Hidetaka Miyazaki, current president of From Software, is a big Zelda fan. His Souls series has often been likened to a hardcore evolution of Zelda that would have preserved the emphasis on merciless combat, survival and pleasure to get lost in exploration of the first games. Have you ever played these games, and what’s your opinion on them?
I apologize because I’ve never played Dark Souls so I can’t really compare, but it’s true that one of the qualities of the Zelda series is to offer an increasing level of challenge as you progress in the adventure. The goal is to have Link win new abilities as the player gets more skillful. So I suppose a Zelda with extremely rigorous fights would maybe result in a Dark Souls.
The first time I tried Breath of the Wild, I was surprised by the amount of RPG numbers, the weapon strength statistics, the rich inventories, the craft system… What prompted this change, and aren’t you afraid that it might impede the game experience for those who are used to a more symbolic, stripped-back Zelda?
Indeed, I always wanted to avoid putting numbers on things in the past. But since the scale of this game is much greater than any of those we’ve made so far, with a large number of unique items to offer the players, I think the most simple solution is to have more numbers. I found it difficult to compare equipment in a natural way without them. At first glance, you may think it’s going to get in the way, but I think people will eventually find it easier to understand when they’ll need to decide if an item is better than another.
I read in several interviews that you talked a lot with Mr. Miyamoto about the definition and essence of Zelda when you started working on Breath of the Wild. Have you found a good answer, and how does the feeling of adventure in this game differ from – or relate to – the previous installments?
It’s indeed always a source of debate with Mr. Miyamoto, simply because we both think about what defines Zelda and we’re not always on the same page. We eventually agreed this year, when we went to New York for a promotion tour. As we were talking, Mr. Miyamoto found the right words by saying that the essence of The Legend of Zelda is an environment where Link evolves and gains power, which the players will directly feel through the actions they can take as the story goes on. In Breath of the Wild, the fact that the world is supported by a coherent physics engine has a major effect on the possible actions. It sounds obvious, but for example, if you push down a rock, it’s going to roll according to the slope. We wanted people to be able to feel things in a “realistic” way, to break or move around big objects in the game and believe they could have had the same feeling in real life. This physically lived experience is very important.
Regarding the physics engine, I understand that it was one of the elements that’s been the most difficult to include and balance, because of the unpredictability of some reactions. How did you manage to have more good surprises than bad ones on this aspect?
It took a lot of time for a simple reason: when you have a single physics engine to manage all the rules that will apply to a world, if you change even a tiny value at one place, anything can happen on the other side of the map. For example, we had one dungeon designer who wanted to make a puzzle that made you move clay pots with wind, so he changed a slider value so that the wind could carry the pots. When I tested this build of the game, I went to another place where there were supposed to be pots and I couldn’t find them. They had actually been carried by natural gusts and got stuck at the base of a distant mountain. We had a lot of anecdotes like this one during development and from there, we made it a principle to have perfect communication between teams. We could have used emails, but it was more simple to give everyone equal access to the latest informations on the game. It took a lot of time but we decided to organize simultaneous and mandatory game sessions. Everyone had to test the current build before going on to the next step, in order to check that the changes made by one group weren’t affecting the other groups’ work in a bad way. More than the building of the engine itself, it’s the adjustment necessary to make all parts of the game work together that took a lot of time, and made me ask the board to delay the release.
So there were a lot of internal tests, but did you also use advanced external playtests for this episode? If so, which player profiles did you target in particular, and what was the most interesting feedback?
In Japan, there are companies which offer to outsource playtesting and we indeed used their services, with diverse panels of people who were able to play the game in an intensive way. We also lead playtests with Nintendo employees who were working on completely different projects to have their opinion. Given the number of people participating to these tests, I asked the team to create a PC tool displaying a map on which the movements of a hundred players would be drawn in real time, with a marking point every hour. It was very amusing because there are as many play styles as there are players. If I saw lines thickening, a sign that many people were going to the same place at one time, I asked them why they had headed there. I was told “It’s because there’s that” or “It’s because I found this” and often, it was something I’d never thought about or seen in this angle during development, but sounded very funny. It also allowed us to detect locations no one was going to because it wasn’t very practical, in order to modify or add a path, change the topography, make a place more attractive… It was instructive to observe and allowed us to do statistics and make every portion of the world interesting.
Did you consider adding a multiplayer mode or online features allowing players to communicate and encourage each other to visit places?
That’s a very good idea. I’ll tell the teams about it when I return to Japan! (He laughs)
As with Skyward Sword, you’ve been working with Monolith Soft employees on Breath of the Wild, which is not surprising since they’re now used to open world games thanks to Xenoblade. To what extent have they influenced the technological choices of this episode?
On Skyward Sword, Monolith had mainly helped us on graphics design and other artistic elements. Even though we could have asked them for help on the technical side, we realized their way of making games was completely different from ours and we didn’t have much to learn from them on this installment, since we were almost doing two different jobs. On the other hand, for Breath of the Wild, we’ve been assisted by level designers used to large game areas, in order to make topographic arrangements.
Breath of the Wild is a Wii U game that ended up on Switch, which is reminiscent of Twilight Princess on GameCube and Wii. With hindsight, which was the most difficult transition in terms of development?
At the time of Twilight Princess, I was the game director and I had to lead two developments on two systems simultaneously. Since I had less experience back then, I’d say that this transition was more complicated to handle than that of Breath of the Wild. As a matter of fact, it’s thanks to Twilight Princess that I quickly learned what to do or not do during the development of a game on two platforms. I was able to plan more things in advance and make it so the entertainment quality would be the same on Switch and Wii U, avoiding most last minute surprises.
What prompted the choice of actual voice acting in this episode? Is it linked to the story or has the ubiquity of recorded voices in big games weighed heavily on the decision?
We were originally only going to dub the major cut-scenes. Characters actually talking in that kind of scene, but not in the rest of the game, may seem weird but when you see it for yourself, it’s not disturbing. We hadn’t given other characters voices so far because Link never talks and we thought it’d be odd to have everyone express themselves vocally except him. But given that Breath of the Wild contains a large number of cut-scenes, we decided to hire voice actors for all sequences.
If you were allowed to work on games other than Zelda, what would they look like and which ideas would you like to develop in them?
(He laughs quietly) I already have time to do something else than Zelda, and I’ve been told before that if I wanted to work on other games, I shouldn’t hesitate. The problem is, every time I start thinking about what I could do, as soon as I find a nice idea, I tell myself it could work in Zelda and I always come back to this series. To the point that I’ve put a few ideas aside and forbid myself to put them in a Zelda so I can use them elsewhere; even though for now, I’m busy enough with Breath of the Wild.
Is the idea of cooking in Breath of the Wild yours? I understand you love cooking in real life.
It’s not mine at all, I’m sorry! (He laughs) It was a logical choice considering that when you wander in the game’s world, you pick up all kinds of ingredients that you can eat as is, but we thought it’d be interesting to mix them to get better effects. Mixing ingredients is one of the bases of cooking and it felt natural to be able to cook dishes in the game. It seemed logical to us but the first time my son, a Zelda fan, saw the trailer which showed you could cook, he found it weird! What looks natural to some may not be to others and either way, I didn’t insist to have this gameplay idea included.
If I told you my favorite Zelda games are those where the supporting characters are as important as the protagonists in the story and world development, would you say I’m going to enjoy Breath of the Wild?
I think you’re going to be very satisifed. (He smiles)
Last question: according to you, what’s the central theme of this episode, in one sentence?
“Climb, live, protect”. Those are the three words we’re using in the commercial on the official Japanese website. It means you can explore by climbing anywhere, exist in harmony with the world that surrounds you and protect something or someone to accomplish a mission. That is truly the essence of the game.