Anatomy of A Game Secret (Part One): Zelda's Sky Temple

I am continuing to salute the graduating Comparative Media Studies cohort of 2007. Kristina Drzaic tackled a really interesting critical challenge -- how does one write meaningfully about an element which, by her definition, is not a necessary or even self-evident aspect of the game's style, themes, narrative, or game play. She recognizes that the pursuit and discovery of secrets may be deeply pleasurable to those who play games: indeed, there is a robust economy in the trade of information -- both sold by companies and freely shared on the web -- which might help players to find secrets. As this passage from her thesis suggests, there is even enough interest that some people even go so far as to "fake" secrets simply for the bragging rights for discovering them. To try to understand secrets, she found herself looking at phenomenon in other media -- what has been written about, say, gags in slapstick comedy, attractions in early cinema, and excess in art cinema, but none offers a precise parallel to the place which secrets play in games. Throughout all of this, Kristina was clear on one thing -- secrets were central to the pleasure she took in playing games and thus should be open to analysis. In the end, those of us on her committee felt she nailed it, making an original contribution to our understanding of game aesthetics. We hope you will agree.

As she has worked on understanding secrets, she has been designing her own secrets for the game, Labrynth, which is being developed through the Education Arcade for Maryland Public Television. Kristina did much of the art direction on the game, doing character sketches and storyboards. The resulting game, when it is released, will be much shaped by her own particular sense of whimsy.

The following passage describes her own childhood experience at inventing a secret in Zelda which has become legendary in the game world and why she thinks people were so ready to accept her fabrication.

Anatomy of a Game Secret

by Kristina Dryziac

The year was 1998 and the game in which I became the toast was Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was at this moment in my life that I invented my own videogame secret. I was not a designer. Nor was I in the videogame business. I was sixteen years old, a single player and a fan. New to videogames at the time, I often frequented Zelda message boards and chat rooms for help with the game. Over the course of a few months I learned the space of the videogame, found all the recorded secrets, mastered Zelda and then I got bored.

The message boards I frequented were full of less experienced players than I, players looking for unknown content, players who were gullible. One of the most often discussed topics in the message board was where one might find and collect a part of a Zelda game, 'The Triforce.' Rumor had it that there was a space on a certain screen that implied that this Triforce could be collected. In a moment of juvenile and rather silly behavior I decided to tell people I had found this 'Triforce' and they could find it too. I announced that if one went into the most confusing dungeon in the game and leapt through the air to hit a particular wall in just the right way they would be able to find a hidden chest that contained, of all things, wings for your horse 'Epona.' The wings would attach to the horse and she would and fly up into the air and take you into a hidden sky temple. There you would find the Triforce in all its glory.



This was not true. Honestly I did not even think it was all that believable. However when I went to research this paper I found endless accounts of people still discussing the Triforce and the sky temple I invented. I even found fan-sites dedicated to the journey players made there, photo-shopped images of the Triforce as it was supposedly found within the game and message boards fighting over the validity of the temple's existence.

I was shocked.

What was it about my invented secret that caused such discussion that a small internet event in a fan community would still maintain vestiges of the discussion on the internet after eight years? What made this sky temple secret so believable as something that might be found within the game content? While all the factors involved here could potentially be overwhelming ranging from Mia Consalvo's gaming capital to the fan community makeup and more, I believe there are certain elements within the Zelda: Ocarina of Timetext itself that especially enable belief in this secret. I contend that examining what made my secret successful provides a window into the interaction between players and secrets and will allow us to look at the meaning of this interaction itself. I pose then that the credibility of my secret boils down to two factors within Zelda Ocarina of Time: narrative plot-holes and unresolved gameplay. Building on this I will demonstrate that the "Oh No I'm Toast" glitch moments within the game illustrate what players hope to achieve in their interactions with the secret.

To understand what this means we must look at the game itself. Zelda: Ocarina of Time debuted on the Nintendo 64 console in 1998. Widely regarded as one of the best games on the platform, Ocarina is a game that translates the Zelda franchise from its past history as a pixilated two-dimensional adventure game and re-imagines the Zelda world as a lively and realistic space. The world had forests to explore, lakes to dive in, ponies to ride and a variety of towns, cities and villages to explore. It was a whole new notion of what the Zelda franchise was about. To illustrate the change, Zelda went from looking like this:

Zelda: Links Awakening, 1993


To looking like this:

Zelda: Ocarina of Time, 1998


What this means for the Zelda franchise is that the player had gained greater freedom of movement. No longer confined to the tightly and cohesively two-dimensional maps of previous Zelda games, the new Zelda felt like a real world. As game reviewer Matt Casamassina gushed at the time:

Its a game that enables players to go anywhere and do just about anything in an immense 3D world. A world so vast that it takes literally minutes to walk across a tiny portion of it. It's huge...whether it be the title's endless secrets or enormous selection of characters, weapons, items, spells, and the like... there's always something new.

What we can take from this breathless statement are two important facts about the Ocarina gamespace, first, the game is chock full of content, both hidden and not and secondly, the game functions in such a way that the reviewer felt like he could do anything. These two elements tell us something important about the gamespace: namely that Zelda is a game of meaningful play.

In the book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals we may recall that theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman pose that the relationship between action/reaction is a foundational part of good game design and meaningful play. What this means is that, when players act in the world, the world should act back in an expected manner. This type of interaction is what fosters good game/player communication and allows the player to build meaning from the game. Players expect certain things about of the gamespace and the game itself has many rules that keep play cohesive. When there is a place in Zelda where a narrative is left unresolved or where a space in a game does not seem to have a point, rather than thinking the game is broken, players look for an expected reaction simply because they are expecting meaningful play. In my typology I noted that some secrets have the capacity to expand gameplay or expand narrative. Therefore when narrative or gameplay are left seemingly unresolved in Ocarina, players attempt to fill in the blanks by finding secrets. Let us look at some rules that guide the secrets of Ocarina:

Example 1: As a rule, every door in Zelda opens to reveal a room. Doors are never for decoration. Therefore, when a certain door in Kakariko village appears impossible to reach players look for a way to get around obstacles and enter the door and find the surprise (a secret potion shop)

Example 2: Players are told that butterflies often lead to fun surprises, If one runs around an area with a butterfly, often one falls down through the ground and into a grotto full of treasure.

Example 3: The fish guru tells players that there is a legendary Hylian Loach in the fishing hole but it is probably impossible to catch (being legendary and all.) Persistent and very lucky players will catch the loach even though it was said to be impossible.

What these examples show is that when players are told about something in the gamespace they expect there is a solution to finding it. This tells us why my false secret worked on players. If the game sets up expectations for a secret, then when one presents a method by which to obtain this secret that conforms to the ideas of meaningful play the secret becomes believable. Therefore the fact that Ocarina briefly refers to a sky temple and that there was a Triforce-shaped entry on a screen opens up the possibility of a hidden journey on a winged horse. In that sense, parts of my secret map to expectations the game sets up and, as such, seem probable. Players are led to believe, by the otherwise meaningful play the game engages in, that there must be a secret way to resolve the unfinished plot points or pieces of gameplay.

What we can draw from this however is a pattern of player experience. Players I have interviewed about their experience with this game cited that they wanted to find everything in the world and master the space. When places were found, the world changed, so effectively players, in their search for secrets, were trying to remap the world. Gamer Steven Busey reminisces "everything in Zelda changes when you find a secret so you want to find them all and then find all the makes the world grow." It is significant that Busey connects the growth of the gameworld to the flux in gamespace. He acknowledges that secrets are connected to the over all rules of the game world. Thus in playing with secrets one is modifying the rules of the game. These Rule modifications are taken a step further with the engagement of glitches in Zelda.

Kristina Drzaic

University of Notre Dame, BA Film, Television and Theater, 2005

As an undergraduate Drzaic pursued a major in film because she found the combination of narrative and image a compelling way to transmit ideas. She is interested in how media presents an image, how it sustains an audience, and what makes it memorable. During her undergraduate years Drzaic produced an award-winning film and numerous video shorts. Additionally her interests led her to write and publish an undergraduate thesis exploring how the un-winnable electronic game might sustain game play through the framework of early cinema history.

While at CMS Drzaic has continued her research on un-winnable games, game secrets and game-breaking. Drzaic led the winning team in the 2006 Sony IAP Workshop with a game focusing on the experience of being a National Geographic photographer. Currently she is engaged in designing mobile math games for the Education Arcade.