A Flower On A Step – The Pointlessness of Nintendo

Posted by Simon on August 18, 2014

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“Stop!”, shouted my wife. “You need that!”

We’d been playing The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker HD for about an hour, working through Dragon Roost Island – the first real dungeon – between evening snacks and a squealing baby. Some time before this, my son had wanted to hear his sister’s “song”, which of course is Ballad Of The Goddess from the 25th Anniversary CD Symphony Of The Goddesses, a beautiful collection of orchestral versions of the series’ famous themes. This had led to him dressing in his Wind Waker hallowe’en costume from a few years ago (what was once a low loose tunic is now almost a t-shirt), dancing around our apartment, beating all the cushions into submission.

We’d played a little bit of the game before his bedtime, but the scattered skulls and lava jets were a little too much for him, so once he was soundly asleep, my wife and I ventured onward into the fiery depths. As we moved towards our ultimate goal – a grumpy dragon with a bad case of giant-tail-eating-insect – we had to skirt up around the outside edge of the hill with nothing but the blues of sky and sea framing Link on both sides. Up to that point, we had settled into the sweetspot that had seen us so well through Shadow Of The Colossus; I control the action, she smashes the puzzles wide open with her +1 cognitive prowess. It’s a great balance, and a wonderful thing to actually have interest in a game from someone who really doesn’t see their attraction.

So, the flower on the step really caused some confusion for her.

The canvas of video game worlds often falls into a steady pattern where the background is a collection of repeated shapes and textures, with any item superimposed on top instantly brought to the player’s attention as an important pick-up for plot progression. Lazy, perhaps, but arguably an effective tool for pushing the player forever forward. In fact, so much of game design is about function that there rarely seems to be any item, or action, that doesn’t exist purely to achieve a function. The moments where something pointless is inserted – say, Vanquish‘s cigarette smoking or the God Hand protagonist dancing to the game’s surf rock soundtrack if you leave him alone for too long – are slivers of gleeful pleasure in a medium usually so intent on meaningful progression.

The flower is small and white with a yellow circle nestled in the middle of the petals. It is sat close to the wall in the nook between two of the steps, tiny green leaves spreading up and down where they can. Link passes it as he emerges from the top of a rock-topped lava spurt, the call of an enemy bird mocking his approach from its nest on an outcrop by the next door. It’s easy to miss it as you close in for the next attack; in fact, I did. It was my wife who noticed it and called me back after I’d dispatched the bird and collected the necessary key from its nest.

We maneuvered Link over the flower for a few minutes, each step gently brushing the single bloom left and right. “It must do something,” she said. “Why else would it be there?” But, of course, the flower did nothing except twitch in the wind and in the end we left it behind. I didn’t see another one. In the days since we completed that dungeon, that moment has continued to stick in my mind. It’s a testament to the generic structure of so many adventure games, where sometimes the useful items don’t just only stand out but have to strobe just in case you dare ignore them. Having something so pointless just isn’t that common in an design environment where time is money and every line of code must reflect that need for profit.

It’s important to note here that pointless does not mean useless, and this distinction seems to be understood by Nintendo more than any other game maker. Their games are so full of life and style and this comes not just from the each title’s main attractions, but from everything around them. Tiny butterflies flutter in Super Mario 3D World; Thwomps crinkle up their eyes as they attempt to crush you in Mario Kart 8; a departed neighbour sends you a farewell letter in Animal Crossing: A New Leaf. Little flourishes like this breathe life into a digital construction, giving us a sense of fullness where other titles merely settle for a flood of focused activities and checkpoints. Nintendo takes the time to add wrinkles to the canvas, knowing that’s how we experience our own lives; every grand campaign is underpinned by a million observations, random instances, and chance happenings. It would be great if other developers followed suit and gave us more pointless things to stumble on.

These tiny signs of life persevere in the memory. I’ve got a long way to journey in Wind Waker, but what I found on the steps will remain alive in the world with as much tangibility as the characters I left behind when I first sailed away from my home village. Valoo sits happily at the the peak of Dragon Roost Island now, calling me a hero after I dispatched the troublesome beast hurting his tail. And just outside his door, the tiny flower will carry on fluttering in the wind.

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