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Realism vs. Style: the Zelda Debate 441

Bonnie Ruberg is a staff writer for Planet GameCube and Gaming Age, a freelance games journalist, and the author of Heroine Sheik, a blog dedicated to investigating sexuality in gaming cultures. Today, we have the pleasure of running a piece she's written for the site about a topic that's been brought up more than once in the comments here on Slashdot. "For Zelda fans, this is a time of anticipation. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is officially on its way, and everybody is talking. By now, we've all seen the pre-release screenshots and videos. Nintendo has made some major changes with the series' latest installment, and the gaming world has let out a unanimous gasp at the results." Read on for the rest of her analysis of this oft-debated issue.
"Realism vs. Style: the Zelda Debate"
By Bonnie Ruberg

With the stylized aesthetic of Wind Waker all but gone, Nintendo has implemented carefully rendered, highly realistic polygons in its place - perhaps in response to the outcry of fans who disapproved of "kiddy," cel-shaded Link. The game's release date has even been pushed back in part to allow developers more time to perfect the new look. The question of realism versus style is one that has plagued art for centuries, and video games are no exception. Since the 2003 release of Wind Waker, a title both adored and despised, the Zelda series has come to epitomize that debate for the gaming industry, and heated words have been exchanged on both sides. Now, with Twilight Princess on the horizon, the old argument has been rekindled. What better time to take a look back at the issue and ask, once and for all: Is this really just a question of a pretty face?

When The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker came out two years ago, it's cel-shaded graphics caused a big stir in the American gaming community. Since then, debate over the value of the game's stylized aesthetic continues to be a popular topic in online video game forums. While there are some gamers who openly defend the title and its style, it seems the majority of voices express disappointment, even disgust. Many feel that the cel-shading gave Wind Waker a "cartoon-like" or childish look. One fan writes of encountering the new aesthetic for the first time, "I felt as though something had been stolen from me." Other forums-users remark, in comments that mirror thousands by like-minded gamers, "The graphics ruined the game," and "[Wink Waker] destroyed everything Zelda stood for." Now that Nintendo is taking the series back in a more graphically realistic direction, one precedented by the artistic approach in Ocarina of Time, those same disappointed fans are starting to rejoice. "These screens are exactly what i have been waiting for [sic]," writes one forum-user. Another: "All I can say is wow!!! I am so glad the cartoonish Link is gone. That is what kept me away from the whole Zelda franchise."

The press too seems glad to see the return of realism. After playing the demo at E3, Gamespy called the change in graphics an "upgrade," noting that "the overall style is a lot more grownup" and that "the game simply looks more alive." Gaming Age said realism "seals the deal" on the title, which is "by far one of the best looking games Nintendo has ever made," while Gamespot simply refers to "the undeniable appeal of realistic Link." According to Eiji Aunoma, the director of Twilight Princess, the decision to move away from the highly stylized aesthetic of Wind Waker was based partially on fan reaction. It was also dictated in part by the new game's storyline, which follows an older Link and a more serious adventure, and therefore needed a more "adult" graphical style. Still, even this decision to focus the game on a mature hero was affected by criticism from gamers who didn't enjoy playing as younger Link. As Planet GameCube notes, in the end, "The fans asked for a realistic Zelda, and Nintendo is delivering in a big way."

While it's understandable that players would have opinions about the looks of a favorite game, the debate over the aesthetics of Zelda has gone beyond friendly banter. What makes the topic so important that gamers just can't let it go? It's not really all about looks. If Zelda weren't Zelda, no one would make such a big fuss. As it stands, the series has so strong a fan-base, full of so many die-hard followers, that it has come, in a way, to represent video games as a whole, if not the industry itself. This makes the question of realism versus style in Zelda a much larger one than if it were applied to an unpopular, or even moderately well-known game. The issue has been further complicated by Zelda's close association with Nintendo, which struggles constantly with its already "kiddy" image. While the developers of Wind Waker made an artistically bold decision in utilizing cel-shading, their choice may have weakening Nintendo's mainstream image - one which must remain welcoming to adult gamers if the company is to compete against Sony and Microsoft in the current market.

But for the video game community, the question of aesthetics is also a cultural one. Whereas, in the Japanese market, unique style is highly regarded, realism in games is more often an American ideal. This can be seen in the supposedly negative link that critical gamers draw between Wind Waker's cel-shading, officially called "toon-shading" by Nintendo, and cartoons themselves - considered by most Americans to be a juvenile form of entertainment. Yet in Japan, anime and manga (the Japanese equivalents of cartoon shows and comic books) are regarded as legitimate art forms, and though some are designed for children, men and women of all ages enjoy these products, which lack the "kiddy" connotations they hold in the United States. Similarly, the gender expectations that are so rigid in mainstream America are not as clearly defined in Japanese culture. Japanese gamers are less concerned with appearing "masculine," at least in the American sense of reveling in games that flex their graphical muscle. The comments of U. S. gamers, especially those participating in forums, are influenced by the need to protect a certain macho image, one in favor of "grownup" realism instead of "childish" stylization.

The larger question at hand, however, is perhaps unanswerable: Is the point of gaming to recreate reality, or should it go beyond realism, into the realm of art? Video games confront this issue directly through the use of interactivity. Developers must decide whether to make a gaming experience as realistic as possible, allowing the gamer to step inside the character and his actions, or to keep him at a distance through an unfamiliar visual style. Certain types of games logically benefit from an inclusive aesthetic; racing and fighting titles rely on increasingly robust graphics technology to bring you more believable interactivity. With other categories of games, such as action-adventure, the genre into which the Zelda series falls, the decision isn't so clear. Neither is who makes the call: Should it be the developers/creators/artists themselves, or the game's fanbase, its potential consumers? If gamers demand graphical prowess in a quality game, as their response to both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess implies they do, they also have to face the possibility that all games, if rendered as realistically as possible, may soon look the same - not so much art as playable photographs of the world around them. Then they must ask themselves, honestly, whether or not that's a bad thing.

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Realism vs. Style: the Zelda Debate

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  • a vote for realism (Score:2, Interesting)

    by amrust ( 686727 ) <marcrust.gmail@com> on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @02:19PM (#13491634) Homepage
    I'm excited enough about the new "realistic" Zelda I've even considered a Gamecube pruchase for it (can't justify it yet). I wish Ninetndo would port this to other consoles like PS2.
  • by MrAnnoyanceToYou ( 654053 ) <dylan.dylanbrams@com> on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @02:22PM (#13491665) Homepage Journal
    Sony and Microsoft are fighting a war to dominate the living room, Nintendo is making great toys for adults and children. There's a marked difference between the two strategies. While more realism is a move towards the current market, I like to think that Nintendo is going to last while Sony and Microsoft are going to sputter out... Perhaps I'm just idealistic in thinking customers don't WANT the complete dominance of a single appliance M$ and Sony are aiming for.
  • Very general? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Epistax ( 544591 ) <epistax&gmail,com> on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @02:24PM (#13491687) Journal
    Every game is different. The mood that is being established dictates the drawing style. Beyond that, it's not a matter of drawing style preference, it's a matter of mood preference. Serious will be realistic. Funny/comic will often be unrealistic (that's not to say low quality). This realistic/unrealistic is obviously JUST THE GRAPHICS. Everything else is quite variable.
  • I feel cheated. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sakusha ( 441986 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @02:40PM (#13491863)
    The article's first paragraph promised juicy discussion of sexuality in gaming. But there wasn't one single mention of sex, it's just a stupid, boring discussion about rendering styles.
  • by unfortunateson ( 527551 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @02:42PM (#13491890) Journal
    I'll take style over realism when the style contributes to the storytelling and enjoyment of the tale.

    I started reading comics in the late 70's/early 80's, and realism was big then. Artists such as Neal Adams (all over Marvel and DC), John Byrne (X-Men), Jim Layton (Iron Man), etc. had taken over from the 60's stylized art of Kirby, and Ditko (Aparo, Swan, Steranko and others sort of spanned the fence between aping an old style and trying for the new realism).

    Then, suddenly, there were stylists that blew my mind: Bill Sinkiewicz' wild line style (Moon Knight, Stray Toasters), Mike Mignola's world-devouring blacks (Corum, Hellboy), Walt Simonson's angular structure (Thor), Howard Chaykin's zip-a-tone (American Flagg!, Black Kiss)... I could go on and on... oh, yeah, Frank Miller too.

    But for every thing there is a season: sometimes the realistic style works better: Art Ross' painterly style works well for grand epics. Brent Anderson's realism works for Astro City's interaction with the real world, and sometimes a Jim Lee crisp and clean can be a relief.

    But this is gaming we're talking about. Sometimes a 64-pixel sprite makes a fun game. Certainly the original Zelda can't be considered realistic. I thought that games such as Wind Waker and Paper Mario were innovative in their use of graphics, and should be applauded.

    But the market does rule this sort of thing. If *everybody* wants realism, that's what will be made. If 10% of the market wants some cool style, well, sometimes, they'll get ridden roughshod over.
  • by CrimsonSamurai ( 912915 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @03:15PM (#13492215)
    Interesting point here. This morning I watched some video interviews with Gabe Newell, and it sounds like making games for the PS3 is going to be a nightmare, with the asymetrical cores. Also you can't make XBOX360 games hard drive dependant at all, because of Microsoft's stupid decision to make the hard drive optional. The Revolution looks to be the easiest to make games for at this point, since the programming method is supposed to be very similar to Gamecube.
  • Re:False dichotomy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Jeremy.DeGroot ( 878927 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @03:24PM (#13492317)
    Yeah, but he cheated by using a semicolon. He should really only get credit for doing it in two.

    It's my feeling that the visual style ought to suit the mood of the game. Lighting, graphical style, music selections, etc should all complement the atmosphere that the game is trying to create. Metroid Prime would have been a VERY different experience had they gone with cel shading, for instance. Everything in Metroid was, to me, done just right and worked together ver well. On the other hand, Mario Tennis should not be photorealistic. It's a fun, goofy game, and the visuals should support that motif.

    As for Zelda? The franchise has never firmly come down on the side of a gritty serious atmosphere a la the Prince of Persia franchise, but it's also never committed to being totally mirthful either. The motif changes from game to game, and even within some games in the series. I thought the Wind Waker looked very crisp and artistically appealing (disclaimer: I never played Wind Waker as college has seriously cut into my gaming), and I think that this new Zelda looks just as good. It sounds like the graphical choice was made to support the style and the atmosphere, which along with gameplay is what the experience is really all about. I plan to play through the Wind Waker eventually, and I'm sure I'll pick up this game at some point too.
  • by DroopyStonx ( 683090 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @03:40PM (#13492511)
    When it boils down to it, the game needs to be challenging and fun.

    Wind Waker wasn't kiddie because of it's graphics, IMO, but because there wasn't any challenge to it compared to its predecessors. It felt very dumbed down.

    I didn't mind the cell-shading at all. To be honest, I don't care WHAT the game looks like, hell, it could have the 16-bit overhead style - just give it some worthy CONTENT.

    Games these days focus too much on eye candy, which ultimately ends up taking away from content.

    In the end, the success of the new Zelda won't be on how it looks, but whether or not it's an ACTUAL sequel that fits what Zelda really is: tons of dungeons filled with CHALLENGING puzzles that get progressively harder as the game goes on.
  • by rAiNsT0rm ( 877553 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @03:43PM (#13492554) Homepage
    I know everyone's pocketbook is different, but a used GC at EB/GStop is $59.00. I traded in a few crappy PS2 titles and got mine for $6.00.

    I've since traded in a bunch of stale PS2 titles and have Mario Party 5, Donkey Konga 2 w/bongo's, Starfox Adventures, Puyo Pop, Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, and Luigi's Mansion for a total investment of about $60 including the system.

    That's about the cost of just one new title, and I have had more FUN with the GC than I've had with my PS2 in years.
  • Re:Typical Nintendo (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wandazulu ( 265281 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @04:11PM (#13492851)
    I agree with you...the game that has surprised me the most in complexity and depth is ... wait for it... Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life. Cute graphics, a title worthy of any Hallmark card, but *not* an easy game to play and play well. There are a lot of websites that give tips and tricks, and they're worthy of a massive game like Everquest in the number of possibilities.

    Meanwhile, I've got a *very* complex game that I can play with my 4yo daughter who loves brushing the cows while I'm pouring over multiple PDFs and websites trying to figure out how to get Nami to like me.

    Realistic graphics, cell-shaded graphics, hell, I'd play a game made entirely of stick figures if it was *fun*. Come to think of it, Alien Hominid doesn't win any "realism" points, but the game is a lot of fun and has a cool look too.
  • by argent ( 18001 ) <peter&slashdot,2006,taronga,com> on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @04:21PM (#13492962) Homepage Journal
    It's not (just) the difference between the IQs each cartoon markets to, it's simply smoother, better graphics which look as though they took more than five minutes of effort and three years of age to create.

    The graphics in Wind Walker are brilliant. They're smooth, fast, and technically demanding. They're not trying to emulate Pixar or the latest SIGGRAPH output, but they used the latest technologies in a whole new way. The sylized smoke and simulated cels are just as hard to do right as the painstakingly rendered dirt and grime in Half Life.

    These aren't "low quality" in any sense. They're just a more subtle kind of quality than you're used to. Yes, it's "toony", but it's compellingly toony... it's not "toony because it's all we can do", it's "toony because it's hard to do well".
  • Profits... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Draconix ( 653959 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @04:46PM (#13493211)
    I like a lot of what Nintendo tries to do, but they certainly lost in the last round. Actually, the funny thing is, it didn't. Nintendo continued profiting off its GC related products pretty much the entire time. Microsoft's Xbox gaming division never pulled an overall profit, and Sony's console gaming division didn't start profiting until recently. Nintendo's 'slow and steady' approach may not be making them much of a competitor against Sony and Microsoft, but it is keeping Nintendo healthy, and profitable, and that's what really matters in the end. It looks like they're taking the wise approach: let the fools invest billions onto trying desparately to have better specs than each other, and just concentrate on making a solid, inexpensive console that enough people will buy to make a profit from it.
  • by CDMA_Demo ( 841347 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @05:25PM (#13493631) Homepage
    The interesting thing about both Zelda and Final Fantasy is that they are games with large fan following, and they are constantly building up on that by releasing new versions with better graphics, better movies, better music and better this that. But what these developers fail to realize is that sometimes playing a video game is like reading a comic book. If you make it real, like make a movie out of X-Men, you take away that "thing" from the comic. You don't use your imagination anymore in a movie, or in a really real game.

    There is also this thing with character voices. When I play a game full of text dialogues like Final Fantasy VII, I assign a voice to the characters that I feel suits them. In newer games they destroy that feeling and give them a voice that doesn't suit them as much. The way things happen in games claiming "more realism" destroys that little private thing betweem the gamer and the game, and introduces a third person's assumptions out of nowhere.

    Then there is this whole issue of "realism" when it has to do with "reality". You keep trying to make the physics better, the flames real, the sky blue and the grass green, and spend hundreds of man/woman-hours perfecting these little things. I say, its great but what comes out of it? These are just tools to coy the publisher into thinking that the customers really want this game and will want to but the game because of its awesome graphics and its beautiful physics and AI. But what they forget is that reality isn't what makes us play a game. Its the reality that we usually want to go away from when we are playing a video game. If you make everything perfectly real, it just becomes a simulation of our world with some added effects. Thats so cruel!!!
  • by The Last Gunslinger ( 827632 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @06:47PM (#13494407)
    Seriously, most people who played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time really enjoyed the game, despite the fact that the characters were "stylized" in a quasi-cartoonish manner. That didn't distract them from the fact that there was great character development and engaging gameplay, which made it a favorite.

    Then along came Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, and this very debate exploded. Yes, the game had an engaging storyline and phenomenal graphics, but the artistic direction had taken a darker, grittier, more realistic tone. Some people loved it (myself included), and some people absolutely hated it, but the response from Ubi was great: The prince himself was older, jaded, and in a much darker place in his life than when he was in the previous game.

    Those things being said...the graphical styling is really secondary. So long as they are well done, it's the game play that makes people give a shit about the character enough to spend a dozen hours with them and consider buying the next chapter.
  • by HazukiRyo ( 721883 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2005 @09:46PM (#13495803)
    I kind of doubt that the "majority" were opposed to the style, at least of the people who played the game. People who actually tried the game and still ranted and raved about how the style was terrible are, firstly, imbeciles, and secondly, likely teenagers who were raised on The Ocarina of Time (which was a great game, but it shouldn't be cited as the ultimate example of what Zelda is "supposed to" look like).

    The people who said that Wind Waker "destroyed Zelda" need a good reality check--go look at Miyamoto's own artwork for the first Zelda; not just the sprites in the game--Miyamoto's own art, his original artistic concept of what he wanted the game to be like. What do you see? A short, little "cartoonish" Link.

    Play A Link to the Past on the SNES, and pay attention to the visual style. Then go play Wind Waker. Most people should be able to tell that Wind Waker has a lot in common with A Link to the Past visually--it's kind of like A Link to the Past in 3D.

    Miyamoto has said that at first he attempted to do cel-shading on Ocarina of Time, but the N64 hardware simply couldn't handle it.

    People need to recognize that Wind Waker was the fulfillment of what Miyamoto had been aiming for for nearly 20 years, and people who condemn him for that artistic decision should not call themselves fans of the Zelda series. They may be "fans" of Ocarina of Time, but having played only the N64 Zeldas does not make one an expert on what a Zelda game "should" be.

    Regarding the issue of realism vs. style, I have to say that it bothers me that the only concerns in the tech demos so far for the next generation consoles so far have been how realistic everything will be able to look. I guess it's true that Sony and MS both did that the last time around, and there have still been some "artistic" styles used (even from Sony itself, as in the case of ICO and the upcomg Shadow of the Colossus).

    It's definitely a cultural thing, though. I bought DS and GameCube games all summer at my local EB, and every single time, I was either laughed at or insulted by the guy working there, because I was buying "kiddie games".

    I was in GameStop a while back, and was talking to the guy at the register (who in all fairness was a nice guy), and he thought it was cool that I was buying Star Fox 64 (used, of course), and said that he was ready to break down and buy a GameCube because of Zelda (Twilight Princess). I didn't bother to ask why, if he was apparently so into Zelda, he hadn't already bought a GameCube for Wind Waker, because I already knew the answer to that one.

    It's sad that Nintendo feels the need to compromise its artistic style for the sake of satisfying spoiled American kids, but I guess it doesn't really make any difference. Twilight Princess does look great, both graphically and...well, in terms of being a great game. It does concern me, though, that in the next generation, we'll see fewer developers willing to take a risk on a style that's more artistic than realistic. I think that Wind Waker's style fit the Zelda series perfectly (moreso, I daresay, than Ocarina of Time's did), and I hope that we haven't seen the last of it.

"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." -- Will Rogers