The puzzle structure of Ocarina of Time

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1. Introduction

This article analyzes the structure of the puzzles in the Nintendo 64 video game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

2. Overall structure

Ocarina of Time is structured around the opening of new areas of the game and the acquisition of tools. There is in theory an activity of finding plot tokens: the three spiritual stones and the five medallions of the sages. But that’s not really how it works. It’s not in general the acquisition of new plot tokens that opens up new areas of the game, but instead it’s the acquisition of new tools. For example, you don’t need to complete Dodongo’s Cavern (by beating the boss) in order to progress to Zora’s Domain; you just need the bomb bag that you get by defeating the mini-boss.

Figure 1 shows the items and songs that you acquire during the course of the game, and the places that you gain access to. Plot tokens (items that have no use except to advance the plot) are in sharp-cornered boxes; items which have other uses are in round-cornerned boxes.

Figure 1. Item dependencies in Ocarina of Time. Item dependencies in Ocarina of Time.

When box A is above box B and connected to it by a line then you can’t get item B without having first got item A. This usually means that item A needed to be used in order to get to the place where item B is found, but in a few cases it means that you can’t fail to acquire item A before item B. When there are several items above another and connected to it then all are required. When there are alternative solutions these are indicated with dashed lines; for example at one point in the acquisition of the mirror shield you need to light some torches; this can be done either with Din’s Fire spell or with fire arrows. Places are written in blue and connected to the items you need to possess in order to visit that place.

Most of the side quests have been omitted (golden skulltulas, ammunition power-ups, big poes, bottles, stone of agony, heart pieces, etc) and the ones present have been simplified, notably the masks and Biggoron’s sword. Bombchu are needed once (in the Spirit Temple) but not shown.

The game is narrow to begin with: there is little flexibility about the order you do things in, and few places to visit. Later on, the game is wide: there is a lot of flexibility: you can have as many as four temples on the go at one time, plus many side quests. The narrow beginning is suitable for beginners (and the narrowness extends to the first dungeon; see below) because it means that the most important things about the game can be learned one at a time. The sudden widening of accessible places that occurs when you reach Hyrule Field (five new areas to explore) makes the world feel very large, but the game remains narrow as apart from playing mini-games the only thing to do is to visit the castle and meet Princess Zelda. The real widening of the game occurs somewhat later. This means that a player could become lost, unsure which of the many apparent choices is the right one to tackle. Hence the need for navigational assistance: frequent reminders from Navi of what to do next, and an indication on the world map of where to go next.

There are a few long dependencies in this graph: tools you can get early in the game which have a use late in the game (for example, Epona’s Song can be gained quite early, but Epona herself not until much later. However, almost all of these long dependencies are optional: you can complete the game without getting these items (though their lack might make the game much harder). This means that the player can’t ever get completely stuck by missing something early on. This was probably a deliberate design decision, but it might have been a consequence of play-testing: each time a tester discovered that you can get to place A without necessary item B, an alternative solution was added. (However, one long dependency is not optional: you need the the magic meter, available after Dodongo’s Cavern, and either Din’s Fire or the fire arrows, because a source of fire is needed later, in the Spirit and Shadow temples.)

These long dependencies help to make the plot come together in the player’s mind. They introduce suprising solutions to puzzles, and make the world seem interconnected, but because they are optional they won’t cause a player who misses them to become stuck.

Most dungeons are designed so that you cannot enter it unless you have all the tools you need for its solution. (There are a couple of exceptions: you can enter the Water Temple without the bow and the Shadow Temple without the lens of truth.)

3. Puzzles

Puzzles in Ocarina of Time fall into these categories:

and combinations of these.

3.1. Tool capabilities

Most of the tools have several functions. Typically, one function of the tool helps you defeat some variety of monster; and another allows you to travel to new places in the game. For example, the bow and arrow can be used to kill monsters from a distance, especially useful with annoying monsters such as the Like Like. But it also opens certain doors. In a few cases the second function is a consequence of the first. For example, in the Deku Tree you need to get the slingshot because you can’t climb the wall with the Skulltulas on it without being knocked down by the skulltulas. You have to kill them with the slingshot first.

Leaning to use a tool means:

Some puzzles involve introducing an unexpected new capability for a tool later in the game. For example, the Song of Time opens the door in the Temple of Time. Later on it can be used to make blocks with the time symbol appear and disappear. Some tools work differently when you’re an adult, forcing you to solve a puzzle in a different way. For example, the Hylian shield completely covers young Link, making him invulnerable to the falling rocks on Death Mountain. But adult Link only holds the shield out in front of him, so he has to escape the rocks by running.

Each new tool gives an incentive for the player to look at all the places they have been to see if the tool makes something newly accessible. For example, on acquiring the bomb bag, many places previously closed off become accessible: Zora’s Domain, the top of Death Mountain, a room in the Deku Tree, a fairy fountain near the castle, several hidden caves under boulders, and so on. Thus the world needs to be explored several times. This helps the player to build up their mental map of the game world. Luckily, this isn’t carried to extremes: the later in the game a tool is acquired, the fewer uses it has. For example, the golden gauntlets can be used only three times. So although you might worry that you’re missing something because (say) you haven’t gone around the whole map looking for places you can use the hover boots, in fact you haven’t missed anything of importance.

3.2. Ammunition

Ammunition must always be available in rooms where you are trapped and have to solve a puzzle to escape, otherwise the player could become stuck by entering the room and using up all their ammunition. This is usually done by having regenerating sources of the required tools nearby, for example deku babas can be killed in two different ways to produce either deku sticks or deku nuts; then they regrow.

3.3. Reading the environment

The environment has to indicate the approach to take to solve a puzzle. This is done by consistent use of textures, icons, objects to indicate what to do:

The player is carefuly taught to read the environment. When a tool is acquired, there is generally a basic puzzle using that tool immediately afterwards. For example, when you get the slingshot the first thing you have to do is to escape from the room by shooting something with it.

The strong prompting of action by the environment has three main consequences:

4. Dungeon structure

Dungeons are structured around the opening of new areas. Each one begins with a small number of accessible areas and ends with all areas accessible. New areas become available by

4.1. Dungeon puzzle diagrams

This section contains several diagrams showing the puzzle structure of dungeons. Boxes with rounded corners are puzzles; boxes with sharp corners are items acquired; dotted boxes are conditions or prerequisites. If box A is above box B and connected to it by a line, then the puzzle in box A must be solved (or the item acquired) before the puzzle in box B can be tackled. The dashed arrows indicate changes in the water level in the dungeon, which in turn change the areas of the dungeon that are accessible.

The diagrams for dungeons from Ocarina of Time are prepared with the help of the guides at www.zhq2.com/guides/ and the maps at unlimitedgamer.net/loz-oot.php?nav=coverage/oot/maps.htm.

4.2. Good shape, bad shape

A flat structure with a lot of choice makes players uncertain about what they are supposed to do next, and means that they lack any feeling of accomplishment as they go along, because each achievement doesn’t lead on to anything. A narrow structure with little choice makes players feel that they aren’t are just following the plot set out by the game designer, and not accomplishing anything themselves. See figure 2.

Figure 2. Dungeon structures, good and bad. Dungeon structures, good and bad.

4.3. Small keys

Small keys are interchangable (any key fits any lock) and are used up after use. This means that a dungeon can offer choice (if there are more accessible locked doors than the player currently has keys) with consequences (having chosen one door, the player can’t go back and choose the other door; or at least not until getting another small key).

Not all dungeons offer this choice: some just use the locked doors to prevent the dungeon being too wide. For example, in the Water Temple the six locked doors must be opened in the same order every time the level is played.

Some care has to be taken to avoid the possibility that the dungeon might become unsolvable if the player makes the wrong choice. This means that, at least early in the dungeon, each door that’s unlocked with one small key must make accessible another. See figure 3.

Figure 3. Dungeons with small keys. Figure 3. Dungeons with small keys.

In dungeon A, the player solves puzzle A to get a small key. The intended solution is that the player uses that key to access puzzle C, the solution to which reveals the second small key, which can be used to access puzzle B and so puzzle D and the end. However, the player might choose to access puzzle B instead of puzzle C; in this case no further progress is possible. The dungeon can be repaired by making another small key available after solving puzzle B. This change results in dungeon B.

4.4. Deku Tree

The Deku Tree is the simplest dungeon in Ocarina of Time; figure 4 is a graph of its puzzles.

Figure 4. Deku Tree puzzle structure. Deku Tree puzzle structure

There is essentially only one order in which the puzzles can be solved. The order of puzzles corresponds closely to the order in which sections of the dungeon must be visited. This can be seen by overlaying the puzzle graph onto a map of the dungeon, as shown in figure 5. These constraints are appropriate to the first dungeon of the game.

Figure 5. Deku Tree map with puzzle structure. (Large version) Deku Tree map with puzzle structure

4.5. Water Temple

The Water Temple is perhaps the most complex of the dungeons in Ocarina of Time; figure 6 is a graph of its puzzles.

Figure 6. Water Temple puzzle structure. Water Temple puzzle stucture

None of the individual puzzles is hard; the difficulty of the dungeon is almost entirely in the navigation. This can be illustrated by superimposing the puzzle graph onto the dungeon map, with each puzzle in its approximate location; see figure 7. Several short sequences of puzzles appear as vertical columns in the chart above and in linked rooms in the map below. But the connections between these groups of puzzles are quite haphazard: there is no sense in which the puzzles you can tackle at each stage of the level are grouped together.

Several other features of the dungeon add to the navigational difficulty:

These make it almost impossible to build up a coherent mental model of the dungeon.

Figure 7. Water Temple map and puzzle structure. (Large version) Water Temple map and puzzle structure

4.6. Boss shortcuts

In most dungeons, there is a short path from the dungeon entrance to the boss room. This is closed to start with, but in the course of completing the dungeon the player opens it up; it might be a passage that has to be opened by solving some puzzle (like the cobwebs across the floor in the Deku Tree) or a route that becomes available when the dungeon’s new tool is acquired (like the longshot in the Water Temple). This quick route means that a player who dies in the course of fighting the boss (which is likely to happen several times) and is therefore sent back to the entrance doesn’t have a long slog to get back to the boss.

The Shadow Temple is the sole exception to this rule.