Hey Clint, great article. I’ll preface by saying I haven’t played this game yet, but I am very familiar with Zelda and the Nintendo way of doing things. I think you make some great points in this piece, but there’s one point that confuses me a bit:
“Every designer has, I suspect, at one point or another found themselves fighting a losing argument with prophylaxis, unable to convey to a non-designer why the tangible negative they are feeling is more than worth it for the multitude of intangibles gained, or even for the many tangible downsides avoided in the tradeoff.”
Genuinely, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “non-designer. That aside, I’m not sure what you mean by “losing argument with prophylaxis” but I don’t necessarily think a game designer should even feel capable of arguing about the “side effects” of a particular implementation, even if there’s a positive trade-off. The design itself must be able to speak alone, since each copy of the game doesn’t ship with an engineer to tell you why each inconvenient part of the game is there. If the designer wishes to provide a disclaimer, then it sounds like the design needs to be reworked. The best design never needs an explanation.
I think there are comparisons to be drawn between game design and New Criticism in literary theory. In New Criticism, you judge only the words and how they stand alone. You don’t worry yourself with trying to understand the author’s meaning or the work’s context in a greater body of literature. Every reader is equipped to interpret the book simply by knowing how to read, because a book has impact to each individual at the time of reading.
I similarly think that in game design the game must be able to speak alone and without context. If someone picks up Breath of the Wild and has never played a video game before, they won’t understand the contrast of its inventory or open world system against anything else. They will still however feel the common annoyance that many players feel towards the new durability and inventory systems (disclaimer again: I haven’t played it yet). Even though there are good reasons for these systems existing and playing well together (i.e. durability, inventory management, and throwing work together to create a combat mechanic), does that still justify their presence if the overall effect is mild inconvenience? Particularly, I find the ultimate “payoff” to sound a bit lackluster — a double combo on a weapon’s final strike? While that sounds rewarding and fun to pull off once or twice, does it truly justify the way the mechanics are constructed?
A throwing mechanic is fun. No argument needed, it’s additional gameplay at little to no drawback.
Limited inventory management and items breaking are less fun. Some people don’t want to organize stuff, but no one likes to lose something they’re using. “Fantasy over realism” as a design maxim is endemic to Zelda games (and Nintendo overall), so why not let the player off easy on these mechanics, too?
Instead, faced with these annoying issues, wouldn’t that be an invitation (or a warning flag) to approach the inventory management system a different way, or dial back the consequences? Just based off of what you’ve described, it sounds like slightly adjusting the durability amounts could relieve most sources of annoyance in these systems.
Once again, great article!