The Legend of Zelda taught me everything I need to know about UX

For better or worse

I miss the days when video games assumed their players possessed a modicum of intelligence and common sense. These days, elaborate tutorials sap the fun out of the early levels of modern games, repeatedly prodding users with instructions and tips as if we possessed the mental acumen of a stack of cinder blocks.

You begin Zelda in a clearing. There’s a cave ahead. Seems like a prudent place to explore. Should you do so, you’re rewarded with a wooden sword, a necessary tool in the land of Hyrule. Take some initiative, and you’ve got yourself a bit of positive feedback.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you happen to stumble into a spider or the projectile of an Octorok, your character blinks and makes a sound you would only assume a distressed rabbit were capable of. One too many miscues and you’re greeted with a grating alarm, which only subsides when you acquire a heart or an untimely death. That’s your negative feedback.

Throughout Hyrule, once you’ve done enough exploring, you’ll come across a series of dungeons. Once you step inside, the dungeons are labeled by number in the display, increasing in difficulty as they do in number. Upon exploring these dungeons, the areas you’ve explored are revealed in a map, and if you’re fortunate enough to find one, there are fully revealed maps hidden throughout each dungeon. In each, the dungeon’s boss is indicated by a dot on the map, giving the player an indication of where they need to go.

If you’ve ever worked with user flows, you’re giving a general direction of the paths a user will take in a series of steps. And in the case of wireframes, you’re fleshing out what each of those steps are. While roughly analagous to the maps and visual cues you might see in Zelda, there are exceptions.

Zelda is full of dark patterns. When we see dark patterns in user interfaces, they’re usually ambiguously phrased installers hoping to saddle users with unwanted browser toolbars and spyware, or e-commerce platforms that make it difficult to find the best value among a list of potential purchases, pushing the most expensive to the forefront.

In the Legend of Zelda, dark patterns are used to make it difficult for a player to reach their destination, and in many cases nigh impossible without the aid of a copy of Nintendo Power. One room below a boss? It’s a dead end. You’ll have to find a secret passage by pushing a random block in a room on the other end of the dungeon. Good luck with that. Trying to make your way through the Lost Woods? Hopefully you ran across that old lady in a cave on the far end of the world map who let you know that north, west, south, west is the only way to proceed. Without that information, you can walk west for all eternity with nothing to show for it. Tricky bastards.

If there’s a takeaway from all this, it’s that UX design is best when it’s intuitive enough for a user to engage with, but not laden with instructional bloat. Providing users with a sense of direction, without forcing them into a linear path without the necessary information or incentive to follow it to its conclusion. And if you choose to employ dark patterns, you better have a damn good reason, like frustrating the living shit out of children across the world.