Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hey! Listen!

By C.T. Hutt

Hey! Listen! Does that annoy you? Hey! Listen! Do you find it distracting? Hey! Listen! Do you find yourself losing interest in the article and instead fantasizing about how you could track me down and bludgeon me to death with my keyboard? Then it’s probably time to stop.

The Legend of Zelda was more than just another series to me, it was a staple of my early gaming experience. I have loved stories about swordplay and magic since I was old enough to read, and the original Zelda put me right in the driver’s seat. I faithfully played each new incarnation of my boyhood favorite, even that confused side scroller with the golden cartridge Zelda 2. Zelda for the SNES remains one of my all-time favorites and when Ocarina of Time came out for the Nintendo 64 I was positively giddy. Sadly, along with another dimension the Zelda series acquired a terrible disease: Navi.

Navi the fairy was your little guide to the world of Hyrule, constantly dispensing advice about how to overcome obstacles, no matter how banal. She was like Jiminy Cricket, only instead of guiding you through situations of moral turpitude she gave you detailed instructions on how to accomplish every task in the game. She fit right in your pocket so she was always right there, always watching, always advising. No matter how many times she repeated her advice, it was never quite enough for her. Apparently she just didn’t trust Link to get the job done, as per the example below:

Hey, listen. The spider web is in your way! You need to find a way to get past.

Hey, listen. You need to set the spider web on fire.

Hey, listen. Use a stick like a torch and set the spider web on fire.

Hey , listen. You set the stick on fire, now it is like a torch you can use to set fires.

Hey, Listen. Fire is very hot because it is flame and you can use it now to burn down things like spider webs because they are flammable.

Hey, listen. Good job, you burned down the spider web and can now progress forward past it because it is no longer in your way, because you burned it down.

Hey, listen. There’s a door. You can’t get through the door because it is locked. You need a key to unlock the door otherwise it will remain shut stopping you from passing through it.


As you can see this kind of advice goes well beyond good intentions and strays into the realm of mental abuse. I can only surmise that Navi in Zelda 64 was employed by Ganon to drive our hero insane. But Nintendo wasn’t finished defiling the series, oh no, not by a hook shot. After a lengthy hiatus I returned to my beloved series to see how it had changed during the years I was in an asylum, so a few months ago I popped in Zelda Twilight Princess for a test run. I was in sheer joy for a while; there was not a fairy in sight. My happiness was to be short lived. Enter a new side kick: Midna, who not only feels the need to vomit up unsolicited advice like her fey forbearer, but gets right into the action as well, making her abominable presence inseparable from the game play. With a sigh I set my controller down and turned away.

The Zelda series is not the only one where side characters seem to have a compulsive need to wax verbose about the obvious or the irrelevant. The Metal Gear Solid series is so thick with distractions and lengthy blather on the part of secondary and even tertiary characters that I often forget that I am playing an action game. The player cannot simply turn off their radio to ignore these chatterboxes; they make a special point of noting that the communication system in the game is wired directly to the avatar’s jaw bone. Like Zelda, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Metal Gear series, and I genuinely appreciate any game that makes an effort at adding some dialogue and plot into the mix, but when game play stops entirely to deliver dozens of communicator chats it becomes a burden rather than an enhancement.

In Okami, Capcom’s 2006 release where your avatar is a god-wolf named Amaterasu, you are accompanied by Issun, a tiny artist/sprite/insect. Issun is so tiny that he can hide on your person at all times, like a flea in Amaterasu’s divine fur, but not so tiny that he can be ignored. The otherwise beautiful game is punctuated by commentary from this miniscule vermin whose contributions to the title are limited to ham-fisted comic relief and constant re-iteration of what other characters have already said once before.

All of these side “helper” characters follow a standard formula. They are difficult to ignore and are a constant auditory distraction. They are either extremely small or incorporeal so that they cannot be thrown away, turned off, or destroyed. Without treatment I fear that these characters will find their way into other decent games like an infestation of talking pubic crabs.

I think I know why they may have originally been put into games. Developers grew so weary of people not being able to figure out and complete their games that they felt the need to over-compensate. They dropped these pint-sized nannies into the mix to spoon feed the gaming experience to us, not because we need it, not because it improves the games, but because they underestimate our ability to reason our way through their worlds. It’s a lazy, stop gap solution, and it has got to end.

Developers take note. Being interrupted every few seconds by an obnoxious talking flea, fairy, ghost, demon, air traffic controller, or whatever is not a fun time for us. It breaks the pacing of a game and reduces otherwise playable titles into exercises in madness. Part of the fun of being immersed in an interactive world is finding out what we are supposed to do by trial and error rather than having it constantly dripped on us like water torture. At least provide us the option of turning these annoying little helpers off.


  1. Dude. Hyperbole much? I appreciate the rage that can grow within gamers when they are forced to endure a persistently frustrating feature in an otherwise appealing game. I feel the same way about the English voice cast of Final Fantasy X, or the behavior of other players in pretty much any multiplayer game. So it is a shame that people whose experiences are ruined by the "constant auditory distraction" of helper characters like Issun or Navi can't selectively mute them, even though I have always been able to ignore them myself.
    But I also never felt like they were trying to spoon feed me anything, especially never to the level of your example. Perhaps it is because I was able to solve most of the puzzles without their assistance, only using the occasional clue to nudge me in the right direction if I was off track, which is how I envision the developers would have imagined functioning when they designed it. And even if the feature was envisioned as an in game walkthrough, it is entirely optional. And what is the problem with features that help more people appreciate games? Zelda (and Zelda clones like Okami) are supposed to have challenging puzzles, it part of why I like it. And I would rather have Navi than the alternatives, which would seem to be either making the game so easy that anyone can beat it (like some of the later Zelda games, alas), or making no concessions and letting people try to solve the puzzles with no help, until they quit in frustration or seek help from a walk-through or strategy guide (ala Braid). Nintendo at least attempted to integrate their hint system into the world of the game, and if, by doing so, they were able to get people to finish their game (and potentially come back for more) who might have otherwise rage quit after being stuck in the same area for hours, then I think they were right to do so.

    Conclusion/tl;dr version: While it sucks that the sound effect for Navi was annoying to you, the mechanic itself was far from a bad idea. I think the anger spurred by Navi's sound effect might be clouding your judgement, making a mountain out of a molehill and leading your argument in an illogical, if impassioned, direction. All and all, it seems like kind of a knee jerk reaction, especially given the name of this blog. ;)

  2. Zelda games can be frustrating regardless, but I think the part that turned Navi's noise from cute to annoying was that Navi would chirp up when there was something important nearby, which often meant a tricky platform-y challenge--which to me meant hearing Navi many times as my frustration built.

    Good idea, but imperfect implementation.

    After a talk with my wife, I realize that it's sounds like that which are the most annoying part of being in the room with a video game while not watching or playing. If it's bad enough to annoy the players (or become a meme, see, then it's significantly worse for those innocent passersby that aren't distracted from those sounds by the game itself or grown vaguely numb in the ears.

  3. PS: The above is me, Erik Hanson.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    Allow me to first congratulate you on the rather daring decision not to identify yourself in anyway, not even with a pseudonym, while taking a quick swipe at an online article. Truly, the internet would not be what it is today without bold individuals like yourself gallantly tossing your two cents at an argument then hiding under the sofa. I salute you sir, the internet salutes you.

    As to my irresponsible use of hyperbole, I would like to draw your attention to my contract. As is plainly written in article B section 4: a feature writer for Press Pause to Reflect is fully licensed to employ metaphor, sarcasm, blasphemy, hyperbole, nudity, profanity, satire, simile, and bribery to make his/her point. As such, despite my admitted exaggeration of Navi’s conversational skills I neither apologize, nor retract my statement that she is incredibly irritating.

    In terms of my arguments being a knee jerk reaction, I’d like to point out that Ocarina of Time was released more than a decade ago. Time has not healed all wounds. Navi was irritating then, Issun is irritating now, and very soon I’m certain to be irritated by something else. I didn’t write this article purely out of spite, I wrote it because I feel that these helper characters detract from the gaming experience. I don’t like things that mess up good games so I tend to get a little snippy about them.

    Finally, I think it is great that you are able to simply tone out these characters, ignore their input, and move on with your gaming day. But, just because you are not paying attention to the little voices doesn’t mean you’re not schizophrenic. If you can hear them, you’ve got a problem.

  5. Erik,

    I think that the outside perspective on video games with unusual sound effects is nothing short of hilarious. I can't even count the number of times that my partner has walked in on me playing video games and commented on the absolute madness of the sounds erupting from the room, particularly surrounding repeated death/failure to achieve a task.

    Repeated death screams, Navi suggestions, loud cries of a character's name (SNAAAAAAAKE!) or what have you, I've gotten more than a few strange looks or requests for a volume decrease.

  6. CT,

    Thank you for your congratulations, I am honored by the salutation from you and from the internet.

    I'll admit that it is an act of cowardice for me to hide in a cloak of anonymity but I don't see much of a difference between pseudonyms and remaining anonymous, and I'm not quite as comfortable revealing my full name as many on here. So if you need a name, any name, you can call me Flargle. Or whatever, I don't care.

    You are indeed within your rights to use hyberbole, but I think that it weakens your argument in this case, especially if you are attempting to argue against helper characters as a mechanic instead of annoying sound effects as an aesthetic choice. And I was serious when I said that the optimal solution would involve the ability to mute these characters if they weren't needed, to prevent unnecessary irritation. Your tone does support the fact that you are incredibly annoyed by these characters, it just doesn't explain why they detract from the gaming experience, aside from an annoying sound effect.

    As for my comment about this being a "knee jerk reaction," I mean that more as a statement that this seems to be written out of anger and annoyance, which don't seem to point to calm reflection about a game or mechanic, but rather a hasty emotional response. "Knee-jerk" might be the wrong word for it, but despite the fact that the game is over ten years old now, you are responding from the pain of the wound, misdiagnosing (in my opinion) why said wound occurred and how it should be healed. You are ranting, and while that was loud enough to attract my attention from across the internet, it won't get too many people to seriously change their mind about these things. Chill, and maybe you would have a better chance of shifting opinions and making more people believe that helper characters are a bad idea. Perhaps that isn't what you want out of this... ranting IS more immediately therapeutic.

    Finally, I'd like to apologize if what I intended to be good-natured snark came off as something more volatile or malicious. I seem to have momentarily forgotten that debating on the internet is Serious Business. I did not mean my comment as a "swipe" against you, I merely disagreed with your argument in this piece and wanted to respond. I am very sorry that my pathetic attempts at humor distracted from my otherwise serious points.

  7. Dear Anonymous/ Flargle,

    It is I who owe the apologies here. Please don’t take my vitriol personally, I am a consummate curmudgeon drunk on my own opinions and enamored with the sound of my voice.

    I admit that during my article I took a sledgehammer approach to an argument better healed with a scalpel. Part of our mission here at Press Pause to Reflect is to entertain as well as educate and enrich. Occasionally, these motivations find themselves at odds. You are correct that I could have served my argument better if I had taken a level-headed approach to the situation rather than using a voice filled with razors and lemon juice, but I doubt it would have been as much fun.

    Please forgive my over the top reprisal as well, I do carry on. Your readership and comments are valued here and we hope to see more of you in the future. (But do get a handle for god sakes!)

    Kind Regards,

    C.T. Hutt


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