Monday 27 May 2019

Why is the Ocarina of Time Randomiser an Engaging Experience?

Over the last week I’ve been playing the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. It’s a game I’ve played several times before, but this time was a little different. This time I was playing a custom mod of the game: the Ocarina of Time Randomiser.

Developed by the Zelda speedrunning community, the Randomiser is an online tool which takes a ROM of Ocarina of Time, and patches it to create a new adventure. In particular it takes every key item - every item found in a shop, or a chest, sold by a scrub, taught as a song, or in some way permanently collectable - and swaps them around. So important items like the titular Ocarina of Time might be sold for 10 rupees in a shop, while the big golden chest that would usually contain an essential item might now contain a single Deku stick.

Additionally the background music in each area, as well as assorted colours, are randomised to make an even more surprising experience.

Link checks out his dapper new orange tunic

A checking algorithm is run to make sure that the game can definitely be beaten, and the player begins the game from Link’s house and figures out the rest from there. In case you get stuck, the randomiser also generates a “spoiler log”: a list of all items and where they’re hidden.

Speedrunning, ROM hacking and custom controllers have really captured my imagination in recent years. I love the idea that a game is not a finished object, but a starting point for totally new experiences. Watching speedrunners break Ocarina of Time, solving puzzles in the wrong order, abusing the mechanics to get where they shouldn’t be able to, has always fascinated me.

Having watched several runners playing the randomiser I decided to give it a go myself. Not to speedrun it, but to simply explore what I got out of the experience.

In particular I wanted to ask myself: if I connect to this as a play experience, what is it that drives that connection? Why do I value it? What makes it a meaningful experience

What does Ocarina of Time already mean to me?

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game in the Zelda series that I ever played, and for a long time was my favourite video game ever. But over time I’d fallen out of love with the series. Each successive game has provided diminishing returns. The formula behind its design had become too obvious.

I could feel when my progress was being impeded artificially, and I resented the pace of the game slowing down to teach me things I already knew. Going through repackaged puzzles that I already knew the answers to felt laborious. Most of all, I’d lost my sense of wonder towards what these games offered.

Returning to Ocarina nineteen years on I was reminded of the sense of wonder I felt nineteen years ago. The world of Ocarina opens with a hidden forest where children never grow up, talking trees, tiny fairy guardians and wise old owls. The theme of the world is fairytale, and the player’s path reflects a journey into adulthood. You leave the safe boundaries of the forest and run out into a big wide open world. The emotions being stirred up are emotions of wonder. Wonder is at the heart of this game

When you first play a game in an unfamiliar genre it seems wild and open with possibilities. You don’t know exactly how much the game is going to offer up to you, and how much of the world is off-limits because it simply hasn’t been created. So everything you can think of is potentially in the game. Additionally, anything does present will probably not have been something you thought up. The game is rich and exciting because your mental model of the game is bigger than the contents of the cartridge.

The unfamiliar player has no basis for how large the world actually is - just how large it's presented to be

With familiarity comes expectations. Familiarity exposes repeated ideas, and reveals where the designer’s hand has put up limits. When the familiar player is given a wide array of possible directions they know there’s only one direction that will actually lead to progress. Because that’s the way it was last time.

The wide range of what the game could be no longer defines the player’s mental model. Their mental model is now based on how the last game turned out to be. This model is smaller than it would have been otherwise.

It’s not the fault of any individual game. You simply can’t repeat this sense of wonder and adventure with the same formula. It may be disappointing as a player, but that’s simply the way of the world. The same thing can’t be new twice.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch

However, there are two games in the Zelda series which - for me at least - created a sense of wonder despite me being a Zelda veteran. Both the original The Legend of Zelda on NES, and the recent Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch, drop you in a big wide open world and leave you to figure out the rest from there. Even when I was too jaded to enjoy any other games in the series, these two stood out as joyously exciting and empowering.

Gone was the sense of being guided through the same hoops as before. Instead there was the a sense that my journey was my own. My survival strategies were my own. My route through the game was my own. I made my own solutions to problems that I found myself.

There it was, once again: my sense of wonder.

Intriguingly, playing through Ocarina of Time Randomiser I was struck by a sense of wonder again. It seems that you can capture that sense of wonder not just by creating something new, but also by upsetting the formula that exists within an already finished product.

My experience with the Randomiser

I want to record the actual journey I took, which should give some detail to me digging into why I liked it. My hope is to talk about the experience in a way that you can follow without prior knowledge of the game, and as such skimming over this next bit will be perfectly fine if the game-specific language means nothing to you! I’ve chosen to name the specific items and locations for brevity.

The player needs to find the Silver Gauntlets before Link can lift this rock

It’s important to note that Ocarina of Time’s puzzles are largely built around a “lock and key” design. That is, that for most puzzles there will be a specific item that you need to solve it. For example, to blow up big rocks you need bombs. Big rocks are the lock, and bombs are the key.

Typically for each key item there will be one major lock that it will allow you to open. You’ll then need to use that item again at later parts of the game, but the game is designed with the expectation that you already have that item. Getting items out-of-order upsets the designer’s expected path of progress.

Feel free to skip the grey text if you like!
Ocarina of Time Randomiser starts you in Link’s house with nothing. I spent the first 90 minutes without a sword or shield, avoiding enemies seeing as I had a very low health meter. I had to make do with a handful of support items: deku sticks and deku nuts. It was an experience much like the survival-heavy first hours of Breath of the Wild. Defending myself came at a cost because the player is only allowed a limited supply of these items. 
There were a wide range of directions to go to in that early stage, but the range of places Link can go while he has nothing are quite limited. The first challenge was to think of places that don’t need any items, and explore them. Exactly which items appeared would dictate where I’d be able to go from there, so the scope of what could appear was fairly manageable. Scope tended to swell with possibilities whenever I got a new item, before contracting again as I found where my routes were blocked until I got further items.
Early on I picked up a lot of items I couldn’t use. I got adult-only items like the Megaton Hammer, Fairy Bow and Hookshot in the first few chests I opened. Starting the game as a child rendered them useless for now. I got several songs in this early phase too, but no ocarina. I knew that once I got the ocarina the possibility space would explode. Not only would I be able to use the songs but I’d also be able to transform into an adult with a great many items and, therefore, a massive range of locations I could explore. 
The first useful item I got was bombchus, which I bought from the Kokiri shop. This allowed me to get to Goron City through the secret route in the Lost Woods. This short-cut expects you to have bombs but bombchus also work. Using bombchus to blow away a rocky maze in Goron City I found a chest with the Kokiri Sword inside. The Kokiri Shield was being sold in the Black Market in Castle Town. At this point I knew there were two key items that would open up the game for me. The Fairy Slingshot would allow me to finish the Deku Tree, while the Fairy Ocarina would allow me to become an adult and find the secret areas revealed by playing the Song of Storms. Bombchus allowed me a lot of access to hidden grottos, but very few yielded any useful items. As I began to exhaust the possibilities of where I could explore with my current equipment - including opening every chest in Dodongo’s Cavern - I found the Slingshot behind a fragile wall on Death Mountain. This gave me all the items I needed to complete the Deku Tree, and the Ocarina was the reward for beating the boss. 
During the early phase of the game I’d hoovered up a lot of objects that were only usable in the adult phase of the game. Now I was Adult Link there were a massive number of areas for me to check. I could access the Forest, Water, Fire and Spirit temples, as well as take part in the various minigames and access the hidden areas that each key item opened up. Bust as I explored deeper into these dungeons I found my progress gated by how many keys I had for each temple. Eventually I secured the Lens of Truth, which allowed me to find the Adult Wallet hidden in the Bottom of the Well. This allowed me to buy the Longshot, which gave me access to a chest in Gerudo Fortress which revealed the Silver Scale. I still didn’t have Zelda’s Lullaby, which meant I couldn’t use the Great Fairy Fountains and I couldn’t get into a lot of important areas. Zora’s Domain had previously been blocked by this, but I could use the Silver Scale to get there using a secret passage. However eventually I started to exhaust the limits of where I could think to go. I needed either a key to the Forest or Fire Temple, the Hover Boots, or Zelda’s Lullaby, but I’d opened every available chest I could think of. 
I scoured walkthroughs to check for chests and grottos I may have missed, but eventually I gave in and looked at my spoiler log. There was a Forest Temple key hidden in a secret chest in the Bottom of the Well, which I’d sworn I’d checked. Using that key would unlock the room where Zelda’s Lullaby was hidden, thus opening up the rest of the game. 
The rest of the experience was fairly straightforward. Zelda’s Lullaby unlocked the Great Fairy Fountains, which gave me the final Gerudo Fortress key, which opened up access to the Spirit Temple and the Gerudo Training Grounds. The final phase of the game was spent criss-crossing between these two locations, plus the Fire Temple, Water Temple and Ice Cavern, as each revealed items necessary for the others. As I defeated each of the bosses I began to exhaust the possibilities, and ended up with just the Forest Temple Boss Key left to find. Frustrated by the prospect of digging through every dungeon again looking for one last clue, I decided to look at the spoiler log one more time, which revealed it to be in a room in Gerudo Training Grounds that I’d forgotten about. From there I was able to go to Ganon’s Castle for a fairly straightforward finish.

The whole experience was probably around 15 to 20 hours of gameplay but it’s hard to tell as I wasn’t keeping track!

The flow of play

Where Zelda games had typically felt quite directed - go to this direction because there’s nothing else you can do but go in this direction - it was delightful to find myself in a world where any direction was viable. Exploring the Lost Woods was equally as likely to yield results as checking the shops in Castle Town, for example. My thought process was to prioritise areas that would give a lot of opportunities to gain items. So, an area with a lot of small chests would be more enticing than an area with one side quest. It gave the sense that the world was my own canvas, for me to choose the right way through it.

The logic that ensured the game was solvable also meant that there was rarely so much to check that I felt out of my depth. It helped that I had a fairly strong knowledge of the game from having watched streamers playing the randomiser, and watching speedrunners doing 100% runs.

The challenge for me was thus not to solve the puzzles, but to remember what areas could be opened up by the items that I had, and then to make a decision on what the most viable route would be.

This key was necessary but I couldn't afford it until I found the Adult Wallet

As the game opened and closed, with the items I lacked creating boundaries and bottlenecks it was obvious that the shape of the world became much more naturalistic. Getting a new item had the same kind of magic and joy that it did when I first played Zelda, but this time for different reasons. Originally a new item was a new toy to discover how to play with. This time it was a skeleton key that opened up a wide range of possibilities. Zelda’s Lullaby, for example, opened the door to Zora’s Domain, summoned every Great Fairy Fountain, and it let me drain away the water in Bottom of the Well. Until I’d collected the song I knew there were numerous opportunities for progress hidden behind these gates, just out of reach.

It fascinates me that none of these gates were designed to be gates to progress. The shape of my path through the game was not planned, but organic.

In the original game no areas that require Zelda’s Lullaby can be accessed until after you have learnt the song. So every time you use Zelda’s Lullaby to access a new area you are simply going through the motions. You perform the ritual of "use the song to open the door" because you already know that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Thus, in the unmodified game, learning Zelda’s Lullaby opens up a single opportunity for progress. But in the randomiser it opens dozens. There were so many points I’d reached where I had to remind myself: “come back when I have Zelda’s Lullaby.”

Even as Adult Link I wasn't able to get inside Zora's Domain until I found Zelda's Lullaby

I love how this turns the designers’ plans on their heads. Locks that were never designed to really be locks become locks, and finding out what’s behind them becomes delicious and enticing. After all, any chest could yield an essential item.

A natural environment

The randomiser turns Ocarina of Time into a more naturalistic experience. This organic feel is what excites me when finished games are used as a canvas for new work. Parts of the game that were never designed to be interesting become interesting when the context is changed. A random un-designed input creates moments of joy that were never intended to be there. Adding a little bit of chaos uncovers joy where there was no joy before. That joy is naturally occurring: a consequence of design decisions but not their intent.

Another example of naturalism is the way certain areas become completely redundant. In my playthrough, there was no point in going to the Water Temple, except to fight the boss. The layout of the level means that, once you have the Hookshot and the Boss Key, you can get to the boss directly from the first room.

Looking at the spoiler log, every single item hidden in the Water Temple was entirely optional. Where in the original game the Water Temple is an intricately designed series of puzzles, in my playthrough the Water Temple was just a building.

Like exploring a shipwreck, going down into the Water Temple was a venture that could yield treasure, but could equally yield nothing but tat. This felt like real exploration. It made the temple feel like a real place. An environmental narrative emerged, where the chambers were just empty storerooms; a story of an abandoned building that had become filled with monsters.

No real-world architect would design a building as a series of interlinked puzzles. My feeling of rummaging through the temple's depths made me feel like a trespasser. It helped that I was doing so without the Zora Tunic - the item used to breathe underwater - so exploration felt even more precarious.

Without the Zora Tunic spending too long underwater causes Link to drown

The flow of play in Ocarina of Time Randomiser swells and contracts, opening out with each key item, and contracting again when you find the limits imposed by the items you still lack. These bottlenecks forced me to think hard about every nook and cranny I might have missed. It forced me to think about secret areas I may have missed, and these secret areas became less of a bonus and more of a necessary consideration.

Where typically I would avoid looking at online guides, in this experience I was happy to. They weren’t written for a randomised playthrough after all, and they could provide inspiration for where to look next. It was still me who had to have the eureka moments of deciding what to look up. After all, no walkthroughs are written in terms of “what areas are opened up by the Ocarina?”

Again, it’s a totally different experience to standard play. The unmodified game will either tell you where to go next, or there will be only one new area opened up by the item you just got. In the randomiser, I had to build a mental map of the world as a complex network of locks and keys. It was entirely up to me to locate the dents in its armour.

Bottlenecks create new gameplay experiences that weren’t intended to be there by the designers. The bottlenecks are naturally occurring within the game they had built. I’m a massive believer in this philosophy. Magic is made half by design and half by happenstance.

It’s why, when I make my own work, I like to create opportunities for unexpected things to happen, and see what I learn from them. Look at the 4-player Sonic controller I worked on. Some games are beautiful new experiences when played with this controller - games designed to be fast and furious become clumsy, teamworky, and improvisational. Meanwhile other games just become tedious. Isn’t that magical?

Why am I connecting with it?

So this brave new world, created half by happenstance and half by design, is delicious in its naturalism, and joyous in its freeform open exploration. But why should I care?

I think it’s important to dig deep into what this experience actually is. Because it is so easy to argue its redundancy. I’m opening chests with the hope that opening this chest will give me an opportunity to open more chests.

Finding the Megaton Hammer in the very first room was a surprise!

Yes, I loved the surprise of finding out what’s in a treasure chest, or of reaching a new area and finding out what the background music is. But how different is this to watching surprise egg videos? You know, those videos for three-year-olds where YouTubers open up Kinder Eggs on camera, revealing the toys as they go?

One could argue that surprise egg videos are genuinely enticing because they tap into the lizard-brain instinct to collect and uncover. But to argue that I was enraptured by the game solely on this instinctive level doesn't feel accurate. My response to collection mechanics is usually one of frustration and fatigue. I feel frustrated when people say that gamers love to see numbers go up because in my experience it's something I'm usually indifferent to. Sometimes I even get put off when I see stat bonuses being given out as a reward.

If I’m going to collect things the process that leads to collecting it needs to be satisfying, otherwise I switch off.

As a designer I believe all players are like this, and the argument that gamers like to see numbers go up misses the most important point. You need to make the player care about those numbers before it matters that those numbers go up. What do those numbers mean on an emotional level? That’s the hard part of game design.

Nostalgia and Comedy

In the original game uncovering the story, soaking in new environments, and solving puzzles provided that satisfaction. In the randomiser I already know the story and the environments, and having solved the puzzles before they are just tasks. So there must be something else in this process, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to connect to it.

The flawed Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fascinates me more than its better-remembered Mega Drive equivalent

I come at the randomiser game with an existing connection to Ocarina of Time. It’s a game from my childhood that was, once upon a time, my favourite game ever. When it comes to nostalgia I tend not to be so drawn by those things that are universally shared points of nostalgia, a bucket which Ocarina of Time - one of the best-selling games of its era - falls into.

I tend to be more drawn to the obscure, often the weirder also-ran versions of things that are iconic. I’m much more fascinated by the flawed Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 than the iconic version on the Sega Mega Drive.

Perhaps taking something that had a creative impact on me (Ocarina of Time) and turning it into something obscure (ROM hacking) is enough to create the kind of aesthetic that grabs me.

With the benefit of an existing connection to Ocarina of Time, the items I’m collecting don’t feel redundant. I’m not just collecting a slingshot: I’m collecting the Fairy Slingshot. It’s the slingshot that, when I was 12 years old, allowed me to beat my first dungeon. This iconography is what I have an emotional connection to, making this item more than a simple key to a bunch of locks.

The iconography - the knowledge of what that object’s supposed to be - also creates comedy.

Comedy is such a big part of the experience. Compared to surprise egg videos, it’s the difference between there being an unknown object in the egg, and there being something that totally shouldn’t be in an egg in the egg. Imagine opening a Kinder Egg to find a double bass. Imagine opening a Kinder Egg to find the Nixon tapes.

The experience of opening a tiny chest in a random house and finding the key for the final boss is funny. The discovery that all bosses will be fought to whimsical fairground music is funny. Again, it’s not funny without the context or the emotional connection. I wouldn’t find the fairground music funny if I didn’t know how dramatic the boss music was supposed to be.

What was I actually doing?

But there’s still more to question about why I’ve taken to this game so much. In particular, the sum total of tasks I actually did in order to beat the game was very similar to doing a 100% run of the original. Doing a 100% run of a game is something I would very rarely do, even with games I love.

I tend to want the best a game has to offer, and side-quests often strike me as filler material. Yet in the randomiser, I never questioned doing every single side-task as part of my treasure hunt. Why did I not mind it this time?

After all, while playing this game I was not solving any puzzles, and I wasn’t discovering secret areas anew. But there was definitely a mental experience that went on that made it feel like I was solving something. I wasn’t simply checking off items from a to-do list.

Most of my mental energy was directed towards figuring out where to go next. I couldn’t remember the ins and outs of every location, so every time I worked out “hey, I can go there!” it felt like a eureka moment. I got to own the mental leap of “now that I have Bombchus I can get to Goron City!”

While each new location to check came as a eureka moment, the list possibilities that doing so opened up was still a mystery. My memory of the game didn’t stretch far enough to know the consequences in advance. I needed to actively test how far down a path I could actually get, find the bottlenecks, and commit to memory which areas I’d need to come back to later.

In other words, the game was always bigger than my mental model of it.

Remembering I could bomb this bit of rock was a genuine eureka moment

It’s telling that, when I recently started a second playthrough it didn’t seem as compelling. My last experience had left me with a mental checklist of places I should go to. I just needed to check them off one-by-one. My point is that while “check everywhere” is entirely the strategy to use, as a new-but-familiar player my mental model was unclear about where “everywhere” was. Mapping my route, building detail into my mental model, was full of personal eurekas and the challenge of committing what I’d learned to memory. It was intellectually stimulating.

Personal stories

Finally, I feel like there was so much charm in knowing that my personally-mapped route through the game was my own. Nobody else would get the same comedic reveals that I did. Nobody else would get the same bottlenecks, or have the same flashes of inspiration.

It’s unique, shaped by the one-off random seed as much as my own choices of where to go based on what I found. And while nobody else will have had the same experience with me their experiences will be similar enough to share war-stories. Another player will have shared some of the same challenges I faced and, by chance, have been spared others.

This thoroughly personal experience speaks to another aspect that is important in my own creative work - letting the player own their experience. It was an important sense for me to create in The Book Ritual, where I was inviting people to open up and needed them to feel listened-to. It was an important sense to create in The Incredible Playable Show, where I posed it as the very reason to bring games and theatre together.

Finding the slingshot in my playthrough had a significance that isn't in every other player's playthrough
Personal experiences are the special something that connects the randomiser to Breath of the Wild and the original Legend of Zelda. When the player is dropped into an environment and asked figure it out without guidance, the player creates a story out of their own choices. They don’t just sit and listen to the story the game wants to tell.

Perhaps when I played Ocarina of Time as a twelve-year old I was indeed creating my own story. Without prior examples from the series it was harder to see when I was being guided or funnelled down a particular path. Even when there was only one choice to make I still felt like I was the one making the choice. Arguably I was making the choice - I made the mental leap and I made the decision to follow that instinct. Interpreting what the game was hinting to me still took mental effort.

When I followed the route the game asked me to I did so assuming that there were other routes I could have taken. Or I’d worked out that that’s where I was supposed to go and hadn’t spotted that the game was preventing me from doing otherwise. The only thing that's that changed in later Zelda games is that I can now see how the game is directing me. I can spot the game telling me where to go before I can see my personal incentive to go there.

By randomising the items I was able to hide the strings that held Ocarina of Time together. Perhaps, with more plays I’ll be able to see the trends of the algorithm and I’ll see the strings once again.

Ultimately I’d argue that, on an emotional level, a game where you have a free range of personal expression, and a game where you don’t notice your personal expression is limited, are the same experience.

But how positive is my connection to this game really?

If you leave my television on for four hours without using the remote it will try to turn itself off. If it does this during a game it’s a good sign that that game has sunk its teeth into me. This happened during Breath of the Wild. This happened during Super Mario Odyssey. This even happened during Puyo Puyo Tetris.

My TV tried to turn itself off during Ocarina of Time Randomiser. It’s indicative of how compelling an experience it is. But how good a quality is that, really? While so much of the game was joyous and delightful, could I really say the amount of time I was spending with it was positive?

Why was I sticking with it for such long periods? As someone who’s usually quite good at managing their time, why was it so hard for me to say “okay Alistair, it’s time for bed”? Ocarina of Time Randomiser had me staying up too late, struggling to get to sleep as my head was full of things I needed to do in the game. I'd wake up still buzzing with plans, and then, if I could, return to the game straight after breakfast. One more quick shot to get those thoughts out of my head. And, of course, unless there was somewhere I physically needed to be, that one quick shot would extend on and on.

Much as I loved the game, I didn’t like what it was doing to me psychologically. It was making me tired and stressed. The experience lived on while the game was switched off, but it was the stressful aspects that stayed with me rather than the joyous ones. This game had got inside my head.

What was triggering this compulsion to keep on playing? I reflected on this at the time and I could feel into the exact feeling that was stopping me going to bed: there was always one more thing to do.

The same part of the design that made exploration exciting - that I could not easily remember where everything was - was what made me anxious to put the game down. There were a lot of tasks I needed to do, but I had to keep that to-do list in working memory. If I went to bed I feared that I’d forget what I’d done. I'd forget where I needed to look, and spend hours the next day chasing my own tail.

As I went to bed, thinking about plans kept the game in working memory. When I woke up I was still trying to keep these plans in working memory. I wrote down plans on a piece of paper but I’d still be trying to recall if there was anything I’d forgotten to write down. If I play again, I told myself, I’ll keep a checklist of items as I go.

What does compulsive play offer us?

I’ve been in this position before. Kongai, Puyo Puyo Tetris and Smash Ultimate are all games where I’ve set myself boundaries because they had begun affecting my sleep. Fortunately, Ocarina of Time Randomiser has an endpoint. After a week I’d beaten the game and it was an obvious point to rethink my relationship with it. Now that I’ve beaten it I can put it to one side. I’ll only return to it when I feel I have a way to mitigate its problematic aspects.

So why was this game hitting an addictive nerve for me in the first place? Traditionally the games I have got addicted to have often had a competitive element. I can see how this competitiveness has satisfied an emotional need at various points. Kongai, for example, was what I played while studying for my finals. At that time I felt very constrained by the requirements of my mathematics course - particularly when I was hungry to make my name as a game developer. Winning at Kongai felt like striking out as an individual.

The sense of victory has often proved delicious at times where I felt like I lacked control elsewhere in my life. It would get hard to put down when the wins felt so big and the defeats so crushing. You can’t switch the game off after a win because you’re on a roll. You can’t switch it off after a loss because you need to prove you can win. Setting boundaries necessitated asking “why does winning and losing matter so much to me?”

At this point in time it’s hard to see what emotional need Ocarina of Time Randomiser was satisfying. Perhaps defeating this big ridiculous challenge would prove I could achieve something big, at a time when I was hungry for my work to have a bigger impact?

Or maybe the fact that the game relied on so much of my working memory - a combination of my existing investment in the experience, and a design which can't be broken into neat chapters - is really all there is to it?

Getting grumpy at a good game

While I can happily say I enjoyed the experience, there were definitely times where I felt grumpy. At the midway point, when I could not find the one key I needed for the Forest Temple, I turned to the spoiler log. I don’t think I’d have felt that bad about it had glancing at the log not revealed what was to come. In particular, looking at the log proved that the Water Temple was completely redundant.

I felt bad for having that surprise taken from me, angry at myself for looking, and angry at the game for having two hidden chest locations that looked so similar.

The second time I felt grumpy was looking for the Forest Temple Boss key. I’d tried everything and resigned myself to checking the spoiler log. I didn’t resent doing so this time. It did make me think, however, about how every run will probably end with one item you totally forget about.

Finding that last chest will always be frustrating. You’ll always feel let-down because you had to look it up.

Yet here’s the question: without this element, wouldn’t the charm of the experience be lost? Taking on the randomiser seems whimsical, and silly, and outrageous because you’re putting yourself in a situation where this can happen. You know going in that there’ll probably be one important chest you completely forget about. It’s like naming all 50 US states from memory.

Is this not a necessary frustration? Is that frustration not, in fact, the selling point of the experience?

What does the Ocarina of Time Randomiser have to say?

When I began playing Ocarina of Time Randomiser I knew I would want to document my experience at the end of it. It’s a game which takes something that already exists and twists it in some way. That resonates so strongly with what I’ve been trying to do with Genesis emulation and the Doctor Eggman Show.

Meanwhile the value of randomness and unpredictability, where a unique experience is created by allowing the unexpected to happen resonates with what I’ve been doing with The Incredible Playable Show. Once I knew I was connecting to the experience in such a strong way I was keen to dig into the emotional experience behind it. Hence this article.

There is definitely a flag I am keen to fly for randomness, for unpredictability, and for breaking things which were intended to be finished objects. There is a case to be made for found gameplay: the new experiences that naturally exist when we take an existing system and change its boundaries.

But I also think there is a deeper emotional journey at play in this game.

I connected with this broken object because I had already connected with the original “finished” object. My journey was my own, but the context was created by something that was honed and tailored. Spaces that appeared naturalistic because they were redundant were only magical because they weren’t intended to be redundant. Meanwhile the same experience that happenstance made joyful was also made stressful by happenstance.

If there is anything to be concluded it is perhaps the power of the uncontrollable parts of game systems to create an emotional response. That making one, albeit quite technically impressive, change to the design of the game created a totally new emotional experience, both for good and for ill. And while some consequences are good and some consequences are bad they all have the potential to be powerful.

As designers there’s one strong message we can take away: surrendering a little bit of our work to chance will uncover experiences we’d never have found otherwise.