Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past: the tell-tale heart

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HUDs used to be essential. Without them, you couldn’t know how much ammo or health you had, or what the score was. Now they’re unfashionable. In the name of immersion, interface engineers do away with as much HUD as possible, or they find ways to integrate it with the game world. Now you read your ammo count off the gun’s built-in display. In Dead Space, your health gauge runs up the spine of your character’s suit.

After the jump, HUD is where the heart is

It’s done with good intentions and often successfully — why clutter the screen with immersion-breaking text and graphics? — but it can be taken to absurd extremes. A clean screen does wonders for immersion until you have to rummage three layers deep to find some basic game fact. Civilization V’s UI was designed like a tackle box, full of drawers and hidden trays. Call of Duty and its imitators abolished the health gauge, and instead splatter blood across the screen when the player’s health is critical. One reviewer likened it to having claret thrown in your face. The effect is ridiculous for both the quantity of blood and for the fact that it beads on the player’s vision as though on a camera lens. What’s meant to enhance immersion only makes you feel like you’re watching a movie. (Unless the player’s avatar is wearing glasses, in which case I fully approve.)

Silly as the claret effect is, at least it’s quiet. I’m wandering bloodied through the chambers of the Thieves’ Town dungeon, and this damn alarm won’t stop. Link to the Past has a full HUD, including a heart meter; it takes less than a glance to discover Link’s health. But to underscore the point, a sound effect triggers when you drop to critical. You can hear your own midi pulse, sounding like an EKG. And it is endless. Until you get Link out of the red, that sound effect will loop and loop and loop and loop. But do I mute? Nope.

Link to the Past makes a few allusions to the literary world. Link travels an alternative world with a magic mirror in the same way Alice goes through a looking glass. He is there to rescue a princess named after F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s wife. Right now, this grating noise makes me think of The Tell-Tale Heart.

Just as in the Poe story, that throbbing heart can drive a man to distraction, insanity. Early on I would consider uncorking a valuable faerie just to silence the damned thing. Instead I muted my speakers. But now I subject myself to that alarm, because I realized how brilliant a piece of design it is. Link is grievously wounded, and so naturally would want some healing. I just want the sound to stop. It brings Link and I into perfect accord. When I find a heart, we’re both relieved. Perfectly synchronizing the player and character. That’s true immersion.

Other games justify their life boosts. Health packs, magic mushrooms, syringes of stimulants, or crates with red crosses, packed full of undefined (but fast-acting) panacea. Zelda is at once more literal and metaphorical. Link gathers hearts. They can be found everywhere: under the roots of shrubs, beneath pots, wafting like rose petals from the body of a dead enemy. There are always three hearts in Link’s home, by his bed. In one sense this is most literal-minded, gamiest representation of health imaginable. But there’s something exciting and purely fantastic about it. Your heart becomes a symbolic resource, a currency just like rupees. You can have a plurality of hearts. Slay monsters, explore caves, gain experience, and you’ll get more hearts, and be able to absorb more damage from more dangerous enemies. It feels like an allegory for growing up.

I’m almost done with the game now.

Up next: vultures rule the desert.
Click here for the previous Link to the Past entry.

Erik Germani is 23 and has a pretty sparse CV. You may recognize him from such pieces as the one you just read.

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