Space & Perspective in Kokiri Forest
My favourite part of a video game is the first instance of free exploration: When you pop out of the pipe in Super Mario 64, when you discover the waterfall hiding the Tomb of Qualopec in Tomb Raider, or when you’re let loose on the world in any Elder Scrolls title. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was exceptional in that it allowed you to re-evaluate those first few moments, but in a different light.
After you eagerly consume a lengthy textual exposition, you become a free agent in Ocarina of Time. You’re able to go as you please, learn the rules of this realm, test its boundaries, improve your character, and write your story. You awkwardly adjust to unfamiliar mechanics: z-targeting is useful, but automatic jumping does nothing to lighten your hands weighed down with the memory of platformers past. You can enter every home, and your inability to remember each individual domicile adds to the apparent vastness of this new world. Some areas are left not unexplored, but not mentally charted. These uncharted areas led to a lingering feeling of space and mystery about the area that would not be dispelled until the return.
There and Back Again
The decision to direct you to return to the starting zone once your character had aged was an interesting one. In the wider world, the 7 years without your heroics had taken their toll. Towns had been razed, people you knew had either grown older or died, and the pristine castle had been chromatically and thematically inverted. Returning to the place of your avatar’s introduction was reminiscent of the return of the hobbits to the Shire: you were returning to a sanctuary that remained mostly untouched, despite you having changed as much as the outside world.
Your character jogs along a narrow bridge comfortably where he had previously treaded with extreme caution, you laugh at the paltry shield price you initially thought to be so steep, and you easily hop across platforms you once had difficulty navigating. Your character had grown, but you had grown as well. You easily deconstruct the zone into segmented, goal-oriented locations. Tall grass: up to 4 or 5 rupees per area; hole in the ground: future magic bean plant; vine wall: climbable. While your first venture through this area was focused on exploration, immersion, and understanding, this return was an exercise in recontextualization based on player experience.
You experience a kind of emphatic link with the player character: both he and you have grown out of this area. Both in technical skills, and from a thematic perspective, this land was no longer made for you. Whether this was an intentional design choice or not, the effect still speaks to why Ocarina remains a classic to this day.