Give a Boy a Sword

by Dan Walsh

Reimagining the Legend of Zelda Series by using Empathy Maps

I learned about a really awesome marketing tool yesterday. It’s called an empathy map, and it is a wildly useful for problem-solving. I wanted to practice using it, so I made an empathy map for the Legend of Zelda videogame series. These games have been consistently good, but they’ve drawn a lot of criticism over the past few years for being “more of the same.” Nintendo hasn’t broken any new ground in this series for awhile and I thought an empathy map would reveal specific areas for innovation. What happens when you boil the series down to the core and simply give a boy a sword?

The Legend of Zelda series is an adventure game through and through. There are monsters to fight, dungeons to explore, evil to vanquish and a princess to rescue. The player always controls a character named Link. Link always gets a sword, and he’s always trying to save the princess Zelda from the various incarnations of a character named Ganon.

link, ganon, and zelda character iterations

From left to right: Link, Ganon, and Zelda. Ganon has changed from a pig monster to a human, but other than that the characters have remained similar.

When the game first came out on the original Nintendo Entertainment System there were restrictions on what a game could do and the type of story it could tell. Video game hardware wasn’t very powerful at the time. Game mechanics and stories were simplistic because it wasn’t technologically feasible to make them more complicated. But videogame systems have become immensely more powerful since then and videogames have matured into an incredible storytelling medium because of this.

The Legend of Zelda series hasn’t fully taken advantage of this new power because it continues to be anchored down by the unnecessary conventions of its past. These conventions used to be forgivable – a necessary evil – but like most conventions they’ve outlived their usefulness and have becoming limiting and annoying. The story has remained linear and cliche: save the princess from ultimate evil. The game mechanics have also stayed mostly the same: collect items that give Link new abilities to solve obvious puzzles in a successive series of dungeons. Each dungeon culminates in a boss battle. There’s also usually a world to explore, secrets to find, mini-games to play, and shops for buying items like arrows and bombs.

My goal for creating an empathy map about The Legend of Zelda was to find areas the series could innovate while remaining loyal to the game’s substantial pedigree. How far could we improve the game while still maintaining the Legend of Zelda feel?

Enter the Empathy Map…

Empathy Map

An empathy map is a simple tool with big potential. The purpose is to identify ways that you or a focus group interact with a given product. These insights can lead to product improvements or inform messaging for marketing campaigns. For the Legend of Zelda, I’m focusing on product improvement and I’m my own focus group. An empathy map segments product interaction into four groups: say, think, do, and feel. The form is typically four quadrants with headers for grouping, but I’ve simply listed mine below.

Say – What do I literally say about the game?

  • I got the master sword!
  • Gotta save Zelda… again.
  • This dungeon is annoying, I feel like it’s just in my way.
  • That mini-game was a waste of time.
  • I only used that item once.
  • The story is contrived.
  • The story is cliche and boring.
  • There’s no replay value.

Think – What do I think about the game or while I’m playing?

  • Is this mini-game worth it?
  • That was a great boss battle!
  • That was a lame boss battle!
  • How long is the game? Am I close to the end?
  • The world is crafted specifically for Link. No one else does anything.
  • Few or no ramifications to my actions.
  • Why do I care about saving Zelda… again?
  • These dungeons are repetitive
  • Why is Ganon so bad? What’s his motivation?
  • Fun soundtrack!
  • Puzzles for puzzle’s sake.

Do – What do I do while I play, or how do I otherwise interact with the brand?

  • Explore dungeons and the over-world.
  • Solve puzzles.
  • Look for secrets.
  • Make continual and motivating progress.
  • Take a break from the story to explore or play mini-games.
  • Hack and slash bad guys with my sword and other weapons.
  • Slash bushes and break pots to find money.
  • Roll on the ground because it makes me feel like I run faster.
  • Collect money, tools, weapons, and heart pieces.
  • Look online for heart piece locations and other guides.
  • Play mini-games.
  • Watch my brother play, or he watches me.
  • Ride horses, boats, and giant birds.
  • Make friends with different characters.
  • Fun characters!
  • Solve problems for people.
  • Fight bosses.
  • Endless attempts at every challenge.
  • Go fishing!
  • Always do what “the chosen one” is supposed to do.
  • Usually buy the game on launch day.

Feel – What emotions do I experience?

  • Excited to start a new adventure and discover a new world.
  • Can’t wait to get my sword!
  • Alone in the world.
  • Solitary when I play.
  • Story is boring.
  • No morality. Only motivated by feelings of discovery and progress.

What Should Change

Example empathy map for the Legend of Zelda

My hand-written empathy map for the Legend of Zelda.

Based on the items above, I would say the two biggest improvements Nintendo could make to the game would be to craft a killer story, and to make it non-linear. The hardware restrictions that necessitated a linear story are gone. That the series continues in this fashion makes the world feel static and contrived. Events only occur when the player sets them in motion and all sense of being involved in “something bigger” is lost because of this. And because the story is so linear there’s also very little replay value. Dungeons are progressed in the same manner because ability-creating items are collected in the same order. This also means all puzzles are solved the same way.*

What if Link was part of something bigger? What if the world didn’t wait for Link? What if there were consequences for success and failure? What if there were multiple paths of progression and multiple ways to traverse obstacles and solve puzzles? Hell, what if there was a reason for the dungeons and puzzles to be there in the first place?

The mighty Triforce represents wisdom, power, and courage.

The mighty Triforce represents wisdom, power, and courage.

The game always includes a dark evil, usually in the form of the character Ganon. He wants to plunge the game’s world (Hyrule) into darkness by gaining control of the all powerful Triforce. He doesn’t have any motivation for this. He just wants power. He’s one-dimensional. He usually kidnaps princess Zelda. Link sets out to save her, and simultaneously save Hyrule from darkness by defeating Ganon.

What if Link had some real motivation? What if Ganon had some real motivation too? What if Zelda wasn’t always so innocent? What if complicated moral decisions were involved? What if the story was good enough that others would want to watch me play?

The Legend of Zelda Reinvented: A Three Faction War

hylian, zora, and goron

From left to right: Hylian (Link), Zora, and Goron

The three-nation world of Hyrule is preparing for war. The Goron, Zora, and Hylians have historically each been the custodian of one piece of the triforce. The Goron Nation has begun encroaching on the Zora. As tensions rise, conflict breaks out and the Hylian nation must prepare for the likelihood of war, and may even be asked to choose sides. Link’s father, Ganon, is a general in the royal army. He gives Link his first sword and a place in the ranks. Link, along with other green-tunic-wearing soldiers must repel encroaching forces, reclaim strategic locations from monsters, and otherwise solve challenges that will help the war effort.

These challenges would all be dungeons of sorts, but would be a cohesive part of the story. Instead of mysterious labyrinths filled with puzzles for no other reason than to slow down the protagonist, they would be missions in the woods, caves, or enemy castles. He might have to sneak into an enemy prison to free his fellow soldiers, or battle his way through a haunted wood to make friends with a witch who makes healing potions and becomes an important ally.

Link is granted (or not) new items, training, and money as he is promoted through the ranks. If he fails at a mission, then the war effort is set back and the story changes. Failure might mean he doesn’t get a specific item or ability, and all future puzzles must be solved in a different manner. As Link becomes more powerful, he can be a decisive force in larger scale battles. Instead of running errands he can help repel attacks.


A moblin ready for battle.

For instance, a horde of moblins storm a strategic Hylian outpost. Link must help his unit defeat them before they claim the tower. In another scenario, Link is sent into the woods to hunt for food for his unit. He’s given a bow and arrows and taught how to hunt by a master scout. If he’s successful, he can keep the bow and arrow. This gives him a new weapon, as well as opens up a hunting mini-game that can reward Link with new arrows, a larger quiver, and other upgrades.

Victory, diplomacy and moral decisions progress the game. Link will be faced with increasingly larger decisions that affect the tides of war. For instance, he might catch a Zora spy and decide to let him go, or turn him in. His choice will have unforeseen effects on Princess Zelda’s chosen alliance, as well as the relative strength of the Goron or Zora armies.

These alliances would change the tools available to link. Continued trade with the Goron would let Link use bombs, but allying with the Zora would let link use their grappling-hook. Either tool would help Link gain access to new areas and solve puzzles in unique ways. These choices would have further consequences, however. Hylian towns might be burned to the ground if they get caught in the crossfire, or they might flourish as a trading hub for the armies that pass through.

Bombs open passages in weak walls. The hookshot is a grappling hook that enables link to rapidly scale buildings and traverse gaps.

Bombs open passages in weak walls. The hookshot is a grappling hook that enables link to rapidly scale buildings and traverse gaps.


If Link needs money, he can always enter character homes and break pots or open chests per the usual game mechanic, but this stealing will result in that character becoming poor. Maybe the player can justify this behavior in some situations – perhaps if it is for the greater good. Maybe the player doesn’t care and robs everyone blind.


As conflicts continue, full blown war breaks out. The story becomes darker and Ganon takes increasingly drastic measures to protect the Hylian nation. One day he goes too far. He uses the Hylian-third of the triforce to eviscerate an oncoming army and becomes convinced that an iron fist is the only way to save the Hylian nation. Ganon’s view is in direct conflict with Zelda’s morals and orders, but he believes her to be naive. He is corrupted by power, stages a coup, and sends agents to capture the remaining two pieces of the triforce in a misguided attempt at ultimate peace. The Hylians didn’t start this war, but Ganon sees how they suffer because of it. He believes that if only the Hylian nation remains, then peace will once again prevail.

Link hears this news while away on a mission deep in Zora (or Goron) territory. He knows this is folly and seeks an audience with the local authorities but is thrown in jail. He must escape (another puzzle) so that he can stop his father and the Hylian nation. He might have to side with the Zora, the Goron, or both to defeat the Hylian army which he himself helped strengthen. By the time he reaches his father, there is no chance of dissuading him and a final battle between Link and Ganon ensues. Father versus son. Master versus apprentice. Good versus evil.


The final showdown between father and son.


There is obviously a lot of room for innovation on the core mechanics and story without deviating so far that it doesn’t feel like a Zelda game anymore. The empathy map helped me identify areas that could benefit most from improvement (story and puzzles) while also revealing what still worked (exploration and item collection). The characters, certain items, and the world of Hyrule are important parts of the Zelda franchise, so I made sure to keep those present, and even tried to make them more important to the story, instead of diversions away from it. I’m actually really excited about the Zelda I outlined above. I couldn’t solve all of the issues, but I’m surprised a tool as simple as an empathy map allowed me to so quickly outline a new iteration on such a long running franchise. It really helped me break away from a lot of the long-running paradigms and find new territory to explore within the world of Hyrule.

Ok, I kind of want to play Ocarina of Time again now…

*Caveat: I’ve heard Nintendo tried to remedy strict linear progression in A Link Between Worlds, but I haven’t played it yet so I can’t weigh in. Reviews have been positive though.

** The Legend of Zelda and all characters, images, and descriptions are property of Nintendo.