I was driving home from the airport the other day. I had just spent a week in Michigan and I had a karate tournament (with my girlfriend, no less) to look forward to the next day. When you’re driving on a highway after a tiring day, with nothing much to hold your attention then unfamiliar radio stations (my vans CD player’s broken, so none of my usual music for me), the mind tends to wander. As do the eyes. I found myself looking at these cloud formations ahead of me, looking at the way they curled and repeated themselves, looking at the way the light and the beginnings of the sunset played with them. It occurred to me that clouds… do not look real. They look, and always have, to me, like a painting, or a cartoon, given form and thrust into the sky of our down-to-earth little world. They look like… oh, something from a cel-shaded game, or an anime. This was especially apparent since I had been on an airplane earlier that same day, looking out at a vast and wholly unreal cloudscape, the sort that it looks like you could walk on but of course you can’t.

Then the highway curved, or I took an exit to another route or some such thing, and I was looking in another direction entirely. Unsurprisingly, the cloud formations, and the way the light of the now full-blown sunset rendered them little pieces of art, was completely different.

I absent-mindedly pondered these clouds and others like them on my way home, thinking about the visual effects and sheer variety they could produce, about the fantastic colors and views they could show us. Overturning the way they looked so out of place, as if they were paintings or drawings, and yet still managed to blend in with the rest of the world so well. One thing led to another, and eventually I was thinking about how to apply clouds to video games, or more specifically, the Zelda franchise.

I was a huge fan of the cel-shading in the Wind Waker, and the thought that Nintendo might give into public pressure and suck too much of the stylistic out of their games in favor of “realism” has always worried me, though those fears tend to be unfounded. Look at Twilight Princess – it is dark compared to earlier games, and more realistic than The Wind Waker, but there is no edge to these aspects of the game. The brilliant designers at Nintendo have managed to inject just the right amount of style and atmosphere to make this fit the cartoon fairy tale style that the Zelda series has always had. If anything, my impression of the game so far leads me to believe – or hope, sometimes the two are easily confused – that this will be an heir to A Link to the Past’s atmosphere.

This interplay of pseudo-realism and darkness with stylized and artistic expression reminded me of the way the clouds looked so unreal in our wholly real world, and I decided that a focus on clouds and the sky would be a perfect way to achieve a balance between the two, in some future game. Not necessarily Twilight Princess, since that’s obviously not the focus there, but in some other game.

Imagine climbing to the top of Death Mountain, looking out over a vast and vibrant Hyrulian landscape, and, hanging above it all, clouds, equally vibrant and beautiful. It’d be a sunset, of course, so some areas would be in shadow already, while others, further west, would have more light. Or imagine riding through a vast Hyrule Field, the wind blowing around you, and low-hanging, fast moving clouds flying by overhead, pushed by the wind. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The Wind Waker accomplished a degree of this very well, with extremely well-done clouds that, on a small scale at least, were affected by the wind. But a dynamic, a feeling of an active sky above us, was not as well done as it could be in a future game. There was not enough variety, just a set look to the sky depending on the time of day, the direction you were facing, and whether it was raining or not. The sky was background, and good background, but it did not feel active.

What they need is some sort of system that governs cloud movement and weather in the background. I know that many scientists, especially meteorologists or people studying global warming, have access to monstrously complex computer programs that predict the weather – sometimes around the world – by taking into effect every variable imaginable, from temperature levels to pressure to who knows what. I do not think it would be that much of a stretch for a game developer to make a dumbed down version of something like that, and create a game with weather that reacts with the types of environments the game has, and interacts with itself to create what would essentially be our very own Zelda weather simulator. Weather that progresses naturally, gives the world and the sky an added element of life and breath.

And a complex weather system would be a wonderful thing. Up until now, this entire article has focused on purely visual things. Cloud formations and colors are hard to work into gameplay, after all. But weather is a different matter entirely, and it has been worked into gameplay before. We’ve seen it in Ocarina of Time, with the Song of Storms. The Oracle of Seasons went about it in a heavy-handed way, utilizing whole seasons rather then the weather, but the concept was the same. The Wind Waker put wind, an aspect of the weather, into the spotlight. Weather has been chipped away at throughout the series’ lifetime, different games taking different parts of it into consideration, but we have never seen all of it brought together, and I would like to. Weather and seasons offer endless gameplay opportunities, ranging from stuff we’ve seen before – blowing wind into sails and windmills, filling up an oasis with rain, making vines bloom into handholds – to things such as drying out a pond, or blowing the leaves off of a tree so you can see behind it, to any number of other such things.

And just think how much more atmospheric everything could be if you had exaggerated weather to punctuate it. Remember Ocarina of Time’s final battle? It was just you and the monster, fighting in the rubble of a castle in a ring of fire on an island floating above a lake of lava. That is my favorite battle of all time even as it was, but imagine if you could catch fleeting glimpses of roiling clouds above you, lit by the glow of the fire and the lava, and with huge forks of lightening splitting it asunder, and with wind that would pick up sparks and embers and fling them around. Weather is an amazing force when it comes to creating an atmosphere, and I think that it should be used.


Ricky says:

So basically you'd like a random weather generator for TP?
Actually that's not a bad idea...
I do know that many games designers have focused on real-world physics in game-world environments, but whats stopped them in the past is the current demand, for instance gamers want to see more A.I; they want more character interactions; a story with depth; and most of all, gamers want a lifespan that lasts even after finishing off the final boss (something Nintendo really needs to think about sometime).
The weather is important but there's a problem, it's not always the focal point of most people's attention when you're right in the middle of a earth-shattering battle.
But I absolutely agree with you that games do need to expand upon atmosphere if they are to evolve.

dudeofrandomness says:

The only way a complex weather system could be incorporated into a game would be (in my opinion of course) only if the game were centered around control of the elements. It costs nintendo precious time to do everything that they do, and throwing a nice weather system into a game would be a huge use of $, people, and console render-power. Its an awesome idea, but I just don't see it happening anytime soon.

CID Farwin says:

I never really thought about it before, but really, a random weather generator... that would be really cool, and lf there were things like playing the song of time, or death mountain erupting, or some big fire, then the whole wheather system changes accordingly.

the_ocarina_of_time says:

People who spend time in the fan art gallery may know that I do a lot of work with Terragen, a landscape rendering program. The clouds can be an important part of landscapes, yet they are relatively quick to render. I think the game could incorporate some stunning sky effects without costing too much CPU power.

LordKurama says:

I got some sweet images in my mind while reading that...a random weather system would be sweet and realistic...but as with the other Zelda games...each takes a different while it may not be featured in could very well be featured in the next one...I'll start thinking of subtitles for no reason at all since I don't name em (Zelda and the CloudRider...) alright let me stop b4 I come up with some really stupid stuff...but let's see waht Nintendo does with the next game...but in order for htat to happen...TP has to come out yah...

Koroks Rock says:

toot, the clouds in terragen render quickly because they're a much lower polycount than the landscape. for what los is envisioning, a huge poly budget would be required, along with dynamic texture replacement (which isn't so bad on a small scale, but for something fluidly changing like clouds...). Also, lightmaps would be difficult to manage: from the looks of things TP uses pixel shaders that are both fixed and recalcuable. Recalculating everything in an outdoor map would be a computational nightmare.

however, the rendering nightmare aside, i definately see where los is coming from. perhaps in the later Revolution games or beyond we will see this come into play. Personally, i'd like to see weather used in storytelling a bit more. Beyond having dramatic effects for epic battles, have subtler effects such as faster cloud movement when you're supposed to be in a hurry (heck, it'd be a nice change from Navi perstering you), or fog drifting across the ground in new areas. don't forget that there's indoor lighting too- i would to see a dungeon that changes atmospherically as you progress through it, becoming a bit cleaner and lighter. remove cobwebs from explored rooms, change the ambient animals, etc.

More feasibly (but requiring more developement time), would be scripted weather that mirrors cutscenes. remember the opening SSBM movie, with Sheik turning, and Zelda in the sky turning too? imagine effects like that embedded in the clouds. also requiring more developement, but not terribly hard on hardware (with exceptions) would be a reaction system for NPCs based on the weather. think about what that'd do for a game like Majora's Mask.

It's interesting to ponder, if a bit infeasible. oh well, it was a very provoking ariticle los.

the_ocarina_of_time says:

Well KR, Terragen may have low-poly clouds, but people who are good with the program can do amazing things with them (I'm not one of them).
Remember in OoT, when you were an adult and got close to what was the market, it got cloudy, then stormy? Well, the first time I went back to the market, I felt it getting a bit creepy, but didn't know why until the first clap of thunder. Admittedly, this was partly because of the music fading out (it does, doesn't it?), but there's know doubt that clouds can have a subconcious effect on the mood of the game. In the graveyard, I was hesitant of going to the rear of the graveyard before I even knew what was there, because it changed from cloudy to stormy. Same happened with Lon Lon Ranch, when it changed from sunny to cloudy. And these were just simple changes in weather.
Also, the battle with Ganon did involve weather, to a point. there was lightning, and the clouds had a reddish light which helped to give the unearthly feel to the whole battle.
And finally, in Windwaker, during the cursed night, I wanted to end it as soon as possible, because it was just creepy, yet I couldn't just set down the controller and come back later.
Twilight Princess does have some weather involvement. The gameplay footage of the horse battle shows clouds with shadows on the ground and in the air (sunbeams), in one part it gives the feeling of uneasyness that occurs when the weather can't decide between sun and rain, and then it breaks out into bright sunshine. It seems like this is dependent upon the actions, because it finishes in sun, so it may be affected by the damage on the enemy.
Then, once you win the jousting on the bridge, it shows, in slow motion, Link holding up his sword as Epona rears, with an amazing sunset in the background and some effective hazes.
In closing, I don't know how to close this. So I'll just stop typing.

Snowsilver says:

I agree. The weather in TWW was just so atmospheric (and so were areas with particle effects, my personal favorite was the snow in Ice Ring Isle), it would be wonderful to see some sort of random weather generation going on. Better yet. what if the weather had an effect on gameplay? If it was raining, the ground was slicker and had less traction. Or maybe different types of enemies would show up depending on the weather - things more attuned to dry weather like Leevers during drought and things like Octorocks during wetter times.

And I want to see some impressive thunderstorms. Where lightning hits the playing field. Maybe they could have an easter egg where Link could actually be hit by lightning (small chance that might be).
Another thing, which has little to do with weather but still along the same lines - I want constellations. They did this in Wind Waker (very accurately for the ones they had - did anyone else notice the binary system in the Big Dipper or Betelgeuse in Orion?). They had a dynamic sky in Majora's Mask, and I'd be ecstatic to see such things again. Stuff like that would just make the game awesome.

the_ocarina_of_time says:

Yeah, I saw Orion and the Dipper. We know, from the second scene of the first trailer, that there will be thunderstorms, though I think we have yet to see the actual lightning bolt. But did you notice that in that scene the thunder comes before the lighning?

Link_Dream says:

i think that the weather can change the atmosphere completly. in OoT, i never wanted to go nere the market as adult link, because it was so creepy, with the clouds, and the darkness and stuff, and remember in Alttp at the beginning and it's stoming, and it gives you a worried feeling? Its amazing what one factor can do to gameplay.