Boss Keys – An Analysis of Zelda Dungeons

For about a year I’ve been addicted to Mark Brown’s Boss Keys, an episodic analysis of the dungeon design and game mechanics of The Legend of Zelda videogame series.

The Boss Keys logo

Zelda’s legacy in escape rooms

Regardless of whether you’ve played Zelda, its fingerprints are all over escape rooms. The earliest escape room owners in the United States were big fans of Zelda. Whether you realize it or not, all of the US-based escape rooms are building off of these early videogames.

So… escape rooms are standing on the shoulders of The Legend of Zelda series… which was why it was so interesting when the concept came full circle and a Zelda escape game began touring.

Game Maker’s Toolkit

Mark Brown’s YouTube channel features his primary show, Game Maker’s Toolkit, where he dissects videogame mechanics and design decisions. This is a fantastic series, but not the subject of this post.

In preparation for a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode on The Legend of Zelda, Brown replayed every single game in the 30-year-old Zelda series and created a spinoff show Boss Keys as a sort of publicly posted series of notes. His analysis is fantastic.

Boss Keys

Each episode looked at a different Zelda game, mapped out the dungeon design, broke down the game’s mechanics, and then evaluated how it all worked. Brown’s insights intrigued me as a lover of both Zelda and escape rooms.

Since escape rooms are at least partially rooted in Zelda game design, an analysis of Zelda design also teaches lessons about escape room design.

A few key episodes

While I wholeheartedly recommend watching the entire Boss Keys series in order – the episodes build on one another as Brown’s insights compound – there were a few episodes that I think are critical viewing for the escape room community:

Link’s Awakening

This episode looked at a critical and often overlooked installment in the franchise, exploring all of the ways that the designers expanded the language of dungeon design. Watch for the breadth of locking techniques applied in the game and the smart use of backtracking to allow the player to learn from the game environment and puzzle their way towards mastery of the space.

Majora’s Mask

This episode explored dungeon design where the physical space itself drove the puzzling. These kinds of puzzles are brutally difficult to design – and real life has a lot more restrictions than video games – but they are incredibly satisfying.

A Link Between Worlds

Brown’s analysis of the pros and cons of an almost completely non-linear game design directly correlates to escape room design.

Minish Cap

This episode lightly explored the perils of bad hint delivery and went into depth on the issues of linearity and choice.

Breath of the Wild

Brown has not yet published an episode on the latest game, Breath of the Wild, but I cannot wait to hear his thoughts.

I highly encourage anyone who is interested in either escape room design or game design in general to lose themselves in Brown’s YouTube channel. His knowledge, joy, and ability to break down complexity is so much fun to watch.

Mark Brown – YouTube

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