Shrines are core pieces of gameplay in both The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and its precursor, Breath of the Wild. They are self-contained puzzle rooms that allow players to gather materials to upgrade their health and stamina bars, which is essential to being able to explore further and defeat more powerful enemies.
But, having sunk hours (read: days, weeks) into Tears of the Kingdom, I’ve fixated on something else about the shrines: their external colours. This blog post is a discussion on the visual language of shrines while exploring. To understand this, we need to talk about game state.
What is Game State in Video Games?
When you save a game, you are saving a file that records the state of all the elements in your particular playthrough. Some of these are player properties, like your inventory, your weapons, or the outfit your character is wearing. You can also think about state in terms of quest lines, like how far along each quest you’ve progressed, or which quests are completed and which are available.
If you’re a game designer, you’ll know that every element of a game has “state”. Has a particular enemy already been killed, or a certain treasure chest been found? These details all need to be tracked for a game to function correctly.
For sophisticated games like Tears of the Kingdom, game state as a whole can become extremely complex. Game designers narrow this down to the smallest possible units, each of which must be designed to communicate their game state to the player.
Game State Example from Super Maro Bros.
An example from another Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros., illustrates a very simple game element’s state. The ubiquitous question box, as it first appeared in the game, is a flashing square box with a question mark on it. This represents an unopened question box. If you hit a question box, it reveals the item inside and becomes blank.
Question boxes, in their simplest form, have two states: unopened and opened. Their visual language can be summarised as such.
|Question Box State||Question Box Appearance|
|Unopened||Flashing question mark|
You might wonder about the item in the question box with regards to state. But, whether it’s a fire flower or a 1-up mushroom, the content is not part of the question box’s state. Rather, it is a property of the box.
The item itself, like the 1-up mushroom, can have its own state: for example, whether or not it has been used by Mario. This would affect Mario’s state in turn, giving him an extra life.
You can see how game state gets complicated.
Shrines and Game State in The Legend of Zelda
So, the Legend of Zelda shrines have their own state. We’ll focus on visual representations of this state, which are the colours of the shrines’ exteriors.
At first glance, it may seem that shrines have two states: unsolved and solved. This is reflected in the two visual states of shrines in Tears of the Kingdom.
|Shrine State||Shrine Appearance (Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom)|
|Unsolved||Green and blue swirl above the shrine, green door|
|Solved||Green door only|
Because the shrines don’t have to be completed in any order (or at all), players have their personal approaches to interacting with them. I usually play like an explorer, discovering shrines and visiting them to save them as teleportation points for quicker travel across the world. Then, when I feel like it, I’ll devote a play session to solely completing shrines by teleporting from one to the next.
The shrines’ secondary purpose as waypoints is important to note because this does not require players to have completed the puzzle within the shrine. Once shrines have been found, they are marked on the player’s map. Factoring in the discoverability of shrines means that they actually have a third state.
Technically, there’s a fourth state where shrines are unactivated, in which the player must do something to make them accessible at all. These include shrines that don’t appear until the quest is complete, ones whose entrances are blocked, or ones that aren’t lit up at all. I won’t be including this state in this discussion, as only select shrines have it.
Shrines that are discovered but not solved are not accounted for in Tears of the Kingdom. They have the exact same appearance as unsolved shrines, with a green and blue swirl above the shrine and a green border around the door.
|Shrine State||Shrine Appearance (Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom)|
|Undiscovered and unsolved||Green and blue swirl above the shrine, green door|
|Discovered and unsolved|
|Discovered and solved||Green door only|
This is a step down from Breath of the Wild, which actually visually accounts for all three shrine states. This makes the shrines easy to distinguish, which is especially important to players like me who like to explore a bunch without completing the shrines as they find them.
|Shrine State||Shrine Appearance (Zelda: Breath of the Wild)|
|Undiscovered and unsolved||Top of shrine is unlit, bottom of shrine is orange|
|Discovered and unsolved||Top of shrine is orange, bottom of shrine is blue|
|Discovered and solved||Top and bottom of shrine are blue|
The three distinct shrine appearances in Breath of the Wild are a much better visual design. Not only do they match with the state of the object, they are also better visual cues in the world of Zelda.
Shrine Colours in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom
The coloured bottom part in Breath of the Wild covers a large portion and wrapps around the shrine so it can be viewed from different directions. This makes the shrine’s discoverability state (orange or blue) abundantly clear from a distance. The orange light also stands out in the lush world of Breath of the Wild, attracting the player’s attention.
Conversely, shrines in Tears of the Kingdom are harder to find, as the colours of the swirl above them blend in with the greens and blues of the landscape.
In terms of discoverability, the stronger visual shrine design belongs to Breath of the Wild. But this is where purpose matters. If the intention is to make the shrines harder to find, or to have them blend into their environment, Tears of the Kingdom‘s design is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Visually Differentiating Game States Improves Clarity for Players
The real problem in Tears of the Kingdom is not difficulty, but clarity on the state of a shrine based on its visual representation.
Shrines in Tears of the Kingdom are more frustrating to find because the player is likely to spot a shrine in the distance and get a burst of excitement only to realise that they’ve already discovered it. Sometimes, this reckoning occurs after making the trek all the way to a faraway shrine, which is a huge letdown.
Game designers use visual cues to communicate with players about game state. It’s a pity that finding shrines in Tears of the Kingdom is more frustrating than it was in Breath of the Wild, because of a visual design that takes away an important game state to explorers of Hyrule like me.