Amongst games that feature islands as parts of more diverse settings, there are some which utilise them to stage the setting off point of the hero’s journey.
For a basic example, let us return to Yoshi’s Island in Super Mario World (1990): forming the smallest part of the continent of ‘Dinosaur Land’, it acts as a tutorial-infused gateway into the game’s larger, more difficult sub-worlds. This is embellished by the manual’s backstory, which informs the player that Mario and the gang were originally just holidaying on Yoshi’s Island before Peach’s disappearance provides the impetus for their adventure. It introduces both through its map and its levels mechanics brand new to Mario players: first and foremost, the island’s layout (and some simple signage) reveals to the player that they can explore different routes from the very start of the game.
In a few titles, island living is used to underpin a sense of tranquility in the protagonists’ lives before the main gameplay arc begins. Near the beginning of these games, the heroes’ peaceful and idyllic lives are upturned, and they set off on their violent and perilous quests: thus, a tonal juxtaposition is drawn between the start of the game and its main body through use of shifting setting.
One such game is the cult Disney-Final Fantasy crossover title Kingdom Hearts (2002). After the player-character, Sora, awakens from a tutorial sequence set in a pseudo-Gothic dreamscape – replete with stain-glassed depictions of classic Disney princesses – we are introduced to the bright sun and lush foliage of ‘Destiny Islands’. Here, the concerns of Sora and his friends are few, and play abounds: they jump rope, play ‘Blitzball’, race each other across the beaches and spar with wooden swords. These activities serve as further tutorials for basic game mechanics, allowing the player to acclimatise in the gaming equivalent of a ‘safe space’, where it is impossible to get a game-over. This is an introductory passage far removed from the perilous beginnings of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991), Super Metroid (1994), and several of Kingdom Heart’s Final Fantasy predecessors. You’re even allowed to gather restoratives, collect experience points and level-up Sora before the main adventure begins.
Just as the player would likely become bored if the idyllic activities of Destiny Islands were all that constituted the game, so to do Sora and his closest friends – in particular fated rival Riku – long for adventure and exploration. They decide to build a raft and set sail into the unknown, and so the player’s main task on the island is to collect the materials needed for the raft and their journey. Once all is gathered however, story events unfold that turn the islands into a nightmarish battleground being swallowed up by shadowy creatures. Riku disappears in a whirlpool of darkness, whilst Sora is flung out into space after finding a magical key-shaped sword and battling a pitch-black behemoth. The islands are destroyed, their ‘heart’ consumed by the devilish interlopers; innocence is totally resigned to the past for Sora, and the experience to come could not be more disconnected from simple island life.
After coming-to in a back alley of the hub-world ‘Traverse Town’, the destiny promised by the islands’ name is finally thrust upon Sora. We learn along with him from some Final Fantasy heroes that the game’s reality is divided into separate worlds which are normally closed off from one another, and that Sora – along with his new mystical weapon and the help of Donald Duck and Goofy the dog – must travel to those that remain and ‘seal’ them off from the hordes that took his home (known as the ‘Heartless’). Interestingly, these worlds are presented on the world-map as themed islands floating in outer space, which is referred to in the Japanese game as the “Sea of Other Worlds” and in the English version as the “Ocean Between Worlds”. The fact that Monstro the whale from Pinocchio (1940) and Captain Hook’s ship both traverse this expanse highlights its maritime quality. What’s more, the happenings of the worlds are insular, with very few characters being aware of the existence of others outside their own.
Similarly, the trio’s adventures in these worlds, despite developing a motif of emotional connectedness, feel more episodic than serial – Sora picks up a few enhancements and quest items from each, but there’s no grand sense of enmeshment or interactivity between them. The only threads connecting them are the witch Maleficent’s machinations – conspiring with other Disney villains to kidnap various princesses and spread the Heartless – and Sora’s search for his lost friends. In the course of hopping from Wonderland to Agrahbah to Olympus to Halloween Town, this aspect of Sora’s journey presses on his mind, yet he gives little thought to the fact that his island home – along with his family, other friends and peers – has been destroyed. Though it is no doubt a byproduct of what is referred to as ‘video game logic’, this lack of concern creates a bizarre dichotomy when one considers the caring and empathetic qualities Sora shows throughout the game. I also think this demonstrates an interesting disconnect between design and storytelling, given my earlier suggestion that the overall game-world may have been influenced by Destiny Islands’ small, insular environments.
Even if he thinks of them little, Sora does return to the Destiny Islands in the game – in fact, they’re used to bookend the adventure. Once the remaining worlds are saved and Maleficent’s plot is thwarted, the heroes head off to face the true big-bad at ‘the End of the World’, a location formed from remnants of worlds destroyed before the start of the game that coalesced into a sort of (kid-friendly) hellscape. Upon starting the sequence of final boss fights, the player is transported to the ruined Destiny Islands, no longer shrouded in shadowy darkness but rather visibly tainted and crumbling. After beating the boss’ first-phase, the islands begin to tear apart, and later they disappear altogether to be replaced by an abyss of blackness for the ultimate battle – as he nears the adventure’s end, Sora’s world becomes darker and darker. When the boss is defeated, light is restored by the game’s eponymous entity – a “heart of all worlds” – and during the ending cutscenes we see the islands being restored. Once again though, of greater moment to Sora is that Kairi – the other friend he’s been seeking – is on the remnants of the island as they are drawn out of the darkness back to their original location: the sequence serves as a heavy-handed symbol illustrating that, though Sora has won this battle and restored some good to the universe, he must continue on a self-sacrificial quest if he is to defeat the darkness entirely (an idea that’s explored to greater depth in the Gameboy sequel Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)).
In the tussle for obvious in-game place naming, one of the Destiny Islands’ biggest competitors is ‘Outset Island’ from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002). As the island on which this incarnation of the hero Link begins his adventure, Outset is extremely similar in terms of functions to Sora’s home. Firstly, it provides a bright contrast to a brooding introduction sequence, in this case an elaborate cutscene which in which a tapestry retells the story of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998); similarly, it serves as the calm before the tempestuous quest, both in terms of narrative tone and gameplay difficulty. As with Sora, Link’s departure is catalysed by the intrusion of outside forces onto the island, these being a giant monstrous bird who snatches Link’s sister away, and a group of pirates who were pursuing the feathered beast.
Aesthetically, the island is also pseudo-tropical, with its bright colours, simple natural elements and basic architectural structures serving to emphasise the game’s timeless, cel-shaded art style. Outset also allows the player to familiarise themselves with several core mechanics – running, crawling, swimming, battling, pig-catching (always useful in the fight against pig-demon Ganon) – and even acquire some collectables and useable items, including Zelda’s iconic Rupees and a bag for storing types of bait. Soon before departing the island, the player is once again granted their first sword (and shield in this case) and battles their first enemies in the form of Bokoblins, who are decidedly more characterful than the Heartless. Outset is also revisited in a blighted form later in the game, though at various points throughout rather than only at the very end as with Destiny Islands.
Wind Waker is rather unique in that Outset is just one of the many islands that populate its oceanic overworld, dubbed the ‘Great Sea’: this design was chosen to allow for an expansive feel to the world without overtaxing the Gamecube’s hardware. Just as Destiny Islands suggests the scale of later stages in Kingdom Hearts, Outset helps to inform the player of both the overall structure of the game – island suggests sea, and thus more islands – as well as elements they’ll find throughout the islands: forested areas, ‘shop-ships’, seemingly unmovable yet suspicious looking boulders. Outset arguably represents an improvement over Ocarina’s starting location ‘Kokiri Village’ in these regards, as the tutorialised elements in that location felt more obvious and arguably less naturalistic.
As I mentioned, the Great Sea is comprised of many islands for the player to explore, and unlike in Kingdom Hearts, the player does not begin the main gameplay loop upon leaving the first island: I suggest that there are two other islands that serve as part of the game’s introductory passages. After setting off with the aforementioned pirates to save his sister, Link is (literally) catapulted into the first of these, an evil den known as the ‘Forsaken Fortress’. The eerie dwelling place of a (totally) mysterious, malignant force, its distorted castle form features a tower that juts out like a twisted tree branch: along this bough nests the giant bird, whilst its master resides above in a half-destroyed hulk. The overall aesthetic is suggestive of brutal human (or ‘Hylian’) power forcing out the naturalistic elements typically associated with islands. Notably, I feel that this quality is actually enhanced by the polygonal nature of the graphical elements.
Functionally, the fortress acts an introductory dungeon of sorts. In gaming parlance it’s what might be called a ‘mini dungeon’, because – despite including dungeon-style level design and a collectable map (a series’ staple) – it lacks a climatic boss battle (it is more similar to Hyrule Castle at the beginning of A Link to the Past than ‘Inside the Great Deku Tree’ from Ocarina). In terms of game-progression, it introduces to the player yet more mechanics, such as sneaking, stealing enemy weapons and receiving info via a mystical stone amulet. Like Outset, the Fortress is revisited several times. In fact, it becomes a fully-fledged dungeon, complete with a new weapon the player must acquire to traverse it, an important cutscene during which Link rescues his sister, and a cathartic battle with the damned bird. During the denouement of the first visit, we are treated to an obscured glimpse of the game’s antagonist, who commands his giant pet to fling an overcome Link into the watery abyss.
Having been left unconscious and adrift at sea, Link is transported by a seemingly unmanned sailing boat to ‘Windfall Island’. In many ways, Windfall is this game’s ‘Kakariko Village’, which is to say that – like the world called Traverse Town that Sora winds up in – it features numerous hub-world elements without acting as a true hub (it is not the central location through which other levels are accessed). Windfall’s society is juxtaposed against that of Outset: it is depicted as a bustling town in contrast to the isolated hamlet feel of Link’s home, despite Outset actually being much larger. There’s a pier full of blustering sailors, a school complete with skiving miscreants, numerous shops selling things such as potions and explosives, a jail, a café, a photographer… there’s even a defunct Ferris wheel and a mansion that moonlights as an auction house. Indeed, the island’s name is a clever pun on the nature of its citizens: many rely on the wind for their trade and advise the player on what might happen when the wind blows in certain directions; others reward you with treasure charts that can help boost your Rupee count significantly.
Link’s not the only one looking to make a fortune on Windfall: merchant-cum-auctioneer Zunari is the key to actually getting on the (magical talking) boat and traveling to the first full dungeon. In helping him to set up his souvenir-based enterprise, you not only begin a game-long optional trading quest (another Zelda favourite) but you’re also rewarded with a sail. Many of the other islanders provide you with other tasks, to the extent that the island effectively becomes the ‘side-quest’ hub of the game. Photographer’s apprentice, teacher’s pet, jailbreaker, matchmaker – Link’s potential interactions with Windfall’s inhabitants help to cement the sense of whimsical charm that pervades the game. These tasks encourage the player to keep returning to the island frequently, especially since certain new side-quests pop us as the game’s narrative progresses: this only serves to enhance the sense of Windfall as the game’s urban centre. Like the game’s other main islands, you must return to Windfall at certain points to progress the story, including a particularly memorable sequence in which the pirates lay siege to it in a benign, lackadaisical manner.
The Zelda series returned to the starter-island trope in Skyward Sword, though this time the isle – known as ‘Skyloft’ – was set amongst the clouds. The developers created an overworld of sky-islands and an underworld comprising large, unconnected regions of Hyrule’s surface in a vague attempt to combine the openness of Wind Waker with more linear puzzle-infused environments. They were essentially trying to make the surface environments – typically themed as forest, desert and volcano segments – more dungeon-like. Unfortunately, of the floating islands Skyloft is the only one that provides significant exploration: some of the others just host mini-games, whilst most are tiny bits of rock housing a secret chest or two. Skyloft both stages the (overtly) tutorialised beginning act and also acts as a true hub world: after completing parts of the adventure on ‘the surface’, the player is expected to return to Skyloft before being able to access a new region or progress the narrative. Skyloft is visually cheery and vibrant, with textures and architectural elements that help highlight the game’s watercolour-esque aesthetic. It’s populace is similarly helpful (for the most part), providing the player with an inordinate amount of hints, side-quests and subsequent rewards in the form of Rupees and ‘Gratitude Crystals’. Once again though, the implementation of these periphery gameplay mechanics is arguably less successful than in Wind Waker.
I hope this piece has demonstrated that using islands to begin a game is an effective way to separate distinct parts of the game’s structure, and to allow the developers to isolate the player in a safer starting area before the more difficult main gameplay loops begins. The distinction made by shifting setting away from the island typically underpins a corresponding change in narrative tone, one that moves away from peaceful life towards dangerous adventure (the age-old ‘hero’s journey’ trope exemplified by The Hobbit (1937)). Often, these islands will be revisited to create a further contrast, usually depicting some change to the player-avatar’s home which adds further obstacle or impetus to their journey.
That’s all for this part. Next, I’ll be taking a (likely shorter) look at how islands are used as hub-worlds, a key means of facilitating overall game-structure in many classic titles. For now, as I’ve just picked-up lauded indie game Oxenfree (2016) – which begins with a group of teenagers traveling to an island before inadvertently stumbling into an extradimensional escapade – I am looking forward to seeing a more creative twist on the trope discussed above. Here’s hoping more games in the future continue to make use of it and develop it further.