It’s Dangerous To Go Alone! The Legend of Zelda and Fundamental Needs

It's Dangerous to Go Alone!I was never a big gamer, but I did become obsessed with the original NES The Legend of Zelda as a kid. On top of the hours I spent playing, I also avidly consumed any article in my brother’s Nintendo Power magazine related to the game.  I remember talking with people about rumors about hidden levels in the game (true), and how to find the Blue Ring. The Internet wasn’t a thing yet or I’m sure I would have been on Zelda message boards. Zelda was the first game I remember that really created an imaginary universe with engrossing challenges and a sense of infinite possibility. As an adult, I look back on the game as an artistic masterpiece (albeit in 8 bits) and an accomplishment in design psychology.

LegendofZeldaThe Legend of Zelda creates a rich environment that supports at least two of the three fundamental needs defined by self-determination theory: Autonomy, or the sense of meaningful choice, and competence, or the sense of learning and growth.


If you haven’t played it, you might not know that Zelda lays out a massive world named the kingdom of Hyrule composed of equally sized rectangles. When you first begin the game, you have neither the weapons nor the experience to progress beyond a small perimeter. As you gain power, it becomes clear that there is a huge world to explore. I remember poring over a tiny, hard-to-read version of the Zelda world map that came in an issue of Nintendo Power, hoping it would give me the information I needed to find the next dungeon (or the much-hyped Blue Ring):

The full Legend of Zelda overworld map, in its 8-bit glory.
The full Legend of Zelda overworld map, in its 8-bit glory.

There were so many choices about where to go next (admittedly, sometimes constrained by your level of accomplishment in the game; you needed certain equipment like the ladder and raft to get to some regions). There were also what felt like infinite options to explore within each screen of the world. For example, you learn pretty quickly once you have the candle that you can burn bushes, and will sometimes find staircases to cellars with money or items (or thieves). Check out the options on this screen:

So many bushes to burn!!
So many bushes to burn!!

And then, of course, each of the major dungeons had their own intricate layouts to explore. Eight dungeons, plus Death Mountain, each with a floor plan more complicated than the last. Here’s the map for the first dungeon:

The first dungeon in the original Legend of Zelda.
The first dungeon in the original Legend of Zelda.

As if the game itself didn’t offer a plethora of choice to keep your autonomy humming, there were also extra challenges. One was to beat “the second quest,” an alternate version of the same game that appeared after you fully conquered the first. It had a similar structure but all of the maps and layouts were different. Then there were self-imposed challenges such as beating the game without getting the Blue Ring, which makes the game considerably more difficult.


Our hero, Link. So cute. So pixelated.
Our hero, Link. So cute. So pixelated.

After I had already started thinking about this post, I read a post on Eric Barker’s blog where he interviewed Steve Kamb, who writes about self-improvement through the lens of starring in your own video game. Kamb spoke about how The Legend of Zelda uses rewards in a way that helps promote competence and urge Link on to the next challenge (similar to how Starbucks offers rewards that help urge users on to the next cup of coffee):

The thing I love about “Legend of Zelda” is that every time you go to a new dungeon or a new level, there is a new item that you earn. That item allows you then to progress further in the game and go explore the next dungeon. So why don’t we reward ourselves with things that reward us back?

To my point about the maps above, while you do have a great deal of choice about how to tackle the kingdom of Hyrule, you do have to earn certain items to access areas of the map. One example is the ladder, which is hidden in the fourth dungeon and enables our hero Link to cross rivers and streams:

Don't ask how Link totes a ladder around while fighting the bad guys.
Don’t ask how Link totes a ladder around while fighting the bad guys.

The screen itself provides a great deal of competence support in the sense of both immediate and longer-term feedback. In the image above, you can see many pieces of feedback:

  • What each of the two controller buttons (A and B) controls at the moment
  • How many heart containers the player has available (these are earned)
  • How much energy is in the heart containers
  • How many rupees the player has collected to buy additional items
  • How many keys for the dungeon the player has found
  • How many bombs the player has stored

All of this information helps provide a sense of achievement and guide the player’s next steps. A player who is low on energy, for example, might choose to spend some time killing bad guys in the woods (who leave behind hearts) before pursuing the next dungeon.


I don’t think there’s a strong case to be made for relatedness support in The Legend of Zelda, which is fundamentally the story of a hero striking out on his own to rescue a princess. The only real “companionship” Link has is his sword, which he receives from an old man in the very first moments of game play:


As a player, I certainly didn’t feel a strong relatedness support from having the sword. I did get that support from the social environment surrounding my playing: Comparing achievements with friends, sharing rumors and tips with each other, and secretly hoping I’d be the first to beat the game (I can’t remember if I was or not, which means I probably wasn’t). Nonetheless, The Legend of Zelda is one of the stickiest games I’ve ever played, and I have no doubt I’d lose endless hours to it again if I downloaded it. Which is basically why I haven’t.

Happy 30th birthday, Zelda.

2 thoughts on “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone! The Legend of Zelda and Fundamental Needs

  1. Nice write up. You should download the game again. Don’t be skeered. Do it…doooooo eeeeeeet. Give in to the voices.

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