In television, when budgets threaten to run dry, producers will sometimes create what’s called a “bottle episode.” It’s pretty simple: They take an existing set from the show and focus the entire episode in that singular location. Less money for cutaways and location shoots equals more money for the grand season finale with the CGI papasan chair.
The conventional wisdom among TV aficionados is that bottle episodes are generally great. It’s counterintuitive at first, because you’d think that, stripped of the lavish pageantry of modern television, these bottle episodes would be no more than throwaway—a vacation for the writers as they burn their way to the elusive end-of-season break. But limits enhance creativity. Bottle episodes are forced, by circumstance, to find inventive ways to tell stories. For any Breaking Bad fans out there, “Fly” is one of the latest and greatest examples of a bottle episode done right: Trapped in their meth lab when a contaminant (in this case, a fly) refuses to be contained, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman go mad from lack of sleep, revealing secrets to each other in heated, tense exchanges.
The Water Temple in The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time is as close in spirit to a bottle episode as any video game level can be. In his quest to rescue Princess Ruto (one of the Zora, a race of fish-people), Link, our spritely elf hero/national treasure, essentially travels up and down a large vertical chamber by raising and lowering the amount of water inside it, often with little guidance or clue as to what’s next. The level’s treasure is also laughably low-budget: You’ve been using the Hookshot, a tool for reaching high places and knocking down enemies, for a while already; now you get the Longshot, which is the same thing as the Hookshot, just…longer.
The Water Temple isn’t flashy. It isn’t full of menacing bad guys who torture Link in new and interesting ways. And other than a few short jaunts, it takes place in one giant room. But it’s also the purest distillation of The Legend Of Zelda since the original title, and likely the last time it’ll happen; a demand for unalloyed repetition and tenacity, the brutal undercurrents of every Zelda game.
Most of your time in the temple is spent changing the water level of the main chamber, which you do by going to one of three spots and playing “Zelda’s Lullaby” (number five on Hyrule’s Billboard 100) with your ocarina. One spot raises the water all the way up, one drains it completely, and one brings it to somewhere in the middle. There are small chambers along the walls, each handful only accessible at certain water levels.
At first, running through the Water Temple’s rinse cycle, so to speak, is pretty straightforward. The water begins as high as it gets, and the first realization you have is that no door is open or accessible just yet. Sooner or later, you exercise your only option: You put on your metal boots and sink to the bottom. Your blue tunic, recently acquired, keeps you alive, though the only weapon accessible in the depths is that blasted Hookshot; the Master Sword, your powerful and holy sidearm, won’t work. This is how the Water Temple strips you down.
Only one pathway is open to you, and it leads to the first of three spots from which the water level can be shifted. This one drains it all away. Then there’s a door into the center pillar. In there, you can raise the water to the halfway point. Yet this, too, leaves only one pathway open—you’re led to the final water control station, which refloods the entire level. Consider this the opening credits.
This initial exploration gives way to an often-frustrating repetition. You inch your way into side hallways, often stopped by a locked door—in a dungeon where keys are hard to come by. In most Zelda levels, you’re able to use the map to find unexplored terrain (i.e., where you ought to go next). In the Water Temple, simply getting to the terrain is a challenge. The water can only go from full to empty, then to half, then back to full—there’s no way to rearrange the process—to say, go from half-full to empty.
You might have a hunch that the missing key is somewhere in the middle of this infernal tower, and after playing “Zelda’s Lullaby” to the point where the notes lose all meaning, you might well discover that you were wrong. Maybe it’s at the bottom. Or worse yet, maybe it’s at the bottom, but the water has to be at the top, so that you can free-float over obstacles, using your iron boots as an occasional anchor that you can cast off whenever you want. Exploration takes time, even though the physical area is relatively small.
A bottle episode of television cannot hold too many characters. It’s a logistical limitation: The space is only so big. Instead of building itself around the breadth of its ensemble, the script for a good bottle episode offers deep insight into the few characters it can fit into the frame. Fittingly, the mini-boss of the Water Temple is yourself. Specifically, it’s a shadow version of yourself, slashing his sword roughly when you slash, and occasionally jumping onto the edge of your own blade to taunt you. It’s Ocarina’s personal crisis of conscience, made possible by a level that quite literally goes deeper than any other.
The careful slaying of yourself and subsequent acquisition of the Longshot offers little respite: What seems like an opportunity to skip the water-leveling entirely is instead just another way to reach higher ground and see exactly where you need the water to be. So there’s less research but still just as much backtracking and ocarina-playing. Like the best bottle episodes of TV, which reward patience and subtle acting, each step you take becomes important, because the alternative of careful advancement—that you waste a whole lot of time guessing—is far scarier.
A long time later (and really, this temple takes a while), you meet the final boss, which is a disappointment. Billed as “Giant Aquatic Amoeba: MORPHA,” it’s a long, gooey arm with a little ball inside that you grab with your new gadget. The monster looks like something out of a cheap SyFy movie, and in its own way, that’s an appropriately low-budget end to this minimalist dungeon. The Water Temple isn’t about spectacle. It’s a pure example of the Zelda series’ ability to cast exhausting repetition as a prelude to cathartic celebration.