I’ve now spent over 40 hours in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and completed the story once through. I have to admit, my feelings on it are somewhat conflicted. From a number of perspectives, it’s a truly excellent game, well deserving of its 93/100 Metacritic rating. On the other hand there were certainly a few aspects of it that gave me pause; finally, on a deeper level I feel compelled to raise question about games-of-this-type in general.
But let’s take it one step at a time. Be warned, there are some minor spoilers, but nothing that would surprise a current fan of Zelda games.
In Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design, he argues that “fun is just another word for learning.” (Incidentally, if you’re interested in design and haven’t read it, do yourself the favor. If you have read it, check out the 10-year update presentation from his website, here.)
Looking at Skyward Sword through this lens, it’s an incredibly well-made experience. I mentioned before, almost all Zelda games follow the pattern of:
1- A challenge is presented, and you don’t have the solution
I see that hook over that gap, but I can’t do anything with it
2- The solution is given, and you must use it immediately to advance
I just got the whip, and the only way out of this room is to use it to swing over that gap
3- The design of the environment presents permutations on the challenge, which you solve
I have to swing over that gap, kill the fire-breathing bird, and open that spigot- all using the whip
4- The boss presents an ultimate challenge, testing your mastery of the solution
I can only damage Koloktos after quickly using the whip to disable his multiple arms
This pattern naturally persists throughout the game. Even more impressive, once I attained all the tools, the focused presentation of challenges (steps 1 and 2) naturally disappeared. Skyward Sword‘s designers cleverly got around that; if a challenge required a tool I was probably not currently using, nearby puzzles often “primed” me to swap to that tool for the challenge in question. For example, after a long period without needing the whip, the solution to the upcoming puzzle was to use the whip to activate a Peahat. Cleverly, the designers placed a Furnix nearby- a fiery bird which can only be conquered with the Whip. These reminders help jog a player’s memory, reminding them of their earlier experiences where similar challenges were set up. Reminded in this way, the player is likely to reach the correct conclusion.
If I had to make a cautious complaint, it might be that the experience was too hand-held. The emotional response to learning often comes from the epiphany, the “aha!” moment when you suddenly realize exactly how to advance. The reward from these moments is diminished if the environment is constantly reminding me of what the solution will be. I say it’s a cautious complaint because it’s simple to go too far in the other direction. There was one puzzle I couldn’t figure out; I had to jump between two hanging platforms which stood too far apart to jump between them naturally. The solution ended up being to use the Gustbellows to swing the platforms, but there was nothing anywhere nearby (or recently) to remind me of this tool. Frustrated, this was the one time I looked up the answer.
To touch on some other areas of the game, the wonderful music shone best when themes and variations gave new subtext to the game’s characters. The art direction was consistent, and the painterly impressionist style was both pleasant to look at and worked well within the system constraints of the Wii. Cinematics and dialogs were well written and well directed, and the animations in them were varied and expressive. To my surprise, Groose became my favorite character in the game, exclusively for the honest presentation of his character’s internal struggle and resulting change.
The level design also bears mention; numerous areas were used repeatedly, and the design of the environments made them interesting to move through over and over again. Even the earliest areas hid new ways of interacting with them, unlocked by tools gained later in the game, bringing a fresh twist to a familiar space on repeated visits. Finally, the controls (which I will touch more on below) were occasionally truly inspired. Flying my Loftwing felt very natural, and controlling the Beetle worked similarly. The Whip takes the #2 spot for best use of controls, and my gold medal has to go to the Bow; using the nunchuck to “draw” the string while aiming with the wiimote was truly a delight, and I never tired of this mechanic.
With all of these supporting arguments, and clocking in at a full 40 hours (and there’s easily more I could have done), as a player, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was well worth my time and money. As a designer, it is well worth my admiration.
A section which could very reasonably be titled “quibbles” instead, there were only a few aspects of Skyward Sword which gave me pause. My primary complaint, unfortunately, has to be the controls. My initial attempts to play were with an off-brand MotionPlus wiimote, and the finer motions of the controls (especially the thrust attack) were always trouble. This improved some after swapping to the name-brand option, but there were still unnecessary challenges.
Fine control of Link’s facing seemed difficult, which made a number of jumping puzzles harder than they should have been. I appreciated the sword-and-shield controls of the wiimote-and-nunchuck, respectively, except that my sword would occasionally (and only in important, heated battles) become confused, moving completely contrary to my wiimote. Additionally, the core mechanic of most skill-based fights is that an enemy guards against areas, and I had to strike where the guard was not. Unfortunately, if my sword was to the right and the enemy guarded to the right, my attempt to shift the sword to the left would often trigger an attack from the right. This attack would be blocked, leaving me vulnerable and still leaving my sword to the right. I’m not entirely certain how this could have been improved, but it was cause for occasional frustration through the entire game.
My final complaint, which I’ve touched on, is that the game was too hand-held for my tastes. This is an area where I have to consider their target audience; the frequency of hints and reminders seems to target young children, though the ESRB rating is E10+. The 10 year olds I know are often playing Halo or Minecraft. Additionally, I wonder if the real market for additional Zelda games is not kids but instead mid-20’s-30’s adults who grew up with the initial releases and buy out of nostalgia.
There’s another few, deeper, complaints I have about Skyward Sword, as a designer.
First is the presentation of the story. Prior to its release, we’ve seen games such as Portal – which tells a compelling story delivered entirely through the real-time interactions between the player and the character of GLaDOS – and Braid – which still relies on text, but nevertheless manages to convey strong implications purely through gameplay – and Bastion, which delivered a compelling plot-based story alongside the gameplay, at the player’s pace.
In contrast, Skyward Sword is very much a movie interspersed with a game. The story in this game is broken up by long sections of gameplay which boil down to challenges Link must complete to push the story forward, often no more complex than “go get the next MacGuffin.” Without the dialogs and cutscenes, which, by volume, are negligibly interactive, I would have known almost nothing about the story at all.
Similarly, the mechanics of the gameplay itself have little bearing on the story. Braid was a story entirely about a man wishing he could turn back time; the core mechanic of the game was in rewinding and manipulating time to solve puzzles. Skyward Sword is a story about a young adult rising to heroism and saving the land. The core mechanic is sword swinging and monster slaying. This makes logical sense, but is so generic as a mechanic that it says nothing interesting about the story at all. To contrast, Shadow of the Colossus is a game entirely built around monster slaying, but the presentation of the world and the monsters ties the act of killing directly to the story, a question of the morality of the main character’s entire motivation. When Link has at last completed the Triforce, he says a prayer wishing for the destruction of the world’s primary evil, Demise. Using a nearly omnipotent force to wish for the destruction of… destruction struck me as unintentionally ironic.
I can’t claim to know what would need to change to reconcile the story and the gameplay, but the two have seen closer blends elsewhere.
My other philosophical concern with Skyward Sword is that, despite its polish and quality, it doesn’t add anything new to the videogame space. The gameplay is an incremental iteration on a tried-and-true formula, and the story is certainly very safe, with nobody “good” meeting any real threat or dying, and everybody “evil” ending up vanquished.
I keep hoping for a Zelda game where the story formula is thrown on its head, Ganon imprisons Link, and you play as Zelda, with an entirely different set of abilities and weaknesses. Or maybe a story where Link’s relentless pursuit of the destruction of evil exposes him too deeply; in choosing to destroy the last embodiment of destruction, he unwittingly rebirths this evil within himself, continuing the cycle. Or perhaps a story where Link (presented here explicitly as a kind of Eternal Champion, fated to contest with Ganon until the end of time) finally bests this great evil once and for all; a complete closure to the saga of Link. Done well, that kind of finality could pack a serious emotional punch.
It’s a strong game, but it is entirely the game Zelda fans could expect for it to be. I know businesses (including game developers) are primarily concerned with managing risk, and it gets more difficult to justify expenses as risk increases, but I’d love to see this level of polish, excellence, and investment brought to bear on a real twist to the formula.