[Disclaimer: Skyward Sword was the first 3D Zelda game I’ve played. Other games in the series I’ve played include OoT, WW, PH, ST, MC, LttP and LbW.]
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved franchises ever and for good reasons too. For almost 30 years the games have enraptured fans with its puzzle-incorporated dungeons, its intriguing worlds and its sense of adventure. Nevertheless like any other franchises it too contains a few black sheep, Skyward Sword being the latest contender. It was heavily criticized for many reasons; it’s heavy reliance on cutscenes, the smaller and more linear worlds, the forced implementation of the motion controls, the abundance of handholding and the fact that Fi was boring and WON’T SHUT THE HELL UP!
Despite its flaws I’m still rather fond of Skyward Sword and I never felt the same sense of adoration towards the other games. I didn’t understand why until I gifted my sister her first Zelda game, Link between Worlds and the following conversation occurred.
Me: Hey how are you liking a Link between Worlds?
Her: Meh I found it boring.
Me: Wait what? Didn’t you like the dungeons?
Her: They were pretty cool I guess, wall mechanic was intuitive.
Me: Then what about the world?
Her: Yeah it was kinda fun running around and exploring stuff.
Me: Then what’s wrong with the game?
Her: I dunno I never felt any motivation to keep playing. They keep yapping on and on about how the world is in danger but it feels like i'm just dicking around all over the place.
My sister is a casual gamer so she looks at games through a literary perspective. While most people simply accept these moments as an inherent part of games they simply stick out like a sore thumb for her and this reveals a problem that plagues the Zelda series. The story of Zelda is very simplistic as it follows the “chosen one” trope, Link is selected to save the damsel in distress called Zelda from an malignant force called Ganon. The use of a trope itself isn’t necessarily bad, after all many other stories like Harry Potter have utilized it to a great effect. Plus the simplicity of the plot complements the simple design of the 2D Zelda games well. It only becomes problematic when the more complex 3D Zelda games completely translate these simple 2D design elements into its own design. Take Ocarina of Time for instance, as the first 3D game it was free to use 3D graphics, camera angles and cutscenes to tell a much more cinematic story. The problems is though they didn’t change anything when it came to the characters and their dialogue, Zelda and the sages used their screen time to tell Link how it’s his destiny as the chosen one to be awesome and Link never responds to these claims. They never acknowledge the absurdity of a silent protagonist and it can’t even be classified as a Hero’s Journey since Link never refused the call as he blindly does everything he’s told. Wind Waker was a slight improvement when they gave Link a child-like personality and a motivation other than a giant tree told him so but even then it was incredibly basic. We’re introduced to his sister for about 30 minutes and then she gets kidnapped immediately, there isn’t much buildup of chemistry between the two to make me care other than the fact that she's your sister. It lacks motivation for me to continue the story other than for simply completion sake. The game squanders the resources of a visual medium by telling us why we should care about saving Hyrule and his sister when it should have been using it’s time showing reasons to care about the characters and the world you live.
"We're too lazy to actually create scenes to make you care about him but you should since being a dog automatically means he has your love.
This is where Skyward Sword comes in because it excels at making you invested in the situation.The game starts off with you meeting up with Zelda, “Oh boy” you muttered “Another cutscenes where you meet the Princess for the first time who will spent hours monologuing about her family history and the evil that that I must face as the chosen one”. But in reality when you first see her you’re faced with this beautiful moment of her singing with her harp. She’s not wearing the usual royal attire since surprisingly she’s not even a princess. Instead she is the headmaster's daughter as well as your childhood friend.and within the first hour the game spends it’s time not telling but showing your relationship with her. She wakes you up for the Loftwing race but when your bird goes missing she helps you find him, going as far as to call out Groose’s bullshit when it was apparent that he was behind the whole mess. She’s not simply a Marie Sue either, she mischievously pushes you off a cliff TWICE, one of those instances almost leading to your death. It does a good job of portraying Zelda not simply as a walking plot point but as someone who you’ve known as a friend for a long time.
You can cut the sexual tension here with a knife
One of the most brilliant moment happens after you’ve won the Loftwing race and you and Zelda decide to go fly around, nothing really important happens and yet it still evokes so much emotion. You can really feel and understand the feelings Zelda has for Link and as our very own Jonathan Holmes described it “I didn’t want the moment to end”. The idea of Zelda being your childhood friend wasn’t unique, it was first used in Minish Cap and it also worked well there. But Skyward Sword put it to better use with all the resources available to them; the beautifully animated models, the orchestrated music and the amazing cutscenes. All of these worked together to replace the ineffective dialogue used by the other games in the series. That is what makes her kidnapping much more effective because you’re no longer motivated through gameplay like Majora’s Masks time limit but because you formed an emotional attachment to Zelda. It wasn’t simply about the adventure or saving the world anymore, you went on the quest not because her father told you to save her to but because you wanted to and you would have done it even if you weren’t asked to.
This isn’t simply an isolated case in the game though. Later on after you’ve completed the fire temple you finally find Zelda, you’re glad to finally find her and so is she but wait who's that mysterious person with her? The one called Impa stops her from approaching you, she regrettably complies and transports herself through the portal. As Impa turns her attention to you she throws out harsh words after words, mocking you for being slow. All of this enrages Link but he can't deny these accusations because Impa was right. It was your fault for being late, Impa was the one who saved her not you and if it wasn’t for her Ghirahim would have gotten to her already. But as she leaves you in your shame she throws one more piece of advice: “If you wish to be of help to her Grace, you must summon a shred of courage and face the trials laid out before you. Only when you’ve conquered the trials will you be of use to Zelda.” A common complaint was directed towards the mandatory trials in the game, some sarcastically remarked that if the world was in such peril why don’t the deities just hand him the all the powers but that would be missing the point. Every Hero's journey has a moment of opposition that the protagonist has to face to complete their goal and this comes in the form of the trials. You're not doing the trial to appease the deities, you're doing it to prove to yourself that you are strong enough to save Zelda.
"...And your fashion sense is simply terrible, do you not understand how stupid those tights make you look?"
Only when you finally completed all the trials were you able to finally meet Zelda and here she finally delivers the series obligatory destiny monologue. But at this point I’m invested, I actually cared about what's going on at this point so the moment came as a treat and not simply an annoyance. The twist is that Zelda is actually the mortal reincarnation of the Goddess Hylia and everything that happened was done to prepare Link as the chosen one. Her role is to be sealed away from Ghirahim and Link has to defeat him to save the world. What makes this moment so special is that Zelda finally points out the absurdity of the whole situation, he was emotionally manipulated into a destiny that he never wanted any part of. She knows that it didn’t matter that all the intentions were good because it doesn’t make anything she’s done less cruel. It would have been understandable for Link to be furious at this point but the only response he had was one of regret because once again he couldn’t save her. None of that ever mattered to him, he didn’t care that he was made to do all these tasks because that's how much Zelda means to him. He would go against the whole world just to have her back.
A lot of love and care were placed into these cutscenes and it’s very apparent that the game was designed with an emphasis on story. With that in mind all the questionable decisions the title has starts to make a bit more sense. It is true that the game is way more linear in its overworld and region design but it’s very hard to tell a decent story if it retained the same level of freedom. You’d lose all sense of pacing when you keep exploring a world that should be getting overthrown by evil forces as time goes on and on. The recurring boss battles with Ghirahim and Demise could be seen as a lazy design choice but through a literary perspective it does become clear. In previous game it was hard to stay invested when the story revolves around saving the world against a antagonists who you hardly meet. You hardly interact with Ganondorf because he hangs out in his castle while you solve puzzles and play with his pet demons from hell. Ghirahim and Demise are given more screen time and by the end of the game the drive to beat the crap out of them only becomes much stronger. Despite how much I loathed Fi in the games I do have to admit she kind of redeemed herself in the end. All the time she was defined as an emotionless robot, she perceives the world through logical analysis and probability but even she slowly warms up in Link's presence. The end scene with her thanking him for letting her experience happiness for the first time wouldn’t have been as strong if she didn’t act all stilted all the time.
I don't even have anything snarky to say here, this scene tugged at my heart.
The game is not by any stretch perfect, hell it isn’t even my favorite Zelda title (that goes to the Link between Worlds). What it is though is a game in a long running series that went out of its comfort zone to reinvent itself to be story centered. It alienated a lot of the gameplay purist but no one could argue that it was safe or forgettable and I’ll always love it for being the only game to give me the drive to press on.
Post all your Groose fanart here because I cannot contain him, THE GROOSE IS LOOSE!