A Hylian Country for Old Men
Almost ten years ago now, I hit save and publish on my review of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I’d beaten the game, but I wasn’t done playing it. There was still Hero Mode to dig into, a few secrets to find, and other excuses to let this version of Hyrule leak into my world. When I find myself compelled to jump right back into a game, even after 40+ hours playing it and days perseverating on writing a review of it, I know it’s a winner.
A lot of the time, when I love a game that much, I’m just preaching to the choir. Resident Evil 4, Super Meat Boy, and Animal Crossing: City Folk immediately come to mind. They were adored by their respective fanbases right out of the gate. That’s not what happened with Skyward Sword. It definitely got some praise, but a week or so after it was out in stores, the prevailing narrative surrounding the game was negative, with Yahtzee’s teardown of its various flaws being the leading voice in that crowd.
Everything Yahtzee said about the game is technically true, but to me, it reads like a guy yelling about how the Star Wars prequels are bad movies because “characters lack internal logic” and the “direction and acting are not that good.” I mean, yeah, obviously! The same is true for many episodes of Twin Peaks or movies by John Waters, but you don’t see their fans complaining.
So how can it be that some people hate Skyward Sword so much while others, like me, adore it? Are we even playing the same game? Well yes, but the difference is, different things about it will hit you more or less hard, depending on your core motivations for playing games. Some want to exit their reality and enter a new one, like moviegoers in a giant surround sound theater, engrossed in the latest Popcorn Classic. Others, like me, are more excited to invite a game into our current lives, like hanging an unrealistic painting on our wall in hopes that it would really bring the room together. I enjoy both kinds of games, but the older I get, the more I prefer the latter, which is why I still love Skyward Sword so much.
Here’s a brief recap for people who never played Skyward Sword (and those who did and have since tried to forget it). It starts with a three-hour tutorial where you have to complete a series of linear tasks in a small island town. It has loads of mandatory motion controls that, for the first few hours, constantly remind you of your own real-life struggles with physical coordination.
There’s also a new companion who is just as intrusive, if not more so. Like Navi, Tali, Ezlo, Midna, and other Link companions over the years, Fi regularly asks you to stop playing the game and instead listen to her talk about the game. This is, of course, one of the fastest ways to break immersion. Sometimes she even spoils the game for you, letting you know that there is a big boss fight just ahead! She almost literally holds your hand, sending out a call through the Wii Remote speaker in your grip, demanding that you press a button so that she can freeze you in place and give you some text to read.
This, combined with the game’s relatively small, disconnected, playground-like areas and some overreliance on blatant fetch quests, was too much for a lot of people. The game sold worse than its Wii-predecessor, despite releasing when the console’s install base was ten times bigger. It’s the only 3D Zelda game, as of the time of publication, to never be re-released. Hate for the game even helped inspire other artists to create their own work. Hyper Light Drifter was, in part, hoping to be an anti-Skyward Sword. Second Quest, a comic by two huge Zelda fans, was also explicitly working to be the opposite of the game.
And I get it! I understand why people hate it. If Skyward Sword were an all-new IP, like Sakura Samurai was on the 3DS, it likely would have been praised up and down by critics and players. It also would have sold even less, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, when you’re a Zelda game, people are going to go in with expectations, and the series cut its teeth on being one of the first to use a large, interconnected overworld to explore with minimal direction on how and what to do. Skyward Sword spits in the face of all that. And it totally works for me. All the things people hate about it? That’s why I love it.
Honestly, I think it’s because I am so old. Skyward Sword was made by men who, like me, have aged out of the target demographic for most AAA titles. They made the kind of game they want to play, that would fit into their responsibility-packed, high-pressure — yet physically sedentary — lives. It is, I guess you could say, the most middle-aged Zelda, and I’m totally here for it.
These days, I don’t really play games to escape from my life. I love being alive in my own world and my own body, and I don’t want to forget about either of them. More so, I’m keenly aware of how little life I may have ahead of me. Once you hit 40, not only are you halfway to the average life expectancy of an adult male, but your chances of heart disease, cancer, and all sorts of other fatal stuff go way up. So I don’t want to lose time in my life to a video game that I’ll never get back. Instead, I want games that enhance who I am and show me who the developers are.
I love analyzing the design of a game environment when I’m playing it. Like gawking at a giant, interactive Lego playset, I’m not immersed in these constructs, but I love marveling at how they were built and imagining building one myself. I want to know how the developers thought about their creations and what they want to tell me about them. Even if it means intruding on my natural experience with their work.
For me, when Fi suddenly barges in and starts telling me something about a level, it’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary turned on. I either soak it in or space out on it while thinking about something else. Either way, I’m glad it’s there.
The same goes for the many, many times the game tells you what an item is. Like the old “You’ve been playing for a while. Why don’t you take a break?” pop-ups that used to be in most Nintendo games, these little moments remind me that the developers want to take care of me. These days, I’m usually the one taking care of someone else, so it’s downright touching to have a game try to watch out for me like that, even it’s a little overly doting at times.
So while Fi and the small, easy-to-explore areas might make you feel like you’re never challenged to take on the big adventure all on your own, the game’s constant use of motion controls forces you to push yourself to physically do things you’ve never done before. I’ve said it many times before, but I think a lot of hate for motion controls come from how personally insulting they can be. If you’re bad at a game that uses a standard gamepad, you’re bad at pressing buttons. It’s no big deal. Maybe the character looks like an idiot on screen, flipping around and falling to their death because of a mistimed jump, but you look super cool just sitting there on your couch.
With motion controls, it’s you, the player, who didn’t know how to move your body correctly and ended up failing. That’s the exact sort of reality check many people got into games to avoid. If they wanted to move their bodies around, they’d play sports, right? Games are supposed to be a getaway from that pressure, are they not?
I get that. But again, I am old. I’ve played games with traditional controls for over 30 years. I’m open to some novelty at this point, not to mention some light exercise. More importantly, I’m not easily insulted at this point in my lifecycle, especially by a video game. I know the game isn’t real and how good I am at it doesn’t matter either way. Being physically uncoordinated won’t stop me from finding anyone to love me, or cause me to get bullied at school. Now that I’m pushing 50, those battles have already been won. Being over those hills allows me to more easily laugh at myself and how my love for video games makes me look ridiculous to other people. I think it’s funny, too, and the more I get to revel in that, the better.
In fact, laughing at myself makes me feel like I’m becoming a better person. So does beating down moblins in Skyward Sword using real sword swings and listening to in-game dev commentary. Give me a small, intricate world to do all those things, and I will thank you for years to come.
But on the other hand, if you give me a big, directionless world with tons of opportunities to get lost, you’re going to lose me. I didn’t fully realize this about myself until I first played Breath of the Wild. I like the more linear parts of the game, but for the most part, I felt it was too much work. I play games so I can make things, not take things. And BotW’s appeal lies in its endlessly giving world.
But to me, it’s a world that feels like an endless waste of time, or worse, an endless list of errands. Where others saw a no-rules planet of free play, I saw some of the worst parts of being a husband and dad; the need to travel to a bunch of different destinations to collect stuff that I don’t really care about. In BotW, it’s shrines and korok seeds. In my day to day life, it’s kitchen supplies and groceries. Real-life is open-world enough for me. In my off time, I’d rather stay boxed in.
Speaking of boxing, that’s how I describe Skyward Sword to people who have never played it. It’s like an Animal Crossing game with motion-controlled fighting that’s designed like Punch-Out. It’s about the small things, the interaction with minutia, and not the big adventure, and that’s why it fits so well into my already overwhelmingly large life.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I’m going to say it again because I think this is such a foreign concept to a lot of folks. I don’t want games that make me forget who I am. I want unforgettable games that add to who I am. That’s what Skyward Sword does for me. All these years later, its intrusive, constraining style still manages to push me out of my comfort zone, and that’s where I want to be.