Design Analysis: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an action adventure game that was released worldwide in November 2011. Its developer and publisher was Nintendo. It was released for the Wii and, as of September 2016, it can be purchased and downloaded on the Wii U. We will be analyzing this game’s design from the two basic design perspectives: flavor and mechanics.

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Our adventure begins; the game simultaneously introduces us to an impending evil and a quaint ordinary world. The evil is a mysterious giant monster rising from a darkened forest. The ordinary world is a bright town floating above the clouds that has crafted a symbiotic relationship with giant colorful birds.

Those familiar with the series will recognize the two important characters: Link the silent hero, and Zelda the title’s namesake. Link is introduced to us in a dream, and in this dream, it is announced he is chosen by the Goddess to be the savior of the land. This all follows the traditional Zelda trope. Zelda herself, however, is introduced not as a mysterious and powerful Princess, but as a fellow resident of Skyloft.

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Link and Zelda

After the prologue, Zelda is knocked out of the sky by a dark tornado. To save Zelda, Link takes the Goddess Sword, and we are reintroduced to the voice from the dream. The spirit of the sword is Fi, a calculated and computer-like entity that accompanies Link on his journey. What is below the clouds is a mystery to the residents of Skyloft but Fi knows an old and magical way exists to create portals to the surface. Link dons the traditional green outfit, a knight’s uniform in this game, and sets out in search of Zelda.

The story is a pretty standard Legend of Zelda story. The bad guys need Zelda for nefarious purposes and it’s up to Link, the chosen hero, to save Zelda and the world. Without going into too much detail, there are some interesting twists involving the villains. Skyward Sword is considered to be the first in the timeline of the Zelda series, and it capitalizes on that with an ending that Zelda fans will appreciate.

Zelda is traveling to “purify her body” in the two sacred springs, while Link’s primary drive is finding her. After catching her, two temples later, he is told to go to another location where he gets a magic harp. To this point, everything feels coherent. Skyward Sword seems to have a problem with creating comprehensible reasons for what it puts Link through next. Link is told his magic one-of-a-kind sword isn’t great enough. He needs to travel to the three previous areas to find three Sacred Flames to make his sword stronger. Each location, however, won’t let Link in until he “proves himself” by completing a challenge in the Silent Realm. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that’s not the end of it.

So let’s look at this in a simpler fashion:

  1. Link needs to find Zelda.
  2. Link gets a powerful sword and tablet for first area.
  3. Link needs to traverse a Dungeon to find Zelda and get the tablet for the second area.
  4. Link goes to second area because Zelda wasn’t at the first area.
  5. Link needs to traverse a Dungeon and get the tablet for the third area. Zelda is at the second area but tells Link she needs to go the the third area.
  6. Link traverses a Dungeon in the third area to help Zelda finish her task and get the magic harp.

This path makes sense and feels right. Every action the player is told to perform is backed by solid story logic. Then, the game takes a turn:

  1. Link’s sword isn’t strong enough so he needs to find three Sacred Flames.
  2. Link isn’t worthy enough to try to get the first flame, he needs to prove himself, so he proves himself in the Silent Realm.
  3. Link needs to traverse a Dungeon to get the first sacred flame.
  4. Link gets the first flame and goes to the second flame.
  5. Link isn’t worthy enough to try to get the second flame, he needs to prove himself, so he proves himself in the Silent Realm.
  6. Link needs to traverse a Dungeon to get the second sacred flame.
  7. Link gets the second flame and goes to the third flame.
  8. Link isn’t worthy enough to try to get the third flame, he needs to prove himself, so he proves himself in the Silent Realm.
  9. Link needs to traverse a Dungeon to get the third sacred flame.
  10. Etc…

It keeps going! Maybe now he’s proven himself? Are you sure? Okay, guess not.

The constant trials provide no forward motion to the story and add nothing to the world. Skyward Sword would have been better off if the Silent Realm didn’t exist. Even more so, the Silent Realm itself doesn’t feel like it should exist, as if it was shoehorned in last minute just to extend gameplay. This could also have been avoided if the Silent Realm trials were actually fun. Instead, this repetition makes the player want to give up on the game.

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Skyloft

Skyloft is the most compelling place in the entire game. It has characters, lore, and culture. Skyloft’s culture has some intrinsic elements that are made clear very quickly. Students of the Knight Academy participate in the Wing Ceremony, a Quidditch-like race to catch a golden bird. The winner continues the ceremony and plays the part of the Goddess’s Hero. It’s apparent that graduating and becoming knights is an important part of this world, as is the Goddess Hylia.

The side quests of Skyloft are easily the most fun and engaging part of the game. These side quests explore each character of Skyloft, providing backstory and growth, more than Link or Zelda get in the entire game. They even provide tangible rewards for the main game. I found myself trudging through the main story just to see what happened next in Skyloft. Skyloft quests are the shining diamond in this otherwise rough gameplay experience.

The title provides us with the ability to call Link’s Loftwing and fly to other floating islands. However, the islands are more like asteroids as they provide nothing to explore, no life worth mentioning, and seem to only exist as a location for treasure. The game would be better served if there was just a large floating continent instead of a bunch of islands. The few islands that do matter could have been attached to the main island and the player would have been freed from this false promise of exploration.

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Link and Groose

The introduction is good at giving us a sense of the character relationships. Zelda is Link’s childhood friend, a role she doesn’t normally play in the series. Groose, his rival, is playing a role normally ignored after the beginning in typical Zelda structure, but is strangely more interwoven in this title. Every other character feels unique in some way and the title makes great use of them in its series of optional side quests. When it comes to Fi, the designers succeeded in making her seem emotionless and calculating, but far too well. Fi is regarded as possibly the most annoying and boring character from a Zelda series. Her mechanical dialogue prevents the player from generating an emotional connection with Fi, and as a result, the player disregards anything she has to say. The last important character introduced in the beginning is Ghirahim, a flamboyant and over excited villain, and self-proclaimed kidnapper of Zelda.

“By my calculations, you are currently positioned in a location known as the Sealed Grounds.”

-Fi, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Swordfi

From a flavor standpoint, most of the game feels empty. There are plenty of creatures but no strong background. You have forest creatures that live in the forest and like the forest, mole people who live in the mountains and like the dirt, and robots who live in the desert because… it wasn’t always a desert? The most thought-provoking aspect about the surface is that its structures are nothing but ruins, but the game only gives us some text background in the introduction. Discovering history is what makes ruins and wastelands interesting. For the game that is considered first in the timeline, the gameplay doesn’t feel like it at all.

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Skyward Sword was made in the midst of Wii Motion Plus, so the only way to play is with a Wii Motion Plus Wii Remote and Nunchaku attachment. The A button is used for most of the gameplay interaction, the nunchaku stick is used for movement and its motion is used for the somersault, the Wii Remote motion controls most of Link’s gadgets, and the other buttons are fairly straightforward miscellaneous game actions.

The beginning prologue functions as a tutorial for basic game mechanics, which is a common game design decision. The tutorial introduces two mechanics to the Zelda series not used before: dashing and stamina. Dashing allows Link to traverse the environment by moving faster, running up walls to reach higher ledges, and is required for Links trademark somersault. Stamina is purely a restrictive mechanic, it is consumed when you dash, push, and climb. If you run out of stamina the game punishes you by stopping whatever you’re doing and putting you into a four second slower-than-normal state while your stamina recharges to full.

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Moving a block consumes stamina.

Restrictive mechanics such as Link’s stamina serve few purposes but the most important purpose is controlling difficulty. The game designer gives the player an ability but the ability makes the player too powerful if it is used consistently, so the game designer gives the ability a cost from a restrictive resource. In any other game this would be for a more powerful attack or spell. In Skyward Sword, the only thing stamina does is slow you down, which is not a reasonable purpose. This sounds false, but think of it like this; dash offers a faster foot speed than normal, so the players will use it. If the player uses it for too long, the player needs to move at a slower-than-normal speed for four seconds to recharge stamina, negating gained time. If the player stops dashing but needs to climb, they can’t because of stamina, again negating gained time. This causes the player to use dash sparingly, increasing the amount of time that travel takes in comparison to what the title offers, ergo slowing you down. It’s the game designer saying dashing, pushing, and climbing are too powerful, in fact so powerful that you should be punished for using it too much. Yes, it makes flavor sense for Link to get winded, but good gameplay should always trump flavor. Stamina creates feel-bad moments whenever Link becomes winded or is forced to wait because of it. Stamina is an addition that the game didn’t need.

Interacting with non-player characters is straightforward and characters with something important to say are marked with an ellipsis inside a thought bubble, which is a wise design choice. When a game involves talking to a lot of NPCs, it can be tricky to remember exactly who to talk to next, so a mechanic that points out who has something important to say is required. Skyward Sword mitigates possible confusion by allowing the player to put markers on the map, which appear as beacons in gameplay. This is another good decision by the design team. Another choice is to have a sort of quest journal that details exactly who to talk to next and where they are. Both are viable and have pros and cons.

Character and map markers are good because it shows if anyone in particular is involved in a quest, but may create a wild-goose-chase feel when the player still doesn’t know which character is next for which quest. Quest journals have the opposite effect. Players know exactly where the next NPC is but has no real help discovering new quests. If a game designer is concerned about this, why not use both? Well, it can be input-overload for the player and seem like handholding, and one mechanic may end up seeming unnecessary. Despite this, it is generally considered better design practice to be handholding instead of confusing.

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Lanayru Desert map with beacons placed on it.

When it comes to conveying the next story mission to the player, Skyward Sword wanted to really make sure there was no confusion. It turns handholding up to eleven. Every cutscene and dialogue is unskippable and dialogue can’t be sped up. After every cutscene and dialogue, there is a 98% chance Fi is going to tell you what just happened in her own unskippable dialogue. The title offers the ability for Fi to help you by telling you what it is you need to do at the press of a button. However, the help is usually very general and typically just restates her previous restating of what you saw or read.

Skyward Sword has an exploring mechanic, as most Zelda games do. Except whatever you find on the surface is not treasure, instead you unlock a linked treasure on a random floating island in the sky. This forces the player to explore the surface and the sky, and the only purpose for this would be to double the length of gameplay one found treasure is worth. The result allows the designers to provide less treasure or increase gameplay time, neither of which are good game design reasons. Not to mention the tediousness of flying and the needlessly complex flying controls, which makes use of motion control.

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Technoblin, an armed enemy.

Every Zelda game has gadgets and the most important one is almost always Link’s sword. In the era of Motion Plus, it is controlled entirely by Wii Remote motion. You swing from left to right, so does Link. Naturally, the designers made the majority of combat with common enemies based around this mechanic, which is terrible. Attack some enemies from the wrong angle and you deal no damage. Enemies with weapons have an uncanny sixth sense for where you are going to attack from, and block your strike easily. A game that would have felt good with this combat is a role playing game. After each combat in an RPG, the player is rewarded with experience and loot. The Legend of Zelda, not an RPG, is an action-adventure game and provides no reward for combat. In every Zelda game, unless the fight is with a boss or mini-boss, combat is a speedbump. That’s not to say speedbumps are bad or wrong, in fact they are good. Speedbumps create variance in gameplay and tempo, can create tense situations, but typically offer little to no in-game reward. In any other Zelda game, common enemies are defeated with one to five hits and you get no reward except a dropped rupee or heart, or the privilege to progress. Skyward Sword is the same except those one to five hits are now exceedingly more difficult to land. Instead of speedbumps, combat situations become more like caltrops.

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Ghirahim

The other gadgets the game designers give Link are enjoyable but mostly uninspired. As usual, you get the typical hookshot, bombs, and bow. The most interesting gadget is the flying remote-controlled beetle, however it is basically just the seagulls from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Gadgets are typically used to solve the puzzles of the dungeon they are found in, including the boss fight. While this may seem formulaic, it should be up to the game designers to create unanticipated ways the gadget can be used, both in the boss fight and later on. Skyward Sword is no different, having its fair share of clever uses, except when a boss fight is disappointingly a fight with Ghirahim, which uses no particular gadget except for the sword and shield.

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Koloktos, the fifth boss in Skyward Sword

Boss fights and mini-boss fights are not speedbumps. Those should be thought of as high adrenaline puzzles. On average Skyward Sword’s individual boss fights are good as they range from very simple to very clever. Boss fights should each feel unique, so if you fight one boss twice, it’s special and probably meaningful. When Skyward Sword makes you fight two bosses three times each, it’s tedious.

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The Silent Realm

Most of the game design decisions in Skyward Sword appear to be saying “We don’t want the player to finish too quickly.” No other design choice embodies this more than the Silent Realm, the “prove yourself” before every temple (and beyond). The Silent Realm challenges take a long time to complete and if you make a mistake, you are forced to start over from the beginning. They provide zero reward except now you have “proven yourself” and can proceed to the Dungeon. As I said previously, the game should have omitted them entirely, or tried to make them fun. For the whole game, the design decisions should have said “We want the player to have more fun.

Mechanically, Skyward Sword pushed the Legend of Zelda template and made itself a game that stands unique among Zelda titles. When it comes to game design, “unique and interesting” are not synonyms for “good and fun.” If you forget your audience or genre, and your controls contradict your gameplay, your game will likely not be fun for anyone. Of course, if you make a game for one of the most popular and recognizable intellectual properties, it will likely be praised and become successful anyway. However, if you are not so lucky, Skyward Sword is a great example of what not to do.

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