While game news is light, and we're reminiscing on a gaming year gone by, I thought I'd take the time to write about the games that defined my year. They weren't necessarily classics -- some I absolutely hated, some I fell head over heels for, but they're all worth discussing. Today is my last effort, and I'm talking about Skyward Sword!
Anyone who ever played Ocarina of Time remembers the moment you run out of Kokiri Forest and into Hyrule Field. Back then it was like a blank canvas for our own restless sense of adventure. Horizons, both literal and figurative, expanded before our eyes.
You ran towards the Hyrule Castle. The sun, nestled in the sky, slowly began to set and you felt goosebumps. You felt a sense of endless possibility, the need to explore. What was past that hill? What lay beyond the skyline?
It’s been a while since I’ve truly enjoyed that feeling in a Zelda game, it certainly didn’t exist in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
The two games I’ve spent the most time with towards the tail end of 2011 were Skyrim and Skyward Sword. Both games are technically RPGs but they definitely exist at opposite ends of a wide ranging spectrum.
When I think of Skyrim I think of a game that is designed with exploration in mind, not function or aesthetics. Skyrim’s dungeons are arguably more structured than any other Bethesda RPG ever made, but none come even close to competing with the simplest dungeon in any Zelda game post-A Link to the Past.
Conversely, no version of Hyrule in any Zelda game ever made comes close to creating a world like Skyrim’s. That’s fine, that’s understandable. The worlds that Nintendo create are always built for function over form. With Skyward Sword however, the world feels precisely designed to the point where it doesn’t even have a sense of place, it feels more like a series of levels that one simply engages with and overcomes.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what went wrong, but the well meaning intentions of Nintendo, in creating Skyward Sword, appear to have gone astray. One of the goals in the game’s development was to make better use of the Skyward Sword’s ‘overworld’. This was in direct opposition to Twilight Princess, which made poor use of its sprawling landscape, despite featuring some of the most tightly designed dungeons in the series.
With Skyward Sword it seems as though the solution was to make the overworld play more like a loosely constructed dungeon – an area where puzzles could be solved, items could be used and fun could be constantly had, as opposed to the vapid areas featured in Twilight Princess. Sounds perfect on paper, but I can’t help but feel as though something got lost in the implementation. Because at some point, as I played, the world of Skyward Sword stopped feeling like a place to explore, and become more like a series of frustrating diversions to be endured.
Part of it has to do with the fact that the game’s multiple areas are over designed. They feel like levels. Part of it also has to with the fact that Skyward Sword, in making each of its ‘areas’ feel like loosely designed dungeons, completely loses the delicate overworld/dungeon structure that I adored in previous Zelda games.
Some of my favourite moments in Zelda games have been ‘aaaaah’ moments. The understanding, the pleasure in seeing my precise actions solve some massively integrated dungeon puzzle. But part of the joy of Zelda also comes from the ability to explore, to meet new NPCs, to get lost in the world. These are the moments that occur in between the dungeons. Moments that are almost completely absent from Skyward Sword.
Exploration, the simple pleasure of meeting the inhabitants of a new area and engaging with them -- it represents the real soul of the Zelda experience. Skyward Sword does a decent job of replicating that feeling with Skyloft, and does so through some dazzlingly original character design, but I don’t feel as though I’ve gotten a chance to really engage with a living breathing world. In Ocarina of Time I woke up in Kokiri Forest, I visited to Hyrule Castle, I met a race of stone-eating mountain dwellers in Death Mountain, I swam with the inhabitants of Zora’s Domain.
Skyward Sword is completely missing that passive experience of simply being, it’s lost that sense of place. It’s a series of well designed levels that I must progress through, and that doesn’t feel like the Zelda I know.