2011 In Games: Skyward Sword And The Sense Of Place

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.


Comments

    Thanks for the review/article. I am now convinced I can wait until someone offers to lend me this game :)

    A thousand times yes! I kept feeling this exact thing while I was playing, but with all the praise people were spewing for the game I wondered if I was just looking at previous Zelda games through rose-coloured glasses, and that no Zelda game would ever live up to the grand idea of what the previous games were in my head. But yes that is exactly what is missing. There is no downtime between dungeons.

    In Ocarina of Time I used to actually dread having to go into my next dungeon (not that I didn't enjoy them, it was just a weird psychological thing), so I would spend hours procrastinating in the overworld and exploring and collecting things and just running around Hyrule field mashing A until nightfall. Twilight Princess had too many different open areas, all of which were empty, but the dungeon-like overworld of Skyward Sword has just jumped to the other extreme. Maybe they'll get it right next time. Or maybe I need to stop expecting to get the exact same game again.

      Totally agree, it's like having to push a log, obviously there so you can make your way back, i mean i loved having to go back the way i came because every time i'd find something new. It's the reason the time element worked so well for the series, because it changed things and you explored.
      Skyward sword feels like a game made for children, no older than 8. It's controls are frustrating to play for hours. yet i i have no sense of joy trying to understand more of the overall quest. just another mw3 story, with corridor after corridor of playing to see the end really sad i was hoping for better

    Soooooo true. I've told everyone that's asked me what it was like the exact same thing. Very enjoyable, but still missing the point. Exploration was so so sorely missed here, and replaying the same three friggin areas was just so uninspiring.

    There are plenty of problems with the Skyward Sword's design, mostly due to attempts to curb issues with other recent Zelda titles. I disagree about OoT, however. That game was a huge let-down for me - I expected a bare minimum of world density on par with Zelda 3, but didn't get any of it.

    The Elder Scrolls is a good series to compare, as I feel that this is the direction in which I expected Zelda to head. The way Bethesda handles their own lore and world is much more respectful to the players of their series.

    Sure, there are the "fans" who will proclaim Skyrim too dumbed down (it's certainly missing something with the armor repairing system - something Zelda has surprisingly forayed toward) but it is still the same experience (as its predecessors) at its core.

    I guess I'll just go cuddle my Link to the Past SNES cartridge then.

    Interesting observations Serrels and I agree for the most part, but in terms of the game's weaker points, I'm not sure that lack of enticing exploration was an overly significant one.

    The characters may well be dazzlingly original, but that's not the adjectives I would focus on; wooden and obnoxious seem more apt. The dialogue wouldn't be out of place in an episode of dragonball and being forced to sit through ream after ream of text over yapping grunts and mumbles just has no place in any contemporary big budget game.

    Don't want to plug, but hit up my review over on ausgamers.com/reviews if you're interested in a deeper analysis on that.

    Sense of place is an interesting aspect though for sure, that desire to explore does seem to lean heavily on more open dynamic environments and emergent gameplay these days.

      I remember an interview with Miyamoto about his inspirations for Zelda, and he cited his childhood wonder and excitement at the unexplored wilderness around his neighbourhood.

      He wanted to capture that feeling of anticipation and potential of the unknown, and the joy in unlocking the secrets of his surroundings through exploration; all through the world of Hyrule.

      What's interesting is the differing instincts and desires in each person though, and one man's joy of exploration is another's chore between epic battles and new powerful abilities (not saying you fit either category).

      What I think I'm trying to say (inefficiently) is for a game which tries to tap into as many gamer's base desires as possible, shortcomings in some areas are going to feel to be of lesser or greater magnitude depending on the gamer's desires.

      Your comment that the writing, characterisation and voicing are a greater weakness than a reduced feeling of exploration suggested that you chase a more social and human reward in games, through their story and it's people, rather than exploration or conquest.

      I'm fully aware how wanky this sounds, but I thought it was interesting enough to discuss. :)

      I've never really played Zelda for NPC interactions, and I find them grating and forced in every game starting with OoT and onward. I like my NPCs with conversation opportunities available as a selection at my command and an ability to affect their permanent disposition towards myself beyond a simple linear progression.

      If they could make another Zelda game like FSA with as little NPC interaction as possible, but with the open-world of LttP or Link's awakening I would be very happy.

      Of course, I'm one of those people that doesn't believe gameplay has actually evolved whatsoever. I see a lot less emphasis on skill in games, and that's about it.

    Honestly I really liked the dungeon-like aspects of each "overworld", I feel it makes the world seem more... full? As opposed to vast areas of land that separate the various dungeons. The thing that let me down the most was that each domain wasn't connected to each other, that's where the exploration aspect was lost. (I didn't even mind re-visiting the same areas multiple times, it kind of reminded me of Metroid Prime in that sense).

    I would have liked more to do while in the sky though. There's only one main island and then like, 3 small islands that you only need to visit once or twice. It would have been awesome to have a "Wind Waker Above, Ocarina of Time Below" situation with the sky/ground.

    All in all, I still had an excellent time with this game.

    I'm not going to lump in with you other old, jaded, grisled veterans. There was more charm, more personality, and more to do in Skyward Sword than any other Zelda game, maybe excluding The Wind Waker.

      Don't get me wrong, I'm really loving the charm of the story.

      In fact, I'm just complaining about one aspect of it really. I'm still enjoying the game.

      Mark has a good point about the lack of character in Skyward Sword. I haven't finished playing it yet, but I'm finding myself wondering where the Gorons and Mogmas live. I haven't seen any place where they inhabit. The water dwellers, Parellas, are rather boring to talk to. There seem to be plenty of them, yet they all seem to have the personality of wet cardboard. The Kikwis could have been interesting, but also have a very limited amount of interactivity.

      The only group that have been interesting to talk to have been the inhabitants of Skyloft. Now there is a and well fleshed out area. There could have been a few more special islands around the sky, though. Just three other places to visit, other than Skyloft? Wind Waker was more extensive with its variety of islands. In fact, I think Skyward Sword could have really evoked that sense of exploration by better fleshing out the sky area. Generally the only reason to visit the myriad of sky islands is to open active chests.

      Otherwise, I'm loving the game. Great combat and enemies. Motion control is well integrated, and doesn't feel out of place. I disagree with Mark about the "over designed" areas below the clouds. I'm finding it great fun to make my way through these areas. The mini-games are entertaining as usual, but seem to be missing an archery based one. Hope there is one. Would suit the motion controller very well.

    Ah, the old "it's different than previous games" complaint. Almost as bad as the "it's the same as the previous games" complaint. From what you wrote, there's nothing actually wrong with the game, you just want it to be more like Ocarina of Time. There's a good reason it wasn't: that wasn't the intention. The game focuses on flow more than exploration, and since the rather peaceful time traversing the overworld contrasts to the combat and puzzle-focused dungeons, it was left out to create better flow. And I'd say they succeeded. This game has the best pacing in the entire series.

    And comparing it to Skyrim is ridiculous. They are two completely different games in two different genres. Trying to convey two completely different ideas. Zelda is an action-adventure and Skyrim is an RPG. Don't think that just because a game has a fantasy setting that makes it an RPG. Zelda's gameplay doesn't resemble an RPG other than perhaps the item upgrading.

      Yeah but lack of exploration is also a fair criticism to make when its one of the main features of a game series that you enjoy playing it for. If they make a new Halo game that has nothing to do with aliens or guns, are we not able to say its a let down because its not like the games before it?

    I agree with this completely. While I have been enjoying Skyward Sword immensely, I have been doing so while trying to remember if the other Zeldas were this linear... I don't think they were.

    Good examples are linear paths and obstacles in the forest (with "now you can skip all that" log based shortcuts) and the hidden walkways in the desert; these in particular reminded me more of a platformer than an adventure title.

    If I remember the previous games correctly, the worlds were big open places to be explored, with some short equipment based hurdles placed at the dungeon entries: Hookshot for Shadow temple, Iron boots for Water, etc. instead of the long mini-dungeons you mention.

    I have found temples have been a bit more challenging though, which is a good consolation. I guess they can afford to do that with such a robust and detailed hint system built into the game - I'm convinced games are rapidly being dumbed down. This is something my friends have grown sick of me whining about since details emerged about Oblivion, Fallout 3, Neverwinter Nights....What was I talking about again?

    Ahh yes. Games are changing, often in directions I don't like :(. I hear ya Serrels.

    While I love skyloft and the design of the areas, I really really miss being able to explore and find all the hidden things at my leisure. The areas in skyward sword feel too tightly controlled and offer no chance to just walk off the path and explore or run around aimlessly.

    Heck, I would've been happy if all they did was add a field in the middle of the 3 areas! I regard Twilight Princess as my favourite Zelda game. It was probably a bit too padded, but there was so much space to just run off and enjoy yourself.

    I still really like Skyward Sword though. It's just different to the rest.

    Why does everyone compare the latest Zelda game to Ocarina of Time? Majora's Mask was a much better game as it embraced creativity, something Skyward Sword has also benefited from. I'd like to see more of this creativity in future Zelda titles, instead of the usual "let's replicate Ocarina of Time" attitude.

      Yeah, Majora's Mask was fantastic: from an exploration viewpoint, great items and mechanics as well. The world was so full, interesting and dynamic, and the characters were great. Very interesting atmosphere to boot: the bright Zelda environment with a doomsday vibe over the top.

    I'll chime in agreeing with everyone that any connection between the lands below the clouds would've massively increased the feeling that this was a large world.

    The NPC argument really falls down for me, the only other Zelda game I can think of that had anything close to the depth of the NPCs was Majora's Mask and considering.

    The pacing was excellent, this was the first Zelda game I actually used red potions in, and I ended up using multiple pouch slots on bottles of upgraded potions towards the end of the game and didn't feel like I was wasting space.

    I really liked having an actual inventory system in this, I visited item-check girl pretty regularly swapping between different medals and fairy bottles, upgrading items was nice, I spent a while searching out different bugs and treasure with it feeling like it had purpose rather than being an end unto itself.

    The thing I loved most though was all the items (except the whip) were useful for the remainder of the game. I even brought out the upgraded slingshot near the end as the scatter shots were better at taking out bats/wall crawler thingies than the arrows were.
    The Beetle as well (after both upgrades) was great for scouting and stuff, I remember flying all around Skyloft with it trying to find the babies rattle.

    Speaking of which, side quests in town! This was obviously a bigger focus in this game, Spirit Tracks had a bit of getting to know people, but Skyward Sword actually had you going back to talk to randoms from time to time seeing if they had a quest for you.

    For those who haven't played it yet, it's still a great game, the 52 hours I spent beating it on normal mode were thoroughly enjoyable, and I'd say had a much higher ratio of stuff to downtime than previous games.

    What the hell are you talking about? The Zelda series has never been about exploration, the large fields and such from previous games merely being boring travelling points from dungeon A to B. I would argue has replaced this and you can explore the various islands as much as you could explore the field or sea in wind waker. This game has better prizes for doing so too instead of the various number of rupees in other games which wasnt really any kind of incentive at all. So I have no idea wht it is you are complaining about sir, and I dont think you do either...

    What the h are you talking about? The Zelda series has never been about exploration, the large fields and such from previous games merely being boring travelling points from dungeon A to B. I would argue the sky has replaced this and you can explore the various islands as much as you could explore the field or sea in wind waker. This game has better prizes for doing so too instead of the various number of rupees in other games which wasnt really any kind of incentive at all. So I have no idea wht it is you are complaining about sir, and I dont think you do either…

    Mark, I completely agree with you.

    I just finished a play session of Skyward Sword this arvo (now up to the desert section) and so far it’s been a very linear Zelda experience. I feel as if I’m constantly working my way through outdoor and indoor dungeon puzzles and never really being given a proper break (unless I return to the Sky) to chill out a little.

    The only positive about this linearity is that you don’t really have to think much about where you’re going next and you don’t have to worry about missing anything because exploration is limited.

    yeah, i was really enthusiastic about this game. I defended it like crazy. But the way i understood it would work was that the world below would be connected to eachother, and that skyloft would be like base camp. But at the moment it kinda feels like hub world + 1-1, 2-1 etc.

    I also defended the art style a lot, because i thought people were narrow minded to assume it wouldn't also be able to be dramatic. But it honestly was pretty conservative most of the time, and without that much variety in mood. At least in the actual levels themselves.

    though standout features of the game for me were the npc designs, boss music and the level design. I think i just hyped the game too much in my head when they described it as being more like metroid prime in design/interconnectedness. I imagined it to have a similar sense of exploration and discovery, but it didn't sadly. The levels had engaging layouts, but not enough atmosphere or world-building.

    nope didnt feel anything that this author was saying. In fact I felt the complete opposite. I am strongly against the opinions and views of this article

    That's pacing for you - you need lulls and downtime for the highs to mean anything

    Have no idea what this article is commenting on.. The Zelda series has never been about exploration, the large fields and such from previous games merely being boring travelling points from dungeon A to B. I would argue the sky has replaced this and you can explore the various islands as much as you could explore the field or sea in wind waker. This game has better prizes for doing so too instead of the various number of rupees in other games which wasnt really any kind of incentive at all. So I have no idea wht it is you are complaining about sir, and I dont think you do either…

    I didn't notice this "issue" at all. I got as much exploration as I expected (especially above the clouds) and was spared the endless Epona rides/continuous rolling of the N64 games which, as marvelous and fun as they were the first 10 hours, they became jarring as you hit the end of the game and found yourself traveling from one extreme of the land to another to collect one item here and another there.

    Skyward Sword's word opened up chronologically, rather than spatially: Old areas were continuously revisited with added expanse and challenge as the game went in, not to mention the little things that new items opened up. While this is a departure in the /form/ of the usual games, it was actually simply a re-costuming of an old, time honored strategy of opening up new areas as the game progresses and you acquire new items that let you overcome barriers between them.

    I found this departure refreshing and needed, especially after the low point in world design that Twilight Princess was (which followed which is, arguably, the highest point, The Wind Waker.)

    The only real thing that disappointed me about Skyward Sword as the integration of the Harp. Unlike the Ocarina it didn't actually feel like you were playing it. When I first saw that it excited me that they'd brought an instrument in to it again, but then it just turned out to be nothing.

    I liked how the ground regions were slowly expanded as the game progressed, but I agree that the other things to do in the Sky was lacking after a certain amount.

    I'd still consider myself a big fan of this iteration though.

    Majora's Mask still at the top of my Zelda list =D , personally I thought the overworlds were too big and confusing in skyward sword, they were more of a maze compared to other zelda's with large open areas.

    Several things contribute to the OoT's success with the exploration. For example, when you go here and there in the game, there are glimpses of heart pieces in as yet inaccessible places, possibilities of skulltulas, strange rocks waiting to be bombed, games that show up when you explore or talk to someone (such as the Cucco game or the fishing game), poes at night etc. These are seen when you just go from once place to another, along the way.
    In Skyward sword this is missing. They could easily have put in some small games here and there on the ground, for example.

    Finish the game. The final act changed my whole outlook. Even the shonky motion controls could not deter from the overall experience.

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