[Warning: Very vague plot details to Skyward Sword are included in this article. Read at your own risk.]
When I completed my first playthrough of Skyward Sword several weeks ago, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of exhilaration as I laid waste to the final boss and watched the ending sequence. In those moments, I reflected upon how much fun that I had had and how many times death had nearly claimed me throughout the game. And in the aftermath of that experience, I set out to write a review of the experience for Zelda Universe so that others who had not yet played the game—presumably because it was still nicely wrapped beneath the Christmas tree—could have a taste of what to come.
My Skyward Sword review took a few days to write up, both due to length and to the general insanity that December brings. Writing Christmas cards, decorating my apartment, you know the deal. Eventually I finished it, yet a few people close to me were a little surprised by exactly what it was that I’d written.“Awfully negative,” one confidante told me. I felt odd; I’d easily have recommended the game to everyone else (and I did), but it was true that I’d focused pretty heavily on the negatives. Despite how much I had enjoyed Skyward Sword, I realized that there were bits and bobs that were not sitting well in my mind. The review I’d written reminded me of a rant that I’d once written about Spirit Tracks on North Castle’s forums. It was a detailed rant about things I hated from the game… only to conclude with the fact that I begrudgingly really enjoyed the last third.
Generally speaking, this has been my Zelda experience of late. Even if a Zelda game is more or less fun as I’m playing it, a few days later the game folds in on itself, and those enjoyable memories are gone, leaving me empty.
It’s not limited to just those two experiences. I enjoyed Phantom Hourglass more than Spirit Tracks, but I cannot summarize the plot. I have not been tempted to buy a 3DS for Ocarina of Time 3D because Ocarina of Time no longer stands out much in my mind. I have to go back to Twilight Princess to really find a Zelda game that tickles me in any significant way, and even then I’ve only played through the game once; the game remains on the shelf eager for a second play through that I never get around to.
For quite some time, I thought that either old age or getting to see the behind-the-scenes world of the game industry had made me cynical. It became much easier to fault games for certain errors or missteps, and solutions of how to avoid those problems were easier to come by. Yet it wasn’t until Hyrule Historia came around that I actually figured out that what I was feeling wasn’t cynicism; it was the natural result of two people going in two different directions, with me going one direction and Eiji Aonuma going another.
Like many other Zelda fans today, Zelda transformed my childhood. My first game was A Link to the Past, and I quickly played through Link’s Awakening the moment I knew another Zelda game had come out. To my surprise, Zelda quickly overtook Mario as my favorite game series. I filled many notebooks growing up with random tracings of Zelda items and characters. I even started the process of designing my own A Link to the Past-like Zelda game on paper, finishing 17 of the 20 dungeons. I even started to convert that into a computer game using QBASIC. And after I’d finished Ocarina of Time, I ultimately began to seek out Zelda on the Internet, and the thrill of getting to talk shop with Zelda fans around the world has thrilled me since.
And let’s be perfectly honest here; I’ve enjoyed every other Zelda experience since then, no matter how different it’s been. Majora’s Mask’s quirkiness and Four Swords Adventures’ level-based format appealed to me both. The Wind Waker’s exploration and The Minish Cap’s dungeon design are both impeccable. Nintendo’s sheer creativity and craftiness are lauded throughout the halls of game companies today; it’s no wonder that people took note of the possible retirement of Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the best visionaries and designers to ever grace the field.
Yet computers over the past several decades have changed dramatically, and perhaps the biggest change is video games’ relationship with the computer. A friend once told me that games have always pushed the limitations of the hardware that operated them. The first games were able to create sounds without PCs actually having sound cards. The first console games didn’t have the ability to save their game, but battery-powered writable memory was invented for cartridges for the US release of The Legend of Zelda. And the graphical and memory capabilities of modern-day gaming continue to push the envelope of what consoles are able to produce.
While some degree of gaming pushing technological barriers still exists today, technology has now begun to increase beyond the wildest dreams of developers. When Blu-Ray discs were first unveiled, consumers and developers alike began to wonder just how they could possibly need 25 GB of data storage for a game. At that point, the 9 GB of a DVD seemed more than sufficient for everyone. While it’s still difficult to push out 1080p graphics at an unfaltering 30 fps, the sheer capacity with which developers have to express themselves has surpassed much of their imaginations.
Many so-called “triple-A” studios—Sony, Microsoft, EA, Activision, Lionhead, Blizzard, Square Enix, Namco, and Bungie, to name just a few—responded to this by doing their best to push the limits of this newfound capacity by going further visually than they ever have before. Entire worlds are being designed completely with extensive lore, characters, history, and depth.
Bioshock took place in a richly detailed underwater city. Fable has created (and recreated) the world of Albion several times over. Assassin’s Creed II replicated feature for feature famous buildings from Renaissance Italy. Halo expounded upon a bitter conflict between races vying for supremacy in the universe. Tales of Symphonia has so many memorable characters and has so many plot twists that I never knew what to expect. Valkyria Chronicles caused me to fall in love with Squad 7 throughout their various misadventures and darings. And dare I forget games like Shadow of the Colossus, a minimalistic game yet so rich and full of emotion and meaning despite there being practically no dialogue? Or Ōkami, a game that’s so vividly artistic that I appreciated running across Nippon every second. And of course there are the Professor Layton games, The World Ends with You, and so many more that have piqued my interest.
As I look at all of these wonderful memories of games I’ve played and watched, I couldn’t help but notice that they stuck with me so much more readily than have Zelda games of late. How could that be? Hyrule has been my home away from home since I was just eleven! It’s the place I still long to return to at the end of a long day at work. I refuse to rid myself of my Zelda posters, figurines, and T-shirts. There’s something sacred about Hyrule and the Zelda universe, yet somehow it’s not doing it for me when other games are. Why?
And then, Eiji Aonuma explained it to me ever so clearly.
[F]rom the very beginning, Zelda games have been developed with the top priority of focusing on the game mechanics rather than the story. For example, in Ocarina of Time, the first installment of the series I was involved in, the main theme was how to create a game with pleasant controls in a 3D world. Or in the DS game Phantom Hourglass, the focus was having comfortable stylus controls. Finally, in the most recent game Skyward Sword, we focused on an easy way to swing the sword using the Wii Motion Plus.
Thinking of that way of developing the games, it may be correct to say that the story is an appendix to that. I even think that setting Skyward Sword as the “first story” was merely a coincidence. (Hyrule Historia 238-239)
And, wouldn’t you know it, if you take the list of games I’ve been excited by, you’ll find a common theme. They all have a strong sense of story tied into the core mechanics of the game. This is especially true of all of the console titles, but even the more memorable titles I’m playing on my portable device have a decent bit of story. Sure, Mario is fun for a lark, but I already know in advance that Super Mario 3D Land isn’t going to be something I want to laud about and talk at length with my friends. And if I really want a game just to tide me over between events, there’s plenty of cheap or even free games on for iOS that can entertain me for hours. Nothing to write home about, but then again, neither is Mario.
And then there’s Zelda. There’s a contingent of gamers out there who are calling Skyward Sword’s story perhaps the best of the entire series, and yet I’m dubious of that judgment. While I do know such opinions are personal preferences and therefore can’t truly be wrong, Skyward Sword’s story—or lack thereof—is actually one of the things I took most issue with while playing the game. Once you get past the introduction of the game, there’s pretty much a huge lull in the story department for the next 25-35 hours of the game. The only real plot that’s driving you is the fact that you have to find Zelda, and there’s always one more McGuffin that you need to get before you can reach her.
And while it’s clear that Link and Zelda have a very special connection in the game, something that does fuel you somewhat during the game’s tedious middle, that connection seems to fall apart and unravel as the game reaches the climax into the denouement. The later cutscenes don’t seem to have the same internal consistency as the earlier ones when it comes down to their relationship. Sure, things have happened, and characters evolve, but the later cutscenes almost seem forced and clichéd. The characters sometimes feel like marionettes with just enough emotion to nudge you into the intended frame of mind. It’s not something that I noticed while I was watching it; it’s something that that took shape once I had finished and sat back to reflect upon it. And rewatching those scenes on YouTube only proved that point.
And even what scenes that convey that “special something” between Link and Zelda almost didn’t make it into the game as is. Eiji Aonuma all but initially vetoed Skyward Sword director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s plea to insert it into the game, and only after removing large swaths of cutscenes from the game’s introduction was the content finally permitted in the game after long protest. Imagine how arduous the game might have seemed without that to drive you onward.
The Legend of Zelda now seems to me to be something very akin to Disney World. There’s nothing wrong with Disney World, don’t get me wrong; Disney knows how to put on a tremendous show and create some spectacular scenes. The rides are fun, the backdrops paint pictures, and the characters wandering the park make you smile. But at the end of the day, it’s all just a façade, a false image presented to you to make you forget about life for a while, to make you feel like a child again. At the end of the day, you know it’s all just for show, a hollow shell, something that you experienced but didn’t truly connect with.
In my discussions on this with others, some have said that that momentary thrill is all they need. Good gameplay and a modicum of emotional fluff are sufficient to tickle their Zelda bone and allow them to safely call it a day. To be truthful, I think I envy them just a little bit. That perspective is so innocent and untainted that I can’t help but wonder if I’m just the old curmudgeon of the community.
Yet my hope isn’t simply that Zelda isn’t meeting my personal needs; my dream is to see Zelda become something so much more! The world of Hyrule with its Triforces and its goddesses and its crazy alien-like races have so much untapped potential when it comes to building a solid foundation for a story and a history that, when it’s not used to its full potential, I cry just a little bit inside. I’ve been living the legend and the land of Hyrule for so long that my imagination is at odds with Nintendo’s unwillingness to realize that world. All this leaves me with only fanfiction and fanart to fill the gap between what I’ve wanted and what I’ve received.
Yet my cry is more than just me not being fulfilled. The long list of game series that have tickled my interests over the past decade have proven to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that games are truly artistic experiences—that the best of games are artistic masterpieces. As a musician growing up, I felt the power of music swell through my band and my instrument as we created harmony together. I’ve seen films and read literature that have brought me to tears. And I have seen sculpture and paintings that have taken my breath away. And I’ve played video games that have kept me up until 4am because I was so mesmerized by them that I’d forgotten I was just a player. I’ve fallen in love with video game characters so much that I’ve written stories to flesh out the universes that I was presented. I’ve seen such rich artistry and creativity in games, not just visually but also literarily!
And I can’t help but want to see that in Zelda too. I want Zelda to be a true masterpiece that every gamer can appreciate.
Yet without story being a primary focus of the Zelda experience, all we are bound to receive is a paper-thin shell that will never tackle deeper issues or produce true, heartfelt feelings. Without story as a primary focus, there won’t be any incentive to push the limits of human emotion and force players into difficult situations that tear at their hearts. Take the delicious ending of Link’s Awakening; that game is a tale of tragic loss and bittersweet endings. I’d argue that Link’s Awakening’s ending was just as deep and emotional as the games it was indirectly competing with in those days: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, and so forth. It pushed through and surpassed the limitations of four-color gaming to deliver a solid experience.
Yet today, in terms of story depth, Zelda is beginning to fall behind its competition. Skyward Sword is no Assassin’s Creed II. It’s no Halo 3. It’s no Tales of Vesperia. It’s no Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It’s no Mass Effect. It’s no Uncharted 3.
Many will say that it doesn’t have to be. Many will say that Zelda really is a genre unto itself, that Zelda has no true competition and therefore doesn’t need to take the lessons of other games. I honestly think that’s shortsighted at best and arrogant at worst. In an industry as wantonly creative as ours, how can we not respect and, to some degree, envy other games’ success and ideas? I would easily argue, though John Grisham and J. K. Rowling don’t write the same genre of novels, that the two of them could sit down together and learn from one another. Any game developer that is content with the status quo of their product and doesn’t have any desire to fix more problems or push the envelope the next time isn’t doing himself or herself any favors.
Many will say that Zelda doesn’t need story because gameplay is more important. And I’ll make one concession to that: I don’t think story should be more important than gameplay. I would even say that a game with great gameplay and bad story would prove to be more fun than a game with a great story but bad gameplay. After all, gameplay is the very element that separates us from the other artistic disciplines of art, literature, music, theater, and film. But I would argue that a game that has both fantastic gameplay and story is a much more worthy of being placed upon a pedestal—not to mention be a far more memorable and fulfilling experience—than, say, Bejeweled or Mario Kart 7. At the end of the day, we’re not going to one day be telling our kids about the time we managed to get to level 19 in Tetris.
Many will say that Zelda doesn’t need story because it’s a game designed for everyone, and it would be too risky to alienate some people by adding too much story. In case you haven’t noticed, Twilight Princess was rated T in the US and equivalently elsewhere, and both Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword earned E10+ ratings. This is an indication that Zelda games aren’t made for everyone like the Mario games; they have a target audience, or at least a limited audience. While I’ll admit that the world of an eleven year old is far different from that of a 40 year old, both are of an age where they’re capable of falling in love with story. The Harry Potter series did just that; it took children and adults by storm over its multi-decade romp. I’ve heard others excuse Nintendo for “playing it safe” by not including certain scenes before; it’s hogwash. Sure, not everyone will love every detail or scrap of story that’s tossed in front of them, but I think the target audience is old enough to get over it and find the parts they do love.
Many will take a more pragmatic stance on it and say that Zelda doesn’t need story because Nintendo doesn’t need to add story to it for us to buy their games. And to that… I really don’t have an answer to that one. Yes, even I was suckered by and bought Spirit Tracks despite every hesitation I had about that game. (A Zelda game… with trains?) I even bought Link’s Crossbow Training and am stuck with a piece of Zapper plastic that has no other purpose and likely never will. Like Mario, placing Zelda anywhere within the title seems to draw the gamers to it much like light draws moths. For me, every time I’m hoping that next Zelda game will be the experience I’m looking for. Or the next time. Or the next time. In the meantime, Nintendo turns the crank on their printing press and cranks out another sheet of freshly minted dollar bills.
Penny Arcade made the argument several months ago that Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace are truly threats to the crux of the gaming industry because it’s hard to justify $40 on a single game when 40 $1-games will likely occupy the same amount of time with a significantly less risk to one’s fun quotient. I personally remain mystified in seeing how Nintendo is going to get all of its blue-ocean casual-game-loving customers to buy a Wii U when they’ve already got Wii Sports Resort and Stephen Spielberg’s Boom Blox. Unless they’ve got some crafty strategy up their sleeve, it means that their focus is going to have to dial their focus a little bit more to the core gamer.
The question is whether or not Nintendo is content to rest upon their extensive laurels or if they’re truly willing to go the extra mile to craft a brilliant artistic masterpiece.