Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: What would I want, Sky?

I think it's the pumpkins. Yeah...yeah, it's definitely the pumpkins. See, in Skyward Sword you can walk up to your village pumpkin patch, thrust your sword into one of those big green veggies, and if you hit it just right it'll stick right there on the end of your blade. I do this, like, every time I walk by the pumpkin patch. Maybe I'll fling my sword forward and turn that pumpkin into a projectile. But I'll probably just walk around with it sticking on the end of my sword. Because it's funny. What kind of kid runs around town with a sword with a pumpkin on it?

That's when I fell in love with this game: when I discovered the pumpkin-stabbing. You kids these days with your Skyrimmers and your Unchartywhatsits! I want a game with whimsicality! With 
pumpkin-stabbing, consarnit! I want a game where colossal, flying sky-whales are summoned with delicious vats of warm soup! I want a game where I go on grand quests to find toilet paper for disembodied bathroom dwellers! Where the village monster is actually a pretty cool man-bat, once you get to know him. Sure, he looks scary, but he just wants a friend.

On second thought, maybe 
that's why I fell in love with this game: because more than anything, Skyward Sword is a game about making friends.Skyloft, the game's central hub world, is a place filled with people with problems. Not the-fate-of-the-world-hanging-in-balance type problems (although Skyward Sword has those), just simple every day stuff. Relatable stuff. A man's work is suffering because he's exhausted from his baby keeping him up at night. A young boy feels self-conscious about his body image. A widow is overwhelmed with the task of cleaning her house, but her over-worked son is too stubborn to let her hire help. These characters don't look as realistic as the ones found in Skyrim or Heavy Rain, and yet they're infinitely more human; not just because their problems relate to ours, but because their cartoon-like expressiveness allows for a range of emotions that motion-capture technology simply can't...well, capture. Despite the game's lack of voice-acting, the characters are more life-like than any I've encountered this year thanks to nothing more than good writing. Because of all this, we want to help these characters cope with their problems. Some of these mini character-driven quests result in rewards. Many don't. Telling the Item Check lady that she looks nice today won't grant you a Heart Piece or an achievement trophy. Our reward is heartwarming dialogue and yes, friendship. In Skyward Sword, we do nice things because it's nice to do them. 

 The best moments in Skyward Sword are indeed the smaller ones, so it's not inappropriate that the game world itself feels, if not exactly small, then at least economic and compact. On third thought, maybe that's why I love the game: its flawless, economic design. As with Super Mario 3D, Skyward Sword showcases a tighter, more focused Nintendo: whereas most franchise games pad the lack of new ideas by simply aiming for "bigger," Nintendo seems intent on cutting the fat. 3D Land dropped any semblence of a hub world for the first time in a 3D Mario game, and didn't bother with the sprawling world maps of Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros. 3, either, which were fun to look at, but kind of mundane to traverse. Similarly, Skyward Sword cuts out the spacious, rolling hills of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess and opts for the approach that made The Minish Cap and, hey, Metroid Prime so successful: boiling each area down to its essense, and then packing those areas with as many details, puzzles, secrets, characters and most importantly, ideas as technically feasible. Riding Epona through the vast plains of Hyrule in Twilight Princess sure looks nice, but so does an empty gift box; beyond the outer shell, there simply isn't a whole lot there. Compare that with Skyward Sword, where it's hard to walk 10 seconds without finding an enemy to fight, a puzzle to solve, or a treasure chest perched suspiciously out of reach. It's a risky move in a climate where gamers crave experiences like Skyrim--games with endless posibilities, miles upon miles of terrain to explore, thousands of choices to make. Skyward Sword does not boast these things, but boy, it sure feels like it does when you're playing it. And it manages to feel like this because it does what truly great adventure stories do: it ignites our imaginations, creating a world that feels bigger, better, more wonderous, more real than it truly is.

That's the really great thing, here. More than any game in the series since Wind Waker, Skyward captures the sense of excitement and wonder that made the original Zelda such a success. Maybe 
that's why I love this game. The unabashedly bright, impressionist art style isn't quite like anything you've seen in a game before, and neither are the Loftwings, your bird-like forms of transportation, nor the floating village of Skyloft for that matter. Not too long into the game, you'll meet Kikwis, hilariously shy forest-dwelling creatures that look like the unlikely result of penguin-on-pinecone conception. Another wonderful oddity in a game full of such things. Of course to get to said forest you'll have to travel, which is half the fun of the game, really. Traveling typically involves a giddy combination of flight (while you're in the sky), skydiving (to soar beneath the clouds), parachuting (to safely land on the surface) and sprinting (because running real fast is fun). Ah, that sprinting. Only Nintendo could turn something as tired as "the sprint button" into an endless source of puzzle-platforming. 
All this is to say nothing of the game's big sell (and probably why I really love the game): Motion Controls That Work. That's how cynics will word it, anyway. There are plenty of games with motion controls that work. Few, though, work in such a joyous manner. If Skyward Sword can win over those cynics and sceptics, it will leave a legacy as lasting and important as Ocarina of Time. If it doesn' It's still a brilliant game anyway. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every one of the game's items and gadgets work 100% perfectly 100% of the time, but since when does anything in a 3D game? I can't turn on my PS3 without having to do sixteen updates to fix games that should have worked when I bought them in the first place. That's just the way things are now. What does work to a staggering degree of accuracy is the swordplay, which is pretty much the most important gameplay mechanic to grace us this generation of console gaming. This is our generation's lock-on targeting: it takes a concept that's been kicking around  for the past few years to varying degrees of mediocrity (combat with motion controls this time, instead of combat in a 3D space), and absolutely nails it. Playing this game is an epiphany. Like, "Oh, that's how motion controls should have worked for the past 5 years." Swing the Wii Remote in any of the 8 cardinal directions and Link will do the same. Before long, enemies start to anticipate your swings, and winning a battle involves literally physically outwitting your opponent. Is it 100% full-on 1:1? Not really. Is there ever a moment where the game would be better if it was? Not really. Skyward Sword's simple and flawlessly executed combat will be copied ad naseum for years to come, because it's the only game that ever got it right. Mark my words.

Hey, speaking of words, Nintendo is really mastering those, too. 25 years of utilizing text-only dialogue in your games will do that. The question of whether or not Zelda would be better off with voice acting will be asked even long after Nintendo inevitably start using it, assuming the writing continues to house this much quality. Because the dialogue is written with such life, such personality, a good chunk of the fun comes from imagining what these characters must sound like. You know, the kind of fun you have when reading a book. I imagine the Mogmas--these sheisty, burrowing, mole-like creatues--sound a lot like Bobby Moynahan's "Second-hand news guy" character on SNL, but you might not agree. We can both play the same game, a largely scripted game at that, mostly free of Mass Effect-like decision making, and yet we can have completely different experiences with it simply based on how we interpret the characters. Skyward Sword is linear, sure, but it's somehow more personal than most open world, "decision-driven" games. "Linear" has become a bad word in recent years for some reason. It typically seems to suggest a lack of player agency. Skyward Sword is linear in the sense that your objective is always marked for you and that you won't be doing any dungeons out of order; but 
how you get to that next dungeon, and with what upgrades in your inventory, and with how many heart pieces, and with what side-quests under your belt--that's where the ol' Zelda exploration comes in.


And now I'm just torn because, you know what, I love the game's optimism and sheer whimsicality, too. Twilight Princess worked pretty well as a "dark" Zelda game, but it didn't work as well as Zelda's better "dark" game, Majora's Mask, because it forgot that even in a moody, atmospheric game world, charm, humor, and catharsis beat out straight-up melodrama every time. Skyward Sword has a few dark moments and characters--Ghirahim, the game's antagonist, is creepy beyond all reason--but the moments of moodiness are rare, and used only to highlight a contrast to the largely silly atmosphere of the rest of the game. I think I knew it before, but Skyward brought it to the forefront of my mind: Games are dark these days. As Jon Irwin put it in his Kirby review, "This is the era of Gears and Warfare and Asylums." Heavy Rain wants to see how many disgusting, terrible things you'll do in order to save someone you love. Arkham City features a city full of deranged psychokillers free from the rules of society. Skyward Sword's message? The world is a fun, colorful puzzle to be solved, and we're all heroes, waiting for our moment to save the day. Isn't that nice? Isn't that the kind of game you just want to get wrapped up in on a snowy winter's day, by the warmth of the fireplace, with a few buddies at your side telling you why you suck at dungeons and that you should let them have try?

that's why I love this game.

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