Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Playing Zelda (In No Particular Order): Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda is the greatest gaming series ever. Join me as I play through every last one of them in no particular order, and write mildly thoughtful ramblings on each. This week: the latest Zelda game, Skyward Sword.

It would be easy to view Skyward Sword as a game cursed by patterns: the patterns in the game's myriad of puzzles, for example, or the patterns of attack of every monster we fight; but of course, the biggest pattern of all is the structure of the game itself, in which we must help a tribe of strange creatures, solve many pattern-based puzzles, and fight many pattern-based enemies all in the attempts of finding a pattern-based dungeon; and then once we conquer it we must find a song, play the song, find the next tribe of strange creatures and do this over and over again until the game is done.

This, to be fair, could be said of pretty much every Zelda game these days, and perhaps you feel like Tevis Thompson, who recently wrote that Zelda games are fundamentally broken at their core, and have grown incredibly boring. Mr. Thompson claims that the series is broken, and I claim that the series has never been better, and this is okay, because Zelda is a series that means many different things to many different people. For some, Zelda is about exploration. For me, it's the the part that comes after it: discovery. And perhaps this is why I'm consistently enraptured by this series whose main elements are consistently the same, and whose structures are increasingly linear: because even in Zelda games with very little to explore, there is always much to discover.

When I first wrote about the game last year, I was struck by its emphasis on character development, and the same holds up upon a second playthrough. Like Majora's Mask and Wind Waker before it, Skyward Sword presents a world filled with people whose problems and personalities are so well-defined, unique and grounded in reality that despite their vibrantly over-the-top animations they feel distinctly more human and relatable than any technically-more-realistically-rendered character in Skyrim or Heavy Rain. The animation on display here is the sort that would make Walt Disney proud, the sort that allows for a wide-range of expressions, gestures and life that motion capture simply can't (*ahem*) capture yet.

Which brings us back to the subject of exploration and discovery: there are many, including Mr. Thompson, that feel that Zelda has strayed away from its original draw of the joy of exploring a world full of secrets. I propose that Zelda is still about that, but the secrets we discover aren't necessarily just in hidden caves and endless forests anymore (though Skyward Sword has both those things, and pretty, floating islands to top it all off): Zelda has become a series in which the characters are just as much fun to explore and discover as the world they inhabit. In the original Zelda, we were thrilled by discovering a bush we could burn to reveal a hidden stash of rupees; in Skyward Sword we are thrilled by discovering that the exasperatingly energetic flying-shop owner by day is actually a morbid philosopher by night, or that beneath our village, if we move a specific grave stone in the cemetery, we find a half-man, half-bat creature who literally feeds on the joy of others, or that there's a ghost haunting the bathroom in your school who desperately needs toilet paper. (So, fine, not all the characters are relatable.) Skyward Sword is a world filled with secrets, perhaps more than any other Zelda game before it, but its secrets aren't limited to blowing up holes in walls and discovering treasure chests (though once again, Skyward has that in spades, and also floating islands which are awesome); but to discover those secrets we have to be willing to look in new places.

These new places include the way we play the game itself. In Skyward Sword, all play is rewarding. And perhaps this is Skyward's the biggest source of wonder: the structure is the same as its ever been, but within that structure we find a level of tactility and interaction heretofore unseen in the series. Swinging your sword is no longer relegated to a simple button, which is good because its use is no longer tied down to simply slaying monsters. Controlled with nearly 1:1 gestures, your sword can be used to write symbols on walls, as a means to stab and carry pumpkins to then throw at people (which is unnecessary, but silly and fun) or to make massive eyes dizzy (which is necessary to solve puzzles, and also silly and fun), and we get to discover these and many more surprising secondary uses for ourselves. Your instrument is, like the instruments in most every Zelda game, really only necessary at specific junctures to unlock new areas, but you can also whip it out and strum along with the background music as you run around, should you feel so inclined, or use it serenade a floating bar full of lonely gossipers. And we don't just walk up to caves and treasure chests with our boring old feet anymore—we fly to islands floating in the sky on a colorful bird, and then leap off mid-flight and sky-dive to our destination. Every aspect of play has been enhanced to be as interactive and fun as possible; every item has countless unknown uses that we as the player get to discover; even something as mundane and tired as a “stamina meter” is used as the basis of countless clever puzzles. Of course you'll have to use motion controls for all of it, but at this point you know where you stand on them.

The level of interaction feels heightened due in no small part to the fact that this is an economically designed game, that upon replay, recalls the dense and compacted nature of the original Zelda or The Minish Cap, games where every screen had an army of monsters to fight or a secret to find. After Twilight Princess' vast yet largely empty overworld, Skyward's compact world full of secrets is a welcome contrast. Faron Woods feels as big as any Hyrule forest ever has, yet it's tough to walk five feet without running into an environmental puzzle to solve, an enemy to fight, a character to interact with or a hidden treasure to unearth. Yet whereas most Zelda games offer very similar sorts of puzzles and discoveries throughout their lengthy running times, Skyward Sword is constantly evolving, constantly introducing new ways to play, new means of discovery.

Yet the “Modern Zelda” detractors all seem to go back to the same thing: the first Zelda had you make your own path; you could explore anywhere on the map from the beginning of the game and complete dungeons out of order, and all these things are wonderful. But to use this argument is to assume that Modern Zelda games are trying to accomplish the same goal as the first, which isn't exactly the case: Modern Zelda games still want us to explore, they still want us to find secret caves with hidden treasure and talk to strange characters who speak in arcane riddles, but they want to do something on top of all that: they want to tell us a story. And if we've learned anything from Skyrim, it's that you can't have an involving, coherent narrative with a memorable beginning, middle and end, endless sidequests, well-written characters and a nonlinear structure that allows you do whatever you want whenever you want. Some of those things are going to get lost in the shuffle; usually it's the characters and story and writing.

Here the story is key. Ever since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games have provided a series of incredibly well-written, whimsical and character-driven tales about growing up (though anyone who's read any of the brilliant essays of Dan Merrill knows the series is about a great deal more than that). Skyward Sword is indeed a game that starts us out on a linear path, but if we can look past the idea of the linear path we find that it's not a boring one: in the first hour of the game we are introduced to a wide range of hilariously well-written and stunningly animated characters, form a bond with a strange bird who serves as an important companion, and establish Zelda as a surprisingly human, atypical human being (rather than the stoic and boring Padme-esque caricature presented in Ocarina and Princess). Here is a game where we want to save the damsel in distress not because we're expected to, but because she's a three-dimensional human being with whom the game has allowed us to form a relationship before taking her away from us. Skyward is able to establish these character relationships and dramatic tension because of its first hour or two (depending on how quick a learner you are) of guided exploration, and the emotional payoff that we experience throughout the rest of the adventure prove that those hours were worth it.

But here we must discuss the formula; Mr. Thompson has argued that Zelda simply can't be surprising, can't evoke the same sense of wonder it once did when it sticks to the same old formula in every last game. Yet for me, the formula is everything; with the formula the game is able to create a sense of forboding and dread, which we see on Link's increasingly wearisome face before he plunges into every one of the land's many dungeons. He knows that he will find a dungeon, and he knows that dungeon will have brain-bending puzzles, and he knows that the end will house a terrifying beast for him to conquer. You can chalk it all up to laziness if you want, but I believe the series has earned a certain artistic credibility after 25 years of remarkable games, and for me, it is an obvious fact: the player's knowledge of the inevitable is what gives the dungeons their aura of unease and, at times, horror. It is what makes the brief cutscenes of Link staring down into the dungeons' abysmal entrances so effective: he knows that it is a trialsome dungeon, and he knows that it will be more difficult than the last.
And yet the formula is also a comfort; for fans, playing a Zelda game is like coming home. We know we will conquer trialsome dungeons, but we also know that we will be rewarded. We know that we will meet exciting and funny new characters, but we do not know who they will be, or what they'll be like. We know we will explore vast new worlds, but we do not know the puzzles that they will contain, or how they will look. I do think fans are ready for the series' next Majora's Mask; I think the formula has been refined time and time again, and perhaps here perfected. But if the formula goes unchanged, few will complain. Skyfall wasn't a great Bond film because it shattered a fifty-year-old formula, but because it executed that formula in a stylish and thrilling way. Such is the case with Zelda.

A depressingly few amount of games can claim to provide a satisfying, character-driven story with brilliant writing. Skyward Sword does all that and provides us with a stunningly crafted and colorfully animated world that begs us to interact with it, explore it and discover its secrets, be it a cave in the side of a volcano or a surprising character trait. It does all this with some of the most ingenious puzzle design to ever grace an action game, and with a control scheme that constantly amazes with its versatility. Which is to say that it is one of the best Zelda games ever. Which is to say it is one of the best games, period.

1 comment:

  1. Every aspect of play has been enhanced to be as interactive and fun as possible; every item has countless unknown uses that we as the player get to discover; even something as mundane and tired as a “stamina meter” is used as the basis of countless clever puzzles. Of course you'll have to use motion controls for all of it, but at this point you know where you stand on them.
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