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In Search of the 'Skyward Sword' Audience

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Thursday, Jan 12, 2012
Skyward Sword's design raises a simple, yet important question: Who did Nintendo think was going to be playing this game? I don't have the answer, and I don't think Nintendo does either.

I’m not yet finished with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and I make a point not to formally review anything that I haven’t finished, so consider this a critique. It’s a critique born of the unorthodox way that I’m playing the game, which is itself the reason that I haven’t finished it yet.  For reasons I’m still unclear on, my wife Hanah has expressed interest in Skyward Sword, so we’re doing a quasi-cooperative playthrough. We hand the controller back and forth, I offer hints, and we generally try to stay at about the same level of progress on our respective saves.  We make an odd couple: I’m a grizzled Zelda veteran whose played video games his whole life, while Hanah’s a relative novice to the series and more casual devotee to the medium.  It’s an unorthodox way to play the game, one that’s driven me towards an unsettling realization: neither one of us is all that happy with the game.  This raises the question: Who is Skyward Sword’s audience?
  
Much of Skyward Sword is focused on calming players who have been whipped into a frenzy.  Unlike most Wii games (and motion-controlled games in general), Skyward Sword can’t be won with waggling.  The Wii Motion Plus’s precise handling and the enemies’ specific attack patterns necessitate calm, nuanced control.  For me, it’s the next best thing to using a button.  But this philosophy of timing and pattern-based challenges is foreign to people expecting the imprecise chaos that the Wii normally rewards.  Frantic waggling, the key to victory in everything from Raving Rabids to No More Heroes, is harshly penalized in Skyward Sword, which makes it seem like a nod to traditional players’ traditional skills.


At the same time, the game is remarkably forgiving in other areas.  Benches and stools allow Link to take a breather and regain all his hearts.  Dying takes you out of the action but doesn’t negate the progress that you have made since your last save.  Falling into a bottomless abyss incurs no damage, nor does being swallowed by quicksand.  While aiming with an item like the wind bellows, you can move Link without worrying about falling off a platform; he’ll just stop.  However, falling into lava, the dynamic equivalent of falling into a pit or quicksand, does cost you a heart.  Here is perhaps the best example of Skyward Sword’s maddening split personality: it coddles seasoned players and punishes new ones.


This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Skyward Sword’s action.  The game’s approach to storytelling, quests, and puzzle solving is similarly split between two worlds.  While young kids might be fine with the text’s painfully slow scroll speed, even the slowest readers will grow tired of the repetitive, unskippable incidental dialogue that the game generates every time that you pick up an item or talk to a character.  What makes this even more frustrating is that it is new; Skyward Sword’s text is slower than any other Zelda game, and players are literally unable to automatically skip through it.  It may sound petty, but reading the same item text or listening to the identical NPC shout upon every visit to the store does much to inflate the game’s already bloated play time.


Small annoyances aside, Skyward Sword’s structure actually does require an unusual amount of careful reading, critical thinking, and sharp memorization skills.  Unlike games like Fable, quest lines must be forged, rather than followed.  Players must drop their own breadcrumbs into the world to use as a guide, and remembering who to follow or what door to choose is more complicated than simply tagging along after the character with a huge, Call of Duty-esque “FOLLOW” icon over their head.  Keeping track of hints requires a good memory, a quick pen, or the presence of mind to consult the in-game companion character who will offer hints but no outright solutions.  In the grand scheme of things, Skyward Sword is more similar to Dark Souls than most modern games that new players would have played, making it difficult for them.  At the same time, the game is not much of a structural departure from previous Zelda entries, rendering it dull for long-time players and frustrating for new ones.


At times, Skyward Sword abandons its traditional structure to awkwardly lurch towards modernity.  At one point in the game’s second dungeon, a large boulder falls behind Link and starts rolling towards him, Indiana Jones style.  A seasoned player familiar with a variety of games and genres will recognize this as a poor approximation of an Uncharted-style set piece.  I’m not happy with this kind of action sequence in general, and it feels out of place in a Zelda game.  However, since I have an intuitive sense of what the game is aspiring to accomplish, I can adjust my play style accordingly.  I begrudgingly tilt the control stick back, making Link run towards the camera, and quickly move past the uninspired scene.


During this sequence, Hanah, like any good Zelda player, quickly Z-targeted to re-center the camera behind Link.  The game had repeatedly trained her to take this basic step when faced with any type of action or any kind of danger.  But in this particular instance, she was expected to throw it all away: the camera freaked out at her attempt to break the set piece, which sent Link running diagonally and the whole thing ended with the rock crushing him, resulting in what I believe be an unprecedented one-hit-kill sequence in the Zelda franchise.  Perhaps this is the prime example of Skyward Sword‘s problems; never before had the game asked you to run towards the camera or presented a situation in which one hit resulted in failure.  Now, without any warning or training, the game was asking the player to perform actions and abide by rules that as foreign to Zelda veterans as they are to Zelda novices.


Skyward Sword is a weird mixture of experiences.  Its motion controls demand a uniquely fine touch but are still less comfortable than button presses in most cases.  It’s hint system is relatively spartan compared to most modern games and remains rooted in familiar patterns.  The game painstakingly explains the fundamental dynamics of battles and action sequences, yet sometimes ignores its own teachings by presenting players with gameplay non sequiturs.  All these things are equally alienating to newcomers looking for an novel experience and long time Zelda fans in search of familiar comforts. 


A partial sketch of Skyward Sword‘s ideal player might look something like this: an individual who is both a casual fan of the franchise but also an experienced video game player, someone familiar with the rigors of button-based gaming but enthusiastic about the prospect of motion control, someone willing to sit through didactic tutorials and inscrutable puzzles alike, and someone who knows that Z-targeting is always the answer—except when it inexplicably isn’t—and is just fine with that.  It’s a big world out there, but I’m not sure this “someone” actually exists.


Skyward Sword’s design raises a simple, yet important question: Who did Nintendo think was going to be playing this game?  I don’t have the answer, and I don’t think Nintendo does either.


 

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