A Segmented Sky

One of my favorite aspects of video games is their ability to simulate worlds that reconcile the conflict between huge spaces and quick trips. Virtual spaces can be big enough to feel large and mysterious but small enough to mentally map as a contiguous whole, even after you get the ability to fast travel via the equivalent of a virtual jet. I’ve been replaying The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past recently and have found that I can still remember how to walk from the foot of the mountains to the middle of the desert by memory. Because of this, the game still retains its sense of place when I take a shortcut by instantly warping around the map. I may be skipping a lot of obstacles, but I know that they exist, and I know how they connect the world.

This feeling of connectivity is part of what makes the game (as well as many Zelda games) special; the world feels like an ecosystem, one in which fast travel and load screens are concessions to convenience and technical limitations, as opposed to a segmented approach to design. It’s also a feeling that was impossible for me to have in the latest Zelda title, Skyward Sword, a game whose very structure feels like a series of disjointed plane trips over a disconnected world.

Playing Skyward Sword is basically exploring a series of independent island environments. Every environment, from the earthbound forest to the floating city of Skyloft, is segmented by a fadeout during which the current set pieces are cleared and the new ones are brought onto the stage. There are never any gradual changes or transitional areas, only clean sweeps and automatic replacements of characters and scenery.

Disappointingly, there is a barrier between the land and the open air itself. Diving towards Skyloft’s fast-approaching roofs was exhilarating until I realized that there was never any real danger; a load screen snatched me from the open aerial environment and deposited me over one of the newly-loaded town’s predetermined landing zones and automatically activated my parachute. An ominous whirlwind on the kingdom’s periphery offers a similar promise of danger. Upon closer inspection, this environment is revealed to be a separate area gated by a load screen whose internal geometry doesn’t match its external structure.

Things don’t get any better if you venture down to the ground. Like most Zelda games, there are forest, mountain, marine, and desert regions. Unlike any other Zelda game, these regions have no physical relation to one another. It is impossible to walk from the mountains to the desert; a combination of arbitrarily constrictive topography and several load screens separate the game’s environments. Ultimately, Skyward Sword’s world is made up of discrete ecosystems. The days when you could stand on top of a mountain and see the other side of the kingdom are gone, as is any hope of finding a connecting path through the game’s world.

I wish I knew why this happened. I doubt it is a lack of institutional memory. The original Zelda game was one of the forebearers of the “open world” game, one in which you could just pick a cardinal direction and start wandering across a contiguous landscape. Of course, Zelda wasn’t alone in trying to create seamless worlds. The Metroid and Castlevania games aspired to convey similarly unbroken environments.

It’s not like the developers were wanting for examples of how to handle scale and world building in a modern context either. Every couple of years, Rockstar has released games that give you the option to navigate through huge environments. Liberty City and New Austin have a variety of areas, but they also present a cohesive whole. Similarly, Bethesda’s open world RPGs realize the potential for huge seamless worlds that the original Zelda hinted at. Fast travel and the accompanying load screens are optional time savers rather than mandatory pieces of the games’ structures.

Even more linear series like Halo have embraced the power of connected environments. Seeing a huge scarab tank in the distance, flying over to it, and fighting your way inside is exhilarating in part because it was an unbroken journey. What began as a distant threat became the immediate danger and then ended as the site of an epic victory. The game world changed dynamically before my eyes instead of being shuffled around behind the dark curtain of a loading screen.

While playing Skyward Sword, I found myself searching for one of the mandatory docks that Link must jump off in order to call his avian steed. For some reason, you can’t simply jump off of any high vantage point. Once I got into the air, I called the bird, endured the load screen before I could fly. Shortly thereafter I realized I had forgotten to buy arrows. So, down towards the item shop’s roof I went. Before the load screen to get back into the town, I seemed to be set up for a clever landing right on top of the store. Instead, I was inexplicable loaded into one of the set drop zones. Three more load sequences later (one for going in and then out of the store and then one for flying) I was on my way to the forest.

I sky dove towards the trees only to be greeted by a load screen and then a map asking what predetermined drop point I wanted to pick, after which another load screen finally dumped me into an environment that was little more than an isolated petri dish made to cultivate a forest. I thought about changing course, setting off towards the mountains instead, but was saddened when I realized that such a plan wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of exploring a virtual world so much as it would entail wading through a series of static waypoints, each with its own load screen. I decided to stay in the forest.

Skyward Sword’s world lacks connective tissue. To explore it is largely to make a string of jumps between remote stages. It was as if the game was forcing me to use fast travel without ever giving me a chance to learn about the things I was theoretically avoiding. Through some combination of technical ineptitude and a lack of faith in my abilities as an explorer, Nintendo had excised one of the Zelda’s defining features: its sweeping world.