Continuing last week’s theme of ‘game endings that I don’t like’, today I bring you an article about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It contains endgame spoilers including the names of principal characters and the mechanical details of one particular gameplay sequence, but I won’t ruin any plot twists; if you’ve played a Zelda game before, nothing in here ought to be news to you. Let me tell you what this article isn’t about. It isn’t about how good and/or cruddy the motion controls are, the standing of Skyward Sword relative to other Zelda games, or whether the franchise is ‘getting old’ or ‘formulaic’. Also, I promise it doesn’t contain a single word about Fi.
Instead, this post has something in common with my thoughts on Mass Effect 3 in that it points out ways in which the story diverges uncomfortably from the game’s mechanics, getting its aesthetic signals all crossed up. There is one segment, right before the final battle, in which the game doesn’t know how it wants the player to feel. The results are frustrating, hilarious, and also fairly instructive.
The Segment in Question
Unsurprisingly, we find Link in dire circumstances. Ghirahim (the bad guy) is preparing a magical spell that will steal Zelda’s soul, both killing her and breathing life back into a powerful demon king whose resurrection will bring about a proverbial “age of darkness.” The scene takes place in an environment already familiar to the player, on a huge spiral ramp leading downward and in towards the center of a big crater. Link is at the top; Ghirahim and Zelda are at the bottom. Ghirahim summons literally every Moblin he can muster to delay our hero’s progress down the ramp. An army of monsters charges upward from the center of the crater, in greater numbers than the player has ever seen before.
So far, so good: The game has assembled all the pieces necessary for a dramatic climax. The imminent soul stealing spell creates the illusion of a ticking clock (let’s choose to suspend our disbelief here) and pushes the situation forward, while the army of monsters is hopefully enough to give us pause and throw into question what the outcome will be (remember that ‘drama’, in games, can be defined as the confluence of inevitability and uncertainty). We know that Link is both powerful and courageous to the point of near-idiocy; we suspect Ghirahim is afraid. We expect that Link will save Zelda or die trying, and we are prepared to help him do so. We believe that he can succeed against difficult odds; possibly we are even willing to suspend our disbelief for a moment and ignore the fact that it’s a Zelda game and of course he’s going to succeed. This is the narrative and ludic climax.
Whereas every individual Moblin was once tough enough to challenge him individually, Link’s sword is now so powerful that it can kill them in a single hit. Furthermore, there are stamina powerups lying along the ramp that permit Link to use his ‘whirlwind’ area attack repeatedly. In my playthrough, this encouraged me to lead Link down the ramp in an impressive swath of destruction, destroying multiple enemies per attack and generally being a badass. I must confess I actually began to feel a little bit like the divine wrecking ball Link’s character embodies throughout the narrative. I felt engaged; I felt excited! I half-expected Kanye West’s “Power” to start blaring in the background (as it should at some point in all good videogames). Alas, it was at this point that things started going sideways.
A magic wall appears blocking Link’s path down the ramp, and some slightly-tougher Moblins surround him. The feedback is clear enough: Defeat the five tougher dudes to lower the wall. Firstly, let’s forget about the verisimilitude problems involving how exactly the bad guy can conjure invincible walls in front of Link and why he doesn’t use these walls to more effectively delay us (yeah, it’s a video game). It’s easy enough for me to stop running, dispatch a bunch of dudes, and continue making my way down the ramp. But then some Moblins show up holding active bombs in their hands. Once more, the feedback is clear: Don’t slash those ones right away because I’ll get hurt, and instead take evasive action. I, along with most players, am likely to lose a heart or two here as I grow impatient and want to continue making progress. (Remember how Zelda is dying down there? I’m supposed to be moving as fast as I can!) A second wall soon appears alongside some giant shield-carrying Moblins (the little ones, some of whom have bombs, continue to annoy me). Then some archers show up. Then more bomb dudes.
Sadly, I no longer feel particularly divine or wrecking ball-esque. The game has become sluggish, slippery and chaotic, somewhat like a free-for-all mud wrestling contest. It forces me to the defensive, and I must now employ heart management and crowd control techniques to ‘whittle away at’ the mob rather than cut directly through it. How, exactly, does the game want me to feel right now? What are its desired aesthetics, and how are its mechanics going to help achieve them? None of this is particularly clear. I cannot think of a Kanye West track appropriate for this situation.
At the third wall, things get even worse. Link encounters a seemingly-innocuous lone blue Moblin. When he approaches this fellow to put him out of his misery, it runs away from him, actually retreating behind the wall where Link can’t get at him. As I ponder what to do about this, it zooms toward and then away from me for a quick in-and-out cheap shot. The feedback here is, again, reasonable: This kind of enemy likes to keep their distance, so I must move Link a little up the ramp (Zelda’s still dying btw) to lure it out, get behind it, and then chase it upwards rather than down using sprint to close the distance. Slashing the monster three times will knock it over, but it gets back up again; I must in fact knock it down twice more to defeat it for good. (Also, it’s invincible while getting back up. Perhaps you can perform a finishing blow while it’s down? I, for one, never saw the prompt to do so.) I first make sure to destroy all the remaining little red Moblins, and then focus on the tricky blue one. This results in me chasing one Moblin (whose siblings I just finished slaying by the hundreds) around in circles for a good ten seconds.
Why, exactly, is the game presenting the player with skittish monsters that must be defeated in order for Link to go save Zelda from her imminent death? The best possible outcome here is that the player defeats them ASAP through some clever sheep herding technique; the worst case is she chases them all over the place, like I did. The story says I am powerful, yet the game’s dynamical meaning tells me I’m a weakling, all but guaranteeing frustration and a bit of damage to my suspension of disbelief. Who wouldn’t get mad at a magical wall that appears arbitrarily in the middle of what is essentially a chase scene and whose existence somehow depends on that of a pissant little minion hiding behind the very same wall? On top of this, the videogame logic becomes painfully difficult to ignore: If the Moblin has to die for the wall to come down and it is allowed to hide itself behind the wall, why does it not simply stay back there and guarantee Link’s defeat as well as its own survival? (If at any point in the creative process you find yourself clinging to the phrase ‘because it’s a video game’, it may be time to reassess your design.)
We at last hit rock bottom during the final ramp segment, which introduces multiple skittish red Moblins who can summon reinforcements by blowing a horn alongside two Stalfos (reanimated skeletons that Link must slash multiple times in strategic locations). The Stalfos require a bit of time and concentration to defeat, which is hard-earned since the skittish horn Moblins continually summon groups of monsters to interfere with you. It did occur to me at this point that Link might use his bow to kill the skittish ones, and I did attempt to do so; unfortunately the Stalfos and reinforcements make stopping and aiming the bow awfully impractical, so my preference was to chase. This is also when I came to grasp the terrible gameplay dynamic that makes these skittish monsters so annoying. You see, Link must sprint forward (draining his stamina meter) to gain ground on the runners, but sprinting causes him to sheathe his sword. Thus, pursuing the runners prevents you from attacking them while stopping to attack them permits their escape. And if you accidentally drain your stamina meter completely, Link loses the ability to do anything for a few seconds and the various monsters get a chance to beat on him with impunity. Kanye West has now been thrown from the building; as our Chosen One battles evil with the fate of the world and his love interest hanging in the balance, the only suitable soundtrack choice is “Yakety Sax”.
At the bottom of the ramp Link battles and ultimately defeats Ghirahim, yet somehow the spell completes itself anyway (thus invalidating all that bullshit Link just went through, during which we dutifully pretended that the ramp sequence was actually time-sensitive in some meaningful way even though mountains of accumulated dynamical conditioning told us it really was not). Zelda’s soul is drained, as evidenced through a big fancy particle effect, into the belly of the demon, who tosses her body away carelessly. But then, in one of the more egregious Deus Ex Machinas in the venerable history of the Zelda franchise, Groose appears to catch Zelda before she hits the ground and exclaims “Wait, she’s okay!” What’s that, Groose? She isn’t already dead, like the game told us she would be if we didn’t hurry down the stupid ramp? (Even though the game mechanics didn’t actually want us to move very fast and, in fact, prevented us from doing so in about the most ham-handed way possible?) Groose proceeds to deliver a critical piece of exposition that he acquired from Granny at some point: The spell, which took time to activate, will now take time to steal Zelda’s soul, like, for realsies this time (despite the aforementioned big particle effect having long since trailed off, implying her soul was already stolen). Why didn’t Granny explain this earlier, when she had ample opportunity to do so and it was clearly relevant to the current situation? Because video games!
Three Big Problems
So, one big problem is that the story tells the player to go fast while the mechanics force her to go slow. The temporary wall mechanics literally stop her in her tracks. Certain enemies, designed to evade the player but which must nonetheless be defeated for advancement, slow the pace to a crawl.
A second big problem is that the encounters provided along the ramp make the player feel weak and clumsy during the climax of a game that is essentially about becoming strong and graceful. Combining large numbers of stupid/weak monsters with a handful of smart/tough monsters produces an unwelcome tension between broadly-targeted attacks and precisely-targeted attacks (something the Zelda franchise’s Z-targeting-based combat idiom has never supported very successfully). The skittish Moblins do an excellent job of convincing the player that the interface has failed her, especially when contrasted with the easily-dispatched regular Moblins.
The third big problem is that the events at the bottom of the ramp trivialize everything the player just did and, generally, do not make any sense. Rather than providing catharsis for or adding depth to the characters involved, they transition us glibly from one fight to the next while offering the player nothing of substantial value.
One Possible Solution
Firstly, remove the walls blocking Link’s path. Without them, the player can move as fast as she pleases and is far less likely to be put off by the fact that, contrary to what the plot implies, there is no actual failure condition associated with the passage of time (if she moves as fast as she can, it will be fast enough). Resist the urge to make the ramp sequence ‘challenging’ and instead embrace its aesthetic complement: Power. Send forth an army of Moblins, and allow them to be destroyed. Have the critters hesitate before attacking Link; have them turn and run away! Have Ghirahim, abandoned by his followers, express fear and desperation. Allow Link to actually stop the spell he’s trying to stop. Have Ghirahim’s demon master arrive anyway somehow, displeased by the failure of his servant. Seize the opportunity to deepen Ghirahim’s character as he must face the repercussions of his spectacular failure. We already know what Link is all about; you need your secondary characters to act as more than just punching bags, or else the story will never gain resonance.
My dissatisfaction with this segment of Skyward Sword stems from the game’s failure to play to its mechanical strengths as well as its loss of tone and pacing amidst the pursuit of challenge. It seems to me that the team started with a good idea (‘what if Ghirahim sends an army of Moblins at you?’) that was handed to some level designers who wanted to make it challenging, then handed to some script writers who wanted to make it dramatic, then slotted awkwardly into a ludonarrative framework for which it was no longer very appropriate because it was simply too late to make significant revisions. When game elements disagree on how the player is supposed to feel and why it’s important for her to feel that way, she has no recourse but to grow detached from the work.