The Master Sword: How swordplay creates gameplay in Zelda’s latest legend

akuhar-theherooftime

For the past few weeks, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had me doing things that no other video game has. It had me standing for 90% of a 45+ hour adventure because it was more compelling than sitting down. It taught me how to read my enemies’ behaviors, and to reconsider the meaningfulness of my sword (which, in terms of combat and puzzle-solving effectiveness, doesn’t change in a significant way throughout the majority of the game) more often than every other classic Zelda tools also at my disposal. By the end, it had me convinced that I was a significantly better swordsman than when I first gripped the blade referenced in its subtitle.

Every new idea requires a good explanation, but many of Skyward Sword‘s best ones got away without needing any. Without hand-holding exposition nor repetitive tutorials, this newest entry into the series draws attention to how its design sensibilities were subtle enough to have more than one user in mind. Though by contrast, they also draw attention to every moment that thought otherwise, leaning on tradition and variety when it least needed to. As I watched the first Zelda in half a decade struggling to soar to the top of most critics’ 2011 Game of the Year lists, deep down I think I knew why.

Better design, in any medium, exists for the sake of more effectively communicating something that matters. Mostly everything about Skyward Sword‘s swordplay is a stellar example of good design being applied to Link’s agency within the world; it conveys the idea of swordsmanship, and your sword as a multi-purpose tool, better than any previous Zelda. What the sword affords its wielder is something that is more diverse, intuitive, and immediately applicable because its trajectory is no longer restrained to the binary inputs of buttons or “waggle”.

The tutorial is succinct, well placed and manages to teach you every way the sword could be handled throughout the entire game. Literally, besides the Skyward Strike (and your own creativity at times), this three minute training session covers every thing you need to know about your sword. Slicing through splintered training logs provides an analog for how you’ll behave outside of the Knight’s Hall. It treats you like an eager student who cares to learn more, and just when things start to get fun, it sends you on your way. It humbled me to realize that it would actually take practice, as swinging a sword ought to, but I could forgive momentary simulation in such an exaggerated experience because it surprised me with an appetite for empowerment. Landing a hit never felt so “up-to-me”, puzzles were solved with more elegance by opening doors with the sword as a gestural key, and obstacles could now approach me at angles I literally couldn’t achieve before. Just as a sword is an extension of our arm, Link has become a truer extension of ourselves.

Link, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword begins to respond to criticisms of the series as predictable by also giving the combat some much needed depth, and a healthy potential for error that can register with players. There’s more fluidity and intelligence in the behavior of enemies as they react to Link’s (your) gestures, making them more believable, threatening, and annoying — and thus, that much more satisfying upon defeat. In a series defined by the inability to miss your target by locking onto it, and guides telling you where to go and what to do next every few minutes, this was the first time in a long time that I felt legitimately challenged to push myself in a Zelda game.

Yet, the game is filled with interactive elements that haven’t developed nearly as much as the swordplay, or in some cases have actually become more cumbersome. Swimming seems to borrow from the same control scheme flight does, but it doesn’t feel as natural. Scooping up potions, water and fairies with an empty bottle doesn’t happen with simple gestures, oddly enough, breaking consistency with a similar action: scooping up bugs with the surprisingly gestural bug net. Aiming cursor-based items (the hookshot, the bow, etc.) requires more calibration than Twilight Princess ever did without Wii Motion Plus. As such, there becomes a nagging lack of consistency with how you interact with the world.

Link, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I wouldn’t say these were deal-breakers for my experience with Skyward Sword, but I believe they’re worth thinking about when it comes to how important The Legend of Zelda is to the history of modern game design. These are the symptoms of mingling forward-thinking design with homage-paying artifacts — artifacts that matter most to longtime Zelda fans, but perhaps only because their very presence game-after-game has stubbornly extended their relevance. At the same time it’s also a game padded with hints, tips and progress-affirming animations that overstay their welcome; it’s loaded with filler for people who have probably never played a Zelda game in their life.

There’s a conflict in design philosophies going on here, which I can only assume stems from the realities of a rapidly diverging audience on the Wii. Meanwhile, the sword mechanics struggle to remain at center stage more than they ought to. It’s as if the captivating lead role in a play was written out of scenes that weren’t essential to developing the story anyways.

When I think about the most thrilling and engaging moments for me in Skyward Sword, they all boil down two things: a sword and a shield — I wonder what the adventure would’ve been like, had its pacing taken more notes from their restraint.

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