"I don't like Zelda
." Not a contentious statement by any means, but how did reading it make you feel? There are few video game series so ingrained into this shared culture and language of games we partake in as The Legend of Zelda
, and the lens it's viewed through is almost always celebratory and jubilant. This widespread staunch belief in the innate goodness of the series makes it difficult to approach from other angles or get a word in edgewise, as Nintendo's franchises create their own self-perpetuating momentum and critical immunity from well-deserved scrutiny through their massive cultural cachet and influence. This is not to say people don't argue about the relative strengths and weaknesses of any given installment until the moon falls and the earth floods, because they do. How this discourse manifests usually follows set patterns and topics of engagement, though, and reflects the primary interest vectors of what draws people to the series: how they fit together as macro and micro-environments, what the mechanics of interaction are, what the almost mythical concept of game "pacing" says of each, and how willfully explorable or not any of them is. These are all pertinent questions to ask, but they can also be secondary or not important at all if one's perspective differs, and don't capture the scope of interaction possible with any media work, however codified and standard. This is why I say that I don't like Zelda
, regardless of what I think of it as a puzzle-box exploratory adventure, because it so consistently and universally always lets me down via its gender, racial, and sexual politics, and its overall central thematicism. My default mentality for the series is not gleeful anticipation, but bracing trepidation.
As much as the prior reflects the reality of my relationship with the series, it is also a truth that I have played many Zelda
games, most of them to the end. On one hand this is in part due to the series's unquestionable ubiquity and the attitudes with which it's assessed--you play video games; you play Zelda
--but there's also that motivating glimmer of personal significance pumping at the heart of such a long-term association. I was a young child in the late '90s and the Nintendo 64 duology isn't what introduced me to the series, but they were the games I imprinted upon strongly, and what I've retained as childhood touchstones and reassessed adulthood favourites. They are what allows me to react to every Zelda
I haven't played with more than distrust, pushing me to explore new avenues within the series, not because I seek the echoes of my childhood totems but because I hope to find something that can carry dissimilar but nonetheless equally valid meaning for me. After many, many games and uneasy arbitration, I think I've finally found what I sought.
I first played Skyward Sword
in the same context as many other people did, around its late 2011 release. If one recalls, the game publishing scene of that moment in time, at least for this specific cross-section, was defined by the temporally close release of not only this game, but its fellow fantasy roleplaying peers and even nominal relatives, Skyrim
and Dark Souls
. Whether one had the appetite to view these games through directly comparative language and assessment, the capitalistic systems at play mandated and ensured that they would be, in both professionally critical spaces and the colloquially enthusiastic. Those comparative instincts did not necessarily reflect well on Skyward Sword
: while Zelda
had always been recognized and cherished as sparking the imaginations and desires to explore virtual worlds for a generation or several--and likely influencing these very games now nipping at its heels--its newest incarnation was viewed to have abandoned that ethos as the culmination of many years of incremental wear and tear. Skyrim
and Dark Souls
, while both part of established lineages of their own, were then seen as successors to carrying on that frontier spirit into the future through their own interpretations, while the progenitor itself regressed and floundered. Whether this was the specific framework through which one observed Skyward Sword
or not, its reception remained customary of series: superficially glowing in unison, and endlessly divisive for the people invested in its ongoing creative process and the particularities therein. For my part, I played a little of it at the time, and set it aside through no particular ill will, perhaps influenced by the conventional malaise permeating how the series was talked about writ large. I did not return to it for over seven years.
In a way, I'm glad I let it sit for so long. Doubtless there is an appeal in interacting with media contemporaneously, to be part of the developing conversation, contributing to it and helping shape it along in excitement, but there is also validity in hindsight and re-examined personal contexts. What were anyone's thoughts on motion controls at 2011's twilight, at the tail end of the Wii generation, and what Skyward Sword
itself was seen as a capstone to? Questions of accessibility and handedness should never be disregarded in such physically tactile and specific interaction modes as them, but the dominating conversation outside of those concerns was largely defined by viewing the technology as tired, overcomplicating, imprecise gimmicks obfuscating superficial design. This was very much part of Skyward Sword
's legacy and the inheritance of its creative context; there were sides to be taken either for or against on the subject of its control scheme and its reliability or lack thereof. I no longer remember what thoughts I held then, but over the years as nearly every Zelda
has integrated supplementary gyroscope aim adjustment to their design, my perception of the series and its ways of interacting with 3D space have been molded according to those standards in ways that I now anticipate and even crave. Combine this new standard with the distance of years from the hegemony of motion control in video games--restoring a sense of novelty and welcome unfamiliarity--and to approach Skyward Sword
as a button-and-motion-feel experience is a much different prospect than it would've been in its own time.
Those interactions the motion controls allow are ultimately integral to the game's identity, existing beyond shallow gimmickry. Zelda
's appeal over the years has solidified into and been expressed through a kind of ultra-generalist mentality to video games: do as many things as possible to satiate as many people as you can and secure an audience, no matter what part of the whole they latch onto. This grants the series universal approachability, but also limits the amount of attention it can devote to any single aspect of its self for being stretched out so thin (and relatedly, also leaves the series suspect to unexamined prejudices and bigotry that run a steady course throughout it). Zelda
for me gets interesting when it upheaves the careful balancing act it's established for itself--Majora's Mask
alone is a prime example of deliberate recontextualization of prior standards. Skyward Sword
is its own quiet revolution, for how pervasive and holistic it makes its motion controls in interacting with the game, and how the design leans into those inputs in synergy any time it possibly can.
The sword-fighting of course stands as the centerpiece: enemies parry your blows, read your telegraphing, feint blows of their own, and generally fight back with a ferocity the series doesn't often see. The appeal of motion-controlled sword maneuvers isn't in merely the physical act and its translated approximation on the screen, but how enemies and situations mandate specific approaches, movement arcs and gestures to make nice, and that's what makes the integration of the controls so engaging for me. Zelda
combat and puzzle-solving is often ultimately binary, where you reason out the approach and simply perform the task, and therein lies the accusation of roteness. What Skyward Sword
does for the formula is introduce an element of execution to the process: when you suss out the answer, you're not just going through the motions because the motions are the crux of the matter--whether you can physically replicate what your brain knows needs to be done. This margin for error, for misaligned and panicked verbs performed in haste, and the refocusing of oneself to act with precision, means that even the most rudimentary Zelda
concepts and interactions are imbued with a new sense of vitality simply because I felt like I could fail them, and often did. Motion controls of this type achieve a form of nuance that counterparts acted out through button and stick inputs cannot reprise, though I wish the option existed for those whom the control scheme was such a barrier. There are many arguments that revolve around Skyward Sword
's modular design, but in the ways it incorporates motion inputs to its self--flicking to climb in spurts; rotating minutely to fly and swim; rhythmically waving back and forth to walk tightropes; snapping in swift response to parry attacks; adjusting the twist of a rolled bomb to add curve to the arc, and on and on--it is comprehensive and consistently delightful in the care it employs in crafting such a cohesive experience.
Coherence permeates Skyward Sword
's creative processes. It's a game of hyperfocused emphasis toward the specific avenues it's interested in exploring at the expense of anything else, running counter to those generalist Zelda
design tendencies the series has trained us to expect of itself. It doesn't allow for experimentation out of sequence, and it doesn't give you the means to improvise much in the moment; its problems have discrete solutions and they don't resolve as multiple-choice. If one's affinity towards the series is intertwined in its sense of freeform exploration, then Skyward Sword
will feel stifling in its narrow, single-minded scope. I have never come to Zelda
for sensations of freedom, however, because while its structural realities at their most open profess player choice and agency, its thematic centerpiece embodied in its protagonist, the cipher "Link", presents a disingenuous premise where an ostensibly universal and inclusive avatar is never anything but an icon and representational force of default masculine, heteronormative ideation in practice. Freedom means nothing to me in Zelda
, because they're some of the most oppressive and insidious games I know.
And so I relished in Skyward Sword
's compact hyper-density, because I saw it as reflective and attuned to the narrative conventions and themes of the series in ways that rarely reconcile one another with so little friction. Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the character of Fi. We can't consider Fi as a fictional entity without confronting her reputation outside of the game: she is reviled with a consistency and intensity that has surpassed similar audience reactions to Ocarina of Time
's Navi, the previous target for players's memetic ire toward partner characters in Zelda
. To divorce these receptions from misogynistic sentiment would be foolish, as there exists a deeply pervasive language and culture of sexist assessment and relation to helper and subservient characters in video games on both sides of the developer and player axiom, but Fi's loathed presence is also irrevocably tied to impressions of her as an intrusive, patronizing nanny, here to provide aid that's not needed or requested and to impose the developers' will on whatever scraps of player agency one can cling to in Skyward Sword
's constrictive spaces. As Link exists as a supposed cipher between player and game, so is Fi perceived as the overbearing incarnation of the mistrustful development zeitgeist in power at Nintendo at the time, and its ultimate representational folly.
What actually troubles me about Fi is none of the above, but the specific semiotics of her role as a servile woman whose recurring verbal tic is the ubiquitous utterance of "master", aimed directly at the player. This is, however, the limit of my grievances, as I was thoroughly invested in the contrasting aspects of her character, starting from her dryly humorous deadpan deliveries and the general robotic artifice with which she carries herself, creating an image of superficial neutrality but always letting in on something beyond blank servitude. This supposed tool of practical convenience breaks into a figure skating short program any time she's called upon to relate messages from her creators, and it's impossible to not have that captivate and make one question Fi's ostensible lack of personhood. Performance and the arts are what Fi comes alive through on a consistent basis, as she puts on her own shows and further collaborates with the player through music and song. It's in these moments that her character is realized as her mannerisms seem merely approximative of humanity even as she emotes via deeply human means, and her backmasked voice resonates and chafes against easy categorization. Fi's arc is flat, an anti-twist, where she completes her duty as mandated and takes her leave from history's stage, but it's also here where her nature as a retcon suffuses the series with new meaning as she goes to slumber within the Master Sword. The series's central symbol of heroic power has never meant much to me on its own, but through Fi, every single instance from the past that predates her to the future that follows her now reframes the sword's acquisition not as an empowering tool to benefit from but the act of reconnecting and reuniting with an old friend.
Fi's ever-presence then does not bother me, because I don't seek Zelda
games out for the freedom they're incapable of granting me, and so Skyward Sword
's context becomes one of carefully curated interactions with a game world that's explicitly set up as a trail of trials--divinely ordained, overseen and guided--and in this light Fi's assistance is not only welcome but integral to the game's narrative. The Legend of Zelda
formatively termed them LEVELs, and the common designation informally settled upon is "dungeon", but the other consistent denomination that exists in the series captures best what Skyward Sword
's world is full of: temples. And what are temples but places of worship, of religious significance and practice, and monuments to faith itself? The series has seen many such structures before as its puzzle-box labyrinths, but often they appear to use the word as a stock template to describe the environment, granting it nominal form but no especial meaning. Skyward Sword
's temples feel as such because they integrate iconography from real world counterparts and thus create authentic connections between form and function. You can observe the reliefs in the Earth Temple and see representational figures of Barong or other Southeast Asian idols, or see the Hindu-inflected architecture on display at the geographically connected region where the Fire Sanctuary resides, and find the ashtamangala
housed within. The cultural footprints aren't just given lip service--they inform the construction of the world and the player's interactions with it, enriching every facet of the presentation.
Even in light of all of this, the Ancient Cistern still stands out from the rest. To understand the location requires figuratively walking through it, because nearly every detail warrants explication. From the beginning, the player encounters a giant golden Buddha, establishing the themes to be encountered deeper inside. Further interactions involve the inspection of chakra
points on the Buddha's body, and the earthly temptations represented as great treasure awaiting their taker in his open palms. A central mechanic involves the numerous lotus blossoms filling the cistern, beautiful and harmonius in an upright orientation but dangerous and injurious if flipped over. Gratitude itself is made reference to, something that exists as a real, tactile concept in the game's cosmology in the form of the gratitude crystals bestowed by people whom the player has aided. Eventually the road leads to the underworld through Buddha's very body, emerging into a cavernous miasma filled with pooled blood and ravenous preta
. Escape involves clutching onto giant columns reminiscent of prayer wheels as the very act of traversal becomes an appeal for salvation, and at its climax the player is made to re-enact a scene of desperate flight from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's The Spider's Thread
, itself modeled after Buddhist parables and tradition. Escape from Hell and the rise to Heaven culminates in an encounter with a corrupted icon of a bodhisattva
, as much a fight as an act of spiritual purification.
To lay this all out is important because it arrives at Skyward Sword
's greatest strengths, its ability to create mythic and religious narratives in the Zelda
framework, through conventional Zelda
verbs and design. The Ancient Cistern might "only" be a singular dungeon within the series, but it is also among the best single stories the series has ever told, and most indicative of what it's part of. Zelda
has always been a religious narrative and concerned with expressions of faith, from its own sort of polytheistic paganism filtered through Shinto concepts and the regular presence of Christian iconography to create its brand of cultural intermingling. Skyward Sword
is a textually explicit godly narrative, and that's to be seen in the regimented structure of the game world set to test the player, the cultural authenticity of its sources and the constant presence of its own pantheon in the story it's telling. When Faron floods her woodland domain toward the end of the game, seemingly at a whim and out of annoyance at meddlers in her lands, I felt the game's commitment to a mythic structure as she sends the player on a capricious errand that serves no legitimate purpose other than her own entertainment. Every act is given meaning through this lens, and even if I had been mechanically less enthused about what the game does, the thematic tenor would have carried me through in satisfaction that I rarely feel with this series. Skyward Sword
's credit is that I found both of these expressions compelling throughout.
continues to exist as it mostly always has: consistent and predictable in the themes inherent to it, unchanging in some ways even as it adjusts others to iterate and sometimes innovate. Skyward Sword
is frustrating in most of the same ways the rest of the series is to me, and my delight was in finding an angle for personal value in an unexpected corner of it, even through minding my own context of worries and misgivings. Maybe I'll find yet more.