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Chasing Zelda: Creating empathy in Skyward Sword

Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander analyzes a key evolution on the Zelda formula employed by Skyward Sword -- one that creates a real sense of feeling for the iconic character.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 9, 2012

4 Min Read

Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise has remained beloved over the years through its use of a particular set of constants: Link, a fey young outsider, must leave his home village to rescue a princess and save the land from a dark power. Players know he will collect certain objects in sequence: A boomerang, a bow, a bomb bag. There are fairies and hidden rooms, Link will learn natural magic of a type, and everything the hero collects or earns makes it possible to explore and master more of his world. In every Zelda game, though they may differ stylistically, a certain visual language remains the same. A cracked wall lets you know you can bomb your way in, a clearly-delineated spot begs for an arrow or a hookshot -- things that the player might not even be able to use on his or her first encounter with them, but will mentally bookmark for later. More importantly, all of these consistencies are thematic metaphors. Zelda is a story about a boy becoming a man, about a child leaving the home and growing up into an adult. The princess as rescue object is classic to this type of fairy tale; in early games, the princess' indisputable purity was an ideal toward which to strive. As the series has endured over the decades, the constraint of all the elements that need to remain recognizable and unchanged has allowed for evolution and experimentation in other areas. These have been primarily stylistic -- the aesthetic and environment of Ocarina of Time is vastly different to that of Wind Waker, and both are different from Skyward Sword. There are elements of the settings that are familiar, but in each Zelda game the world is spiritually remade again and again. The same is true for the characters in it. Link has long been famously unvoiced, an innocent-faced cipher who seems to balance a look of determination with a naif's expression of awe. He receives information and he reacts because the player is having him do so. Child Link in Ocarina is charmingly clueless about things like royal ambition or the little princess Ruto's statement of intention to marry him. He fulfills his objectives, a distinct but largely empty green-clad canvas for the player to employ. In what might be the most interesting iteration the Zelda series has yet seen, Skyward Sword takes a brand-new approach in characterizing Link via Zelda, who receives a tangible, compelling and nuanced characterization herself for arguably the first time in the series' history. Little has changed about the hero; he is skilled because we make him, dutiful because we press buttons, and brave because we don't stop pressing them even when there are monsters. The series is named after Zelda, not Link, and yet we've always had so little of her story, beyond the princess as a rarely-seen distant ideal, a concept and not a person. But right from the outset, Skyward Sword's Zelda is drawn to be captivating. The game's exposition lets the player actually see that Zelda and Link are childhood friends, with scenes that explore what that might actually mean in the game world. Here, Zelda's not a "princess" exactly, but the daughter of the headmaster of Link's knight school -- where his classmates resent that the charismatic girl has picked plain Link for a best friend. The cinematic angles of her face when she's speaking or moving are almost worshipful, and the player quickly learns to see how much the hero adores her. But she dodges being entirely a two-dimensional love interest by having something of a demanding character and a strong spine. That Zelda will be taken from Link is hardly a spoiler; that's what always happens. But the sketches of her personality in the game's long exposition make it evident why he'd want to get her back. Some have criticized the game's slow burn of an opening, but the interactions and the illustrations the game's early bits enable provide crucial spine for something rare to the franchise: Actual sentimental feeling for Zelda and empathy for Link's loss. This choice is further enforced by the structure of the game, which seems continually to promise that Zelda is just up ahead of you. Skyward Sword asks players to "dowse" for a trace of her, following a radar-like tool that keeps Zelda constantly on one's mind and feeling just out of arm's reach. She feels almost present, and this creates higher emotional stakes for the player. Creating that without meaningfully changing the style of the characters, the distinct tone the series has regarding dialogue, and without adding voice is the kind of estimable challenge at which Nintendo games excel -- a challenging revolution, executed with subtlety.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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