Nintendo's Wii console is mercenary to its core—of that, there's no doubt. Yet despite being a shovelware-aiding gimmick of a platform, it has miraculously produced a few games that are not just good, not just great, but that are artistic achievements that belong next to the Silent Hill 2s and Super Mario 64s in canon. At once a company that can be greedier than any other, and backwards in its technology, Nintendo also manages to keep their artistic souls intact by having as many dream-orientated designers as they do dollar-eyed opportunists. Or perhaps gaming endures, no matter the console's technology level or who runs the corporate offices. Perhaps art endures.
At its best, the company manages to cultivate a sense of magic that reaches back to childhood: it shows you the world in a new way, or maybe a way you used to see it. (No wonder Spielberg wanted to do his first game for the Wii.) It's no mistake that Nintendo has not just one stand out/profitable franchise but all its Marios, its Zeldas, its Metroids, its Starfoxs, its Kirbys. That brings me to director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and new release The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
"Skyward Sword" images via IGN.com.
Fujibayashi is relatively new blood: despite working on several DS titles, he hadn't previously directed a console game, last working on one at all sometime in the 90s. Replacing Eiji Aonuma, director of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, is the smartest move the series has made in years; both of those are good games, but only good, lacking the “spark” of a masterpiece.
New man Fujibayashi has provided that spark. For the first time since 1996, the series is magical again. It is familiar, but different in all the right ways.
When I heard the new Zelda would use motion controls, I automatically slotted it in my mental list as another Wii gimmick, remembering the “Twilight Princess” port. I was wrong. The motion control isn't perfect, it has its flaws, but its so damn close for most of the time that it might as well be. More importantly, it gives the aging series new life by using it in a significant manner. Most good games to date, Nintendo's included, either ignored motion controls or added them on simply for the sake of adding them. Can anyone really say much was added to Super Mario Galaxy for them? Sure, there's the first person shooters like Metroid Prime 3 or Goldeneye, but they didn't really add much that a lightgun couldn't and hadn't already done.
“Skyward Sword” uses the motion controls. Not just uses them, but puts them to artistic purposes. It's like an honest-to-God motion aesthetic: it's less tangible than a visual aesthetic, but the sensation the controls give is equivalent to a strong visual style (which it also boasts). You use it to sword fight, the sword angling in the manner your hand does; cues come out of the Wiimote; you shake the nunchuck to roll; shake both the nunchuck and Wiimote to do a downward stab; manipulate shape puzzles; roll or throw bombs based on if the Wiimote is pointed down or up; point the controller to aim anything you want, or just to look around in first person. That all sounds tedious on paper, doing almost everything via motion, but in practice it makes more sense than how Twilight Princess, and numerous other games, half-ass it.
With the controls fully translated into motion, we can more easily grasp them than other Wii games. They actually end up feeling less like a gimmick, instead of more of one. When the motion doesn't entirely work, and it doesn't always—sometimes it's too slow for your movements—we are more likely to overlook it because it's not messing up that one time we are using motion but one time out of very many.
But it's tempting to look at all this polish, this invention, and just dismiss it for something “adult” like Heavy Rain. Just because it's not po-faced, it's also somehow not artistic. More often, it's just that our critical language fails to express that which is not sign-posted for depth; we (and I include myself in this) just don't want to think.
Give me my Big Mac, my Kubrick, and leave me the hell alone.
Other times, it's due to our cultural guardians (who absolutely should know better, even if their audiences do not) being drawn into cynicism's trite gravitational pull. Like Steven Spielberg, Nintendo's various developers, from Miyamoto to new man Fujibayashi, do not often get artistic respect beyond “fun game, 10/10, awesome, what's next?” It is not out-of-the-ordinary for a game critic to write something about the commercialism of Mario or Link while, say, also writing an applauding analysis of how The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim creates an involving open world or Grand Theft Auto IV satirizes the American Dream.
Nothing could be more incorrect. In an interview with three time former New York Film Critics Circle head and City Arts writer Armond White, Senses of Cinema's Jeremiah Kipp broaches this exact topic when they talk about aforementioned-director Spielberg. Here's the back-and-forth [bold is mine]:
JK: It seems like Spielberg can’t get a break. When he does movies about
children, the accusation is that he’s sentimental or naïve. But when he makes
movies about adult themes and subject matter they say that he’s biting off
more than he can chew.
AW: Partly, it’s that old fashioned problem of people thinking movies about
issues are more important than movies about feeling. Andrew Sarris pointed
out this problem many years ago. Spielberg is often the victim of that. When
he makes movies about World War II, many think that is serious and profound.
When he makes movies about family life or childhood life, they deride it
and think it’s inconsequential. I guess you could say that’s a philistine
response to art, that art’s only important when it’s about issues.
If political guardians watch out for Big Brother, this is what we in game criticism must watch out for: an increasing reliance on games with “Issues” for us to write about, ignoring genuinely moving things and why they move us.
Like Spielberg, Nintendo primarily focuses on on art about feeling and emotion. Except here, where they achieve that and go a bit further. “Skyward Sword” is not only an empathetic game, but meaningful in that it is about communication: between the player and the motion controls, between oral history and current time, between characters like Groose (wonderfully, his flaw is miscommunication), Link (who cannot speak to us), Zelda, and Impa (all relating cultural myths to each other as facts). It even begins with cave wall style paintings that retell a myth and the delivery of a letter. Could that be more wonderful? Could any other system be more suited to this than Nintendo's uber-populist Wii?
Restoring some of my faith in game journalism, Eurogamer's Oli Welsh actually recognizes this in his review:
'Oral history - the most unreliable method of transferring information,' remarks
Fi, your familiar and guide in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword...But it's
proven a reliable enough tale in the 25-year history of Nintendo's classic fantasy adventures...But for the most part, Zelda games are echoes of each other, handed
down from one (console) generation to the next, changing the context but not the
Of course, the core of art, stripped down to its most basic possibilities, is to communicate. So not only does Fujibayashi's Zelda highlight the oral history nature of the series, but like the best of it he and his team employ other worlds of arts than the obvious ones of gaming and cinema to communicate with the player.
The characters express not just emotions, but Emotions. The game resists modern day pressure to add voice acting and keeps the frankly bizarre series style intact by sticking to text boxes. Each character has a sound cue that plays once every time they speak that identifies them: slow chuckling for a villain, owlish hooing for a wise man, etc. It's a clever way of inducing memory association in players and pushing them to create their own voices for these characters.
The text boxes, in conjunction with these cues and the musical score that backs dramatic scenes, might actually help players buy into characters and their emotions more than any voice acting could. The emotion on display here is more comparable to silent film acting: big, but of course it has to be to convey emotions without voice acting or a hyper-realistic art style.
Text boxes give us the silence needed to use our own minds; lines that might take a hysterical tone on an actor's tongue take on poignancy in our heads. Voice acting is what killed Final Fantasy, after all, by turning its formerly charming melodrama up to pretentious self-indulgence. Daring, Nintendo's key series uses these experimental text boxes, making it kin to ergodic literature like House of Leaves, and to our writing culture: gigantic text is used for shouting, small for whispering, different fonts for different moods, colors for emphasis—even the placement of the boxes is manipulated for player effect. This is a game that recognizes literature's effects (the effects of words) on emotion.
The graphical style is a combination of “Wind Waker” cartoon and Twilight Princess reality. The trees of Faron Woods resemble paintings, full of broad strokes and warm colors. Impressionistic, they bring to mind Paul Cezanne's landscapes.
Paul Cezanne, "Forest" (1902-4) via wikimedia.org.
Paul Cezanne, St. Victoire (1886), via ibiblio.org.
And what would any game, but especially a Zelda, be without music? Like what's mentioned above about the voice acting, the game mimics silent film by providing an emotive and grand score. Finally performed by full orchestra, it's full of peaceful strings and some odd combinations of traditional score with sound effects used for motif. Its certainly memorable, especially when in the final battle its replaced by atmospheric noises and otherwise silence. The music and its composer, Kenji Kondo, is as much a star as Link himself: when you visit the Bazaar in your hometown, moving from one merchant to the next causes the single Bazaar theme to seamlessly alter to fit that character's personality (industrious for the gearhead, frantic for the over-achieving shopkeeper, dragging for the tired husband who improves potions, etc.) The score is fluid.
Fujibayashi's “Skyward Sword” honors gameplay, reading, painting, and music instead of demeaning them, like Heavy Rain's crass blend of “interactive cinema.” Skyward Sword is all-inclusive, inviting the arts to do their parts and to do them together. They play off each other in a manner not unlike British novelist E.M. Forster's thoughts on how To the Lighthouse functions:
It has been called a sonata form, and certainly the slow central section,
conveying the passing of time, does demand a musical analogy. We have,
when reading it, the rare pleasure of inhabiting two worlds at once,
a pleasure only art can give.
Want more legitimate game criticism? Enter Strange Country.