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The Complification of Zelda

Adding complexity can add depth and variety to your game, but at what cost?

Zelda: Skyward Sword does many things well. The game has fantastic art design and marvelous music. The game is full of expertly designed areas filled with wonderful puzzles and trials. But today, I'd like to talk about some of the game's failings. Specifically, how Zelda: Skyward Sword is the most complicated game in the Zelda series and how the game suffers for this.

Some time ago, I played an indie dual stick shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the control on the screen at all times with information on what each button.  "How ridiculous is this!" I thought to myself. Even the developers realized that their control scheme was too complicated but rather than trying to improve it, they just did the stopgap measure of putting the controls up permanently in the UI.

Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI (although it does have "expert" UI options that turn this off) and yet I have yet to see anyone call them out on it.

If your game's controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU'RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!

How complicated are Skyward Sword's controls? Let's see. We have individual buttons for:

Confirm/Run/Pick Up
Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
Items Menu
Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
Lock camera
First person mode/Divining
Help Button
Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird

9 buttons? That doesn't sound too bad, does it? After all, many FPS use every button on the controller (even obscure ones like click the right analog stick). Ah, but then you take into account...

1 - Motion controls. In addition to the regular buttons, you also have the following motions that you'll need to use:

Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
Thrust sword
Charge Sword with sky power
Sword Spin attack
Sword finishing move
Draw shield/Shield Bash


2 - Context sensitive changes. For example, you need to learn controls for the various items, how to balance on tightropes, how to fly, how to dive, etc.

3 - Two controllers. This is just me going on intuition, but it's my guess that if you had two controllers that each had the same number of buttons and functions, but one controller was a traditional controller and the other controller was split into two like the Wii remote/nunchuck (or the PS3 Move controller setup), many people would find the split controller buttons harder to keep straight. With a single controller, you just think "Which button do I press" but with a split controller, you may think "Which controller half do I use?" and then "Which button do I press" effectively doubling the amont of thought that's involved.

4 - No background knowledge. When playing Zelda: Link to the Past, it's much easier to grasp the controls if you've played the original Zelda, because it controls like The Legend of Zelda with a couple extra buttons.  When playing a good FPS game, it's generally easy to figure out the control scheme because it will generally be similar to other good games of the genre. In contrast, there aren't many games that control like Skyward Sword (maybe not any)

5 - Player input needed to make the controls work. This varies from player to player but I found myself having to hit the resynch button often to reallign the WiiPlus remote so I could use various items without the camera going crazy. Controls should just work - if the player has to constantly readjust the controls, that's a major problem and hurts immersion drastically.

Beyond controls, there are other areas where Skyward Sword is more needlessly complicated compared to previous Zelda games. Two in particular come to mind.

1 - The Stamina system. In a game like Shadow of the Colossus where climbing around on precarious beasts is the core gameplay, having a stamina system makes sense. Likewise with the Dark/Demon's Souls series which has combat that is all about maintaining stamina so you can keep attacking and defending. However, Skyward Sword has nothing like this and so the addition of a stamina gauge feels like an unnecessary complication (especially since in areas where they need you to not worry about the stamina gauge, they throw in free stamina restoration items to grab).

2 - The upgrade system. Now, I'm all for giving the player the ability to upgrade their items and equipment. However, the way Zelda does it is unnecessarily complicated. Why make the player collect a bunch of different doohickeys to upgrade a single item rather than just making each upgrade material upgrade a specific item (like Bastion does it)?

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with adding complexity to a game, however it's a tradeoff.

The more complexity you have, the more depth and more variety you can add to your game, however...

The more complexity you have, the steeper of a learning curve your game will have and the more energy your player will exert in just controlling the game rather than playing the game.

Now in the case of Skyward Sword, the added complexity allows the game to offer motion-based sword combat and items. However, the cost is dear - the game's pacing. Especially early on, the game constantly interrupts the player with tutorial after tutorial after tutorial. 

Contrast this with the early 2D Zeldas where the game got to the good fun stuff almost immediately (Link to the Past has an especially effective beginning) and you can see a huge difference. In Skyward Sword, it feels like the game doesn't really properly begin until the player has been playing for a few hours and even then, the tutorials don't end, they just get less frequent.

The key to complexity then is balance. Complexity should only be added if the benefit outweighs the cost. Is the fun motion-based sword & item combat in Skyward Sword worth the horrible pacing & the higher learning curve? Honestly, I don't know.

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