The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Structural analysis, Act I
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword hits almost all of the major structural beats, but two of those beats—disaster and post-midpoint obstacles—are repeated, creating a stagnant third act. While the opening suffers due to unnecessary exposition, and the third act is burdened by backtracking, both share the same root cause of gameplay overwhelming story. To show off its many new features, such as motion controls and overworld flight, Skyward Sword frequently derails its own story for repeated boss encounters, diversions to old zones, and mandatory mini-games. The pace improves once the game reaches the second disaster point, but its climax lacks weight because the ultimate antagonist is too dissimilar from the threats built in earlier acts. Fortunately, the wrap-up segment ties off some of the emotional through-lines, and the game ends on a satisfying note despite its structural deficiencies.
Skyward Sword possesses one of the longest openings in the series, encompassing over sixty minutes of light gameplay mixed with extended cutscenes. Although it uses this time to set up its major characters and the world they inhabit, the location changes, expository dialogue, and unnecessary repetition result in an awkward experience.
The opening begins with the retelling of a legend that has been passed down for generations. This is a common beginning for Zelda games, as it quickly establishes the framework for the narrative. When the legend ends, the story cycles through two quick scenes: a monster breaking through the ground and a girl giving a letter to a bird. The game is now three scenes deep with no signs of a protagonist, leaving the audience with no attachment point. This lack of ground continues with the protagonist’s introduction, as it occurs in a dream sequence. Since this scene is disconnected from reality, the audience still cannot connect with the protagonist.
The protagonist is introduced in scene four, when the boy from the dream jolts awake on the floor next to his bed. The purple shoebill from the third scene is leaning through his window with a letter. It spits the letter in the protagonist’s face, then departs.
Rubbing the back of his head, the boy opens the letter and reads it. “Rise and shine, Link!” it says. “Today’s the Wing Ceremony! You promised to meet me before it starts, remember? You’d better not keep me waiting. – Zelda.” With this single letter, both the boy and the girl get names—Link and Zelda, respectively—and Link is given a mission: to meet Zelda before the Wing Ceremony. Using a letter to convey that information may be a common trope, but it’s a simple and effective method that gives the player everything they need without relying on tool-tips or narration.
After running errands for a few people in town (and learning how to move along the way), Link meets with Zelda. She tells him she’s glad her Loftwing got him out of bed, which gives the player the local name for the shoebills. She also shares a few tidbits about her harp and the outfit she’s wearing for the ceremony, as she’ll be playing the goddess. While this segment qualifies as exposition, it also adds to Zelda’s characterization by showing her enthusiasm for her culture.
Zelda’s father appears, interrupting their conversation. Suddenly, Zelda isn’t so optimistic. She’s worried Link won’t win the race at the ceremony and won’t be chosen to perform with her afterward. Apparently, Link hasn’t been practicing with his Loftwing enough. Zelda’s father counters by saying Link’s unique bond with his Loftwing should be enough to carry him through. This is a particularly egregious example of telling, rather than showing, on the part of Zelda’s father. Rather than let Link’s bond with his Loftwing come through organically, Zelda’s father states it explicitly. This creates certain expectations in the player’s mind for what Link’s relationship with his Loftwing should look like. Had Zelda’s father not said anything about their bond, the player would have room to come to their own conclusions about the relationship. Instead, they’re given a standard that the narrative must now meet.
Although Zelda’s father takes great pains to assuage his daughter’s fears, she’s still convinced that Link is doomed to lose the race. He could even do so badly that it jeopardizes his ability to become a knight, which is the entire point of their academy. To make sure he graduates on-time, she insists he practice beforehand, but his practice is derailed when he can’t find his Loftwing. This sets up another goal for the player: find the missing Loftwing.
As Link searches Skyloft for his mount, he overhears a pack of three other students talking in the plaza. One of them says: “…You know, Groose, that sure was a pain, what with all the scratching and pecking.” The red-head with the pompadour, Groose, replies: “Course it was. You thought a big Crimson Loft wing like that was gonna go down without a fight? But we got him, and I don’t care how tough those birds are supposed to be. He’s not getting out of that pen anytime soon, boys.” This dialogue is slightly unnatural, as it reads like it’s been spoken for Link’s benefit. Still, it does the job of giving Link the information he needs while establishing Groose’s character as an arrogant antagonist.
Groose realizes they have company and turns, shocked, but he quickly recovers and begins antagonizing Link. He says that Link only cares about winning because the prize is alone-time with Zelda. When Link challenges him to a fight, Groose laughs and accuses Link of believing he has a ‘special’ relationship with Zelda because of their long history together. It’s yet another example of the story feeding us character details instead of letting them unfold naturally through narrative. Still, it also does the additional work of reinforcing how Groose is fixated on Zelda—who happens to be right behind him.
Zelda admonishes Groose for bullying Link, humiliating him in front of his friends. He’s forced to hop off the edge of the continent to escape the conversation. With him out of the way, Link and Zelda track Link’s bird to a ledge on the underside of Skyloft. After Link frees his Loftwing, Zelda confesses that she’s been hearing voices calling out to her. She then muses about the world beneath the clouds, which she’s only heard about in legends. It’s her dream to go down there and see it for herself someday. This moment serves two purposes: one, building the world; and two, defining Zelda’s character. She has a want, which is to see what’s below the clouds, and the narrative must address that want at some point to leave the player satisfied.
With his Loftwing’s help, Link wins the race and earns the right to participate in the ceremony with Zelda. At the top of the statue, she plays her harp and offers the bird statuette Link won to the goddess, then gives him the traditional Sailcloth that she stitched herself. This marks the end of the opening segment. All of the protagonists have been named, the preliminary setting has been explored, and at least one minor antagonist has been introduced. Some of those things could have been done in less time by stripping away the repetition from the dialogue; others were elongated so that players had time to learn the unique controls. Regardless of the reasons behind the pacing issues, they’re an early knock against an otherwise promising story. Thankfully, the pacing improves in the next phase of the story: the Inciting Incident.
Skyward Sword’s inciting incident occurs directly after the Wing Ceremony when Zelda invites Link to fly their Loftwings around the floating continent. As Zelda and Link soar through the air together, Zelda confesses that there’s something she’s been meaning to talk to Link about. Before she can elaborate, a burst of light throws her off balance. This cut-off of important information, while a cliche, is easier to forgive because it keeps the story moving.
A tornado of dark dust whirls through the sky, dragging Zelda off her Loftwing and carrying her away. Link dives after her, but the tornado hits him and blows him off his mount. He’s thrown backward and is consumed by darkness, but then a pink light flashes in the black void. The same robotic voice that spoke to him in his dream calls out to him again, and a feminine figure in blue clothes appears. She tells Link she’s waiting for him and that he is ‘vital to a mission of great importance.’
The above dream sequence isn’t strictly necessary, as previous scenes already made his destiny clear, but it helps players who may have forgotten the dream from the opening between play sessions. Unlike movies and plays, video games are not meant to played in a single sitting, so important concepts may require more frequent reinforcement. Repetition only becomes a problem when the reminder comes too close together, or the information being repeated is unimportant. In this case, Link’s dreams become relevant in the very next scene, and his last dream took place all the way back when
When Link wakes up, Zelda’s father is standing next to his bed. He says that Link’s Loftwing carried his limp and unconscious body back to Skyloft. Fortunately, Link seems to be all right, but Zelda’s father is more interested in learning what’s happened to his daughter. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem overly concerned when Link tells him what happened. Instead, he asks if Link noticed anything strange about Zelda earlier. Link relates her odd experiences with voices, as well as his own dreams. He does this through a series of pantomimes that Zelda’s father reiterates in plain language for the player’s benefit. Link is ready to start the search for her now, even going so far as to put on his boots, but Zelda’s father stops him. He says Zelda will be fine so long as she’s with her Loftwing, and it’s too dark to go looking now anyway.
There are a few problems with the logic in this scene. The first assumption—that Zelda is with her Loftwing—is easily rebuked because Link saw her fall. The second assumption—that it’s too dark to search—isn’t strong enough to stop a parent from looking for their missing child. Zelda’s father is written to be far too relaxed about his daughter being thrown off a floating continent, even if he does appear to know more than he’s letting on. His lack of genuine concern for her well-being saps some of the tension from the scene, as it disincentivizes Link from leaving his bed and continuing the plot.
Fortunately, Zelda’s father isn’t able to slow the plot down for long, as the robotic voice calls to Link again as soon as he’s alone. He leaves his room and finds the feminine figure hovering in the air in front of him. She guides him to a hidden chamber inside the Goddess statue, where she introduces herself as Fi. According to Fi, Link has a great destiny ahead, and his adventure will begin as soon as he picks up her sword. This leads to Skyward Sword’s briefest plot beat: the Second Thoughts moments.
Skyward Sword‘s Second Thoughts beat is compressed to a single moment of doubt from Link. When Fi finishes her story and asks Link to take up the sword, he studies her with an apprehensive look. He has every reason to be skeptical; it is not every day that strange blue women offer him weapons and tell him to go on adventures. That skepticism disappears when Fi reveals that Zelda is alive and Link can help her by picking up the sword. Although she doesn’t attempt to prove this, it’s all the information Link needs to shake off his doubts and grab the sword.
Turning Point One
The first turning point of Skyward Sword is a literal threshold crossing, this time between the sky and the surface. When Link makes the dive between Skyloft and the world below, this is the moment where he is pushed out of his zone of comfort and enters the unknown world.
The first Turning Point begins right after the Second Thoughts plot point. Zelda’s father enters Fi’s chamber and admits chooses this moment to stride in and admit he’s been watching the whole time. Furthermore, none of this is a massive surprise to him. As he’s one of the few keepers of the island’s legends, he’s suspected that both Link and Zelda had great destinies ahead of them, yet he decided not to say anything until he was sure. This helps explain his lack of concern after Zelda’s accident, but it doesn’t excuse it entirely.
Once Zelda’s father confirms Fi’s story, Fi informs Link that he must travel to the surface to meet with Zelda. With the help of a tablet that pierces the heavy clouds, along with some proper hero’s clothes, Link has everything he needs to reach the surface and the beginning of Act Two.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Skyward Sword HD 100% Walkthrough (1080p 60 fps) (No Commentary). YouTube, 2020.
** Reference Script: VisionofChaos. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Game Script. GameFAQs, Gamespot, 2015.