The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Structural analysis: Act II, Part 1
The First Obstacle
Skyward Sword’s narrative momentum breaks down as it enters its second act. Once Link reaches the surface, his goal of finding Zelda becomes an extended chase punctuated with repeated near misses. This open-ended quest lacks smaller goals for Link to hit, limiting the obstacles he faces. Obstacles have the greatest impact when connected to a concrete goal; ‘following Zelda’ is too vague to offer specific obstacles. The best the narrative can offer is enemy encounters gating new pathways to new regions, all hinging on the pretense that Zelda may be in one of those regions. This lack of concrete goals and obstacles results in a second act that meanders until it reaches a sudden midpoint.
The pre-midpoint obstacles begin when Link lands on the surface. He lands in a sun-dappled grove marred by a corkscrew of a canyon. At its center, a dark energy pulses under a stone pillar. That energy rolls over Link, bringing forth memories of the hideous monster he saw in his dreams. By striking the stone pillar with his sword, Link can drive off the dark energy and cleanse the area. This is the first time Link must seal the area; it will not be the last.
Fi comments that she’s now able to sense an aura similar to the one on his sailcloth, which can only mean Zelda is nearby. This is the first of many false assumptions about Zelda’s whereabouts in Act II, as tracking Zelda’s aura does not get him any closer to her. Instead, it brings Link to a temple where an old woman who has been waiting for him. She tells him it is his destiny that they meet, and it was also Zelda’s destiny to meet in this same place. Indeed, Zelda arrived some time ago and has already departed to find her own path. In the meantime, it is Link’s fate to journey to Faron Woods, but there’s some confusion about exactly why that is. When the conversation begins, the old woman says: “You are concerned for the spirit maiden and seek her whereabouts, yes?…That is understandable, but for now you must focus on moving forward.” From this line, it would seem that Zelda’s paths and Link’s are not yet supposed to converge. However, when their conversation comes to a close, the woman says: “You must head into Faron Woods and chase after the spirit maiden… The one you call Zelda.” Now it appears that Link’s path is the same as Zelda’s. This discrepancy highlights the main problem with the second act: an ongoing lack of direction.
Link’s pursuit of Zelda takes him through the Faron Woods, where he meets the shrub-like creatures known as the kikwi. With some coaxing, they reveal that a blonde-haired girl ran off to the nearby Skyview Temple. Link heads into the temple and clears out most of the monsters inside, but his path is blocked by a grey-skinned swordsman trying to break into the temple’s heart. The swordsman notices Link and laughs, saying that he thought Link would have been torn to pieces by the tornado he summoned. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by Link’s survival, though, as he states Link’s living or dying is of no consequence. “It’s just the girl that matters now,” he adds, “and I can sense her here…just beyond this door.” It’s fairly standard villain dialogue, but it also highlights how little Link seems to matter to the story. The grey man isn’t here for Link because Link isn’t important. He’s merely an observer, perpetually one step behind the real story.
The grey swordsman introduces himself as Ghirahim, the Demon Lord who presides over the surface land. He’s hunting for Zelda, but a servant of the goddess took her away to protect her. This somehow manages to make Link even more irrelevant to the story. Not only is Zelda moving ahead on her own path to find her destiny, but she’s also being protected by someone else. All that’s left for Link to do is fight Ghirahim to a standstill, which takes just long enough for Zelda to finish whatever business she had behind the door and depart. Ghirahim realizes his error and flees, leaving Link to chase Zelda to her next location.
Zelda’s next stop is the Eldin region. Searching this area is remarkably similar to in Eldin woods, as the lack of smaller goals leave Link with no direction. As a consequence, the obstacles that pop up in Link’s path have little relationship with the plot as a whole. In Eldin, Link must make peace with the local mole people—mogmas—who are unhappy with the influx of monsters. Luckily, Link is not a monster, so they’re willing to let him pass once they size him up. Like the kikwis before them, the mogmas act as glorified signposts, pointing Link in the right direction without impacting the narrative.
As Link progresses deeper into mogma territory, he’s confronted by a woman dressed in black. She tells him that Zelda is nearby, and he’d better hurry if he wants to find her. Before Link can ask her anything else, she vanishes, leaving Link to search the rest of the territory alone. It isn’t long before the mogmas lead him to a second temple, where Link repeats the same clearing process as before.
When Link reaches the temple’s heart, Fi senses Zelda’s aura on broken shackles. Apparently, she was there, but has since escaped. It’s strikingly similar to the previous iteration of this scene in the Skyview Temple, right down to the presence of the Demon Lord, Ghirahim. Ghirahim is once again furious that the goddess’s agent was able to flee with Zelda, but this time he reveals a new detail: he needs Zelda to revive his master. Rather than take out his anger on Link, he pits Link against one of his minions and leaves. Link defeats the monster handily and finds Zelda and the woman in black are praying in the spring. Zelda notices Link and gasps with delight, but the woman stops her, saying:
“You cannot go to him, Your Grace. “Remember what we discussed. Restrain yourself. Focus on the task at hand.”
The woman’s words strike a chord with Zelda. She turns away from Link, apologizing, then departs in a shower of light without explaining anything. As Link approaches the spot where she stood, the woman in black blocks his path and chastises him for taking so long to arrive. Had she not been there to rescue Zelda in his stead, she says, Zelda surely would have fallen into Ghirahim’s hands. The woman doubts that the goddess chose wisely when she picked Link to be her hero, but she still offers Link some advice:
“If you wish to be of help to Her Grace, you must summon a shred of courage and face the trials laid out before you. Only when you’ve conquered the trials will you be of use to Zelda. No sooner. Am I understood?”
The woman’s words seem forceful at a glance, but her demand—to ‘conquer the trials’—is impossibly vague. This is yet another weakness in Skyward Sword’s second act. All of the characters have similarly vague goals, which means there’s no way to gauge their progress. Link’s sole purpose has been to follow Zelda as she moves the story along, so he can’t make forward progress unless he slows her down. Meanwhile, Zelda’s goal is to follow her unknown destiny, so there’s no way to gauge how much she’s accomplished. There also doesn’t seem to be any pressure on Ghirahim, either, other than his own impatience. He’s now missed Zelda multiple times, but he hasn’t faced any consequences. Zelda is the only character with specific goals, but it’s impossible to tell if she’s meeting them, and everyone else is at her mercy. Events keep happening, but there’s still no momentum.
Zelda’s next stop is the Lanayru Desert, so naturally, Link has to follow her. The area is populated with small robots that awaken when exposed to the mine’s time shift stones. As the Gate of Time lays beyond the mines, Link must enlist the help of the robots to gain access to the facility. This area is light on narrative and heavy on puzzle-solving, so the story is functionally sidelined until Link makes his way through the mine, fights the monsters within, and emerges on the other side. Once there, he’s confronted by the Gate of Time, which marks the abrupt beginning of Skyward Sword’s midpoint.
the gate of time
Skyward Sword’s midpoint is the first point in act two with a meaningful change in the status quo, as it shows how Link can help Zelda in ways her guardian can’t. It also raises the stakes by separating Link and Zelda in time. For Link, this is a false defeat, as it puts him further from his goal; for Zelda, this is a false victory, as it puts her closer to hers. It’s even a midpoint for the earlier antagonist, Groose, who reappears to suffer a false defeat when confronted by his own weakness. To rise above it, he must reevaluate how he looks at the world, marking a turning point in his life.
The midpoint begins when Link leaves the mining facility and discovers the Time Gate. Both Zelda and the goddess’s agent are standing in front of it. Once again, Zelda sees Link and turns to go to him, but this time, it’s an explosion that keeps them apart. Ghirahim leaps from the dust and pushes Link aside with a barrier, then brandishes his sword. It’s the first time Ghirahim has posed a credible threat since his introduction.
Zelda calls out to her agent by name—”Impa!”—and Impa tells her to run while she holds Ghirahim off. Zelda nods, understanding, but first, she tosses Link her harp. As Zelda runs for the gate, Ghirahim’s barrier begins to falter. Link seizes the opportunity and dives in to help Impa, saving her the moment before Ghirahim can attack her. There’s an exchange where the player has the opportunity to ask Impa: ‘Am I late?’, prompting Impa to smile and say Link was right on time. It’s a nice callback to their previous conversation in Eldin, although it does raise the question of what trials Link actually needed to face to be useful.
With Link covering their escape, Impa and Zelda run through the gate as powerful light glows in Impa’s hand. Zelda pokes her head out to say that she and Link will meet again, and Impa tells Link to meet with the old woman in the Sealed Grounds for instructions on where to go next. She then lets go of the blue light in her hand and pulls Zelda back into the gate. The light explodes, tearing apart the gate, and Link and Ghirahim are left in the dust.
Ghirahim is once again left empty-handed, and he’s not happy about it. He’s not upset enough to kill Link, though; he says the next time they fight, it will be excruciating, but he’s too short on time now to engage Link properly. This supposed time crunch doesn’t carry much narrative weight, however, as it flies in the face of Ghirahim’s every action thus far. He’s followed a very similar course to Link—perpetually one step behind Zelda—and Link has lacked direction since he first landed on the surface. Ghirahim also sticks around to monologue or pick fights that cost valuable time. It still isn’t clear what Ghirahim wants beyond the resurrection of his master, but it’s clear that his repeated failures aren’t costing him anything meaningful.
the sealed grounds
Following Impa’s advice, Link returns to the Sealed Grounds. What should be a routine dive from Skyloft becomes a chaotic descent when fellow student-slash-minor antagonist Groose takes the plunge with him, grabbing Link’s heels on the way down. Link manages to slow their descent to a survivable rate with his sailcloth, but the hard impact does nothing to help Groose’s mood. He’s furious at Link for his terrible falling skills, then shocked and horrified by the unknown creatures around him. The birds are small; rock people are waving to him: it’s all very traumatic. Groose never expected to see any of this, as he’d always been told there was nothing below the clouds. Link smiles and pats Groose’s arm, then begins explaining everything as the camera pans away. It’s one of Link’s stronger character moments, as it shows him willing to set aside a grudge to help someone in a bad situation.
When Link’s finished telling his tale, the camera returns to an exhausted Groose. He falls to his knees, overcome with emotion. Mostly, he’s relieved that Zelda is safe, but he’s also come to appreciate the strange land around him. He even thinks it needs a name, which he decides will be Grooseland. With that matter settled, he thanks Link for getting him this far, then says he can go home. Groose is going to handle everything from here. Rather than argue, Link lets Groose go on ahead a few paces, then follows shortly thereafter.
At the temple, Groose is in the middle of an argument with the old woman. She’s trying to explain that it’s Link’s destiny to save Zelda, not Groose’s, but Groose won’t hear it. He stalks off in a huff, leaving the old woman and Link alone. The old woman tells Link that Zelda’s harp will help him return to her. However, he must first endure many hardships. The exact nature of those hardships goes unexplained when the old woman is interrupted by a violent roar. The dark energy at the bottom of the pit has broken through the seal and the monster from Link’s nightmares, the Imprisoned, has emerged.
Link fights the Imprisoned to a standstill and seals it back inside the stone. Unfortunately, the seal is only temporary, and the old woman is certain it will soon break. Before that happens, Link must seek out three sacred flames to temper his sword. Only when his sword has reached its full potential will he be able to use it to awaken the inert Gate of Time in the Sacred Grounds, which will reunite him with Zelda. To do this, he must first return to Skyloft, where someone who knows the Ballad of the Goddess will show him the way to the flames.
As Link turns to leave, he finds Groose standing in his way. Instead of picking a fight, however, Groose is content to wallow in self-pity as he laments his own uselessness in the fight against the Imprisoned. The old woman tells him that he has his own role to play in their great destiny, but he’s not interested in listening. This marks the low point in Groose’s character arc, as both his ego and Zelda have suffered because of his failures. He stalks off yet again, leaving Link and the old woman in the temple.
Once the old woman finishes giving Link directions, Link leaves the temple and finds Groose moping around outside. As soon as Link gets close, Groose runs off to be alone. With no way to help him, Link departs for Skyloft to enter the next phase of the narrative: the second obstacle.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Skyward Sword HD 100% Walkthrough (1080p 60 fps) (No Commentary). YouTube, 2020.