The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Structural analysis: Act II, Part 2
The Second Obstacle
Act II, Part 2 starts off on the right foot. For the first time since the inciting incident, Link has a clear objective: find the three sacred flames to temper his sword. The journey takes him back to Faron, Eldin, and Lanayru, with stops in Skyloft and the surrounding islands between them. Each of the three surface zones also holds its own sacred trial, a mini-game that does nothing to progress the story. This lack of narrative progression is standard for post-midgame obstacles in other entries in the series, so it doesn’t cause an issue when there’s only one more obstacle. Unfortunately, the quest for the flames is not the only post-midpoint obstacle in Skyward Sword.
Link’s quest to find the flames begins with a trip back to Skyloft, where he meets with Zelda’s father. The old man is somewhat concerned about Zelda’s well-being, but he doesn’t dwell on it long. Instead, he sends Link through a series of fetch-quests that ends in a storm cloud containing the Isle of Songs. Visiting that Isle opens the path to a stealth trial in the Faron Woods. There’s nothing that progresses the narrative here; it’s simply another trial Link must endure, even though he has already done so countless times and Imprisoned threatens to break free from its seal at any moment.
This lack of urgency continues when Link returns to Faron Woods to meet with the guardian deity of Farore’s Flame, the Water Dragon. She will only allow Link to pursue the flame if he retrieves healing water from Skyview Temple—a temple he has already visited. This is a prime example of backtracking, in which a story retreads old ground without adding anything new. Backtracking is a notorious momentum-killer, as it leaves the audiences with nothing to anticipate. Adding a trip to an old area takes the narrative’s flagging momentum and reduces it to zero.
Completing the Water Dragon’s quest gives Link access to the temple that houses Farore’s Flame. While traversing the temple, Link runs into Ghirahim yet again. This brief yet illuminating scene illustrates how rudderless Ghirahim is without anyone to follow. He still needs to find Zelda to resurrect his master, but he can’t reach her without a Time Gate. In other words, there’s nothing he can do to threaten her. He also can’t threaten Link, since hurting Link doesn’t get him closer to his goal. He’s an antagonist with no way to antagonize: a character that fails to fulfill his fundamental purpose.
Retrieving Farore’s Flame opens up the next step in Link’s quest: backtracking to the Isle of Songs. This trip unlocks another stealth trial that uses the same mechanics as before. These repetitive trials detract from the overall tension by exposing the artificial nature of the Imprisoned’s seal. The old woman makes a point of telling Link that it could break at any moment, but it’s also imperative that Link repeat the same tasks over and over. Realistically, these priorities should conflict, but Link is never forced to choose. Without that choice, there is no tension, and the Imprisoned is no longer a narrative threat. Like Ghirahim, he is an antagonist that does not antagonize.
Completing the second stealth trial opens the path to the Lanayru Sand Sea. This segment gives Link an additional companion character: Skipper, the robot pirate. Unlike most side characters on the surface, Skipper has both his own goals and a backstory. Link’s quest for the flame engages both of those elements, tying their stories together. This elevated level of character interaction results in one of the game’s stronger sections. It also emphasizes the lack of character connection in other areas, one of the narrative’s main weaknesses.
With two flames found, Link returns to the Isle of Songs to unlock the third trial. The reward for this trial is yet more backtracking and another temple, where Link once again runs into Ghirahim. Ghirahim claims they are bound by a ‘thread of fate,’ which explains why they’re always running into each other. Although this ‘thread of fate’ ties into the game’s theme of embracing destiny, it comes off as a slapdash attempt to cover for Ghirahim’s coincidental appearances.
Ghirahim and Link cross swords once more. When Link prevails, Ghirahim swears that he will torment Link for eternity—another empty threat—then flees. With Ghirahim out of the way, Link is free to use Din’s Flame to transform his sword into the Master Sword. The awakened blade allows him to open the Gate of Time in the Sacred Grounds at last, which marks the transition to the first disaster beat.
The First Crisis
In a traditional three-act structure, the Crisis beat occurs once, directly before the Climax. This holds true for the majority of entries in the Legend of Zelda series. Skyward Sword stands apart in its introduction of an Third Act Obstacle: the quest to obtain the Triforce. Even though this section is light on plot, it represents a significant obstacle on Link’s journey and does not fit neatly into the climax. It’s also followed by another Crisis beat, defying structural convention. This irregular structure not only weighs down the Third Act, but also retroactively dampens the impact of the First Crisis. Events that are set up as a total disaster seem pointless in hindsight, leaving audiences to wonder why they occurred at all.
The First Crisis begins when Link’s return to the Sacred Grounds is interrupted by the return of the Imprisoned. Link is all set to fight him, but this time, he will not have to fight on his own. Groose has used his free time to create a special catapult for fighting the Imprisoned—the Groosenator—and he’s thrilled to take it on a test run.
When the Imprisoned is sealed away, the old woman thanks Link and Groose for their hard work. Demonstrating tremendous growth, Groose thanks her back for helping him see what he could build on his own. This represents another turning point in Groose’s character arc as it shows how he’s finally rejected the false belief that the universe revolves around him. He could have taken the glory for himself, but instead, he chose to acknowledge the participation of others.
With the Imprisoned out of the way, Link uses the Master Sword to travel through the Time Gate. Before he passes through, the old woman offers him a word of warning about the Imprisoned:
“We may seal [the Imprisoned] and reseal it into its prison a thousand times, but it will always shatter the bonds that confine it. Such is its awesome power. We must destroy it at its source or suffer this fate again and again.”
Link enters the Time Gate, which takes him to the moment when Demise was first sealed away. This is the same place where Zelda waits for him. Their reunion is a happy one, but it is also dense with exposition. At long last, Zelda is free to talk about her journey. Most of the details she shares are already known, like where she went on the surface, but the end of her story comes with a twist: she is the goddess Hylia’s mortal incarnation, reborn to fight Demise, and Link is her champion, fated to fight the demon at her side.
Link is understandably dumbfounded as Zelda explains how she unraveled the truth of her past. Initially, she had no memories of who she once was, but falling to the surface and meeting the old woman awakened something inside her. Her travels led her through the Gate of Time with Impa and returned to when he was first defeated, where she must seal herself inside the temple until Link finds the Triforce to defeat Demise in the present. This contradicts the old woman’s previous statement, where she insisted Demise needed to be defeated ‘at the source.’ This hints at narrative problems ahead, where the defeat of Demise is a repeated plot point.
As Link reckons with the gravity of Zelda’s task, she explains that he has gained wisdom, courage, and power from all of his trials, and those traits will allow him to find and use the Triforce to rid the world of Demise. She then apologizes for dragging Link into such a horrible situation, and in apologizing, takes on the tone of the goddess she once was. She’s been using him, and she hates herself for it, so she hopes her impending thousand-year slumber will be an appropriate penance.
Zelda’s tone reverts to that of the girl Link once knew when she tells him all she ever wanted to do was spend her days with him on Skyloft. This shows growth in her character, as her initial desire was to see the world below the clouds. Her last request is for him to wake her when everything is over, just as she used to wake him when they were children. Link promises he will and Zelda seals herself inside the temple, where she will wait for his return.
Zelda’s long slumber is an interesting turn for the story. It is not only an external disaster, as Zelda is now frozen beyond Link’s reach, but also an internal disaster, as the girl Link loves has been altered in ways that can never be reversed. She is no longer simply his childhood friend; she is a goddess reborn, sworn to protect all of humanity from the dark threat of Demise. He still cares for her in spite of the changes, but they both put up new layers of distance between them. According to screenwriter Blake Snyder, these changes prove that the characters have just passed through the Crisis beat. “[The Crisis] is where the old world, the old character, the old way of thinking dies,” he states. “And it clears the way for the fusion of thesis — what was — and antithesis — the upside down version of what was — to become synthesis, that being a new world, a new life.“¹ Although no one has physically died here, the childhood relationship between Link and Zelda has died a symbolic death. No longer is their reunion just about reuniting two young friends; it is about a goddess and her champion, whose destinies have been intertwined since time began.
Turning Point Two
With an extra obstacle waiting in the wings, determining the location of the second Turning Point becomes a more complicated task. Since the structure is irregular, the next best guide becomes the character arcs. Luckily, Groose’s arc is featured prominently at this segment of the story, and his transition to his fully-realized self syncs with the transition between Second and Third Acts. It is therefore logical to place Turning Point Two after the First Crisis, as that is the moment when Groose completes his character arc.
The third obstacle begins when Link uses the Gate of Time to return to his own era. The old woman is waiting for him and tells him that the key to finding the Triforce is in Skyloft. Before Link leaves to begin his search, Groose says he won’t be joining Link, as he’s come to appreciate his role as the old woman’s guardian and feels at home on the surface. This is the end of his character arc, as he’s found purpose and the happiness that comes with it. It is also the end of Act Two, paving the way for Act Three and its irregular Third Obstacle.
¹ Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 87). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Skyward Sword HD 100% Walkthrough (1080p 60 fps) (No Commentary). YouTube, 2020.