The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Structural analysis: Act III
The Third Obstacle
Skyward Sword begins its Third Act by bucking convention and introducing another obstacle. While this obstacle has a concrete goal–learning the song that reveals the Triforce–the trials that occur along the way are purely mechanical. They exist to extend the game’s play time and introduce more minigames and mechanics that utilize the game’s unique controls.
The Third Obstacle begins back in Skyloft, where Link must calm a sky spirit who knows the location of the Triforce. Unfortunately, the goddess only taught the spirit one-quarter of the song, so Link must ask the three dragons on the surface to teach him the rest. As if this weren’t enough of a detour, Link must also reckon with the Imprisoned a third time. While the mechanics of the fight vary somewhat from previous iterations, sealing the Imprisoned yet again does nothing to advance the narrative, as it continues to be a temporary fix. This encounter doesn’t even contribute to any character arcs, as Link has a flat arc, and Groose has already completed his.
When Link approaches the dragons for their songs, they impose yet more trials on him. With Demise’s return growing ever closer, these trials seem unnecessary at best and absurd at worst. Given how much these trials impede the narrative, the only conclusion is that the sequences were added to boost the total playtime.
By completing the trials, Link earns the completed song and reveals the location of the Triforce. This, as Fi claims, will bring them to their ultimate goal of defeating Demise. It’s a throwaway line, as the player already knows what the Triforce is for, but it’s also inaccurate. Link’s ultimate goal was always reuniting with Zelda; destroying Demise is a means to that end. If Demise had more of a presence in the story, Link might have a more personal investment in his downfall, but his only role is to stand in the way of Zelda.
Calling on the Triforce’s power, Link wishes for the destruction of Demise. In response, the Goddess Temple breaks off from Skyloft and drops to the surface, perfectly fitting into the chasm where Demise has been sealed. It’s a visually satisfying scene, but there’s been no climactic confrontation with the ultimate enemy, so the story feels incomplete. This sense of wrongness is the best segue the game can offer into its next repeated plot beat: the Second Crisis.
The Second Crisis
While the First Crisis is more of an emotional blow for Link, the Second Disaster serves as the external disaster that threatens the outcome of the quest. Both disaster segments fit the definition, but this disaster benefits from the proper placement, as it occurs directly before the climax. Unfortunately, its emotional weight is limited as it happens quickly and relies heavily on tired tropes, so the moment lacks the impact of the First Disaster.
The Second Disaster begins with Link staring over the ruins of the Goddess Temple. Fi informs him that Demise has been eradicated. With Demise gone, Zelda’s seal is no longer needed, and thus Fi predicts that she will awaken shortly. Link runs to the temple and arrives just in time to see Zelda emerge from her crystal cocoon. There’s an emotional reunion as she and Link walk out to greet Groose together, but it’s cut short when Ghirahim literally steps out from around the corner and grabs Zelda with his telekinetic powers. According to him, Demise still lives in the past, so he can still be revived on the other side of the Gate of Time. It’s an obvious loophole, one the characters should have considered–and at least one of them did. In Act II, the old woman insisted that Demise would not disappear until he was defeated at the source.
When Link tries to fight him, he knocks Link aside and says he doesn’t have time to fight—which is more of a lie than ever, given his newfound ability to move through time. With no one else to stand in his way, he flees through the gate, leaving Link to chase after him and kick off the climax.
Skyward Sword’s climax is where the story pays for its weak antagonists. Up to this point, Demise has only been an abstract threat, whereas Ghirahim acts as the face of the enemy. Those two positions are switched in the climax, as Demise takes on a different form, and Ghirahim disappears. While Ghirahim never presented a real threat, his theatrical personality made him memorable, and replacing him with the stoic Demise weakens both the climax and the narrative as a whole.
The Climax begins when Link travels through the Gate of Time to save Zelda. Ghirahim has taken her to the bottom of the outdoor pit, where he’s preparing her body for a dark ritual. When Link confronts him, Ghirahim reveals his true form: he’s a living sword, just like Fi. Until this point, there was no indication that other sword spirits existed, so lack of setup limits the impact. In the end, Ghirahim being a sword changes nothing about the character or the conflict. Ghirahim still wants to resurrect Demise, and Link still wants to stop him.
While Link and Ghirahim fight, the dark ritual removes Zelda’s soul and feeds it to the Imprisoned. In a swirl of dark energy, it transforms into a muscular man with flaming hair and an uncanny resemblance to past iterations of the Zelda series’ main villain, Ganondorf. Demise yanks his sword from Ghirahim’s body. Ghirahim, as the personification of the sword itself, disappears inside the blade. Demise tests his new sword—making no mention of the efforts of the sacrifice of the soul inside—and finds it serviceable. This wordless interaction emphasizes the difference in the relationship between the two sword wielders: Link with Fi and Demise with Ghirahim. Link is in constant communication with Fi, but Demise sees Ghirahim as nothing more than a tool. Had Ghirahim’s identity as a weapon come up earlier, there might have been time to develop whether Ghirahim sees this as a betrayal or not, but such opportunities to develop his character were all squandered.
With Ghirahim gone, Skyward Sword makes a hasty attempt to develop Demise’s character. He rambles about his hatred of humans and mocks Hylia for sacrificing her divinity to become one. If Demise had been introduced earlier, his biases could have been challenged, but it’s too late now for him to do anything but monologue.
With Zelda gone, Link’s spirits are low. Since defeating Demise while losing Zelda would be too dark for such a lighthearted game, Skyward Sword comes in with an eleventh-hour fix. According to the old woman, Demise can’t absorb Zelda’s soul instantly, so Link can still save her from Demise. It’s a clunky fix that could have easily been smoothed out with an earlier reveal, but it keeps Link motivated and maintains the uplifting tone.
Link challenges Demise to a duel. Demise accepts, appreciating Link’s bravery, and they cross swords in a realm of Demise’s creation. In the end, Link prevails by using his Skyward Strike to bring Demise to his knees. With his last breaths, the Demon King swears he will be reborn again and again, and he will seek vengeance against those who share Link and Zelda’s blood. While this works as a setup for future entries in the series, the impact is somewhat dampened by the fact that Demise accepted the duel on good terms. He admired Link’s bravery and appreciated him as a warrior, so his about-face to eternal vengeance rings false without any prior interactions to support them.
Link seals inside the Master Sword. Fi confirms that Demise’s physical form has been destroyed, but his consciousness lives on inside Link’s blade. It’s a fitting way to close out the game’s climax, leaving only the wrap-up to complete the story.
With its central cast set up on the edge of the battlefield, Skyward Sword is perfectly positioned to wrap up all of its major plotlines without changing the scenery. It does so with a deftness that earlier segments of the story lacked, bringing closure to multiple subplots with a final twist and some difficult farewells. Thanks to the characterization efforts made in earlier acts, these emotional moments (almost) all land successfully, bring Skyward Sword to a satisfying conclusion that elevates the narrative as a whole.
The wrap-up begins when Link returns to the Sacred Grounds, where Zelda waits for him with the others. Now that she’s safe, Groose suggests they head back to meet the old woman in their time, but Fi has other plans. It’s time for her to return to the Master Sword and begin her eternal slumber. She’s brusque about the request, going so far as to refer to her partnership with Link as a ‘necessary companionship,’ but her tone changes when he seals her away. She calls out a final time, saying:
“When I first awoke and began this task, I perceived it as merely serving my function as a servant to Her Grace. However, I have come to consider the information corresponding to our time together among the most precious data I have on record…”
Although she lacks the ability to feel human emotions, she believes she is experiencing happiness for the first time. This final moment with Link, similar to Ghirahim’s final moment with Demise, works within the confines of the scene but doesn’t fully sync with the rest of the narrative. The vast majority of the interactions between Fi and Link are purely clerical, consisting of explanations of gameplay mechanics, estimates of probabilities, and pre-recorded instructions from the goddess. For Fi’s admission to have the proper impact, her changing mindset should have been set up in previous acts. Since it wasn’t, her goodbye to Link is only meaningful when viewed in the vacuum of the scene, as it falls apart when contextualized by the narrative as a whole.
Once Fi has returned to the Master Sword, Link overhears Zelda begging Impa to come with them to the present. Impa refuses, saying that her job is to stay and watch over the decaying remains of Demise in the Master Sword. She also reminds her that it was Hylia herself who gave Impa that command, long before Hylia was reborn as Zelda. Although Zelda is heartbroken to leave Impa behind, she remembers her own words and accepts them as truth. Before she leaves, she gives Impa one of her bracelets, and Impa says they will surely meet again. It’s a prophecy that comes true within moments of Zelda emerging from the other side of the Gate of Time, as the old woman exposes her wrist and reveals the bracelet Zelda gave her aeons ago. The elderly Impa smiles and reminds Zelda of her promise, then fades away in a shower of light as Groose falls to his knees and Zelda wipes away a tear.
After the credits, the story concludes with a brief shot of Zelda’s father and Groose’s friends reuniting on the surface. Link and Zelda look over them from high atop the Goddess Statue, lit by the Triforce. In a reversal of the opening scene, Link plays the Ballad of the Goddess for Zelda on the harp, and she listens quietly as Groose and his friends fly past. When he finishes, she tells him that she’s wanted to live on the surface since she was a child, and now that she’s here, she doesn’t want to leave. Instead, she’s going to stay on the surface and guard over the Triforce. This fulfills the promise made to the audience all the way back in the Opening, back when Zelda shared her wish to travel to the surface.
With her wish granted, Zelda asks Link what he plans to do to. He answers with his smile, and their Loftwings fly back to Skyloft without their riders. It’s a solid end to a solid wrap-up, one that ties off all loose ends while creating a sense of a wide-open future.
Skyward Sword suffers from poor pacing, ill-defined goals, and structural irregularities. The Opening overstays its welcome, the protagonists and antagonists both lack direction, and later plot beats lack impact when repeated. In spite of these deficiencies, the strong relationships between the main characters work to create a memorable story that has remained a fan favorite.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Skyward Sword HD 100% Walkthrough (1080p 60 fps) (No Commentary). YouTube, 2020.