Skyward Sword got a lot of acclaim last year -- from this site, among others. For the most part, I liked it a lot, too. But it has problems...let's face it, it's a mess. The primary issue, to my mind, is that it has truly terrible pacing.
The pacing problems have their root, I think, in the fact that the developers didn't realize how long the game they were making would take gamers to complete, and they continued to pad it out. What put me onto this "they just didn't know" idea was a quote from Peter Molyneux in an interview I did with him after Fable III came out:
Just after that point, we then sat down, and, partly because of the way that we worked -- the process, the way that we designed, and the way that we crafted -- meant that the game came together very late. That is one of the things that we're changing; that is just such an old school way of working.
You have these ideas called pillars, and then you rush away and develop these pillars. About nine months before the game is due to be finished, you've got to bring that whole thing together and then -- 'Oh, wow! The game's this long!'
Every game, unbelievably, you sit down: 'Good grief! It's twice as long as I thought it was going to be!'
I have no specific insight into the game's development process, whether it was created in "pillars" or not. But at the very least, evidence of padding is in the game itself. Skyward Sword's developers time and again offer up the same content with a new coat of paint, and push things to opposite ends of the (otherwise rather empty) realm of Skyloft.
But they've also placed boring bits of navigation back-to-back with other boring bits of navigation that would never have touched if they had a clear concept of the game's overall structure. I guess it's both.
Grousing about a game being too inconvenient may be a "first world problem," but so much of playing Skyward Sword isn't even remotely interesting that it seems fair to point it out -- particularly to Nintendo. With the Wii U, the company is on the threshold of stepping into a future it has never faced, where the very foundation of its business -- the idea that dedicated game consoles are worth buying -- will face its strongest test. Convincing people to waste the limited time they have is, perhaps, not the best tactic.
A Secret to Everybody?
These flaws point to a single, simple problem. In an age of swelling team sizes and increasingly complex productions, content produced in isolation and then bolted together simply does not work -- at least not in action-adventure games and RPGs. There is no way to pace it correctly, there is no way to make it feel of a piece, and there is a very real danger of pushing the player around unnecessarily thanks to the simple awkwardness that's likely to result from being unaware yourself, as a developer, how this diverse content will be consumed once it's coalesced into a game.
Before you cry that Japanese developers aren't equipped to solve this problem, two studios released games in the West in 2011 that did fantastic yet completely different jobs of world building. Neither of them was delivered by a developer with the legacy of Nintendo's vaunted EAD, either.
Monolith Soft, which delivered Xenoblade Chronicles to Europe last August (it just came out in North America) may be owned by Nintendo, but it seems that it very much plows its own furrow. Its owner should be paying attention. The world of Xenoblade Chronicles is both imaginative -- it's situated on the frozen bodies of two massive, dead gods -- and completely seamless.
If you can see it, you can get to it, and you'll want to. Care has been put into not just filling the world full of interesting vistas, but populating them with enemies and littering them with treasure, too. No journey is wasted. It's sprawling and adventuresome, and simply engrossing to get lost in. And since you can teleport to any location you've already explored instantly, you never end up wasting your time.
On the other hand, there's the equally impressive Dark Souls, crafted by From Software. This game should really be forced into the hands of every world builder in the game industry for what it gets so right.
Dark Souls' world is just as vertical as it is horizontal: you can often choose to go up or down rather than forward or back, and if you do, you'll find entirely new areas, as well as new and clever connections to old areas, too.
More interestingly, it features enclosed dungeons that fit perfectly into the world they're in, true-to-scale, and are self-contained levels in and of themselves. The environments aren't just sprawling: they're intricate, and full of character. Despite being huge, Dark Souls has human scale. It also beats with the heart of a classic gamer's game.
I Am Error
This would be the way forward for Zelda. When you get right down to it, the two games aren't really that different, structurally. But Dark Souls pulls the player forward with promises of new and exciting things to explore, and new types of enemies to defeat, and significant new characters to meet. Some of these promises are explicit (a fortress in the distance) and some are implicit (pathways in the game never lead to a dead end).
On the other hand, Skyward Sword features a surprising lack of enemy types, a lack of interesting NPCs or subquests, and generally prods the player forward with a "do this next!" rather than letting her explore. The world, which is certainly big enough for an adventure, ends up feeling constrained and purposeless.
The absolute, hands-down, most innovative and surprising part of the game is the Lanayru Desert. It's also the biggest, most believable environment the game has to offer, and the one that has the most interesting nooks and crannies to investigate. It even has multiple mini-dungeons integrated right into it.
Even there, though, is one of the game's clunkiest bits, and the prime example of how it gets things so wrong in the very midst of getting them right. The Sand Sea is breathtakingly creative; its pure and beautiful idea (I won't spoil if you haven't seen it yet), the most appealing one I saw in a game in 2011. It elegantly builds upon what came before in a way that makes you say "Oh no -- they aren't going to do that!" right before they DO do that.
But it is also completely uninspired in implementation from a game design perspective. It's pure filler, with only a couple of small active locations. Despite the freshness of the presentation, the actual exploration is a chore.
There are other flashes of inspiration that suggest an awareness that more could have been done -- the inside of the Great Tree, the intermittent Bokoblin villages, the small temple in Faron Woods -- but these don't stand up against the bulk of the game, a collection of one-use only obstacles that get used time and again.
It's Dangerous to Go Alone
It's no accident I said "world builder" up above when talking about Dark Souls. One of the most interesting interviews I've published this year was with Colin Campbell, the lead world builder for Big Huge Games' Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an open-world RPG.
When the studio, which had mostly worked on RTSes, was scoping the massive RPG project, it became clear that there was a need for developers at the intersection of art and design to tackle this problem, and the world building team was born.
"I think that's the real heart of it. We can't build individual parts. None of us are building our own sliver of the game, and then putting them all together expecting them to work. We're all connecting to each other. We're all building one thing collectively. It has to feel cohesive in all of its parts. That's sort of the philosophy of the whole project," Campbell told me.
That's something that all developers, but crucially those working on RPGs or adventure games, should take note of. When building worlds, the era of "slivers of the game" is over.
I Know You Can Save Hyrule!
The irony is stark for the Zelda series. From its inception, 1986's The Legend of Zelda, the series had an appealing, engrossing way of building worlds. While expanding on that template probably wasn't workable when Ocarina of Time was developed, it's not 1998 anymore. It's time for the company to really embrace that structure again.
In 2011, 1993's Link's Awakening, originally released for Game Boy, came out on Virtual Console for the 3DS, and Skyward Sword came out for the Wii. Both were new to me. Looking at the 3DS' screen, seeing that map of squares and knowing that I'd be discovering what lay on each and every one of them was so much more inspiring than the prospect of yet another goddamn trip across the empty sky on the back of that stupid bird.
At some point, the Zelda team decided it would create only what was necessary to be accepted as a Zelda game -- not that which could surprise and delight the player, to borrow Satoru Iwata's own terms.
Don't get me wrong. Skyward Sword's dungeons are brilliant examples of the kind of design that Japanese developers do best, and have been polished until they gleam. But the world they are plopped into is not a cohesive world at all, nor even an attempt at one. And for that, the game suffers.
Skyward Sword was one of the most memorable gameplay experiences I had in 2011. But it turns out, as I move on to the games of 2012 -- like the surprisingly good Wii RPG The Last Story -- it is not one that I will be remembering solely for what it did right.