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Chasing Zelda: Creating empathy in  Skyward Sword
Chasing Zelda: Creating empathy in Skyward Sword Exclusive
January 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise has remained beloved over the years through its use of a particular set of constants: Link, a fey young outsider, must leave his home village to rescue a princess and save the land from a dark power.

Players know he will collect certain objects in sequence: A boomerang, a bow, a bomb bag. There are fairies and hidden rooms, Link will learn natural magic of a type, and everything the hero collects or earns makes it possible to explore and master more of his world.

In every Zelda game, though they may differ stylistically, a certain visual language remains the same. A cracked wall lets you know you can bomb your way in, a clearly-delineated spot begs for an arrow or a hookshot -- things that the player might not even be able to use on his or her first encounter with them, but will mentally bookmark for later.

More importantly, all of these consistencies are thematic metaphors. Zelda is a story about a boy becoming a man, about a child leaving the home and growing up into an adult. The princess as rescue object is classic to this type of fairy tale; in early games, the princess' indisputable purity was an ideal toward which to strive.

As the series has endured over the decades, the constraint of all the elements that need to remain recognizable and unchanged has allowed for evolution and experimentation in other areas. These have been primarily stylistic -- the aesthetic and environment of Ocarina of Time is vastly different to that of Wind Waker, and both are different from Skyward Sword. There are elements of the settings that are familiar, but in each Zelda game the world is spiritually remade again and again.

The same is true for the characters in it. Link has long been famously unvoiced, an innocent-faced cipher who seems to balance a look of determination with a naif's expression of awe. He receives information and he reacts because the player is having him do so. Child Link in Ocarina is charmingly clueless about things like royal ambition or the little princess Ruto's statement of intention to marry him. He fulfills his objectives, a distinct but largely empty green-clad canvas for the player to employ.

In what might be the most interesting iteration the Zelda series has yet seen, Skyward Sword takes a brand-new approach in characterizing Link via Zelda, who receives a tangible, compelling and nuanced characterization herself for arguably the first time in the series' history. Little has changed about the hero; he is skilled because we make him, dutiful because we press buttons, and brave because we don't stop pressing them even when there are monsters.

The series is named after Zelda, not Link, and yet we've always had so little of her story, beyond the princess as a rarely-seen distant ideal, a concept and not a person. But right from the outset, Skyward Sword's Zelda is drawn to be captivating. The game's exposition lets the player actually see that Zelda and Link are childhood friends, with scenes that explore what that might actually mean in the game world.

Here, Zelda's not a "princess" exactly, but the daughter of the headmaster of Link's knight school -- where his classmates resent that the charismatic girl has picked plain Link for a best friend. The cinematic angles of her face when she's speaking or moving are almost worshipful, and the player quickly learns to see how much the hero adores her. But she dodges being entirely a two-dimensional love interest by having something of a demanding character and a strong spine.

That Zelda will be taken from Link is hardly a spoiler; that's what always happens. But the sketches of her personality in the game's long exposition make it evident why he'd want to get her back. Some have criticized the game's slow burn of an opening, but the interactions and the illustrations the game's early bits enable provide crucial spine for something rare to the franchise: Actual sentimental feeling for Zelda and empathy for Link's loss.

This choice is further enforced by the structure of the game, which seems continually to promise that Zelda is just up ahead of you. Skyward Sword asks players to "dowse" for a trace of her, following a radar-like tool that keeps Zelda constantly on one's mind and feeling just out of arm's reach. She feels almost present, and this creates higher emotional stakes for the player.

Creating that without meaningfully changing the style of the characters, the distinct tone the series has regarding dialogue, and without adding voice is the kind of estimable challenge at which Nintendo games excel -- a challenging revolution, executed with subtlety.

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The first thing my sister said when we watched the cinematic between Groose and Link getting interrupted by Zelda was, "Oh, she's a take charge kick butt kind of person in this one." I then realized that Nintendo had indeed change the game.

Thomas OConnor
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To be fair, Zelda/Tetra in Wind Waker was a "take charge kick butt kind of person", so IMO I don't think that part is much of a game changer as much as thecloser relationship between link and zelda and how the mechanics reinforce that.

Russell Carroll
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Was thinking about Tetra as well, especially in Spirit Tracks where she is by your side throughout. If any game broke (and humorously played with) the idea of saving a princess you didn't get to see until the end (and never got to know) it was that one :).

It is interesting that you are continually catching up to Zelda, only to have her whisked away in Z:SS. I kept thinking it was weird she was shown as being at the end of a dungeon when I knew I wasn't 'really' going to see her until the end. My kids pointed it out on each map, and then as the fleeting moment passed they got excited about following the carrot. It didn't impact me myself, but certainly it's a much larger role than Zelda had in Twilight Princess.

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I saw some of that in WW too Thomas. But I think Zelda still felt distant and less personal to Link as that strong character in that game. I also fell like the support characters in SS make her a closer character. Like when you find her with (surprise character) and they scold you about being late. I took tat so personally that when I caught up with them again I ask sarcastically "Am I Late" There is also a good amount of coming-of-age school yard humor revolving around telling other characters how you or they feel about each other. It lends to the development of the relationship plot. It's cool to see the subject juxtapose against the marriages of some store owners in the game.

Chris Hendricks
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I'd argue that Zelda does get characterization in previous games of the series. In particular, Zelda is Link's companion throughout the entire game of Spirit Tracks (and was actually a selling feature for me... I was not disappointed).

That being said, the bond between Zelda and Link feels much closer in this one, which was quite welcomed.

Robert Boyd
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I appreciated the better development of Zelda's character early on even though I really disliked the glacial pacing when it came to the actual gameplay. However, I didn't like being constantly one step behind Zelda throughout the game - it reminded me of Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (the second string fellowship chasing after the actual fellowship) and made me feel like Zelda should have been the playable character and not Link.

David Campbell
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I absolutely adored what Nintendo did with Zelda and Link's relationship in this game. It really did add such tremendous depth to what was going on, and eliminate that feeling of "why the hell am I risking my life over and over for some dame I barely know."

I didn't shed a tear nor feel much of anything at the death of Aerith. Why should I, or more precisely, why should Cloud? He met her like a week ago and their relationship was about equivalent to having gone on one date. Too often games thrust us into taking on a world-spanning adventure to save a damsel who did little more than shine a pretty smile our way before being whisked away by the big bad.

Skyward Sword challenged that wonderfully, and found a way to make the love interest an actual heroine rather than a simple chick to be saved too. The emotional depth of their established relationship gives great power to scenes where Link is taunted by Grinham about her. The anger, determination, and resolve that is put on his face combined with this built-up empathy speaks volumes more than getting some anime voice actor to shout "I'm going to f#$%ing kill you!".

Tora Teig
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I think they did a wonderful job with Zelda! But what about Fi? I really couldn't care less about her - even Navi had more passion that Fi. And I mean following Midna as Links companion IS truly a tough act to follow. So I suppose they wanted to make Fi almost the exact opposite of Midna who was full of life and passion and mischief and vulnerability. I mean the only time Fi said something I didn't already know... No wait - she pretty much just summed things up and told you when to change the batteries on the Wiimote. Sounds pretty harsh, but I couldn't have less empathy for Fi...

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I felt like Fi was done the way she was done on purpose. She calls you Master through out the game, while the other characters that guided Link in past games never refer to you as such. I haven't beaten the game yet but there is a 90% chance that I know what will happen as far as her character goes :P. But on a serious side I feel Fi is a computer, and nothing more, and she is not suppose to be emotionally attached but more like a informational achieve. I fell like if the sword fell in to the wrong hands Fi has no real choice in whether she guides that person or not. Her programing was to just find the person that resembled the face of the hero and report to them.

Cary Chichester
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I don't think Zelda's character has ever been stronger than in Spirit Tracks. While you are trying to "rescue" her, she actually works with you to overcome obstacles. Here she doesn't leave her fate up to Link, she's actually with you every step of the way and plays just as big a role as he does in saving Hyrule. Having her constantly around means that the player has lot of opportunities to interact with her, resulting in a better understanding of her character and also making her the least annoying partner Link has had on his journey.

Dean Boytor
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There has been a ton of speculation on this game good and bad. Personally I feel this game regardless of whether its the best or the worst in the series, has lived up to its title "The Legend of Zelda". Like the article mentions that the title has Zelda's name in it but never links even though link is what we see majority of the game. In skyward sword they did a fantastic job illustrating who zelda is, and who the legend is(which is you/link). Interesting enough they seem to get away with having Zelda not being a princess(unless this is implied that she is). Although I haven't beaten the game yet, its been a very mesmerizing and challenging adventure so far. Kudos to the developers who keep this adventure alive for so many years.