The Little Things

13 For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; 16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.

Psalm 139

In the grand scope of the entire universe, we’re insignificant little things. This verse has probably been used to explicate this point billions upon billions of times, but that idea never gets old. It tries to remove pride, hubris, fear, and anxiety in us. We, in the tiniest detail, were made as irreplaceable personalities who have souls and are given the gift of life. That God would take time to do that, to pay attention to such an infintessimal portion of creation, is a rather incomprehensible thought, to say the least.

That’s why the little things in life and games make me happy, and I try not to take them for granted. Whether it’s just me being overly optimistic or not, video games always work when they get the little details right. It’s only when you’ve played a game of the same exact type or genre, only completely worse, that you can finally appreciate why a game was good in the first place.

Case in point: The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword. I haven’t played it personally, but I can tell you from watching my brother play it that the game is, at best, mediocre. I could chalk it up to experimentation by Nintendo like any old fanboy (and, indeed, I am quite a fan of Zelda games), but how could it be right to gloss over its myriad flaws?

First, motion controls. Every reviewer on Earth seems to think the WiiMotion Plus must be the greatest invention on God’s green Earth, what with the praise stating it enhances the “immersion” of the game, and also puts each motion into ways that become natural and second nature. These people are wrong; the controls are incredibly frustrating when they require any kind of precision, as in when Link finds himself in a combat situation. Making the WiiMote find the difference between “Upward right diagonal slash” and “Upward slash” becomes a difficult exercise, to say the least. When the game eventually requires you to slash correctly or take damage (the frequent Stalfos fight demonstrate this brilliantly, as do some boss encounters), it feels as if the multiple hearts are only there as a crutch for shoddy design. I’m fine when a game allows you to make mistakes – that makes sense in a puzzle game like Zelda. But when it feels like you will, inevitably, lose hearts by default in combat. that’s a bit of a stretch for the player. It doesn’t teach them to get better; it permits them to rest on the allowances given to them, and that’s not good. I guess that’s a general problem with the series, but it’s exacerbated here by the poor control scheme.

Furthermore, the constant backtracking and revisiting three different areas, while new for Zelda, isn’t particularly interesting or revolutionary. Trying to cram the Metroid experience into a linear 3rd person adventure may not have been the best move on Nintendo’s part; it just shows how linear the experience really is, even though it purports to be an “open world”. What’s with the “RPG” elements to upgrade weapons? If I wanted to grind materials from enemies, I’ll do that in WoW, thank you very much.

Lastly, those darn spirit challenges are the worst. As my Conker’s Bad Fur Day review suggests, I’m not at all opposed to collect-a-thons, but in a Zelda game? That’s tantamount to blasphemy. Not only does it not play like any other segment of the game (jettisoning all the lessons the game taught you already), but it slaps a time limit on you and restarts you from the beginning if you fail. If you’re going to give the player lots of life, why suddenly be inconsistent on this point? It’s not that this happens – it happens a LOT. By the end, you’ll curse the collection of the drops and the stupid stealth mechanics that go along with it.

Ocarina of Time could be similar to this, but it doesn’t make the same mistakes that Skyward Sword, a game with 14 years more experience, does make repeatedly. Notice how there’s no horse-riding segments in Skyward Sword – that’s because moving, aiming, and riding a horse at the same time would overcomplicate the situation. You don’t get an Epona situation in Skyward Sword because the motion controls limit what can be done by the player without grafting a new, context sensitive mechanic onto the game. Combat, in OoT, works when you tell it  to work, and you’ll never mess up if you’re paying attention and have good timing – exactly as it should function. How can Skyward Sword have the same camera, though? It wasn’t perfect then, and still not perfect now, but Ocarina gets a pass for doing something new at the time.

We can think of other ways that Ocarina simply does it better, without any of the extra padding you get in Skyward Sword’s repetition. Every dungeon is different, the world map doesn’t require wandering around the map for a long time in pointless flying segments. Ever wonder why Ocarina songs let you teleport places, rather than just being a device inserted into the game because of tradition (I’m looking at you, harp)? Now you know! No collect-a-thons, lots of puzzles. Even the time travel is done right, whereas I still don’t see why it was necessary in Skyward Sword at all (that’d be a spoiler). Even riding Epona is much more fun than the bird; the controls on the flying segments, yet again, use motion controls poorly at best.

Everything in Skyward Sword, then, can be summed up in one word: gimmicky. Just like much of the Wii’s library, it rests on one control gimmick and runs into a brick wall with it, spilling all the other pieces that worked just fine, if not better, without the motion sensing portions.

Ocarina doesn’t have to shoehorn a gimmick into the game; it works with the control scheme it has, and in doing so succeeds much more at being an excellent adventure without foisting a new, and inaccurate, control scheme every 5 minutes (use hookshot! Use whip! Use…vacuum cleaner).

It takes a game like Skyward Sword to appreciate Ocarina. I had honestly thought the game outdated, with every Zelda game after its release basically amounting to an update, expansion pack, or change-up in the formula to mixed success. But it really does everyone so well, so effortlessly, that we don’t really talk about it. You can get to the first dungeon in ten minutes, if you’re attentive; Skyward Sword takes two hours, at the least. Pacing, speed, control – these all add up. Without a solid understanding of how an audience will react, it’ll fall flat.

I wish not to say this about Skyward Sword, but it truly rubs me the wrong way because it fails in the little things. All the spectacle, supposed greatness, branding, and control gimmicks can’t fix a bad game. Same goes for real life: a person who acts prideful, selfish, and doesn’t understand others will inevitably fall because they fail to see the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. Perhaps the “Zelda Timeline” demonstrates this more than anything, the most pretentious addition to the Zelda series:

For those of you who thought they were a series of lighthearted adventures to save the world, think again. It’s a grand, meaningful, important saga – probably the exact opposite of Shigeru Miyamoto’s playful wandering in the woods as a child, the original inspiration for the series. Stop over-complicating this. Zelda’s too infatuated with its own self-importance at this point, and won’t revisit past glories until it gets the little things right.

If you thought you couldn’t learn theology and life lessons from Zelda, think again.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.