The Invisible Bow: Motion Control in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
When I first played Wii Sports, the day of the Wii’s release, I thought the visionaries at Nintendo had revolutionized gaming forever. The game was so much fun, and the technology so exciting, that I was sure I’d be playing motion-controlled adventures in no time. The release of Kinect and Move seemed to further the notion that the games of the future would be played with our bodies, not just our fingers.
But motion control has been, for the most part, a flop. After some early failed experiments in “hardcore” games—remember Red Steel?—the media, developers, and the gaming public decided that the technology was a gimmick, reserved for casual or family products. There have been a few exceptions, like Rise of Nightmares and Sorcery; while both garnered mixed reviews, such bold forays should be commended and encouraged. Otherwise, however, it seems that only dance titles and mini-game collections use motion as their primary input. This isn’t always a bad thing, as anyone who’s played WarioWare: Smooth Moves can attest. But there is still so much wasted potential. Leave it to Nintendo, the industry giant with innovative ideas and the resources to pursue them, to push the boundaries of the ground they broke themselves. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword is a great game. An extraordinary game. A perfectly paced epic full of humor, drama, and beauty, a scintillating exemplar of game design with tremendous aesthetic appeal. While I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite game of all time, it may well be one of the best I have ever played. Even accounting for nostalgia, it measures up to Ocarina of Time, the masterpiece of my generation’s childhood.
“But wait! You don’t review games in Savor the Void! Josh, you’re a liar and a scoundrel!” I know, but my point is this: Skyward Sword is magnificent, independent of its control scheme. It would have suffered little as, for example, an N64 game. And yet, its motion controls are not a trivial addition, as they were in its predecessor, Twilight Princess, and many other first-party Nintendo titles. Rather, motion is fully integrated into the gameplay. That, combined with its stellar overall quality, sets Skyward Sword head and shoulders above every motion-controlled game that came before it.
We’ll get to swordplay shortly, but our first example has to be the bow. Ever since I laid my hands on a Wiimote and Nunchuk, I’ve wanted to use them for virtual archery. It just seems like such a natural use for these controllers. There is one slight problem, though: to hold the “bow” in a realistic manner, the Wiimote has to point upward, not at the screen. This could make for some strange aiming. However, Skyward Sword lets the player recalibrate instantly at any time. Wherever your Wiimote is pointing, that’s the new “center” of the screen for input purposes. This is extremely convenient in many situations, allowing you to sit and play with your arm held at any angle you find comfortable. But it also happens to let you grip the “bow” realistically, if you recalibrate with the Wiimote pointing straight up. You may not be able to shoot as accurately, but the immersive, badass feeling is easily worth the sacrifice.
We’ve accounted for the Wiimote’s role in archery, but what about the Nunchuk’s? Even better. There are two ways to draw the bow. You can hold down the Wiimote’s A button, which will slowly charge a shot over a couple seconds. Or, you can press the C button on the Nunchuk and pull it back, readying a shot almost at once. From a gameplay perspective, there is no reason you would use the former, more boring option. The Nunchuk motion control is faster and, other than being trivially more difficult, has no inherent drawback compared to the Wiimote button press. This clever design decision encourages players to use the motion control, reversing the ordinary paradigm whereby “fun” motion controls are less precise and so tend to be ignored in favor of more effective conventional button inputs. This feature, along with the instant recalibration option, makes archery in Skyward Sword a delight. (I recently played a pumpkin-shooting mini-game until my arm got tired from holding the “bow” out in front of me. Again, the vertical Wiimote orientation made it harder to aim, but I was having too great a time to care.)
Of course, Link is primarily not an archer but a swordsman. Skyward Sword makes a noble and fairly successful effort to refine bladework, steering away from the flailing chaos of, say, Twilight Princess. For example, foes with weapons tend to block a specific angle of attack, and they’ll shift their guard around to keep you on your toes. A couple fights take place on narrow walled bridges that do not permit horizontal slashes. Elements like these turn combat into a sort of fast-paced puzzle, a characterization I suspect fencers and boxers may find familiar.
The system is not completely intuitive. My first instinct was to make grand, dramatic motions, but these are (predictably) imprecise. I found that what I thought was a downward diagonal slash was actually a horizontal attack, or that my one-handed thrust became a two-handed spin attack. Small, measured motions provide much finer control. It’s not that the Wii MotionPlus can’t handle sweeping gestures; as far as I can tell, the sensor is perfectly accurate. Really, it’s more that my body isn’t trained to move with geometric precision. This made for some difficult battles, especially the first boss fight, which requires great accuracy before I had time to really get comfortable with the motions.
As a side note, this could have been ameliorated with better on-screen feedback, for example by showing the path of your swipe. Such an interface element might be awkward and immersion-breaking in a Zelda game, but developers, bear it in mind! Players come to every game untrained; feedback is what teaches them. I want to see more precision and more difficulty in motion-control games. (This is the driving idea behind my Imitation Heroes design.)
A couple more notes on the melee combat in Skyward Sword. Pointing your Wiimote up to charge a “Skyward Strike” can feel pretty cool, if a bit silly. It’s doubly satisfying after you realize you can delay your attack; the decoupling of charge and strike emphasizes the release of energy, adding a sense of magical force to the motion. The fatal blow mechanic is similarly empowering. You are only required to swing the controllers upward, causing Link to leap at a stunned foe, but I always found myself slamming downward as well, in time with the killing blow. This superfluous but compelling action is a wonderful illustration of the immersive capacity of motion control, its ability to batter down the barrier between player and avatar.
Skyward Sword strikes a solid balance between encouraging such immersion and bowing to the expediencies of gameplay. Some trivial actions, for example rolling or throwing items like pots and bombs, use motion controls. Others, like drinking from bottles or filling them up, suggest obvious motion controls but are in fact handled through conventional button pressing. I feel that the distinction lies in the nature of these actions. It’s fun to chuck a breakable pot into a wall, or bowl a bomb down a tunnel. Scooping liquid into a bottle, on the other hand, is pretty mundane. Drinking is not only boring, but also a vital combat action; assigning it a potentially awkward motion control could impede the player’s battle effectiveness and thereby create frustration. (This apparently happened in Sorcery.) The decision to keep select actions motion-free cannot be taken for granted, and deserves applause.
There’s one action that should never use motion control: character movement. I want to emphasize this point. I got to test a pre-release of Rise of Nightmares, and I felt the same way about its movement control scheme as all the reviewers seem to have: it was super awkward and added nothing to the game. Putting the player on rails, like Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest or most of Kinect Star Wars, is an okay solution but entails massive limitations. For now, the joystick is by far the best character movement input we have, and thankfully Skyward Sword stands by it, at least for walking.
There are two other main methods of locomotion for Link: flying and swimming. Flight involves steering a giant bird around by tilting the Wiimote. Like swordplay, this is tricky to get the hang of, but it soon becomes smooth and satisfying. Underwater movement is not so happy. While also mostly based on tilting, it never stops being awkward and difficult. Fortunately, Link flies much more often than he swims.
I’d like to end by calling out two motions in particular. The first is drawing glyphs. This is very rare; you can only do it on special walls and at a few specific points in the story. But it is incredible. I have a huge thing for glyphs (a design fetish?) and I’ll explain why. There is an ancient connection between symbols and magic. At some level, everyone understands that if you draw the right symbol in the right place at the right time, you will channel a secret power and gain the keys to the world. I’m speaking as, I suppose, an anthropologist here; I don’t literally believe what I just wrote. But put away your rational mantle, and deep down… don’t you?
That is part of the potential power of motion control. I’d like to drop the hippie crap (it is a little embarrassing), but it remains relevant to the final control we’ll examine: dowsing. This is the traditional art of taking a stick and walking around until you mystically sense water, or something. I emphatically do not believe in dowsing, but there is something to it here. In Skyward Sword, you “dowse” by aiming the Wiimote around the screen. Audiovisual cues indicate whether you’re looking in the direction of the thing you’re dowsing for. It could be just as easily done by moving a reticle around the screen with a mouse or joystick, but the fact that you’re physically pointing makes it feel more real, as though the controller is a magical artifact. (Another side note: the Move controller, with its glowing head, has tremendous potential in this regard. The controller-free Kinect has zero, but lends itself to exploring the power of gestures. Developers take note!)
Whether or not I believe in glyphs or dowsing, I do believe one thing for certain: motion control has the potential to change gaming as we know it. Companies need to take risks with it. Indie developers need easier access to it. Skyward Sword shows us that it is not a gimmick, but it also doesn’t guarantee fun by itself. The task of making great games remains a difficult one, regardless of the control scheme. But there is so much opportunity here. I want to explore it more… don’t you?