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 Story Structure and the Problem with Skyward Sword 
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Post Story Structure and the Problem with Skyward Sword • Posted: Fri Jul 04, 2014 8:24 pm
Story Structure and the Problem with Skyward Sword

I’ve been doing a good deal of studying in regards to story structure and why certain stories appeal the way they do. I thought I would share my thoughts on general theory and how the Legend of Zelda games follow this structure to a tee. Conversely, I would also like to explore how Skyward Sword falls flat in this aspect, addressing my dissatisfaction with the game’s story but more specifically the reasons as such. All this is theoretical of course, but I believe it does provide a helpful tool in analyzing why we do and do not like the storyline of particular games. Any thoughts on this essay are appreciated.

Story Structure: Basics

Consider the following story below:

Once upon a time, Deku Lord was craving some Deku Seeds. He ventured out into the dark of the Kokiri Forest and found a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a cache of delicious Deku Seeds. Upon grabbing the seeds, he heard a loud cry behind him and discovered a moblin running full tilt towards the cache. He had taken the moblin’s lunch! Scrambling to get to safety, Deku Lord ducked and weaved through the thickets of the Kokiri forest, until he managed to arrive safely at home. Sitting down, all scratched and bruised, he enjoyed his delicious sachet of Deku Seeds. The end.

Versus this:

Once upon a time, Link was walking to Hyrule Castle when he saw a hole in the ground. Curious, he decided to explore the hole and jumped in. The end.

Why does the second story feel incomplete, whereas the first story is quite the opposite? The answer is that humans like their stories in circles. It’s not enough that the hero ventures into the distance, he has to struggle, he has to change, and most importantly he has to return so we can see the difference. The second story feels incomplete, because to us, it is. Link crawled down the hole. What did his find?! What was there? Why aren’t you telling us more?

This idea of structure has been explored by several sources. Aristotle spoke about the three act structure. Joseph Campbell discussed the monomyth and the similarities between the various mythic legends across the world. The structure I will be using today is Dan Harmon’s story circle, which he based off his own studies of the aforementioned sources and screenwriting experience. While he used it primarily in writing TV episodes, I think it’s a useful tool for novels and videogames alike.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle:

The story circle works like this. Imagine a circle divided into eighths and numbered like so.

DanHarmon's_BasicModelForStoryStructure.jpg [ 6.34 KiB | Viewed 3383 times ]

Each number corresponds to a pivotal section of telling a story. A summary of the sections are as follows:

A character (1), needs something (2), and ventures out to the unknown (3), in search (4) of it. She finds it (5), takes it (6) and returns (7) to her original setting, changed (8).

The story about Deku Lord follows this to a tee. Deku Lord (1) is hungry (2), goes to the dark forest (3). He searches (4), discovers the seeds (5), takes it, disturbing the moblin (6), and returns to his house (7), all scratched up but with food. (8).

Compare that to our Hero of Time:

Link (1), discovers a hole and becomes curious (2). He jumps in (3).

The rest of the circle is missing, and our jimmies get rustled. If he’s curious about the mysterious hole did his find something to satisfy his curiosity? What was down there? We need to see the rest of the circle, otherwise there isn’t a story.

Story Circle Expanded – The Legend of Zelda series

The Legend of Zelda games have a typical formula to them. But outside of: set number of temples, use the dungeon item to defeat the boss, etc, most people won’t understand why the games feel formulaic. The answer is in how the game is structured, and specifically how much time a game spends in each section of the story circle.

(1) A Character
The games spend little time messing around here. There’s a character and regardless of what you named him, he’s called Link. You need a character to experience the story through; otherwise it’s just a dispassionate series of events. Oftentimes, Link is introduced doing something the audience would also be doing in his situation: sleeping. We aren’t introduced to Link fighting a thirty foot scorpion lizard. The character has to be instantly relatable so the audience makes a connection right off the bat. Then, we can live vicariously through him as he does all that heroic stuff.

(2) Needs Something
Link gets a call from Navi to help the Deku Tree. Aryll has been kidnapped. Zelda sends a message telepathically in the middle of the night. Link has a need, even if he’s not exactly sure what it is. All these things are symptoms of a root problem. Ganon/Ganondorf is causing evil and Link needs to stop him. This is usually stated by an authority figure early in the games. Link meets Princess Zelda in the castle of OOT. The King of Red Lions talks to Link on Windfall Island. Midna and Wolf Link talk to Princess Zelda in the castle of TP. The need has been clarified, now the challenge must be met.

(3) Venture into the Unknown
This is where any classic Zelda game gets going. In A Link to the Past, this is when you leave the Sanctuary. In Wind Waker, it’s where you leave Outset Island. In Ocarina of Time, this is where Link leaves the Kokiri Forest. There’s a huge world out there, let’s go exploring.

(4) Searches for a Solution
Link, driven by his need (2) starts searching for his solution (5). This section of the game typically ends up being the classic starter dungeons. In Wind Waker this is Dragon Roost, Forest Haven and Tower of the Gods. In Link to the Past, it’s the Eastern Palace, Desert Palace and Tower of Hera. In Ocarina of Time, it’s the Deku Tree, Dodongo’s Cavern and Jabu Jabu’s Belly. There is no reason it has to be three dungeons, but I suspect this is the case because humans associate the number three with completion. It’s also due to the fact that the Triforce (three again) has strong symbolism with the goddesses, and each trial Link overcomes corresponds to each individual goddess. In Ocarina of Time’s case, it is the three spiritual stones, held by each of the three primary races of Hyrule. You will notice that a bulk of the gameplay is in the searching portion of the circle. Whatever Link is searching for must feel earned; otherwise there really wasn’t much of a problem to begin with. If it was as simple as Zelda unlocking the Temple of Time and Link shanking Ganondorf’s ankles with the Master Sword, there wouldn’t be much of a story. There has to be a struggle and in the Zelda games, it’s typically the trials endured to obtain the Master Sword.

(5) Finds what he was looking for
Ganondorf must be stopped and the Sword of Evil's Bane is what the doctor prescribed. This is the moment where Link finds what he was looking for. The interesting thing about number (5); what Dan Harmon and Joseph Campbell refer to as “The Meeting with the Goddess”, is that it almost always corresponds to Link obtaining the Master Sword. A Link to the Past, Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, it’s all the same. The actions of external forces have brought Link to this point: retrieving the Master Sword. Now the tables have turned and it’s time to bring the fight to them. Story structure wise, you’ll notice this point is at the very bottom of the circle. The direction of the story has changed and now the protagonist begins his ascent upward. If you’ve played Half Life 2, this is the moment where Gordon Freeman stops being chased by the Combine and starts making his way to Nova Prospekt. The important thing is whatever need the protagonist had at (2), the solution was found at (5). Deku Lord was hungry, he found lunch. But the story isn’t over yet. He needs to head back and there are consequences for taking the seeds/Master Sword, as we will see shortly.

(6) Takes it and experiences the consequences
There is always a cost associated with finding your solution. The game can’t end with retrieving the Master Sword and Ganon magically dying as he removes it from the pedestal. We would feel cheated. “That’s it? All that struggle to find the darned thing and no struggle on the way back?” The story circle works both ways, and the downward search must correspond to an equivalent struggle upwards. There must also be a cost for finding his solution. Link gets the Master Sword and fights Agahnim, only to be cast into the Dark World. Link gets the Master Sword and confronts Ganondorf at the top of Forsaken Fortress, only to discover he has unsealed Ganondorf’s powers while the blade is dull and useless. Link obtains the Master Sword and returns to human form, but at the cost of Princess Zelda. Link takes the sword in the Temple of Time, but has unwittingly has allowed Ganondorf access to the very thing they were trying to keep him from. The consequences abound, and now just as Link worked to find his solution, he must equally work to apply it and solve the problem once and for all.

This is where the second major chunk of gameplay comes into being. Link, having found what he needed, must now struggle again to complete his task. Finding the seven sages in A Link to the Past, the six sages in Ocarina of Time, the two sages plus one Triforce of Courage in Wind Waker, and the four pieces of the Mirror of Twilight in Twilight Princess. The final goal has been set, and our hero makes his way to it. This is the part of the story where the Hero is forged into steel. He has control over his destiny, and will see it through to the end.

(7) Returns having (8) changed
Our hero returns to where he began. This is the point of the story where the direction of the plot has twisted towards the conclusion. Having found what was needed and suffered the trials, the story bundles off to the climax and conclusion. Link confronts the problem; he returns to the same situation he was in at the start of the journey, but this time things are different.

The climax of a story usually resides in this section of the story circle, but it can also occur in step (6), depending on the pacing. In our story with Deku Lord, the return home is the climax, with our intrepid deku scrub dashing and weaving his way to escape. If the pacing was different, we could make it so the climax is him trying to outwit the moblin, with the return being a peaceful walk back, having tricked the moblin into knocking himself out with his own club. The pacing varies depending on the story, but in most of the games, the climax happens in point (7). It’s no coincidence Link typically returns to a location from the past to finish the story. Majora’s Mask is a prime example of this. At the start of the game, you are a helpless deku scrub on the top of Clock Tower, and must rely on blowing bubbles to get back your Ocarina. At the end of the game, you are fully stocked and ready to end Skull Kid once and for all. The journey back up Clock Tower is in anticipation. In Twilight Princess, Link is no longer a prisoner of Hyrule Castle, he’s confronting Ganon at the top of it. The return doesn’t always have to be a location either; it can also be a situation. Link, who at the start of Wind Waker met Ganondorf and was thrown into the ocean, now returns to face him again, this time with a fully powered Master Sword. It doesn’t matter that they fight in a completely foreign location; the situation is the same, the people have changed.

After Link successfully defeats Ganondorf, we see the results of his labours; the dénouement of the story. How Hyrule has changed, how the people we interacted with changed, and finally what our Hero does now that he has changed. The Master Sword is returned to the pedestal, waiting for the next time a Hero must have his “Meeting with the Goddess” (5). And the story ends.

That is the story circle. While all stories have different ways of utilizing it and spending time in each of the section, the skeleton remains basically the same. So with all you’ve just read, let’s apply the story circle to Skyward Sword, and see the problems that emerge with the plot.

The Problem with Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword is written as an entry mythos to the Legend of Zelda series. It deals with hither unknown figures such as Demise and Hylia, who are the archetypes of the conflicts that ripple through successive games. Skyward Sword is structured like the hero’s journey, yet it never feels that Link becomes that mythical hero the story deserves. Why is that? Well, let’s take a look and see if we can’t suss this out.

(1) A Character, (2) Needs something, and (3) searches the unknown.
The intro follows the circle pretty well. Link is established as a student of the knight’s academy. He’s friends with Zelda, and trains with his Loftwing. After a tornado sweeps Zelda to the ground, the story need is set. Link is looking to find and save Zelda. He retrieves the Goddess Sword and heads down to the unknown.

(4) He searches for a solution.
Now the problems start. Link is going after Zelda in hopes of rescuing her. While he encounters Impa, who acts like a dick towards him, he’s not entirely sure Zelda is safe until he has caught up to her. This first act of the game involves searching for a way to get to Zelda, plain and simple. The first three regions accomplish this pretty well. Zelda is doing something at these fountains, Ghirahim has his own little plans, and mystery is starting to take root. This is good, the game is getting good.

Here's where is all goes downhill. After slogging through the Lanayru Mining Facility, Link finally catches up with Zelda and Impa, only to be interrupted by Ghirahim. Impa stupidly blows up the Gate of Time, and Link is left behind, still searching for a way to get to Zelda. If it were as simple as finding and activating the second gate of time, this would not be a huge deal. But the game forces you to go through three more dungeons, not to mention the insufferable Silent Realm trials, in places we’ve already searched, to open the second gate of time. I can’t have been the only one disappointed at the end of the Lanayru Mining Facility. I was expecting answers, not because it was the typical “Three dungeons now go to the dark world” formula, but because I was expecting the direction of the story to change, and it didn’t.

(5) Finds what he was looking for
In any case, after playing through a good deal of filler, we eventually arrive in the past, where Impa and Zelda are in the Temple of Hylia. At this moment, we finally have our literal “Meeting with the Goddess” where Zelda tells us what the F- is going on. In this moment, we discover that the only real way to save Zelda is the ultimate destruction of Demise, through using the Triforce. The direction of the story finally changes, and having found what he was looking for, Link can now work towards the ultimate solution.

(6) Takes it and experiences the consequences
The direction of the story finally changes to dealing with Demise and finding the Triforce, but by this point, there’s barely anything left to play. We’ve already completed six dungeons and three silent realms. We’ve explored the entirety of the overworld and most of the sky. What is there left to do? Just a bunch of pointless filler quests and another stupid silent realm. The only real gameplay is the Sky Keep, and it’s just one dungeon. That was it? Just learning one song and completing one dungeon? I’ll bet even Groose could have done that if Fi gave him a chance. It took more time to track down Zelda than to find the mythical power of the gods. We return to the Temple of Hylia far too soon, and the fire that supposed to have forged our hero into steel dies out far too easily.

(7) Returns having (8) “changed”
Link returns with the Triforce and ends up wishing for the stupidest wish of all time. Rather than asking the goddesses to remove Demise completely and utterly from the universe, Link ends up wishing for the goddess statue to crush him to death or something like that. Whatever, Zelda leaves her time prison, and Ghirahim takes her to the past to conduct his ritual. Link follows, battles Demise and beats him. Demise calls down a curse on Link and Zelda and the game ends. Then the two stay on the surface forever and Zelda never thanks Link even once.
The problem here (and there are many) is that Link hasn’t changed at all. How could he? What trials did he face on his way to Demise? What consequences did he suffer once meeting Zelda? The game spends too much time in step (4) and not enough time in step (6). Subsequently we feel cheated. In Ocarina of Time, Link suffers through the destruction of Hyrule and returns as a child with knowledge of what must be done. In Wind Waker, Link sees the splendor of old Hyrule and understands that it’s his duty to leave Outset Island forever and form a new kingdom. In Twilight Princess, Link experiences the adventure with Midna and subsequently is distressed when she shatters the mirror and he is alone once more. The hero has changed substantially from the start of the story.

What happens in Skyward Sword? Link is told over and over again he is not worthy of being a hero, spends all his time chasing after Zelda, fights a meaningless battle with Demise, whom posed zero threat throughout the entire game, and in the end stays with Zelda when that was exactly what he would have done at the very start of the story. Zelda experienced more of a story circle than Link did, while our hero never really became a hero. He was just this poor sap Zelda used to do her bidding.

How can this all fixed?

The easiest and most effective way to fix the game (without changing actual gameplay) is simple: Have Link meet Zelda after Lanayru Mining Facility. Don’t even have Ghirahim show up, just have Link discover the Gate of Time and step through. Let him discover all the crazy stuff that Zelda tells him and then continue the game from there, with Link finding the sacred flames to open the Sky Keep and obtain the Triforce.

If you want to really fix the game, change the “Meeting with the Goddess” (5) itself, while still having it occur after the Lanayru Mining Facility. Reveal that Hylia became a mortal so she could use the Triforce and as Zelda, she was purifying herself to enter the location where the Triforce was kept: The Spiritual Realm. The gate of time is instead a gateway to the spiritual realm. Zelda’s wish for the defeat of Demise is granted via the Goddesses raising a hero to fight him, namely Link. Zelda then stays in the spiritual realm and tells Link he must goes out to become the hero he must be to defeat Demise. (6) You can even keep the rest of the game exactly the same. Link goes out, does those stupid Silent Realm trials, (which are now trials to forge him into a hero, rather than just giving him an item to chase after Zelda), and searching for the sacred flames to doubly forge Fi into the Master Sword. Finally, Ghirahim frees his master and they go to the spiritual realm, where Link, as a fully realized hero of the goddesses, returns (7) to fight’s him before he can take the Triforce. Demise lays his curse to continually resurrect through the ages, and because of Zelda’s wish, there will always be a hero to meet him. Link and Zelda decide to stay on the surface to lay the foundation of a nation that would be the keepers of the Triforce. (8).

Is it perfect? No. But it would go a long way in fixing the story momentum and setting up the mythic archetype for the rest of the series to follow. In any case, I feel that this story circle is stronger than the one we were given in Skyward Sword, but such is life. Perhaps Nintendo will play around with his early age of Hyrule in the Wii U version of the game, which looks to either be earlier in the series, or between Skyward Sword and Minish Cap. In any case, I hope the article was informative, if not helpful to you aspiring storytellers out there. If you want to learn more about the story circle, check this link out. Dan Harmon explains it much better than I can. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think in the replies.


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Post Re: Story Structure and the Problem with Skyward Sword • Posted: Fri Jul 04, 2014 10:15 pm
*clap clap clap* Knew something about Skyward Sword felt off. This pretty much hits one of the major nails on the head. The pacing just wasn't right and although Link finally got acknowledged for being a hero at the end, it felt like he should have gotten that title earlier. At some point I just wanted justification for what I was doing other than "get to Zelda". We reach Zelda in other games and have longer time to talk to her and get a solid goal in mind, or at least be told what's going on. A Link to the Past had Link escorting her to the Sanctuary and once she got taken away, the dominoes fell for Link to find her and the other girls who had gone missing. Wind Waker had us lead the princess to the old castle beneath the waves where more exposition was given. Twilight Princess had Link met her in the Twilight version of Hyrule Castle and the heart-wrenching scene of Zelda's sacrifice. Ocarina of Time had the castle courtyard meeting, which could be returned to at any time though Impa would teleport Link away, and the final reveal at the Temple of Time.

Skyward Sword had us thinking "Alright, now we're getting somewhere", only for Impa to berate Link - Not a hero? Look what the other Links did, and they got called a hero faster! - Zelda to be all mysterious, Ghirahim to show up, and Link being separated from Zelda without much plot being given to us. It felt like a ripoff after the Lanayru Mines.

There's also the problems that the "legendary cycle" implies, such as Ganondorf never having compassion for the Gerudo, and that he would always be evil. His character moment at the end of Wind Waker, where he was seen as a leader having gone too far for his people instead of the usual irredeemable evil man or pig-beast, became null. I mean, it's awesome to think that while there are three people being reincarnated, they don't always act the same. Link can be lazy or hard working. Zelda can be near defenseless or able to actively kick butt. Ganondorf, meanwhile, got the boot. He may not be my favorite villain, but it was nice to see he had human characteristics in Wind Waker, which counts for nothing now.

What I thought was stupid at the end of Skyward Sword though,
Spoiler: show
was that the Triforce was in plain sight right outside the main temple Zelda had been in for centuries. Why Ghirahim didn't just GRAB the Triforce first before taking off with Zelda, I don't know.
He sorta dropped the ball there. Or maybe the game creators didn't want to spend time sorting out the consequences of the bad guy "winning".

Sorry for rambling. Great article.

"May the way of the Hero lead to the Triforce."
Spoiler: show
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Post Re: Story Structure and the Problem with Skyward Sword • Posted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 11:30 am
@ DC: Cool story, bro.

@ Smoosh: That would only work if Ghirahim had all three traits of Courage, Wisdom, and Power in balance and I highly doubt Ghirahim was a balanced individual. If he'd touched the Triforce it would've split and done very little to empower him (it also would've served to empower his opponents, Link and Zelda, though he likely didn't know this and just simply didn't view the Triforce as an optimal solution).



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