Zelda Dungeon Marathon 2019:

Moral Bankruptcy in Skyloft

Skyloft is probably one of the best hub towns I’ve ever visited in any game. It’s a happy yet bustling community nestled atop a handful of boulders floating over the clouds, where players are free to mingle with the locals and explore the island’s countless secrets.

In many ways Skyloft is a beautifully crafted environment, but it is also home to abusive relationships, mishandled portrayals of human interactions, and some negative messages for players. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but let’s get the most obvious bad signal Skyward Sword sends players out of the way first.

Morality is Poorly Measured

Skyward Sword is far from the first game to measure moral choices, but this game’s take on the “good morality points for good actions, evil morality points for evil actions” system is a decidedly Nintendo one: players can only earn good morality points in the form of Gratitude Crystals. The only ways to obtain these crystalized embodiments of positive vibes are by helping the citizens of Skyloft with their problems.

The moral failing of this system is it treats everyone’s problems with equal weight even when some characters have much larger problems than others. Let me provide two examples of problems people face in Skyloft.

Shortly after completing Skyview Temple, Wryna tells Link that her daughter, Kukiel has gone missing. This is a surprisingly dark turn for Zelda games; Kukiel’s disappearance carries the suggestion of child abduction, which is a very adult theme to find amid Skyloft’s otherwise cheerful atmosphere. Kukiel is alright, of course, and discovering her with Batreaux introduces the Gratitude Crystal system itself. Once we head back to Wryna and inform her that her daughter is safe and sound, we are rewarded with five Gratitude Crystals.

In another instance, Link overhears an argument between Pipit and his mother, Mallara, whom Pipit accuses of wasting the extra money he’s been earning at the Knight Academy. Once again, this is a rather adult scenario one wouldn’t usually expect to find in a Nintendo game, were the financial strain between family members is brought to our attention.

But hearing this conversation does not open a side quest to solve the tension between a mother and her adult son. Instead, Link can use his Gale Bellows to clean Mallara’s home, which is only filthy because she is too lazy to clean it herself. For this deed, Mallara rewards Link with 20 rupees and five Gratitude Crystals. The side quest does not continue beyond this, though we can come back to clean the home again for more money if we wish.

So, in one instance, we saved a mother from the horror of believing her darling child was trapped, killed, or abducted, and in the other we worsened the financial instability and emotional tension in a family, but both actions provided us with the same reward! What sort of message is Nintendo trying to send players here?

This is just one example of an unsettling trend that runs throughout Skyward Sword: anything the player does is determined to be morally right, and all morally right choices are equal in value.

This message really comes to a head at the climax of the Peatrice side quest.

Breaking a Heart is Okay

I don’t mean to rustle the jimmies of any Pink Rice fans here, but let’s look at the relationship between Link and Item Check attendant (Manager? Clerk?) Peatrice in terms of what it provides the players with: an opportunity to break someone’s heart and be rewarded for it.

Over the course of Skyward Sword’s narrative, Peatrice—up to this point, a relatively minor tertiary character—becomes infatuated with Link. Peatrice’s reasons for this infatuation, if she has any at all, are open to interpretation, but the point is her attitude toward Link changes from borderline passive-aggressive to excited and giddy. This change in attitude progresses as players continue playing through the game, and finally reaches the point where Peatrice is convinced she is in love with Link.

Eventually, players are given the opportunity to choose whether they want to accept Peatrice’s affection or reject it. Returning Peatrice’s feeling make her overjoyed, while rejecting them sends her into a state of despair. As the player, we are unable to have Link try and be more sensitive in talking her down from her emotional high; this is strictly a binary decision.

But no matter the player’s decision, the reward is the same. Returning Peartrice’s feelings rewards players with five Gratitude Crystals from Peatrice, while rejecting them rewards players with five Gratitude Crystals from Peatrice’s protective father, Peater.

Consider for a moment what sort of message this sends players. If we break a young woman’s heart, we are given the same reward as we would have received if we returned her affection. I do not wish to imply that Peatrice is entitled to Link’s affection, but why does this game present this scenario in such a way that both choices Link can make are morally right choices? It suggests that our actions do not matter so long as one person ends up happy.

Are we to believe this was simply a game design oversight, or should we run with wild conspiracy theories about Nintendo trying to indoctrinate players with some form of nihilism at best or moral bankruptcy at worst? Rarely in life are we presented with the godlike ability to directly control someone else’s emotions; to instantly decide whether another will collapse into a state of despair or have their hearts flutter with ecstasy is a great power indeed, but Skyward Sword gives the player this power without any notion of responsibility.

And we haven’t even touched on the subject of how this side quest opens the dark door of objectifying a very vulnerable and passive female character. Unfortunately, Skyloft provides another example of that much earlier in the game, made all the more disappointing given how this female character is not passive but remarkably strong.

Zelda is Objectified

Zelda starts Skyward Sword as the most capable character in Skyloft.

In the first hour of the game, she pushes Link over the edge of the island and then, without hesitation, risks her own life and the life of her Loftwing to save him. She demonstrates a better understanding of the Knight Academy‘s administration than her father, who is the school’s headmaster. She also protects Link from Groose, and directly confronts, chews out, and intimidates the bully twice.

Basically, Zelda starts the game carrying herself with more competency and agency than any of the bumbling students or pun-spewing teachers in the Knight Academy.

But then, once Link finishes his Loftwing flying tutorial (which is also provided by Zelda), this strong and capable protagonist turns into little more than a prize to be won in a competition between young male students. She is even introduced by one of the academy’s instructors (!) as, “the lovely Zelda!”

Not, “the wonderful Zelda!”

Not, “the magnificent Zelda!”

The adjective that instructor Owlan uses to describe one of his female students to his male students is lovely: an adjective that draws attention to Zelda’s physical appearance rather than her reputation or the fact that up to this point she has been portrayed as the smartest person on the island.

The game went from portraying Zelda as a great friend and a first-rate student into nothing more than a booth babe. A booth babe who will present a gift to whichever male student is victorious in a competition, and who was selected for this task because of her physical beauty.

Disregaurd all notions of objectifying women in video games for a moment; this change in Zelda’s portrayal is completely at odds with everything she has been established to be so far in the game. The game is suddenly telling the player that not only is it alright to judge capable people only by their physical appearance, but women like Zelda will do so with a laugh and a smile. More importantly, we as the player are told to stop thinking of Zelda as someone to look up to and learn from, and more as a goal to achieve.

Of course, all of this precedes later events in the game, where Zelda’s portrayal is at least much more dynamic than this one sequence would have us believe. Nonetheless, it makes one wonder about how both female students at the Knight Academy are treated. After all, the only other lady taking classes at the Knight Academy is Karane.

Speaking of whom, Karane is involved in another little story about the questionable messages about morality players learn in Skyloft. But this article has already gotten pretty long, so for the sake of keeping the discussion in the comments section focused, I’ll shelve that story and more for the next article of this mini-series: More Moral Bankruptcy in Skyloft, out later this week.

Until then, I’m eager to read your thoughts in the comments below!

Sorted Under: Editorials