Interview:Iwata Asks: Skyward Sword (Volume Two: The Dense Forest)

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Iwata Asks: Skyward Sword (Volume Two: The Dense Forest)


October 25, 2011




President Iwata sits down with Skyward Sword director Fujibayashi and other staff responsible for the first section of the game.



Making the First Field

Iwata: Thank you for your time today.
Everyone: It's our pleasure.
Iwata: This is our second session of "Iwata Asks" covering The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I've gathered you all here to talk about the theme "The Dense Forest." Please say what you worked on and introduce yourself. Fujibayashi-san was in the previous session, so let's start with Asuke-san.
Asuke: Okay. I'm Asuke from the Entertainment Analysis & Development Division (EAD). I was in charge of the area called the Sealed Grounds, the land that Link falls to at the beginning from the floating island named Skyloft. It's an area that serves as a kind of connection point before you reach the game fields and dungeons. It's an incredibly important place in the story.
Iwata: Its name—the Sealed Grounds—suggests there's something significant about it.
Asuke: Yes. (laughs) A super huge boss appears there. I was in charge of the area where you fight it.
Hiramuki: I'm Hiramuki, also from EAD. The first game I worked on at Nintendo was Pikmin. After that, I worked on the fields of Pikmin for a long time, but then I became involved with The Legend of Zelda with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS system.
Iwata: Then you started working together with Fujibayashi-san.
Hiramuki: Yes. As a planner, I worked with him from the beginning of the project to the end. I worked on the Sealed Grounds area that Asuke-san worked on, as well as the very first game field, called Faron Woods, and the dungeon called Skyloft Shrine.
Ito: I'm Ito from EAD. I was in charge of the overall special effects. Since joining the company, I have worked on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, so this game was my fourth Legend of Zelda title.
Iwata: We can always leave the special effects for The Legend of Zelda games to you.
Ito: Yes.
Iwata: To start off, this Legend of Zelda game is structured so as to provide the enjoyment of playing in familiar places. So rather than making a bunch of new game fields—as in games past—you come and go through the same ones. First, I would like you to talk about why you decided to make it like that.
Fujibayashi: All right. First of all, the producer, Aonuma-san, said, "Let's make this Legend of Zelda game compact."
Iwata: Miyamoto-san has always said that to Aonuma-san—and this time Aonuma-san said it to you! (laughs) If you make a bunch of new fields, and just stretch it out, it just gets big and can be a bit of a drag.
Fujibayashi: That's right. I thought we could discover a new pleasure if, instead of just stretching it out, we made fields with height and depth, so that every time you went to one, you would experience a fresh surprise and discover new enjoyment.
Iwata: In other words, compact doesn't literally mean small and cramped game fields, but denser ones, while still compact.
Fujibayashi: Exactly.
Iwata: So Hiramuki-san planned the first game field and dungeon, but you were the one who asked him to?
Fujibayashi: Yes. The forest that is the first game field is a really important place, so I asked Hiramuki-san as someone who would give it detailed attention.
Iwata: You worked together with Hiramuki-san on The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, so you're old partners.
Fujibayashi: Yes.
Iwata: Hiramuki-san, what was on your mind as you made the forest?
Hiramuki: Well, the forest is the first game field you visit, so I thought the most important thing was helping players get into the world of The Legend of Zelda naturally.
Iwata: The first game field is incredibly important. If it makes a bad impression, players won't go any further.
Hiramuki: That's right. So I decided to give the forest a bright and fun atmosphere.
Iwata: Until now in the series, most of the forests have always been dim and creepy.
Hiramuki: Yes. This time, the atmosphere is different. There are big mushrooms growing there and all kinds of animals and insects and little birds.
Fujibayashi: Some people might think that those insects and little birds are only there to liven the atmosphere, but actually you can use a bug-catching net to catch them. Miyamoto-san loves that! (laughs)
Iwata: I can imagine Miyamoto-san would like something like that. (laughs) But Link is on an adventure to save the world, so one might wonder if he really has the time for that! (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Yes. (laughs) The Bug-Catching Net is in the item selection circle along with the Bow and Bomb. It stands out—in a good way—and I think it's very characteristic of the Legend of Zelda games.
Ito: When you actually try to catch bugs with that net, you get really tense.
Asuke: Yes, yes, that's right! (laughs)
Iwata: Tense bug-catching… (laughs)
Fujibayashi: That's how realistic it is. You can experience a thrill like when you catch real cicadas or grasshoppers.
Iwata: Oh, I see. The Wii MotionPlus accessory doesn't just allow you to swing the sword however you want, but the Bug-Catching Net as well.
Fujibayashi: That's right. The direction you swing the net is very important.
Asuke: Some people might change their grip on the Wii Remote Plus controller the way you would with a bug-catching net. (laughs)
Fujibayashi: You creep up as close as you can and then swiftly catch them! (laughs)
Ito: At first, you don't have the knack for it, so you're swinging it around all over, but it isn't long before you get the hang of it. You say, "This is the perfect angle," and change your grip as you go around catching bugs.
Fujibayashi: And the way you do it has to change for each kind of bug. Sometimes you sweep down from above and sometimes you scoop them up from underneath.
Iwata: Hmm, bug-catching itself is quite deep. The way the team puts such an astounding amount of effort on things like this really is a part of the essence of Zelda.
Fujibayashi: Yes. There are all kinds of bugs, like grasshoppers and cicadas, dragonflies and butterflies, unicorn beetles and stag beetles and mantises. There are different kinds of birds, too. It hardly ever shows up, but there's a blue bird, too. When I see one, I shout, "There's the blue one!" (laughs) and get all excited and sneak up on it, and feel great when I catch it.
Iwata: Do you get anything for catching insects and birds?
Fujibayashi: I think I'll talk about that some other time.
Iwata: Sounds good! (laughs)

Making the "Not" Lost Woods

Iwata: When you made the forest that is the first game field, what did you have in mind aside from a fantastical atmosphere and having lots of creatures live there?
Hiramuki: I tried to make the landforms more three dimensional that before in the series. I designed it so that the first time you come, you can just follow the roads, but as you explore, you become able to go all sorts of places, and then you can just head straight to where you want to go. You don't just go once, but come and go many times.
Iwata: A landform with a single path isn't optimal for playing many times.
Hiramuki: That's right. With a simple landform, you can't say, "Maybe I'll go this way today," so there are places that are easy to reach and others that aren't.
Iwata: But if you make the landforms of the first game field more three-dimensional, the players might get lost. Ito-san, what did you think when you saw Hiramuki-san's landforms?
Ito: When you actually play the game, the landforms are indeed three-dimensional and complicated. But there's a feature called Dowsing. If you use that, it will tell you which way you should go next.
Fujibayashi: Link falls to land and searches for Zelda. It shows you the general direction you should go.
Iwata: Did you make Dowsing rather early on?
Fujibayashi: Yes. When making this game, we had the theme of "exploration and discovery." The first thing we thought of was something like an L-shaped wire.
Iwata: Years ago those were used when people went looking for an underground water source or a vein of ore.
Fujibayashi: That's called dowsing, and the first thing we thought was that using the Wii Remote Plus to do that would be fun. And when it comes to making The Legend of Zelda, there are several things you have to be careful of. In 3D, it's easy to get lost. If you're told to go someplace, along the way you…
Iwata: You think, "Which way was it again?" (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Exactly! (laughs) Until now, we've prepared landmarks that you could see from afar or we devised something or other to lead the players to avoid anyone getting lost, but with Dowsing, we don't have to do that. And another method to avoid people getting lost is the Beacon that works like Smoking Signals.
Iwata: You mean like setting a tree on fire to send up smoke?
Fujibayashi: You don't actually set a tree on fire! (laughs) For example, if you use Dowsing and find out which way to go, it isn't always so easy to get there.
Hiramuki: The landforms are a little three-dimensional, so even if you go straight, a wall or something may block the way.
Fujibayashi: If you call up the map, you may suspect that there's something on the other side of that wall, so you point there and a Beacon appears over the game field.
Iwata: You place your own marker where you want to go.
Fujibayashi: Yes. We call it a Beacon, but if you look toward the sky, it's actually a pillar of blue light. You can see it from far away.
Iwata: That way you can reach your destination without getting lost.
Hiramuki: That's right. By combining the Beacon and Dowsing, it isn't a Lost Woods, but rather the "Not" Lost Woods.
Iwata: I see. (laughs) The one who made that blue pillar of light was Ito-san, who worked on effects. With regard to the whole game, what did you pay attention to as you handled the effects?
Ito: Unlike before, the visuals this time are like watercolor.
Iwata: That's right. It's a new touch, so I suppose a big challenge was figuring out what kinds of effects would work well with it.
Ito: Yes. For example, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was like cel animation, so we had the effects make a similar impression. With The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, that completely changed toward greater realism. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword makes different impression from such realism, so at first I wondered what to do.
Iwata: It didn't all go smoothly from the start?
Ito: No. When you took a good look at it, the backgrounds had an atmosphere rather like watercolor, but the characters moving around there were slightly different so as to stand out. At E3 2010, we exhibited rather featureless art for the background and characters that would fit either style, while trying to avoid becoming too realistic. But later I heard from Aonuma-san that someone at NOA (Nintendo of America) had said that the effects were featureless and lacked something. So I hurled myself into fixing them. To make it look better, I would make something and toss it out, make something and toss it out. It would fit in well, but I was aiming for distinctive visuals and tried a variety of manners of expression. What's more, the sword this time…
Iwata: You can swing it any direction you want.
Ito: I experimented many times with ways to make which way you had swung the sword clearly visible. As a result, I think it turned out to be really satisfying when you swing the sword.
Iwata: The effect matches the watercolor atmosphere and makes the sword battles impressive.
Ito: Yes. I think the characters and scenery will draw the players' eyes, but I hope they will pay attention to such aspects of the game as well.

Making Huge Bosses and Stages

Iwata: Now I'd like to ask Asuke-san about the Sealed Grounds where that giant boss appears.
Asuke: Okay.
Iwata: Why does a giant boss appear there, and how did Asuke-san approach it?
Fujibayashi: Asuke-san came in partway through, so I don't think he knows how we came to make a giant boss.
Asuke: I don't.
Fujibayashi: It started with a request from Aonuma-san. When we make a game like this, I usually only give the staff a theme, concepts, and the minimum rules.
Iwata: You make the most irrational demands. (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Yes. (laughs) But Aonuma-san piles on even vaguer tasks.
Iwata: Like?
Fujibayashi: Like, "A giant enemy attacks one place and you have to do something about it."
Iwata: That's all? (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Yes. (laughs) Well, he means to start off brainstorming that way. Fighting against a giant opponent much larger than yourself feels great. As I thought over together with the staff a number of ideas about what might work, it just gradually grew, and that was when Asuke-san joined.
Iwata: Asuke-san, you had worked on New Super Mario Bros. Wii. What did you think when asked to work on that boss stage?
Asuke: Well, I've never been very good at The Legend of Zelda, and it was my first time to make a 3D game, so I felt a lot of pressure.
Fujibayashi: I thought, however, that his inexperience with 3D games would be useful. Besides, he was director of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, so I thought he would be able to make a 3D game that anyone could easily play. At that point, no one was in charge of it, so I asked Asuke-san to work on the stage with the giant boss.
Iwata: Asuke-san, at that time, how did Fujibayashi-san lay it out before you?
Asuke: He said, "There's a giant boss that tries to force its way to a destination. I want you to come up with a way of holding it back."
Iwata: Huh?
Asuke: Then, "The rest is up to you." (laughs)
Iwata: (laughs)
Asuke: But he said I could freely incorporate my own ideas as long as they were in line with Link's capabilities this time and made use of everything that had built up to that point. That's all there was in what he described, but to a planner, there could be nothing more pleasing than freely making whatever you want.
Iwata: Yes. And while you usually defeat bosses, this time you hold it back.
Asuke: That's right. I thought, I would make a real spooky and giant boss and make it so that it's really tense as the boss keeps going and you have to find some way of holding it off.
Fujibayashi: And the parameters I laid out also touched upon landforms.
Asuke: Yes, that's right. The giant boss keeps going and you have to hold it up, so it was necessary to think of a large landform to suit that.
Iwata: A giant boss appears, so the landforms to serve as the setting needed to be bigger.
Asuke: Exactly. In line with the size of that giant boss, we could have simply prepared a vast, flat space, but I thought that would be hard to play in. I wanted to make it so Link could cling to that boss when he fought it.
Iwata: A plain wouldn't be right for that.
Asuke: That's right. I thought of all kinds of landforms, but then one of the landform designers suggested using a spiral shape. We made a spiral of the large wall that's part of a landform shaped like a mortar, and the giant boss comes at you from the bottom. At the end, the boss reaches the top.
Iwata: And then?
Asuke: That's a secret. (laughs)
Iwata: Okay. (laughs)
Asuke: It's a spiral landform, so you can clearly see from the top where the giant beast is climbing. It creeps up, so it's really tense. Link climbs to the top of this spiral stage, and goes down, and tries to halt the movement of this giant boss.
Iwata: How does he move up and down?
Asuke: This time, there's an item called a Sailcloth—which is like a parachute—that he can use. When you fly down, the Sailcloth opens up.
Iwata: So even if you jump from a really high place, you don't suffer any damage when you land.
Asuke: Correct. Toward the bottom, you can attack the giant boss's legs, but its legs are all you can see!
Iwata: Because it's so big. (laughs)
Asuke: Yes. It's gigantic! (laughs) But when you climb up, there are holes here and there blowing air up. If you use those, you can ride your Sailcloth up. Then you get ahead of the boss, jump onto it, and fight.
Iwata: But when you fight a big monster, camera problems arise.
Asuke: Exactly. Link is small and the boss is insanely huge.
Iwata: I suppose you had to try a lot before you could reconcile those impressive visuals with ease in fighting.
Asuke: Yes, that's right. I thought that making a 3D game that is easy to play was astoundingly hard. It's what I struggled with the most.
Ito: About that time, I caught Asuke-san whispering, "The Legend of Zelda sure is hard…"
Asuke: That's true. It really was a struggle. However, the programmer in charge of cameras always carries around a camera or video-recorder. Catching all kinds of things on film is his hobby.
Iwata: He's a programmer with photographic sense.
Fujibayashi: Yes. That programmer has been in charge of camerawork for The Legend of Zelda for some time now.
Asuke: He did some striking camerawork for battles that would make fighting easy and cleared up my problems right away. I was incredibly lucky to work with someone like that. When they fight that boss, I hope players will enjoy that striking camerawork.
Iwata: When you defeat the last boss in a dungeon, that's usually the end, right?
Asuke: The Legend of Zelda has always been that way until now. But the last boss that appears in the Sealed Grounds—the development staff calls him the Big Boss—shows up several times.
Iwata: So when you talk about holding back the Big Boss, that's like sealing it.
Asuke: That's right. So the Big Boss's name is The Sealed One. You can seal it but never totally defeat it. Link confronts that Big Boss several times, but the way you fight changes as the story progresses. But that's…
Iwata: A secret. (laughs)
Asuke: Right! (laughs)

Playing Tag on Familiar Grounds

Iwata: The more I ask about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the more the sense of its denseness takes on meaning. Why do you think such an incredible feeling of density arose, Ito-san?
Ito: Hmm…
Iwata: Was it the large scale of production? Or the long development period?
Ito: (laughs)
Iwata: Or was that just the way you made it?
Ito: I think that feeling of density is connected to how you go to the same game field multiple times, but it feels fresh each time. In the series so far, you went to a dungeon once, and that was the end.
Iwata: That's right. No matter how big and complicated it was, if you beat the boss deep inside, you never went there a second time.
Ito: Uh-huh. But in this game, once you take down a dungeon, you may have occasion to visit it again. You may think that the second time will be easy because you've already beaten it, but there may be new challenges. In that way, you visit the same place over and over, but it's made to continue being enjoyable. What's more, there are plenty of rewards here and there, which I think gives rise to that feeling of density. For example, there's a new element of play called the Silent Realm.
Iwata: Oh, that's right. Fujibayashi-san, could you explain about the Silent Realm?
Fujibayashi: Sure. You can Dash this time, so…
Iwata: That came up in the last session as well. It's an action that arose when the A Button opened up.
Fujibayashi: That's right. You can do things like scramble up cliffs and spring across divides and hang there. Link has a lot of actions this time. We wondered if we could make some kind of new gameplay involving that Dash and came up with a game similar to tag.
Iwata: Is it ok to assume that the Silent Realm is sort of a game of tag?
Fujibayashi: Yes. So that's why you can't use items like the sword and shield there.
Iwata: Link is an unarmed hero.
Fujibayashi: That's right. The goal of this game is to collect Sacred Tears here and there around the game field. But if enemies find you, the world changes and Link has to run for his life. Link is unarmed, so he can't fight enemies. If he gets hit, that's the end.
Iwata: That is like tag. And Dash comes into play.
Fujibayashi: Yes. I wanted to make something that switched back and forth in real time between still and active, like "I won't let enemies find me," and "Now that they've found me, I won't let them catch me". Once you get a Sacred Tear, a period of safe time begins, so you think about the order you will get the Sacred Tear, or, in the worst case, you plan for when an enemy will find you and purposely leave a Sacred Tear that's easy to get. There's a strategic element. You can say the same thing with the game of tag in real life, but those that know the landscape better has an advantage.
Iwata: I see, that's why it's so important to use fields the player have been to before.
Fujibayashi: That's right. The player has already been there, so he or she thinks, "If an enemy chases me, I'll run that way," or "I can Dash up this slope."
Iwata: It's a familiar place, so it's easy to play.
Fujibayashi: That's right. And as you come and go during the course of the main adventure, some places give you a sense like "I bet something is up on that conspicuous rock shelf."
Asuke: Then when you play the Silent Realm and check that place out, you're like, "I knew it! There's a Sacred Tear here! (laughs) Then you're really happy.
Ito: And that may make you want to remember the terrain more. By playing the Silent Realm the grounds you're playing in becomes familiar. (laughs)
Iwata: Your degree of familiarity increases.
Hiramuki: That's right. And to return to the theme of density, we blurred the transition between dungeons and fields.
Iwata: How so?
Hiramuki: In the Legend of Zelda series up till now, the fields were the scene of more easygoing play, but once you went into a dungeon, you would get a new item and act strategically and solve puzzles. There was a clear division. But this time, you may get a new item in the game field and the search expands from there.
Iwata: You can even enjoy solving puzzles in the fields.
Hiramuki: That's right. I think that, too, is connected to the game's density.
Iwata: There isn't a clear borderline between fields and dungeons as in past Legend of Zelda games. Why did you try to blur the lines there?
Fujibayashi: Until now, when you went into a dungeon, for example, you learned how to use a new item. Then you were asked, "Can you solve this?" and had to solve a puzzle. In other words, a process of question-and-answer commenced. We call it the Zelda etiquette among ourselves.
Iwata: Yes.
Fujibayashi: And there are lots of new facets to the items this time, so if you pack those into a short period of time, the player ends up hustling around.
Iwata: The gameplay gets busy.
Fujibayashi: Yes. For example, if you get the Slingshot in a game field like the forest, after you learn how to use it, you go into a dungeon and use it.
Iwata: I see.
Fujibayashi: On the other hand, we paid a lot of attention to how to enter dungeons. In the original Legend of Zelda game, Link went into a dungeon with a tomp-tomp-tomp sound.
Iwata: Yes.
Fujibayashi: I really wanted to recreate that! (laughs)
Iwata: (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Of course, I couldn't recreate it exactly as on the Family Computer Disk System*, but I do think we achieved a similar effect. The staff who made that will participate in a later session of "Iwata Asks," so they can talk about that then.

(*Editor's note: In the Family Computer Disk System version of The Legend of Zelda that was available in Japan, the hardware made a distinctive mechanical sound when the system reloaded data every time Link entered a dungeon.)

Iwata: Yes. (laughs)

Enjoying a Dense Legend of Zelda Game

Iwata: Now I would like to have you talk from your respective points of view as those who made the gameworld to those who still don't understand the game very well about what kind of game The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is and what you recommend about it. Asuke-san, would you please start?
Asuke: Sure. Even someone like me who wasn't very good at Legend of Zelda games was able to easily get into the gameworld and grow accustomed to it, so it turned out to be a fun game. Before, when I heard people around me speak passionately about how the Legend of Zelda is so great, the gameplay was too difficult for me and I had trouble enjoying it. But with Skyward Sword, you can move however you want, so I naturally came to enjoy the action involved in fighting enemies and solving puzzles. Now I find myself in the same position as those who speak passionately about The Legend of Zelda.
Iwata: Did that happen because you who were no good at Legend of Zelda games worked hard at it?
Asuke: I didn't work at it so much as play like normal and suddenly reach that point. It uses Wii MotionPlus, so the game doesn't require any complicated button-pushing. That makes it easy for first-time players to understand. For that reason, you can get into the game without feeling the controls are difficult. I realized that I was improving as I continued playing. I also gradually came to enjoy solving the puzzles. Even someone who has only played Super Mario Bros. before can naturally become good at the controls and enjoy the fun of The Legend of Zelda, so I hope people will play it.
Iwata: Okay, Hiramuki-san?
Hiramuki: If Asuke-san was a Mario type of guy, I was once a Pikmin guy, but now I've worked on The Legend of Zelda longer.
Iwata: You switched from being a Pikmin guy to being a Zelda guy.
Hiramuki: Yes. (laughs) This time, we made the forest with multiple comings and goings in mind, but actually that's something we did in the Pikmin series, and the Temple of the Ocean King in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is similar.
Fujibayashi: You go into the Temple of the Ocean King multiple times. It's a dungeon you can really dive deep into the more times you visit.
Iwata: I see. So to Hiramuki-san, there's a single thread connecting Pikmin, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Hiramuki: That's right. Pikmin has 30 days and the distribution of the creatures changes each day, and they grow up. I hope people will enjoy how, as the story progresses, the forest changes in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The last time you visit, something unbelievable happens.
Iwata: Oh?
Hiramuki: But I can't say any more. (laughs)
Iwata: That's right. (laughs) Ito-san?
Ito: I think many people think of The Legend of Zelda as Medieval European-style fantasy. But robots appear in this one.
Iwata: Yes. Last time in "Iwata Asks," we talked about how rocket fists led to the birth of an ancient civilization. (laughs)
Ito: It's true. (laughs) We often ask what the essence of Zelda is, and I think one aspect of it is deep enough to hold anything appealing. It's the kind of game that you can make with conceptual freedom, so all kinds of people throw out ideas, and lots of fun ideas condense into it. The result is the density that we've been talking about. You can play this dense game intuitively with Wii MotionPlus, so I hope people will play it.
Iwata: It's dense, but you can play it comfortably.
Ito: Yes. And personally, I really like the character Fi.
Iwata: Fi is a character who goes with Link on his adventure and navigates.
Ito: That's right. We call the system Fi Captioning. For example, if you target various characters and enemies and call forth Fi, she will talk about them. And what she says is really funny. (laughs)
Iwata: Sometimes you learn things you wouldn't otherwise.
Ito: That's right. If you use it, the world opens up, so please target all kinds of things.
Iwata: All right. Fujibayashi-san is appearing multiple times, so, since I'll have another chance to ask him, I'll finish up by offering my thoughts on today.

I thought it was great how you are able to enjoy talking about what you made, even though it was an immense project, development took a long time, there were lots of alterations along the way, and there must have been times when you were confused and struggled.

And whereas I had understood to a certain degree the concept of playing the same landforms multiple times, today I gained a deeper understanding of it. I hope even more strongly now that all kinds of people will play over the same landforms and notice the game's density.

Good work, everyone.
Everyone: Thank you.