There’s a new Legend of Zelda game out next week. Those of you who don’t follow video games may wonder why that’s a big deal. The short answer is that the Zelda games are generally excellent and that, in an industry where publishers often pump out new iterations to major franchises at a rate of one or more a year, the last main Zelda game came out six years ago. I’m not going to write here about what makes the Zelda games so good – many others have done that much better than I could (this is a good account of the origins of the series, and these YouTube videos are an excellent exploration of its design choices). Instead I want to talk a bit about how the series uses time, history and myth.
First things first, for the uninitiated, what are the Zelda games? Put simply, they’re adventure games where you control Link, a green-clad young hero and Legolas-cum-Peter Pan lookalike as you explore a fantasy world, solve puzzles and conquer a number of ‘dungeons’, each of which generally represents a sort of overarching puzzle. The overall aim varies from game to game, but generally (though not always) revolves around the eponymous Princess Zelda. At its root, then, like many early video games, the Zelda format is ‘rescue the girl’. More recent games have made some efforts to give Zelda more agency, but that idea is still there in the series’ DNA: you are a hero on a quest through a land of castles, dragons and monsters to save a princess.
Obviously, then, we’re in the realm of fairy tale and heroic romances. While there’s a debt to things like Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons, the Zelda games’ stock-in-trade is bright-eyed, childlike adventure married with an occasionally surprising darkness and strangeness that feels much more like the Brothers Grimm or Studio Ghibli than, say, Game of Thrones. It’s not shy about filling its worlds with actual fairies, witches and wish-granting magical relics. The plot for Zelda 2, such as it is, is a rehash of Sleeping Beauty. Sometimes it also draws from older myth: 2002’s Wind Waker is essentially a pirate game, but its flooded world and sunken kingdom draw unapologetically from the inundations of Gilgamesh, the Bible and Atlantis.
This mythic, fairy-tale quality is reflected in the series’ storytelling. Zelda has never been a particularly story-heavy experience: the first game essentially just tells you to rescue the princess and leaves you to it. Later ones have offered more elaborate tales, but the narrative remains a secondary concern, crafted after the fact to provide context for the various game mechanics or level-designs the developers want to include. It’s telling that even now, when games routinely shower millions of pounds on flashy cinematic sequences or big-name actors to bring their characters to life, Link remains a silent, unspeaking protagonist – a deliberate cipher for the player to use as their own avatar – their Link to the game world. While other characters have had written dialogue, it’s not until this new, latest game that the series has featured fully-voiced characters, and this feels like a major departure.
Not only is story secondary in Zelda, there’s a sense in which each game in the series essentially re-tells the same story about the evil Ganon’s hunt for the wish-granting Triforce and his need for Princess Zelda in order to get it. The world or level design varies from game to game, sometimes the details are different – Link is a farmhand rather than an orphan growing up in the forest, and so on – but one of the hallmarks of the series has been that it iterates and re-tells the same core story in different ways. For a classical comparison we might think of the Odyssey, the Argonautica and the Aeneid as three different iterations on the ‘heroes go on a strange voyage’ story. This, I think, is the significance of the ‘Legend’ in the games’ titles – like myths and fairy tales they are told and retold in various ways for different times or audiences – there is no ‘definitive’ version.
But that’s not to say that each Zelda game is a remake of the one before, starting from a tabula rasa. There are clear elements of continuity between games – a pristine village in one game might reappear in ruins in a later one, or events in one iteration might be referenced as mythical backstory in another. It’s never entirely straightforward, and there are plenty of people on the internet who devote great efforts to trying to piece together a coherent timeline or history – a mug’s game, but an entertaining one (Doctor Who makes a good comparison here). There can be something wonderfully archaeological about this – and while often it’s a matter of reading too much into things, at other times the games are deliberately designed to invite such player-created histories. Just look at this broadly convincing attempt to identify the original settlement of Hyrule Castle Town from ruins present in the new game:
Or how about the decay of the temple housing the Master Sword between games:
It’s absolutely clear that each successive Zelda game does not replace the one before, and that by and large they take place in a sequence, if not always an entirely coherent one. More recent games have made explicit that it is not always the same Link and Zelda who appear each time, but that these characters recur or are reincarnated time and time again.
History in Zelda is cyclical, then. This marks it as rather unusual in video games, which are usually entirely timeless (look at something like Mario) or which hew to typical western ideas of linear time and progress. To take a couple of games in a similar fantasy-adventure genre, look at how advancing time brings changes in Chrono Trigger or Fable: later periods offer technological advances, and map relatively straightforwardly on to a period of western history. In Zelda, what technology there is is scattershot, doesn’t line up with timeline placement and doesn’t have much overall effect on the overall medieval, fairy-tale feel of the world.
Even when Zelda is explicitly and self-consciously doing an origin-story, it can’t help but undercut this by suggesting earlier iterations. 2011’s Skyward Sword, for example, sets out to be the earliest in the timeline and establishes many of the series’ staple items, concepts and iconography for the first time. An example of this is the crest of the royal house of Hyrule, which has previously been seen in a number of games going back to 1998’s Ocarina of Time. The events of Skyward Sword provide an aetiology for this crest, showing how it fuses two pre-existing religious symbols and the image of the huge birds which the people of the game ride on. The red bird often depicted on Link’s Hylian Shield is clearly meant to be derived from the red bird ridden by Link in this game. And yet, you can obtain a Hylian Shield towards the end of this game, with the iconography already present, and it’s already said to be ancient and legendary.
The cyclical nature of time in Zelda is nowhere more apparent than in 2000’s Majora’s Mask, probably the strangest and most atypical entry in the series. Taking place in a distant land/dream/parallel universe (it’s never entirely clear), and with Zelda herself present only for a brief flashback, this dark tale of time-travel and apocalypse has you living and reliving the last three days before the end of the world, cycling back to the beginning whenever time runs out. It’s a Groundhog Day-style story of trying to fix events in both the wider world and the small personal lives of the people you encounter to enable you, finally, to prevent the apocalypse. That you re-enact the same events over and over again without the game feeling repetitive or tedious is testament to its inventiveness and the detail in its off-kilter world.
Zelda’s cyclical time may be no more than a by-product of the way the game’s developers have handled storytelling, but it’s a refreshing change from the usual that both fits with the series’ drawing from legend, myth and fairy-tale and reminds us that linear concepts of time are not an absolute. There are a number of real-world cultures or religions that have – or have had in the past – cyclical conceptions of time, including Taoism and Hinduism. A number of Greek philosophical schools, including the Pythagoreans, also saw time as consisting of endlessly repeating cycles.
The new game, Breath of the Wild, is out next Friday. It’ll be interesting to think again about some of these things after playing it. Even if it doesn’t have much to add to this discussion, all the signs are that it’s a game very concerned with ideas of architectural decay, ruins being reclaimed by nature, and the fading of a past perceived as heroic. There’s a lot there which could be potentially very interesting from an archaeological standpoint as well as a geeky one, so fingers crossed it lives up to expectations and I’ll be back at some point with more to say about this series.
In the mean time, if you haven’t already played a Zelda game, do yourself a favour and pick one up. You won’t be disappointed.