I wrote a little while ago about the storytelling of the Legend of Zelda games, flushed with excitement for the then-forthcoming latest instalment ‘Breath of the Wild’. Well, that came out five weeks ago now, and I’m still playing it. As anyone who’s glanced at a video games review site recently will know, it’s very, very good. At some point I’ll write something about the archaeology of Breath of the Wild, which I find fascinating, but for now I want to bring all this Zelda talk a bit closer to the day job and talk about writing systems.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Zelda series has always placed game mechanics and fun over world-building and internal consistency. It’s largely eschewed the reams of invented lore that populate the bookshelves of other fantasy games, and it’s certainly not the kind of series that would bother itself with Tolkien-esque invention of fictional language. But, perhaps curiously, it has been very willing to experiment with inventing writing systems, and in true Zelda style there’s little consistency from one game to the next, which means it offers us some remarkable diversity.
A Link to the Past/Link’s Awakening (1991-3)
The first Zelda game to make any real attempt at telling a story was A Link to the Past. Some of the ancient ruins that make up the game’s locations feature inscribed stone tablets that can only be deciphered once the player has obtained the Book of Mudora, a collection of ancient mythology, prophecy, law and lexicography.
Before you have the book, the inscriptions are rendered as nonsense using a very limited range of just three signs. These seem to be broadly pictographic, with some inspiration in Egyptian hieroglyphs – there’s a wavy-line water-like symbol, a possible snakeand something resembling an ankh.
With just three signs, this is clearly not a functional writing system with any logic behind it.
A few years later, A Link to the Past received a sequel on the GameBoy, which featured another invented script. This has a different sign repertoire and looks distinctly more linear, with some apparent ligatures of signs. Again, though, it seems to be indecipherable nonsense.
Ocarina of Time (1998)
That changed with the series’ first 3D entry, Ocarina of Time. The script evident throughout this game is a genuine, if simple, syllabic writing system used to write the Japanese language. It doesn’t distinguish between voiced, voiceless or palatalised consonants, or single versus geminate letters. This simplification is reminiscent of how the Linear B syllabary imperfectly represents the Greek language.
The language this script is used for is Japanese, but you can see clear influence of the Roman alphabet on some of the characters – look at the ‘e’ and ‘o’, for example. The increasing westernisation of Zelda’s writing systems is a theme we’ll be following as we go on.
The Wind Waker (2002)
2002’s The Wind Waker used an invented writing system to render the Ancient Hylian language spoken by a number of the game’s characters. It is left untranslated on the first play-through of the game, but if the player starts again after completing the game, the language will be translated.
Again, the script is syllabic and based on Japanese, although it’s a rather less simplified system that corresponds to Japanese much more closely. It does now distinguish features such as voicing and has a diacritic to mark vowel length. It also includes a small repertoire of punctuation marks.
Twilight Princess (2006)
With Twilight Princess, the Zelda series took a big westwards step in its writing system design, moving away from Japanese-based syllabaries in favour of an alphabetic system used to render English language. There is one slight quirk here: the game was released on two different consoles, with the Wii version being mirrored horizontally compared to the Gamecube release. This means that there are two variants of the script, with one being a mirror image of the other and written right-left rather than left-right. I’ll present the original Gamecube version here.
As you can see, many of the characters are clearly recognisable as elaborated versions of Roman ones, rendering the non-mirrored version relatively readable by English-speakers.
Skyward Sword (2011)
Despite being a prequel set at the very beginning of the series’ convoluted chronology, there was no attempt to return to syllabaries in Skyward Sword. Instead, the ancient Hylian script is again alphabetic, and the language it renders English. This time, however, the characters are less recognisably derived from their Roman equivalents.
Breath of the Wild (2017)
Which brings us to the present day. Breath of the Wild has a couple of writing systems. The first is used to represent Hylian, the language spoken by the majority of the world’s inhabitants and the same one represented by all the writing systems we’ve seen so far. The internet’s still catching up with this, but it’s clear that this is an alphabetic system again writing English and largely derived from the system seen in Skyward Sword. Some signs seem to have been rotated or altered, but many are the same. In general it appears closer to Roman than the previous iteration.
Again, this makes no sense in terms of the series chronology as Skyward Sword is supposedly set in the distant past and Breath of the Wild is set thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years after any other iteration in the series.
What has attracted more attention is the game’s ubiquitous second writing system, used to represent the ancient language of the Sheikah tribe that plays a significant role in its story. This appears prominently all over the ancient shrines and technology that the player features much of the game exploring. While significantly different in terms of character forms, this functions in exactly the way we’ve become used to – effectively a substitution cipher for English.
So there we have it. As an English-speaker it’s hard not to be a little disappointed at the shift from Japanese-based syllabaries to English-based alphabets, which feel just that bit less interesting. There are many good reasons why Nintendo would have done this, such as making things more easily readable to the largest possible audience as the games have become much more internationally-focused, but it does feel like it diminishes the fantastical nature a little, with Twilight Princess’s nicely-designed but obviously Roman letters being a lowpoint. That said, of course, huge numbers of the people who play these games will not be native English speakers.
But it is cool to find invented syllabaries in mass media, isn’t it?
Know of any other games, films or TV with interesting invented writing systems that I should take a look at (apart from Tolkien’s, which I obviously know about!)? Let me know in the comments!