Hey everyone, I’ve been really quiet on the blog on the writing front for a few months, mostly because I honestly haven’t been playing that many games outside of the podcasts or the youtube channel, and certainly not spending the energy to think hard enough about them to write about them at any length. I have a half-finished Game of the Year 2014 article that’ll probably never see the light of day (spoiler: 80 Days and Donkey Kong and Jazzpunk are the best games) but otherwise? I honestly have been enjoying doing anything but pouring time into games for a while. That said, with 2015 now upon us and new games soon to be out, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Nintendo 64’s pair of Zelda titles.
It’s easy to pooh-pooh Ocarina of Time now, because its ideas have been so often stolen from that it doesn’t even feel like the novelty a 3D Zelda would be on paper, but at the time it was as much a vision of cinematic storytelling and broad expanses brought to you through muddy polygons as that other 1998 classic, Metal Gear Solid. While Snake’s adventures were wordy, technical, and full of high pastiche, Zelda focused on something much more emotional and low-key (as low key as time travel and saving the world can be, I guess), with a young boy/man and his adventures through the usual storybook land of Hyrule. It’s a game that’s been written about to death, but upon revisiting Ocarina to prep for the re-release of Majora’s Mask on the 3DS, I wanted to talk specifically about my favorite moment in Ocarina of Time, and what it represents about the Zelda franchise as a whole.
A short spell into Ocarina of Time (45-90 minutes, depending), after you complete the first Deku Tree dungeon, Link is tasked to go out into the world and find out why he’s having dreams of Princess Zelda being chased by series ne’er-do-well Ganondorf. As he crosses the bridge out of the Kokiri forest that has been his foster home for his entire life, he’s confronted by Saria, his childhood best friend and one of the Kokiri, a band of Peter Pan-esque eternal forest children. She stops him, speaking frankly to her departing friend that she knew that one day he would leave not only this community but her in particular to venture out into the world where she is restricted by magic to follow. She gives you her most treasured possession, a wooden ocarina, to remember her by. In between the game clumsily describing its baroque musical performance mechanics, both the narrative text and Saria impress upon you that this is a memento not to be taken lightly, a thing which will serve as the token of your friendship forever, and will hopefully one day bring you back to the forest and to her.
There’s a long pause in a distant establishing shot of the two in profile. Link, every bit the young boy he is in the first third of this game, backs away slowly. Even rudimentary animation is able to capture these complex emotions of hesitation and of being overwhelmed slowly turning into a very honest childlike fear. Link takes a few steps back, and then turns and runs off to Hyrule Field and the rest of the game. Saria stands there, the camera cutting to a close up of her face, as she watches Link leave, her thoughts and her one treasure with him. The scene fades to black.
You can watch footage of this scene on youtube here. It is, quite simply, my favorite emotional beat in any Zelda game to date. I think it’s something really profound for a series that had never come anywhere near such emotional content before that moment. And what does the game do with it? The scene ends. You return to controlling Link. You don’t return to Kokiri Forest for quite some time, and the moment with Saria is almost never referred to again. In fact, that ocarina she gave you as a memento? In three hours you’re going to chuck that shit into the Hyrule Castle Town moat because you find something shinier from your new young female friend Zelda. Because for Link, a player cipher on an endless journey forward, it’s not about mementos but how an item fits into the schema of your puzzle solving and exploration.
And what of Zelda? You come across her shortly after your moment with Saria, sneaking through a heavily fortified castle to meet with the Princess mostly because the game told you to. When you barge into the innermost garden where Zelda is standing, there’s a now-timeless moment where she turns and looks at you and realizes that the person she has been having visions about has come. Because you are the Chosen One, and she’s in a bit of a Narrative Pickle. You see, Zelda is also a character in an emotionally complicated place, a magical child who is otherwise seemingly not listened to, the daughter to a king who has fallen under the influence of Ganondorf, who is supposedly accruing power as the King’s adviser for his own evil purposes. She knows harm will come of it, but nobody in power will listen to her, aside from maybe her bodyguard Impa, but Impa refuses to do anything that oversteps simply safeguarding the Princess. So when Link shows up, she tasks him with helping her, which you merrily go along with because plots.
The problem? Both Saria and Zelda represent a trend where the character with actual emotional nuance and a narratively interesting situation becomes a stepping stone to drive you from one moment to the next. Link isn’t actually a character with motivations and desires. He’s just an avatar who does what he’s told as he’s shuffled from one person’s emotional anguish to another’s, doing good deeds and generally being the blandest hero possible. Never mind that it’s a male character that gets to suck up the emotional resonance of stories that are happening to the female characters who exist mostly to trail in his adventuring wake, it’s also just a matter of putting all the heavy lifting of character investment onto the side characters in order to create the blank slate. Nevermind the fact that Link doesn’t talk; he also seemingly doesn’t feel anything outside of what you the player project onto him as the game emotes past his blank face onto you fishing for a response.
It’s no surprise that people have been demanding a Zelda-led game with increasing fervor in the years since. Zelda takes on a mildly heroic role in the end moments of Ocarina, and ever since has teased at being a character with a lot of power and agency, except for when Link’s around, and she’s relegated to just his sidekick. Even in Wind Waker, the one time the franchise explicitly doesn’t make her your sidekick, it still ends with her supporting you in your efforts to take out the big bad. She exists to be the Luigi to your Mario, but unlike that duo, the power dynamics are never righted by people coming and giving us the Luigi’s Mansions and deft writing of the Mario & Luigi games to allow the space for the support role to shine. Zelda instead is eternally frustrated, just as Saria is frustrated, and the games are content to never even question whether, on that forest bridge, maybe the game should have stuck with Saria after that moment instead of following Link onto bigger and presumably better things.
This isn’t exactly high level character writing, either. Star Wars, of all things, is a perfect example of them. The hero isn’t someone who rushes off at the first whiff of destiny in order to fulfill it. Luke Skywalker is the side character to a story we were never let in on, the runt of a group of friends who all dreamed of going out and joining the romantic idea of a rebellion. The problem is, most of his friends actually went and did it, leaving Luke to mope around on a farm and daydream about the adventures he’s missing. Most of this backstory was cut from the final release, but exists in early scripts and novel treatments, and remnants remain in the final film even of this idea (the longing look at twin sunsets, the greeting old friends once he finally gets into the rebellion, etc).
I’m not holding up Star Wars as a bastion of great storytelling, but it did get something right that Zelda seems to miss. Your hero isn’t the person who goes and just does what they want, they’re the person who wants something they can’t have, who then has to make do until the world pushes them into that spotlight. Link isn’t your Luke Skywalker. Saria is. Zelda is. These are characters who, by circumstance and obligation, become frustrated non-heroes, and the sympathies of us as an audience go with them far more than they do someone who just gets to go where they please with no more hindrances than ‘did I get the hookshot yet?’ or ‘my, those Stalfos are in my way’. Why do we not play as them, after all that emotional groundwork has been laid for us to care? Why are we left with our unspeaking, unfeeling shell of a manchild, constantly undefined except for his most surface qualities? Is this actually all that Zelda as a franchise has to offer us?
The interesting thing is that Nintendo actually did bother to lay some emotional groundwork once for the character of Link, and they’ve basically never really done better since. In the sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, you start with a child Link who has already been through a full game’s worth of adventure. He’s wisened but also empty, torn away from the world in which he was a hero by paradox, left in a place where memory of his exploits no longer exists save for within him. Even his closest companion, the fairy that set him on his quest in the first game, is gone. The game opens melancholy: a child on a pony riding through an endlessly bleak forest, looking for that one point of connection.
In that ride, he is accosted in the woods by two other fairies, one light and one dark, and a strange masked figure. The figure seems to be playful at first, but quickly his mimicry turns nasty as he assaults Link and tries to make off with Link’s horse. When Link resists, the masked figure drags him on horseback through the woods, leads him on a chase, and then magicks him into the shape of one of the weakest enemies of the prior game before taking off. Quite literally, Majora’s Mask begins with Link being robbed and left for metaphorical dead, left to try to regain his human form and his horse and some sense of reparations that lead him to chase the masked figure into a new world and onto a new quest.
It’s not much, but compared to Ocarina of Time it’s a thousand times better. Link is a character that clearly wants something (Navi, his safety, acknowledgement) and he runs across a direct antagonist (the masked figure) who does him wrong (deprives him of horse, equipment, personhood, dignity) and then gives you an actual emotional desire that marries Link’s own presumed desires with that of the player (get back your stuff, become a human again, pay back the jerk who did this to you). That right there? That’s character motivation. Honest to god character motivation. And the game didn’t even have to step on the narratives of women supporting characters to give it to the hero. Imagine that? Certainly Nintendo can’t, because a decade plus of Zelda games in the intervening years have given us an array of companions (most women of some form or another) who exist to have emotions the hero cannot be bothered with. But here, in this moment, in the least beloved of the modern Zeldas? They looked at the kind of storytelling they were actually good at in Zelda, a rudimentary form of pantomime and basic emotional storytelling, and they invested in you caring about the main character. It wasn’t a huge deal, it wasn’t even hard, because storytelling on this basic form shouldn’t be hard.
You’d never know it, looking at video games today. We now live in a time when Ocarina is considered one of the greatest games ever, though its actual successes and failures rarely get critiqued in a modern context because of its sacred cow status. Majora’s Mask is the black sheep of the Zelda family, even though it contains many of the actual interesting things people always claim they want from the series. And Link trundles on, the hero of games people want to desperately invest in more than they’re able, because instead of putting a real fictional character with a life and desires in the lead they put a safe, mythical idea of a character that contains no truth to him in the lead. A hundred fan petitions pushing for Zelda as a protagonist won’t change a thing if Nintendo—and games in general—don’t bother to stop and consider that storytelling starts and stops with giving you characters you can emotionally invest in. I’m not talking about lore. I’m not talking about plot. Just simple, engaging emotional investment. Making people care. Which in games like Zelda might as well be a secret to everybody.
No, I’m not sorry I end on a dumb Zelda reference. It can’t all be depressing.