Timeline theorists. They’re all over the place, and although I’m not particularly fond of that topic, I’ll readily admit that they are one reason why discussions surrounding Zelda keep going long after the hype around a game has died down. An increasingly popular view among timeline theorists is that there is more than one universe with a land called Hyrule. Essentially, the proponents of this theory suggest that the Hero of Time isn’t really traveling through time but is world making, creating parallel worlds of Hyrule, which then branch off and have separate histories. What’s the reason for this view’s increasing popularity? An interview with Aonuma and Miyamoto. But does the interview really support the notion that Link is world-making rather than time-traveling?
The Simple Reading
The relevant portion of the interview is as follows:
Q: Where does The Wind Walker fit into the overall Zelda series timeline?
Aonuma: You can think of this game as taking place over a hundred years after Ocarina of Time. You can tell this from the opening story, and there are references to things from Ocarina located throughout the game as well.
Miyamoto: Well, wait, which point does the hundred years start from?
Aonuma: From the end.
Miyamoto: No, I mean, as a child or as a . . .
Aonuma: Oh, right, let me elaborate on that. Ocarina of Time basically has two endings of sorts; one has Link as a child and the other has him as an adult. This game, The Wind Waker, takes place a hundred years after the adult Link defeats Ganon at the end of Ocarina.
Miyamoto: This is pretty confusing for us, too. (laughs) So be careful.
At this point, I don’t want to get into a discussion of time theories or on how feasible the multiple-timeline theory is. At the moment I’m asking one question. And that question is, “What did Aonuma and Miyamoto really say?”
And to that end, I have to say that when I first read the interview, I didn’t go, “Aha! The multiple-timeline theory is correct!” I took the simple reading-that by inference Aonuma is saying that if we start it from child-Link, it’s 107 years, and if we mark it at adult-Link, it’s 100 years. It’s all very straightforward. What he’s saying is that since they mention him as an adult, then the events of Ocarina of Time are at least considered to have happened (even though he ends up back in the childhood time). In other words, his existence (in his child-self’s future) is a reference point, even though his child-self’s future is now changed to not have the bad guy taking over. But the adult-self will remember going back in the adult-self’s past and changing the timeline which would then be the adult-self’s present. I think that means that there could still be some ripple effects, but in general, we could assume that the bad guy did not take over 100 years ago and that event not happening is the start of the current chronology. Straightfoward reading? Yes. Confusing, as Miyamoto said? Absolutely. And illogical too, but so is anything having to do with history-altering time travel.
Of course, on analysis, I could see where the multiple-timeline theorists could get their ideas. But that isn’t the straightforward reading at all. To get that idea from what they were saying, you have to have many, many assumptions in your head as you’re reading it. Don’t believe me? Look at Aonuma’s first statement. Tell me, does the word “over” modify “100 years” or “takes place” (which would mean that either that the game takes place “more than” 100 years after Ocarina of Time or that it takes place over the course of 100 years, respectively)? Based on your knowledge of the game ahead of time, you assumed that “over” meant “more than.” I daresay all of us had that assumption reading it. But there are assumptions that not everyone takes for granted. These are assumptions we bring into it based on things like our culture and our theories. To say that the interview supports the multiple-timeline theory, you have to presuppose not only specific meanings to phrases like “two endings,” but you must also presuppose a certain level of argumentation related to time travel. That is to say, only by thinking about what he said and then trying to extrapolate from there through a philosophical understanding of time travel and parallel worlds can you arrive at the idea of the multiple-timeline theory. But then that’s your theory, not his.
The Limits of Language
So the point is that the interview does not automatically justify the theory. In addition to what I’ve just said, much of what they said is rather vague. In part it’s because it’s a conversation. We tend to be not that precise and tend to say things that can be easily misconstrued when crafting sentences on the fly and in person. (I’d also get into Miyamoto’s insistence on “the hundred years,” but that’s more or less another discussion). Add to that their own self-confessed confusion on the topic (all the more reason for it to come out garbled). Now add to that the fact that this is translated from Japan into a very different language produced by a very different culture (and thus way of thinking), English!
Need an example of why we can’t take Aonuma’s words and say that they support a particular theory? Have at this quote, from the same interview!
Q: Since Link gets his green clothes in the Wind Waker intro as part of the game’s history, I’m wondering: how many Links are there? This doesn’t seem to be the Link from the last two games.
Aonuma: Well, we think that the hero of the game changes with each title in the series. A new Link arises with each story, in other words. As for how many, well, that depends on how long we keep on making Zelda games. (laughs)
As reader Drakvl noted in an e-mail, “a literal interpretation of Eiji Aonuma’s words would mean that the Link in Majora’s Mask is different from that in Ocarina of Time. (I’m not even going to begin speculation on what such an interpretation means for the Oracle games!)” After all, Aonuma said “each title,” didn’t he!?
Don’t make too much of the interview. It doesn’t justify the multiple-timeline theory in the least. Read it like it’s supposed to be read-as something they said on the fly in a conversational manner. Take Miyamoto’s advice, and “be careful.”
One last word on timeline theories. First, the game makes explicit that Link is actually traveling time and that it’s all the same Hyrule. So the multiple-timeline theorists are directly contradicting the game for the sake of trying to come up with a continuity theory. And to be blunt, alternate timelines are a hack, somewhat of a deus ex machina. Don’t get me wrong, having a consistent universe is nice, but it is not as important as having a good story and a good game. Second, once you allow history-changing time-travel, you might as well just throw out any illusions of internal consistency. Add that to the fact that the games contradict themselves as it is, and you’ve blown any chance of making an accurate timeline to smithereens (more on that later). Sorry folks, but that’s the way it is . . .