A Futile Exercise in Establishing Timelines as Pointless
There is a legend that has been whispered on the wind for a generation. It is about a boy and a cave. Some myth-speakers tell of monsters and a princess in peril; of great fire dragons, of folk who live as fish, of dungeons and thieves and swords and magic. There are a thousand fine details drawn out through the telling and, importantly, through the expectations of the listeners, but when you boil it down it’s about a boy and a cave.
So said Shigeru Miyamoto. The inspiration for the franchise was Miyamoto’s experience poking about caves as a boy. Not often do we have the motive of a Prime Mover so clearly stated. And that’s not just a fanboy embellishment; Miyamoto is god.
Well, perhaps that is going a little overboard. But it’s par for the course as far as what I’ve seen of Zelda fandom. We’re largely a timid bunch, but the various hot-heads ready to theorize every little detail of each game looking for some hint about the Master Plan (sword sold separately) give us an edge. Even those with passing interest in Zelda know about it – the Timeline unites and divides us, acts as a beacon for the true devotee. Much speculation is dedicated to figuring out just which game fits where.
Our very own ZU has its official theory; The Legends of Zelda and the now defunct Zelda Elements each chime in. Boards frequented by Nintendo of America employees even devote time and space to discussion. The real grassroots action takes place on the various forums associated with each site, where chronology and narrative are a constant source of debate.
It’s really all quite pointless.
In examining the history of the series along with selected statements, Miyamoto shows not to be some great and confident deity creating a solid world; he is, in fact, just a man making games, now stuck with his off-hand lies of the past and forced into finding unity where there is none. If there is ever to be an official Timeline, it will be the handiwork of the Zelda community, not some final revelation.
In an interview with Gamepro doing the press rounds for the impending release of The Wind Waker, Eiji Aonuma (who should be considered the Messiah of this Trinity, the holy ghost being that swelda we each feel in our hearts), and Miyamoto got into a little argument.
Q: Where does The Wind Waker 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.
Be careful indeed. Good advice, as the nascent Zelda community hungrily searches for meaning. The Legends of Zelda website blames this oft quoted interview with opening the debate beyond just the proper order of the games. Aonuma alludes to the enticing possibility that there are two time-lines; the world Link left after defeating Ganon remained, and his trip back to childhood created a new reality. From this second time-line he tumbles into Terminia to get his horse, while some-when the world left ruined by Ganon rebuilds itself, spends a hundred years (or hundreds of years, you never know, and this small point of pluralization has led to many a row) speaking of the hero who once saved them.
From the Holy Trailer, I have a sneaking suspicion that Zelda GC, if Aonuma and Miyamoto hold to the potential of what they’ve said, might just be the further adventures of a familiar hero in a world where Ganon once reigned. It would give them an opportunity to distance themselves from The Wind Waker which, despite being a widely renowned game, suffers the stigma of it’s graphics to this day. The Wind Waker was Zelda, but didn’t really look it – not as fans had come to expect after the fantasy-realism of the two N64 offerings. The game in appearance was perfect for me, a refinement of all the dreams Miyamoto still has about being an adventuring boy. This new game seems to be leaning back towards Ocarina of Time in style, so why not in story? We’ll see – and I expect Timeline enthusiasts to watch carefully what Aonuma and Miyamoto say.
Regardless of where The Wind Waker fits, it’s set at least hundred years into the future – a goodly distance, and a telling one. All previous games in the series circle inconsistently around each other, but never at a set date. A hundred years is significant – it suggests the Prime Movers of this affair are taking a step towards definition. Why now?
The Zelda community we have today is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the big Zelda sites, such as Ganon’s Tower and Zelda Legends, went online 1998-99. In November of 1998, Ocarina of Time debuted to much acclaim and has remained touted as one of the greatest games of all time, untouched by further advances in gaming technology. OoT can be seen as the definitive point in Zelda fandom, and the ensuing community – though there are many of us who’ve played the games since the original NES, we didn’t really rally around the Legend of Zelda until OoT. The seeds of the collective were certainly planted with A Link to the Past, bringing the franchise to a critical point in direction and tone, but it was with the perfection of these principals in OoT that a large group of otherwise diverse people decided to express their affinity by fattening and dissecting the loose myths laid out. Backward reflection started in an attempt to knit it all together in a neat package, and a rush of Zelda societies began building on the internet.
Less than two years later, a short time in game development, Nintendo surprised fans with Majora’s Mask – a new game under the direction of Zelda underling Aonuma. The infallible OoT was Miyamoto’s baby, and now he had passed the task off to someone who showed a lot of promise. Fan reaction was mixed, but it was generally agreed that it was a worthy, if flawed, successor. It certainly fanned the flames that had been burning since OoT’s release – here was another piece of the puzzle to this world that has enchanted millions.
In 1999, your once-solitary Zelda fan became a member of a visible community through the dozens of sites cropping up on the net. Miyamoto and the game’s developers, buoyed by the success of OoT, rush out a sequel – which, if you notice, followed the history of the games so far in being a quest outside the primary mythology. In a 2003 interview with Superplay Miyamoto states: “We actually see A Link to the Past as the real sequel to Legend of Zelda. Zelda II was more of a side story about what happened to Link after the events in Legend of Zelda.” Zelda games can be divided into two categories: real Zelda games and superfluous ones (in terms of story).
Zelda II didn’t sell as well as the first – complaints came the old fashioned way, through letters and embarrassing confrontations at gaming conferences. The creators decided to take the series back to its roots, back to the story. They took the essential elements posited in the first game, and made the whole thing bigger to great financial and critical success. But it wasn’t until after OoT that the consequences started coming ripe.
Aonuma and Miyamoto have always seemed… a little embarrassed when confronted with continuity issues. In the same Superplay interview, Miyamoto admits the cohesion of the storyline is not forefront in the minds of the game developers: “For every Zelda game we tell a new story, but we actually have an enormous document that explains how the game relates to the others, and bind them together. But to be honest, they are not that important to us. We care more about developing the game system… give the player new challenges for every chapter that is born.”
This from an interview in 2003, well after the fever had hit the fans. I’m not doubting that such a source document of inspiration exists, but Miyamoto admits to deviating from it willfully when the opportunity presents itself. Similar sentiment is expressed by Aonuma in a 2004 interview with Game Informer: “We didn’t necessarily feel there was a need to have an infinitive connection between everything, because it was this idea that Link is the hero no matter what.” Both creators are distancing themselves from this idea of unity – what does it matter when the game is the most important thing? The positioning of The Wind Waker a hundred years after the fact of the last game can be viewed as an act of rebellion against enthused, devoted fans; a chance for the series to start anew, free from the loose threads of its past. It also shows the two developers aware of what they’ve caused, and sets the whole project of The Wind Waker in a new light. This was not just the next game in a successful series. However flawed you may think it is, this latest Zelda was a treaty offered to fans. A hundred years (or, again, hundreds, the debate of which itself shows the unrelenting avarice of fans in their quest for story), and a new beginning – they flooded the world! How big of a sign do you want?
The storyline is peppered with allusions to happenings in the history of Hyrule because those details are what make each game seem so real. Fans read into the games so deeply because they inspire further thought and discussion – we want to know this world, and all it’s ins and outs. Every side-quest, every mention of past and future elaborate the world just enough to give it this illusion of completeness, and as fans we’re caught wanting more. We, because we are so enamoured with the half-formed mythology, insist there be ties between everything past and present. To us, Shiggy is god and Hyrule his Eden.
The history of the games’ development indicate that each one, while not being an island, attempts to be different things – responds to the need for freshness and change and is ultimately just a game to be played, not a story to be read. Aonuma, upon being appointed as producer for the Zelda series, admits: “To me storyline is important, and as producer, I am going to be going through, and trying to bring all of these stories together, and kind of make them a little bit more clear. Unfortunately, we just haven’t done that yet.” He hopes to bring unity to the series because the fans demand it – but, and here’s something you must understand, it is an process which must be done retroactively and has not yet begun. This is the definitive point in discussions about the Timeline – until Zelda fandom started to really collude into a community, the games’ creators saw no need to be certain in their legend-making. A loose association between the games was sufficient. There is a direct correlation between the development of the Zelda community and the creators’ addressing this concern of time-line and story.
There is no Timeline. Until the fans started begging for it, there never needed to be.
I think the Zelda games function best as the episodic wanderings of a hero. Until The Wind Waker, in which a date in relation to the rest of the games was stated, each game functioned as a re-imagining of the basic concept – a boy and a cave. Aonuma’s suggestion that there are now possibly two time-lines is further evidence of the developers looking for an easy out that will both please fans and let they themselves wander far and free in their ingenuity.
The Super Mario franchise doesn’t get saddled with this burden. Each game begins with a “Once Upon a Time” mentality, free from the trappings of its predecessors and successors. Because the nature of a Mario game is vastly different that a Zelda game, this is to be expected. Mario is fun, but contained – an eternal present. Every Zelda needs to mention some sort of history, because a history contributes to the severity of the current situation, the consequence of inaction – it makes the world more real, and that much more valuable. All in-game references to the past serve this function, and are primarily concerned with developing the story as an element of involving game play.
Timeline theorizing is just fan fiction that yearns to be important. It aspires to be legitimate, sure and expertly figured into the annals of Zelda lore, both meta and micro. But there is no there, there.
Aonuma is certainly clever enough to make sense of the whole thing (and as the series’ Messiah he sort of has an obligation to), but even if he ever does we need to remember one thing – a true Timeline is not something that ever existed, and it is only because of fan demand that it should come into being. They’ve tried with The Wind Waker and failed – the fans they wished to quiet only grew louder and more indigent. I bet they’ll try again with Zelda GC. Now that they’ve mentioned the two possible Timelines, they’ve given themselves enough room to get it right.
This will, of course, stop no one from theorizing – it’s part of the fun, part of the way we keep connected to the games in the long wait between them. But any statement of This is How Things Are should be responsibly tempered to This is How I’d Like Things To Be.
*Note: Some sharp readers might notice that I’ve left out discussion of Hyrulian Adventure from Four Swords Adventures. This is in part because I haven’t played it yet (I’m a sad sack, and I know it), but because I know it’s positioned to take place directly after the GameBoy offering, it again goes to prove the point – they’re fitting things together as best they can now, but there is no pre-existing puzzle to be solved.