Linearism Is Alive and Well
An Article by The Missing Link
Timeline “enthusiasts” (y’all know who you are!) may be looking at the title of this article with some amount of shock, disbelief, perhaps even disgust. The very thought is probably absurd to nearly all of you, and already you are probably dividing yourselves into two different camps. On one side, some may have already decided that I, in my many months of hiding, have somehow had my head stuck in the sand and haven’t heard about the confirmation of the Split Timeline. (I assure you that you are all dead wrong on that one.) And then, in the other corner of the ring, others would believe me to be some raving lunatic that is either delusional, mad, or simply desperately trying to hold onto the way things were years ago. (Mad? Me? Mad, you say? Hahaha! Hardly! You haven’t seen me get going yet!)
However, no matter what your knee-jerk reactions are to the title of this article, believe me when I tell you all that I am quite serious when I say that, just like bellbottom jeans, plaid pants, and ‘80s TV sitcoms, single timelines are going to be fashionable again before you know it. Sure, they’ve been mocked and critiqued and laughed at recently, but I think it’s only a matter of time before all the cool kids will be doing it.
Allow me to pause while you laugh. Go ahead, get it out. You’ll feel better in the long run.
Back? Good. Let’s keep going.
“How can I say that?” I hear you ask. Be patient, my fellow tenured professors of Ancient Hyrulian History of the Castle Town University Evaluation Board. I’m sure you’ll find my theories enlightening.
A little over three years ago, when I was the webmaster of ZeldaBlog, I began to write a few whimsical articles regarding a few more… controversial ideas regarding the timeline. A lot of the articles that I wrote were inspired by the fact that, when I used to participate in timeline discussions during that era, most of my objections, ideas, and what-ifs were usually dismissed without much thought. This was, for the most part, because they were quite unconventional and challenged the status quo of their beliefs. By and large, there was a consistent and passionate rejection of every idea that ran counter to what they, in their prior debates, had already determined to be goddess-given fact. (This is notwithstanding that there was an obsessive necessity to check everything minute detail of everything against the raw text of a foreign language that they themselves didn’t even understand. But, alas, I digress…) The result of this was that, the moment that you tried to question or show weaknesses in a few fundamental assumptions that were popular enough to have been elevated to law, you were as good as dead to them. Goodbye, sayounara, auf vidersein, au revior.
That sort of dismissal never really set well with me. Granted, it could have just been because their forum culture differed (drastically!) from the Internet corner in which I had been “raised,” but the riotous passion they expressed had practically become borderline religion, and I felt like a heretic amongst them… or at least amongst a few of them. (Some of those timeliners were quite reasonable, but they’re usually not the vocal ones, sadly.) And so, as a result, being the devious Internetian that I was (and still am!), I plotted my revenge.
I began to prove my points in a very different way… this time using their very evaluation techniques against them. What followed was an investigative series on the timeline that showed the weaknesses in their quest for absolute truth in uncovering the mysterious and elusive “one true timeline.” The articles also provided a basic set of principles that would help encourage discussion, new ideas, and… civility in timeline debates. Those who frequented ZeldaBlog in its heyday will remember these articles, but I realize that it’s been quite some time, so I want to present to you all a refresher course in TML’s Laws of Timelinedynamics.
The Zeroth Law of Timelinedynamics declares that, if indeed the canon can find the true timeline, then that timeline is illogical. I analyzed the seeming grandfather paradox found within the Song of Storms from Ocarina of Time and showed that, if one attempts to find the “one true timeline” using only a strict interpretation of canon, one eventually reaches a logical impasse. The Master Sword and the Ocarina of Time, despite how intrinsically intertwined they are within the game’s story, simply cannot work the same way if one hopes to make sense of both the windmill scene and the ending of the game. Therefore, if you hope to create a sensible timeline, you must view the canon as imperfect. Conversely, if you believe in an infallible canon, you must have an illogical timeline.
The First Law is that the canon is overconstrained, or rather, that there are too many conflicting details such that, no matter how you rearrange all the pieces, some small sliver of canon—some glaring fact—cannot possibly be fulfilled. I showed that, in the Four Swords trilogy, no matter how you place The Minish Cap with respect to Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures—certain logistical nightmares will always erupt from the wreckage. The takeaway was that the canon isn’t sacred; to arrive at a perfect timeline, you must subtract facts from the canon.
The Second Law is that the canon is simultaneously underconstrained, or rather, that there aren’t enough details to fully determine the proper placement of all the pieces of the timeline. The Imprisoning War shows this quite nicely in that, given what we know, we simply do not have enough pieces of evidence to know whether or not the Seal War backstory of A Link to the Past is represented by Ocarina of Time or not, partially since a few details between from the manual’s backstory and from the game’s prologue that don’t align perfectly with Ocarina. The realization? The canon isn’t complete; to arrive at a perfect timeline, you must add assumptions to the canon.
The Third Law is that the timeline is canon-indeterminate, or rather, that the timeline cannot be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt through the use of canon details alone. Here I looked at the ending of Ocarina of Time and mused over the then-possibilities between the Single, Split, and Multiple Timeline Theories. I realized that the “problem” with the Split and Multiple Timeline Theories is that each of their respective timelines (e.g., the child and adult timelines) are effectively self-contained; games from one timeline would not be allowed to reference in any way, shape, or form games from another one, therefore making it impossible to know if there were indeed multiple timelines using the canon alone. In short, canon isn’t enough; you need more data in order to find the magical timeline of lore.
While these laws are named after a rather unclever (and remarkably geeky!) reference to the Laws of Thermodynamics (good jokes about serious business are hard to come by, what can I say?), they are actually rather aptly named given their main purpose, which is to say that the timeline is still a dynamic structure, that is, the true nature of the “one true timeline”—a timeline that is without any illogical leaps of faith or any pesky, nuanced contradictions—is forever being evolved and molded and isn’t something that we can possibly ever know absolutely. And if we’re never going to find it, we might as well take over complete ownership of what the Zelda timeline looks like. So be free! Make the timeline look like whatever it is you want it to look like! (But of course, you still need to have a few good reasons for believing whatever it is you want to believe; otherwise, it’ll end up looking like Link from the CD-i games, mai boi.)
However, despite the fact that this practically serves as the ultimate disproof of every timeline ever, there are some that see it for a lot of fancy smoke and mirrors. (In many ways, they are surprisingly correct on this issue!) You see, it’s the fundamental nature of the timeliner to want to uncover the truth. Even I feel this need deep down. There’s something in our DNA that wants to uncover, to analyze, to extract, to connect, and to build. It this regard, we’re all engineers of a sort. Consider that some people like to take apart VCRs, see how they work, and then put them back together (hopefully once again into working order!); we’re just like that… except with the Zelda canon instead of VCRs. And so it’s not surprising that timeliners don’t like the fact that the Laws put a stopper on the goal to find the timeline. It runs counter to our DNA to not reverse engineer it. And so what did they go and do? Well, the clever ones… they went and found a workaround to the Laws.
Yes, I must admit, there has always been one sole saving grace to the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. (No, it’s not 42. You try telling people that the timeline is “42” and they’ll hang you from the rafters.) The Third Law of Timelinedynamics says that you need something outside the flawed and imperfect Zelda canon to find the timeline, and thankfully for most, there is such a thing. Which is why timeline enthusiasts have decided to fall back upon developer intent to save the timeline.
You see, on a rather semi-infrequent basis, Nintendo drags Miyamoto and Aonuma out for some interview with some game reviewing agency that actually gives a care about the whole timeline business (I still can’t figure out how “media” actually cares about such stuff, but, who am I to judge!?), and even more semi-infrequently do they actually reply with some useful tidbit about how everything is pieced together. And they make some rather vague allusions to how some game takes place “100 years” (Have you ever noticed that it’s always “100 years”? I’m getting rather suspicious about this just being a ploy to simply appease us…) after this other game, yadda yadda, stuff, and then Miyamoto and Aonuma hightail it out of there before anyone can think to hold them hostage until they finally divulge details about the next, next Zelda game that everyone is already suspecting to be in the works.
But no one seems to mind that they dodged the big question. We had the chance to have this ever so brief peek at the Golden Land! Quick everybody, to the Zelda Club tree house! (Oh wait, we’re not allowed to talk about Zelda Club!) We must scoff at those disbelievers and readjust our timelines accordingly! Oh glory be, there is science timeline to be done!
Now, I’ve had the privilege of being able to make videogames for the past three years of my life. My opinions about how games are made has changed remarkably from this experience. I’m sure you’ve all had those infuriating questions of “why did so-and-so decide to do this such-and-such stupid idea?” I now have rough ideas as to why. Those times where you ask, “Why don’t the developers communicate with us more?” I’ve felt the frustrations… except from the other side of the fence. And those press releases? Well, let’s just say I can smell PR’s involvement in something from a good 20 miles away. (I mean, anything that requires blowing into the DS’ microphone as controller input… am I right?)
And so every time I hear Miyamoto or Aonuma speak about how the games are ordered (and how Nintendo is going to make us smile), thoughts of sugarplums dance in my head. Okay, so I lie; it’s not really that, but I do begin to wonder exactly when in the grand processes that little detail was decided… and more importantly how it was all of that came about.
So while researching this article, I found a hilarious tidbit from Aonuma regarding Four Swords Adventures. In it, he mentioned, before FSA’s release, that “the GBA Four Swords Zelda is what we’re thinking as the oldest tale in the Zelda timeline…[with FSA] being a sequel to that.” However, as it turns out, that plan never really panned out, and after FSA’s release, Aonuma sheepishly admitted that, during FSA’s development, “we changed the story around quite a bit… [changing it] all the way up until the very end.”
If I had heard this three years ago, I might have been surprised; today, I’m laughing to myself because I know how true those words are. The only constant in developing a title is that it constantly changes and evolves in order to account for a significant number of factors. Is this game too similar to another game we’ve made? Too different? Is it going to stand out amongst its competitors? Is it possible to add this feature to the schedule? This isn’t working out; can we cut it? What demographic are we targeting? Is the game too simple? Too complicated? Too unbalanced? Too difficult? Is it fun from start to finish? Is the storyline compelling? Is it believable?
On and on the questions go, and here’s a shocking secret about making games: Not every issue gets resolved. There’s always a few “bugs”—whether they be program crashes, spelling mistakes, leaps of faith in storytelling, and simple violations of common sense—that either slip through the cracks or simply aren’t important enough to get taken care of in those last all-important days before the game goes gold. Games are shipped “imperfectly,” and so not only is the game never quite what you initially thought it was going to be, the game never quite ends up to be what you hoped it would become.
This is, in essence, the Developer’s Dilemma. Do you sacrifice gameplay for story? Do you sacrifice story for expanding our audience? Do you sacrifice your audience for gameplay? Sacrifices—in other words, cuts—always have to be made; where do you make them in order to make them as painless as possible? Where do you make them in order to make the game as fun as possible? And as a result of this, I’m going to remove that last pillar of the timeline hierarchy. The standard workaround for the failures of canon is about to be blown away. You ready for this? Because this one’s a doozy.
The Theory of Timeline Relativity: The developers cannot save the timeline.
Please, before you rush down to the comments section, let me tell you what this isn’t saying. I’m not saying that developers cannot possibly establish strong continuities between games. I think it’s quite clear that the Metroid series, despite being passed from developer to developer, has told a very compelling storyline over its entire series (disregarding the deus ex machina of starting over from scratch every time).
However, in the case of the Zelda timeline, we are officially up to 15 Zelda games, and the best Nintendo has been able to clarify the order of everything is to piece a measly six of them into some sort of continuity. The rest of the timeline is so scattered and so disjoint (thereby creating the need for the prior four Laws of Timelinedynamics) that Nintendo is in far too deep in order to ever fully make sense of all the small details now. If they could have saved the timeline, they would have done so already. At any point in this process, they could have already decreed by fiat precisely what the timeline actually is. (Actually, NoA tried to do this once, but that timeline was ironically met with derision and mockery.)
However, given either Nintendo’s inability or lack of desire to do so, they have all but admitted that a perfect continuity has been either cut from their grand schedule or has been put on the backburner indefinitely. (This isn’t to say that they don’t have any ideas at all about how it all works, mind, just that they probably haven’t resolved every last plot problem themselves and are just waiting for a new game that just makes those nasty bits work.)
Of course, a statement as bold as mine requires at least some validation, yes? (Otherwise, I fear that you’ll all run me out of town before I can tell you all, “Game over, suckers!”) So, let’s show some startling truths here.
So, let’s rewind the clock to 2007 to an interview with Aonuma regarding Twilight Princess’ position within the grand Zelda timeline:
Q: When does Twilight Princess take place?
A: In the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years later.
Q: And The Wind Waker?
A: The Wind Waker is parallel…. Twilight Princess takes place in the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years after the peace returned to kid Link’s time. In the last scene of Ocarina of Time, kids Link and Zelda have a little talk, and as a consequence of that talk, their relationship with Ganon takes a whole new direction….
This fits in rather nicely with what Nintendo said much earlier involving Wind Waker and thus establishes most of what we do know about the timeline to date:
Q: Where does The Wind Waker fit into the overall Zelda series timeline?
A: You can think of this game as taking place over a hundred years after Ocarina of Time…. 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.
But now, let’s look forward into the future. Nintendo’s finally given us some indication about the placement of Spirit Tracks in the timeline:
Spirit Tracks takes place 100 years after the events of Phantom Hourglass. Apparently in the land that’s now called Hyrule, the inhabitants had to deal with a vicious Demon King. In the time span between the two games there was an epic battle and the spirits of the land helped take down this evil being. Though they couldn’t kill the beast, they could muster just enough strength and energy to subdue him with chains and shackles and bury him underground. The shackles, extending the land of Hyrule in four different directions, became the Spirit Tracks, and the surrounding community used these tracks as transportation railways.
Now, from these individual quotes, you can come up with the famous six-game partial timeline. It starts with Ocarina of Time and then, along the child timeline, you have Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess. In the adult timeline, you have Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks.
Do you see a problem yet? Have you seen just what is wrong about extending this timeline to encompass all 15 games? If you haven’t, fear not. I shall reveal to you the answer using my Book of Secrets.
One Ganondorf Dragmire. Given what we now know about Spirit Tracks, provided that they don’t resurrect him in this game (which appears to be the likely case at this point!), Ganondorf is currently at the bottom of the sea… encased in a thick layer of stone… with the Master Sword jammed into his forehead. And what about Twilight Princess, the current “ending” of our other timeline? Well… to be quite honest… I honestly don’t know what happened to him at the end of the game. He’s… just… standing there, going through his death monologue, with the Master Sword jammed through his stomach… just… standing… there….
But lo and behold, Link then dashes off to stare at Midna’s sexy, new curves, so he and Zelda can’t be too worried about Ganondorf suddenly reanimating himself and wreaking havoc over Hyrule at any moment! Furthermore there’s no hint or suggestion that we’ve merely just sealed him away for “100 years” or only “mostly killed” him. As far as I can tell, no one’s concerned that this ain’t over, and that’s as good of a “the end” as we can have!
And so now, considering the other nine games, just what do you have to work with? Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, and Four Swords Adventures all involve Ganondorf somehow taking over Hyrule! However, not a single one of them reveals anything about removing the Master Sword from Ganondorf’s personage. (A few might be crafty to mention that Ganon was, in fact, resurrected in the linked Oracle game, but they resurrected Ganon, not Ganondorf. This besides, Twinrova wouldn’t have been able to pull out the Master Sword from their master’s stomach since the blade can only be held by one who is good, thank you, Ocarina of Time. This is besides the point that Zelda tells you at the end of the Oracles that “wisdom and courage were able to prevent Twinrova’s planned resurrection of Ganon” [emphasis mine]. That means canon suggests that Ganon’s officially gone (again) at the end of the game. Sorry, no dice, guys.)
Is it any reason that we haven’t solved the timeline debacle yet? You hit a roadblock the moment you leave Nintendo’s carefully crafted trail! Given that Nintendo hasn’t declared any resolution to this inherent mystery, you either have to negate that pesky detail about the Master Sword (First Law of Timelinedynamics) or add in a detail about Ganondorf being freed from the blade (Second Law of Timelinedynamics) in order to proceed. (Sure, you could probably nail me on the fact that the game is simply vague on the details of Koume’s and Kotake’s plot to revive Ganon. I’d gladly counter by saying that they were intentionally vague such as not to spoil the secret ending before the proper time, and so Nintendo is in effect throwing themselves onto the mercy of the court, indirectly supporting the Second Law.)
Furthermore, I would also place a friendly wager on the statement that this stalemate will never be resolved, even with Nintendo’s best intentions otherwise. (Though please, pretty please, don’t bother contacting me to establish any sort of bets on the issue.) While Ocarina of Time was kind enough to only seal Ganondorf away for years upon years upon the game’s denouement, it would be extremely tacky of Nintendo to start pulling this trick after every single game featuring Ganondorf from here on out. Can you imagine this!? It’d become some horrible Internet meme about how Ganondorf the Rather Unlucky can’t seem to get a break by either getting himself killed off or actually managing to succeed in his quest to have a lifestyle of the rich and famous. (No wonder he’s so emo in Wind Waker!)
If you want more, we can take a quick peek at Spirit Tracks for a moment. From what we know, Spirit Tracks is at least a good 200 and more years from Ocarina of Time’s adult ending. Now, over the course of this period of time, Hyrule had to go through many a difficult time. First, they had to completely rebuild Hyrule after Ganondorf sacked it in Ocarina (remember how Castle Town was practically ruined, not to mention the Zoras encased in ice and whatnot?). And of course, they had to completely rebuild the castle (since, naturally, it appears in Wind Waker… right alongside Ganon’s Tower). Probably not long after that, Ganondorf manages to break free from his Evil Realm prison and almost conquers Hyrule, but the goddesses smack him on the hands and “flood” Hyrule. We go through Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass above the waves, just like normal… and then, many years later, we actually establish a new Hyrule… only to be plunged into another war against the Demon King there! And then finally (FINALLY! Take a deep breath…) Hyrule gets a little bit of long-lasting peace. And yet somehow in these 200 and more years, Hyrule managed to invent steam power, y’know, to power Linebeck’s ship and the new Thomas the Tank Engine.
Yet where is steam power in Twilight Princess? Telma’s still using a horse-drawn carriage to go from town to town, and there’s no signs of railroad tracks in sight. Literally, Hyrule was at peace that entire time given that Ganondorf got sent straight to the Twilight Realm (and he didn’t even get to pass Go or collect $200 first either!), and barely anything was damaged in the meanwhile! It should have been a period of renaissance for all of Hyrule, especially considering how well Castle Town seemed to be doing in Twilight Princess, yet it seems that very little advances in technology had actually been made! (Okay, they were able to create the Linkapault that somehow managed to fire him through the air into the desert and somehow not kill him. Besides that!) The only other game to ever establish train tracks are the Oracle series, but those don’t take place in Hyrule, so they don’t count for our purposes. Thus, what do we get in the end? We get an illogical timeline (Zeroth Law of Timelinedynamics).
And how about a third one, for good humor here. Let’s compare the maps of Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time. We have it on authority that these two views of Hyrule are about 100 or more years apart from one another. Furthermore, if you use the GameCube variation of the maps, you’ll notice that Lake Hylia, Kakariko Village, the Gerudo Desert, the Lost Woods, and Death Mountain all line up fairly nicely. It’s like the two were meant to be together!
All except for… Zora’s Domain. Somehow, Zora’s Domain (which is still at the end of the river, mind) warped from being southeast of Kakariko and Castle Town to being northwest! How’d that happen? And more importantly, how’d that happen within the mere span of a few hundred years tops? That canyon needs time to carve itself… and it simply isn’t going to pick itself up and move. The But if you try to solve this from the perspective of the Developer’s Dilemma, it makes total sense. If the map of Hyrule were always the same—same orientations, same locations, same everything—it really wouldn’t feel like exploring the map anymore, would it? We’d know where everything is, and all we’d be left with is figuring out when we’re actually going to visit each place. Where’s the fun in that?
Each of these itty bitty details could have been solved, and they could have been solved fairly easily if Nintendo had been focusing on it from the get go. If only they’d cared enough to keep their timeline stuff in check, they’d have been able to create said canon—even if it was developed in an out-of-order fashion (just like the Metroid series did).
So, what can we conclude here? Well, our absolute and infallible trust in Nintendo should be completely shattered (or at least wounded!) by this point! (If it hasn’t, please make sure your heart is still beating; you might very well have died from shock along the way here!) Nintendo, despite Aonuma insisting to us that one day he’d clearly reveal the timeline to us, he’s headed up ten of the 15 Zelda games, and still we’re as utterly confused as ever. I would go so far as to say that Nintendo hasn’t even gotten better at revealing all this information to us; Aonuma talking timeline is still just as rare, cryptic, and ambiguous as when Miyamoto was talking timeline.
All we have is more of the same, and the only way that will likely change is if Aonuma passes the reins onto someone else. But even if that happens, will that someone else respect all of the timeline statements that Aonuma has established over the years? Realistically, there’s no guarantee. And let’s face it, Miyamoto isn’t going to be there forever to keep upending the tea table either.
And so, if we really can’t trust Nintendo to be the infallible source on all things timeline, realistically that means that we have explicit permission to ignore them to begin with and come up with our own theory anyway. And, if the Third Law of Timelinedynamics is any hint, that means you and I are now suddenly free to dream up our Single Timeline Theories once again. Linearism is alive and well, my friends! Or, I should at least caveat this and say it this way: Linearism is as alive and well as any other timeline out there. Though, given what you just read, if you consider the hope of one day finding the “one true timeline” to now be dead… well, “alive and well” is totally a relative term.
Now, unlike some, I’m not interested in telling timeline enthusiasts that they’re completely wasting their time by contemplating the deep natures of the timeline. I mean, I’ll be frank; I used to be one of you! And, given the fact that I’m still writing articles about this subject, I can’t say I’ve fallen all that far from the tree. (Ahem, ahem, I would hope that’s obvious by now!) However, my business is neither to find the “one true timeline,” that magical Holy Grail that will reveal all of Zeldadom to me as if Nayru herself touched my head and filled it with her blessed wisdom.
My passion in the timeline is not the pursuit of ultimate discovery but in the gradual world building of the Zelda universe. Being one that has written scores of fanfics and a writer by nature, extrapolating upon the world of Hyrule and filling in the details with my own personal touch has been what has drawn me to the concept of the timeline. My sole desire is to be able to have the creative license to play with it to my heart’s content, to do something different if it feels right enough or, better yet, just to experiment.
Instead of me dictating to you how you all should feel about Zelda games, I would ask those of you who are passionate about the timeline the question of why it is you seek the answer. Discovering what that magical timeline is surely isn’t going to tell you the direction of the next Zelda title; I think Nintendo has been quite clear that you can never ever figure out exactly what they’re going to do next. That sheer creativity has been what has drawn me to them for many years, and the creativity that they pour into each yet-to-come Zelda game will almost certainly defy the most sage timeline theorist out there. The Zelda series is so rich with details and possibilities that we will always be surprised.
Sure, I suppose being able to find “the closest timeline to what Miyamoto is envisioning right this very moment” is a worthy runner-up goal, but to what ends? If Nintendo is making it all up as they go along (which I’d also wager is quite likely), the timeline is as flexible as a rubber band, completely mutable and able to be changed at their discretion from here on out. And so long as Nintendo remains silent as to the specific contents of whatever secret timeline documents they have (which, I’d also wager a bet on, are far less detailed than some might dream about), that goal is impossible to ascertain.
Instead, I truly believe that half the fun of inventing timelines is in the building of the world of Hyrule. It’s in creating our Hyrule. It’s feeling like a scholar of ancient history and digging through the ruins of a fallen Hyrule Castle to find archæological evidence regarding the ancient civilization of the Hylians. It’s in the crazy theorization, the wild speculation, and the mad experimentation. I earnestly believe that those who care for it like I do have found this to be the case… yet some have since then abandoned this creative endeavor in order to defend their timeline as correct and declare all others as incorrect. That, I believe, to be an exercise in futility.
It isn’t about nor should it be about who is right or who is wrong. After all, only Nintendo could ever truly be right. And, if my experiences in the industry ring true, the Theory of Relativity says that Nintendo probably doesn’t have it completely right either.