In recent years, I’ve largely eschewed a vast majority of the timeline theorization debate. My tours of service when I created and staunchly defended timelines being in a certain ordering were much earlier in my Zelda “career,” so to speak. They started back in 2001 after the release of Majora’s Mask and continued through the two Oracle games. It was during those days that creating timelines was simple, and that simplicity allowed for easy access for everyone to jump into it. My passion for the Zelda series and making a complete story that interconnected the then-six games led me to create what was to be a “fan novel” for the entire series, The Book of Mudora, and that would be the fuel for my timeline enthusiasm for years to come.
But eventually both time and the known Zelda timeline changed dramatically. Wind Waker threw a curve ball into my plans to create an all-encompassing narrative that contained the games. Instead of speculating over whether there was only one or more than one Link, now people were speculating if there were one or more timelines. And a split timeline would do horrific things to a flowing narrative such as mine. I attempted to course correct and adapt by slightly editing a bit of Wind Waker’s ending to allow for Link’s shenanigans to continue, though certainly this didn’t bode well with the new generation of theorists.As people adamantly declared that I had no right to tweak and alter in such a manner, I began to fire back. Clinging to my long-held dream, I became something of a timeline nihilist. I argued, given all the inanities, idiosyncrasies, recurring characters, and contradictions, that the timeline was irrational at best and improvable at worst. I began to write articles about the major difficulties in creating any sort of timeline at all, all the while declaring in secret the right to creative license. And all the while, I kept writing. I kept dreaming.
Yet eventually the sea winds began to blow too quickly for my oars to catch up. Facing the triple threat of series prequels, interquels, and developer quotes that swayed against my own ideals, after writing 349 pages of written text, I ultimately gave up the quest. I stopped writing. I stopped theorizing.
Yet that didn’t stop the dreams I had. As I had written over the years, what had initially been a proof of concept for the Multiple Link Theory had become a bold vision of the way I thought debating timelines should have been. The world I created was an appealing one. The Zelda community became denizens of a modern-day Hyrule, centuries and millennia after the actual events of the Legend of Zelda. And the band of theorists were scholars of Ancient Hyrulian History, Ph.D.’s each writing papers and giving orations on the various stories and events about the past. And so the legends became stories both oral and written, and it was up to us to deduce just what in the world happened. It was up to us to figure out which facts were true and which were invented by overimaginative bards.
The image of that modern-day Hyrulian academy was powerful enough to keep vaguely interested in the topic of timelines. And though I stood ultimately defeated in the arena, I would occasionally enter the foray just for old time’s sake. However, my time spent not arguing and not writing had taken their toll. I honestly cannot keep the vast array of random factoids about all 16 Zelda games permanently ingrained in my head any longer. Too many quotes, too many vague connections, and not enough time or desire to memorize them all, such is the newfound complexity of the Zelda series. I suppose I became a Zelda hipster then; I was into making timelines when it was still underground.
And yet now we have what appears to be the official timeline straight from Eiji Aonuma’s hands.
Part of me is a little sad, to tell the truth. Granted, I’ve been wanting to an art book such as Hyrule Historia for ages. When I pre-ordered Tales of Symphonia for the GameCube and received a free art book to go with it, I was in love with that world from thence forward. Hyrule Historia is literally a dream come true in many ways. And I’ll admit that I’ve been dying to know the truth behind the Zelda series for such a long time. Well, let’s just say that I really didn’t know what I was wishing for entirely.
While we’re still waiting for several pages of the timeline story to be translated and revealed, the cat is out of the bag. Technically speaking, the truth is out there, and the winners and losers of the debate have been declared, if you can actually declare there to be “winners” and “losers” in this thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that anyone who actually did manage to pick the three-timelined story with the exact game ordering as it was more lucky than skilled at deducing the clues. If it’d be legitimately possible to deduce the exact nature of the Zelda timeline, given the sheer number of theorists and research capabilities the community had, there would have ultimately been a massive community consensus on it before the big reveal in Hyrule Historia.
I’ve been listening to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of late; he’s a brilliant man, and, in listening to him on YouTube one night, he spoke about the fact that scientific consensus is the primary tool scientists in the field use to advance the already far-reaching limits of physics these days. Experiments are run, and data points one way or the other. And eventually, theories are eliminated, leaving most people supporting the same conclusion.
As I hear the story, while the three-timeline theory did in fact exist, a consensus it was not. And I was a bit cynical of theorists when I’d heard that news. If timeline theorization, at its fundamental core, could not predict the future of the Zelda series, then what good is it altogether? In fact, even more so, what good is having a collection of loosely connected games over a series of perpetual one-off games such as, say, Final Fantasy anyway?
But I’ve come to realize that I believe my decision on this point was premature and rather hasty. Truth be told, I actually now take a bit of heart in that acknowledgement that we didn’t figure it out from the get go. Our collective failure to predict the nature of the Hyrulian universe isn’t egg in our faces but in fact a strong indicator that Nintendo is doing an excellent job at keeping us on our toes. Quotes from Hyrule Historia actually give me hope that there’s actually more to come. Eiji Aonuma’s letter actually is very telling when you begin to read it at its full length:
From the very beginning, Zelda games have been developed with the top priority of focusing on the game mechanics rather than the story. …Thinking of that way of developing the games, it may be correct to say that the story is an appendix to that. I even think that setting Skyward Sword as the “first story” was merely a coincidence. (Hyrule Historia 238)
Is it any wonder that the timeline wasn’t clearly deducible before now? Nintendo has been doing everything they can in order to get around what already exists to offer newer, different, more exciting experiences instead of the same, old Hyrule every game. Several years ago, a realization that struck me about the maps and geographies of the various renditions of Hyrule. Over time, it’s been apparent that geographical points have shifted with respect to each other. In one game, the Lost Woods is over here, while then it moves here in this game, and then ultimately it goes down over there.
That in and of itself was a brilliant game design choice. If veteran players, based upon their encyclopedic knowledge of Zeldas past, knew before a game started that Kakariko Village would be next to Castle Town, Death Mountain would just be beyond it, and Lake Hylia would be somewhere to the south, the game would be utterly ruined. Not only would Nintendo find it impossible to cater to both vastly experienced and completely inexperienced players, it would also remove all elements of true, wanton adventure that the series has been known to promote. The thoughts of going out into the wilderness completely alone, risking body and soul in treacherous places, and escaping from the jaws of trouble and death that make the Zelda experience compelling. To do otherwise would siphon some percentage of the fun from the game.
Because story hasn’t been a primary goal for Nintendo, it follows that, by design, the Zelda timeline could not be easily discoverable. Moreover, the Zelda timeline was not really designed with earnest intentions at all. In fact, I can even envision points when various existing titles have been moved around and swapped with one another over the course of time as new plotlines (such as the Four Swords trilogy) were in process. While Aonuma and, to a lesser extent, Miyamoto have put more emphasis on linking new Zelda titles in with older games in the series, ultimately the canonical story isn’t perfect because it’s not designed perfectly. Aonuma himself says, “While reading over ‘The History of Hyrule,’ it’s possible that some parts may look contradictory” (238). One needs to look no further than Skyward Sword‘s Mogmas to note their curious absence down the pike.
Malon exists in four distinct games—The Minish Cap, Ocarina of Time, Oracle of Seasons, and Four Swords Adventures—and looks the same in each. Malon’s existence here clearly isn’t an attempt to say Hylians can have crazy longevity or to suggest a perpetual, recurring reincarnation of every major character within Hyrule. She’s designed to evoke nostalgia and to add to the core gameplay experience. She exists as a natural contradiction, and providing long, detailed explanations for some meta-reason why she should look the same in each game isn’t necessary. Instead, Aonuma is giving us explicit permission to just write it off as some random missive inserted into the story by some grandmother because her grandchild loved horses if we choose to do so.
That in and of itself gives timeline theorization wheels with which to continue. But if those are the wheels, then this is the rocket with which to propel them:
This chronology is not limited to information that is currently confirmable. It also contains information that is unclear. The history of Hyrule is known to change with the time and person telling it and will continue to unfold. Even if none of the important points waver by much, new legends will continue to be born, and history may yet be rewritten. (Hyrule Historia 68)
For those who don’t like the timeline the way it is and for those who feel like the days of timeline theorization are over, you’ve nothing to fear. If you’re not fond of what you see, you’re still very welcome to come up with your own explanations of what came to pass and why. And the reason you can is because Nintendo is still reserving the right to change their own timeline at some point down the road once they develop themselves into a corner that forces them to make a clean break from their established history. While this three-pronged timeline appears for all intents and purposes to be official, but no means is Nintendo spoon-feeding this into everyone’s mouths and expecting them to be happy about it. Not all of the facts that we’re reading are locked down and completely non-negotiable; there’s wiggle room in the future for new ideas and revelations.
Nintendo’s outright declaring the Legend of Zelda to essentially be what the title itself declares it to be: a legend. Zelda has become a collection of tales that intermix historical events with fictional ones. Certain things we thought to be true may not be, extra-canonical details we might not have been able to guess suddenly are. I fully believe that Zelda’s creators and developers as well have shared that same dream I’ve had for the past many years, that dream of being historians in a world piecing together the various facts and personalities from times gone past. They themselves seem themselves as being historians and philosophers, archaeologists and museum owners. And they’re sharing their journey into the vast unknown with us, not so much taking us on their ride but letting us take the helm of their ship for a few hours so that we can pilot it where we will.
“Because what is being spun is the flow of history right up until the end of time, we wish for you to touch true adventure with your own hands and try to ascertain [the chronology] for yourself” (68). That’s what Zelda has been about from the very first adventure. That’s what makes Zelda unique among videogames. And that’s why, no matter how much a Zelda game may disappoint me, there’s always going to be a Hyrule for me to return to. There will always be theorization and a history of Hyrule to discover.
And we have every right and permission to let that be our own personal journey.