“We are all kidnappers of ideas.” Thus spake the great African art historian and archaeologist, Dr. Ekpo Eyo, in one of my classes last semester at the university. And as the wise King Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Time and time again, humans develop “new” creations simply by borrowing from the ideas of others. Sometimes, however, two things might have something in common purely out of coincidence. After all, even if we do not borrow ideas from each other, we borrow ideas from common sources like history and nature or even a common psychology. I will not be addressing the recent accusations of a certain Zelda fan site, even though the topic is ironically relevant to those accusations. Instead I wish to talk about how we can tell where Nintendo got its ideas for the Legend of Zelda. I am writing this because I have seen too many fans jump to conclusions as to where the art, puzzles, characters, or story elements came from originally. I felt that I needed to write a word of caution.
Picasso meets Zelda
So, the main question is this: how can we tell if something is influenced by a certain something else, or if the two things in question are simply coincidentally alike? It is actually surprisingly difficult to answer that question, even if the answer might seem obvious at first glance. To see exactly what I mean, let’s take a quick look at the world of academia. Pablo Picasso is widely credited with being a major factor in the development of modern art. One of his more famous paintings is the 1907 piece called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The curious thing about the work is that the faces of some of the women in the painting look quite different from what you would expect in European art. According to records, Picasso visited a museum that displayed African art before he completed the painting, and an examination of some of the artifacts in that museum reveals a striking resemblance between some of the African masks and the faces of the women in the painting. Picasso denied that his faces were influenced by African art. However, scholars later found that Picasso actually collected African art in his home, adding to the evidence that he was most certainly influenced by African works, even if subconsciously. Scholars now agree that the African masks influenced Picasso, despite the artist’s denials.
What does Picasso have to do with Zelda? Picasso said that the resemblance between the faces and the masks was pure coincidence. The scholars say that it was not coincidence. Despite Picasso’s denials, we seem to have a clear cut case of what influenced what, but in other cases the answer is not so clear. There are other pieces of modern art that seem to be very directly related to African works of art, and yet scholars agree that the resemblance is simply coincidence. Determining exactly why two things are alike can turn into quite the confusing mire. Such is the case with the Legend of Zelda. To use an example, let us turn to Majora’s Mask.
Case Study: Real Transformation Masks
In Majora’s Mask, the transformation masks enabled Link to become someone else. If we look at African masks again, we will see that some of the cultures in Africa believe in a kind of transformation mask. These cultures have no visible government but are ruled instead by a kind of “club.” The members in the club are allowed to wear certain masks that represent spirits or dead ancestors. When the people wear the mask, no matter who they are in real life, they are believed to transform into the thing the mask is representing. As a result, everyone they encounter is supposed to act as if the wearer is really the spirit or the ancestor, for the mask grants the wearer great authority in their society. Clearly we have a kind of parallel between the beliefs of certain African cultures and a major component of the gameplay in Majora’s Mask. However, does that mean that Nintendo borrowed its ideas of transformation masks from those African cultures? It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that just because the two ideas are strikingly similar, Nintendo really did borrow from the religious ideas of those cultures. A closer examination reveals that it is not so likely. Nintendo probably simply realized that it would be fun to play as a race such as a Goron or a Zora. Naturally they needed to explain just how this could be done, and their solution was to use transformation masks. It probably had nothing to do with the masks of those African cultures, especially given how relatively obscure that information is.