Nothing beats a great story. A truly good story will sweep you up; immerse you in its depths so that you experience the fullness of its twists and turns. You don’t want to leave it, because the world and events that it weaves around you are so compelling that you feel the need to stay and see what’s around that next corner; to find that next revelation, that next detail that fleshes out the fiction and brings it to life.

Among Zelda fans, people often have a preoccupation with the story. Make a thread in a forum asking why people love the series, and you’ll get at least a couple fans saying that the story is the reason (I believe that this is usually a gross oversimplification which stems from people lacking understanding of their own love for the series… but I digress). But what is a “story,” exactly? What makes it good? You could have the best plot in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily make the story as a whole a worthwhile one. Conversely, an unremarkable plot does not always make a bad story.

The best stories are character-based. A story that deals with human, believable characters is the most engrossing, griping, and emotional one. As human beings, we identify with human-like characters, and the more we identify with characters, the more we are drawn into their world and lives. A character that possesses depth, motivations, growth, and a personality is truly a work of art. It is characters like these that are the building blocks of any great story, and it is the affects that events have on characters that gives them impact and importance. When a sad event happens in any story, you feel sad because you empathize with the characters that are experiencing this sadness.

The Zelda series traditionally has strong characters. Not as detailed as in many games, and you’ll never find as much sheer dialogue as in some other genres… but from a thematic and design standpoint, they are strong, simple characters. A perfect example would be Marin, from Link’s Awakening. She only has a few pages worth of dialogue throughout the entire game, but for years I have found her to have a huge depth of character and emotion. She was simple: a girl who dreamed of a world outside her small island, who sits on the beach and sings to seagulls. Into her world comes Link, a man from the outside world she dreams of. She falls in love – not with Link, but with what he represents: freedom and the wide world out beyond the confines of her life. That is it. Simple, but that simple, elegant concept is portrayed so strongly and subtly that to this day she is easily one of the best characters of the franchise. And ever since, Zelda characters have followed that mold: strong, simple, and memorable. Just look at the way people latch onto characters like Malon or the Windmill guy and remember them forever.

Twilight Princess’ cast of supporting characters is a masterpiece. I can say with confidence that (with the possible exception of Majora’s Mask) it is the best of the series. I was blown away with how good of a job the Zelda team did at bringing these characters and their interactions to life. I will even go so far as to say that the work done on the supporting cast was the highlight of this game.

The main reason for this is that they actually involved their characters in the troubles of Hyrule. Looking back over the series, it’s almost as if Hyrule is untouched by everything. In a Link to the Past, their King is dead, they’re under the rule of Agahnim, and Ganon is ready for a full-scale invasion. Yet, with almost no exceptions, everyone goes about their lives as if nothing is happening. It is the same in Ocarina of Time. Even in the future, when Hyrule is supposedly under the iron grip of Ganondorf, only Castle Town is really affected. The Gorons? They’re imprisoned and slated to be executed as an example, but once you free them they go back to life as usual. The people living in Kakariko? None of them seem to care about what’s happening in the world around them. The same detachment can be seen in the Wind Waker. Throughout the series, you never feel any real sense of involvement from the NPCs. Nobody reacts to the troubles of the world. Prior to Twilight Princess, the only real exception to this was Majora’s Mask. This is not how it should be. When a land is invaded or endangered, people should notice. Men should be taking up arms to guard their families. Merchants should be ripping people off and selling stuff at outrageous prices. The armies of Hyrule should either be destroyed or organizing some sort of resistance. Children should be kidnapped by monsters, leaving apprehensive and despairing parents left behind to try to rescue them. Hyrule as a whole, and not just a few central characters, should bleed and need a hero to rescue her. Not gratuitously, but enough that the world you play in can become a part of the story, something more than just a simple setting.

Twilight Princess is an enormous step in the right direction, one that the Zelda series has needed to take for years. The people are involved in the story. You get Rusl telling you that the forest has grown more dangerous. Monsters actually break into supposedly safe areas and kidnap children. When you return to Ordon village and sneak around as a wolf right after the children are all kidnapped, overhearing the reactions of these villagers trying to deal with the situation… it sent shivers down my spine. The whole situation is orchestrated beautifully, and the reactions of the villagers felt authentic. I absolutely loved the way that Rusl was wounded from fighting the bokoblins, and how, when he was suspicious that they were prowling the village again, he got back up and limped around with his sword, ready to defend his village once again. That is the sort of thing that breathes life into a world. It shows that, although Link may be the hero, others are affected and willing to fight for the cause as well. It gives our characters more dimension. Kakariko village is another great example; the scene when you first arrive as a wolf and see Barnes, Renado, and the Ordon children in the sanctuary was a very cool one.

I am a huge fan of involved characters, ones who are willing to put their resources to their fullest use to achieve their own goals, rather than just simply sitting back and absentmindedly letting the hero do everything. There are a variety of reasons for this. Being a hero who saves a bunch of helpless incompetents is all well and good, but a game can have so much more. If you have a bunch of other capable characters fighting the good fight, it puts the hero’s actions into perspective. It shows that you really are that hero, really are a step above even the best of what the rest of the land has to offer. Zelda games… rarely accomplish this. They tend to have a collection of NPCs who can barely tie their shoes, let alone help you save Hyrule.

The second major reason why I like involved NPCs is that they tend to be cooler, more authentic characters. Examples of involved NPCs in past Zelda games are characters like Sheik, Tetra, Darunia, Impa, Quill, Mido, Link of the Gorons, Malon, Ralph, and practically every character from Majora’s Mask. These are all characters that did their best based on what they were capable of, however little that might have been. They didn’t just stay in one spot and say the same thing over and over again whenever you talked to them. Of course, all of these characters actually played specific and relatively important roles in the main stories of their games. They’re not just random NPCs.

But that is the beauty of the NPCs of Twilight Princess; they’re not just random NPCs anymore, they’re characters in their own right. Like Majora’s Mask, actually. The developers managed to give a huge number of even minor NPCs some role in the story, even if it was only as victim. And they responded in kind; as victims, rather than just relocating to Kakariko Village and pretending nothing happened. In Ocarina of Time, the Castle Town refugees in Kakariko don’t act like anything happened; they don’t act like their home was destroyed and infested with the undead. But when all the children of Ordon village are kidnapped, not only does the entire village feel that blow, but many of the characters actively work to get the children back and prevent it from happening again. Remember Beth’s father? The lazy, no-good one who whines about his wife bossing him around at the beginning of the game, and who seems incapable of accomplishing anything? When you come back to Ordon as a wolf after the children are kidnapped, he starts summoning hawks and attacking you with them. It was a minor touch, but the way he talks when he does so shows a bit of depth and growth. Here was a minor character that was actually affected by the events of the story, whose attitude and actions reflect the changes in the world around him. The game abounds with minor details like that, at least during the first half. I was very impressed.

Not only does the home village of these children react accordingly to their loss, but when they arrive at Kakariko Village, the residents of that village respond to their arrival. They got involved, however briefly, with the events happening in their world. I’ll say it now; I wasn’t too happy with what the development team did to the atmosphere of Kakariko Village in TP. But I quickly looked past that, because its chief resident, Renado, was such a strong character.

These involved characters can be seen throughout the entire cast of Twilight Princess. Telma? She was a great NPC. She didn’t show much growth, but she had personality, heh. And she was a fighter; she sees Link as the swordsman he is, she got involved with Ilia’s memory problems, and her bar is the headquarters of a party of warriors that I loved. As I said earlier, a hero who has capable followers and admirers is more impressive than one who doesn’t, and the group that meets at Telma’s bar definitely gives Link a boost in that area. There is something about small groups of vigilante freedom fighters that attracts people. Robin Hood is a classic example. It has that whole roguish romantic hero thing going on.

So yes. The group that fights for Hyrule – Aura, Chad, and Ashei – was a nice touch to the game. The fact that Rusl turned out to be the fourth member was even better, further creating an interconnected web of characters. It showed that these NPCs are part of a wider world, rather than just remaining isolated in their corner of the game. Knowing that there were several other people fighting for the future of Hyrule, and actually moving around the world to accomplish their goals, definitely helped create that feeling of a cohesive world. I was very happy when they showed up in the final dungeon to save Link’s ass, too. Even a hero needs to be rescued very now and then, and I like it when developers remember that. It was disappointing that they didn’t show up again; that part of their involvement seemed like an obvious loose-end, something that deserved – needed – a conclusion.

I did think it was extremely cruel of Link and Midna to exclude Chad from the whole Sky Palace thing. The guy had spent his life researching it, and so had his father; the least they could have done with let him in on it. Bad Link, bad. Share the fun of seeing and doing everything with your poor little allies.

The epitomes of these involved characters are the children of Ordon Village. You all know who I’m talking about; Malo, Talo, Beth, and of course Colin. They are there from the very beginning, Links’ friends and admirers. They are also the most involved characters in the game. We get to witness the way their personality develops and gains depth through all the events that happen to them. At the very beginning of the game, they are normal children; they tease and bully, play, and look up to their hero: Link. They are simple, but strong and authentic. As stand alone characters, they are relatively boring, but when they are put together and begin to interact with each other and others, they shine. We get to see Malo and Talo picking on Colin, their excitement over Link’s new slingshot, their eagerness to beat monkeys to death… They all undergo a bit of growth after they are kidnapped. Not the usual lose-your-childhood traumatic sort of growth, but they mature a bit while retaining that childhood (Except Malo. He’s just bizarre, and awesome in a quirky sort of way.) An example of this would be the way that after Colin gets kidnapped a second time by the Moblin lord, Talo decides to do his part by standing watch up in that tower. It’s the sort of thing a kid would do, but it’s still a far cry from the way he bullied Colin at the beginning of the game.

Colin is interesting because of the way he idolizes Link. Talo looks up to Link in the sense that he thinks Link is cool, but Colin actually looks up to him on a deeper level as a person, too. One of the best parts of the kids is that they actively look up to Link; this is the first time Link really gets credit for his actions, the first time he gets any real admiration for what he does. This also helps give us a glimpse into the character of Link himself – more on that later.

Another thing I enjoyed about the kids was the way that their presence affected other characters around them. In Ordon, they are obviously the heart of the village, the hope of its future. When they are torn from their home, Ordon and its residents noticeably feel that wound. In Kakariko they made a difference, too. People act differently around children; they speak differently, they might act in a nurturing/reassuring manner. Having children around gives any writer an option to show us more sides of a person’s character. We see this with Renado and Barnes – having the children around gives us a better glimpse into Renado’s character. It’s also obvious that Barnes doesn’t know the first thing about kids – another part of his character that we wouldn’t know if the children weren’t there to reveal it. Telma taking care of Ilia and her lost memory gives us the opportunity to meet the true side of the barkeep. Children are a powerful story-telling tool, and I am glad to see the Zelda team using them.

Of course, human characters aren’t the only ones populating Hyrule. Twilight Princess has the series’ classic Gorons and Zora, and one new race: the Twili.

I’ll tackle the Gorons first. Visually, the design of these Gorons was incredible. They took the original Goron design, beefed up the race as a whole so that they were more warlike and imposing, and then gave them swirled tattoos that looked absolutely sweet. Gone are the spindly-limbed rolling rocks of prior games; the Gorons of Twilight Princess are modeled after Darunia and Darmani. The visual side of any character, their design, is extremely important in setting our view of them and their personality. The Gorons were a resounding success in that area, and their aesthetics went hand-in-hand with the general character traits that the development team gave the Goron race. They were portrayed in this game as a proud people, aware of their own strength and perhaps even a bit arrogant about it. They start the game angry and withdrawn from the Hylians of Kakariko Village, trying to sort out their own problems. You find that this is a recent development, and that the Gorons are usually a pretty open and friendly race. Once you rescue them, they return to that, and I must say, I thought it was pretty cool. In Twilight Princess, the Gorons are more than just golem creatures holed up in their own little city; they’re friends to Kakariko village, traveling entrepreneurs, and allies in your own quest. I greatly enjoyed seeing the way that the Gorons were a part of the world beyond their mountain. They show involvement in the world and the story as a whole, rather than act as an isolated piece of the game. There are many examples of this, but my favorite is the way that some of the Gorons wanted to help the people of Castle Town by helping Malo open his bargain-priced shop.

The Zora are very similar to the Gorons in many ways. They feature a sweet aesthetic look that takes the original OoT Zora design and runs with it, giving us those cool bits of Zora clothing and armor. For the Zora, getting their movements to look fishlike and slightly alien was just as important as the design itself, and I think the Zelda team nailed that, too. Sadly, I thought that the Zora race wasn’t as well done as the Gorons. With the Gorons, there is a distinct and immediately apparent racial personality, which is reinforced by the actions they take and things they say. I bet you that everyone who played through TP to the end could tell you that the Gorons are proud, strong and know it too, and that they like hot spring water. And that they have cute kids. But the Zora… there is nothing that people can really latch on to as definitive traits of a Zora. They are ultimately a flatter race than the Gorons; just kind of… there. And even that they did worse than the Gorons. I mentioned that the Gorons involve themselves with the world outside their immediate domain; they actually act as if they are part of Hyrule and have a stake in it. You can go to Castle Town and find that there are some Gorons there; selling things, talking to people, etc. But the Zora are nowhere to be seen. Even when the Zora prince is missing and the Zora should be sending out soldiers to locate him, search parties, envoys to Castle Town… there is nothing. You can talk to some of the Zora and they’ll talk about how worried they are for the prince, but you never actually see any action taken. It is possible for a group to be isolated and still feel like a cohesive part of the world, if they have reasons for it, or a history of being that way. But that is not the case here. Nobody ever mentions or talks about how Zora are reclusive and stay in their own little corner of Hyrule; there is no justification for that anywhere in the game. It’s not a terrible thing; most races in all previous Zelda games work the same way. But it is disappointing to see the development team improve one race so much, while letting the other one stew in Ocarina of Time-era isolation.

One problem that both groups suffer from and always have is that there is no individuality from person to person. Every Goron, with the exception of the named ones, looks the same. Every Zora, with the exception of even fewer important ones, looks pretty much the same. This problem is especially apparent for the Zora: only two Zora, the dead Queen and the little prince, stand out at all. None of the rest have names. None of the rest do anything. The Gorons, although not perfect, are much better in that regard. There are several Gorons that stand out from the rest, not because they look different or have names, but because they have specific roles or do specific things. There is the hot spring water merchant in Castle Town, the one that crushes through that rock barrier for you south of the Castle Town, some shopkeepers, etc. There are one or two Goron children, and they stand out by virtue of being kids. And pretty cute ones, considering they’re made of stone.

Outside of the unnamed members of both races, there are some more important members of each. The Zora, once again, failed to keep up with the times. The prince and his dead mother, although better than all the other Zora, didn’t do much for me. They were depthless. I don’t even remember their names. The Prince shows some growth at one point, but it’s pretty forced and unconvincing. Which is too bad, because I think that was a good opportunity for a great character. Ruto and her father were both more memorable than the Zora royalty of Twilight Princess… which means the Zora characters took a step backward.

The Gorons fare better. We get the four Goron elders: Gor Coron, Gor Amoto, Gor Ezibo, and Gor Liggs. None of them are hugely important or involved characters, but they have cool designs and, especially in Ezibo’s case, entertaining dialogue (“Brudda,” heh). And they’re memorable; unlike the two Zora characters, I actually remember their names. I especially liked Gor Coron, because it seemed like he exemplified everything that the Goron race was supposed to be in this game. On the other hand, the Goron chief, Dargus, was a let down. Previous experience with Goron leaders, such as Gor Coron and Darunia, lead me to expect a pretty cool guy. Dargus ended up being a dim-witted thug. It was also such a contrast to the other, intelligent Gorons that it was noticeably out of character for them to have a leader like him. On the Goron front, he was the biggest disappointment.

The Twili were utterly pathetic. I disliked their design; very ugly creatures. And if the Twili were descended from Hylians who were banished to the Twilight Realm by the Goddesses, than why look so bizarre? They certainly don’t resemble Hylians in any way. I wasn’t expecting the Twili to be as important as the Gorons or Zora, but I at least expected to be able to talk to them. No such luck. All I got to do was turn them from really hideous monsters into ugly monsters that still couldn’t talk to me. If it weren’t for the fact that Midna and Zant were Twili, then the whole race would have ended up a more colossal failure than the Zuna, from Four Swords Adventures.

There were other disappointments, too. Throughout this article, I have been talking about the way that Twilight Princess’ characters showed more involvement than the characters of previous Zelda games. The way that Nintendo managed to use the events that were happening to give added depth to even minor characters like Beth’s father. There are many examples of this, some of which I have already named, some not. This sort of thing greatly enriches the game and its characters, making it more immersive, giving us the sense that Hyrule and its people make up a living, breathing world… but it only does so for the first part of the game.

Twilight Princess suffers from one of the same problems that the Wind Waker had – it’s absolutely amazing until you reach a certain point, and then the quality suddenly drops off. In the Wind Waker, the whole game took a turn from masterpiece to average as soon as you finished visiting Hyrule Castle for the first time, and didn’t pick up again until the grand finale. Twilight Princess’ drop wasn’t nearly as drastic or damaging… but it was still disappointing to see its handling of NPCs take a turn for the worse as soon as you got the Master Sword or so. Past that point, the new areas suddenly become barren and lifeless – there is not a single person to talk to in the desert, let alone a bunch of characters to interact with. Snowpeak? Please. It’s a single linear path that leads straight to the dungeon. Aside from the two Yetis, there isn’t any character interaction there. No new characters are introduced, very few new events featuring characters you’ve already met happen, and on the supporting character front the game pretty much dies off.

The first three or four dungeons are spaced out by tons of stuff you can do with different characters, locales, and smaller quests. You have events like escorting Telma’s wagon, you get to see Renado and Barnes deal with the children at Kakariko Village, you rescue Colin from the Moblin lord, you free the Zora from the ice; the list goes on and on. All of this shows us other characters being involved in the game world… and it all stops after the Master Sword. You still get a little bit here and there, mostly during the sequence where you finally restore Ilia’s memory, but compared to the first half of the game it is miniscule. Which is really too bad.

On top of the poor pacing during the second half of the game, there were character-related problems elsewhere. As I said, Twilight Princess’ supporting cast is brilliant… what there is of it. Sadly, I found a distinct lack of interesting people in places like Kakariko Village and Hyrule Castle Town, despite the fact that cities and towns should have the greatest concentration of NPCs. Traditionally, Zelda games have always featured their strongest groups of minor characters in the villages. AoL’s characters were all in villages. Kakariko Village in LttP was the foundation that the series has built on ever since. OoT took that even further, and Hyrule Castle Town and Kakariko Village were packed with interesting people, nooks and crannies, minigames, shops, and buildings we could go into. We all remember the Skulltula house, Dampè the Gravekeeper, the Windmill guy, the woman and her dog Richard, the wounded soldier… the list goes on and on. The Wind Waker one-upped even that, in many areas; I never ran out of things to do and people to interact with in Windfall Island. The Minish Cap’s central town was simply amazing. And Majora’s Mask? Clock Town was the greatest town in any video game, period. A masterpiece. I certainly never expected Twilight Princess’ towns to compare to Clock Town, but I at least expected them to equal Windfall Island. What a surprise these developers had in store for me!

Kakariko Village was desolate. Empty. Devoid of life. There were a grand total of three characters living there. This is partially masked by the Gorons and Ordon children who are temporarily occupying the space, but they fail to truly hide the emptiness of this Kakariko. When you first arrive you overhear Barnes talking about how a woman is killed by the Twilight monsters, and how a bunch of the other villagers rush forward to try to save her – too late, of course. There’s a partial explanation right there; that the Twilight monsters killed off most of the population. But that doesn’t cut it. If that’s what happened, then why are there not more signs of it, more mention of the catastrophe that has befallen the town? Why don’t the surviving characters offer us some show of grief?

If Nintendo had depicted it as a small outpost, then it wouldn’t matter. But it is clearly depicted as a village, complete with multiple buildings, Barnes talking of other inhabitants, mention elsewhere in the world, a “village shaman,” a sanctuary with an ancient statue in the basement, and a graveyard that suggests a long history.

At least Kakariko Village had Renado and the Ordon children to tide us over and mask its emptiness. Hyrule Market had no such luck. It would be a mistake to call it empty, or desolate; it was actually teeming with more people than any village or town in Zelda history. But there is a catch: you can only talk to a small fraction of them. No, the Market was not empty, but it was soulless. Where are the interesting NPCs in every corner? The minigames? The sense of bustle… but with characters I can interact with? Where are my sidequests involving gossiping mothers, or the Elvis impersonator, or an awesome pictograph guy? Why am I stuck with only two alleys and a few buildings to go into? Hyrule Market is designed and presented to us as if it is a large town, but it is really the narrowest, smallest, emptiest town the series has ever had. Even the residents of LttP’s Kakariko were more memorable and enjoyable than this town’s selection.

And then there is the lack of public awareness in the town. Remember when you first meet Zelda in Twilight Princess, and there is a flashback to the invasion of Hyrule Castle? We see Zelda with her knights arrayed before her, ready to fight for the future of Hyrule. Then Zant and his monsters come in, crush the resistance, and force Zelda to surrender. Here, at last, was a sight of the Knights of Hyrule fighting or their Princess and their Kingdom. Here is our first glimpse of a Hyrule that is at war.

We never see that again. Throughout the game, as I traveled through the different areas and saw all the different denizens of Hyrule, I noticed that nobody seemed to remember that there was actually an invasion of Hyrule Castle, before the land was covered in Twilight. It didn’t bother me, because these people were either isolated and not really the sort of characters who would be concerned, or they had problems of their own. But the people of Hyrule Market lacked that excuse. Zant must have fought his way through Hyrule Market to reach the castle. Judging from the flashback, the Knights of Hyrule would have put up a fight at every step, before finally being forced back to their innermost sanctum. But where are the signs? Where is the talk? The NPCs in the market fall back to the old problems of being completely oblivious to the dangers that are befalling their kingdom. Not only is there no apparent memory of any attack amongst the populace, but even the soldiers that guard the Town act as if nothing has happened.

The pinnacle of this obliviousness comes a bit later, when Hyrule Castle is encased in Zant’s twilight barrier. You can see this barrier from miles off; it’s visible from almost anywhere in Hyrule field, in Zora’s Domain, on Death Mountain… and in Hyrule Market. But there is no mention of it. The people of the market are completely unaware of the fact that there is a barrier a mile high around the castle that overlooks their town. The castle that should be the center of their town, and a source of pride for them. There are exactly three people that notice, as far as I am aware. Two of them are the guards at the castle gates… and their reactions are hardly authentic, just puzzlement and the vague idea that they should keep it a secret. The third is a Goron, who expresses a bit of worry; a Goron who doesn’t even live in the town, and is just there to sell some things.

You almost wonder whether such absent-minded buffoons deserve to be saved from Zant and Ganon.

Twilight Princess had flaws on the character side of things. It had some flat characters, it had a disappointing town, some oblivious NPCs, and the later stages of its quest were less eventful than the first. And when characters become less believable, the player’s ability to stay immersed in a game or story is lessened. Such flaws certainly damage the game… but not enough to dim the brilliance of the Ordonians, or the Gorons, or characters like the children. Next to it’s successes, Twilight Princess’ character flaws fade to background complaints, mere annoyances that, although a bit irritating, can be brushed aside as inconsequential.

Finally seeing characters give Link the respect and admiration he deserves is a wonderful thing. Seeing the four adventurers storm into Hyrule Castle to save Link is something I will remember for a long, long time. Malo-Mart? Hahahah! Telma and her winking… The heartbroken reactions of the Ordon parents when their children are kidnapped is the stuff masterpieces are made of; simple down-to-earth characters that shine with a feeling of authenticity rarely found in the world of games.

Of course, supporting characters are only half the battle, and arguably the less important half… what of the main characters? How did Zelda, Ganon, Zant, Midna, and Link himself fare in this installment? I was originally planning on tackling them in this article, but I ended up writing a hell of a lot, and I suspect that those main characters are going to get several more pages out of me. I’ll deal with them later.

For now… Twilight Princess, I am proud to see you join the ranks of the Zelda series.


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This retro article was originally posted February 5th, 2007.
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