The Soul of a Zelda Game

Article By Hylian Dan

Will video games as a medium be forever relegated to the pop cultural ghetto? Or will they establish themselves alongside such revered media as film, literature, and music? Designer Chris Hecker tackled this question in a keynote address covered by Gamasutra. As I reviewed his points, they strengthened my conviction that the game industry could learn a lot through a closer examination of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series.

Chris Hecker’s Keynote

Works of film, literature, and music are often born out of events and experiences in the lives of their creators. According to Hecker, that sort of sentiment “doesn’t show up often in game development bios.” Game developers “rarely discuss what they were trying to convey or express with a particular game, outside the confines of the game’s own entertainment value” (Gamasutra).

A game like Valve’s Left 4 Dead may have terrific entertainment value, “But it’s vacuous,” says Hecker. “It’s cool, but there’s not really any ‘there’ there.” Instead of offering insight into the human condition, video games typically offer linear “theme park rides.”

“Like literature, music, film, and other forms, games offer their own intrinsic element to add to culture. For games, it’s interactivity. That uniqueness is necessary for a form to carve out its own cultural space, and it’s what will allow games to occupy such a space if the gaming community doesn’t wall it off” (Gamasutra).

According to Hecker, game designers ought to ask themselves, “What are you trying to say, and why? And are you trying to say it with interactivity? If you can answer those, you’re on the right track.”

Interactive Life Experience

What do you take away from a Zelda game? Is your experience entertaining but vacuous – a mere “theme park ride?” Or do you find something more worthwhile and fulfilling in these games?

I believe that there is indeed something deeper at work in the Zelda games. These are games that reflect upon human experience and reveal the true beauty of life – and they do this in a way unique to their medium. They express ideas and teach lessons that have been addressed before in literature and film. But Zelda games find ways to communicate such meaning through interactivity – the element through which games will be able to grow and take their place alongside film, literature, and music in our culture.

When Shigeru Miyamoto was asked what influenced him and Takashi Tezuka in creating the original Zelda, he answered, “Books, movies and our own lives. Legend of Zelda was based on my childhood” (Superplay Magazine, April 2003).

Many gamers are familiar with stories of Miyamoto’s childhood, when he would explore the forests, lakes, and caves surrounding his hometown. If, as Zelda players, we pause and reflect for a moment, we can probably imagine much of what Miyamoto felt back in those days.

I remember playing Link’s Awakening, my first Zelda game. I remember leaving my peaceful hometown of Mabe Village to explore the Mysterious Woods, where I wound up utterly lost. I ventured further and eventually made it to the other side of the forest, where I discovered a maze-like swamp filled with monstrous vegetation.

Something about that experience was pure magic – I felt such a terrific sense of wonder and awe, mixed with a nagging bit of fear that came from being far away from my home area. I know deep down that magic I was sensing came directly from Miyamoto’s childhood. He had communicated that feeling in a way that could only be done through a video game.

That is a great strength of the video game medium – the ability to communicate real-life feelings by creating interactive experiences that allow players to share in them.

We’ve all sat on a couch or in a movie theater reading or watching as Frodo enters Mount Doom and holds the One Ring over the fiery abyss. And then, he fails to let go of it. Literature and film allow us to observe Frodo’s decision without actually facing his dilemma. We read about it and watch it, maybe we understand it, but we don’t feel that same sense of obsession ourselves.

But something is very different when we reach the final stage of Link’s Awakening. The game confronts us with the possibility that the beautiful paradise of Koholint Island is nothing but a dream. At its conclusion, the game asks us to awaken from that dream world knowing that Koholint Island and all its people will vanish if we do.

Different mediums delivering a similar message.

Different media delivering a similar message. How does each influence the audience?

And as we climb Mt. Tamaranch, the one place where the dream can be ended, we find ourselves walking in Frodo’s footsteps. We are torn by the same emotions that overwhelmed the hobbit. Do we have the strength to let go of Koholint Island? It is an experience that reflects the very essence of the human condition with a power that only a video game can achieve.

The Basis for an Adventure

While working on Majora’s Mask, game system director Eiji Aonuma and supervisor Takashi Tezuka incorporated situations from their everyday lives into the game. “Development began in August, 1999… and the team rarely got to go home,” writes Jason Leung, who worked on the game’s localization. “As a result, many of the characters—like the Deku Scrubs, who are involved in a cross-country trading sequence—talk about not being able to spend time with their wives” (“Behind the Mask,” Nintendo Power Vol. 131, 60-63).

Separation from loved ones is one of the core themes of Majora’s Mask. This theme has a significant presence in the game’s script, beginning with the opening lines. But the game goes further, imbuing this theme in the interactive experience it offers. The friendly and supportive guardian fairy from Ocarina of Time is lost, replaced by a selfish and sarcastic companion who continuously derides the player. After Link’s cherished horse is stolen, the player is foiled by obstacles that would be easily overcome with the help of a steed.

This concept of separation is expressed in a particularly profound way as the player struggles to reunite the innkeeper Anju with her fiancé Kafei, who has gone missing as their wedding day approaches. Ultimately, players must wait with Anju in her lonely bedroom as the in-game clock counts down the final hours before the end of the world.

Though Kafei has promised to return, players are unable to determine his location at this time. They are only able to trust in his promise and wait as time passes by. As the end of the world approaches, players have the option of giving up and turning back time – and this alternative becomes increasingly tempting the longer it takes Kafei to arrive. It is a powerful, interactive experience that asks players to trust in a promise and believe in someone even when that person is not present.

Waiting for Kafei

A powerful gameplay sequence that asks the player to do nothing but wait.

Not long after the Japanese release of Majora’s Mask, script director Mitsuhiro Takano went on his honeymoon (Nintendo Power). In the months leading up to this, his job required him to be away from home for long amounts of time. Is the Anju and Kafei quest an expression of sympathy for his fiancée, perhaps?

“Day-to-day items and situations pop up in Majora’s Mask,” Leung writes. “Working with strangers and missing loved ones can be the basis for an adventure” (Nintendo Power).

A Series on the Right Track

The Legend of Zelda games are built from a powerful series of themes relating to the human condition. They are imbued with the day-to-day experiences of those who make the games. A soul is created and the wild theme-park ride of the game is constructed on top of this soul. Through the interactivity of the experience, players are able to glimpse the beauty of this underlying soul.

Video games as a medium have a wonderful capacity to create fantastic interactive worlds that reflect our own world in nuanced ways. Feelings, experience and insight may be passed from the creators of these worlds to the players who explore them. By cultivating this sort of communication through interactivity, video games will grow and find their true place in our culture. We have a long way to go before the medium reaches this point, but The Legend of Zelda series is here to guide it forward.

About the Author

Dan Merrill, aka Hylian Dan, attends Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, where he is majoring in electronic game design. His portfolio can be found at www.danvmerrill.com.

E-mail: hyliandan [at] zeldauniverse.net