Gods in the machine: The blurry line between Zelda’s magic and technology
by on March 1, 2017

When I was younger, I remember seeing the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers” where the starship crew encounters a primitive race and through an unfortunate series of events, the people mistake the highly advanced technology of the Enterprise with divine powers and ultimately begin to worship Picard, the captain of the starship as their god. The plot of this episode kept coming back to mind as I watched our own Zelda Universe dub of the Skyward Sword. Fi, despite her calling herself a creation of the goddess Hylia, constantly comes across to the player as a machine, an AI, much like Data from Star Trek or EDI from Mass Effect; she misunderstands human emotion, robotically spits out computations and numbers, and even has messages from the goddess that seem to be stored deep in her memory.

Behold the power of my technological superiority! I mean magical blessing…I mean…ARROW!

So imagine my interest when I go and see Link pull out what looks like some sort of Magitek arrow in the Breath of the Wild trailer, when he wakes up in a chemical bath, or when he fights against Guardians that look more like droids from Star Wars than the Colossi of Shadow of the Colossus. Between Skyward Sword and now Breath of the Wild, the question bears asking: Where is the line between magic and technology as far as the Zeldaverse goes?

Up until these more recent Zelda games, the world seemed infused with magic: ghosts, light beams from swords, and boots with wings that help you run really, really fast. Fairies roam the landscape, and the Triforce allows people to turn into giant pig monsters. Magic was in the air and it helped us to enjoy the mystery of the world. In more recent Zelda games, the lines between what is considered purely magical and purely technological has been blurring. With the line becoming more unclear as each new Zelda title releases, we can only wonder what kind of world the Zeldaverse really is; built up through magical blessing or technological intervention?

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

A boom by any other name smells just as acrid

Definitions of the word magic can be frustratingly simple. For example, the Oxford Living Dictionary defines it as “the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” By that wording, magic is essentially anything that we can’t explain, which seems as weighed against magic as we can get for, as soon as we can explain it, it is science and not magic. In the world of Zelda, I want to consider it a given that there are supernatural origins — the goddesses and certain things infused with power that they do not innately possess by virtue of their material aspects. As such, the masks from Majora’s Mask have powers associated with them beyond their composition. The definition of technology is typically even more abstract, but let’s impose a definition of “that which is created by ‘human’ means to affect the world.” By this, we can account for things like the Hookshot, which is constructed and is a tool which Link can use for movement. And this also covers Bombs which, naturally, go boom.

When we think of traditional magic in Zelda, what comes to mind are things like the spells from Ocarina of Time which seem to be simply the blessing of the Great Fairies that Link can call on or even the Zora Scale, which “magically” allows Link to dive deeper or better. As we journeyed throughout our Zelda adventures, we have constantly run up against these types of items and events. The original 1986 adventure has several items explicitly called magical: the Magic Sword, the Magic Shield, the Magic Boomerang, the Magic Rod, and the Book of Magic just to name a few. Link in The Adventure of Link has a magic meter which he can level up. Later games have some more explicitly enjoyable magic: The Oracle games possess a rod that can change the seasons and a harp that can warp through time. The N64 generation of games has plenty of magical melodies, for what isn’t magical about being able to summon your beloved horse from anywhere with a delightful little ditty?

That’s right, Link, magic is in the air.

And yet, Zelda games have been rife with technological marvels, both simple and complex. There are plenty of simple tools that we barely even think of as technology because of their common nature; things like shovels, hammers, flippers which are still designed to make it easier for Link to navigate around. The Wind Waker features a “Picto Box” (c’mon, it’s just a camera!) which allows him to capture people’s souls…ahem, take their photograph and take his own selfie in dangerous situations. Even the Iron Boots that help Link stay in place even at the bottom on a lake.

It isn’t until later games that we start seeing things we might more familiarly refer to as technological: Remote Bombs in the Minish Cap, the Spinner in Twilight Princess, magical steam horses that we call trains in Spirit Tracks, or even the minor character Scrapper from Skyward Sword.

Timey-wimey stuff

There is a nice variety in the tools that Link makes use of, but the real crux of the discussion comes into focus when something is not explicitly one or the other. We do not know what Link’s Magitek arrow™ is actually called, but is it magically powered or technologically powered? How do we know the difference? Ordinarily, we consider ourselves pretty savvy at recognizing the difference between the two. Time travel is magic and lanterns are technology, right? A certain Doctor might want to contend with that idea! And besides, there are plenty of objects that even seem to toe the line. Fi is my favorite example, but another character to look at is the “final test” guardian Gohdan from the Tower of the Gods in Wind Waker. By all account, this face-and-hands monstrosity would fit in perfectly with Breath of the Wild’s Guardians, and I would not be surprised to find out somewhere along the line that they have some greater connection for us to theorize about!

I quoted Arthur Clarke’s Third Law earlier, and we return to it now: his proposition that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The definition of magic I found also weighs in its favor — once we can define something, it is no longer magic. So is there a real distinction to make, or does Link simply need a degree of speculative physics to be able to remove the “magic” tag from half his items?

Once we define something, it is no longer magic. Does Link simply need a degree of speculative physics to remove the “magic” tag from half his items?

The boots of Ocarina of Time are a good example of this distinction that I wish to make. We have both the Hover Boots and the Iron Boots, which we would easily consider representing magic and technology. Boots do not ordinarily allow people to float, so that’s magic, but attaching iron to boots would ordinarily hold people down, so that is technology. In any other light, it would be easy to have “helium boots” (because they are lighter than the air around them, they allow Link to float for a short amount of time) and “gravity boots” (magically infused to pull Link downward). But because we know how iron works, they are not magical, but because we do not know how hover boots work, they are magical. Is this a fair comparison?

And the Emmy goes to...

Even the Goddesses and the Triforce themselves are not exempt from this critique. The Goddesses we see in Ocarina of Time look like those Oscar Awards. Sleek, monochromatic, futuristic even. Who is to say they are magical goddess at all but simply more advanced versions of Fi created by Hylia to mold planets?

Mark Twain did it before it was cool

This is not a trope unique to Zelda, of course. We see it played out in several other video games and TV series. One of my most vivid (and most hated) example comes from the spoiler-laden twist from Star Ocean 3, where, if you are unfamiliar with it and do not mind the spoiler, the heroes find out that they are all simply NPCs from a futuristic MMO and that the magical runes they had been accessing to defeat their enemies were simply extra special lines of code added to their program to allow them to break the game’s systems. Or one of my favorite magical girl animes Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha where all the magical girls are simply technologically enhanced super soldiers. Even Mark Twain used this idea in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court way back in 1889 where the protagonist eventually gets censured by the medieval Church as a sorcerer for using technology from his day which came across to them as magic.

Behold that which can bend the very fabric of space by grabbing stuff!

So where does the line ultimately get drawn? Ironically, it seems to me the line between magic and technology is a question of faith. Depending on where you fall on the spectrum of interest, anything in Zelda could be interpreted as magical or technological. That Blue Candle from the original Zelda which spits out fireballs? Is that a magical artifact which can produce fire or is it an ancient and advanced form of a flamethrower? That Switch Hook from Oracle of Ages? Does it have magical properties to flip reality, or is it just utilizing teleportation technology?

There’s nothing to prove that Fi was not created by the Dr. Light-version of the Goddess Hylia or if Hylia just spoke her into existence a la Aslan of Narnia. There’s no way of knowing if Ocarina of Time’s Blue Tunic is magically enchanted to allow people to breathe underwater or if it is programmed to extract oxygen from the ocean and infuse it into Link through his skin.

“Reverence” is the concept that would allow us to let magic be magic after a fashion. In religion, it applies to holy things and is often considered a weakness to modern society (i.e., “blind faith”), and yet it allows us to not force an explanation on the “how” of everything. With human beings, their constructions, and the world at large, it states clearly that there will always be things that we do not understand and cannot control, and that is okay. Not only okay, even, but proper in a world that we are in relationship with. When something no longer holds any mystery, the “magic” is lost.

But what about sock moblins?

The unfortunate thing about “magic” is that it is only magic until you can explain it better. We have seen throughout history that dynamic take place. Are lightning and thunder Thor just cracking some Ice Giant skulls or a discharge caused by the clash of high and low pressures in the upper atmosphere? Do Cupid’s arrows cause people to fall in love, or is it attraction through sniffing out genetic compatibility between potential partners? Do sock goblins really steal just ONE of the socks of my pair, or am I just really bad at keeping track of my laundry? Does the Triforce grant the wishes of the person who has the three virtues in balance, or it is just a really bugged out mind reading and reality-altering super weapon left behind by robotic constructs called goddesses by primitive minded humanoids with pointy ears?

It may be that everything in the world of Zelda is actually technological. It may be that it is entirely magical. Unless Nintendo ever says anything explicitly, we may never know. But you know what, that’s perfectly fine. I, for one, think we need to keep a little more of that mystery in that world, and even our own. After all, it helps keep the magic alive.

Matthew Krankall
Hailing from New England, I'm a man that enjoys the deep questions that allow us to seek our better selves. I'm also left-handed.