How Zelda is a story of the land and not its princess
by on April 6, 2017

“…I know a lot of people are going to be really excited about how you’re dropped into this world. …There’s … minimal backstory. There’s not a lot upfront in this game other than, ‘Here you are: What are you going to do? What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?’ And then, yet, there are many hints in this environment … that hints at something greater that has happened. I think people will be sort of interested in seeing the story unfold … as they play the game.”

– Bill Trinen (Nintendo Treehouse Live, E3 2016)

Only the remnants of a once vibrant society remain. With no memories of the past, exploration is the only tool at your disposal for uncovering the truth about your surroundings. It is this characteristic of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that piques my interest in its focus on environmental storytelling – and the story of the land itself. Looking back on past entries in the series, I can’t help but make a correlation between the Zelda games and the many themes connecting it to sustainability.

There is a common recurring thread in Zelda games: The land is on the brink of ruin due to a lust for power, and it is essential to begin efforts in preventing that impending disaster. Similar to real-world occurrences, it’s interesting to take note of the sustainable reactions by certain characters, the symbolism of Ganon, and the birth of Hyrule itself.

The creation of Hyrule

Golden Goddesses

Hyrule’s creation myth was first heard in A Link to the Past but further elaborated upon in Ocarina of Time. In a tale passed down by the Great Deku Tree, three golden goddesses Din, Nayru, and Farore descended upon the “chaos that was Hyrule” and formed the land: “Din… With her strong flaming arms, she cultivated the land and created the red earth. Nayru… Poured her wisdom onto the earth and gave the spirit of law to the world. Farore… With her rich soul, produced all life forms who would uphold the law.”

This part of the story is often overlooked because the goddesses created something else that day – the Triforce. “The three great goddesses, their labors completed, departed for the heavens. And golden sacred triangles remained at the point where the goddesses left the world. Since then, the sacred triangles have become the basis of our world’s providence.”

Triforce of Lorule RestoredThere is a key phrase here. The Triforce is “the basis of [Hyrule’s] providence.” In other words, the Triforce is the foundation for the guidance and care of the land. This role the Triforce plays becomes even more noticeable in A Link Between Worlds. Lorule, a mirror world of Hyrule, also had a Triforce. However, the citizens of Lorule did something unprecedented – they destroyed the Triforce. Without a Triforce, the land’s groundwork was gone, leading to its decay.

“The Triforce was the foundation of our world, and without it, our kingdom crumbled.”

Lorule showed us that the Triforce is linked with the health of the land. It’s more than just a holy relic or a symbol of power; it is the life force of the world. The opposite of life is death, and the Triforce has a counterpart too – Ganon.

Calamity Ganon and the Great Sea

“As you probably saw in the trailer, the most recent trailer, there’s a woman’s voice, and she says: ’The history of the royal family of Hyrule is also the history of the Calamity Ganon.’ And as you know, the Zelda series, up until now, is a history of repeated attacks by Ganon. So, there’s food for thought there.”

– Eiji Aonuma, Waypoint

The Calamity Ganon

Ganon is an embodiment of Demise’s hate, cursed to follow “those who share the blood of the goddess and the spirit of the hero.” Therefore, to get a better understanding of Ganon, we need to look at his roots. Demise, in his thirst for the Triforce, was willing to lay waste to the land that would become Hyrule. Specifically in the introduction of Skyward Sword is a story about Demise’s “assault upon the surface people,” which drove “the land into a deep despair.” The implications here are not just limited to civilization but also the land itself. Skyward Sword‘s introduction specifies that Demise and his followers burnt forests to ash and choked the land’s sweet springs – all in an effort to obtain the Triforce.

Living up to his namesake, Demise symbolizes the death of the land in his quest for power. It’s a notion that sticks throughout his many reincarnations as Ganon. This includes the Calamity Ganon, which brought destruction to Hyrule before its confinement 100 years prior to the beginning of Breath of the Wild.

“I assume that you caught full sight of that atrocity swarming around the castle. That…is the Calamity Ganon. It brought ruin and corruption upon the kingdom of Hyrule 100 years ago. It appeared suddenly…destroying everything in its path. Leaving countless innocents in its wake. Over the last century, the kingdom’s purest symbol, Hyrule Castle, has been able to contain that evil. … There it festers, building its strength for the moment it will unleash its blight upon the land once again.”
– Old Man, Breath of the Wild
Downfall of Hyrule

Of course, the Calamity Ganon is not the first report of near-apocalyptic ruin for Hyrule. The events which transpired before The Wind Waker also have an account. Ganon, “eager to resume his dark designs,” appeared during a time when there was no one to stop him. Desperate, the people of Hyrule appealed to the gods:

“When the gods heard our pleas, they chose to seal away not only Ganon, but Hyrule itself… and so, with a torrential downpour of rains from the heavens… Our fair kingdom was soon buried beneath the waves, forgotten at the bottom of the ocean. Yet all was not lost. For the gods knew that to seal the people away with the kingdom would be to grant Ganon’s wish for the destruction of the land. So, before the sealing of the kingdom, the gods chose those who would build a new country and commanded them to take refuge on the mountaintops.”
– Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, The Wind Waker
The Great Sea is a result of that cataclysmic incident, which provides us some great insight about how the Legend of Zelda series ties together people and their relationship to the environment. Isaac Yuen, the author of Ekostories and Seeds of the Future: Zelda’s The Wind Waker, wrote, “More than any other game in the series, Wind Waker also has themes and metaphors that remind us of our relationships with the environment and the obligations we have to future generations.”

“Oceans… Oceans… Oceans… Oceans… Oceans as far as the eye can see. They are vast seas… None can swim across them… They yield no fish to catch…”

With this in mind, stopping Ganon is not only preventing the downfall of Hyrulean society but also fulfilling a responsibility to protect and sustain the world… or at least what’s left of it. “Obvious parallels can be drawn between the world of Wind Waker and a world affected by climate change,” says Yuen. “While the causes of the catastrophic event are different, the implications posed by a rapid change in sea levels are very similar: A significant and irrevocable loss in culture and biodiversity.”

The Wind Waker makes it obvious that it takes place after Ocarina of Time, a game which has Hyrule nowhere near an ocean. Comparing the worlds presented in both games, it is without question that the flood (which would form the Great Sea) had significantly impacted the lives of people and changed the entire ecosystem of what was Hyrule.

We also get a deeper look into Ganon’s motivations in The Wind Waker. Notably, they also stem from environmental issues:

Ganondorf“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin.”

– Ganondorf, The Wind Waker

It’s a quote that can make one sympathetic for Ganon, but it also shows how greed and a thirst for power can bring about the same destruction to other lands. He will do anything to obtain the Triforce, even if it means ruining the world around him. This antagonistic drive is made evident from the backstory provide by the Gerudo Elder in Four Swords Adventures: “Once every 100 years, a special child is born unto my people. That child is destined to be the mighty guardian of the Gerudo and the desert. But this child, its heart grew twisted with every passing year. The child became a man who hungered for power at any price.”

The King, Ganondorf, and the Triforce

Ganon still desires dominion over Hyrule at the expense of the oceanic world established around it. The old king of Hyrule Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule emphasizes, “If he succeeds, my ancient kingdom under the sea will be turned into a land of shadow and despair… and so will the world you know above the waves.” To prevent this, the king ultimately realizes that he needs to let go of his old kingdom – and mistakes of the past – to pass the torch to future generations. This leads to his plea to the gods to wash away Hyrule in order to “let a ray of hope shine on the future of the world.” The ending of The Wind Waker reveals the king’s regrets about the impoverished world his generation left the new generation to inherit:

“I want you to live for the future. There may be nothing left for you… But despite that, you must look forward and walk a path of hope, trusting that it will sustain you when darkness comes. Farewell… This is the only world that your ancestors were able to leave you. Please… forgive us.”
– Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, The Wind Waker
King of HyruleYuen notes, “[Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule] is filled with remorse at how men like him and Ganondorf have caused so much destruction and suffering in the pursuit of their own agendas. Whether justified or not, he believes that he has failed in his responsibilities as a steward of the world. Admitting his mistakes, he finally entrusts the world to the next generation, hoping that they will be able to do a better job with it than he did.” It’s a poignant ending that offers a valuable message for the real world.

The moon and the Koroks

In The Wind Waker, the destruction of Hyrule has essentially already occurred. It shows how life was able to adapt to a new world known as the Great Sea. However, it does not show how people respond to a cataclysmic event unfolding before their eyes. For this perspective, Majora’s Mask is a game that allows the player to witness the varying emotional stages people can experience during an extraordinary event.

The Moon Falling

Mutoh in DenialThe land of Termina is on the brink of ruin and Clock Town’s inhabitants are literally staring death in the face – in the form of a malevolent moon. In Zelda’s Twisted Tale: Majora’s Mask, Isaac Yuen notes, “Careful observations over many repeated cycles reveal a range of surprisingly realistic reactions in response to the calamity, reminding me of how people behave in real life when confronted with overwhelming news and insurmountable obstacles.”

Yuen further elaborates upon this observation: “Anyone working in the fields of environmental education or communication will recognize similar reactions of denial, anger, despair, and acceptance when individuals are confronted with global environmental problems. One of the most difficult challenges is to help people to move on from hopelessness, apathy, and resignation and break through into sustained action for a better future.”

Breath of the Wild Koroks

Out of all the citizens of Hyrule, it is the Koroks that exemplify sustainability. Following the bidding of the Great Deku Tree, these sprites attempt to restore Hyrule to what it once was with the planting of seeds.

“Forests hold great power: they can change one tiny island into a much larger island. Soon, a day will come when all the islands are one, connected by earth and grove. And the people who live on that great island will be able to join hands and, together, create a better world. Such is my dream.”
– Great Deku Tree, The Wind Waker
In the hope of creating a better world, the Great Deku Tree and the Koroks are taking action to assist this effort. It’s a great responsibility and the Koroks are aware of its importance in sustaining the world. One Korok in The Wind Waker explains, “If we are unable to hold our ceremony, we will not be able to raise any new forests. If that comes to pass, then evil days will follow. The Great Deku Tree’s power will wane, and our power will wane with it… We might even wither altogether…” Interestingly, these forest spirits of The Wind Waker, have their second debut in Breath of the Wild.

And then came Breath of the Wild

 “…This time around, nature is an even more important element than ever before; that’s a directorial choice. Since you’re completely free to go wherever you want, that you get to travel a lot, we had to create this huge world with vast plains, in order to provide players with a fully immersive experience. It’s for this very reason that we paid a lot of attention to animations, ambient sounds, and sound effects for nature, so that you can really be engrossed in the various environments.”

– Eiji Aonuma, Nintendo France (translated by Perfectly Nintendo)

Breath of the Wild Flower

The land gets a leading role in Breath of the Wild. Due to exploration being such a key mechanic, there is a unique focus on environmental storytelling. Through observations and analysis of the land, you can gather bits of the narrative piece by piece. Paying attention to these small details will not only reveal the societal impact of the Calamity Ganon but also a tale of the land and how it reacted in response. This approach of storytelling is similar to a painting technique called en plein air (literally: open in full air). Nintendo Treehouse’s Bill Trinen, while explaining this artistic style notes a common thread the ties together all elements of the game:

“…the colors are very reminiscent of a type of paint called gouache. … It’s a material that is used frequently in animation, but it’s also material that used in a style of painting that is called en plein air or, in English, open air painting, where you go out into the environment and you sit down in front of the object that you intend to paint and you paint in that real-world setting. … As we started looking at the art style and its similarities to gouache and that connection, we also started to feel that the music in the game also has very open air feeling to it…”

Every aspect of the game is built to bring about a sense of wilderness to the player.  More so than ever before, the land of Hyrule plays an important role in the delivery of the story in every aspect.

“This is the Great Plateau. According to legend, this is the birthplace of the entire kingdom of Hyrule.”

As observed with Breath of the Wild, there is a familiar theme that reoccurs in Zelda games. The land is under threat by a greedy and destructive force and efforts need to be taken to prevent the deterioration of the world. With the Triforce proven to be the very life force of the land, Ganon symbolizing the blight of the land, and the sustainable actions of characters in response, perhaps instead of it being The Legend of Zelda it should be titled The Legend of Hyrule.

Erich Schuler
I'm a social media coordinator and freelance writer passionate about video games and their potential for storytelling! I've been a Zelda fan since 1999, when I was introduced to Ocarina of Time. Talk to me on Twitter or on Twitch!