An exploration of Zelda theory

Infendo

Ah, Infendo, let’s embrace it — we loves us some Zelda.

An exploration of Zelda theoryAnd we’re far from alone in our affinity for sword-slashing and Hyrulian dungeon-crawling. The Legend of Zelda has been one of the most revered video game franchises of all time, selling nearly 50 million units of software and spanning more than 20-years-worth of games. And if the recent release of Phantom Hourglass for the DS is any indication, Zelda fans are as passionate as ever for their series; in the midst of Halo-mania, the touch-controlled handheld masterpiece sold more than 230,000 copies in North America during its launch week and quickly surpassed one million sales worldwide, according to the video game sales-tracking Web site VGChartz.com.

But during lapses between Triforce quests and Stalfos slaying, and increasingly since the release of Ocarina of Time in 1998, many dedicated Zelda players have begun to question the stories being told by Nintendo. Specifically, how do these games fit together? What is the chronological progression of the individual legends of Zelda? Though simple in purpose, the question hints at dramatically complex answers and has spawned elaborate and detailed analyses of the Zelda canon. Entire Web sites have been built, filled to the brim with points and counterpoints in regard to the Legend of Zelda, and communities of Zelda devout have grown, all in the name of exploring perhaps one of the nerdiest – but damn, if it isn’t interesting! – fields of pseudo-study known to man.

The multi-faceted, the multi-branched disciplines of “Zelda theory.”

Though fans almost certainly pondered the timeline for years beforehand, the intricacies of the plot presented in Ocarina of Time essentially gave rise to modern Zelda theory. Fans began to perceive sharp inconsistencies in the stories being told by Shigeru Miyamoto, Eiji Aonuma and the rest of the Zelda development team, and given the questions posed by Ocarina of Time, players started looking for answers. The mystique grew quickly due in large part to the fact that Nintendo never released an official, comprehensive timeline of the Zelda titles, nor had it (at that point) ever implicitly stated one exists at all.

Interviews and developer commentary sometimes reveal a brief flash of insight, only to contradict it in later exchanges. In a 2004 interview with Game Informer’s Billy Berghammer at the annual Game Developers Conference, Aonuma claimed Four Swords is “the oldest tale in the Zelda timeline,” but when questioned later about inconsistencies with his claim and the events of Ocarina of Time, he admitted he “didn’t actually put the story for (Four Swords) together.” Because of the lack of concrete information in regard to a Zelda timeline – most Zelda theorists hold only in-game material as relevant, and even then, there are seemingly inconsistent messages – and the shroud of mystery Nintendo maintains around its renowned franchise, Zelda theory is exactly what the name implies: it is a highly theoretical practice upon which very little can be considered absolute.

Because of these inherent difficulties, Zelda theories are wildly varied and crafted with a painstaking attention to detail. And most importantly, they are loads of fun to discuss with like-minded, passionate fans.

(Author’s note: By no means is this meant to be a revolutionary expose on the definitive timeline of Zelda theory. Rather, this is merely a basic exploration of some of the important concepts, timeline theories and the practice itself. We’ll get our feet wet here, but there are countless Web sites – doubters need only Google “zelda theory” or “zelda timeline” for proof – to help you really jump in the pool. And I would certainly encourage such a dive.)

An important step to take before approaching the individual lines of theory themselves is to understand the constants present across them. Despite the sharp differences between the theories, nearly all of them recognize that certain elements of the Zelda canon are indisputable. Therefore, most experienced Zelda theorists will accept certain concepts as historical facts within the overall Legend of Zelda, regardless of the timeline they subscribe to.

Perhaps the most important constant involves the characters themselves, particularly Princess Zelda and the green-clad boy hero Link. Because the events of some games in the series take place centuries apart, the Links and Zeldas in a given game may not the same people as in other Zelda games. However, this does not necessarily imply there is a different Link and Zelda in each game. Rather, it varies depending on the game.

Confused? Really, it’s not bad. Take it slow.

So when is the Link in one game the same Link as in another, and how can a player be sure? Consider Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. These two games are directly related; the latter takes place immediately following the events of the prior. In other words, Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, so the Link who rescues Hyrule from the evil Ganon in Ocarina of Time is the same young boy who saves the parallel world of Termina in Majora’s Mask. A more recent example would be Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass; the introductory scene in Phantom Hourglass picks up immediately after the closing scene in Wind Waker, so the cel-shaded Link in both games is the same boy hero.

However, the Link in Ocarina of Time/Majora’s Mask and the Link in Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass are two completely different heroes in two completely different time periods. This theory is not only supported by the stories told by the games themselves – one Link lives among the eternally young Kokiri in an expansive forest, while the other is raised by his grandmother in a bustling island community – but is proven by the dialogue of the Wind Waker itself, which confirms that any time an evil arises to threaten the land of Hyrule, a young boy named Link will appear, as if out of nowhere, to defend it. This recurring cycle is also alluded to in the game’s dramatic conclusion, when Ganondorf, having experienced defeat several times at the hands of a green-clad boy hero, considers it fate that he “would again gather the three with the crests” in accordance to the repeating prophecies of Hyrulian legend.

There are other consistent concepts present across most theories, ranging from the acknowledgment of specific events to the roles of certain characters. Many games reference an epic battle, such as the “fierce war” described in Ocarina of Time and the “great battle” mentioned in Twilight Princess. It is accepted that these are references to the same war, which occurred before Hyrule was unified. There is also a “Seal War,” as described in A Link to the Past, in which Ganondorf’s entry into the Sacred Realm – and subsequent acquisition of the Triforce, transformation to Ganon and invasion of Hyrule – is described. Constants such as these allow for theorists to have a concrete historical context to reference in their approaches.

And of course, there are many approaches to Zelda theory.

One of the simplest is single-timeline theory, which proposes the entire Legend of Zelda canon takes place on the same timeline. As with every discipline of Zelda theory, individual single-timeline theorists differ in their opinions of the exact order of the games, but their practice is constant; they consider the events of each game and attempt to place them in a logical, linear timeline.

Investigating the functions of single-timeline theory is an excellent way for new Zelda theorists to attain an understanding of the basic principles of the discipline. Because of the simplicity of the concept – analyze the events, story lines and dialogues within each of the games and piece them together – it is a fairly easy theory to put into practice. However, while single-timeline theory is an excellent means of warming up to more advanced Zelda theory, the light it sheds on the overall Legend of Zelda is becoming increasingly dim. Any timeline proposing that the entire legend takes place in a linear fashion, or on the same timeline, is likely flawed in one major regard:

The events in Ocarina of Time.

In order to understand Zelda theories beyond those of a single-timeline, a full play-through and understanding of the closing events of Ocarina of Time is absolutely crucial. It is the turning point within Zelda theory.

Think back to Ocarina of Time. After Link slays him amidst the burning rubble of his fallen castle, Ganon is sealed away by the sacred sages and peace is restored to Hyrule. As Zelda thanks Link, she expresses regret that Link gave so much to the land of Hyrule, but was robbed of his precious childhood by the sages. To make amends, Zelda sends Link back in time seven years to before Ganon took over their sacred land. The game then ends with a strong sense of deju-vu; a young Link again sneaks into Hyrule Castle, as he did at the beginning of the game, but this time tells young Zelda of his adventure. His warnings about the actions the Gerudo thief Ganondorf will take against her father’s kingdom would then presumably inspire the king to prevent the adventures of adult Link in Ocarina of Time from ever happening at all.

It may initially seem that the game ends by erasing the adult portion of Ocarina of Time from history. After all, Link leaps forward seven years early in the game, and at the end, his adult version is sent back to his original time period to relive those seven lost years. Again, at first glance, this would make the adult-portion of Ocarina of Time obsolete, but such an interpretation is flawed; it does not account for the game’s “first ending.” Though adult Link is sent back in time at the end of Ocarina of Time, adult Zelda is not; the world Link leaves behind remains, and from this two-world ending, split-timeline theory is born.

This new theory differs dramatically from single-timeline theory, and given the events of newer Zelda titles, has generally become the most practiced discipline in Zelda theory. Split-timeline theory maintains that each of the games in the Zelda canon can logically be placed into one of two alternate Hyrule dimensions: the ravaged one adult Link saves at the end of Ocarina of Time and then leaves behind, and the unscarred one Link returns to as a child thanks to Zelda. Though individuals may disagree on which games take place in which timeline and their specific order on the two timelines, nearly all split-timeline theorists concede that Ocarina of Time marks the point at which the timeline splits in two.

In order to effectively grasp the often-complex principles of split-timeline theory, it is useful to explore one of the promising theories within the discipline, as outlined by GameTrailers.com last year and currently viewable on YouTube. In this specific example of split-timeline theory, the world adult Link leaves behind sets the stage for Twilight Princess years later, and even longer after, the flooded land of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. This timeline chronicles the events of a Hyrule that, for simplicity purposes, is called “Hyrule B.” In the world Link returns to as a child after Ocarina of Time, young Link accidentally entwines himself in the struggles swallowing the parallel land of Termina in Majora’s Mask. This timeline outlines the events of “Hyrule A.”

This proposal is interesting in that, coincidentally, both of the timelines are unique in the games they encompass. While “Hyrule A” is mainly chronicled by the events of the classic Zelda games, the story of “Hyrule B” is slowly being revealed by newer games. Both timelines, however, are capped by one of the two Oracles games, Ages and Seasons.

Single-timeline and split-timeline theories are obviously separated by jarring differences, but they at least have one basic idea in common: each of the games does, in fact, tell a different story. There is a segment of practitioners within Zelda theory, however, who believe the exact opposite, literally throwing all of the theoretical intricacies discussed up to this point aside. It emphasizes these games are telling a story – specifically, a legend – and therefore, it is logical to assume that the Legend of Zelda is, literally, a legend that evolves with the passage of time. This discipline of Zelda theory, known as literal legend theory, proposes the simplest explanation for a timeline of the Zelda canon.

Quite simply, there is none.

Literal legend theorists often point out the general parallels between each of the games. Despite their differences, most Zelda games follow a very similar overall story: a green-clad hero named Link rises against an ultimate evil to save a desperate land. These theorists propose each Zelda game is actually a retelling of the same story, and the differences between them can be accounted for by the natural evolutions that any oral tale will take through the years. Though it may seem a relatively generic approach to the Zelda canon, literal legend theory is the only approach to logically account for each of the inconsistencies often appearing in the games. These theorists answer such pressing contradictions – which are devastating to more complex lines of theory – by simply embracing them.

As eloquently stated by ZeldaWiki.org, “as the Legend of Zelda is passed down from person to person, it changes, it evolves.”

As confirmation for their proposals, some literal legend theorists lean on the opening cinematic of Wind Waker, which begins with an important phrase:

“This is but one of the legends of which the people speak.”

As simple as these twelve words may seem, they can provide a very mixed message depending on which theories a player subscribes to. At their most basic level of interpretation, they seem to support timeline-related Zelda theories as relevant exercises. Because it prefaces Wind Waker as “one of the legends,” the immediate implication is that there are many different legends “of which the people speak.” This could mean that each of these legends would be related to each other as part of a comprehensive Legend of Zelda.

But if Wind Waker is “one of the legends,” are the others “of which the people speak” actually evolved versions of the same story? This logical interpretation gives strong validity to the proposals of literal legend theory and, when applied well, call timeline-reliant Zelda theory into severe question.

Could all of this exploration have been done in vein?

Fortunately for the theorists, there seems to be no end to the speculation. Nintendo is certainly not shedding any definitive light on the subject, though many of the Zelda developers continue spilling vague hints. In an interview with IGN at E3 2007 devastating to the proposals of literal legend theorists, Miyamoto confirmed long-held rumors that a “top-secret” document outlining an official Zelda timeline does exist; so secret is the document, he said, that only a select few employees at Nintendo have been privy to its contents.

Despite his confirmations, however, he would give no divulge any information on the specific order itself.

And so the speculation – and the tireless attention to every line of dialogue, geographical contradiction and character lineage presented by the Zelda games – continues. Zelda fans play through Phantom Hourglass and Twilight Princess, each of which contributes vast new ideas to the realm of Zelda theory, and almost instantly begin the painstaking waiting game for the next chapter of the Legend, which Matt Casamassina and Mark Bozon of IGN speculated is already in development in their latest “Wii-k In Review” podcast. Ultimately, it seems that any official, definitive timeline – such as the sacred lineage outlined in a document likely locked in a solid gold vault somewhere in Japan – is like the bunny-hooded Marathon Man who challenges adult Link to a race across the vast expanse of Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time.

No matter how ferociously as we chase, he is always ahead.

An exploration of Zelda theory

Infendo