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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

  • http://hannahclover.livejournal.com/ Calliope

    video games have something that movies and books can never allow us to do- experience the adventure first hand. playing Ocarina of Time when I was younger had such an enormous emotional impact on me, it still resonates with me to this day.

    • Hero

      I totally agree with you since Ocarina of Time had that exact impact on me back then and still has to this day.

  • Labrynian Rebel

    The ending of LA and the reuniting of Anju and Kafei are some of most emotional scenes in all of zelda by far.

    • Punnutty

      What about the ending of spirit tracks. Zelda and Link could get together and Link might be a lokomo reborn.

  • xmastersordx

    Great Article. Link's Awakening was also the first Zelda game I played, and having JUST finished replaying it yesterday, I know exactly what you mean. I'm studying game design as well and I'm really inspired by the Zelda series as a whole and would love to further pursue new ways to incorporate meaningful stories in interactive worlds.

  • MinishMioFF

    Hylian Dan rules.

    • Shadow Zant

      yes he does!

  • http://mm.blogsport.de/ MM

    I guess comparing videogames to films is stupid. at the moment games are like films but in future they will be connected to our real life much more. just think of augmented reality. I really put a lot hope into this technique.

    • Gamer423

      I think that vidogames should be looked at like a fine art.

      • Punnutty

        I agree.

    • xmastersordx

      I wouldn't say its "stupid" because video games and film will always share a lot of elements. Right now, they're a lot closer than they may be in the next 10 years, but movies have been around for such a long time for the EXACT same reason mentioned in this article, because they can carry meanings and values about human life, as well as entertain by telling stories.

  • TheMaverickk

    I have to say that one of the most important points I agree with in the entire article is this;

    "For games, it’s interactivity. That uniqueness is necessary for a form to carve out its own cultural space, "

    One issue I have with a lot of video games this generation and developers to boot, is that they have this attitude that they are trying to achieve "movie quality story and appearance". One game in particular following this is the work in progress Heavy Rain (for the PS3). Where interactivity is almost non-existant for a choose your own adventure like story.

    Video games should not be trying to be MOVIES, they should be trying to be VIDEO GAMES. A video game can be high art, and can be deep without having to sacrifice it's own identity. In fact I feel as though some of the purest video games are some are the earlier generations best… like Link to the Past, or Super Metroid. The games reeked of atmosphere and were beautiful and were truly video games cause they weren't attempting to be something else. Cinematic scenes and long dialogue cut scenes are nifty, but they aren't what makes the best games the best.

    My hope is that developers will change their attitudes this generation and bring video games back to it's original identity a little more and stop trying to be like the movie industry for that matter.

  • scott

    AMEN!!!

  • GenoKID

    Video games have to be treated differently in their making. When there are too many movie scenes (Kingdom Hearts II) it loses… fluidity(?) The games I best like are those that add meaning and have… value. In fact, I say Zelda saved my soul from the evil "teenage middle school" years. I wish some of the older generations could recognize this, but sadly, many (FPS) games have no good value or meaning. In that sense, I found Zelda more appealing than the Bible. (Christianity, meet Hylianism)

    • Hero

      If you really study the symbolism and undertones in the games, Zelda takes some story elements from the Bible itself (e.g. The creation story from Genesis) and uses it to metaphorically represent our world. It's interesting how they do that and how well it works with the storyline.

  • ct12345

    One sentence is truly impressive,
    How many times do you see a sequence in a video game when the only thing you do is waiting for someone…(Anjou and Kafei)
    Just for this sentence, this is a great article!

  • LuluLaRou

    I'm glad you mentioned Link's Awakening and Majora's Mask. These are the most poignant of the games.

  • Vic George

    Playing The Wind Waker, visiting the Deku Tree at Forest Haven almost felt like a spiritual homecoming, however distantly removed it was from Ocarina Of Time's Link last being with the Deku Tree in the Kokiri Forest.

    • cloverplayer

      same here!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Thareous Thareous

    I've said this countless times before, but I never tire of bringing it back again, because it always affects me this way. Zelda is a series about experience and independence; almost every element–the music, gameplay, even graphics–add to and improve our adventure in no matter which title we play. This will be furthered in Skyward Sword with the innovative control methods of the Motion Plus. I look forward to being able to undergo this novel field as well as replay released titles with no less vigor that complemented the experience the first time.

  • MegACriTiCKquE 1980

    You just put my exact experience in words. when waiting for Kefie while the moon was about to destroy the planet! ;), i really doubted weather or not he would show up. I thought i might have forgotten something and i dreaded the thought of the moon crashing. thats a very similar experience you would have watching a movie when you question weather the hero made a mistake and seems overwhelmed my their situation and you doubt if they will make it.

    Videogames even offer a 4th dimension to this situation because its actually possible that you DID make a mistake or forget something in which case there were conciquences for that and the world COULD actually be destroyed by the moon. watching that scene alone as a adolescent with an open imagination was an experience in itself. a feeling of utter loss and anihilation and if it was durring the anju kefie quest you felt a personal loss like you would an character you had grown fond of in a book and a feeling of tragedy comparible to Shakespears Romio and Juliet. games dont need as many words to communicate this same message because by interacting with these characters you can experience the same connection as you would by reading about them. interacting with them and often helping them with their troubles creates a real connection with them so watching them be destroyed most certainly made you feel something. you wanted to save them. you were determined to save them. I often translated this feeling into my own personal life as my own family was going through termoil at that time (oh yes those years stick with us all) and i felt the same feeling of not knowing if everything would be alright and put that same attitude i had seen in the game towards my real life situation. I wanted to save them i wanted to help these people who i saw struggling in this world.

    That same mindset has stuck with me through life and has impacted me personally as much as any book i have read (Emir,The little prince,The baghvad gita,King Aurther to name a few greats). In king arthur when the green knight teaches you about having a moral code that offers insight into the human condition, so zelda games have also given me an outlook on life and showed me things about life such as compassion for others.

    I could give more examples but i guess what it all comes down to is perception. how you recieve information. Movie critics and scholars are often masters of their mediums ie. media and literature. but videogames are a new medium that creates a certain barrier for them as they are so tuned in to their respective forms of media and are so used to their own personalized way of perceiving information that its hard for them cross that initial barrier that videogames create with their new medium. you have to seriously go into a game with an open mind and imagination and allow yourself to absorb the feeling of the game. much like you would when sitting in your room reading a good novel. many critics dont approach a game with this mind set but rather think how much they would rather be watching a movie so they dont have to push all those buttons. the only buttons they want to push are play and maybe puase, thats it. lol. so they dont allow themselves to be properly immersed in the world. they’re to used to their own way of experiencing a story. but i think games offer just as deep of an experience as its kindren media NOW. personally i dont like reading 1000s of pages so i could complain literature has its problems. thats simply the way this generation percieves info. I have my vids you have your books, we both experience a story in the end. i like how games are outside this box they have created with movies and literature this streamline of thinking. games allow people to be as creative as they want and offer a new story intsead of trying to fit into this box media and literature has created. I like it that way and games should have confidence in where they stand, not try to fit into some critics opinion box.

  • MegACriTiCKquE 1980

    any critics out there need to know: after countless hours of playing a game and allowing your brain to reach a zen like frame of mind, a game will hit you with a dose of morality or some insight into life in a few short paragraphs or minutes of cutscene. in that brief instant the game makes an impact on you. much like a book, playing/reading through most of the story was simply there to set the mood and build up to that point where the message can be heard. but like a book you wont get the message unless you allow youself to be completely submerged in it.

  • vick

    zelda games have a soul? thats funny i cant even find a halfway decent plot in any of the games

    • cloverplayer

      I dis this comment

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Thareous Thareous

      Not even in Ocarina of Time–your admitted favorite? If this is the case, then you have no soul. You're just an empty shell that thrives on shooter-shooter games at late-night hours and drools Mountain Dew without ever taking notice.

    • samwise

      what is indecent about saving the fucking world? I could go into great detail about each plot – but if you have played the games and can't recognize or appreciate a good plot line – you're not even WORTH the explanation. You are a disgrace and should leave this website.

  • Shan Kaiyou

    I truly believe that videogames, especially the Zelda series, have great potential for telling stories about humanity. I never played Link's Adventure, but it sounds as if many people feel that it hit a chord deep in their hearts; how can one let go of a place that they are so attached to, real or not? And after reading some of the other articles on this site, I really feel that the Zelda series has done things in a few of their games that other games don't do: Mikau dies as soon as you meet him in MM, you meet people trapped forever in the Dark World of ALTTP, almost every character you meet in every game has some sort of hardship in their life, even if it's something as silly as being bald (as the fisherman is in OOT). These kinds of things happen to real people, in real life. Whether or not they are human, the characters of Zelda all have human souls, and they have everyday problems that they have to deal with. We find that we can connect with them so much better than we can with a man trapped on a space ship with monsters, or with someone living in the zombie apocalypse, or with people in the past taking part in epic battles. I find that I am more in tune with a giant tree that wants nothing more than to protect it's home and children that with so many of the characters that other games come with; and I will say that I cried the first time I saw the Great Deku Tree die. That right there is quality storytelling.

  • Merq

    I'll always remember first time playing Majora's Mask, waiting for Kafei was horrible. Time was running out and he still wasn't there. I was thinking if I'd missed something, or something went wrong somewhere, but Anju was sitting there, she trusted him. So I waited. The Anju and Kafei quest is my favourite part of all Zelda.

    Great article! Video games have such huge potential and people often fail to see it. I've always loved games for many reasons, but articles like this and Extra Credits (on the Escapist) have made me realise how powerful games really could be. I hope games get there, and soon, they deserve to be a truly amazing, respected media, and art. I'm tired of living in a world where games are shunned.

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    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.”