Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: The Storyteller Therory

The Legend of Zelda is probably the greatest video game series of all time. Every few years we get another entry in this great series, and one of the first things that happens when it comes out is everyone starts speculating on when the game happened in comparison to the other games. That’s because the Zelda games don’t come out in order. The most recent Zelda game was the first chronologically, while the original two games happen last. Fans always argue about the “timeline” and over the years there have been thousands of theories, but hold on a minute because I’m about to blow your mind. There is no timeline.

“What?” You might be saying, “That’s stupid, how can it not have a timeline. Everything has a timeline.” Hold on, cause this one is gonna take a bit to explain. See Zelda is called “The Legend of Zelda” for a reason. The Zelda games are legends, not stories with a strictly coherent story. 99.99% of today’s books, movies, T.V. shows, and video games are coherent stories and not legends. To understand the kind of storytelling present in Zelda we need to look to the past. Back in the good ol’ days before movies or video games, back when writing and oral tradition were the norm.

Let’s say that back in the day there is some kind of legend about a great hero that has been passed down from generation to generation. After hearing this story someone else tells another story about the hero’s descendant and how he once again had to vanquish the same evil, or maybe it’s the hero’s ancestor. Either way the new story is very similar to the old one, with the same basic plot and themes. Take the legend of Atlantis, for instance. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato first told the story of the sunken continent.  Later Greeks expanded on the legend, telling different parts of its history and culture.  Over the centuries countless cultures had their own Atlantis legends. These legends were all based on Plato’s original and many later ones were had elements from popular early ones. However, all of the Atlantis stories were not all in accordance with one another. Take Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, that story drew more inspiration from the Atlantis in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but don’t take so much inspiration from the Atlantis stories invented by Germany.

The Zelda series is exactly the same. Think of the games being “told” by different storytellers. The first storyteller told the original Legend of Zelda. Later on someone told the story of the adventures Link went on after that in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Now anyone familiar with Zelda knows that Zelda II is the black sheep of the family, what with all the RTS stuff and “North Hyrule.” These things were never really revisited, and neither was anything else about Zelda II (except some town sharing their names with characters.)  Most later “storytellers” don’t consider this story when telling their legend. Any seemed inconsistencies between Zelda II and other games exist because the storyteller didn’t consider it a part of their legend.

This works not only to explain inconsistencies between Zelda II, but all Zelda games. The way that many of the larger inconsistencies are explained by multiple timeline theories (more on that later), but the small inconsistencies are important as well. Time travel for example is portrayed differently almost every time we see it, sometimes in multiple ways in the same game. I previously explained the rules to time travel on the show “Lost,” and these rules were consistent and could not be broken. However legends can be much more inconsistent, different storytellers can interpret time travel any way they want.

Now on to the whole multiple timelines thing I mentioned before. The prevailing theory for roughly the past ten years is that there are two timelines in Zelda, created at the end of Ocarina of Time when Link returned to the past, the “child timeline” and the “adult timeline.” The logic goes that some of the games happen in one timeline and the others happen in the second. This video does a pretty good job explaining the theory:

Thanks for clearing that up Doc. The supporters of the "multiple timelines  are actually pretty close to the truth, they just muddied the details. A little bit ago a Zelda encyclopedia, straight from Nintendo, showed an “official timeline,” and this one actually has the perfect order, but once again treats it too rigidly. The “official timeline” actually splits into three timelines after Ocarina of Time. There is the child and the adult, as well as a third one where Link fails to kill the main villain, Ganon at the end of Ocarina of Time. This does a lot to explain the many inconsistencies in Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past, which happened hundreds of years later and was originally thought to be in the adult timeline.

Here is the timeline from the encyclopedia:

Notice something about the games in the “Ganon wins in Ocarina” timeline. They all are all games that were released BEFORE Ocarina of Time. The other two timelines are both comprised of games that were released AFTER Ocarina of Time, and so are the games that take place before Ocarina. There is of course one exception, I’ll explain in a bit. The reason for this is simple, Ocarina of Time is by far the most famous and popular Zelda game. Most people think of that game specifically when they think of Zelda. Every Zelda after it has been influenced by it (with one exception, which I’m still getting to.)

Let’s break down the history of Zelda, not the fictional history but the order the games really came out, but let’s keep viewing them as legends being passed down. The first Legend of Zelda game was told by the original storyteller, about a hero named Link who saves Hyrule. This was followed by a new storyteller, who told Zelda II. A third storyteller told A Link to the Past, as you would probably guess about Link’s ancestor, also named Link. People loved it, so he told a “sequel” about the same Link lost on a mysterious island, Link’s Awakening. Years passed and another storyteller looked at A Link to the Past, he saw all the rich backstory about the rise, downfall, and imprisonment of Ganon and told a story called Ocarina of Time. This storyteller only really focused on A Link to the Past, leaving out the backstory of the other three legends. People loved this new one so much they didn’t care about the inconsistencies surrounding Ganon’s downfall, they also began to forget the older legends and love Ocarina of Time.

This is where the legends split up. First of course there are the already established legends of Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past, but as I said, people don’t think about these so much anymore when writing new legends. The next legend to be told is the sequel to Ocarina, Majora’s Mask , told by the same storyteller who told Ocarina. Next was a new storyteller, one who still remembered the old stories, A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, and wanted to tell a story about that Link. This is the exception I mentioned before, the Oracle games. The Oracle games are two linked games, sort of like Pokemon Red and Blue, although they are a bit more unique. This was the last Zelda story that was connected to the old Zelda games and not Ocarina.

Next was Wind Waker , the storyteller here wanted to tell a story of Link and Zelda’s descendants. The style of this story was completely different, hence the cel-shaded “Toon Link.” This style caught on, and was duplicated by the next storyteller. However in Wind Waker the entire world is ocean, Hyrule had been flooded for hundreds of years. So the storyteller ignored this possible future to Ocarina and made up his own, along with a past, The Four Swords Adventures and The Minish Cap, respectively. This storyteller also decides to tell the story of Link battling a new villain, Vatti. Next was a new storyteller who told a dark tale of Hyrule’s future, also without the flood, Twilight Princess. The two stories after that, Phantom Hourglass and Sprit Tracks were continuations of the Wind Waker storyline where the world is flooded. Finally a new storyteller aimed to tell the story that took place before any of this, which was Skyward Sword, the first game in the “timeline.”

So really these timelines aren’t really timelines, they are just showing which legends are related to each other, and Ocarina of Time is the point of origin. Everything that takes place before Ocarina can be placed together. Then there are the games that don’t take OoT into account because that legend hadn’t been told yet. There are the games that take Ocarina into account and tell of a great flood which flooded Hyrule. Lastly of course are the stories after Ocarina that have no mention of a great flood. There are no alternate realities created by time travel or Link’s apparent failure.

Look at it this way, when I talked about all the different storytellers I was of course being metaphorical, but the thing is, there actually were all kinds of different storytellers involved. All kinds of different people have worked on these games and their stories. Siguru Miyamoto, for example, is the creator of Zelda, but these were hundreds of other people making creative decisions, in fact nowadays Miyamoto has little to do with the Zelda plots. A different company even developed the Oracle games, Capcom. With all of these different people and entities it’s nearly impossible to tell a coherent story when it is being released out of order over multiple decades. Instead every time someone develops a new game they find a way to make it fit into the mythology, but if they don’t like a certain aspect of that mythology they choose to ignore it.

Compare to another fantasy universe told over decades and out of order, the stories about Middle-Earth; The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Silmirilion, Lost Tales, and everything else. That is a coherent story, not a bunch of legends with varying degrees of interrelation. What’s the difference? Well I’ll tell you. Tolkien told these stories by himself. He was meticulous, he had pages upon pages of notes, many of his works were not published until after his death; the only additions were done by his own son after his death to fill in the gaps of certain stories. Zelda is more like the oral tradition of storytelling, always evolving like the old legends of King Arthur. This is not to say that one type of storytelling method is superior to the other, I love Zelda and The Hobbit, for different reasons.

There is no need to bend over backward to come up with contrived ways for parallel universes and histories, sometimes a more fluid story is more fun, but we become so obsessed with answers that sometimes we fail to see the beauty in front of us.

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