I was young. I was foolish. I ran around in an inflexible little uterus, not caring for the outside world or its troubles. But after a while the outside world started to care about me, and I had to grow up. I had to face my responsibilities. I had to learn new skills, acquire new possessions. I had to leave behind my loved ones, my favourite things, the comforting bowl that I had carved for myself, and save the day, or stop the inevitable, or search for new horizons. A lot of people helped me, gave me shelter, food, aid; others tried to hurt me. I found wonderful places, savage places, quiet places. I saw what went before me, and moved forward into what would proceed from me. At the end of it all, after all the help and sacrifice and hurt and growth and death, I stood at the brink of the end, the final moment, and looked back.
Above, I am describing an average existence by an average human being living on the planet Earth. No, really, it is. Pick it apart. We've all experienced the above, or have yet to experience it. But it is not just that one, small story. It is the story of Achilles, Cuculain and Jesus Christ. The story of Mohammed and Harry Potter. It is the story. And, for the purposes of this post, it is the story of Link, Zelda and Ganon. It is the story of Hyrule, the forest, the fairies, the sword and the boy in green who just won't stop growing up.
I do not mean to be trite or insulting in comparing the Zelda series to such narratives; these accounts of gods and men, fairies and wizards, creations and murders, are all chiselling on the same megalith. They are part of a system which is as old as the concept of family or birth, the ability to walk, to fight or to jump.
The Legend of Zelda series is one that I keep returning to, year after year, game after game. I recently swapped my Xbox, and many pieces of software, for a friend's Wii including, amongst other classics such as Billy's Broomstick Racing, Twilight Princess. I am an RPG fan, at most base and lowly; my by-now-horrifying love abuse of the Elder Scrolls series confirms my love of all things choice-based, role-specific and open-ended. This proliferation of roles, the experimentation and choice, lies at the heart of the joy of video games - a game has rules, but experimentation. No one ever became a Chess Master (written in letters like tombstones) by liberally mincing their queen around the board like a haughty cockatrice. The joy of gaming comes from choice, and the avenues this presents.
Above is an image of Hyrule, the main setting for the Zelda series, one that it returns to time and time again. On the surface, there could be less freedom in the location, though not by much. Hyrule seems to exist independent of any universe, any other countries; even the other worlds of the Zelda canon, with the exception of the Great Sea in Wind Waker and The Phantom Hourglass, are seperated from each other by hundred of years, dimensions, or even logic. Termina is a very different place from Hyrule indeed.
And yes, the choice. A lake, a castle, a mountain, a forest, a desert. All small, all inaccessible without the right tools. The illusion of choice. The promise of a wider world that hides behind cutscenes, locked doors and tantalising glimpses of shining keys. In fact, most of the games are one big lock, with Ganon or Vaati or the Demon King resting, the final treasure, at the centre. Hyrule is no more open-world than Doom.
And oh Yahweh I do not want to use this phrase as it is melodramatic and clichéd And yet.
And yet the Zelda games are roleplaying games. They do give us pleasure. We do fulfill a role. But it is not the vaporous, ill-defined classes of the D&D tileset. They are not spellswords and Tauren gold spammers. We are not a cog in the machine that is fuelled by our decisions. In Zelda, our deeds have been completed long ago, or prophesied in the future. No matter which Link you play, there will always be ghosts in green, staring out of frescoes or on the lips of those around you. Link is forever. His journey will always be the same, as it has been written. And what a joyous, utterly atavistic writing it is.
"Link", I believe, is named so because this is precisely what he is; along with Zelda, and Ganon, and Hyrule, and all the tiny indiosyncracies that make up the series, he is part of a chain of characters and events that replay endlessly in the history of his world. However, the character's in-game name is entirely up to the player, which further reinforces this idea of Link as an emblem rather than an individual. He is a living archetype, a fossil that is reborn every time a new evil rises. Each link in this chain is identical but important, strengthening the lineage of the series. He is not the Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell's famous mythological archetype, but the Hero with One Face And A Thousand Items.
This archetypal nature is something that revitalises Link in his Bathory-esque rebirth every two years or so, feasting on new generations of gamers. The most important term to the Zelda universe is 'journey', more so than 'experience' or even 'fun'. Every single game, without fail, charts a journey and a growth, a development in character so profound that, in looking back at the close of any one game, Link may be hardly recognisable on the surface. Zelda is described as "high fantasy", the realm of sorcerors, dragons and princesses, though I would argue that it is much closer to the scholarly definition of "low fantasy", the darkness of woods, fear and the quest. This repeating journey, the mantra of questing, accruing items, entering dungeons, solving puzzles, fighting monsters, lies at the heart of every journey we can think of, from literature, film, videogames and more. Perhaps Joseph Campbell's ideals were not so far from the truth.
Shirgeru Miyamoto, the series' creator, is famously recorded as saying that the genesis of Zelda came from his own childhood, his exploration of the hills and woods of rural Japan, which culminated in his reverie in a cave that he explored with a home-made lantern. This is possibly the most delightful story that I have ever heard; I had a particularly excellent childhood, and it made me envious beyond belief. The sheer joy and curiosity of such an event is hardwired into every facet of Link's adventures.
Above we have a diagram of the Hero's Journey, a rather neat packaging of Campbell's "monomyth", the one basic template that informs most of the worlds legends and folktales. Other folklorists such as Antti Aarne and Vladimir Propp have put forward similar ideas about the reducible properties of folklore, but Campell's model perhaps suits me the best, as it refers implicitly to the hero; in our case, this is Link, and his heroism, his deeds, are perhaps the most important point of the entire series.
Almost every stage can be related explicitly to the Zelda canon. Let's begin with the first quarter of the wheel, from 12 midnight to 3 o'clock, if you like. The "call to adventure" is rather obvious, I would hope. We are in the realm of heuristics, the act of development or the compulsion to develop through stimuli. This is, really, all that Link does. He is often depicted as a child at the start of the games; in Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker the player awakes, in media res, into the "miniature garden" (Miyamoto's words, not mine) of Link's world - the village, seperated from the rest of the world, idyllic, peaceful and untouched by the events that will unfold. The original Legend of Zelda is even more simplistic, with Link appearing as a young boy to save Impa from Ganon's forces. Here no origin is apparent; Link has stepped, full-formed, into existence, a die-cast adventurer bred for the task at hand. Even those games that do not show Link's development, such as Majora's Mask, usually begin with some form of stasis, an almost-dream world where Link is, for the moment, quite safe.
The "supernatural aid" mentioned is not always specified, but is usually tied into the "threshold" moment in Link's life. Even playing the games now a glut of excitement sits in my throat as the game unfolds before me, and that false freedom, the anticipation of the journey I must take, is there. This is the moment of stepping out of the Kokiri Woods. It is boarding the Pirate Ship. It is leaving the beach on Windfall Island. Music, as much as an elemental force as story, usually comes into play here; the direct implementation of music into a roleplaying game was and is revolutionary, and the basic nature of the instruments, gifted to him by forces divine or mundane, reinforce the feeling of a prehistoric narrative; the ocarina, the recorder, the baton. Their magic lies in their simplicity. This, and the aid Link recieves is vital to his passage; he is not a lone agent. Fairies, gods, animals, spirits, people and machines push him out into the real world; often it is an older figure, a mentor who will show him the way. The wizened face of the Deku Tree, of Grandma sitting in her window waving goodbye. It makes me sad to remember such moments as I write this. Revisiting Prolo Island in Wind Waker genuinely made me giddy the first time round. It is a chance to reverse the goodbyes that you are forced to make, the womb that you must exit, to begin your development.
Perhaps the most important segment of Campbell's wheel to Zelda is the next quarter; this training and development forms so much of the gameplay of the series as to be indistinguishable from the totality. The exploration of new lands, helping its denizens, banishing the evil that resides there; we know the drill so well that even those who have barely played Zelda hear the clanking of Big Keys and the grind of pushing blocks before even turning on their systems. It is not just Link growing up, both physically or mentally, weighing his inventory down with more items, more outfits. His heart, his courage, grows as he adventures and seeks out new things, giving him the "life", and the fortitude, to deal with bigger foes. The little hearts blinking above your character; they are more than your health. They are your soul.
The crisis at 6 o'clock. In so many Zelda games this is literally the halfway point of gameplay. You really do know the drill. Three dungeons and everything kicks off. In Ocarina you grow up, literally. In Wind Waker you go down into the depths of the ocean. But you always emerge again, brighter, stronger, faster, clutching the magic sword (the archetypal value of which I won't even begin to elaborate on... oh, okay then. Excalibur? Extension of potency? Snickersnack? It's as old as the hills, the magic sword, the oldest trick in Link's book), and ready to continue. It is a death, of sorts. The death of the old Link. No time to look back. Carry on. Silently, as he always does, carrying the weight of the player with him, Link the empty jar soldiers on.
We board the horse, the boat, the train, the bird or the rooster; the vehicles of the series are all either extensions of Link himself, or his mentors, or his tools. Everything he carries or uses has a purpose in his wider world. Atonement, as noted above, can be interpreted in many ways; several times Link battles a shadow version of himself, one that mirrors him in every way. An archetype, it seems, can have demons too; in defeating this opponent Link, and the player, banishes any doubts that they have about their mission, and their goal. Link is, after all, a killer; though the monsters he fights are undoubtedly evil, their deaths are still deaths. Is it worth it?
Oh, of course it is. Now we are approaching midnight, and Link is approaching the zenith of his quest. His inventory screen is pleasingly filled, his rupee bag bursting, his stride long. We reach "the gift of the goddess".
There are three goddesses in the Zelda cosmology, seven sages, endless spirits. The spirit world is all around our green hero. Three and seven are classically vital numbers; the three goddess motif is found in Greek and Celtic mythology, in the legend of the Norns and the Furies, and the seven is the number of heavens in Islam, the number of Sleepers in Christianity, the number of Ancient Wonders of the World. Despite all of his wits, his experience and his equipment, the final obstacle, the defeat of Ganon, the triumph over evil, remains distant. Without the gift of the goddess, or the sages, or the revered artefact, Link really is nothing.
Good job he always gets what he wants.
There they are. Lovely.
We face the ultimate evil; ashen-skinned, a sorceror that no-one can kill. I have always loved how elemental the colours in Zelda are; the death and decay of purple on the Poes, the blue of the sky and the sea, and the green of the deep forest, where Link emerged from all that time ago, clashing with the purest black of Ganondorf's armour. As happens so often in fairy tales, Link and Ganon are two sides of the same coin. Or, rather, the same triangle; the triforce, a further reinforcing of the importance of three, binds the two of them, and Princess Zelda, as one. Ganon transforms into beasts of the air and the ground; originally, in the first game, he is a pig, reflecting his disgusting nature. But the power of light prevails, as you would hope and expect, and Link reaches that brink. The one I mentioned. Well, rather, you do. The credits are rolling. Link has already fallen into legend, until the next game is released and some other lucky youth is plucked from his Eden to save the world. You are a free man or woman or child. You can look back. At what you've accomplished. And how, if you did it all again (and you will), it would not happen any other way.
Whenever I complete a Zelda game I look at all of this and laugh. I really am doing all of this over and over. It is a Groundhog situation. Everywhere you go you are reminded of the past, those who went before you, the Links that have done what you have done. The games often reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus in that way; the silent, crumbling remains of past civilisations, the quiet corners of forests forgotten, the windblown horse-riding over steppes and mountains.
And I do not find this off-putting. I find it comforting. They are the purest videogames I have ever played. The stories and the experiences have been in place for thousands of real, human years; Miyamoto and his team are just drawing from them. It is a bilsdungroman, a coming of age in the most archaic, jubilant form possible.
I have only spoke about the series that I have experienced, and I do not have equal knowledge with all of the games in the series. You may have had a completely different experience from me. But I am willing to bet that most of you have felt the same things that I have felt. Nintendo, from its humble origins, drawing on the products of Japanese summers spent in the countryside, the products of the sort of minds that would take a homemade lantern into a cave, just to see what is there, is the reason I started to play videogames.
May Zelda, and Link, never change. May I always wake in my bed, or stroll through a forest, glad in green, close to the ground with a light back. May the princess always go missing. May there always be Boss Keys and the search for the dungeon map. May I always follow the path that is older than me. May I always be silent. I do not need choice. As I search for that Piece of Heart to bolster my spirit, or chase my horse for the unforgettable thrill of the first bareback ride, may I always feel the history of the place, the tradition that stories of this kind always follow and always succeed by, and all the other gamers that play like me.