Warning for the tl;dr crowd. This is a long one!
The discussion of narrative in video games is a relatively new topic in academia given that the medium hasn’t existed nearly as long as literature or even film and television. In the brief time video games have existed, they have attracted the attention of the players and scholars alike.
This isn’t the first time my eye has been attracted to the topic of narrative in video games. Back in the Fall of 2011, I wrote a final paper for a Visual Narrative course on the topic of The Legend of Zelda series. In it, I established some of my own claims and explored the way the series functions as a fictional transhistorical mythological narrative that spans across multiple generations of console gaming platforms and handheld gaming devices. (Many thanks again to my teacher, Dr. K, for keeping me on track and reminding me not to go on too many tangents.)
However, not too long after my paper was turned in and graded, Nintendo released the official timeline for Zelda. Many fans rejoiced! It was pretty exciting news!
I gotta say, part of me was a little bummed about it. I mean, it was cool news- some people got to brag about being right about their timeline theories, and yay, more released info on Zelda-related stuff- but I had just made an argument highlighting the benefit of keeping the timeline unknown. Even now, I still see the benefit of keeping the timeline under wraps. Obviously, or I wouldn’t bother writing this article. It seemed to me then that Nintendo had basically killed a little part of what made Zelda so special, and that thought still lingers. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who felt/feels that way. Some have said that, by releasing an official timeline, Nintendo was pigeon-holing itself, and now they’ll have to work around an established timeline, rather than a more fluid one, when they release new games.
That was the obvious concern, but my thoughts on this topic go a little deeper.
First off, a Zelda game does a really good job of constructing a game world. Henry Jenkins says that the structure of the game world is important because it “facilitates…narrative experiences” within “narratively-compelling spaces” (Jenkins, 4). Nintendo has always been aware of this. Zelda, as a fantasy and adventure story centered around a travel narrative, is very invested in world making and spatial storytelling. There is a very world-first mentality in creating a Zelda game; Shigeru Miyamoto has expressed his opinion regarding the importance of world development often. The precedent was set to design the world first while building a story is secondary. Eiji Aonuma has concurred with Miyamoto on this point:
With Zelda, we don’t start off with a storyline and then build a game around it… basically, things don’t feel natural [since] you’re trying to build a game based on a story… whereas once you start with the game and build the story around that and you have your core framework, and then the story evolves based on what we’re doing with the game…” (GDC Roundtable, 2004)
So here, right off the bat, I would argue that releasing the official timeline undermines that idea. Now that the timeline is official and known, Zelda games of the future will need to be structured around an established storyline, rather than making a game and letting the story evolve and then let fans figure out where it settles among the other games. It’s already reversed from “world first; story second” to “story first; world second.”
Zelda games, known for their rich worlds, are also known for having a formula: Link begins as basically a nobody, then it is discovered he has significance. He leaves his small community to take part in a great travel narrative, meeting friends, foes and puzzling quests along the way. As the player presses forward in the game, a larger story with larger goals become apparent; the narrative is revealed through a clearly defined game world, structure, and further interaction from the player. The formula also includes a very prominent figure central to the conflict (usually Ganon) and mythological elements (Goddesses/Triforce). The formula provides some limitations—any player knows there are just certain things you expect from a Zelda story. However, this formula also shapes the individual game’s narrative as well as an overall narrative stretching through all of the games. And, whether it is over the course of one game or observing the progress of all of them, there is an “illusion of temporal progress, of historical narrative” (Washburn, 152).
In that GDC Roundtable interview with Aonuma I referenced previously, he also said this:
“Obviously, when it comes down to the reality of the Zelda series, it can be very important for us to try to go back and try to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle, and we’ve actually done that and put together a complete overall story at this point, but for us, the storyline…is really there to make the gameplay more interesting.”
I agree—it was more interesting before the timeline was released. The idea of an overarching storyline was really cool because it was another puzzle for fans to fiddle around with outside of the actual game play. Like a big, narrative Rubik’s Cube for players. Keeping it secret, keeping a “master timeline,” was a thing for a reason. It was for the imagination and for the fun of the players. This was something Dan Owsen of Nintendo America agreed with back in 2011—“Part of what makes the series so special is the legend that spans across the series and they wanted to preserve that in the players’ vision” (NintendoPro, 2011). But now that it is official, it isn’t really in the players’ vision anymore, is it?
I’ll convince you why keeping it secret would have been so much cooler.
The existence and nature of Zelda partly boils down to the role of the player and their perceptions of narrative. The player is always Link, a silent and abstract persona that leaves more room for the player to assume the role and “support a play-centric model” for creating narrative (Pearce, 146). The player constructs the narrative of one game by playing that, and then, by playing more games, it is up to the player to use each game as a “kit of parts” to construct a larger narrative and make connections between games if they so choose.
When Nintendo makes one Zelda game with its “world-first, then narrative” mentality, they basically made a game and then considered continuity. There are details, spread out over various games, that reference or point to another game. There’s a focus on a more “open-ended and exploratory narrative structure” which a game designer only somewhat controls by “distributing the information across the game space” (Jenkins, 9), and then it is up to the player to unlock secrets and make progress to reach one single game’s narrative completion. The Zelda timeline basically did the same thing, on a much greater scale, crossing over multi-generational platforms of consoles and handheld devices.
It actually complicated Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia storytelling into more of an idea of transmedium storytelling. Each product is simultaneously “self-contained” but “any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole” (Jenkins, 96). Each game provides a fresh experience while simultaneously relying on that repertoire Zelda fans can expect—a spiritual conflict that connects with a powerful political conflict within the game world, and the player can expect to travel through different areas of the game world in order to diffuse this conflict.
Jenkins also stressed the economic imperative to produce more ambitious and challenging works and the goal to build a “more collaborative relationship with their consumers” (96). That collaborative relationship relied, in part, with the idea of an unknown timeline. Players used to track down information and insights across the game series and collaborate with each other to decipher the legend of the series.
Players could develop connections for a historical Zelda timeline by exploring connections between games by paying close attention to specific episodic events. They are “episodic” because in one game, they can stand alone and tell its own story, but they are “engrammic” in that they “refer to the regularities of deeper structures,” (Harkin, 101). Over multiple games, the relationship between Ganon, Link and Zelda and the repeated spiritual and political conflicts reveal to me the ways in which Zelda functions as a mythological narrative and how cognitive functions behind myths can be tied back into that play-centric construction of narrative through play.
While Jenkins argued that repetition and redundancy are franchise killers, recursive actions, repetition, and reflectivity are essential to the myth-making and historical narrative of Zelda.
Zelda games frequently refer to the creation of the world and the three goddesses. Myths appear contradictory at first. While the timeline was unknown, game developers seemed to rely on this and that, in myth, “everything becomes possible” (Levi-Strauss, 861). The “chronological structure of the story” is broken down in order to “isolate various elements (or mythemes) operating within the text” (Richter, 823), or in this case, games. Aonuma has stated in the past that it “really comes back to the mythology of the land of Hyrule… It is in a sense events recurring over time” (Kotaku, 2005). And those events recurring over time also reveal the theme surrounding the connection between the three major characters. The Zelda myth mediated “between conflicting theories… as long as the spiritual conflict continues (and if it is a genuine conflict, it can never be fully resolved), the myth will continue to be told, elaborated, varied, and retold in other forms that—structurally, at least—address the same issue” (Richter, 824). The repetition rendered the structure of myth apparent (Levi-Strauss, 867). As long as the myth continues and is told and retold by people, it can be explored and the journey can engage us to think and produce meaning. We may not have all of the answers, but we can glean insights into the symbols and allegories, take more satisfaction in the journey, and develop a greater connection to the fantasy.
Making the Zelda games as mythology was all about constantly restructuring the order of events as new titles came out, rather than limiting the series to an established timeline. Mythology has “no logic, no continuity” (Levi-Strauss, 861), but there is continuity in the Zelda series. Before the timeline came out, it was like an encouragement from developer to player to reveal the truth about the narrative in what Miyamoto once called an “active attitude” in the participation of creating an overarching narrative (NintendoPower, 1998). Participating in the myth-making of Zelda was a way for the stories in Zelda to inform Zelda gamer culture, and each timeline theory was colorful and interesting with varying degrees of in-depth analysis of the game releases. There were similarities and differences, but the uniqueness of the ideas were refreshing. It made each repeated play through games more interesting and exciting because we were all trying to catch something we might have missed before, and it allowed for people to play the same thing again with fresh perspective. It was like playing it new, yet it was still familiar. We the players were implicated in perpetuating the legend of Zelda through this myth-making construction of narrative, making the name “Legend of Zelda” truly fitting. When the timeline came out, that “active attitude” vanished, and the timeline is now something players passively accept as the Canon. Unless you are active in certain areas of fandom, like fanfiction, where no Canon is safe. Ever. Now it’s not so much of a “legend” anymore, really.
Before the release of the timeline, imagining, structuring, restructuring, organizing, theorizing and debating the timeline within the Zelda community engaged the player’s “mental operations… ways of classifying and organizing reality” which structure such a historical mythological narrative (Eagleton, 90). Players were involved in perpetuating the legend of Zelda games both by assuming the role of the hero in game play and by attempting to construct an overall myth. It was exciting because myths are constructed through people, with “no origin in a particular consciousness, and no particular end in view” (Eagleton, 90). It was fun to jump back and forth, like a time traveling investigator, even though the actual order remained, at the time, unclear, fluid and dynamic. There was, at that time, “no fixed notion about what Zelda has to be” (Eurogamer, 2007) to reference Aonuma and Miyamoto once again. It was a way we the players attempted to give order to the Zelda universe, a universe that accepted and rejected every sense of order.
However, now there is only one order, and, while I’m sure there will be some fantastic future Zelda releases, it feels like some of the magic has gone. It’s more like… the HISTORY of Zelda rather than a legend which we are actively participating in both as players who complete the game and as storytellers constructing a narrative.
References, I guess:
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press. 2008.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Publications, Henry Jenkins. Retrieved from Google Scholar, 11/9/11. 1-15.
Jenkins, Henry. “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling.” 93-130.
ZeldaDungeon.net for database of interviews with Aonoma and Miyamoto, under Resources.
“There is a Zelda Timeline, And No You Can’t Have It” 21 May 2011. NintendoPro.
Washburn, Dennis. “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” Mechademia, Vol. 4, 149-162 (2009).
Ed. Richter, David. Levi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Bedford/St. Martin’s 2007.
Harkin, Michael. “History, Narrative, and Temporality: Examples from the Northwest Coast.” Ethnohistory, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Spring 1988), pp. 99-130.