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Legend of Zelda has No Coherent Timeline?
by Seth Sivak on 07/16/09 10:01:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This story is a few days old, but I still feel the need to comment on it. I played Ocarina of Time extensively, and I have been known to rant about it. If you want a quick overview, the person that made the Split Time Theory video emailed Nintendo and asked about the timeline of the Legend of Zelda story as it relates to the games.

Nintendo responded that "there isn't a true frame of reference of timeline possible for the series" based on the fact that "each new game represents a new Link" main character. This clearly annoyed OcarinaHero10, the user responsible for the video, but does it really mean for the games and franchise?

The interesting thing about the Legend of Zelda games has never really been the meta-story. If you look at most of the games it is always the same quest of a young hero who must fulfill his destiny in order to save a girl (or young woman).

However, the environment and steps involved in the story are always unique enough to keep players coming back. This is really no different from any other formulaic video game (or movie, or book) story that is reused with a slight twist. But if that was really true what has millions of gamers coming back each time?

I think this is one of the rare times that players enjoy a divergence from what they know. It is fun to play the most recent Legend of Zelda game because you know it will be very well crafted from a gameplay point of view, but also to see how the Legend itself will be retold this time. It is like hearing a ghost story at summer camp and then coming back the next year ans seeing how the counselors changed it since last time. The beauty is that the meta-story remains the same, but how it is told is new, fresh and unique.

This is becoming common in entertainment (and even in culinary and fine arts), where an old movie or story is reimagined by a new generation. Legend of Zelda is just one of several examples of this (most of them from Nintendo, and it has basically been going on since the leap from the NES to SNES) and I am sure we will see this trend deepen in the coming years now that franchises totally dominate the industry.

Part of me really wishes they did not officially destroy the theorycraft behind weaving all the games together, but as long as they don't ask Michael Bay to reimagine Legend of Zelda I think we are all in good shape. 

I think these reimagined versions are always interesting and cool, it is fun to see how different designers envision the Legend of Zelda story and what new twists can be added.  Like any good fairy tale or fable, the story of Link and Zelda is alive in the minds of gamers, so it is interesting to watch it evolve along with gamers and game designers.

Much like Super Mario Brothers or any game that has made multiple transitions across hardware generations, Legend of Zelda is a good barometer for game design styles and trends.  At least one Legend of Zelda game has appeared in each major console generation (including handheld) and it is fascinating to see how the hardware and game design fads of the time have impacted the games themselves. 

I just hope that the coming generations of the Legend of Zelda series stay true to form and continue to be some of the very best this industry has to offer.

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Andy Lundell
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They say it right there in the title. LEGEND of Zelda.

This is how legends work. There are not coherent back-stories for legends. They are not expected to maintain continuity from one telling to another.

There are many, many different tellings of the story of Robin Hood written in many different eras, but no one considers it a flaw that they don't match up. The joy of even reading a Robin Hood story is not learning the overall story, you already know that, but enjoying the completely new take on a familiar tale. A few hundred years ago some extra characters were added to the Robin Hood legend (Friar Tuck, for example) but no one considered that a foul, just an interesting new twist on an old classic.

Somehow this bothers us modern westerners. In the modern Western world, when a story is re-booted it's a huge deal. It's jarring. It gives us a nagging feeling that everything we learned so far was wrong. Sometimes the rebooting even needs to be explained within the context of the old story! (See the most recent Star Trek film) But apparently the Japanese are still cool with stories that are more fluid and can change with the retelling.

The Zelda games, and fans' desperate attempt to connect them up are a perfect demonstration of this phenomenon. (You could argue that Mario and Final Fantasy games are also at least partially relevant.)

Sometimes I wish we still told stories in the old fashioned way. I'd love to see a new director's take on "Star Wars IV: A New Hope"

Seth Sivak
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Robin Hood is an awesome example of what I was trying to cover. A quick search on IMDB lists 5 different movies all based on the name "Robin Hood". I think this is one of the big draws to the Legend of Zelda series, at least for me.

I was just commenting that I was somewhat disappointed the squashed all hope for speculation about a unifying storyline. It is fun to consider and theorize about how the games could all be tied together. I certainly was not saying this is a problem, I just think it takes away any chance they might have had if they eventually want to tie them all in.

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Peter Dwyer
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Both Occarina of time and Majora's Mask were directly linked timeline wise i.e. the same Link, Zelda and world. It speaks volumes that these are also the best loved Zelda games of the last decade. For me they are the best in the bunch because they start to tell the story of what happens to link after he saves Hyrule and starts the journey of a wandering hero. Arguably the tale we all want to hear anyway.

We all love continuity in stories because we like to follow the adventures of our favourite hero. A re-boot removes any connection we had with that hero and so causes us to think twice about re-investing time into their story. I don't consider it a good thing that the same tale is simply re-told with new characters or locations. This only worked in stories like Robin hood because originally they were told through word of mouth and so would often be embelished by the teller. Nowadays with the proliferation of books and reading, it is identical in the telling from one version to another and only the actors change. If you've seen one robin hood movie, you've seen them all. They may have more flashy explosions but, when all is said and done, you still have sherwood forest, a guy called robin, king richard, robbing of the rich to feed the poor and a maid called marion for fobin to rescue and marry. The rest is incidental fluff.

I feel that Zelda is pretty much a robin hood style story. Certainly it's starting to feel like if you've played one Zelda, you've played them all. The core story never changes, nor does the task assigned the hero. All Zelda games have the following in common; The guardians create the world and leave the tri-force, the tri-force is split by greed, link get's the power of courage, gannon get's power and zelda get's wisdom. Link has to save zelda from gannon to stop all the pieces being re-united (no idea what the wisdom tri-force piece has to do with wisdom, if it continually chooses zelda, arguably the person with the least wisdom of all the characters! but that's another argument...).

I would argue that you don't need a unifying timeline for zelda as it feels more like one story being told on a grapevine, where each teller get's part of the story wrong or changes parts of it to embelish deeds that would otherwise seem dull and routine. Eventually all stories like that become forgotten as new deeds and tales take their place. This usually happens because people start to correct the story teller as they have heard the story many times before and can spot the inconsistencies within it. I would argue that this is what is starting to happen to the Zelda series. The fans have played through enough zelda games to spot the similarities and the flaws in the tales. Eventually they will not even need to play the games in order to predict with almost perfect accuracy, what will happen throughout any new zelda story.

To advance the tale Nintendo would be best served by forgetting the old story and instead building on the journey that was started with Majora's mask. Taking link to new places and forgetting the old characters all together. Perhaps re-visiting them far down the line, when the hero eventually returns to Hyrule. Let's face it. A lot of us are fed up of rescuing the wise zelda from her own short sighted stupidity. If the tri-force had any sense it would simply find link and yell "Let's get out of here before Gannon and dopey er Zelda show up!"

Andy Lundell
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Seth, If the stories are not intended to be connected then it's probably best that they say so, and not succumb to future temptation to write some sort of ridiculous connecting story.

Example : When Isaac Asimov decided to merge his 'Foundation' story line with his robot stories, it pretty much made everything that happened in the early novels meaningless. Merging of stories that weren't meant to be merged almost always ruins them, at least slightly.

A series with continuity pretty much needs to be planned out as a series from the beginning.

Peter Dwyer, That's a valid opinion, but be aware that a large portion of people disagree. Many of us are happy with the more old fashioned, "legend" approach. Many people still feel that the telling of a story is at least as important, if not moreso than the rough cliff-notes plot outline. This is what makes both "Romeo & Juliet" *and* "Westside Story" both worth seeing.

P.S. I'm not convinced that Majora's Mask is in the same league with OOT as far as fan appreciation. Not having owned an N64 in its prime, I've recently gone back to play the highlights from that console. Everyone I talk to says the I have to play OOT, but MM is forgettable and not worth the effort.

Seth Sivak
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Peter, I think you raise some interesting points. I doubt Nintendo will stray away from the current standard, but the Zelda Universe is no doubt big enough to do total direction changes. I could even imagine a Zelda game where you actually play as Zelda. I think the only true "spin-off" based game that worked well was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but I could be wrong. I would certainly love to see more of the Zelda Universe than what the current franchise has covered.

Andy, I was simply saying that it felt a little bit like they were magicians revealing how they did their trick. If they kept the fans guessing it makes for more interesting buzz and theorycraft around the franchise. This helps build a really strong community that is committed to the Zelda Universe. They basically destroyed that (I don't think this will destroy the community, but it will take away the story debate that has been present for a long time). I am not saying they are wrong in wanting to give the explanation they gave, I just said it made me a little sad.

I think that it is tough to believe that every single Zelda game uses a new Link, since some are clearly direct sequels. This adds to the flavor of the entire franchise as well, but it also makes an unifying story theory or totally different story theory difficult to explain.

Michael Arean
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The Legend of Zelda, works any way. If all the titles are linkes, then the retold legend are just pieces of a massive one, that embarks during centuries, millenia, eons. But even if that it is not true and it is a constatn reboot of the series, the series doesn't lack the charm. The real fundament of the franchise is the extremely solid gameplay, the exploration of the new world that you already know, the slight innovations. The simple differences are what makes the gamers to keep coming back, as it is well exposed in this piece.

Ron Newcomb
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I thought it plain that _Zelda_ is myth, meaning each new game is a re-telling of the same story.

What I wish is that they'd resolve the sexual tension. Would it be so bad if Link & Zelda fall in love, have an actual romance? Many of the latest games have that long-look-of-longing in them, sometimes even from non-Zelda females, but Link just seems so... naive. It's been two decades! Sweep the princess off her feet and plant a big sloppy kiss on her! C'mon, I'm *dying* here!

At least there was, allegedly, a kiss at the end of Z2:tAoL.