Zelda Speaks to Our Inner Child
Ihave a dirty little secret: I’ve never finished a Zelda game. Ever. I do enjoy the games, but I’ve never gotten around to finishing one. I’m willing to bet we all have a series like this in our back pocket — one we dream of finishing, but never have.
I’ve finished half of A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask. And I’m about a quarter of the way through Breath of the Wild. The end credits have eluded me every time, though. My life has simply become too busy; I keep setting these games down with planned return dates that never materialize.
Gamers tend to compile lists of must-play games that are quintessential to the gaming experience. These games are a rite of passage. Playing and enjoying these games give us a deeper understanding of the medium. I would put the Zelda franchise on that list.
Although I’ve never completed the main storylines, the experience of playing Zelda has stuck with me for more than 20 years. I wanted to consider why that is. The starting point, I think, is to understand what made gaming itself such an enjoyable experience for me in general.
The core of what makes gaming so interesting to me is the acknowledgement and enjoyment of another human’s creation. Someone developed this experience that you are now enjoying, almost saying “Here, look what I made.” Enjoying an immersive experience that other people created has shaped the way I see life in general. It has stoked my curiosity (especially around indie games). Video games have helped me empathize, understand, and reflect on what others might be going through — not just individuals, but also a broader view into how others interpret the world. There is a way in which video games can quite literally put you in another’s shoes more directly than other media.
This entire concept, too, extends to Zelda. Each game in the series is a deeply engaging experience that takes you into the mind of its creators. I find unlimited joy thinking about the drivers and motivators of others’ creative decisions.
The Zelda games are special in part because they aren’t heavily reliant on exposition to communicate ideas. That is to say, they leverage both interactive and non-interactive elements to convey themes and emotions — whether it’s color and lighting, musical score, or even the clip-clop of Epona’s hooves echoing through Hyrule Field. Of course, these elements are necessary if not sufficient ingredients; we might desire to play games with beautiful settings, mechanics, and music — but the world may still feel empty or soulless. The extra, almost intangible ingredient is the lore or narrative that underpins and ties together all of these otherwise disparate elements. Again, I’m not talking here so much about blatant exposition — I’m instead referring to the textures and patterns that connect in-game elements in ways that are truly additive.
Zelda’s lore is interesting on its own terms, but the motivations and influences behind its lore make it even more fascinating. Much of the franchise’s lore is inspired by Celtic mythology. That’s not to say that there aren’t other influences as well, but extensive parts of the narrative derive directly from Celtic stories. The skull kids, fairies, and even Epona come directly from these ancient tales. It’s not by coincidence, either, that Link is clad from head-to-toe in green.
If you’d like some more in-depth reading on these connections, I recommend Eurogamer’s wonderful piece on Zelda and Celtic mythology.
The discovery that Zelda’s mythology has such deep connections to ancient human stories lends even more weight to the experience. These ancient myths are, in some sense, part of humankind’s DNA — so much of our culture is rooted in them, and it’s no surprise that they continue to be a wellspring of ideas and inspiration for modern fiction. In the case of Zelda and my relationship with it, though, there’s another important piece of the puzzle for me to mention.
It’s that Zelda’s primary narrative perspective is that of a child. Every interaction and conflict resolves itself in ways that would make sense to a child. Regardless of how you interpret the plot, the core underlying theme relates to transcendence.
These are the stories I love the most.
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Children view the world through innocent eyes. Link — at least through most of the games in the series — exists at a key inflection point in his life. He teeters between childhood and adulthood. Every step forward he takes on his grand adventure is a step away from the innocence of home and his childhood — and yet, he is equipped to battle the darkness and preserve his inner goodness/innocence (that is the challenge, in essence).
The sword and shield Link carries throughout the series often reminds me of the weapons seen in Disney’s classic film, Sleeping Beauty. In the movie, these weapons are named The Sword of Truth and The Shield of Virtue. The prince these them to battle the forces of chaos — and ultimately, the dragon itself. In a similar way, Link’s Master Sword is a symbol of his purity and goodness; it strikes right at the heart of the demonic forces engulfing the land.
Link is the silent protagonist. That silence is essential.
There’s something about Link’s continued silence that remains pertinent. Although fully-voiced characters have become something of a norm in gaming, I don’t see Link’s silence as anachronistic. Rather, you become Link. His silence provides space for you to share his experience — it fuses you together.
The Zelda franchise speaks to our inner child. It’s the voice inside us that must be kept alive and nourished, because it is the vehicle