Admin note: A few people have asked how to queue up for one of these “by request” posts, and the answer is: Support the Talking Time server fund on Indiegogo. All money raised goes toward keeping the forums running on top-tier servers for another year (I don’t pocket anything except money to pay taxes). This is your chance to force me to write something! Be gentle, and be sure to sign up before July 29.
By request of adamhuss82
It is with a heavy heart that I occasionally must admit that I am part of the problem.
Growing up, I always felt a small thrill at the thought of grand, interconnected sagas. When serial-style cartoons I watched demonstrated some sense of continuity that hinted at patterns and causality within their otherwise disconnected worlds, I’d always sit up and take notice. Yes, G.I. Joe invariably saved the world from some terrorists plotting to rule the world by turning hamburger stands into ICBM silos or through hypnotic telethons… but then there would be these odd little episodes with very specific callbacks to cartoon-specific inventions, like Shipwreck’s doomed love for the mysterious Cobra agent Mara. These small glimpses at a world beyond the standard toys-in-conflict concept lent the show some… well, I hesitate to say “narrative heft.” But certainly a few grams of substance for an otherwise immaterial media property.
As much as I loved Star Wars, I found the “extra” material sometimes more fascinating than the movies themselves. Not the Ewoks stuff, but things like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, or even the toys with no direct movie analogue. My parents gave me the Droid Factory playset one year for Christmas, which I loved — not just because it let me make all kinds of weird robots, but because it spoke to a world beyond Luke’s adventures on-screen. (Getting ahold of one of those playsets again is on my to-do list before I die.) Slightly later in life, I found the Star Wars role-playing source books and pored over those, transfixed by all their crazy details about the megacorporations behind the iconic space ships I loved. And any time I got my hands on a friend’s comic books, regardless of the series, I would read these tiny, 26-page slices of story and crave a chance to read how they began or ended.
Alas, though; once you introduce story to something, that work begins to conform to the rules of narrative. Concerns like causality and consistency creep in and begin to inform the direction and the nature of future creations. In time, this becomes a fixation with that most suffocating of forces: Continuity.
Some works are designed for continuity; a long-running, internally coherent narrative is baked right in. But when continuity creeps into tales designed to be compact and self-contained, when the need for rules begins to suffuse a franchised or anthologized property… that’s when the trouble begins. We nerds, we love what we love. But we so rarely understand where to draw the line. When to stop.
And this brings us to the tragedy of the Zelda timeline, the most convoluted and unnecessary story framework ever grafted onto an otherwise perfectly happy and healthy saga.
I think it’s pretty safe to say Zelda, at the beginning, was never really intended to have some overarching narrative. The NES game saw a direct sequel, yes, but subsequent games felt more like retellings of the original story: Link would take up his sword, find the Triforce, defeat Ganon, save Zelda. The specifics varied — sometimes Ganon lurked behind the court wizards, sometimes Zelda dressed in drag to offer advance — but ultimately Zelda took the form of a general monomyth. It was the hero’s journey, retold time and again. A… a legend, if you will. Of Zelda.
I can pinpoint the exact moment it all changed, when Zelda went from “nebulous legend with occasional cross-references” to “complex saga with cumbersome timeline.” It wasn’t Ocarina of Time, where the official timeline shatters into alternate realities; no, it was The Wind Waker. And, as so often happens with the insidious creep of continuity, it evolved from the single greatest and most powerful moment in the game.
Link descends at long last beneath the ocean that covers Hyrule to find a palace frozen in time. He stands out in his surroundings, not simply because he can move (unlike the paralyzed Moblins forever fixed in place through powerful magic) but because he alone possesses the gift of color. Once he claims the artifact binding the spell of stasis, color and life return to the palace and he must fight his way back to the entrance. Such a brilliant, vivid, memorable moment.
However, Link’s journey into this bubble of the past reveals something shocking: This flooded Hyrule is not simply some monomythic take on the land, but rather the same world as that of Ocarina of Time, rendered apocalyptic in the wake of that game’s adventure. The “Hero of Time” is honored in the form of a forgotten statue; Link’s green tunic pays tribute to the Kokiri origins of the Hero; and Ganon himself is a solemn, wistful old man whose heart plays host to a complex mixture of regret and resentment. It’s really the single greatest story twist in the entire Zelda series, doing that Klonoa thing where cutesy graphics hide a remarkably rich story.
— with this connection established, fans everywhere demanded to know, “How does this all work?” If two Zelda games were connected, sure they must all be connected? If the Master Sword “sleeps forever” at the end of A Link to the Past, that means it must come after Wind Waker, right? But how can it take place in Hyrule after Wind Waker is Hyrule has been flooded by the gods and the royal princess ventures forth to find a new home in another realm? And where does Zelda II and its cursed, slumbering princess and lineage of girls named in her memory fall into all this?
Nintendo played coy for a decade, even giving us Twilight Princess, which also worked as a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time but completely contradicted the events and premise of Wind Waker. Sadly, though, rather than simply leave these questions to our imaginations, Nintendo finally codified it all in print with Hyrule Historia, produced as a companion piece to Skyward Sword. The entire point of Skyward Sword, of course, was to establish the ultimate origin of the Zelda saga, and with that anchor point laid down the Zelda team revealed the bizarre branching timeline that determines the relationship between each adventure. The time travel element of Ocarina created an inflection point for parallel universes — one where Link prevented Ganon from corrupting Hyrule at all, one where he didn’t but managed to triumph, and (inexplicably) one where he lost and Ganon took control. I guess you could say the third branch is a metatextual construct based around the concept of “game overs” — video games demand player perseverance in the face of failure, but what happens if they give up? — though I suspect that’s giving this whole affair a little too much credit.
This timeline concept does nothing to improve the story and nature of the games. It simply makes things messier. It honestly diminishes the series, and robbing it of much of its mystery…
…but it’s not all bad. Nintendo has said that the next Zelda, Triforce Heroes, exists outside the timeline. Clearly, Aonuma has had enough of you nerds’ nonsense, too.