My recent review on Zelda Wind Waker HD produced a fairly predictable response: “Oh my goodness Yahtzee actually likes a game”, from the people who don’t watch regularly and mostly get their idea of my work from my popular image, as well as “Oh my goodness Yahtzee likes a Nintendo game” from the only slightly savvier ones who haven’t noticed all the nice things I’ve said about the Gamecube, Metroid Prime, Paper Mario, and the Mario series generally, up until Mario Galaxy 2 when they ran out of ideas.

A slightly more valid view might have been “Oh my goodness Yahtzee likes a Zelda game“, if the speaker has managed to miss all the previous occasions I expressed my love of Wind Waker. It’s true that the series as a whole doesn’t exactly swab my underscrote. I’ve played the early ones, like the original NES one and Link to the Past, only in passing, and they didn’t grab me. Wind Waker was the first one I really enjoyed, and all the ones that have come since have compared less than favorably.

I like Zelda for being nice, straightforward good-versus-evil fairy stories with functional combat and controlled open-world pseudo-Metroidvania exploration mechanics. I don’t like Zelda when it gets up itself. When it starts getting this idea that it is some kind of sacred thing, divinely appointed by its association with its forebears to always uphold tradition.

This is what happens with the gameplay – over time Zelda games have acquired a formula. You go to the next dungeon on the list, solve puzzles, acquire keys, acquire tool, use tool to defeat boss, boss drops health upgrade. There are glass jars that hold potions and fairies and you fight the same monsters in whatever art style we’re using now. The games are free to add new ideas, but only on top of the foundations that are already in place. And then the players buy into this idea of the game design being rigid and sacrosanct, which doesn’t help. I always roll my eyes when I hear people complain that there aren’t enough dungeons in Wind Waker, when I would argue that the many islands to be explored in the overworld create enough gameplay to make up for it. But no, it’s Zelda. Zelda can only frame its gameplay through the medium of dungeon, the Pope is infallible, we have always been at war with Eastasia, blah de blah de blah.

And from a certain point onwards this attitude is reflected in each game’s story, too. In the very first Zelda game, there’s not a whole lot of context except that you are a warrior hero and you rescue a princess from a villain. Your basic fantasy story, and we can invent whatever context we want. Maybe he’s in love with the princess, maybe he’s a reluctant Han Solo type seeking the payoff, or maybe he’s just a good sport. Technology being what it was in those days, even a single text-dump story screen would take up a significant amount of memory, so this was about all the context we could expect.

The problem arises as the series continued and became up itself, so when technology finally was good enough to have more than a token amount of storytelling, the story was bound by tradition: Link is the hero who’s going to save the land from the villain because that’s just how it’s always been. Limited now not by technology but by adherence to formula, what tends to be the case in Zelda games is that Link has simply been handed the role of hero by some unknowable higher power. He is pre-determined by destiny to be the hero, and even during the mandatory humble-origins introductory section he seems to be naturally great at everything with no apparent effort.

link selfie

I don’t find that compelling. It’s one of the reasons I dislike the latter Fable games where ‘heroism’ is a quality unique to a specific bloodline of handsome white people, ‘cos it adds this GATTACA-style genetic discrimination subtext to the plot. Where’s the drama in someone who has been magically destined to be a hero and save the world, being a hero and saving the world? Far more interesting when someone from common stock has to overcome something and realize their potential.

That’s why I like Wind Waker Link, because he’s just some putz. On the game’s outset, when he’s still on not-particularly-cleverly-named Outset Island, he takes the role of hero by default because he’s the guy who happens to be wearing the right clothes at the time when a hero is called for. He embarks on the world-saving adventure initially for self-interested reasons, to rescue his kidnapped sister, and he’s only ever acknowledged as a hero by other characters when they seem to be humoring him. It may be implied here and there that he is the latest reincarnation of the destined hero, but it’s not the only thing driving his motivation and character. One could imagine that the Gods and sages and other bullshit entities are all declaring him the hero partly to convince themselves.

What I think would make for an interesting Zelda game would be a plot in which Link is once again appointed by destiny to be the hero, but makes every attempt to resist it. Because he’s a pragmatic and realistic kind of bloke who would prefer to look after his own affairs and let the kingdom sort itself out. A man continually baffled by the way neighbors and complete strangers alike continually ask him for favors they would have no reason to think he would be qualified to carry out. And who doesn’t particularly like the princess much because she seems to have a rather generic personality.

Sooner or later the Gods of Destiny or whoever would get ticked off and burn his farm down to get him going on the Hero’s Journey. But that would make him only more determined to stay, because now there’s all kinds of work to be done to get the farm back on its feet. Finally, in exasperation, he’s magically dressed in full hero gear and transported to a field where an equally perplexed Ganondorf is waiting.

Only they don’t fight, but instead talk, and realize that their problems are not each other, but whoever this God person is who keeps destining them to fight, generation after bloody generation. Together they fight their way through the mystical outlying territories, where they find the final answer to the Zelda conundrum: an empty throne. For there was no God behind this, no grand controlling intelligence: just the eternal, unstoppable force of the status quo. And with that realization, everyone starts dancing to Rockin’ All Over The World as the credits roll.

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