Last week, the triumph and failures of the greatest horse system in videogames. Now, the final part of the serial, looking at Princess Zelda herself. Contains major narrative spoilers for Breath of the Wild and several other Zelda games.
Considering the franchise is named after her, Princess Zelda took a while to take an active role in the series. Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that she is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, simply because he liked the sound of the name. In the 1986 original, which was called The Hyrule Fantasy: Legend of Zelda in Japan, Zelda serves as a framing device in the grand pattern of the ‘rescue the princess’ trope. This is not wholly surprising, since the game’s working title was ‘Adventure Mario’, and the Mario series has almost universally been framed as a ‘rescue the princess’ story. These stories have a long history, with some of the oldest examples being Andromeda being rescued from the dragon by Perseus in Greek mythology, and the rescue of Sita from the demon king Ravana by Lord Rama in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Even if we have recently become suspicious of the implications of ‘rescue the princess’ stories, the Zelda franchise’s thirty year run helps reveal a gradual change of attitude towards ‘helpless’ Princesses.
In the first game, Zelda provides the backstory by having broken up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts before being imprisoned behind a wall of flame under Death Mountain. After defeating Ganon in this game, Link frees Zelda – whose 8-bit appearance (pictured left) is a triumph of lo-res sprite design. The sequel, The Adventure of Link, has another ‘rescue the princess’ framing story, this time a different Zelda from an earlier time who has been asleep and is awakened by Link at the end of the story. Apparently, Princess Zelda was so unimportant a character at this time that she could be entirely substituted by a replacement Zelda without any impact upon the games at all. Even A Link to the Past only barely improves Zelda’s status as an extra in her own legend since at this point she actually has some speaking lines, admittedly to exhort Link to save her from being sacrificed by the dark wizard Agahnim, who succeeds in so doing, although she is still rescued by Link at the end of the story.
It is Ocarina of Time which finally improves Zelda’s status as a character. Although it seems from the outset that the game will work as a ‘rescue the princess’ story, what we actually see in Link’s dream during the opening sequence (and again in person when these events actually occur later in the story) is young Zelda being spirited away on horseback by her bodyguard, Impa, who had appeared in the backstory of the earlier games as her ‘handmaiden’. When Link has his Tom Hanks moment and fast forwards to being an adult after drawing the Master Sword out of a stone hexagon within the Temple of Time, he is assisted by the mysterious Sheik (pronounced ‘sheek’), whose identity is kept concealed. It is eventually revealed that Sheik is Princess Zelda in disguise – subverting the expectations of a ‘rescue the princess’ story, by letting Zelda assist Link in overthrowing Ganondorf.
Although she does not appear in Majora’s Mask at all, the games that followed continued to give Princess Zelda more of an active role in the story. In Wind Waker, the pirate Tetra turns out to be Zelda in disguise, in something of a revisit to the Ocarina of Time plot. In Twilight Princess, the climax has Zelda wielding the Bow of Light from the back of Epona (whom Link is riding) – allowing Zelda to step up to the role of hero (well, co-hero) in this story for the first time. Skyward Sword, which serves as the prequel to the entire Zelda timeline, has Link pursuing Zelda after a tornado whisks her away from Skyloft, but we do see her being trained by Impa and establish that she is the reborn spirit of the goddess Hylia before she ends up sealed in a crystal and reduced to plot device for the rest of the story.
It is only when we get to Breath of the Wild that the series truly lives up to the promise of being ‘The Legend of Zelda’, since for the first time in the series the majority of the explicit narrative materials are Zelda’s story, albeit in direct relation to Link. It also should not be mistaken for a ‘rescue the princess’ story – despite the occasional character that pleads for Link to ‘save Zelda’. The story has Zelda holding the evil of the Calamity Ganon in check through her own power, and having done so for a century. This is not a case of a powerless princess being used as a pawn by stronger powers. Zelda is the one who has prevented Hyrule from falling to the dark force that threatens it, and Link’s requirement to ‘save’ her seems to reflect more the general lack of faith in Zelda sustaining her power that these various characters have, since as the only one capable of holding Calamity Ganon at bay – and, ultimately, defeating it, after Link manages to undermine its power – this is the story of Zelda saving Hyrule with Link’s help, and not the other way around.
The set up for the new story is the polar opposite to Skyward Sword, which was the earliest episode in the overarching story of The Legend of Zelda. Conversely, Breath of the Wild is set at the far end of what is known as the Downfall timeline. Ever since the publication of Hyrule Historia in 2011, fans of the franchise have had access to the general contents of the narrative ‘Bible’ for the series, which has three branching timelines subsequent to the events of Ocarina of Time. The Downfall timeline concerns what happens after Link fails to defeat Ganondorf in that game, and the new Zelda takes place at the furthest point along this timeline. Although it has never been made explicit, the set up for Breath of the Wild entailing endless recurrence of the great calamity known as Ganon implies the Downfall timeline, as do the parallels with the original Legend of Zelda, which also belongs in this timeline. In a Game Rant interview, the Zelda franchise ‘apprentice’, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, confirms that the new game is set in the ‘far future’ of its fictional world:
It takes place in an age long, long after any of the titles released to date. It is the most recent age. And because of this we believe players will be able to easily immerse themselves in the game. Of course, regardless of the time period, the story does unfold in Hyrule so for those who’ve played other titles in the series there will be a lot of recognizable places to enjoy.
As mentioned previously, the narrative design of the new Zelda is radically far from the conventional GTAIII-style open world formula used throughout contemporary AAA open world franchises. That standard formula uses a conventional linear narrative, often with an Act or Chapter structure, and requires the player to crank the plot by visiting the next location where a story event occurs. This works well… and has thus been worked well into the ground. Breath of the Wild instead disconnects the linearity from its explicit storytelling entirely and makes every cut scene part of backstory exposition rather than an advancing present tense plotline. This is framed in terms of Link having suffered from amnesia as a result of his long century of recuperation (which ends when the game begins), although the basic narrative structure here could be deployed in any game with substantial backstory, and does not require the loss of memory to make it work.
There are eighteen locations throughout Hyrule that have a connection to the backstory between Princess Zelda and Link. The narrative structure entails a first Act upon the Great Plateau, completing the extended tutorial and acquiring the four Runes that almost all game puzzles depend upon. A second (entirely optional) Act concerns Impa – now old and infirm, having waited a century for Link’s return – and the Sheikah Slate that is the in-game representation of the player’s Wii U ‘tea tray’ or Switch in handheld mode. This second Act culminates in the player being shown twelve photographs of locations in Hyrule, and after this there are no further Acts save for the Final Act concerning the showdown with Calamity Ganon. The player has to use their growing knowledge of the landscape (with a touch of blind luck) to locate these twelve locations, each of which reveals a flashback to Link and Zelda’s backstory. These can play in any order – leaving the player to piece the narrative together. This has been done in videogame narrative before via journal entries and the like, but never in an expensive to develop feature like a fully animated cut scene.
In addition to the twelve Captured Memories pictures, which are the main body of the game’s explicit narrative, there are six additional memories. Four of these correspond to the Champions who in the backstory (a century before the game’s events) were to take the Divine Beasts into battle against Calamity Ganon, and are the main additional characters to appear in the memory cut scenes. A further memory concerns the Master Sword, and Princess Zelda placing it into a ceremonial stone triangle to wait for Link’s return (this is the last event in the chronology of the backstory, although the player could uncover this cut scene at any point in the flow of the game). When all of the twelve Captured Memories pictures have been located, Impa also provides a final memory – and this cut scene is thus very likely (but not certain) to be the last piece of the backstory that the player unlocks, allowing it to take upon a special significance.
Zelda’s story for Breath of the Wild is as follows: 10,000 years before the events of the game, the ancient hero – let’s call him Backstory Link – defeats the Calamity Ganon with an army of marvellously technological Guardians and Divine Beasts, and the fiend is sealed away by the power of the ancient Princess (Backstory Zelda). Our Princess Zelda is the latest in the royal line of descendants to Backstory Zelda, while our Link is either a descendent of Backstory Link or his soul reborn in a Royal Guard of Hyrule Castle. At the time of the first Captured Memory, Link has already proved himself possessed with the courage and purity of heart required to possess the Master Sword, which he carries with him in every memory-related cut scene. Zelda is supposed to possess the power to seal the Calamity Ganon into captivity but the death of her mother when she was six years old has given her doubts… she feels unprepared and, worse, she has found herself to be something of a nerd and her father the king consistently undermines her confidence by telling her she must abandon “playing at being a scholar” and focus on her training.
Zelda, however, as the Champion Urbosa confirms, has knocked herself out trying to fulfil her duties and has come to despair about ever manifesting her supposed powers. When her father, the king, assigns Link to guard Princess Zelda as she visits the the Springs of Power, Courage, and finally Wisdom, Zelda reacts badly. Although she protests to Link that she doesn’t need his protection (which is clearly not the case), Zelda finds herself frustrated by Link because he successfully – and perhaps even effortlessly – fulfilled his destiny in being able to wield the Master Sword. As the Champions of Hyrule whisper amongst themselves in what is chronologically the first memory, seeing Link is a constant and painful reminder that Zelda is not able to awaken the power to seal the darkness within herself, despite the extreme efforts she has expended trying to do so.
The situation begins to shift after Link saves Zelda from an attack by the Yiga Clan, a cult that serves Calamity Ganon and forms one of the major sub-plots of Breath of the Wild. From this point onwards, Zelda and Link become close friends. She talks freely to him about all the nerdy things that interest her, he shares advice about horses with her (he doesn’t seem to know much about anything except weapons and horses), and she opens up about her anxieties, even revealing that she would like to run away from her duties (even though she cannot actually consider this doing this in practice). At Hyrule Castle, she is watching with great interest the awakening of the Guardians, the machines that ten thousand years earlier defeated Calamity Ganon, when her father appears and openly scolds her, accusing her of playing a “childish game” and suggesting that the people mock her because she is “heir to a throne of nothing… nothing but failure.”
Undaunted by her father’s disappointment, Zelda proceeds to visit the final Spring, the Spring of Wisdom on Mount Lanayru, on her seventeenth birthday, but she is still unable to awaken her power. Mipha, the Zora Champion, tries to tell her that her own powers were inspired by her love (whether for Link or her brother Sidon, it is never clear) – but Calamity Ganon awakens, ending the conversation. While Urbosa wishes to hide Zelda away, she insists that there must be something she can do to help on the battlefield. However, the great battle is ultimately lost – Calamity Ganon possesses both the Guardians and the Divine Beasts, slays all the Champions and everyone in the Castle – and a devastated Zelda is only saved by Link rushing her away at the last second.
At the climax of the story, Guardians have relentlessly pursued Zelda and Link to Fort Hateno, coming in numbers far beyond anything the player faces during the game. A wounded Link tires and stumbles as a Guardian is about to unleash its beam attack. Zelda places herself between it and Link and finally, her power unlocks. For the first time, she is not trying to awaken her power because it is her duty, but in order to save someone she loves. There is a mighty blast of energy, and the Guardians fall silent. This has especial resonance for most players, because the battleground outside Fort Hateno is something they have seen many times by this point, and now it becomes clear that it is Zelda’s power that is responsible for it.
Link collapses, dying, but Zelda finally comes into her own birthright, both as wielder of the power to seal Calamity Ganon away, and as crown Princess of Hyrule. She is about to fall back into despair when the Master Sword talks to her, mind to mind, and reassures her that all is not lost. Zelda then instructs two Sheikah (Purah and Robbie, both of which the player has met by the time they view this memory) to take Link to the Shrine of Resurrection, where his wounds will heal over the next century – setting up the opening to the game. She then delivers the Master Sword to the Great Deku Tree to wait for Link’s return, and proceeds to seal both Calamity Ganon and herself away for the next century, using the power that she has now successfully claimed.
Even if this is not the most sophisticated piece of storytelling, it is still substantially more nuanced than any plot previously offered by a Zelda game, and really does focus on Princess Zelda – her failures, and ultimately her successes, as she ceases to feel trapped by her duty and instead accepts her fate and goes on to successfully seal away Calamity Ganon forever. In a post credits scene that the player sees only if they have collected all the memories, we see the Princess – now Queen of Hyrule – thinking through what needs to be done to rebuild the kingdom, very much focused upon the aftermath of the fall of the Champions that provides the four Divine Beast side plots (and dungeons) within the game. It is a relatively slight coda, but it works.
I was not, I confess, enormously enamoured with Patricia Summersett as Princess Zelda in the English language version: her performance is fine, but her voice feels wrong for the character, too mousy and whingey. The role needs to convey both resolve and commitment, as well as self-doubt and vulnerability, and the tenor of the performance reverses this emphasis. I can see why this casting decision might have been made, however, especially since it aligns well with the Japanese language performance – but should the English language voice performance match the Japanese? The cultural expectations of those two audiences are radically different.
Throughout the franchise, Princess Zelda has transformed from a ‘rescue the princess’ plot device (the first three games) to someone with an active role in the story but only in secret (Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker), a woman with the power to fight Ganondorf alongside Link (Twilight Princess), and now finally a woman who can save Link’s life, hold evil at bay for a century, and swoop in FTW (‘for the win’) as Queen of Hyrule, admittedly with a bucket load of teenage angst along the way. The Legend of Zelda franchise remains one of the most remarkable achievements in videogame history, both for its relentlessly innovative design and its creative narrative design, which in Breath of the Wild offers an entirely new vision for how open world story telling can be constructed.
A new serial will begin later this year.