I read the OGN “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller” tonight. It’s a wonderful collection of short stories based on the venerable puppeteer’s TV series of the same name. If you like comics, it’s a must have, mostly because of the amazing creators involved. I also read a few reviews and watched some videos about the new Zelda game, Skyward Sword. The combination of these two pieces of entertainment got me thinking about the aesthetics of stories. You know, the feel of them, and why that’s such an important thing to the overall experience.
First off, I’m not one of those people that holds the Legend of Zelda series as some sort of infallible saga of masterpieces. I really enjoy some of the games for a myriad of reasons, but tend to agree with a lot of the non-fan criticisms. I don’t think Ocarina of Time is the greatest thing to ever grace a TV screen. It’s good. Damn good, mind you, but I think it’s a bit grating to hear fans of the series harp on and on about how the latest installment is or is not like OoT.
Kind of like Doctor Who, I look at the different Zelda games as variations on a theme. I don’t really care how they fit together in a timeline. It’s really not important to me. Now that I’ve gotten all that odd baggage out of the way, I can get down to why I want to talk about them.
The feel of the Zelda games may be the most important thing about them. There are certainly games that play like a Zelda game, but I can’t think of another experience that feels like a Zelda game. Nothing quite has that sense of wonder, that odd little spark of magic that all of the games have. It’s like playing an old fable. Everything is broad-sweeping archetypes and cliches. It seems odd to actually like the fact that there are cliches in a story, but I think the series is at its best when it’s playing within those established conventions. The unnamed hero. The magic sword. The damsel in distress. The world ending big bad wizard. Each game has these, but always plays them in a bit of a different light. Again, variations on a theme.
For instance, in Ocarina of Time, Zelda is the kidnapped princess in need of rescuing (and you later find out that she’s a badass ninja in the future), in Wind Waker she’s a smart-mouthed pirate with a mean streak who’s been in hiding (even though she spends the latter half of the game locked away somewhere), but in Twilight Princess she’s sort of a sleeping beauty type, locked away in a cold distant tower. They’re all very different and all convey a pretty different feeling, but still play within that cliche to a certain extent.
Link on the other hand is a bit more static. I like the fact that he’s a mostly silent protagonist (I say mostly because I’m not 100 percent sure that Link doesn’t have lines in Skyward Sword.) He’s always a pretty young guy from vague origins who finds out he’s called to be a hero. He wears the same clothes and gets the same sword. The feel he gives off is one of wide-eyed wonder that comes from his rustic roots. It’s very Clark Kent now that I think about it. I think Twilight Princess nailed that feeling the best by adding a bit of a Scottish flair to the whole thing and starting off with the possibly over-long intro of living on the farm. I was a little disappointed that Link didn’t spend the entirety of the game in his farmer’s get-up.
I think that vagueness is where a lot of the power of the series comes from. It’s kind of like in Drive. Gosling’s character is the perfect amount of vague, so each viewer gets to fill in the gaps. David Brother’s wrote about this idea a while back and of course, he absolutely killed it. Link is a Tabula Rasa that almost begs gamers to fill in the details in their heads. Link is a different person to everyone who’s ever played a video game. He’d be the ultimate video game cypher if it weren’t for Gordon Freeman.
Okay, went a little more in depth with those two than I was planning to. Back to the feel of the games. I mentioned fables earlier, and I think that’s important when talking about Zelda. These games are storybooks. They’re a book you’ve read a dozen times. You know the structure, you know the main beats, but the minor details get filled in a different way each time you pick it up. It’s a valid criticism to say that the Zelda games are same-y. They are. For some reason, it doesn’t bother me. I love starting the game knowing that I’m going to be plunging into a bunch of mind-bending dungeons and rolling fields filled with all sorts of storybook monsters.
The aesthetics and the feel also comes from the stakes, which somehow always manage to walk the thin line between epic and intimate. Each Zelda game seems to tell a fairly personal story, wrapped within the world-ending chaos. I think these games ingrained in me a love for that kind of storytelling and its effectiveness. When I’m working on fiction, I always seem to fall into writing stories about fairly normal people wrapped up in world changing events. I’ve been trying to avoid those tropes even though they come so naturally to me. I don’t want them to be a crutch. I write this fully aware that this kind of story isn’t exactly unique to the Zelda franchise, but it’s certainly the first place I can remember experiencing it.
Probably the most powerful feeling that comes from these games is that of a lone person with nothing but his wits and a sword going up against the biggest bad in the universe. It’s inspiring, it’s empowering and I don’t know if it’s done better than in Zelda.
The often overlooked WindWaker probably captures all of this the best. The exaggerated cartoony visuals have more personality than any other game I can think of. The characters are expressive, the landscapes are luscious with their wood-block like starkness, and the monsters are like something ripped out of the world’s oldest and most fanciful fairytales. It’s a shame that fans of the series tend to gloss over the incredibly high quality of this entry in favor of the darker toned games.
This column didn’t really turn out as I was expecting it to, so I might take another pass at it at a later date. I can’t wait to get my hands on Skyward Sword, but it probably won’t be for a long time, at least until after I get back from Europe. If you’re willing to help strike up a conversation, let me know what pieces of art and entertainment really capture that “feel” for you, whatever it may be.