Here’s the video:
And here’s the script:
The Zelda timeline is nonsense.
I do not think there is a single narrative flow of time from the earlier Zelda games to the later Zelda games. I do not think that the ‘splintering timelines’ of Ocarina of Time create multiple forking realities, and I do not think that games need to be seen as happening before or after one another in terms of their mythological impact. I think they are contained narrative videogames, separate to one another, and inform one another only as much as any other common creative work would be. To see Legend of Zelda games as sharing a single canon continuity, even with its time splits and forks, is to see two games with similar components as the same thing, in the same way that Monopoly is a sequel to Backgammon.
This is my thesis statement, up front, nice and clear, and I lay it out like this to make sure you don’t get confused. We’re going to talk about timelines and canons for a little bit, but to do that, I’m going to wind up talking about the Zelda Timeline, which, again, I think is nonsense.
This is, I think you’ll find, exquisitely freeing. When you’re no longer bound to the idea of the timeline being a thing that coherently follows a linear flow of cause and effect, you can look at these games in terms of what they do within themselves, the way their versions of characters reflect on similar lore – such as the way Ganon is always a force of opposition – and the way they differ from one another – such as how sometimes he’s a manipulator who got close to the throne and sometimes he’s a giant pig who staged a coup.
I mean, I don’t even think Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time are sequels to each other. If they are, it asks some extremely weird questions, like why Malon is two people now and neither of them are named that. File me as an OOT Truther (Troother?) if you must.
This is obviously made somewhat awkward by the creation of Hyrule Warriors, a game which has as its central villain Cia, who decided a secret AO3 account wasn’t good enough and instead decided to weave together multiple dimensions to create a confused, fractured mess of a multiverse where she could do a smooch on Link (but only as her pure pure maiden self Lana, which she also made, and doomed). Look, I’m just saying that there’s a certain type of online fan who should feel very seen by Cia.
The good news for me and my no-timelines-no-masters position is that she gets to stand as a one-person avatar for an idea I’ve written about in the past: Hyperintertextuality.
Now, this is a big word, so let’s break it down in stages.
Text. a work, a creative thing. A story is a text, a song is a text, a movie is a text. Yes, that’s confusing, but we don’t have a good word for it that doesn’t imply it’s about words. One of the pitfalls of English, I’m afraid.
Inter-text-uality. Okay, so this is a term devised by our old friend Gerard Geanette, describing the you can use whole texts as tools to examine other texts. One of the easiest ways to do this is to look at a movie and ask if it’s a retelling of a Bible story. The Matrix, for example, or you could use Star Wars as a lens to examine The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past.
Hyper– is a prefix referring to the idea of doing something a lot, or rather, beyond a reasonable boundary. Hypersensitive means being sensitive to the point where it’s a harm. Hyperspeed means speed beyond reasonable boundaries. Hyperventilate means to breathe and gasp too much in a way that makes it hard to actually breathe.
Hyperintertextuality is therefore a term that, as far as I know, I’m the first to use when complaining about silly videogame stories. It’s the idea of treating a videogame – the text – as related to as many other texts as possible, to find the boundaries of that text, to assume that all components of the text are part of a singular, absolute point. In the context of The Legend of Zelda, this hyperintertextuality expresses in the need to be able to present all the stories, all these different texts, as secretly and absolutely part of the same big text.
When we talk about The Legend of Zelda canon, though, perhaps it might be best for us to instead talk, for a moment, about two other great Nintendo properties: Super Mario Brothers and Sonic The Hedgehog.
When you talk about Mario even though there’s no specific story you’ll point to for it, you have a sort of general idea for what makes a Mario story. You know what Mario is, what Mario’s day is like, what he does. Mario appears in a story and rescues someone, usually a Princess, usually from Bowser, or someone Bowser-scale. The pieces of the story are in their place, and whether Mario has a water gun or is collecting stars or is playing tennis or a board game or karting or doing turn-based math combat or whatever, there’s still a fundamental Mario-Ness to him.
Even the Mario Super Show, a ridiculous space that includes live-action segments of some very well-meaning, very nice actors who were making up nonsense about being plumbers from Brooklyn, isn’t really wrong. The thing for Mario, the amazing thing about Mario is that Mario doesn’t have a canon, like, a single perfected text, but is rather made up of a huge disparate collection of disconnected texts that don’t need to be harmonised into a single text. This is what I’d call a textless canon. You don’t need to point to a story to show what Mario stories are about. You know.
Sonic The Hedgehog tries for the same thing, but unlike a lot of the Mario Games, there’s been a deliberate attempt to convey a narrative connecting games to games. There’s a growing cast of characters that seem to imply some sort of history with one another from game to game, even if their actual connections are… tenuous. Sonic definitely wants to be seen as a textless canon – certainly since they stopped attaching numbers to the end of each game.
This is normal.
We don’t wonder why Cappy didn’t help defeat Wart, same reason we don’t wonder what Cream was doing back in Sonic 3 (And Knuckles). It doesn’t matter.
By comparison, you look at the canon of Legend of Zelda. Zelda is a universe of narrative stories that have recurrent themes, made using basically the same individual pieces. And this, especially with the introduction of time travel in the narrative of Ocarina of Time, has induced people to instead believe that there is a single unifying narrative, a pure space of story into which all the other stories slot in. There are people convinced that these stories, which all represent in some cases wildly different cosmologies, are in fact a single unified story with all the smaller stories representing complicated fragmentations of the same.
Now, I think this is ridiculous, because it’s ridiculous, and the need to fit all these things together represents a sort of nerd sickness, an inability to accept that some stories just are.
This is what I’d call a hypertextual canon. That is to say, there is text, and there’s canon, but some people construct a canon, a greater canon from all these other texts. There is nothing within the canon of each story that refers to any of the others explicitly. There are common traits between all of them, but that’s not the same thing as connecting the texts. So, if you look at this text a lot, you can spend your time convincing yourself there’s an interpretation where they all fit together, but you’re the one bringing that idea to the table, and you’re doing it in a way that makes Biblical harmonisation look positively relaxed.
I’m not trying to say people who like to play around with the storylines and timelines of the existing Legend of Zelda games are bad. They’re really not. This game, this wonderfully goofy, indulgent, dive-in-and-soak game, is a beautiful example of ways you can use the interconnected nature of texts to create wonderfully interesting, diverse stuff. The problem arises when a version of the text has to be right. The issue is not ‘a need to play with story pieces,’ or a desire to see similarities or possibility space in the world of The Legend of Zelda.
The issue was needing it to be right.
I think that putting all the Legend of Zelda stories in a single universe makes all those stories worse. It speaks of the idea that Ganondorf can not ever be redeemed, that the world is always one man’s actions away from vast peril, that the universe as we understand it is always only ever worth visiting and examining when it is at risk of dissolving away into nothing. It creates the idea that the force of evil isn’t just a recurrent list of problems that transpire because of bad judgment, but it’s a dude. It’s a dude, and when you deal with him you have to deal with him again.
Like when all these stories are woven together into one text, you have to wonder just how many times the story got cut short because someone named their kid Ganondorf and someone with a history book went ‘well, we can fix a big problem ahead of time if we just send this kid on a camping trip without a tent.’
Does this story get better if you know that Ganondorf keeps happening, that the Triforce of power constantly creates dangerous, corrupt despots until it is dispossessed, that this world, the same world, is always and constantly being cast into the cycle where an eternal hero returns, and it’s always the same guy? Is this story better if this is a world that always needs the one person who can fix it to fix it?
The funny thing is, Link is named Link because he’s meant to be our link into the world. He’s meant to be someone we, the players, the every person, can use to reach into this world and change it for the better. But when these stories happen, over and over again, when the world doesn’t get better and one long, recurrent narrative just always yields Ganondorfs, and the thing that addresses them is the universe producing another Link, it means the story is about Link.
It means that the problem in the world is there for Link to solve.
That it’s about him.
Not about us.
Not about what we can do, to make the world better.
But so what? That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. It doesn’t mean enjoying it is a bad thing. Playing with these storylines or seeing a world of interconnected texts is fine.
I just know what I like.
Part of the text of this video is from my original article about Hyrule Warriors, published June 18, 2018, and part of it from my article about Sonic Boom, March 10, 2018. The Video footage came from Nintendo Utopia.