zelda: the story is the point

and it’s not a good story but i love it anyway

Since the revising process is boring and repetitive, I’m going to start a series on stories and my thoughts on them. They probably won’t be hot takes or shockingly different than anything else, but evaluating stories is helpful for maintaining a critical eye on my own, so I hope they’re at least interesting to read.

Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom cover image. Link is crouched on an island floating in the sky above the game logo.

This week I finished playing Tears of the Kingdom. I love video games; Zelda is probably my favourite franchise, even though I only discovered it when I was 24 with Twilight Princess. I got the family a Switch for Christmas 2019, and if that wasn’t one of my best decisions ever I don’t know what else would qualify. We were still just getting into Breath of the Wild when lockdown hit, and that game is the one where I feel like I went from “incompetent” to “not intimidated by fighting.” Skills! Even adults can build them!

Both of these Zelda games are open-world, so as soon as you’re out of the introduction area you can head straight for the endgame if your little heart desires it. I’ve played BotW a few times through now, so the memories of trying to figure out the story are fuzzy and I don’t remember struggling with trying to put it together, even with the asynchronous mechanism for finding out why Link was asleep for 100 years and why these evil robots with terrifying music are shining explosive lasers on you and blowing you up all the time. If you chose to follow the quest, you find specific locations to trigger Link’s memories, and while there’s an order, you aren’t necessarily going to find them in that order. In spite of this, I don’t remember finding that frustrating. But I also was three years late to the game and had definitely encountered spoilers before I started playing.

TotK is set in the same world, and uses the same mechanic – there are massive geoglyphs on the ground, and somewhere on them is a puddle (tear) that will trigger a memory. But to me, this was a weakness in execution, because it’s easy to miss the guide to the “correct” order. So if you go out of order, the story doesn’t carry the same weight, because the tragedy comes out of nowhere. And if there’s a “correct” order, there should be a way to enforce it. Otherwise it shouldn’t matter.

This is my beef with the “open world” mechanic of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom: it’s almost a misnomer. The world is open, in that you can go wherever you want, but there is still a secret sequence you’re “supposed” to follow to make the story work. Now, Nintendo is not trying to write an award-winning narrative in their Zelda games. They keep it simple, vague, and riddled with plot holes on purpose. They follow their template: Link is the hero, Zelda is the princess, Zelda and the world are in danger, the danger is the evil that stems from Ganondorf, who wanted all the power for himself. There are hours and hours of YouTube videos linking all the games into a complex timeline, since there’s sort of a regeneration cycle that Link and Zelda are trapped in, trying to vanquish Ganondorf over and over again, but it’s mostly about noble hero rescuing princess to save the world from ultimate evil. The Hero’s Journey at its most basic.

So the story is not great. It’s weak, low-key sexist (maybe even high-key), the gameplay weakens the story further by allowing access to all the events at the same time, and the limits of the Nintendo operating system don’t allow for the machine learning to update the story on the fly, the way games on more powerful gaming systems do. And yet, the simplicity of the Zelda premise brings people back again and again. TotK will probably win game of the year and it’s made an absolute boatload of money already. Nintendo knows that people want Link to fight bad guys, solve puzzles, and win. People want a game that they can enjoy as adults, especially hitting that nostalgia button that millennials are suckers for, and is also playable for kids. My 9-year-old is kicking ass behind me right now; when she was 5, she never left the Great Plateau but still managed to create her own little low-stakes game within the game and loved it. There are forums devoted to making the game as hard as possible – no fast travel, no shields, no food with superpowers, etc, but everyone knows that that’s not the point.

But you can buy a monster mask and just hang out around a monster camp for a while. You can build a weapon of mass destruction and let it loose on that same monster camp. You can build Link a little house and get all the fancy clothes and dye them pink. (I especially like the Mystic Headdress because Link has hair down to his feet and it swishes dramatically every time he moves.) You can follow every side quest and rescue every little forest spirit and scour the land for all the monsters (some of them are, by design, harder than the final boss) and ride a dragon around the sky.

There are so many ways to play this game that it allows a huge amount of space for self-insert. And that is why I love it; Link has an absurd amount of abilities for such a tiny, skinny twerp, and I can pretend that I am the one fighting, climbing, swimming, riding horses, and shooting bows for days on end. Link has a quest and a purpose and the game tells you it’s important, but there are no consequences for avoiding it and helping the NPCs with their mundane tasks. Playing a video game is play. It’s something I can do entirely for fun. I get to be an active participant in the story and the story only progresses when I make it happen. So in that sense, the story is everything it needs to be.

Currently reading: The Locked Tomb, by Tamsyn Muir. It’s dark and weird and I love it a lot.

Currently listening: My Mind At Ease by Dominique Fils-Aimé. Gorgeous.

Currently eating: cake, because my eldest is on a baking kick and makes cakes on the regular. I’m not mad about it. I highly recommend raising a child for 14 years so they can bake for you.


One response to “zelda: the story is the point”

  1. Aa