I’ve always loved the idea of video game lore, but I’ve always struggled with the real stuff of keeping track of it and making sense of it all. Partly it’s because I have a terrible memory, particularly for names, places, events and dates, so I was always going to have difficulty with following the deep history of Assassin’s Creed or the Elder Scrolls. The other reason, though, is because I always feel like I’m arriving late. All the actual archaeology has been done by the time I get there.
The one area where I can properly engage with the lore, however, is the Zelda series. I think that’s because lore in Zelda feels different to lore in other games. Deep down, I don’t believe Nintendo thinks about lore too seriously – or maybe it didn’t until quite recently. It feels like Nintendo thinks about what’s fun and what the team wants to do in the new game, and it certainly thinks about the detail of each specific game and its art and sense of cultures. But for a long time it felt like the wider, deeper, tying-it-all-together lore that spread outside of individual games themselves was left to the fans.
I may be deeply, deeply wrong about this – Lottie’s just told me a brilliant story about how the skeletal warrior from Twilight Princess may actually be the Link from Ocarina of Time passing on his skills from the timeline he’s trapped in. That sounds like pretty deep thinking tbh. But regardless, when I first saw the Zelda official timeline, say, it felt like a playful, jokey sort of thing – a lark. Crucially, I think I felt there was room for all of us in there still – room for the players. We could continue to make our own connections, right or wrong, and they would retain a kind of validity to them.
Anyway, the other night I read Borges’ short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius before going to bed. This was probably unwise. To boil it down rather brutally – and to spoil one of the most delightful reveals in literature – Tlon, Uqbar… is a story ultimately centered on a group of people who form a secret society that works, over numerous generations, to create the history of an imaginary world. It’s a wonderful story, sinuous and sinister, and – this might just me getting older – it’s quite funny too. I swear Borges gets funnier as I age. And this: it was impossible for me to read this story in 2023 without thinking about the worlds of fan fiction and video game lore, and the places where they intersect.
It mainly made me think about Zelda, and about one of my favourite characters in Zelda. I suddenly realised I didn’t know anything about this person – not anything legit. But I also realised that I had, growing in my head, this kind of theory about them, and I wondered where it might lead.
Stick with me, but only if you fancy. Even by my own standards this is a wayward and indulgent piece of speculation. Right. The character in Zelda that I really love is the old man in the cave at the very start of The original Legend of Zelda on the NES. What a game! And what an opening. A whole world lies before you, and you could go anywhere, start anywhere. But in that first screen, if memory serves, there’s a cave. Link goes in and an old man is waiting for him.
The old man’s bald, with a white beard and patches of white hair over his ears. He’s wearing red robes and he’s standing between two patches of flame. These aren’t bonfires or lanterns as far as I can tell – they’re just balls of fire. Spooky! The old man has a sword in front of him, and he tells Link: “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” Link grabs the sword, and the old man vanishes, his job done.
You know all of this, probably. That sentence is one of the most famous in all of video games, right up there with Atari’s, “Avoid missing ball for high score.” And “It’s dangerous…” works the same kind of magic as Pong’s one-line instruction, I reckon. It’s an incredibly compact set-up for what follows, a sort of universal guide for playing Zelda. Furthermore I’d argue that its musicality, the reason it’s lodged in folk memory so firmly, comes from the slight awkwardness of the phrasing, which has been imposed by translation in this case perhaps, but also, as with Pong’s instructions, from the desire to squeeze a thought down until it fits into the smallest number of words regardless of how that ends up sounding. It’s the perverse music of utility.
Yes, all of that stuff is magic. But over the years I’ve started wondering: who is this old man? I did exactly one piece of research to answer this question – I looked it up in the Zelda Encyclopedia. I may have been looking in the wrong place, but anyway: I didn’t find anything. But also, I should add that I haven’t looked online. I don’t know what other fan theories are out there. Selfishly, I didn’t want any existing theories to damage my own. Further caveats: I have never seen the manual to the first Zelda, which may explain everything. And, I have to admit, I have never actually completed the first Legend of Zelda game. I’ve played about the first half. Maybe the old man comes back in the final act! Maybe he’s Ganon. Maybe.
I don’t reckon that’s true though. For me there’s only one real likelihood for who this old fellow is. He’s Link. He has to be. He’s Link back from the future, old and tired, but with one last job to do.
It just makes so much sense to me. With Ocarina of Time, the series would introduce time travel, and even before that the games that followed the original Legend of Zelda went some way to creating the idea that Zelda is a series about retelling the same kind of story, the same clockwork fairytale, in Oli Welsh’s perfect phrase, moving through time and space perhaps, but never really leaving the basic contours of the myth behind. A hero in green. A world that needs saving. A sword. Having old Link back at the start kicking things off with young Link sort of closes the system. You get a line that loops, that goes around and around and around – Link to the Past, Wind Waker, Skyward Sword, all the rest – and then eventually there will come the distant day when it connects back with itself. The sword is entirely contained by the loop, the characters are all contained by the loop, and this series, with such a strong anchor in its own sense of the story it endlessly retells, gets something thematically resonant to bow out on, and simultaneously begin with once again. Cycles and loops and eras, endless repetitions, endless circling through Hyrule, and finally, at the end, how better to put it to bed than return to the start?
I love this because it suggests that somewhere in the future there is a final Legend of Zelda game where it’s not young Link or teenage Link but really old, old Link. And maybe his quest in this game is to take the Master Sword and work backwards through all his old memories and all his old adventures and return the sword to the start, to lodge it back at the beginning, maybe with a deeper understanding now of what he’s been doing all this time – what was so dangerous, say, and whether he spent most of his time going alone with it.
It makes me sad in a way, because even as I type this I know that the one thing successful series can’t often do is end. You’re throwing money away, and why would you do that? Instead you have to go on, reinventing – often brilliantly – and returning again and again to that central idea and finding something new in it, some promising gap to exist within. Don’t get me wrong: I love this, I love new Zelda games, I love looking forward to them, and besides, Zelda has come up with a better means of living with its own repetitions and interesting deviations than many series. In the endless retelling, a stage has been created for a play that never has to end. But I also think – spoilers – of God at the end of His Dark Materials, who’s so old and so knackered and just wants to disappear.
There’s something else, I think. The reason I love the first Zelda game – even if I haven’t finished it – is that everything’s up for grabs here. Nothing at all has been decided or ossified into ritual, not yet, because this is the start of all possible traditions, the phase space for all traditions, and later games have not yet started to make the choices as to which of these potential traditions will ultimately live on.
I noticed this afresh today when returning to the game for this piece, actually. The sword on the start screen, I noticed, the sword I have looked at a million times, is not actually the master sword. It’s a rapier. And why not? Because at the time this game was created, Link’s specific sword was maybe not yet legendary. Any sword would do to capture a sense of what the developers were going for here: action, adventure, fantasy, derring-do. Link was still potentially a kind of fourth musketeer.
And this is also why I still balk at the idea of the official timeline. This game on the NES is so obviously where Zelda begins. Not just because it’s literally where Zelda began, but because it feels so much like it too. Things are still penciled in. Rituals still feel like happy design choices, possibly conceived as one-offs. Even Hyrule itself feels like this arid, slightly under-imagined place. It’s waiting for all the other versions of Hyrule to come along and bring it into the full flush of life, the way that oil painters can build up a vibrant picture through layers of tinting.
It’s impossible for me to believe that Skyward Sword now chronologically predates this game, when that game so clearly still builds upon the basic design, still finds new things to exploit and expand within it. Just like it’s impossible to believe that almost every other Zelda game predates it too, and this crucial first game is actually just lurking near the end of timeline B.
Or maybe that’s fine. Maybe it’s like when you’re a kid and you discover that Earth is this tiny planet in a really boring outer part of the Milky Way, nowhere near the glowing, churning centre where all the real action is. Out here nobody’s paying attention to what we’re up to, so why not sneak in a secret or two: the genuine start of the series, and the eventual final point of the series too. It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.
If you’ve stayed this far with me you’re probably annoyed – I’m a bit annoyed to be honest – that I didn’t check properly to see if my dumb theory was original, or if all this had been imagined or refuted by the fans before, on forums, in books, in comments scattered somewhere on the internet. I’m sure it has been. But this is the final thing I’ve discovered I think: Zelda is the most personal of the mega-series. It’s ridiculous, but somehow, this game that all of us know inside out still feels like something we only know individually. Its lore and our own musings on it often seem private. It makes me jealous regarding my own thoughts.
Maybe this is why it feels like the territory in there is still up for grabs, and that we can make our own constellations of meaning, and why, for people like me, the official timeline has to feel silly because otherwise it would feel like a weird imposition. Years back when I was a kid I had a sticker book with Nintendo stickers in it – Mario and Balloon Fight and all the rest. We traded stickers in the playground as you’re meant to, but it always felt odd that the Zelda stuff was traded along with Mario and everything else. Part of me was surprised on something deeply truthful level that anybody else knew about Zelda. Bizarre. I know Zelda belongs to everyone. I know that it belongs to Nintendo. I know it belongs to you. So why does it feel that it belongs to me?