I have never felt that I've needed to prove that the Zelda games have an internal history. I used to assume that this was simply a given fact. But I have discovered that not everybody sees the Zelda games this way. They see the games as successive retellings of a single, archetypal myth. Each game is just another version of "Link fighting Ganon to save Zelda." I have spent a lot of my time studying the history of Zelda, so, obviously, if my hard work is going to continue to have any meaning at all, I must deal with this important issue.
The Nature of Fantasy
In any kind of fiction, especially in the realm of fantasy, there are two ways in which the fiction can be constructed. Assume that the fictional literature is a series of stories or tales. One way to construct these tales is to have them interact with each other. The stories are meant to be taken in a historical context. Combined, the stories form an internal history, a fictional history if you will.
Another way to construct a series of fiction is to not have them connect at all. Each story stands on its own merits, starring different characters in a different setting or world. None of the stories in the series are meant to interact with each other; the actions of a character in one book will not affect the actions of a character in another book.
An example of a series of fiction with an internal history is J.R.R Tolkien's books. His "Hobbit," "Lord of the Rings," "Silmarillion," and other works all deal with the fictional history of Middle-Earth. An example of the other end of the scale is Aesop's fables. Each fable is a self-contained story. None of the characters in any one of the fables appears in or has an effect on any of the other fables.
Having established the different types of fictional literature, let's now extend the concept to fantasy games. Granted, games are very unlike books. They are made by teams, not by one person, and later games in a series might make bolder storyline moves than older games. And in games, the story, no matter how good, is always either subservient to, or an equal partner with, the gameplay. A book or novel is all story; a good fantasy game is half story, half gameplay.
But the analogy between fantasy books and fantasy games still holds when it comes to the two types of series. A series of video games can either have a consistent, intentional internal history, or it can be a series that shares the same name, but doesn't really have an internal history at all.
A good example of a series of games with an internal history is the Metroid series. Each game in the series specifically refers back to the previous game in the series. Each game stars the same character in a continuing plot.
The Final Fantasy series, on the other hand, is the epitome of the opposite end of the scale. Each Final Fantasy game has similar gameplay mechanics (which evolve and get better with each game), a similar kind of atmosphere, and, of course, the same name. But none of the games in the series connect together. Each game takes place in a different world, with different characters. Nothing that happens in one game is ever referred to in another game.
Where Does Zelda Fit In?
Now that we see that video game series can fall between the two extremes, let's examine where the Zelda games fit in.
According to one point of view, each Zelda game is merely another version of the same myth. The Zelda games do superficially lend themselves to this kind of opinion, because each game is very similar in style and presentation. In the first Zelda game, we have Link fighting Ganon to rescue Zelda. Each Zelda game after this, according to what I call the "mythical" view, has built up the same archetypal myth, evolving it. Each game, in effect, is an incremental improvement, or evolution, of the previous version of the myth.
This view does have some credibility. This is, after all, how oral myths were passed along in ancient days before they were written down. The myth would start out limited in scope and breadth. As each storyteller told the myth, the myth would slowly grow and evolve. Over hundreds of years, the myth would grow into something much larger and more intricate, but it would retain many of the elements of the original.
I understand that this is exactly what happened to Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey." A poet or poets first composed these epics five centuries after the Trojan War, in about 700 B.C. The first known written copy appeared around 6 B.C., almost seven centuries later. The first known complete copy that we have, however, dates from around the 10th century A.D., ten centuries later. In the seven centuries between its oral composition and its recording, the Iliad and the Odyssey were told over and over. Successive storytellers inserted contemporary cultural elements, slowly changing the story.
Can we hold this same view about the Zelda games, that each game is simply a retelling of the same story, a legendary hero Link fighting against evil to save a land from evil? Let's look at the evidence for this point of view.
Zelda as Myth
A supporter of the mythical view would argue thus from the evidence: "Each Zelda game has basically the same story, characters, and graphics. In every game we have the archetypal hero, Link, who must fight against some form of evil. Usually the story takes place in Hyrule, and Link usually has to fight Ganon and save Zelda. Impa is usually involved, and the Triforce is usually the main concern of the game. Nintendo has a tendency to recycle characters, which shows that each game is just a remake of the previous games. There is no consistent internal history, because there are too many paradoxes."
According to the mythical view, we have five legends: (1) LoZ/AoL, (2) ALttP, (3) LA, (4) OoT/MM, and (5) Oracle. If one doesn't look too closely at the facts, this position isn't too difficult to accept. After all, the Zelda games do contain some elements of retelling the same story (which I will look at later). This is basically the whole argument. It's not necessary to back up this opinion with anything like facts. The important points of the mythical view should be self-evident to anyone who's played the Zelda games.
But the whole theory is based on what I think is a gross overgeneralization of the Zelda series. It ignores the fine distinction between the story and the way the story is told. This viewpoint of the Zelda series is necessarily simplistic and blind to certain facts, because, in fact, this is the only way the mythical view can work. I believe that the only people who take this position seriously are those Zelda fans who haven't bothered to study the Zelda storylines in too much detail. Once one has studied the storyline, the historical nature of the games rules out any possibility that the Zelda games are just retellings of one myth.
Zelda as History
Here is how I would respond to the argument given above in support of the mythical view: "The stories of the games, while superficially similar, are actually quite different. They happen to have similar themes because Hyrule's history consists of Ganon trying over and over to get the Triforce. But the actual stories, taken in full detail and not generalized, have very important differences. Most of your points, which you think support your view, are actually to be expected if Zelda has an internal history. Nintendo may recycle characters, but this really has no bearing on Hyrule's history. There is a consistent internal history in the games, if you bother to look for it."
Using analytical methods such as I have used in my articles, we find that the Zelda games can be divided up into four time periods: (1) OoT/MM, (2) ALttP, (3) Oracle/LA, and (4) LoZ/AoL. These time periods correspond to the different legends of the mythical view. Each time period is separated by several centuries or generations, because the facts demand it. I won't go into why this is true, because I've explained it in other articles. The point is, if you are going to argue that Zelda has an internal history, accepting these four time periods is pretty much a necessity.
Now, how are we to prove that the Zelda games form an internal history? Here are some of the criteria that first come to my mind. (Side note on the word "criteria": criterion is singular, and criteria is plural. I know it sounds backwards, but I try to use correct grammar.)
The games should all take place in the same, consistent fantasy world. In fact, each game somehow connects itself to the land of Hyrule. LA and the Oracle games take place in the same world as the kingdom of Hyrule, and they refer to Hyrule as its own kingdom. MM takes place in a parallel world, but Link comes from Hyrule to Termina. All the other Zelda games take place in some part of the kingdom of Hyrule. Hyrule is the same Hyrule in each game, as I have demonstrated in my geography articles. So the games pass this first test.
One might think that the existence in each game of such things as Ganon, the Triforce, and the Hylian Royal Family would prove that Zelda is history. But, unfortunately, this kind of evidence can go both ways. If Zelda is pure myth, then we would expect each version of the myth to contain similar elements. If Zelda is history, then we would expect some things to appear in every game. So the mere existence of these things doesn't prove either viewpoint. What is important is how these things are used in each game. If the same things appear in each game, but as an inconsistent mishmash, this supports the mythical view.
So, here is another criterion for the historical viewpoint to be true: one should be able to use the facts to put the games into some kind of consistent order. Some people, after playing the games but not studying the history in-depth, would say that the Zelda series fails this test. But, after studying Hyrulian history for almost three years, I say that the Zelda series passes this test with flying colors.
There are several facts, present in each game, which help us determine where in the chronological history of Hyrule the game should be placed. These include (1) The location and (dis)unity of the Triforce, and (2) Ganon's activity, such as where he is and whether he is alive or dead (assuming that there is only one Ganon). Facts such as these allow us to place the Zelda games in a consistent chronological order. The fact that several chronological orders are possible is only to be expected, because we don't know all the facts about Hyrule's history.
Here is a prime example of how we can use the facts to place the Zelda games in order. OoT must be the first game chronologically, because Ganondorf comes to power for the first time in this game. ALttP refers to Ganondorf's rise to power several centuries earlier, so ALttP must come several centuries after OoT. This is corroborated by the fact that Ganon is imprisoned in OoT, and ALttP talks about an Imprisoning War.
Here is another example of how we can use facts to put the Zelda games in order. In the Oracle games, the Triforce is united and resting in Hyrule Castle. Ganon has been dead for a long time, and Link is not famous for anything. Therefore, the Oracle games must have taken place centuries after ALttP, because Ganon didn't die until ALttP, and the Triforce was unified in ALttP. By the same reasoning, it is also possible to put the Oracle games after AoL. These two placements are possible because we don't know all of the facts. But the mere fact that we can have an order supports the historical viewpoint.
Let's take a look at other game series that either pass the above criteria or don't. The Metroid games, for example, pass both of the above criteria, because they all take place in one consistent universe (outer space in this case), and it's possible to put the games into an order, because events in one game are referred to in others. The Final Fantasy games fail both criteria, since they all take place in different worlds, and don't interact historically at all.
The Mario games pass the first criterion, because they all take place in some derivation of the Mushroom Kingdom. The Mushroom Kingdom is never entirely consistent, however, so it only barely passes this test. The Mario games completely fail the second criterion. There is no way to order the Mario games at all, because the facts are so ambiguous that the games could have happened in any order. No events in any one Mario game are referred to in any of the other Mario games. We can't track the movement of the Seven Stars, or Bowser, or the Princess, or anybody else. They appear in such a way that they seem to have little history behind them. Bowser never changes his tactics in response to events in another game. He says that Mario has beaten him over and over, but he's never specific about anything. Mario never seems to age or change his basic tactics. Peach is always getting kidnapped. This is because the Mario games really are retellings of the same basic story. In Mario games, the gameplay is more important than the story. Mario games basically rehash the same formulaic story.
The Zelda games are very different. Ganon doesn't just appear the same way in each game, and complain vaguely that he keeps getting beaten up. In one game he is Ganondorf, and then he gets sealed as Ganon. In the next, he tries to act through Agahnim to escape from the Dark World. In the next, he is revived by Twinrova. In the next, he steals the Triforce of Power and kidnaps Zelda. Ganon has a definite history behind him that we can refer to. We know where he started, and how he has acted at each point in Hyrule's history. The Triforce isn't just a super power described in vague terms, like Mario's Seven Stars are. In OoT it is united in the Sacred Realm until Ganondorf splits it. In ALttP, Ganon has the whole thing in the Dark World until Link defeats him and takes it. In Oracle, the united Triforce is resting in Hyrule Castle. By LoZ, the Triforce has been split up, until Link finally unites it again in AoL.
As you can see, there is a definite history behind events and people in Hyrule, since one event follows from the previous event. If the Zelda games were rehashes of a formula story, there would be no consistent way to historically follow the movement of the pieces of the Triforce, or the history of Ganon. Bowser, the Mushroom Kingdom, and the Seven Stars don't have the kind of consistent history that Ganon, Hyrule, and the Triforce does.The mythical view depends on keeping the facts superficial and vague, instead of actually examining them to see if they fit.
How Historical Are The Zelda Games?
I recently had an interesting conversation with a20tempest (AIM screen name), who accepted the proposition that the Zelda games have an internal history, but still rejected the games as reliable historical sources. Like me, he believed that the games are only stories based on a reality independent of the games. In other words, that the games are only imperfect, contradictory guides to a real history. But we differed on just how accurately the games represent this reality. He thought that some games, like ALttP and OoT, are based on each other and don't describe actual history, but that other games, like LoZ/AoL or Oracle, are more historically accurate. In other words, he thinks that the games get the creation story and the early history of Hyrule right, but after that, lots of it is just plain myth.
There is some evidence in favor of this view. ALttP and OoT do have very similar plot setups, i.e. Link must get three stones to get the Master Sword, then must enter a parallel world to save maidens and defeat Ganon. And the fact that we have Link, Zelda, and Impa in every game seems to favor the view that the games are just stories that throw in a little bit of Hyrulian history. I will refer to this viewpoint as the "semi-historical viewpoint."
I believe that it is possible to explain all the things listed above without resorting to the semi-historical viewpoint. The stories told in all of the Zelda games are very similar because there is only one Ganon, and he keeps trying to get the Triforce. Prophecies predict that, when evil threatens Hyrule, a hero is destined to appear. The Zelda games record the appearance of heroes in response to Ganon's threat. This partly explains why the games have similar plot setups. But why are the heroes always Link, and why are a Zelda and an Impa almost always involved?
First, an explanation of why we always have a princess named Zelda. According to the "legend of Zelda" told by Impa in AoL, a Hylian prince ordered that all female members of the Hylian Royal Family should take the name of Zelda. There's also the explanation that, in dynasties, names are often repeated. Just look at the sixteen kings of France named Louis, or the fact that in OoT we have King Zora XVI. As for Impa, that name is probably an honorary title given to Zelda's Sheikah nursemaid. And Link is named Link in honor of his famous ancestors. This doesn't mean that every member of the line is named Link; it just means that the legendary Hero of prophecy happens to be someone of the bloodline of Link, named Link. Another theory is that there is only one Link, and he time travels in order to fight against Ganon in each game.
I have another reason for rejecting the semi-historical viewpoint, besides the fact that everything can be explained satisfactorily without it. I reject this viewpoint because it limits the amount of Hyrule's history that we can know. It's rather pointless to assume the existence of a Hyrulian history if we don't have anything to base it on. It's not enough to have a creation story and a bunch of half-baked myths. If the games can give us a relatively consistent history, why not use them? To not use them, in my opinion, is like committing intellectual suicide. If you're not going to accept the history that's given to you, why believe in a history at all? The Zelda games aren't so bad that we have to reject the history they tell us. All we have to do is look beyond the video game filter and try to figure out what the games are really telling us about Hyrule's history.
Conclusion: Zelda as
Stories Based on History
I have rejected the mythical viewpoint because it only works if you ignore the obvious facts. The facts clearly tell us that the Zelda games are meant to form a chronological sequence. The mere fact that it's possible to put them in an order argues for the historical viewpoint. So, given that the Zelda series has an internal order, exactly what is the relationship between the games and the history?
If you have read my canonicity articles (especially Analyzing the Canon), you will know what I think about the way video games tell a story. The Zelda games give us an imperfect window into Hyrule's history. Imperfect, precisely because they are video games. The way the games convey Hyrule's history is flawed, for the following reasons.
Part of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game is the similar style and presentation of each. Fans want the "Zelda experience," so each game can't deviate too far from the standard Zelda formula. It can only deviate so far that it conveys the story that Miyamoto wants to tell. This prevents Miyamoto from giving us pure history, because he has to put the history through the Zelda filter. It still has to be a fun video game, since the gameplay is, after all, half the experience.
If you think about it, a Zelda game wouldn't be a Zelda game if it weren't like all the others. What would a Zelda game be without Link, Zelda, Impa, Hyrule, or Ganon? It wouldn't be a Zelda game, I can tell you that much. If we ever get a Zelda game that doesn't star Link, it simply won't be the same. It might seem kind of cool to some people, but it wouldn't be the same, and lots of people would scream bloody murder. Heck, every time Miyamoto changes anything people scream bloody murder. He certainly isn't going to drastically change something as important to the series as Link, Zelda, and Ganon, or the gameplay and graphical presentation.
There is another good reason why the Zelda games all seem kind of similar. In the early development of each game, the game's structure is temporarily based on the previous Zelda game. For example, OoT was almost exactly like ALttP for a while, and Zelda GC was very much like OoT. Later, as Miyamoto cooks up a good story, the game slowly changes, but still maintains a little bit of the "flavor" of the game it was based on. (For an interesting view into OoT's early development, see zeldapower.com's feature The Unseen Zelda.)
So, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being pure myth and 10 being pure history, I would give the Zelda games a 7. Metroid would get a 9, Mario would get a 3, and Final Fantasy would get a 1. While the Zelda games are somewhat mythical and inconsistent at times, they aren't so bad that we have to reject the history they tell us. Recognizing the mythical elements for what they are - inevitable attributes of the video game storytelling system - it is still possible to make an intellectually satisfying time line. It is probably impossible to accurately represent something as complicated as a consistent fantasy world in a series of video games as disjointed as Zelda. But given the loose, broken nature of the Zelda narrative, spanning console changes and video game paradigm shifts, the games still do an admirable job of conveying a consistent fantasy world and an ongoing story.
An Italian translation of this article is available at The Lost Woods.