This piece discusses in detail the narrative and ideas of Nintendo’s eponymous 1993 game and its 2019 remake. Be prepared.
It be the nature of dreams to end.
Far away from a more classical fantasy kingdom accessed via a link to the past,1 across the mighty ocean, you land on a mysterious island. When you were sailing the ocean blue, things looked one way. After washing upon its shores, things are very different. All around are creatures and objects familiar to the player’s eye but charmingly jarring placed within the Zelda setting. The message is clear: You are in a whole new world. It is stranger, funnier, more intimate, and kinder, but also cruel and frightening. It feels like you’re constantly wandering within a shimmer between realities, confronting your sense of perception in order to challenge yourself just as much as the world around you.
Villagers live in fear of the monsters just outside their village. Those creatures can and do come in at will to steal people away. But they have nowhere to go, and it’s such a bright and beautiful day on Koholint Island. Life will have to go on anyway. There’s a young couple in love, with a big family. They’re very sweet, but there’s only so much space on the island. Will they always be able to take care of themselves? We can keep the father from starving while he’s looking for everyone else’s food, but there’s no easy answers here. Little Marin has a beautiful heart, playful and curious, full of love and care. Her song brings great joy to all that hear it, but her dreams reach far beyond the shores of Koholint, and…is there any way to truly escape this place? For her or for you? Is there any way to escape death? It seems not. Later in the story, a ghost appears as if from nowhere and chases us down, not to harm but to simply ask, bring me back to my home, and then to my grave. Peace to the dead is one of the most meaningful of many gifts Link gives to the island’s dwellers, but it also forces us into acceptance of how death surrounds and binds us. We will have to live with the inevitability of death even for those of whom we have grown so fond.
As soon as Link is first outside the villagers’ reach, a mysterious talking owl accosts him, promising guidance. Link hasn’t met a talking animal before. Past guides have been wise old sages, psychic messages from Zelda, and the hero’s own uncle, once. Nothing quite like this. During his exploration of Koholint, he will meet more, in fact, he will discover a whole Animal Village! But the Owl isn’t in the village. Nobody speaks of him, nobody else knows of him at all. Stranger still, the monsters show personality and speak to you as well, not of how their evil plans must succeed, but…that we don’t know the dangers of the truths we seek. We don’t know just how fragile this island really is.2 They grow ever more desperate and frightful as the quest continues. The guide’s motives and the benevolence of the quest are uncertain. What else is there to do but to keep marching forward? An adventurer doesn’t know how else to live. He endured a lifetime’s worth of excitement traversing the Dark World and defeating both Agahnim and Ganon. Nobody could’ve blamed Link for settling down for the rest of his days, but instead he immediately sought out new lands, and found himself in this predicament. Via the player as vessel, the hero’s confidence has been powerfully shaken, and these questions and sensations only continue to mount until finally…
The painful truth is upon us. Link is but an interloper in a corner of the dream world that bridges his mind and that of the majestic, godly Wind Fish, and there is only one way to return Link to the waking world and stop the ambitious nightmares trying to seize their moment during the Fish’s slumber. The owl is an extension of the great beast who was seeking aid in this potential crisis. To break the egg and awake the Wind Fish is to disrupt its dream, killing the island and every resident, every being whose light shines so bright, along with it. You plunged into the foaming sea and discovered an island of misfit toys who are filled to the brim with life but brutally confined by the artificiality of their existence. The monsters that pleaded for their lives sought to lord over this land in the Wind Fish’s stead, but that doesn’t make their fear of oblivion any less real,3 and even more strikingly, they force us to question, even up to the very end, whether it is truly a greater good to stop their plans.
Can it fairly be called saving the people of the island if it also means their erasure from existence? Can it be fair for Link’s life to outweigh everyone else’s, human and monster? Perhaps staying and allowing their rule to stand would’ve been the greatest good available to you. Life on Koholint isn’t always easy, but it has a balance. The Wind Fish may be gorgeous and glorious, but as a god soaring far above mortal heads, it lacks the capacity to properly appreciate the cost of these events or the sense that we’ve been its puppet all along, however unconscious on its part. It be the nature of dreams to end, but what of those whose dreams never had the chance to begin at all? As it was a dozen hours or so ago, there are no easy answers. When I gazed upon flight of the Wind Fish in the game’s final scene, I was truly awestruck in every sense.
When you hear Yoshiaki Koizumi or Kensuke Tanabe speak of how Twin Peaks, a cult hit in Japan and the US alike, inspired the ideas for this story, once you’ve played the game through, the understanding of what he means reaches its full weight. The owls are indeed not what they seem, and there are quirky strangers every way Link turns, but there is so much more. The heart of Twin Peaks was the sheer tragedy of how Laura Palmer was failed by the people around her, and that resonates directly to this story’s emotional center in Marin, the young girl who loves to sing and makes everyone’s lives better, but can never escape the prison of paradise. So very many grieved for Laura Palmer when her body was found, but did they look for the pain behind her eyes while she was alive? Did they ever try to help? Like the citizens of that Northwestern town, players of this story are ultimately weighed down with the burden of failing an innocent.
Above all others, the sense of Marin’s loss stings greatest, and the pain extends all the deeper from the private moments together between her and Link, when his cold heroic stoicism repeatedly slams the door to her open heart. I observed those moments and I was reminded of every youthful mistake made at the expense of connection and understanding. People were patient, they put all their energy into opening their hearts to me, trusting me, spending time with me, and so often I squandered their efforts, the pure courage of the earnest building of a relationship. I mourn for the relationships lost and the people I’ve failed, and I count Marin among their number, if only as a symbol for all the others.
The Zelda series would go on to continue the legacy of the role Link’s Awakening was playing in its then-brief history. For every every grand epic, from Ocarina of Time to Twilight Princess, and quite possibly Breath of the Wild as well, there is a counterpart that trades scale for intimacy, looking inward and finding greater complexity than one might be prepared for. The Awakening, the Mask, the Wind Waker. That was certainly my experience with both Majora’s Mask several years prior, and in this recent experience with the earlier, original entry. On both the technical level and the narrative, you can’t truly have one of these without the other. The risk-takers need the foundation of the adventures to build upon and afford their pursuits, and the adventures can provide the comfort and reassurance needed upon return from the darker waters. I look forward to more high adventures and connections with charming characters in the near future, and in the meantime I will keep looking to the sky, hoping to see Marin flying free and happy, living life to the fullest, like so many deserve and yet are deprived.
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