“A New Life for Us”: Zelda and the Future of Stories

“A New Life for Us”: Zelda and the Future of Stories


Most nights this summer I became someone else. It was ritual, art: the lights dimmed, Tears of the Kingdom on the screen, my thumbs nudging the sticks on the controller to move that person who both was and was not me. It was like those mystical, endless nights of elementary and middle and high school when The Legend of Zelda first transported me. Back then, I forgot about my greasy hair, my acne, my growth spurts; I occupied the speechless character on-screen, now a hero, the sword-wielding elf-boy of legend, becoming strong and going somewhere more beautiful than the bus route to school and back, somewhere more consequential, more dangerous, and more safe.

This summer I returned to Hyrule, a decade older and more skeptical of the magic of video games. Yet Tears of the Kingdom surprised me: I did not even notice the moment when I left my body behind and started to exist within the game. One night, when I was so moved that I remembered again, I put the controller down, exhaled, and closed my eyes, then wandered into a specific place in the Akkala Highlands.

I recognized Tarrey Town from the previous game in the series, Breath of the Wild, when I built up the development by gathering supplies and workers. Once the buildings stood, I—Link—watched a marriage ceremony in the town square between Hudson, the head of construction, and Rhondson, whom I’d recruited to open the clothing boutique.

Now, in the direct sequel, I found the two married and occupied with more intimate concerns. When Link approaches, he overhears Rhondson telling Hudson she knows he’s nervous about their daughter, Mattison, leaving home, but “this is a once-in-a-lifetime journey” for Mattison to live with her mother’s indigenous community in the desert. “We should support her,” Rhondson says to her husband, “and give her a grand send-off!” Hudson says he will try to come up with a plan, and if you follow him and speak with him alone, the man with the thick mustache and muscular, half-naked upper body will confide in you. “And here I am, president of the company,” he says. “I’m supposed to be strong and decisive. But when it comes to my own child, I feel so … unsure about things. … I didn’t realize this would be so hard for me.” He needs to work and Rhondson needs to pack their daughter’s belongings, so he fears Mattison will be all alone before her departure the next day.

The game signals that a side quest begins. I followed its prompts to help Mattison study the Gerudo language, sneak onto a railcar to visit her father at his construction site, and gather materials for them to build a hot air balloon together.

Link finds many solitaries, evidence of the game makers’ devotion to realism and a reminder that despite apocalypse, despite fears of the end, loneliness will continue to vex us, and we will continue to long for love.

Morning breaks; Rhondson reports that Mattison’s “escort has arrived and is waiting at the village entrance.” The family invites Link on its hot air balloon flight back to town at dawn—they invite you, yes, you, the silent boy with no family—and the balloon hovers in the sky at sunrise as the cutscene’s music plays, the strings tender and sparse like in the score to a film by Paolo Sorrentino. Rhondson tells her daughter, “Whether you’re in Gerudo Town or Tarrey Town, never forget that we are all standing beneath the very same sun.” The townspeople bid the child farewell. Hudson tells her she can return if she feels lonely, then nearly weeps, and reminds himself he must be strong. When the square has emptied, Rhondson says to Hudson, “You did great. She didn’t cry, so it’s good we didn’t cry either. Now, this is the start of a new life for us too.”

That was when I set aside the controller, closed my eyes, and exhaled. The side quest means nothing for the main story of the game. Yet happening upon its gentle humanity surprised me in ways other art forms never could.

Tears of the Kingdom, like life, is about existential calamity; the manipulation of technology for evil and for good; power; faith; collective responsibility; and our confrontation with the always-present past. As Mattison’s farewell demonstrates, it is also about the small dramas and splendors of daily life: accidental discoveries; obligations of family and work; feelings of loneliness and togetherness; and moments of letting the silence and peace of the natural world wash over your fleeting human travails as you watch the sun bathe the sky and sea in golden light at dawn.

The game did not simply move me. As I continued to wander its world, I began to realize Tears of the Kingdom marks a new achievement in art itself.

Much has been written about how to address “reality hunger,” the feeling that art no longer adequately represents our world and our daily lives, and how to create experimental art that imagines new perspectives on global crises like climate change. Tears of the Kingdom advances beyond the limits of modernist films and texts—you can’t wander the lines of a book like an open field, and you can’t step through the projector to explore—and proposes a more authentic storytelling for our time of global crisis: a storytelling of interconnected pieces, complete immersion, the accidental and the deliberate, and finally, responsibility and indifference.

As the hours accrue, so does the sense that this is not just a game. A previous iteration of the series, Majora’s Mask, set a deadline for saving the world—three days without heroic intervention before the moon collides with the earth—while Tears of the Kingdom suspends the end, allowing lives to go on with or without your presence: these characters will wake at dawn, walk across their villages to farm or tend to their shops, and return home to sleep. Nearly a century after E. M. Forster classified characters as flat or round, the makers of The Legend of Zelda have attempted to make a fiction of all round characters who are self-sufficient and complex, and do not need to be narrated. The developers have attempted to create an art that more totally approximates life—and succeeded.

 

Open Storytelling for an Open World

Critics consider Tears of the Kingdoma perfect video game,” possibly the greatest of all time, and their praise concentrates on the expanded gameplay and map. Yet little has been written about Tears of the Kingdom’s narrative developments and how the new traversability of Zelda has necessitated a new approach to storytelling.

Previous Zelda games guided players to complete dungeons in order and gain new abilities before conquering the final boss. But this convention was disrupted in 2017 with Breath of the Wild, which featured an expansive world within which players could roam freely, without dungeons or a linear story, even find and battle the final boss as soon as they started the game. The execution of the open world made Breath of the Wild the most influential Zelda in decades (at least since Ocarina of Time revolutionized video games in the 1990s). Moreover, the 2017 game fulfilled the old dream of the series creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, “to create a game world that conveyed the same feeling you get when you are exploring a new city for the first time,” and “make the player identify with the main character in the game and get completely lost and immersed in that world.”

To improve on Breath of the Wild, the new Tears of the Kingdom triples the size of the world by adding space to explore above (the Sky Islands) and below (the Depths). It also introduces bosses that resemble the thematic dungeons of old but can be completed in any order and provides Link with new powers to construct weapons and vehicles, ascend through surfaces, and reverse time.

To avoid restricting its open world, Breath of the Wild first abandoned the Zelda formula of playing to advance the main plot. Like other players, I enjoyed the innovation but ultimately completed the game still missing the nourishment of story. And it is clear that in the six years it took to make Tears of the Kingdom, developers prioritized storytelling. These stories are dispersed in side quests across the open world and can be completed in any order, if a player finds them and wants to pursue them to their ends. Through these side quests, Zelda expresses a necessary theory of narrative that decenters the protagonist and eliminates a hierarchy among storylines: the minor and happened-upon sometimes demand more effort and deliver more satisfaction than Link’s journey to find Zelda and rescue the kingdom from destruction.

In this game predicated on scarcity—and the need to recoup precious resources in the ruin of civilization—we find an abundance of stories. Here, as in life, epiphanies and transformations await us on the periphery, in unexpected stories and random encounters and identifications with the unknown.

For example: All over Hyrule you find people reading the newspaper, consuming stories. One extended side quest allows Link to collect details from strangers and piece together narratives as a reporter for the Lucky Clover Gazette. Yet the stories about Link’s actions lack detail, suggesting the impossibility of recording a narrative in whole, as they all consist of many fragments, many perspectives.

Another side quest concerns conflicting generational narratives. If your pursue it, you can influence a sudden election between the pastoral mayor of Hateno Village and a resident fashion designer whose popularity, the farmers in the town contend, has disrupted the traditional way of life. The mayor yells, “You have got to quit littering the village with your weird art pieces,” while the designer asserts, “It’s trends that shape the world, not the other way around.” The conflict in this “backwater village,” as the designer calls it, is resolved not with weapons, heroism, or fate but with stories: Link eavesdrops on the candidates when they are alone and reports their secrets to their families. Finally he witnesses an unexpected compromise the morning of the vote that results from a revelation of secrets, draws vulnerability out from the candidates, and allows the old and the new to come together.

In perhaps the most haunting display of story on the fringes, Link comes across Koltin, a small, monstrous creature with sunken eyes who believes that if he consumes enough “Bubbul” gems, he can transform into a rare, glowing, eternal being known as a Satori (the Buddhist word describes epiphany, the moment of freeing oneself from suffering and glimpsing one’s true nature). Koltin promises to trade Link strange, powerful prizes for the gems, which can only be found by entering caves unmarked on maps and killing the large glowing frogs that leave the gems behind as their spirits rise from their dead bodies. The game suggests Koltin’s desperate pursuit of transformation through his pained, garbled cries and his monstrous wares: the Mystic Headpiece made with prayers to spirits, the Hinox toenails, the tails of Lizalfos and horns of Gleeoks. These objects imply Koltin’s desperation but also his murderous viciousness: he must have slaughtered the most powerful monsters to craft masks from their corpses. Koltin even abandons his older brother, the only person in this world like him, in pursuit of metamorphosis.

Koltin thrills at the gems you bring him. Each time, he stuffs his mouth with light and swallows, pauses, and does not reappear as something new. Then he becomes furious and filled with an even greater desire to consume all. It would take dozens of hours and infinite patience to find all 147 caves and bring Koltin all the Bubbul gems in Hyrule. But if you do, Koltin’s dreams manifest: his body, now luminescent, flickers; he grins; he appears as a Blupee, a small blue rabbit with a head shaped like an owl’s; he runs off into the tall grass and disappears. For your troubles, you receive a new fabric for your paraglider: a decorative prize, much less valuable than the monster parts and masks, almost insulting given the immense task you completed. This suggests that your reward is ultimately the end of the story of this sad, strange man’s attempt to become mystical and blue-green: a creature that can escape its own body, glow brightly in the night, shed money when wounded, and vanish into thin air.

The preoccupations of solitary characters populate the world even beyond side quests, existing for no purpose other than to make the game more representative of life. As you explore Hyrule, you enter the stories of strangers’ lives in medias res, with no tasks, rewards, or resolutions (what a premise for the completionists: to collect not all the shrines, orbs, costumes, weapons, and gems, but all the stories). In villages, people let Link in on the secrets of their daily lives; across the kingdom, they walk the same roads as he and tell of the ends of their pilgrimages, of fashion, respite, and dreamed-of treasure. If you climb Satori Mountain and speak to the woman resting beneath the cherry blossoms, she will tell you how she has languished there, waiting to meet her true love. Link finds many solitaries, evidence of the game makers’ devotion to realism and a reminder that despite apocalypse, despite fears of the end, loneliness will continue to vex us, and we will continue to long for love.

 

39 Million Ways to Weep

Although Breath of the Wild introduced the fragmentation of side quests to the series, I finished the game without a single tear dropping on my controller. The predecessor to Tears of the Kingdom lacked the catharsis of imminent story.

Tears of the Kingdom addresses this weakness. The game opens like a film, and as Link searches for Zelda after the opening sequence, he collects cutscenes in the form of Dragon’s Tears, which allow you to watch how Zelda travels to the founding of the kingdom, labors to return to the present, and asks her forebears for help with, as one sage says to her, “the burden my era left to you.” In this narrative parallel to Link’s search, Zelda glimpses the story of the past in hieroglyphs, then disappears into the past, lives in it, and transforms it—a fable for the immersion of art and how we interface with those people who came before and left us a shattered world.

In a previous Zelda game, this story would have been linear, and Link would have completed tasks that generated new cutscenes in order. But in Tears of the Kingdom, players experience an intentional fragmentation of story. All but the last of the Dragon’s Tears can be discovered in any order, meaning that the game offers more than 39 million different possible sequences of the main story’s cutscenes.

Yet the developers manage to hold the main story together. After you find all the Dragon’s Tears, a final cutscene reveals how they fall from one source drifting through the sky. Spoiler alert: Zelda has metamorphosed into the dragon of light; imprisoned in that beautiful eternal form, having sacrificed her body to restore the Master Sword, she roars, weeping memories. The scene explains the fragmentation of the cutscenes—our sorrows fall from us at random, in quick pieces—and how Zelda returns to the present. And while Link, described by one character as a savior, connects all stories through his journey, the game also allows you to not connect anything at all, to choose indifference, avoid all stories and pet horses, swim in lakes, and roam forests picking mushrooms and fruit.

Because of its bold narrative experimentation, Tears of the Kingdom achieves the quality of all lasting art: it mirrors life by suggestion, respecting the audience’s ability to co-create. Zelda has always done this with its gameplay, but its latest iteration innovates with a story expansive enough for its form. In our era of cinematic universes, when corporations force-feed audiences the lessons of parables, Tears of the Kingdom maintains a commitment to the modernist tenet to make it new; it does not fear slowness, dwelling on scenes, the people on the margins, sparse piano keys, brief trumpets, silence—rousing my goosebumps, my chills.

 

Epiphanies on the Fringes; or, Believers at Midnight

Some nights, when I put away my laptop and my books and read of climate and war in The New York Times, I despair. There is too much suffering, too much sleeplessness, too much loss. And we are vain enough to read short stories? Write verses, watch movies, listen to music, play animated games about the legends of princesses?

Tears of the Kingdom is no cure for crisis, but it seems to accomplish the task of art in crisis, which is to expand the ways we can imagine ourselves, our stories, and our broken world. Tears of the Kingdom reinvents storytelling as it delivers a positive kind of story about loss, apocalypse, and interconnection. Its ending delivers like every other Zelda ending, returning you to the site of the beginning, where you find Zelda’s torch on the ground and arrive with strength, experience, and a comprehension of the narrative. You meet Ganondorf for your showdown—a heart-racing, palm-sweating, 90-minute battle for me, relieved by moments of comedy—as his health bar extends to the right almost without end and the Demon King revels in his role, yelling that you’re finished, grinning, motioning for you to step forward to your demise. It all leads to the connection and resolution of narratives, that satisfying aftertaste of catharsis, while maintaining the resolve of the avant-garde.

After the final credits, the game does not end. If you open your save file, you find yourself standing before the final battle you just fought, meaning you must return to the open world—to the eternity of no resolution—or to the infinite reenactment of the end. Tears of the Kingdom reconciles tradition and invention, and at a scale we rarely see: tens of millions of people worldwide purchased the game and spent their summer nights in a mass solitary-collective experience of exploration, ambiguity, and storytelling.

So, for now, I believe in the possibility of storytelling for our time. This feeling might never have been: a year after beating Skyward Sword, when I left home for college, I professed I would never play video games again. I was ready to grow up and become someone new. Four years later, I bought a Nintendo Switch to play Breath of the Wild, and after completing the game I sold the console under a streetlamp in the back parking lot of a restaurant after a double shift. This year, I bought a Switch again so that I could play the new Zelda. The anticipation of a rare cultural event overcame me, and I attended a midnight release party at GameStop.

What I found there, in the crammed storage room of the past, confounded me. Dozens of adults who looked different than me—pale strangers, unwashed, hunched over their phones, dressed in oversized pajamas printed with cartoons, wearing plastic elf ears, tapping their feet. These were stereotypes of gamers, and my shock came from witnessing that something of legend brought us into the same room, when most people lay asleep in their beds. As soon as I entered I wanted to leave, horrified someone I once knew would come in and expose me as a grown-up lined up for a children’s game, as one of my former selves, as one of Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques.

After a half-hour of waiting for the employees to retrieve the large boxes from behind the locked door at the back, I began to understand what we were all doing there. We were searching for a deep encounter with ourselves and with the imaginations of others, like the hypebeasts who lined up in their too-clean sneakers for each limited release, outsiders assembling on the occasion of the new, seeking an encounter with beauty. Like desperate dreamers, like Koltins gathering in the dark: feeding ourselves on games and midnight hours, all in the earnest search for the transformation of the self. icon

This article was commissioned by Matthew Wolf-Meyer.

Publicity still from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (2023). Photograph courtesy of Nintendo.



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