The Legend of Zelda is brimming with extensive lore that spans across thirty years of the franchise’s history, with wonderful worlds and interesting characters to bring personality to the many amazing stories. New Zelda games are always in development, so the universe of the games tends to be ever expanding. Of course, the series has always been much more than its plot; great gameplay has always been able to enhance the storytelling. Unfortunately, the gameplay has been accused of being repetitive, with a formulaic structure in nearly every game. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma himself has acknowledged this issue and is working to break past conventions with Zelda for Wii U. This repetitive nature of the gameplay is a trait shared with Zelda‘s approach to story, which has often used a similar rehashed model. If the creators of The Legend of Zelda realized that the gameplay must evolve, then it is fair to say they should give the same attention to plot.
Originally, story in Zelda games was hardly a reason to motivate the players. Neither of the first two games were very story-driven. The end goal was that same as the starting goal. No knew plot elements were introduced while playing. Everything we knew about the story was in the game manuals and the title screens of the games. The Legend of Zelda started off with a very simple premise, and it is one that has been used for many Zelda titles to follow. A girl (usually Zelda) is captured by a great evil (probably Ganon), and a boy (definitely Link) must gather many artifacts (sometimes the Triforce) to fight that evil and save the girl and her homeland (likely Hyrule). While this model has been successfully reworked and elaborated upon for numerous games, and not just Zelda games, it is still very predictable. If there is a princess, she will be captured or cursed, and Ganon will more often than not be behind it all. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword managed to take these elements and arrange them into something satisfying, but it does not change the fact that the formula is tired.
Over time, storytelling has become more of a focus in the Zelda series. Narratives advance in a way that the typical conventions are only underlying or not even used at all. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was the first to have a plot that developed during the game, creating new paths that players may not have expected; Link’s uncle dies in front of him, and many tragedies and twists follow. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening also has a story that added more to the experience, with a new event each time a dungeon was completed. Discovering the origins of Koholint Island is a huge turning point in the game; it is the kind of story that made players question their motivations while still making them want to see it through to the end. With these games, the plot of The Legend of Zelda was growing more complex, just as the gameplay has.
It is a well-known fact that, when creating a new Zelda title, Nintendo always focuses on core gameplay mechanics before deciding the direction that the story of a game should take; normally, the story of a Zelda game is a byproduct of this development process. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask had implemented a system that was similar to the “three day cycle” before the idea of a moon falling on the land was even considered. When making The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the developers wanted a vast ocean, which led to the sailboat, which led to the Wind Waker and its ability to change the winds. In Skyward Sword, Aonuma wanted a way to move from one area to the next from a central hub, like Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64. The development team decided the central location would be on a platform in the sky, from which Link would jump to reach his destinations. The Loftwing was a consequence of that. At some point, the developers had to ask themselves, “Why three days? Where did the ocean come from? Why is there a platform in the sky?” This structure has worked for the Zelda franchise. The intriguing stories that game developers have created are the results of them pushing themselves to create more interesting gameplay. However, it sometimes feels as if story is treated as less important, and it takes a backseat to gameplay.
Engaging story on top of engaging gameplay is crucial, especially in single-player experiences that have become as extensive and complex as what most Zelda games are today. The games should not shoehorn in lore and plot simply for the sake of telling a story; too much exposition with little playtime in between cutscenes would make it less of a game. There should be a balance of story and gameplay. The Zelda franchise maintains that balance by letting players discover more about the world as they explore. It is an active experience as players learn something new every time they talk to a different character or complete a quest. One of the strongest points of Majora’s Mask is that it establishes its premise early on, and nearly every of its characters and sidequests is affected by the Skull Kid’s actions, especially dropping a moon on Termina. The series could use more stories like that. Most of the time, characters are not aware of what Link is trying to accomplish or what is at stake, and it makes the story and gameplay often feel detached from each other.
Each title in the Zelda series has a standalone story, with a very loose connection to the other games. That is why it is necessary that each narrative is expanded on as much as possible. A Zelda game usually has only one shot at telling its story; chances are another Zelda game is not going to come along and explain everything. It does not need to tie up all the loose ends. A story should always be rich with mystery, but having a vast lore also adds more mystery. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures apparently had a deeper story at one point, but Miyamoto suggested simplifying it to avoid confusing players. This could be seen as a missed opportunity; in the end, the game had a very standard story and left it as a forgettable experience. The gameplay in A Link Between Worlds was enjoyable. It could have been a little more difficult, but my main gripe is with the story. It told us almost nothing about Lorule. We know little of its denizens or its history, and the same can be said about many games in the series. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes was not even trying to tell an epic tale; it had a more light-hearted, low-stakes plot than any Zelda game before it, and while that would have been fine, it tells very little about its characters or setting, leaving the addictive gameplay as its only immersive element. If anything, it was the opposite direction that Zelda should take in terms of story.
As the Zelda series aged, there was a growing lack of consistency in when each new release would took place in the timeline. As a result, the timeline wound up haphazard and unclear until it was finally revealed in the The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia; even then, the state of the timeline is convoluted. Hyrule Historia, released for the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, remedied many of the issues caused by the inconsistencies. The book offered story details that helped fill the plotholes in and between the games, many of them created by the timeline. Hyrule Historia is necessary and appreciated piece of literature, but the point is that fans had to wait to get some answers from a source separate from any Zelda titles. This could have been avoided if Nintendo had placed more importance on storytelling from the get-go. It is too late for the games that have long been released, but it is something to consider now before Nintendo needs to make another Hyrule Historia for the 50th anniversary to fill in even more plotholes.
Even though storylines in The Legend of Zelda have suffered in the past, there is hope for the future of the series. If the quality of the story is contingent with uniqueness of the gameplay, we can optimistic about The Legend of Zelda for Wii U. If it really breaks away from the formula as promised, we can hope to see changes overall, including in the story. With all the obsessing about the timeline in the past, perhaps the developers have become increasingly aware of how much a good narrative means to some of the Zelda series’ fans, something to the think about when moving forward with the franchise. In the end, gameplay is more important than plot, and I do not want one to be sacrifice one for another. Both are now part of the complete Zelda experience.