The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Do We Really Need a Shared Zelda Universe?

We’re seized by a special kind of madness when new Legend of Zelda games come out. It’s a fever-dream of nostalgia and apprehension: fans whip themselves into a fury for products that break records over their knee with practiced ease. After finding out that the franchise is part of one massive story, they also spend a good deal of time puzzling out where the latest installment appears in its convoluted timeline. Predictably, this has caused a lot of head-scratching where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is concerned. When exactly does it take place and which other games does it tie into?

Where (and when) we are in the Zelda timeline is something of a mystery – concept art for Breath of the Wild

It’s question that gets everywhere these days. After the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, everyone’s scrambling for a slice of the pie with their own connected worlds. DC is eternally playing catch-up to their rivals, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot kicks off a ‘monster’ universe and Kong: Skull Island is gearing up for a crossover with Godzilla in 2020. While this is all well and good, it does make you wonder whether everything has to be connected.

The obvious answer is ‘no’. Bigger isn’t always better, and there’s strength in being able to do whatever you like in a narrative without fear of stepping on someone else’s toes. If another team wants to utilise a character or keep them around for future plots there’s only so much you can do with them. Things are therefore in danger of falling into a holding pattern while everyone waits for the next crossover. Although it’s fun to see how everything fits into a larger narrative (and this also provides opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t get via standalone franchises), there’s an elegance in keeping to yourself. For example, I question the sanity of not connecting Sony’s mooted Venom film with the new Spider-Man flicks but I respect their decision to avoid the story being dictated by team-ups.

As such, is it more hassle than it’s worth to try and connect every Legend of Zelda? Doing so is confusing enough as it is. Whilst the connective tissue between games is largely irrelevant and tangential, it boils down to alternate versions of reality based on whether the famously mute hero – Link – succeeded in his quest to save Hyrule during 1999’s Ocarina of Time. Confused? You’ve not seen anything yet.

Because this N64 classic dealt so heavily in time-travel, things become baffling rather quickly. In one timeline (known as the Adult Timeline) he succeeds, and the world Link leaves behind leads to the cell-shaded Wind Waker. Another has him going back in time, reliving his childhood and preventing Ocarina of Time from ever happening (the aptly-named Child Timeline). This results in Majora’s Mask and the gloomy Twilight Princess. A final possibility has him dying on his adventure (called the Fallen Hero Timeline), a failure that brings us to SNES favourite A Link to the Past and the very original games from the 1980s. In essence, the ‘game-over’ screen becomes canon. It’s all a bit longwinded, so you’d absolutely be excused for not keeping up.

Still, I’d like to think this tumultuous history adds to – instead of detracts from – the series. That may seem odd considering my hesitance about shared worlds, but it’s an idea which can be very powerful if used skilfully. Giving a definitive arc adds to that in-game folklore until it becomes a grand mythology spanning centuries. There was an elegance in the older idea that this is the same tale retold over and over, yet you can feel the weight of history on the shoulders of Breath of the Wild through seeing Hyrule’s ruined carcass. It means something because we’ve spent decades fighting to keep this place alive. It’s familiar to us. We’ve grown up there.

This feels broadly similar to the epic poems from Ancient Greece. Literature that details larger-than-life figures like Odysseus or Athena, these stories played out a grand narrative across heaven and Earth that was taught (and presumably added to) with each new generation. After 31 years of adventure, the Legend of Zelda franchise is genuinely living up to its name for the same reason. Each successive game adds to a rich tapestry of adventure.

It’s why I’m not against the sudden interest in connected universe on film. It’s somewhat exasperating because it stinks of jumping on the bandwagon, but combining stories into one mega-narrative gives you a great deal of context with which to tell your story. That shared history is what made Captain America: Civil War so successful.

It doesn’t need to be confusing or exclusionary, either. As The Legend of Zelda and Netflix’s Marvel shows demonstrate, you don’t have to hit your audiences over the head with a shared universe. Small hints for those paying attention are more than enough. In fact, your story should be front-and-centre rather than the setup for future sequels (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). That’s something Zelda has always gotten very, very right.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

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