A childish mind turn into noble ambition: The cruelest, not saddest, story no one noticed

The Ocarina of Time Masterclass in subtext, by GoodBlood, is a brilliant exercise of media review that brings together widely diverse topics including storytelling, Japanese folklore, environmentalism, and even psychology of childhood trauma and adulthood, to analyse the themes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, one of the most influential pieces in the medium of video games. This language and these aspects blend together harmoniously to deliver a central message that the game is probably the saddest entry of the Zelda franchise; precisely because of how short we fall to notice, as it is laid out deep within the subtext layers of the writing. The presentation and quality of the theorisation is gorgeous, including the sad notes on shintoism and how its world resonates with the history of Japanese people and their culture. But it is the character analysis, the loss of the hero’s childhood, what makes it a completely unique piece of media analysis -at least for me.

I already “wrote” something about this videoanalysis two years ago – I acknowledged it existence, at least. When I watched it for the first time, it seeded emotions, feelings and ideas that are still very present in me. I recently revisited it and it’s been one of those few times that you relive it almost as if it was the first time. I recommend watching it, even if you are not familiar with the Zelda franchise, for a great example of conveying sub-plots in the context of storytelling. Or you can read it here, as the author made it available in text.

The ramifications of the sadness expand beyond this game into other titles of the franchise. And beyond other topics that could easily fit in another video of this kind. For me, this has ultimately rendered Ocarina of Time unplayable as a mere instance of the Myth of the Hero’s journey. I am not exaggerating if I say that it has completely changed my view of this game and left me in a contemplation of the different depth levels the story speaks to me.

Starting by the end

We can start exploring the ramifications of Ocarina of Time’s sadness by looking at Majora’s Mask, the game that takes place after OoT. The following elements will likely be explored in the upcoming Majora episode of Hyrule Journals, but I’ll expose my potentially overlapping thoughts here anyway. In Majora’s Mask, Link -the same from OoT- is first introduced entering the Lost Woods looking for Navi, the fairy companion that stayed by his side throughout the adventure. Navi is a symbol of his childhood because of the connections to the Kokiri, but she also became the closest person (or entity) to Link throughout their adventure together. Her departure symbolized leaving Link’s childhood behind, but it also meant severing every connection to anything like a friendship -herself and the rest of Kokiris. Now that she’s gone, it means that any time Link enters the Lost Woods could be the last one before getting lost to oblivion. Still he decides to venture in, as there is nothing else left for him to lose -or nowhere else to go, resulting in an excruciating personal journey for Link to make peace with his inner demons and his trauma. After all the ordeals in Termina, the land where Majora’s Mask takes place, Link prepares to leave and go once more inside the Lost Woods, still hoping to find Navi. 

And that is the last we hear of him until we see his spirit in Twilight Princess, as a Stalfos that could not ease his regrets. Meaning, he never managed to find Navi and died in the Lost Woods, looking for his friend (and potentially the Kokiri, the rest of his friends and adoptive family).

We shall remember that this is nothing but the outcome of the events set in OoT. If the world had not needed the help of a chosen hero, he would have likely remained happy in his life. Saving the world, as stated in the video, comes at a price. The thought that the life of an innocent child is the price to pay for World Peace is even more harrowing if we consider the split nature of Zelda’s timeline. If the Hero of Time failed to defeat Ganon, a dark era ensues, but at least Link’s soon-to-be misery in life would have been put to an end. But alas, the most well-known games or the most praised of the late era of the franchise, for one reason or another (Majora, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker), are mostly clustered in the time branches where The Hero of Time defeated Ganon. As if, what the world (our real world, the audience and fanbase) expects as prosperity and enjoyable masterpieces come at the cost of the Hero of Time’s demise. A collective rejoice shadowed by what this child went through.

This is definitely sad, and nothing more than an extension of what is discussed in GoodBlood’s analysis. But I said that this game is beyond sad, even cruel. The reason why? Because the interpretations of Link as a hero and as a clueless child are very easily interchangeable, painfully interchangeable. Implying there is a valid reading in some good characters of Hyrule as the villains, and that Link is the victim of adults making mistakes or working for their own good.

The most cruel story no one noticed

In most Zelda games, Link’s personality is a white canvas to serve as an incarnation of the player or the audience. While this is true, in the light of the things discussed in the video, we cannot run past the idea that Link’s silenced voice is an echo of something that is as real for a child his age as it is to dream of adventures. Link’s silence reflects the lack of autonomy of an innocent child. Because, let’s remember, the story begins when he is a simple child. Through Link’s diligent personality, we can interpret that he is a good-hearted, innocent kid that is doing what he is told obediently, even if that means to end up involved in the remnants of a long-lasting war and conflict expanding to nations and many other forces at play. He goes to such extents despite perhaps not wanting to.

Link spends a lot of his childhood time going from place to place collecting the relics to open the Gates of Time, and in between he runs a variety of errands for Hyrule’s inhabitants. We can see throughout the dialogue how a lot of the age dynamic explained in the video also translates into a number of them, mostly adults, seeking some kind of benefit from the interactions with the young traveler that Link is. And he obediently obliges to every person he finds in his path, reflecting how often times children only manage to face new challenges and get things done when and if supervised by adults.

While this is true for a number of characters, I find the Deku tree and the owl among the most problematic. Having lived all his life under the wing of the Deku Tree, it is impossible for Link to simply refuse to what his mentor and father commends him to do. So, naturally, Link goes off to carry out his father’s task. The damn owl puts a lot of weight on Link’s shoulders, with constant references to his coming of age and his destiny. How would a 10-year old react if you say that very important things must be done or else? Either by refusing, rejecting and neglecting, or by feeling a lot of pressure over-developing a responsibility complex. One of the outcomes is good for the world but bad for a child, but the other is bad for peace in the world. And naturally, the world must be saved.

When I envision a natural consequence of this pressure put into young Link – him crouching down under his Hyrule shield, all scared of the Stalfos in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, much as I would have done at his age, my mind goes to dark places. That is trauma.

A childish mind FORCED into noble ambition

Much as in real life, trauma does not get magically fixed if left unattended. And what better way to neglect trauma than Link spending his formative years petrified, his mind and soul in a frozen state, until it is the right time to save the world again. After Link’s “growth” into manhood, he does not wake up having the mental age of a grownup person. He may have the strength and might of an adult, but he still is a child, thinks like a child, feels like a child, obliges like a good child. Because that’s the only way it can be when you have been frozen since you were a kid. We often talk about the “adult” timeline as if he was indeed an adult. But Link never stopped being a child; in a way, he never left his childhood timeline in the first place.

As he needed to mature quickly but in actuality never stopped being a child, he still sees himself unprepared for dealing with certain elements. The praise for his victories, together with the pressure put into him by others, however, can lead to a potential imposter syndrome as the conflicting realities of what Link sees in himself -an innocent child- versus what others see in him -expectations and filling in some big shoes- prevent his childhood feelings and needs to be validated. In a one-way escape, this pressure results in him complying and saving the world. But not for the reasons we believe -simply to end with all that pressure.

Once the world is safe, people are happy and thankful for Link, but in the end they move on with their lives in the new world and bring Link back to his. Paradoxically, but not really, when he is sent back in time and given the chance to regain his former life, he is unable to fit in. He can no longer enjoy what he abandoned in the first place, as he had to stop behaving like a child long ago and now carries with him all the weight of combat, war, and dark times. There are not playgrounds and forests for him to play, both literally and figuratively. There are no children to play with, as his friends are unreachable now, and his games wouldn’t suffice for a scarred mind. He can no longer fit in, much as he didn’t fit into a grownup body. He is now left adrift, outcast of society. As others unable to re-enter into society after dealing with damaging life-changing situations, our precocious Link is now an example of what some people call “a child of war”.

In conclusion

Does it mean that, because it is cruel, it is a worse or more tragic story? That depends on what we understand as cruel. Is it cruel because Link’s demise was ill-intended by the other characters? Is a parent cruel because of how they intended to provide to their children the best they could? Perhaps the parent was wrong, but likely not with bad intentions. In reality, simple isolated evil is not as common as depicted in fiction. Similarly, the other characters in Hyrule worked towards the salvation of the world, and they cared and provided for Link in the shape of advice, energies, tips and positive affection. Perhaps they simply were not aware of the eventual outcome, or realised a bit too late. And as said in the video: growing up and leaving childhood behind is always awkward and odd, no matter how it happens. So, it is not cruel because there is the owl to blame. It is cruel because of the implications, on so many levels, on losing the childhood in the way it happened to the Hero of Time. It is a tragic story, and the twist comes from the tropes of “the hero” and “the tragic fated” falling into one and the same character.

Is this a legit deconstruction of a character? Perhaps, perhaps not. There are numerous details throughout the game that hint Link was always on board with everything, such as the (in my opinion) overly theorised carvings in the wood of his house (where he depicted himself battling a monster). Or his talent with the sword, his audacity, courage, and other heroic skills. But at the same time, we must remind ourselves these are two sides not necessarily incompatible. People are complex complex creatures and often showcase dual attitudes or behaviours towards conflicting issues. Perhaps he never felt like he was fitting in, and adventure sounded like the perfect way to escape those feelings. Perhaps those feelings wouldn’t even be there in the first place, had the Deku Tree stopped hinting that he would become an important someone some day, thus circling back to the root of the problem.

Characters, much like people, cannot-and should not- be reduced to simple patterns. These complex layers contribute to their realism and relatability, and ultimately serve to the purpose of telling a story. I do believe the interpretation of the reader (or the player in this case) is valid and complementary to the author’s original vision, since there is always a bit of each of us on every time we listen and tell a story. It is how people have transmitted knowledge and how we have been communicating for centuries. Therefore, as long as there is some groundwork building to a given personal interpretation, I believe in its importance.

And honestly, I cannot say anything else for the subtext story that has helped me the most to identify and relate to some of my most important demons and turmoil in life. Subconsciously, at least. And that alone, that ability to mark a person and deliver an idea that can be applied beyond the world of fiction into a real life, is the living proof of the intrinsic value of such a cruel, tragic story.

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