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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time | Why I Love

Coatsink narrative designer Jon Davies examines who the hero is at the heart of the N64 epic

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Jon Davies, narrative designer of Coatsink, which is launching Jurassic World Aftermath: Part 2 on the Oculus Quest today.

I was 13 years old when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in the UK. After dragging my grandparents around Wellingborough one cloudy Saturday afternoon, I eventually found a battered display box in Woolworths -- the last copy -- which, sensing my enthusiasm, they generously picked up. I went home, played it all night, then proceeded to think about it for the next 20 years.

Turns out, Ocarina of Time is really good. The reviews at launch were certainly enthusiastic, with my N64 magazine of choice giving it 98%, a score rivalled only by Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye. Not only that but, at 13, its time-hopping coming-of-age storyline had a profound impact with its key themes: leaving home, embarking into the unknown, the ravages of time, amazing music ("Song of Storms" is a banger), friends, strangers, swindlers, romance. I felt out of my depth juggling weapons and items, and completely overwhelmed by the size of the world. It took me an embarrassingly long time just to trial-and-error my way past Jabu-Jabu -- a giant fish whose belly comprises the third dungeon -- before finally shelling out for the strategy guide.

In short, it was the right game at the right time. It's hard to overstate the influence it's had on my life and it is a large part of the reason I'd come to write Jurassic World Aftermath two decades later. Ocarina of Time showed me that a video game could tell a story as effective and poignant as any book or film, and inspired me to do the same.

But you already know that Ocarina of Time is fantastic. So let's be controversial. Let's talk about narrative.

For the most part, Ocarina of Time's story is nothing new. And for every innovative aspect, there's a cliché. Zelda conceals her identity to assist you, but still needs rescuing in the final act. We grow from a child to an adult in a heartbeat, which feels profound and relatable, but then there's all that Hero of Time "chosen one" nonsense, which isn't. A terrifying and seemingly insurmountable antagonist looms silent on the horizon, but your fairy companion Navi hovers constantly by your shoulder and never shuts up.

"An apocalypse, a princess, an annoying fairy. It's archetypal fantasy fare, entirely appropriate for a grand adventure, and it's not what makes the storytelling of Ocarina of Time so successful"

But that's all superficial. An apocalypse, a princess, an annoying fairy. It's archetypal fantasy fare, entirely appropriate for a grand adventure, and it's not what makes the storytelling of Ocarina of Time so successful. Which, in my mind, comes down to two things:

One: A clear structure expressed through environment and theme.

Two: Link is not the only hero of the tale. More on this later.

First point, then. Narrative isn't just stuff that happens. It's a constructed sequence with definable elements -- a structure. And that structure includes things like: acts; significant turning points where fortunes shift; a "hero" who moves the story and develops over its telling; a "call to adventure" where the hero is motivated to action by some desire or goal; and a moment of "crisis" where that goal seems distant or utterly lost.

Ocarina of Time can be delineated into three acts. Act 1: The Great Deku Tree and Hyrule Castle. We leave the comfort of home, speak to Zelda where our goal to acquire the remaining two Spiritual Stones is defined, and our adventure is fully underway. Act 2: The Fire and Water Spiritual Stones, and all six Medallions. This is the majority of our quest, ending when the antagonist (Ganondorf) makes a decisive move against us by kidnapping Zelda. And finally Act 3: Ganon's Castle to the end of the credits. The final confrontation, time is reversed, Hyrule celebrates and the Master Sword is returned to the Temple of Time.

Act 2 is obviously massive, and worth dividing into a further three sections. Act 2.1: the Fire and Water Spiritual Stones. Once these are acquired, our fortunes take a massive downturn as Ganondorf intercepts us at the Temple of Time, Hyrule is overthrown, and Link is held dormant in the Sacred Realm for seven years. Next, Act 2.2: the Forest, Fire and Water Temples. After returning from our seven-year sleep, our new goals are defined: to recover the Medallions and awaken the Sages. We then test the boundaries of our new adult form by revisiting the now-hostile locations from our childhood. And finally, Act 2.3: the Shadow and Spirit Temples.

You'll notice the Shadow and Spirit Temples are separated from the rest. This is because they symbolise the cycle of death and rebirth that always occurs right before Act 3 -- in any story. The Shadow Temple represents the "all is lost" moment, the "ordeal" or the "crisis." It's where we feel furthest from our goal, featuring what Blake Snyder refers to as the "whiff of death" or, as Christopher Vogler describes, the moment the hero "must die so that they can be reborn." In the Shadow Temple we face our greatest fears, surrounded by illusion, darkness and horror.

There are a number of fascinating elements at work through this sequence, expressed through gameplay and environment. For instance, it's the first time we must return to childhood in order to progress, via a time-paradox puzzle, relinquishing our powerful adult weapons and instilling a sense of vulnerability. (In Kakariko Village, Guru-Guru speaks of a "mean kid" who "messed up" the windmill before teaching us "The Song of Storms." Returning as a child and playing the song leads us to a key item, the Lens of Truth.) Then later, in the Shadow Temple itself, we cross a literal River of Styx: a point-of-no-return in a predominantly linear dungeon. And who doesn't remember the first time they fell through the illusory floor at the Bottom of the Well, landing in that earthy pit, and feeling like Zelda and the liberation of Hyrule could not be further from reach? We're no Hero of Time, we're just a child who stumbled into their own grave.

And yet we overcome. We ascend to the light of the Spirit Temple, abundant in symbols of divinity, maternity and rebirth, where we are rewarded with the final Medallion and the conclusion of our main quest. Classic structure expressed through theme. It's incredible stuff.

"In fiction, the hero isn't just the person who drives the action in pursuit of a goal, they also struggle against internal conflict and undergo change"

Okay, now for point two. Link is not the only hero. No, really.

In fiction, the hero isn't just the person who drives the action in pursuit of a goal, they also struggle against internal conflict and undergo change. While it's possible for certain stories to avoid this (see most James Bond movies or any procedural drama or sitcom), we generally come to a standalone work of fiction for character development and the emotional catharsis it provides.

In video games, player characters have a degree of agency. Generally, events won't even progress until some action is taken by the player, creating the sense that their character is driving the plot. But agency (the ability to affect the world) is not the same thing as character development (internal conflict and change). Character development occurs through -- and is conveyed by -- key story decisions made by that character, scene by scene, act by act. Done well, the main narrative beats and emotional core will hinge on this development. Crucially however, these are not the player's decisions, which creates a disconnect. We're not watching a character change; rather it's implied that we are somehow changing. So are we an observer or participant? Actor or audience? We're only the 'player' until we stop interacting and the demands of the narrative take over.

"The player-character facilitates and progresses events, but someone else needs to be there -- an entirely separate someone -- who we can watch change and grow, as any good story necessitates"

Ocarina of Time contained the spark of a video game storytelling principle that five years of writing for VR has helped me crystalise: to shift and externalise character development. The player-character facilitates and progresses events, but someone else needs to be there -- an entirely separate someone -- who we can watch change and grow, as any good story necessitates. Because in VR, even the simple act of observing the player-character is no longer possible. You can't see who you're supposed to be, assuming you're supposed to be anyone. You can't see your expression or hear what you think (in no Coatsink VR game does the player-character speak).

For example, in Jurassic World Aftermath we assume the role of Sam, a silent security expert hired to help steal research from Isla Nublar by former-park-geneticist Mia Everett, who keeps in constant radio contact. But beyond that, no other information about Sam is provided, or necessary. In fact, the only reason Sam even has a name is for simplicity; to clarify who is talking to who.

Meanwhile, Mia Everett gets characterisation, backstory and personal desires which change over the course of the game. She drives the gameplay by defining our objectives, and drives the story by negotiating the terms of our potential rescue (not to mention arranging the entire operation in the first place). The player-character is simply a presence -- an agent -- in the world. They are the person to whom the story is told. In other words, just because the player character has all the agency, that doesn't make them the only hero.

And so, back to Link. Sure, Link is unquestionably one of the two heroes in Ocarina of Time. He does all the questing, finding, solving and rescuing. But on the other hand, Link doesn't actually make any of the story decisions or develop internally. He's simply our avatar. He's not the one who suggests we find the Spiritual Stones in an arrogant bid to protect them. That's Zelda. He doesn't underestimate Ganondorf's cunning, resulting in the devastation of Hyrule. That's Zelda. And ultimately, Link is not the one who shows remorse for his actions and unwinds time to heart-melting effect at the climax. Once again, that's Zelda. Link may have all the agency but, in the end, it's Zelda's tale.

The straightforward yet extremely effective story of Ocarina of Time is conveyed through our experience of the world as much as any of the magnificent characters or cutscenes. Link doesn't utter a single word because he doesn't need to; he's simply an avatar for our own experience. The Forest, Fire and Water Temples are inversions of the places we knew from childhood. From Shadow to Spirit, we step from darkness into light. We conquer externally so Zelda can find redemption and overcome the conflict within. Through its ingenious environmental design and by transposing the hero, Ocarina of Time uses the language and archetypes of epic fantasy to convey something truly personal and profound.

Also, "Song of Storms" is still a banger.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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