This article was written as a part of a Community Colab, by Angie @ Backlog Crusader called “Video Game Literary Classics 101.” You can find her original post here. This write up will be a bit more formal/essay-like in structure, in order to explore the question “Which video game title(s) would you choose for literary study and why?” My contribution, The Philosophy of Ocarina of Time was written largely to show that video games can and do engage with literary traditions as much as any medium, and can be analyzed as such. Ocarina of Time, in addition to being widely regarded as a classic video game, presents an interesting portrait of the concept of childhood and growth, largely reminiscent of producer/writer Shigeru Miyamoto’s philosophy on the subject. The game presents an interesting take on the process of growth, leaning on the themes of memory and nostalgia, with the video game medium being a perfect way to mirror form and content. This piece ended up being way longer than I intended, so I had to cut some paragraphs, but I may end up writing a follow up article in the future. I had a lot of fun writing this, so hopefully you guys enjoy. Thanks in advance for reading (apologies for the length!), and as always, happy gaming!
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is unique in its presentation of its protagonist, Link, in the wider Zelda franchise – it is the only game that depicts his experiences as both a child and an adult. From a gameplay perspective, this allows for interesting mechanics both in terms of the ‘time travel’ element, and storytelling potential. However, it is also significant in the sense that it presents a unique portrayal of producer Shigeru Miyamoto’s philosophy on the transience of childhood. Miyamoto has been quoted as saying the following:
“Games are a trigger for adults to again become primitive, primal, as a way of thinking and remembering. An adult is a child who has more ethics and morals, that’s all. I am not creating a game. I am in the game. The game is not for children, it is for me. It is for an adult who still has a character of a child.”
In many ways, Ocarina of Time embodies this philosophy – though it has a distinctive break between Link as a child and the adult version of the character (from here on referred to as Young Link and Adult Link), it incorporates elements to break down this separation, such as the Master Sword. In this article, I will discuss the gameplay elements and environmental details that engage with this philosophy; childhood and adulthood are inextricably linked, and often interchangeable in this title. I will also analyze how each section (child/adult) of the game is represented, what changes occur, and how these influence the protagonist and the world of the game. Ocarina of Time also presents an interesting meta-commentary on the perception of video games – as being a medium specifically for children. Tolkien once argued in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories” that the world of faerie was not meant exclusively for consumption by children, and Miyamoto makes the same assertion of video games. Memory and nostalgia are key thematic elements that the game explores, in order to highlight the growth of the protagonist, and his intrinsic link to the past. Ocarina of Time ultimately presents a utopian space, a representation of memory and nostalgia, that questions the states of ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ being mutually exclusive.
There is a common thread, spanning all mediums, that connects many fantasy protagonists – namely, the position they occupy as liminal characters; the definition of liminal being “relating to a transitional process… occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold” (OED). In literature, it is widely acknowledged that liminal characters – ones that exist in a sort-of in-between state, either as an outsider or often marginalized in some way – serve as gateways to the realm of the fantastic. It is specifically because of their liminal status that they are able to perceive and experience things that others do not. Examples of these types of characters range anywhere from Stoker’s Dracula, to Rowling’s Harry Potter. In the case of the Zelda franchise, and Ocarina of Time specifically, Link stands as a liminal character, which works on several thematic levels for the narrative philosophy of the game.
So what exactly makes Link a liminal character? Firstly, he’s an outsider in the Kokiri Forest – though he doesn’t find out until much later, he is actually of Hylian descent. The fellow children of the Kokiri treat him much differently, for the reason that (possibly related to his lineage) he does not have a fairy companion. Some characters, like Mido, are downright hostile towards Link because of this marked difference. He goes out of his way to remind Link that he does not belong. Link also exists in another unique grey area as you progress further into the game. Eventually, he comes to exist in the space between childhood and adulthood – conceptually, he represents both at the same time. Ocarina of Time’s narrative builds upon this concept, deftly weaving themes of memory, nostalgia, and growth together to illustrate Miyamoto’s philosophy. It also serves as an example of meta-commentary (sub-text) on the place of video games in the wider scope of culture, as appealing to audiences of all ages. Bearing all this in mind, it seems fitting then, that Link (“betwixt and between”) becomes the gateway, the stand in for the player, to embark on this grand journey in an unknown land.
Ocarina of Time often leans in to its environmental design and landscape to build its central philosophy. As Young Link, you begin your journey in the Kokiri Forest; according to the Great Deku Tree (both a father figure to the Kokiri children, and a ‘guardian spirit’ of the forest) the Kokiri Forest is “the source of life… a barrier, deterring outsiders and maintaining the order of the world.” As a child, you begin in this isolated, idyllic landscape that stands representative of the state of the world. It is also interesting to note that all the Kokiri’s inhabitants are children – this characterizes the state of idealistic innocence and peace as being a state of youth. Even when you eventually leave the forest, having been given your quest, the rest of Hyrule is also depicted as a largely serene landscape, in the vein of the pastoral tradition. The defining characteristics of the pastoral tradition in literature are: idyllic landscapes, landscape as a setting for song, an atmosphere of otium (leisure time) a conscious attention to art and nature, and shepherds as singers (Alpers, 448). While these themes are present throughout the entirety of the game, they are most closely related to your experience as Young Link. Everything is presented in a pastoral state – Hyrule Field, for instance, with its rolling hills, and brilliant blue sky, presents very minimal dangers. Landscape as a setting for song is fairly self-explanatory: though not unique to the Zelda franchise, each different area is typically associated with its own song. These songs increase in depth and complexity as you reach new areas (and Temples) as an adult. Lon Lon Ranch is perhaps the best example of the pastoral, as its most notable ‘shepherd’ figure, Malon, is known specifically for singing – a song which she later teaches you to play on your ocarina. Other notable places that present these pastoral environments are Lake Hylia, and Kakariko Village. The pastoral as a concept is also known more abstractly for being representative of “a state of mind, an ethical attitude, psychological yearning, or a realm of imagination” (Alpers, 449). In this case, as a literal realm of imagination, the first part of Ocarina of Time represents the state of mind – innocent and idyllic – of childhood. This “yearning” notion is where the themes of memory and nostalgia start to be cultivated.
The player’s journey as Young Link is generally characterized by a lighter tone, and more forgiving world. As a child, you’ll participate in more childlike activities, like playing games (for example, Bombchu Bowling, or playing with the frogs in Zora’s River) or assisting people with more mundane tasks. You might help the guard at the entrance to the Death Mountain Trail by selling them a mask for their child, or you might help the woman (also in Kakariko Village) round up her lost Cuccos. Characters frequently refer to Link as a “kid” and are dismissive of him as a result. Darunia for instance, is initially insulted by Link’s presence, and reluctant to involve him in the plight of the Goron’s (and allow him access to Dodongo’s Cavern). You must play Saria’s Song in order to convince him to help you, as it puts him in a better mood (perhaps connecting him to a pastoral mindset?) and he gives you permission to clear out the cavern in exchange for the Spiritual Stone. In your time as a child, you will encounter many adults who are similarly dismissive of you, and restricted areas that you are unable to access. This is another motif that represents the childhood experience. As an adult, you will have the means to travel to more areas than you did as a child, with little limitations.
Throughout your journey, Link is also accompanied by Navi the fairy (sent to Link by the Great Deku Tree) who serves as a sort-of proxy adult figure. She gives Link advice on the land of Hyrule, strategies for handling enemies, and hints about where to go next. Though in a lot of ways, she is a simple gameplay necessity, she also plays a significant role in helping Link grow; as we lose our ‘father’ figure, she is the closest thing Link has to a parental influence. This is interesting to consider when, in the final cutscene of the game, she leaves him (more on that later). There is also a section in the final boss battle where she cannot aid you, indicative of our protagonists growth. Though the world that we experience as a youth is in many ways the idealized version of Hyrule, our journey still takes us through trials that hint at the burdens we will have to bear as adults – losing a parent, leaving our home behind, and carrying the fate of a kingdom on our shoulders.
When you awaken as Adult Link in the Sacred Realm, you discover that you have been sealed away for seven years. In that time, the game’s primary antagonist, Ganondorf, has taken over Hyrule, and all manner of evil has taken root under his rule. It is understandable that the physical landscape has changed, given the events that have transpired, however, it also serves as a reflection of Link’s transition to adulthood. As soon as you walk into the Hyrule Castle Town Market (once a pleasant space) you find it in ruins; an unearthly shriek greets you, as you realize the town’s inhabitants are no longer human. If you take a moment to walk up to the Castle, it is now an imposing black fortress, hovering over a pit of lava. It is impossible to enter. Hyrule Field has changed as well – there is a distinctive murky haze over the area (most noticeable closer to the castle town), the trees are all dead, and the once bright colours are now desaturated and dark. You will encounter ghosts (or Poes) as you run across the field, who will relentlessly pursue you and attack. The once serene areas of your childhood are all vastly changed in the same fashion – Lake Hylia has dried up, Lon Lon Ranch is now run by a cruel man, and at one point, Kakariko Village is almost razed to the ground. This is your introduction to the new post-apocalyptic landscape. Dystopian landscapes (as in some works of Wordsworth, Burns, or even McCarthy’s The Road) are presented using similar themes and imagery, including isolation, the death of nature, and fire. In Ocarina of Time, environments that were once serene or only presented mild threats are now hostile and overrun by much more powerful creatures. Take the Sacred Forest Meadow for instance – as a child, there were a few Deku Scrubs to dispatch. As an adult, there are creatures known as Moblins, who are a much more threatening presence and impossible to avoid. Much of the adult landscape relies on the concept known as the ‘uncanny’ – in literature, a concept that relies on twisting the familiar to create a sense of unease, or anxiety (seen in novels like The City and the City by China Mieville). As Adult Link, you enter certain areas with memories from your childhood informing your expectations; however, many of these areas are now infested with monsters, and different enough to give you pause. These uncanny moments are jarring and disturbing, setting up the increased sense of responsibility and urgency that the adult story arc entails.
The tone of the adult story arc is much darker, with an increased sense of gravity; this is where the narrative becomes increasingly concerned with the concept of memory or nostalgia. It is often depicted as being inherently linked to your childhood friendships. The Sages that you must awaken by breaking the curses on each of the five temples are allies that you met when you were a child. The player has to reconnect with all of them, and receive their medallions (a symbol of their power) in order to be able to face Ganon. Sheik (another old friend in disguise) reiterates the motif of memory and growth multiple times when you encounter her before each of the temples – for example, when teaching you the Minuet of Forest: “The flow of time is always cruel. Its speeds seem different for each person, but no one can change it. A thing that doesn’t change with time is a memory of younger days.” Or, in the Ice Cavern: “A childish mind will turn to noble ambition… The clear water’s surface reflects growth.” As an adult, your journey will become deeply entangled with the past (in both a gameplay, and more metaphorical sense) and you will draw upon your past – your friendships, experiences, and memories, in order to return peace to Hyrule. Indeed, some aspects of adulthood also call back to your youth – affording a sense of brevity in the new, darker Hyrule. Playing games (like the Horseback Archery, racing Dampe, and Ingo for Epona) are still an option as an adult – just with much higher prices and stakes. In these ways, your child and adult selves are constantly in conversation with each other. Ocarina of Time also manages to illustrate this in gameplay, via the physical travelling between times that Link is capable of.
Many entries in the Zelda Franchise incorporate elements of time travel, but in Ocarina of Time, this travel between childhood and adulthood is both a crucial gameplay element, and a distinctive philosophical statement. The moment your journey as Young Link ends is the moment you pull the Master Sword from the pedestal in the Temple of Time. There comes a point in the narrative where you are able to travel back in time to play as Young Link again (notably, after you beat the Forest Temple, but more on that later) simply by placing the Master Sword back in the pedestal. The Master Sword functions symbolically as a bridge between your child and adult selves; it is the literal link that connects your past to your present. It is the distilled essence of memory and nostalgia. The ability to travel back and forth highlights the not-so-stark difference between being a child and being an adult. There are strengths and limitations unique to each, but you will need to be both to complete the game – for example, one half of the Spirit Temple requires you play through it as a child. In order to obtain the Lens of Truth (to help you navigate the Shadow Temple, and others moving forward) you will also need to traverse the bottom of the well as a child. In order to physically travel back and forth, you will need access to the Master Sword. As an adult, you have access to this bridge always – you’re connected to your past, and the essence of childhood; it functions in a similar way to memory and nostalgia.
It is significant that you only gain this ability to time travel after having conquered the Forest Temple and ‘purifying’ the Kokiri Forest. In one of the most poignant moments of the uncanny, when you return to the Forest, having been away since you were a child, it is overrun by monsters. This ‘source of life’ and place that supposedly represents the state of the world has been consumed by evil. After you have beaten the Forest Temple, and received the ‘power’ of your childhood friend, Saria (now a Sage) in the form of the Forest Medallion, a new Deku Tree sprouts, and the Forest is a safe haven once more. The balance of the world has been tipped slightly in favour of its original state – the idyllic landscape – and having awoken to this power (itself embodying a sense of nostalgia or memory) you can now physically travel back to your childhood. After repeating this process of awakening Sages, returning the land to its original state, and receiving a medallion of power from all of your old allies, you are finally ready to storm Ganon’s Castle.
It should come as no surprise that the final boss of Ocarina of Time is the king of evil himself, Ganondorf. This final showdown throws a few curve balls at the player, introducing a few mechanical limitations designed to put the skills we have learned as players thus far to the test. In the first phase of the fight, players draw upon their previous experience fighting Phantom Ganon (in the Forest Temple) to force his magic projectiles back toward him – however, this fight also adds an additional mechanic: Navi cannot help Link in this battle. As you enter the topmost room of Ganon’s Tower (more symbolism regarding your ascent in both power and knowledge) Navi cannot get near Ganondorf, saying “Because of the waves of darkness, I can’t get close.” In this phase of the fight, the player will not be able to use the Z-Targeting technique at all (until you knock Ganondorf down with a light arrow and move in close, which doesn’t necessarily help). You will have to manually aim all of your arrows, as well as your Hookshot if you choose to use it. When you fight Ganon in his final form, you will have to get through the first part of the fight without the Master Sword, as it is knocked out of your reach. Though Navi is back to aid you, this can be challenging without your main weapon, as you will have to use either the Biggoron Sword (an optional sidequest blade) or the Megaton Hammer. It is significant that in both parts of the final fight, the player is faced with a challenge for which they have no previous experience – being without your main weapon, or a technique you’ve relied on the whole game is symbolic of facing and overcoming a challenge for which you have no previous experience to draw upon. In a sense, this is the culmination of ‘growing up’ and facing new hurdles which are unfamiliar and daunting. However, using the skills you’ve acquired thus far, and your own ingenuity, you will beat the king of evil, and with Princess Zelda’s help, seal him away in the Sacred Realm.
After the player’s triumph over Ganondorf, and the restoration of the world order (a return to the pastoral, crucially) Princess Zelda meets with you to return you to your original time. That is, when you began your journey as a child. As the credits roll, you will see the landscape returned to its peaceful state: Death Mountain is calm, Lake Hylia is full, and Kakariko Village is intact. We also get to see a funny scene of all the game’s NPC’s celebrating in Lon Lon Ranch (curiously, the Kokiri Children, who are never supposed to leave the forest are there, all without their fairies – interpret that as you will). Link, a child once more, returns to the Temple of Time with the Master Sword now sheathed in the pedestal. In a strangely melancholic scene, Navi leaves you. As you exit the temple, the next scene depicts Link approaching Zelda in the courtyard – repeating a scenario that occurred at the very beginning of your journey. Though “the road between times” is closed, it isn’t really – Link appears to retain all his memories of his hero’s journey. This is another crucial commentary on Miyamoto’s philosophy. Though Link ‘loses’ the bridge between childhood and adulthood, as well as his proxy guardian, he retains his memories of his experiences. Though we are a child once again, we must find our way without our guardian’s support, and continue to bear the burdens we experienced as an adult alone. Link’s memories and nostalgia then become his bridge to the pastoral, and his sense of childhood, as it does for all of us.
Many video games take on a similar basic structure, in that the player proceeds through a tutorial level, in order to be taught the mechanics of the game, before moving on. The game typically builds on your experiences – either with puzzles, combat, or a combination of other elements, in order to inform your approach. You will understand how certain puzzles work, or how to best a certain enemy, because the game has taught you to do so. When you come up against future challenges, you can draw from these similar experiences in order to formulate a strategy. In many ways, this process mirrors growth; as children, we gain life experience that informs our sense of self, and how we approach learning and challenges as we grow older. As an adult, we draw on our accumulated life experience in order to make decisions and succeed in reaching our own personal goals. Ocarina of Time specifically mirrors this process perfectly – we as players start out as a child – we learn how to use items gained in certain areas to overcome puzzles, and beat bosses. We learn to interact with people, and build friendships that occasionally help us along the way. We translate these experiences to our journey as Adult Link – we find items similar to those we used as a child, and draw upon that knowledge to use them. We find similar, yet slightly more complex puzzles, that our previous experience helps us to overcome.
Perhaps the best example is one of the first enemies you fight as a child – a Deku Scrub. You simply raise your shield to deflect its projectiles back at it. As an adult, the first boss you encounter (in the Forest Temple) is Phantom Ganon. In the second phase of the fight, you must deflect his magic bursts back at him, however, your shield does not work. Instead, upon Navi’s advice, you hit the projectiles with your sword to send them back. During the boss fight against Twinrova in the Spirit Temple, you can use your newfound Mirror Shield to reflect their magic back at them, in a callback to the original strategy against the Deku Scrub. These techniques that are built upon, from the very first dungeon of the game, to the very last boss, are based on these learned experiences. You gain a medallion granting you additional power each time you conquer a temple as an adult – a medallion given to you by a childhood friend or ally. The lessons you have learned from each of them develops your skills and power as an adult. In engaging with these figures that represent a childhood memory, you are able to take on Ganon’s Castle, and eventually beat the game. In these ways, and so many others (which I don’t have space to cover) Ocarina of Time is able to fuse form and content. The structure of the game perfectly mirrors the growth of both the protagonist, and the player. As Link grows from child to adult, in both skill and power, so does the player, in knowledge and tactics. I have yet to play another game that showcases this concept so perfectly.
Though as adults we no longer need guardians to keep us on the right path, or to necessarily keep up with things we did as children, our sense of nostalgia is a way of returning to these utopian spaces, and re-engaging passions we once held dear. Video games reflect his philosophy by being contained, finite experiences that we can return to at any time. As I grow older, and play new video games, I often find myself thinking about, and returning to games I was passionate about as a child. Not necessarily to recapture a certain experience, but to remind myself why I began to love games in the first place, and relive the stories that have stayed with me for most of my life. Ocarina of Time, in both its narrative, and its position as a game, embodies this threshold between our lived experiences and our future endeavors. Link, in his position as a liminal character, opens this fantasy gateway, and functions as a figure with a foot in both the world of childhood innocence, and the responsibilities of adulthood. The essence of childhood being reflected in the pastoral landscape of Hyrule, and its sense of harmony and order, is fundamentally disrupted and turned post-apocalyptic when we return as an adult. However, through our engagement with the past via learned experience (and time travel), memory, and nostalgia, we are able to overcome the forces of evil, and return peace to Hyrule. In the end, we return to our pastoral childhood, though we are not quite the same – despite no longer having a parental figure to lean on, or the symbolic bridge between times, Link exists as both a child and an adult at the same time. This reflects the philosophy of producer/writer Shigeru Miyamoto, that video games are not intended exclusively for children, but rather, they are capable of engaging both the childhood sensibilities and adult worldview of their audience. This works for both the story of the game, and its meta-commentary on the status of video games in the wider scope of social culture, as a legitimate hobby for any age. Its emphasis on ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’ (one or the other) is one of the reasons this game is so resonant. Ocarina of Time is a beloved classic for many technical reasons, as one of the first 3D games that Nintendo worked on, pioneering the Z-Targeting system, and generally introducing new and innovative elements to the world of gaming. Its storytelling deserves to be considered classic as well – for the reasons I’ve outlined – but also for the way it reflects the time in which it was created. Stepping into the unknown (on the leading edge of video games in its time) and forging ahead on an unknown path is a lot like growing up. It stands up to analysis and remains to this day a cultural cornerstone of gaming.
Works Referenced and Further Reading
Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose” (1794)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road. (2006)
China Mieville, The City and The City. (2009)
William Wordsworth, “Salisbury Plain” (1793-4)
All screen captures for the pictures used in this article were taken from this video.