Video Game Literary Classics: The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

One of the great joy’s of writing and participating in a community of writers of similar interests and predication is the excitement of coming together to collaborate and evolve an idea and concept. This was created by Angie, the Backlog Crusader who for a collaborative task, set the challenge to suggest and define a culturally significant video game to discuss at an academic level in contrast to classical literature at a future date. Indeed, whilst the temptation was there to wax lyrical about my favourite games, I took it upon myself to challenge and define what constitutes a ‘classic’ and could this be applied to a video game. Looking forward to reading and discovering other submissions over the course of the next month, and without further adieu, here is my contribution.

I begin, with a supposition, can we hold and view digital media, in this instance any single gaming release as a classic in any truest sense of the word, defined and established in the shadow of literature’s greatest works over the ages. To begin to resolve this supposition, we must first establish the boundaries and definitions, the framework from which we base our weighted, subjective standpoint whilst ensuring the pursuit of certain objective standards and merit. Certainly, there have been attempts to define an objective, tangible definition of what construes a ‘classic’ literary form, Richard J. Smith postulated a four point checklist in his review of the ‘Book of Changes’, a series of measured objectives for which to judge the content of a form of media. The Italian author Italo Calvino postulated 14 definitions of the literary classic, the most personal to me being:

“The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them”

The experience, the subjective emotion these titles elicit would seem to be part of the requisite of defining a ‘classic’ title however equally, we can build upon this to look at and view whether these titles from a narrative perspective follow the basic story structures as suggested by Christopher Booker amongst others but fundamentally, following a traditional linear progressive path and thesis. For my consideration, I will be following the measurable, subjective points of Richard Smith to see if I can arrive at a true gaming classic in every measurable way, breaking down the title as objectively as I can, the iconic and widely regarded classic, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

zelda bridge

“The work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them”

When we look at the narrative structure and form of Ocarina of Time, its quite possible to see and espouse the myriad of ways the title utilises the various basic literary plot mechanisms as defined by Christopher Booker and others, indeed all seven of the notable and recurring themes are explored and uncovered over the course of the games experience. Most notable and prominent I would propose the basic notion of The Quest, from almost the opening moments your central protagonist is either physically or emotionally begotten to his fate by a mixture of a fervent dream and the wisdom of the aged and wise Deku Tree that resides within the forest of his domain. The central antagonist presents himself in the opening moments, the imposing Ganon, the Monster to Overcome and in short order you set off upon your journey, a voyage into the unknown of Hyrule, finding strength as you grow from a sheltered forest child into a competent hero and young man able to overcome the challenges and threats on your travels. You experience comedic moments on your quest, the innocence of youth explored and enjoyed, tragedy as the world transforms into a hellish shadow of its former itself, indeed the very transformation as you pull the Master Sword from the pedestal and emerge from the temple of time is a moment of rebirth. Whether by intention or design, when you stop to look at the basic narrative structure of Ocarina of Time it is possible to find a story that engages all of the literary threads as described, a remarkable accomplishment given the limitations of the system on its release, that it is able to accomplish this through limited scripted moments makes this a memorable title.

Equally, beyond the narrative structure, a great deal of praise is quite rightfully directed towards this game for the portrayal of the human condition, a somewhat vague notion but one in this context that relates to the various stages of the human existence in terms of growth, mortality, emotionality and conflict amongst others. From the opening moments of the game you find yourself as a child, protected by the confines and restrictions of the forest, who through circumstance and legend finds himself on a journey beyond the confines of anything he has known, to the world out there and the many dangers and challenges that present themselves. The mechanism of transforming your character in age exposes him to a darker and more grown up world, however at that moment you do feel the growth is earned through your exploration to that point. To return to the opening dungeon, in that first challenge you find yourself as a child venturing into the Deku tree to confront the threat within but not having the power to prevent his demise, a moving and sad moment and indeed a narrative that exposes you to the threat of mortality and the emotional impact upon your protagonist. The game perhaps wasn’t original in utilising this mechanism but I would postulate the confidence and strength of presenting to a user, in its opening moments a great deal of the challenges experienced in the broader human existence that impresses upon you the vulnerability of your character and the challenge ahead. This does not subside, from the emotionally mature relationship with Zelda, circumstance alludes to love and loss but towards the end of your experience you come to realise your one true companion was your friend Navi, to the transition through age from a bright and optimistic childhood to the more subdued and dangerous perils in your grown up state, every nuanced beat in this game focused on the fundamental elements of the human condition, with a degree of humour sprinkled in, a measure of loss and forlorn sadness and you had the makings of a true classic.

zelda horse

“It must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’”

Though it remains today solely as a subjective experience, its one oft repeated by players across the generation who experienced The Ocarina of Time when the title was released in 1998, the sensation of walking out from the confines of the Kokiri Forest onto the expanse of Hyrule Field, the vast open plains begetting the onset of your quest to retrieve the spiritual stones and claim the Triforce from within the Sacred Realm. From its inception the title had a turbulent and incredible path from conception to final realisation with a myriad of development styles considered before the final form was released upon the market. Utilising a remarkable push into the third dimension, Nintendo were charting a new path from where the industry had been, often testing the limitations of its own hardware, Zelda had faced a variety of options from presenting a game similar to Mario 64 with a central hub castle and exploration of ‘hub worlds’ to a first person perspective title, thankfully, the final release version saw a third person OoT zeldaperspective adopted with the areas available to explore constrained to the archetypal natural element zones but each a portrayed in a remarkable and memorable fashion. Whilst constrained somewhat by the limitations of the hardware which may have prompted the reuse of some assets and areas in part, mostly each dungeon was portrayed in a distinct and unique fashion even when exploring a similar elemental theme, the childhood water temple that transpired within the belly of the giant fish entirely different from the oft maligned water temple, equally a similar difference between Dodongo’s Cavern and the Volcano crater experienced in adulthood. With the benefit of hindsight when you can look back on similar titles attempting to pursue a grand, open world environment pushing existing technology and hardware there are numerous titles that have been guilty of the sin of repeating and using similar assets and areas to the detriment of the experience, Metal Gear Solid V and Dragon Age 2 to name but two. On more limited hardware in an entirely new environment of third person explorative open world games, Nintendo forged a beautifully presented, moving and memorable game, unique in so many ways with a real focus on the detail.

Over two decades since its release, there are still a handful of moments in the game that hold a memorable and lingering impression upon me, each for its own unique reason but reflecting upon the lasting impression of the games scope and endurance. From a pure aesthetic perspective in contrast to titles released today there are clear limitations although this has been addressed to some degree with the release upon the 3DS portable console. In a transition period for gaming in general the titles themselves may no longer have the prestige or appearance to hold up to modern contemporaries, however a classic, by definition should have the means and ways to leave an impression and retain their relevance long after their release, I’d postulate Ocarina of Time is still regarded in that fashion. The first, a moment of triumph and solitude as you emerged from the clean, fresh waters of Lake Hylia having vanquished and overcome the challenge of the water temple. Certainly it has gained a reputation for being one of the more challenging of water based environments, through a mixture of threat and puzzle mechanics, utilising various Ocarina of time fire arrowspuzzles and styles to present a unique experience, certainly one of the harder areas in the game when compared to the other more linear dungeons. When you first arrive, the area had become corrupted by the effects of Ganon, a storm filled mess with a perilous threat around you. Having accomplished your goal, and emerging up into the rising sun presents an opportunity to claim the fire arrows, raising your bow and arrow and firing into the rising sun. It was such a beautiful moment of accomplishment, and just a stunning moment of game design you did feel a desire to stop and just take in and absorb the beautiful stunning environment around you, Lake Hylia now an inviting area reclaimed by nature and won over by the rising sun. In contrast and pushing ahead to its final moments, having vanquished the final monster and endured the trials and suffering of the protagonist concluding your transition and growth into adulthood you are faced with one of gaming’s more, nuanced take on friendship and romance, coming zelda final momentsbefore Princess Zelda who subverts the typical expected motion of the grateful heroine embracing her champion and instead taking the more pragmatic action of returning Link to the condition and age he was before he entered the Sacred Realm and retrieved the Master Sword. Even two decades after this title was released its still amazing to see other titles struggle with the maturity and objectivity shown and demonstrated in Ocarina of Time. No overt, grandiose displays of affection between the two despite a well earned reprieve given the final confrontation, two adults now at a turning point in their lives to find peace and happiness together, but instead through mystical means reverted back to the child like condition. The final scene, a bitter sweet moment as the two children come together, Link perhaps retaining the memories of the events that transpired but finding no continuation of his affections and leaving the Princess behind as he set forth on his quest into Majora’s Mask.

zelda deku tree

“It must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom”

A great and system exclusive title, regardless of its literary stature as a classic, must ensure it utilises and showcases the full extent and range of the hardwares limitations and facilities. From its conception, Ocarina of Time was designed and created to utilise the full broad spectrum of capabilities of its console, each input and corresponding output a testament to the evolution of hardware design. Graphically, as shown, for its day compared to its contemporaries it was pushing the envelope of what was possible on a cartridge based system but beyond that the title itself designed to reveal its secrets only through the use of hardware such as the, novel at its time, rumble pack option. Built into the game was the option to pursue a quest for a cursed family, defeating the Skulltulla spiders littered throughout the game restored the members to health and rewarded Link with treasures, one of which was the ‘Stone of Agony’, an item resembling the additional rumble pack that would shake when close to a hidden treasure or hole. Today, perhaps we would take this as a novel side quest to explore but at that time, the hardware was an zelda stone of agonyadditional extra, whether you had the rumble pack or not would in turn either preclude you or open up the treasures and secrets of the game. Indeed, the option of obtaining the bigger wallet was a major convenience as your quest continued, thankfully I had such an item which added an immersion factor to many of the systems titles but just an example of the games secrets and treasures hidden to find. As mentioned before one of the game’s most refreshing moments comes in the wake of the adult water temple as you rest upon Lake Hylia. It was only with the aid of a guide I knew to obtain the fire arrows, one of the games most treasured ammunition sources I had to quickly rise and fire an arrow into the rising sun. With no, seeming, obvious foreshadowing or knowledge to undertake this action, perhaps it did rely on a guide to obtain this secret, it just makes me look back fondly at the game now to new audiences who would have no clear idea how to obtain this item without resorting to some form of online instruction. Ocarina of Time had a great deal on display, showcasing many of the strengths of the hardware, that it had confidence to hide entire quests and items for the user to discover seemingly on a whim was astonishing, a clear inspiration for Breath of The Wild two decades later to learn from as it allowed a similar dynamic form of play style where gamers discovered tactics and secrets purely by chance.

A common conceit and admission a great many gamer’s of a certain generation will make was the financial means at the time to afford to play a range of games on your hardware of choice. Certainly, with its rival in the form of the Playstation opting for disc based media there was wide and open piracy with many titles swiftly released on the open market after release and limiting profit revenue for companies to make. In contrast, with the reliance on cartridge based media, for fans who showed loyalty through choice or circumstance, the difficulty in emulating and producing pirated games on this format meant users of a certain age were often restricted on purchasing more than one gaming title at a time, often relying on replayability and repeated visits to maximise the return, these were the halcyon days of the companies long before freemium titles subverted expectations of a demanding audience. As an impressionable gamer, I had about a half dozen titles of various quality for my enjoyment, some classics of their day such as Goldeneye, Mario and Zelda but others such as Quake and Worms resigned to history. However, with the exception of shareware and demonstration discs on the Mac, for me at the time, I was limited to birthday and Christmas gifts, the glories of the digital revolution and streaming games, free downloads were a long way off. Games were designed to be replayed, to reveal their secrets in moderation, even today reflecting back on Ocarina of Time there is still secrets to find discovered only by the most dedicated of gamers. The obvious secrets such as the portraits of other famous Nintendo Characters in the castle windows were easily found and discussed amongst its most fervent fans, the hidden scarecrow puzzles and rooms behind lava falls? not so much and certainly the latter directly pulling against gaming archetypes and norms of any heat source traditionally being an area you avoided at all cost.

zelda master sword

“Has great staying power across both time and space.”

How, and what we view as a classic in any form of media is largely a subjective view point and as such, hard to define without setting some form of objective or tangible criteria to meet that fabled benchmark. Beyond gaming, any visual based media has the fundamental issue of using oft outdated technology and practice that renders the core component of the finished article behind the curve in contrast to its modern day equivalence, we marvel at Jurassic Park for example but the dinosaurs featured lack the graphical depicted in contrast to the latest Jurassic World film. Zelda, had such an impact on the industry it fundamentally established the core rules of open world gaming in a third person perspective however certainly lacks the shine and polish of Breath of the Wild, can any visual media be regarded as a classic when the key differentiating factor, the visual component is often outdated and antiquated after its release? subjectively, I would tend to argue to define the ‘classic’ you have to view the title for its impact, indeed even literary ‘classics’ such as Shakespeare or the work of the Bronte sisters for example are difficult to read given the transformation and evolution of the English language today. They may hold true to themes and ideals but as a core text as a society we have evolved and to study the titles in their purest form is an equivalence to playing Ocarina of Time in its original state. And just as Shakespeare was written as a play to be told to audiences of its day, so Ocarina of Time, indeed any visual media was very much a product of its time, in the example of the game designed to be played with the supporting rumble back and controller supplied with the console.

And so instead we look at the legacy of the game, a treasure trove of a myriad of secrets we can only surmise have been discovered in their entirety of today, indeed as anniversaries come and go there are always articles or interviews about the game that reveal another hidden area or room to explore gamers are yet to discover. Ocarina of Time, designed on the same engine as Mario 64 was the forerunner to the modern open world third person perspective title with a vast open terrain to explore and the various interconnecting areas to explore, perhaps simplified to cover the base elements, fire, water and earth for example but all still having an impact and in some cases still yet to be bettered especially when we review the legacy of the water temple and its impact on the psyche. From a technical standpoint, the graphics and audio were an amazing accomplishment for their time and still hold a certain resonance with gamers, the opening moments of the gaming a tranquil and serene melody that reverberates still, graphically, a number of moving experiences from the opening dream to the final moment before the Princess. Zelda herself subverting expectation and sacrificing a life of happiness with Link and instead making the practical decision to return the hero to the period of his innocence before the corruption of adulthood.  Clearly a theme that reverberates across the ages as it continues to find new audiences with a release on nearly every Nintendo console following in various forms and guises, even beyond into literary form with the Manga release by Akira Himekawa interpreting the core narrative for a new audience that continues to gain traction and prominence. Whatever the format and structure, the narrative of the title gained prominence and renown, it continues to do so into the twenty first century with various interpretations and discovery by new audiences, by any definition the title is remarkable but for me, as shown, it is a classic.


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8 thoughts on “Video Game Literary Classics: The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

  1. What a fantastic, detailed write up! I love that you went through point by point with the elements of classic literature. I had that type of comparison in mind, but didn’t want to require it by any means. I didn’t want the prompt to feel too restrictive and I wanted people to write about an experience they enjoyed and felt was important. That comes across very clearly in your writing, how important the game was to you, and to an entire generation of gamers. I really hope Nintendo does a remaster of OoT one day. As long as they do it proper justice, it would be a smash hit and introduce a whole new generation to such a meaningful game.

  2. It’s nice to see that someone else chose Ocarina of Time to write about for this challenge as well – it definitely deserves all the praise that it gets! I like the framework that you used, as it examines what the canon is/what makes something canon as a “classic” as well as going over content. In regards to the fire arrows, I’m pretty sure there is a tablet/stone at Lake Hylia that says “When water fills the lake, shoot for the morning sun” or something? Still kind of vague, but the hint is there in-game. Anyway I’ll stop rambling – great article!

    1. Many thanks 🙂 I did have apprehension of going with something so…’obvious’? I guess but for all the titles and software out there, very few I would consider a classic and Ocarina is one of the handful of games you could probably view in that regard. I really enjoyed your in-depth breakdown, certainly coming from a more academic literary perspective?

      1. I felt the same, but I think OoT gets overlooked a bit, because people feel like everything about it has been said already. But when you say “classic” its always the first game I think of. And thank you, very kind of you to say! I studied literature in Uni, so it’s an approach I felt more comfortable with.

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