Friday, April 12, 2024

Breath of the Wild’s Tragic Princess Zelda

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She is the most powerful princess in an apocalyptic world. She has a long-unfulfilled magical destiny. To make up for this inexcusable failure – because of course it is, and totally her fault – she develops an intense scientific interest. She remains a teenager for a very long time. Her magical destiny is meant to defeat is a timeless, reincarnated evil. This magical destiny exists because she herself is the reincarnation of an ancient power meant to fight this evil. Her dedication to her science and her duty to her kingdom leads to a cold, distant personality at times. She has a blonde teenage swordsman sworn to protect her.

Isn’t Princess Bubblegum great?

Where are my new Adventure Time episodes, damn it?!

No, despite all these matching traits, I’m not talking about Princess Bubblegum. I’m talking about the latest rendition of a more iconic princess who has experienced a variety of personalities over the years.

Zelda has been many things throughout the course The Legend of Zelda’s long, storied history. Often she plays the role of damsel in distress for Link to rescue in the end Mario-style. Sometimes she takes action within this role, such as her brief appearances to help both Link and Midna in Twilight Princess. Wind Waker gave us a Zelda entirely unaware of her secret royal heritage. Most times, she either fights alongside Link against Ganon or grants him the power to win.

Of all these many versions of Princess Zelda, probably the most famous is the version which appears in Ocarina of Time. There are several reasons for this; mainly that Ocarina was the first 3d Zelda game. As such, it was one of the most influential games of all time, ushering in the world of 3d gaming and defining it for years to come, much like Super Mario 64. The game, of course, remains fantastic to this day. It’s the kind of near-timeless masterpiece even the young, graphically spoiled generations will go back and love.

Another large reason was the cinematic turn which breathed a previously unseen life into classic Zelda characters. One of, if not the largest beneficiaries of this newfound cinematic flair was Zelda herself. No longer a passive prisoner for Link to rescue, our princess played an active role in the story. She sends Link to find the Spiritual Stones opening the Door of Time and sneaks him the Ocarina of Time while escaping Hyrule Castle.

After the disaster occurring because of Link’s premature claim of the Master Sword, she spends seven years training as a Sheikah in order to win back her kingdom and eventually assist Link in freeing the Sages necessary to defeat Ganondorf. Now, this doesn’t seem like that big a deal on the surface. Where it gets juicy is the further examination of why exactly Zelda does what she does.

After all, she sends Link to retrieve the Stones opening the Door of Time, allowing Ganondorf to seize control of Hyrule. It’s heavily implied to the point of obviousness that she feels crushing guilt over this. It is her guilt, combined with the duty she feels to her ruined kingdom, which causes her to train as what amounts to a ninja and fight Ganondorf’s evil. At the end she sends Link back to his childhood while she remains behind with the ruins of her kingdom to rebuild.

You can talk for hours about the mental and emotional state she must have been in throughout this game. Pretty obvious why this Zelda stands so memorably above her counterparts throughout the series. Well, move over lady because Breath of the Wild gave us a Zelda with strong claim to the title, one I’m not sure Ocarina’s Zelda can beat back.

Guilt and Destiny

In a lot of ways, what Breath of the Wild does with Zelda’s character resembles Ocarina. Both see their kingdom laid to waste by Ganon. Both try desperately to prevent this and fail. Obviously the same crushing guilt afflicts both young women afterwards, and causes them to sacrifice a great deal to try and hold Ganon back. However, where Ocarina gives a relatively bare-bones series of events for the player to fill in the blanks, Breath of the Wild delves deep into who exactly Zelda is and why her failure was a devastating personal blow, while also increasing the magnitude of her failure considerably.

Alright, so quick background; Breath of the Wild takes place 100 years after Calamity Ganon emerges from beneath Hyrule Castle, destroying Hyrule in the process. Zelda and Link both descend from the ancient heroes that initially imprisoned Ganon 10,000 years earlier with the help of 4 Champions from the 4 other kingdoms of Hyrule. These Champions pilot giant machines called Divine Beasts created long ago by the Sheikah for this purpose. They also built all the futuristic ruins and enemies Link explores and fights.

What does all this mean for our girl Zelda? As the descendant of the Zelda who initially sealed Calamity Ganon away, she was named for that descendant and expected to wield her power, just like every female descendant of that bloodline. Ganon would eventually return and it was her job to stop that should Ganon return in her lifetime. A series of optional flashbacks shows the immense burden her father placed on her. The guy does not hold back at all. Really, Zelda’s father is a complete prick about the whole ordeal.

Zelda’s mother was meant to train her, but dies when Zelda is six-years old. King Rhoam’s journal within Hyrule Castle talks about Zelda’s struggle to learn without a teacher.

“She lost her mother, her teacher, before she could learn from her. Ten pointless years of self-training, without so much as a book or note to help her find her way…”

As such, Zelda spends her life stuck between the need to realize her magical powers and her duty to help her kingdom however she can. Because of her frustration awakening her powers, she instead turns to the ancient Sheikah artifacts and ruins. Most of the flashbacks revolve around her traveling with Link and the Champions to research the Divine Beasts and activate the other Sheikah artifacts and weapons unearthed throughout Hyrule.

Ouch, right?

Zelda’s feelings of inadequacy and failure plague her long before Calamity Ganon busts loose and lays waste to Hyrule. They start at a very young age due to her father’s expectations and only grow worse when Link claims the Master Sword. As her sworn shield and the hero wielding the sword meant to defeat Ganon, he succeeded where she cannot. He represents and intensifies her failures. So do the Champions. Each of their successes in controlling their Divine Beasts leaves Zelda as the only thing separating victory from defeat should Ganon return.

It didn’t help that everyone else represented the very best of their race, and they were each meant to serve her. Even Link was a “better” Hylian than Zelda, the princess. That just left Zelda the “failure” surrounded by the kind of people she was supposed to lead. As you’d expect, this creates considerable guilt over her inability to fulfill her role and also considerable loneliness among those who already have.

Duty and Loneliness

As if you don’t feel bad enough for Zelda already, we also see how lonely and distant she was while helping the Champions figure out their Beasts. She treats Link outright hostilely. Her interactions with Daruk, Mipha, and Revali are practically nonexistent. Urbosa clearly tries to play a motherly role (just end me now) but she’s a single, isolated example.

Still, things improve for the poor girl. She overcomes her dislike for Link after he thwarts an assassination attempt. She dives happily into the science behind the Sheikah ruins and grows closer with her crew. For a brief period she gets to be happy.

This, of course, is an awful sign.

Soon thereafter, Zelda’s father confronts her to demand an end to her scientific pursuits. This leads to the scene above where he attacks her insecurities in brutal fashion. He accepts nothing but her total commitment to her powers and Sheikah artifacts distract from that commitment. Because clearly she’s running from her duty, not struggling with her failures and her responsibility to help her kingdom however necessary, and he demands she stop.

So she does. She leaves behind her friends, her interests, and her only escape from her crushing guilt and loneliness to concentrate solely on failing her magical destiny. Link still accompanies her, but we’ve already covered what Link represents to her. Their newfound friendship won’t entirely change the friction between them or what he represents to her.

Why accept his demand? Well, because she’s the princess of Hyrule, of course. It is her duty. And she totally loves her father, and he loves her, and their conflict is born of the fact neither took two seconds in the ten years following the death of Zelda’s mother to discuss their grief or their fear of Ganon’s impending return. Whoa, Bo, we haven’t reached this point yet.

We find out again through King Rhoam’s journals (the journals do such a great job adding context to all this) that when her mother died, it was Zelda that held him together. Despite being only six-years old (yeah) he describes her as completely steadfast and strong.

“Zelda never cried, never faltered. Not even during the royal funeral or later when she and I were alone with our grief. I must assume her strength is a result of us repeatedly informing her of her duty to be a valiant and steady princess. For a child of merely six years of age, her conduct was truly that of a born leader. Her strength gives me hope.”

Rhoam’s journal continues to paint a picture of a truly lonely girl with nothing but her duty and the burden of her destiny. Keep in mind Zelda spends these years after her mother’s death single-handedly trying to figure out her powers. Rhoam describes his disappointment in her lack of powers a year after her mother’s death. She is seven-years old and her father already treats her like something is wrong with her. She still has ten years of failure ahead of her.

From the age of six Zelda is left alone to grieve and live up to an immense magical prophecy with no help whatsoever. Her father certainly does not help her. He grieves too strongly to help with the loss of her mother and has absolutely no idea how to help with awakening her powers. Zelda seems to isolate herself from any other help anyone might offer. She bears her duty alone and with little emotional connection to anyone, because as Rhoam himself says, she was raised to do so and no one else knows how to help.

Silence and Similarities

Like you see time and time again with these characters, this leads to severe communication issues only increasing her loneliness and insecurities until they reach breaking points.

Her hostility towards Link only exists because of a literal lack of communication of any kind, as Breath of the Wild took silent protagonist Link and gave him a reason for his silence. Zelda was not the only one dealing with immense expectations. As the chosen wielder of the Master Sword and the princess’s sworn knight, Link has his own expected role in defeating Ganon and must also deal with the burden of it.

“When I finally got around to asking why he’s so quiet all the time, I could tell it was difficult for him to say. But he did. With so much at stake, and so many eyes upon him, he feels it necessary to stay strong and to silently bear any burden. A feeling I know all too well…”

Why did she need to “finally” get around to asking? Because she was raised to bury her feelings by a father who did the same. Rather than ask Link about his silence, she lets her questions stew until she believes Link resents her.

“I never know what he’s thinking! It makes my imagination run wild, guessing at what he is thinking but will not say. What does the boy chosen by the sword that seals the darkness think of me? Will I ever truly know? Then, I suppose it’s simple. A daughter of Hyrule’s royal family yet unable to use sealing magic… He must despise me.”

And to her mind, why wouldn’t he despise her? Zelda’s journal entries take place shortly before Ganon’s emergence, when she has tried and failed on her own to awaken her powers for ten years. Link has the Master Sword and stands ready to defeat Ganon. The Champions have control of their Divine Beasts and stand ready to help. The only missing piece is Zelda, who must seal Ganon away after Link and the Champions win. No matter what she tries, though, she can’t awaken those powers.

Zelda’s self-loathing nears its peak at this point, as she travels alone with her guilt and the constant reminder of her failure ten years after her mother’s death, all the while refusing to talk about it. Why? Why swallow her feelings to the point of self-hatred she projects onto her most faithful servant? As you’d expect, it’s a character flaw shared with her father.

Let me be frank: King Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule acts like a complete prick. From the very moment he reveals himself as the mysterious old guy making you shrine-hunt for a glider, Breath of the Wild inspires a dislike for the man. His scene demanding Zelda quit her scientific interests only increases player hatred.

It’s not unless you discover Rhoam’s journal that you receive sorely needed information about him and Zelda. It provides a lot of the quotes I’ve used. The journal also does one unsurprising thing; it reveals the shared traits of father and daughter, including those flaws responsible for their fraught relationship.

Like his daughter, Rhoam has a deep interest in the Sheikah artifacts. He orders the excavations revealing them. At some point after their discovery, he describes Zelda’s reaction to them:

“Zelda’s eyes lit up like a wildfire when I told her about the relics… I must admit, she has a knack for research.”

By the way, Zelda’s five-years old here. Talk about an early start.

The journal also reveals Rhoam’s obsession with the prophecy predicting Ganon’s impending return. After his wife’s death, preparation for Ganon dominates his thoughts. He can’t show weakness or even take time to comfort his daughter. There is no time for comfort. They must each prepare for Ganon in their own way, and nothing else matters. Not even their grief.

“It has been a year and three months since her mother passed. Perhaps she is held back by heartache too deep to heal. If the Ganon prophecy wasn’t looming over our heads, I would tell her to take her time… To wait until she is ready. But our situation is dire and leaves no room for weakness—even on behalf of my beloved daughter. My heart breaks for Zelda, but I must act as a king, not a father.”

What becomes clear is how Rhoam, much like Zelda, uses Ganon as a distraction to avoid his feelings. Only by diving deep into his own duty could he avoid Zelda, his wife, and his own sorrow. Feelings are hard, after all. Much easier to drive them all away using a very legitimate aim for your attention. He fully understands what he is doing, too. He knows he is sacrificing his relationship with his daughter in the name of defeating Ganon. His feelings come second to the safety of Hyrule.

Huh, sounds like Zelda, doesn’t it? In fact…

“The return of Ganon looms—a dark force taunting us from afar. I must learn all I can about the relics so we can stop him. If the fortune-teller’s prophecy is to be believed, there isn’t much time left… Ah, but turning over these thoughts in my head puts me ill at ease.”

Much like her father, she would rather let her feelings torture her than face them. She wanted to make amends, but too late.

“When Link arrives, we will set out for Mount Lanayru. The other Champions will accompany us there. I have not seen my father since he last scolded me. Things are too strained now… I will meet with him when I return. …”

As for King Rhoam’s opinion on the matter:

“I have been told my Zelda went to the Spring of Wisdom… This will likely be her last chance. If she is unable to awaken her power at Lanayru, all hope is truly lost. If she comes back without success, then I shall speak kindly with her. Scolding is pointless now.”

Don’t mind that sound. It was just my heart breaking over here.

Two characters receive all of Zelda’s scorn throughout the memories of Breath of the Wild; Link and King Rhoam. Fittingly, they each share immense similarities with her. Link and Zelda are both children of destiny, descendants of ancient heroes tasked to defeat Ganon. Both struggle mightily with this destiny and internalize their burden to the point of creating conflict with each other. Zelda and her father both place their duty to their kingdom above all else, even their happiness.

They also share the same fear of Ganon’s return, a fear driving a wedge between them, and grief over the loss of Zelda’s mother. Neither ever takes the step necessary to face their shared feelings, choosing instead to run from them and bury themselves in preparation for Hyrule’s defense.

In the end, Zelda never entirely opened up with either of them, or truly repaired the damage done to either relationship. Ganon attacks during that trip to Mount Lanayru, killing her father, her citizens, and her Champions. Link suffers mortal wounds defending her and ends up in the Shrine of Resurrection for 100 years. Zelda’s powers awaken too late, and she is left alone to bind Ganon at Hyrule Castle until Link reawakens.

Pictured: More than a decade of internalized guilt erupting when all of Zelda’s worst fears come to pass.

Tragedy and Flaws

This catches us up with the beginning of Breath of the Wild. Link reawakens. King Rhoam’s spirit makes him run around doing stuff rather than just hand over a glider. He is tasked with defeating Ganon, who Zelda still struggles to restrain after 100 years.

Breath of the Wild does a fantastic job using all this history to define its world and characters. For obvious reasons a great deal of anger, loss, and guilt exists in this ruined version of Hyrule. Link faces open hostility for his failures. Every society grieves the loss of their Champion. The ruined remains of familiar locations (why did they do this to Lon Lon Ranch) hit hard at longtime fans. The game drives home the tragedy of Calamity Ganon and the failure of Zelda and her Champions at every turn.

It all makes for a powerful storytelling beyond anything I’ve ever seen from the Zelda series before. Breath of the Wild does a remarkable job telling Zelda’s story through skilled use of conventional cutscenes and a more subtle, Dark Souls-style use of visual clues and optional information. Absolutely none of Zelda’s story is necessary to complete the game. You can beat the game without learning any of it.

I suppose this might be the biggest negative of all this. By leaving so much of this information optional, she plays little role within the game itself. She does end up spending the game inside Hyrule Castle, taking no action besides holding Ganon back. She speaks telepathically to Link from time to time, but takes no other role in Link’s journey to Ganon. As much as I love the execution, the entirely optional of Zelda’s story makes me sad, as many gamers will never discover the full extent of it.

I suppose there might also exist dissatisfaction about how her powers manifest. The game makes it pretty blatantly clear that Zelda came to love Link before Ganon’s attack, and implies her powers awoken due to that love, as she first uses them to protect him. I would have preferred if the overwhelming emotions of her failure awoke her powers, and the moment is vague enough about the cause. One could easily read the manifestation as her refusing to lose the last person in her life, regardless of whether she loves Link or not.

Really it’s beside the point. Breath of the Wild tells a wonderful tale adding yet another Dutiful Princess to the ever-growing list. This is a version of Zelda more tragic and compelling than any preceding her. It is a surprisingly strong story about a princess’s destiny, the guilt and burden born of said destiny, and her failure to live up to it. This is a story of a princess and her guardian struggling to make up for those failures, and a story of a father and daughter whose grief and duty tore them apart.

Damn if Nintendo didn’t knock this game out of the park. Breath of the Wild just might have lived up to the hype as the best Zelda game yet, and Zelda herself stands tall among the reasons why.

Images Courtesy of Nintendo

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