Emma Vossen is a second year PhD student at the University of Waterloo who specializes in depictions of gender, sexuality, and the body in comics, video games, and pornography. Her recent publications examine a variety of topics including the fetish art of Joe Shuster, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon and The Walking Dead. You can read about her work on her blog.
Nintendo’s recent release of Hyrule Historia has the internet abuzz about Zelda timelines and character sketches. This piece of ephemera is obviously worth picking up for a die hard Zelda fan, but its use value for a game scholar is more questionable. The text does contain pertinent “facts” about the Legend of Zelda universe but I am still unsure how much this information will change perceptions of the series, or the scholarship around it. This review will examine the many different sections of Hyrule Historia in order to discern what such an official piece of metatextual “history” can offer.
The text starts off with a personal introduction from Legend of Zelda creator, senior executive director, and general producer Shigeru Miyamoto (2). In this concise introduction Miyamoto looks back on the humble beginnings of the Zelda series as a dungeon creator made for the Famicom in the mid-eighties. He explains that his original intention was to build a level creator that was a two player experience in which one player created a dungeon that another player would subsequently attempt to solve. Similar designs would materialize elsewhere including in the popular series Little Big Planet over two decades later. During the initial creative stages, Miyamoto noticed that most people enjoyed playing the levels more than creating them, and so the team shifted focus and created single-player dungeons for a protagonist named Link, who would scour these challenging levels in an attempt to rescue a princess. This princess would inevitably be named after famous American Zelda Fitzgerald. The introduction goes on to provide the reader with various design insights and facts, from the creation of Impa to the many renditions of consummate antagonist Gannon, while sketching out a succinct history of the production of each installment in the series.
Chapter one, entitled “The Legend Begins,” takes up the first 66 pages of the 239 page book and focuses entirely on the series’ most recent game and origin story, Skyward Sword. This decision seems an obvious move considering Skyward Sword has long been coveted and promoted as the Zelda title that would fill in all the considerable blanks in the Zelda universe that have left players debating for the last 25 years. The chapter contains very little textual information, and instead offers various sketches from different stages of the creation of Skyward Sword. These sketches include interesting notes, comments, and instructions within the development team such as “hairstyle can be changed,” and “please make the frame silver,” demonstrating how the settings and characters evolved from concept art into the final product. The chapter moves through each major character and setting, providing just sketches and blurbs about the importance of many persons and places.
Chapter two contains the most “textual” content as opposed to images and by proxy of this contains the most new and noteworthy information for games scholars. Therefore, my review of Hyrule Historia will mostly be examining this section of the text. The chapter, entitled “A Chronology of Hyrule,” claims to examine “the history of the cycle of rebirth and the triforce” so that the reader can discover “the real history of Hyrule” (68). Much of the anticipation for Hyrule Historia surrounds this particular chapter, as Nintendo had announced that they would finally address the many fan-created timelines that have been debated and emended over the years. “A Chronology of Hyrule” takes an interesting stance on “official history” by offering a disclaimer, stating that the information that follows is only “believed to be true at this time” and that “there are many obscured and unanswered secrets that still lie within the tale” (68). Also fascinating is the decision to state upfront that any “spin off games … have not been included in these chronicle” (68) which means the exclusion of the many Zelda related games and texts that fans have also long excluded from timelines of the series.
The first more linear timeline provided takes the shape of a three pronged fork which includes fifteen games as Zelda “canon,” placing them on a structured, visualized timeline that begins with Skyward Sword and the creation of “the land and sky” (69). The timeline builds through various events of historical importance featured in game titles and surrounding lore, up to the Ocarina of Time at which point it branches off into two timelines, one in which the hero is “triumphant” and has killed Gannon at the end of Orcarina, and another timeline in which the hero is “defeated” and actually dies, only to be reincarnated in A Link To The Past. The “triumphant” timeline splits into two yet again: one timeline in which Link is an adult and one in which he returns to his original time as a child. In the adult timeline Hyrule is flooded and therefore the next game in the chronology is Wind Waker.
The rest of this chapter following the timeline does not do much to unpack and justify the revelations made in the first two pages, but instead expands on them in a non-linear fashion. Much of the information is displayed in small digressions in the form of bullet points or illustrated asides that are split up based on the titles of each “era” (creation, sky, prosperity, chaos, decline, shadow, great sea, etc.), and then split up again by “chapters” (the titles of the games). The information flows from the creation of Hyrule, to the creation of Skyloft, to the establishment of Hyrule Kingdom, and follows through the various falls of civilization and the pertinacious resurrections of Gannon/Ganondorf. These pages are fragmentary in their layout of information, yet comprehensive in the volume of facts that is sure to reassure plenty of fans in their insatiable debates over Hyrule’s canonicity. The opening page of simplified timeline works as a map of the expanded explanation that follows (69). Page numbers are provided to demonstrate the location of the specific information referenced in the master timeline, encouraging the readers to skip ahead to the sections that clarify the claims that are being made. In order to properly ingest all this information, the readers must constantly refer back to this simplified timeline in order to orient themselves in relation to the other games and “eras.”
What is so captivating about the way the information is laid out is that there is no clear way to read the information that has been collected. The chapter feels less like a set in stone “history” that many people were expecting, and more like a collection of facts that can be construed by the fans at will. There is legitimately no way all the information contained within these chapters can be adequately summarized. Nor can it be explained in a compartmentalized, linear fashion. The content of this “chronology” is anything but chronological. The editors have clearly tried to avoid creating a teleological narrative, and are instead hinting towards an ever-changing multitude of histories that may or may not “truly” exist. The editors actually refer to the splitting timeline as a “cyclical tale that arose from an ancient battle” (91). Despite the fact that much (if not all) of this content can be read on a Zelda wiki, I do believe that there is something special about the way it has been formatted and presented in this compendium beyond the simple authority Nintendo’s corporate stamp of approval lends to it.
The physical book itself is beautiful and resembles the special edition hardcover strategy guides they have been selling with the launch of Zelda games for the last ten years or so. I will admit that the Dark Horse logo on the spine does stand out in an off-putting way in contrast to the rest of the book design, yet it does not ruin the overall effect. It appears that there is an “extra special” edition of the book to be released, featuring a brown leather cover but no divergent content, for fifty dollars more.
The third section of the text is entitled “creative footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork” (137). The section is full of sketches and concept art from the design of all the “canon” Zelda games starting with the original Legend of Zelda, and moving through each game as it was published, concluding again with Spirit Tracks. This section of the book is about 91 pages long, about a third of its entire length. Considering the focus on game art in the earlier chapters as well, I would unquestionably refer to this text as an “Art Book” or a “visual history” of Zelda as the amount of visual information far outweighs the textual inclusions.
If you are an exceptionally devoted fan then you might want to translate the “original” yourself, as some fans have gone as far as to say that one needs to own the Japanese edition to get the the real canonical information. The fan site Knights of Hyrule claims that readers should “keep in mind that, often with western translations of Zelda media, original concepts are lost in translation, and there may be slight differences in the more detailed aspects of the book, especially the Zelda Timeline section.”
Despite being the type of person who is usually lamenting the lack of visual content in books, and who always privileges visual and interactive storytelling over textual, I initially felt myself looking for a linear explanation that would be easier to digest and connect to my current Zelda knowledge. But after much contemplation, I’ve decided that a linear format would have gone against the nature of the project and its source material. I may have briefly found the information a bit overwhelming to intake and collate with my own thoughts, but this is because the information was presented in the only respectful way it could be, by scattering the pages with many divergent-but-connected lexia of text and image, forcing one to navigate back and forth between the pages of this “chronology” in a fashion that feels very hypertextual.
For years the rabid fan community has been asking for a timeline to clear up any questions they may have about Zelda’s characters and the world in which their lives are perpetually retold. A “timeline” was in fact provided, but the information itself resists the teleological clear cut answers that were expected, in favour of a more cyclical and mysterious approach that raises more questions than answers. It becomes readily apparent that a clear and simple connection between games will not be provided in full. We see instead small groupings of interconnected facts splayed across the 68 pages that examine Hyrule’s “historia” and it is up to the reader to decide how they track, prioritize, and sort these story elements. The bits of narrative provided take place in the same world over a time span of thousands of years and multiple realities. Separating these stories from a blow by blow or moment by moment timeline liberates them from any strange or weak causation that would be needed in order to create a strict, undeviating “official” timeline. The timeline chapter ends by examining various aspects from Spirit Tracks, the “last” game in the time line and concludes by leaving its loose ends to dangle: “with the lineage of the gods not yet exhausted, who can say what successive generations will bring? The story will continue to unfold” (135). This means, among many things, that in 25 years, you will be buying another book.
The relative merit of this book will vary slightly depending on the purpose of the reader. Ignoring the way the content is presented, I will say that the information included was extremely compelling for myself as a fan. What I would have previously thought of as mundane or useless piece of information (like the significance of the uniform colours in Skyward Sword) suddenly took on a new meaning because of its “official status.” I very much enjoyed merging all this meta textual information with my own gameplay experiences. For a fan, this text is a must buy and a must read as long as you aren’t expecting all the “answers.” The book would provide useful for an aspiring game designer or artist who is curious about what work looks like in the conceptual stages at Nintendo.
For a game researcher, the case is slightly different. Those researching or writing about Zelda will find this book a very useful resource when looking for easily accessible citations. I am sure it would be much easier to cite specific pages and information from this text as opposed to finding and citing dialogue from a specific game in the series. For game scholars not writing specifically about Zelda I am unsure how helpful the vast amount of information in the book would be because of its specificity. The text would though offer a strong case study for the inclusion of fan created information and storytelling in the official universe. The original Zelda time lines were very much a type of Zelda fan fiction in which players would attempt to connect the various stories in a manner that was pleasing to their personal narratives. Seeing portions of these timelines come to life as part of a “official” history shows how important this sort of fan participation and feedback is to these long running series. Therefore, games scholars interested in fan studies, participatory culture, metatextuality, world building, and lore creation will find the content of this book indispensable. Hyrule Hysteria is an excellent example of how game worlds and the stories they hold and inspire can transcend the games themselves and become not history, but instead “historia.”