Zelda’s Historians: Canonizing Fictional Chronologies
The following is a guest post from David Hussey, a 4th year History major at the University of Waterloo.
Considering the audience of this website, most of what’s next is likely unnecessary but I’m going to lay it all out anyway. The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular franchises in video game history and may have the most obsessive fan base in the industry. There have been 16 core titles released since the first Zelda title was released in 1986 on the Nintendo (no, the CD-i games don’t count). Even though it seems Nintendo has lost some steam in the video game market over the last few years, the Zelda franchise continues to be incredibly successful. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the game that got me obsessed with gaming. You always remember the first game that captivated you and for me, this was it. Since the days where I would plant myself on the basement couch in my pajamas and take turns playing it on the Super Nintendo with my brothers, I’ve been obsessed with the franchise. Like many other fans of Zelda, up until a couple years ago, I had my own personal theory as to how each game “fit” into the overall chronology and timeline of the franchise.
The obsession with the timeline
The timeline of the Zelda games has always been a bit of a controversial topic to fans, and in ways still is today. In 2011, Nintendo released The Hyrule Historia in Japanese, which was later released in English in 2013. The Hyrule Historia provides an in depth look at the official Zelda timeline from Nintendo along with lots more content. The book has been massively successful and at one point was the best selling book on amazon. This shows how important the timeline is to the fan base but the question arises, why?
The most logical explanation for the fan base’s obsession is the way that Nintendo makes their games. Their “gameplay first, story later” strategy has created an interesting type of connection between the games in the franchise. Some franchises like Final Fantasy or Mario have almost no connection between their titles, making each game a stand-alone title. Others franchises like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed have obvious connections between their games. The Zelda franchise, however, differs from both these types of franchises. While, each game is a stand-alone title (with some exceptions) almost all of them contain small references or links (excuse the pun) to other games. These small references are enough to confirm the existence of some sort of timeline but not enough to make the connections between the games obvious. This catch-22 drove fans to try and solve the timeline mystery themselves.
Interviews with the creators help explain the company’s process in making a Zelda game. An example of this was in an interview between Electronic Gaming Monthly and Eiji Aonuma, one of the directors from Nintendo who oversees the Zelda series. In reference to where the Twilight Princess would be set in the series’ timeline (the interview took place before its release), Aonuma said,
I can’t really go into that, partially because I want to keep it a secret, but also because we haven’t decided yet. There are some kinds of… unstable, uncertain ideas that we’re working on. Depending on what course we choose in the process of development, the final ending may change.
The main thing that stands out here is not that he’s secretive about when the game will go but rather that they are well into development of the game and haven’t decided where it goes. With this strategy, often times it seems that the release of a new game can completely change the look of the timeline. To be clear, things HAVE changed since this interview. Mentions of a master timeline began showing up in the years leading up the Skyward Sword’s release in 2011, which makes sense considering the coinciding release of The Hyrule Historia. For the purpose of this article though, I won’t be focusing on the official timeline, Hyrule Historia or Nintendo’s view on the Zelda series overall but rather, looking at it through the fan base’s perspective.
The obsessive nature of the Zelda fan base along with the lack of canon timeline led many fans to create their own timelines . Much of this discussion took place on Internet forums where the fans could reach a larger audience with their ideas. For further reading (and because he does such an excellent job of explaining it) Sean C. Duncan from the University of Wisconson-Madison wrote an article called Literacy Implications of Online Fan Debates with a specific look at how and why fans discussed and theorized about the Zelda timeline on Internet forums.
R.G. Collingwood suggests in a section called “The Historical Imagination” from his book The Idea of History (which can be read here) that ‘Historical Thought’ is a way of thinking that when implemented allows historians to properly write about history. It involves two main principals: evidence and authority.
In order to write history properly, Historians need to prove their arguments with source material or evidence. Without evidence, a historian’s argument is worthless. In regards to Zelda, because these theories were posted on the Internet, fans needed to have proof when presenting a new idea about the timeline or other fans would tear their theory apart. So, similar to how Historians create a narrative to make sense of a number of sources, fans would take bits and pieces of information from games, manuals and whatever else was available and used this evidence to help prove or disprove theirs or other fans’ theories.
The website NorthCastle is often credited with posting one of the first Zelda Timelines back in the early 2000s. The author mentions at the start, “I have used many sources to compile this timeline, mostly from the game manuals and games themselves and various sites on the ‘net.” His argument sounds a lot like a history paper. Unfortunately the author doesn’t cite where he gets his facts for his arguments (although most are well thought out) and the layout is less structured than an academic paper.
In February 2012 (after the Japanese release of the official timeline), Zach Potts released a 56-page essay “The Legend of Zelda Timeline and Analysis”, which explores the Zelda timeline in depth by playing all 16 canonical Zelda titles in a month and presenting his findings in relation to the official timeline. While not annotated in an academically recognized citation style (Chicago, MLA, etc.) it is still easy to tell where he got his facts. This excerpt from page 16 exemplifies how he references multiple games as sources to prove some of his speculation,
These sorcerers tried to establish dominion over the Sacred Realm using a powerful magic; the Fused Shadow. I believe this group is also the same that used the Majora’s Mask in its hexing rituals. There is no other shadowy evil tribe presented in the Zelda series, and Majora’s Mask and the Fused Shadow share a similarity in the design of the eyes. Also, Majora’s Mask bestows wicked and evil power to whoever wears it, transforming that person… like the bosses of Twilight Princess. It is also said in [Majora’s Mask] that the “ancient ones”… sealed the mask away in shadow.
Here Potts is speculating on the placement of certain events from Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess that haven’t been released as canon. He uses evidence from the games to support his theories on the timeline similar to how a historian would support their thesis.
Collingwood’s other aspect of Historical Thought is authority. For a historian, this means critically reading secondary source material and never accepting their conclusions as fact but rather as another interpretation of the evidence. The reason for doing this is it allows the historian to create his own conclusions and not merely accept everything that’s presented in from of him. For more than a decade, fans all over the world recreated their own version of the Zelda timeline. All these reinterpretations led to vast new theories, the presentation of overlooked evidence and different popularized theory models. Now that’s not to say that historians will be explaining history with split timelines or alternate realities anytime soon; but it does show how fans would continue to question themselves and create their own interpretation of the games’ connections. Searching “Zelda Timeline Theory” on youtube returns over 20,000 videos, which shows how timeline theorizing has led to many interpretations of the timeline by fans. Even after the release of The Hyrule Historia, there are still many who believe that the official Zelda timeline is wrong due to conflicting evidence.
ocarinahero10’s video The Legend of Zelda, Split Timeline Theory (HD) has over 500,000 views and is a great example of the type of timelines that fans were creating and with some of the crude evidence to help explain their findings. In the video he alludes to both the evidence that he relied on to make the timeline and the other theories whose authority he ignored.
One thing that people will be quick to point out is that Historical Thought is only really applicable when talking about the recreation of the real world’s past. However, the point still stands that while it takes many historians years to figure out how to ignore authority and make points based on valid evidence, Zelda fans figured out how to recreate a fictional past with the same principles with no academic influence. Historical thought is something that is supposed to be taught but it’s been shown that fans of the Zelda franchise, from all walks of life, have used the theories of modern historical thinking to understand the history within the series.
It is truly is amazing that a fan base, unsatisfied with the idea of not knowing the true history of franchise, chose to become potentially the first ever historians of a fictional world. I can think of no other examples of this kind of behavior and their work though be commended for its accuracy and diligence.
The best part about this all is that fans will be able to continue with this into the future. It is likely that within the next year or so, Nintendo will release another Zelda game for the WiiU and with it, there will be a whole group of fans trying to prove where it lies in the timeline.