The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Structural analysis, Act I
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker follows a standard Three-Act structure, hitting all of the structure’s major plot points. Its primary weak point occurs towards the end of the Second Act with the addition of a second post-Midpoint Obstacle that bogs down the progression of the narrative. The story also struggles in the pre-Midpoint Obstacles, when the pre-established pattern of gaining new items through dungeon progression is broken in favor of a quick reward. The First and Third Acts, free from such structural issues, anchor the troubled midsection by providing a strong opening and closing.
The Wind Waker opens with a brief prologue, sharing a legend that has been passed down ‘on the wind’s breath’ for generations. A long time ago, a forgotten kingdom was plagued by a terrible evil, but a boy in green used a sacred sword to drive it away. All was right with the world for a time, but when the evil returned, the hero in green was nowhere to be found. Though the fate of that kingdom is unknown, its influence lives on in one island’s local traditions. When boys come of age, the elders give them green clothes to wear, in the hopes that they learn the courage of the forgotten hero.
Right from the start, The Wind Waker has its themes on display. Its primary theme, generational change, is highlighted in the elder’s gifts of green clothes. Although this tidbit of information seems like simple world-building, it’s also taking the driving force behind the narrative and firmly implanting in the player’s psyche, even if they don’t realize it. This theme is reinforced again and again in the story, so introducing it up front shows a solid understanding of the story’s structure.
The images of the forgotten kingdom fade away and the scene shifts to a quiet island in the middle of the ocean. A little girl runs out of a house, yelling for her big brother. She scrambles over the sand and climbs a watch tower, where she finds a sleeping blond boy at the top. In true little sister fashion, she wakes him up by yelling at him. As he wakes, she compliments him on his choice of napping spots, saying she calls it ‘Aryll’s Lookout’. This is a nice bit of dialogue that tells the player Aryll’s name without forcing her to introduce herself to a character who should already know who she is. It could be cleaner, as it’s likely that Aryll’s brother would already know she calls that spot Aryll’s lookout, but it’s still a solid way to introduce the character without sacrificing natural dialogue.
It takes the boy a minute to pull himself out of the fog of sleep, at which point Aryll reminds him that it’s his birthday and their grandmother has a surprise for him. Since all little boys love birthday surprises, he heads straight over to his grandmother’s house, where she tells him: “I’ve been waiting for you, Link.” While it’s no surprise that this is Link, as he’s already come under the player’s control, it’s still worth noting that his name is introduced through natural dialogue, rather than an awkward introduction.
Link’s grandmother holds out a pile of green clothes and asks him to try them on. According to his grandmother, he’s a man now, and he should be proud to wear a man’s clothes. Even though they’re too warm for the weather, he’s willing to put them on. Once he does, his grandmother tells him to go fetch his sister so they can prepare for his birthday party, as the whole village is coming. This brings us to the end of The Wind Waker’s opening. We have our characters, Link, Aryll, and Grandma; our setting, Outset Island; our goal, to celebrate Link’s birthday; and our theme, generational change. In short, we have everything we need to segue to the next narrative beat: the Inciting Incident.
The Wind Waker features a strong, clear Inciting Incident that pushes the protagonist into the story. This plot point begins as soon as Link receives his green clothes and leaves the house, at which point Aryll offers to let him use her telescope for the day as a birthday present. He accepts it and tests it by looking over the ocean. At first, it’s all blue skies and blue water, but then he catches sight of a massive bird carrying someone in its talons. A pirate ship floats nearby, firing cannonballs at the bird from below.
When one of the balls hits its target, the bird opens its talons and a young girl falls into the forest atop Outset. Aryll insists that Link help the girl in the forest, but he’ll need some way to defend himself first. With the help of an old swordsman on the island, Link acquires a sword and heads for the forest. Once inside, he finds the young girl hanging from a tree, and he fights off the monsters that circle below. Just as he’s getting rid of the last of them, the tree branch breaks and the girl falls to the ground. She’s not particularly friendly—or thankful—but the pirates from the ship are grateful to have her back when they find her. This leads to another moment where the player is spared introductions, as the pirates call to their leader by name: Tetra.
Tetra leads the way back to the ship, planning her revenge as she goes. Link follows her to the bridge overlooking the island. Aryll is there, waving at him from the other side of the cliffs. As she crosses to meet Link, the monstrous bird returns, swooping in and plucking Aryll off of the bridge. It happens so quickly that Link can only scream in horror as the creature flies off, taking his little sister with it. He tries to run after her, almost hurling himself off the cliff in the process, but Tetra catches him before he falls. “Stupid kid!” she tells him. “Get ahold of yourself. She’s gone. There’s nothing you can do.”
With those words of wisdom, the Inciting Incident comes to a concrete close. Link’s little sister has been taken from him and he must get her back. Tetra says there’s nothing he can do, but doing nothing is not an option when the sister he cares about is gone. He’s not alone in worrying about her, either; his grandmother also cares about her, which raises the stakes for her rescue. If Link doesn’t get her back, there’s no telling what will happen to her, and both him and his grandmother will be heartbroken.
As a silent protagonist with a flat arc, Link does not experience doubts and changes the way vocal, dynamic characters do. In spite of this, The Wind Waker successfully uses a combination of character animations and NPC dialogue to flesh out Link’s personality. Nowhere is this more clear than in The Wind Waker’s Second Thoughts moment, which occurs after Aryll is kidnapped by the giant bird. As soon as Link realizes Aryll is gone, he petitions Tetra and her pirates to let him come aboard their ship. Tetra initially refuses him, but she finds it hard to protest when reminded that Aryll’s kidnapping is partially her fault. It’s also pointed out that Aryll isn’t the only girl who’s been kidnapped by the bird; other young girls with pointy ears have been taken, too, and Tetra was almost among them. Once Tetra remembers this, she’s willing to take Link aboard, but only if he brings a shield so he can defend himself.
It’s no trouble for Link to find a shield, since he’s got one in his house. It was on the wall in one of the earlier cutscenes, which is a nice piece of narrative setup that doubles as a mechanical hint. When Link goes back to get the shield, his grandmother is waiting for him with the shield. Although she doesn’t confirm that she knows what’s happened to Aryll, her actions make it clear. Link’s guilt is apparent as he’s unable to maintain his eye contact. His grandma doesn’t hold it against him, though; instead, she offers him the shield, tactily approving his plan.
With a shield to protect him, Link boards Tetra’s pirate ship. Together, they set sail and pull away from Outset Island. As Link looks back over his home, the villagers wave to him and wish him luck with Aryll. There’s only one person who doesn’t join them: his grandma, who waits silently on her porch. Link runs to the back of the ship, waving with both arms while he screws up his face like he’s trying not to cry. While Link doesn’t have the option of turning back—not when his sister needs him—he’s still broken up over the thought of leaving his grandmother behind. It’s only when Tetra starts belittling him for taking too long with the goodbye that he’s able to pull himself together, which confirms what the animations already tell us. By combining Tetra’s dialogue with Link’s actions, The Wind Waker makes it clear that although Link is leaving the island, a part of him wants to stay home.
Turning Point One
Turning Point One, the segue between Act One and Act Two, encompasses Link’s first attempt to rescue his sister from the bird that took her from Outset Island. Although his attempt fails, it still functions as a point of no return, as Link ends the act in a new place and with new goals.
With the help of Tetra and her pirates, Link heads to the Forsaken Fortress, where the giant bird is said to roost. Because the island is tightly guarded, Tetra can’t dock her ship anywhere near the shore. Luckily, she has an idea: she’s going to pack Link in a barrel and use her trebuchet to launch him into the fortress. As Link is loaded into the barrel, a complex range of emotions pass over Link’s face—shock, fear, determination—and then he’s flying through the air. His sword flies away as he hits a high wall and tumbles to the ground, leaving him unarmed in the middle of enemy territory.
Once Link gets his bearings, he sneaks through the fortress, recovers his sword, and reaches the giant bird’s tower. The bird is nowhere to be found, but Aryll’s in the room, locked away in a cell with other girls that fit her description. Before Link can set them free, the bird swoops in and picks him up, carrying him away. It takes him to the very top of the tower, where a man in dark robes waits. With a tilt of his head, he commands the bird to throw Link into the sea.
Surrounded by water, Link drifts in and out of consciousness until a small boat picks him up. Hours later, Link awakens on the shore to the sound of someone calling his name. He’s inside a red boat with the head of a lion—and the lion-boat is talking to him. After calling Link ‘dull-witted’, he identifies himself as the King of Red Lions, the ocean’s only talking boat. He’s been watching Link since the Forsaken Fortress, and although he admires Link’s courage, he says the attempt to save his sister was ‘foolhardy’. This is because the fortress is run by Ganon, the man in dark robes who ordered Link thrown away.
According to the King of Red Lions, Ganon is a man who obtained the power of the gods and was sealed away for his transgression. He is the same Ganon that the legends speak of, the one who was once defeated by the boy in green. Now that the seal has broken, Ganon threatens the world once more. If Link wants to save his sister, he’ll have to defeat Ganon. Doing that takes more than courage; it takes power Link does not yet possess, but can if he follows the King of Red Lions.
Link doesn’t hesitate for a second before agreeing. He has come this far, and is willing to do anything to save his sister. This means Link now has several objectives layered on top of each other. His primary objective is rescuing his sister, as it’s been from the beginning of the game. His secondary objective, layered on top of his primary objective, is defeating Ganon. From this point forward, Wind Waker’s narrative obstacles all build off of those two goals, providing the basis for the remainder of the mechanical challenges in the game.