The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
In the Legend of Zelda series, Link is meant to act as the player stand-in, which means his character is intentionally under-developed. As a result, he has a flat arc, which means he does not experience any emotional changes throughout the narrative. That isn’t to say he has no personality. Using a combination of character animations, tool-tips, and gaps in NPC dialogue, the developers of Ocarina of Time fleshed out Link’s personality to give players a sense of his values, his desires, and his fears.
The ground-breaking 3-D graphics in Ocarina of Time gave developers newfound freedom to express Link’s personality through his animations. An early example of this tactic occurs in the cutscene on the bridge in Kokiri Forest, where Saria gives Link the Fairy Ocarina. As Link backs away to leave, the hesitation in his steps shows us that Saria’s kind farewell has shaken his resolve. He values her friendship and is afraid to leave her behind, if only for a moment. Later, when Darunia wants to thank Link for clearing Dodongo’s Cavern, he offers Link a traditional Goron hug and Link runs away screaming. This shows us that Link, at the ripe old age of nine, has not yet mastered the tact required to make a graceful exit from an awkward social situation. He gains some tact as he ages, but not enough to keep the shock off his face when Ruto calls him her fiancé seven years later. This is a fun example of dramatic irony, as the player knows all along that accepting her Spiritual Stone meant accepting her marriage proposal, but this went over Link’s head as a child. The way the player knows this is through Ocarina’s second method of revealing Link’s character: the tooltip.
Every time Link receives an item, a text-box pops up with a description of what it is and how it’s used. Sometimes, there’s also additional text that conveys Link’s thoughts about the object. This text is always written in the second person, as if Link and the player reading the text are one and the same. Both the Goron’s Ruby and the Zora’s Sapphire provide wonderful examples of this method of characterization. When obtaining the ruby, the tooltip reads: “You don’t know what [Darunia] means by “Sworn Brothers,” but you’ve collected two Spiritual Stones! You have one more to find!” Similarly, the sapphire reads: “[Ruto’s] most precious possession? You don’t know what she’s talking about, but you’ve finally collected all three Spiritual Stones!!” In both cases, the player sees major pieces of information sailing over Link’s head, likely due to his youth. This is reinforced by the fact that adult Link’s tooltips come with much less of this flavor text. It’s only once Link reverts to childhood to enter the Spirit Temple that we see it return with the acquisition of the Silver Gauntlets. Their text reads: “You found the Silver Gauntlets!…But, these gauntlets won’t fit a kid… Plus, you promised to give them to Nabooru. You should keep your word…” Through this text, we can see that Link is wrestling with keeping the treasure for himself. The decision is ultimately moot, as Nabooru is kidnapped shortly thereafter and Link gets to keep the gauntlets, but showing the internal debate via tooltip gives the player insight into his character. Link may be the Hero of Time, but he’s definitely not perfect.
The last method of revealing Link’s personality, gaps in dialogue, occurs whenever Link is asked a question or an NPC pauses to give Link room to talk. Many of these questions must be answered a certain way in order for the story to progress, but the benefit of the false choices comes in solidifying Link’s character. Even though the player knows they have no choice in moving Link’s story forward, Link is not privy to the fact that he is a video game character, and his actions and responses are therefore his own. Hence, whenever Link answers a question, it is his decision and not the player’s. Every time Link agrees to help someone, it’s because it’s in his character to do so. This shows us that he’s a helpful person by nature.
Using animations, tooltips, and gaps in dialogue, Ocarina of Time paints a picture of a protagonist who is loyal, headstrong, excitable, helpful, and ultimately heroic. Even though Link lacks the depth of a character with a defined arc, he still has a personality of his own, allowing the player to connect with him in ways they couldn’t if he were simply a lump of pixels on a screen.
Princess Zelda has the unique distinction of being the one character who is fundamentally changed by the events of the narrative. At the game’s beginning, she is full of youthful conviction and unwavering in her certainty that her plans will work out. By the game’s end, she is plagued by self-doubt and blames herself for the multitude of tragedies that have unfolded around Hyrule. This character progression of her character is shown in five key scenes: her first meeting with Link, her flight from the palace, her transformation into Sheik, her reveal in the Temple of Time, and her reunion with Link after Ganon’s demise. Together, they combine to reveal a character who struggles with the consequences of her own actions, reinforcing one of the game’s major themes.
When Link first meets Princess Zelda, she recognizes him as a figure from one of her prophetic dreams. She’s used to people not believing that she can see into the future, but she’s been right before and is certain that she’s right again. In this most recent dream, a great evil rose over the kingdom, but it was dispelled by a flash of light from the forest, along with a fairy and a boy in green. Believing that Link is the boy from that dream, she charges him with collecting all of the keys to the Sacred Realm. Given that the keys are currently split up and in the hands of competent, adult guardians, it would be reasonable to leave them where they are, but Zelda is sure that things will work out regardless. Although Zelda has the best of intentions, her youthful naivety will kick off a sequence of events that plunge Hyrule into seven years of darkness.
The next time Link sees Zelda, she’s fleeing Hyrule Castle on the back her guardian’s horse. Even though Ganondorf has brought his army to her doorstep, she’s still committed to her plan. As soon as she spots Link, she hurls the Ocarina of Time into the moat for him to take. She does so under the assumption that Ganondorf won’t see any of this, in spite of the fact that he rode up not a minute after she left. Once again, her reckless plans fail in spite of her best intentions, as she believes wholeheartedly in the truth of her dreams.
Seven years pass before Zelda is able to meet with Link again. In that time, she adopts the guise of Sheik, last of the ancient Sheikah race. She does so under the belief that altering her appearance will allow her to guide Link without putting herself at risk. Although her deception works, her willingness to put herself in harm’s way in spite of the risks demonstrates her continued recklessness. Based on the dialogue she shares with Link in this form, it’s likely that she’s motivated by a bond of friendship between them. The strongest evidence of this occurs before the Fire Temple, when she encounters Link as Sheik and states: “It is something that grows over time… a true friendship. A feeling in the heart that becomes even stronger over time…” A later encounter in the Ice Cavern gives her an opportunity to express a similar sentiment, saying: “A childish mind will turn to noble ambition… Young love will become deep affection…” If this dialogue is reflective of her feelings towards Link, then it gives her reckless actions a motive, even if that motive does not negate the risks.
When Zelda finally reveals herself to Link, she does so because she believes that a confrontation with Ganondorf is imminent. One of the first things she does is explain the logic behind her actions from seven years ago, breaking them down as follows:
“I thought I should entrust the ocarina to you… I thought that would be our best chance…As long as you had the ocarina in your possession, I thought Ganondorf could never enter the Sacred Realm, but…but something I could never expect happened. After you opened the Door of Time, the Master Sword sealed you away in the Sacred Realm…Your spirit remained in the Sacred Realm…and then the Triforce fell into Ganondorf’s hands. He went on to invade the Sacred Realm…Ganondorf had become the Evil King, and the Sacred Realm became a world of evil. All of this is an unfortunate coincidence.”
Both Zelda’s final line and her decision to unmask herself at a pivotal moment prove that she hasn’t yet learned from the mistakes of her past. By referring to the rise of Ganondorf as an ‘unfortunate coincidence’, she fails to take responsibility for the role she played in bringing his ascent about. She also falls into the same trap she did seven years ago, when she believed Ganondorf wasn’t watching her and waiting for her to make a move. Sure enough, she’s barely able to talk to Link for five minutes before Ganondorf swoops in, sealing her in crystal and spiriting her away to his palace.
When Link brings Ganondorf to his knees at the top of his tower, Zelda looks on him with contempt, referring to him as a ‘pitiful man’. It isn’t until he’s sealed away with the power of the Sages that Zelda is able to look back with enough clarity to admit her role in the years of darkness.
“All the tragedy that has befallen Hyrule was my doing…I was so young…I could not comprehend the consequences of trying to control the Sacred Realm. I dragged you into it, too. Now is the time for me to make up for my mistakes.”
In order to atone, Zelda asks Link for the Ocarina of Time, so that she can use her power to send him back to his childhood. In spite of everything she’s learned, she’s about to do something just as reckless as she did before—potentially creating a time paradox—but this time, she’s not motivated by youthful optimism. Instead, she’s motivated by guilt, and it’s that guilt that shows on her face as she takes the ocarina from Link. She can’t even look him in the eye as she holds the instrument that will send him away from her for good. There are any number of other things that could be read into that expression, but none of them could exist without the character growth to support it. While Zelda may still make the same mistakes out of a fierce desire to right the world’s wrongs, it is no longer idealism that drives her. Instead, it is the knowledge that she is complicit in these wrongs, and it is therefore her duty to right them.
Ganondorf’s motivations are not explored extensively in Ocarina of Time. What little knowledge we have of him comes from hearsay and his background. He was the first Gerudo male born in one hundred years, and in Gerudo tradition, that made him their leader by default. According to Nabooru, his ‘leadership style’ differs from those who came before, as he believes that murder and stealing from women and children are both acceptable. The Gerudo may not have the most rigid moral code, but they do have one, and Ganondorf has violated it. In spite of this, he has support among a select faction of his people, including the old witches Kotake and Koume. With the help of their magic, he’s able to suppress any dissent among his own people—Nabooru included—and solidify his rule.
It’s not clear what makes Ganondorf’s ambitions extend beyond the Gerudo Valley, but Ocarina of Time doesn’t require its antagonist to have complex motivations. Since the protagonist, Link, has a flat character arc, the best way to antagonize him is by changing the world around him in ways that go against his nature. As discussed in the section on Link’s character and theme, Link is helpful by nature and cares deeply for his friends, and he struggles with social cues and wears his heart on his sleeve. To be a proper antagonist, Ganondorf must be none of these things. Sure enough, Ganondorf is selfish, trusts no one, and artfully manipulates people by concealing his true intentions. For Ganondorf’s motivations to fit the narrative properly, they must be situated opposite Link’s. If Link, helpful and courageous, is motivated by love of his friends and the goodness in his heart, then all Ganondorf needs to be an effective villain is a hatred of his fellow man and a heart filled with darkness.
Of the Six Ancient Sages—Rauru, Saria, Darunia, Ruto, Impa, and Nabooru—none of them display enough growth to have what could be considered a character arc. However, they vary in their individual depth, and some characters are more important to the story than others.
The least developed Sage is Rauru, the Sage of Light who greets a newly-grown Link after seven years have passed. One of the Gossip Stones found within the game suggests that an owl who guides young Link through Hyrule may be Rauru’s reincarnation, but this is never directly confirmed within the game. This utter lack of background makes Rauru more of a plot device than a character. Like the signs on the roads of Hyrule, he exists to dispense important information at key points.
Impa, Sage of Shadow, doesn’t get much more development than Rauru. She’s only on screen for three scenes: the meeting in the castle courtyard, the flight from the castle gates, and the awakening in the Chamber of the Sages. The meeting in the courtyard is the only time she tells you directly about herself, and even that’s light on detail. It’s only through talking to other characters that we learn she ran Kakariko Village for the Sheikah and then opened it up to the Hylian poor, all while serving as the princess’s attendant. This tells us a lot about Impa: she’s honorable, hard-working, and humble. She’s also taciturn, which ties into her humility. It’s unfortunate that we see little evidence of how seven years under Ganondorf’s rule changed her, as the way time changes people is a central method of developing characters in Ocarina of Time.
Nabooru is an interesting character not so much because of who she is, but through her relationship to Ganondorf. She’s the only window into Ganondorf’s psyche, granting us information about his personality and his past. She also loses seven years to Ganondorf’s brainwashing, which puts her in a similar mental situation to Link. Had she been given more development, those seven years of missing memories would have been an interesting theme to explore, but Nabooru’s character growth is cut short when she joins the ranks of the Sages.
Darunia and Ruto are developed in parallel, as Link forms relationships with them during his search for the Spiritual Stones. Both characters declare themselves eternally bound to young Link, and both are missing when adult Link goes looking for them. When Link finds them, they’re inside their respective temples, and they both demand his help based on the bonds they formed. Although Darunia and Ruto have different personalities and backgrounds, they both act with steadfast devotion: to Link, to their people, and to the other Sages.
Saria, Link’s oldest friend, is the most developed sage by virtue of her close relationship with Link. She’s the reason he hesitates when he’s about to leave the forest; she’s the one he calls when she’s stuck on his journey. Her ocarina helps Link learn new songs, and those songs help him form new friendships. She’s also forced to live forever as a child as her oldest friend, someone who once looked like her, becomes an adult and leaves her. Even if her character doesn’t show any outward changes, the player knows her world has been rocked because she’s lost someone she values.
* Reference Run: ZorZelda. Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D 100% Walkthrough 1080p HD. YouTube, 2017.
** Reference Script: TheSinnerChrono. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Game Script, v01. NeoSeeker, 2008.