The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Power of friendship
The power of friendship is the dominant theme in Ocarina of Time. From the beginning of the game, when Link is introduced as ‘the boy without a fairy’, the importance of companionship is emphasized through dialogue and story progression. Characters frequently speak about the importance of friendship, and the majority of the Sages are people Link bonded with in his youth. Even the sidequests reinforce this theme, as they provide opportunities for Link to make additional connections and earn additional rewards. From the most basic elements of the story to the subplots on the periphery, the theme of friendship acts as the support structure of Ocarina of Time’s narrative.
Ocarina of Time begins with an introduction to Link, the ‘boy without a fairy’. This sets him apart from all of the other Kokiri, who have all received fairy companions. These fairies act as a second set of eyes and ears for the Kokiri, observing things from distances that the childlike forest-dwellers cannot see. Meanwhile, the fairies themselves are limited in their capacity to guard the forest, as their tiny, ethereal bodies render them incapable of performing most physical tasks. By becoming friends, both the fairies and the Kokiri are more capable than they were alone. Link quickly learns this when he receives his own fairy, Navi, and learns how to speak with others at a distance and target enemies to fight them effectively. He also receives counsel from Navi after they leave the forest, which helps him find his way along his adventure. From the very beginning, friendship exists as a foundation upon which the characters become stronger.
Many characters will speak about the importance of friendship as the game progresses. Saria gives Link his first ocarina as a way to ensure their friendship will continue even after he leaves the forest. After helping Darunia, the Goron leader calls young Link his Sworn Brother and names his son Link in honor of the relationship. Even the owl, Kaepora Gaebora, refers to Link as friend while addressing him. These bits of dialogue set the groundwork for friendship’s importance during Link’s childhood, and that groundwork is reinforced when Link becomes an adult and meets with the mysterious Sheik. Each time the two cross paths, Sheik speaks about the importance of relationships in Link’s growth. For example, before teaching Link the Bolero of Fire in Death Mountain, Sheik delivers the following message: “It is something that grows over time…a true friendship…a feeling in the heart that becomes even stronger over time…The passion of friendship will soon blossom into a righteous power, and through it, you will know which way to go…” The meaning of the quote is clear: in order for Link to succeed, he must maintain the friendships he made in his youth.
Maintaining friendships from youth becomes the key to Link’s success in awakening the ancient Sages. Four of the six—Saria, Darunia, Ruto, and Impa—are people Link befriends before the game’s Midpoint, when he first becomes an adult. Although not explicitly stated in the game’s text, Rauru is also a friend of Link’s from his childhood, as he is the owl that guides young Link through Hyrule. Only the final sage, Nabooru, is introduced after Link becomes an adult, but the Master Sword allows him to return to his childhood and befriend her before she can be brainwashed by Ganondorf. It’s thanks to this friendship that she accepts her awakening as a Sage (but it doesn’t hurt that Link grew up to be handsome, as she remarks when he leaves her in the Sacred Realm). Had Link not formed connections with the Sages in his youth, they wouldn’t have trusted him to help them as an adult, and they would not have entrusted their power to him upon awakening—if they ever woke up.
Ocarina of Time’s sidequests also reinforce the importance of friendship. One of the game’s main side quests, acquiring the horse Epona, begins when Link helps a farmgirl by the name of Malon. If he doubles back to her farm after meeting Princess Zelda, Malon thanks him for his help and introduces him to her favorite horse, Epona. At first, Epona is skittish around Link, but she warms up to him when he uses his ocarina to play the song Malon’s mother wrote for her. That bond comes in handy seven years in the future, when Malon’s ranch has been taken over by her cruel uncle, Ingo. Ingo had hoped to train Epona for Ganondorf, but Epona will only listen to Link. Using this to his advantage, Link challenges Ingo to a race and wins, thus liberating both Epona and the ranch from Ingo’s clutches. Through the simple act of befriending a farm girl as a child, Link is able to save her farm and acquire a new method of travel. Once again, friendship is rewarded, reinforcing the theme as a whole.
‘The Power of Friendship’ is a common, accessible theme that plays well with audiences of all ages, as it’s a concept people can relate to from the earliest parts of childhood. Ocarina of Time explores this theme by showing the power Link gains from cultivating friendships throughout his journey, whether its a divine power that can slay the King of Evil, or a horse that lets him jump fences for fun. Both the narrative and the mechanics reinforce the theme, rewarding Link for the friendships he forms along his journey.
Ocarina’s secondary theme, ‘Unintended Consequences’, is addressed primarily through actions and subtext. It rarely comes up in dialogue, and when it does, it’s spoken of in roundabout terms. The biggest sequences that drive home this theme are in Ganondorf’s entry to the Sacred Realm, Ruto’s gift of the Zora Sapphire, and the breakdown of the Kakariko windmill. Together, they combine to reinforce the idea that good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes, and characters who don’t fully consider the ramifications of their plans may find the results are not to their liking.
Ganondorf’s entry into the Sacred Realm is the primary example of unintended consequences in Ocarina of Time. When the young Princess Zelda first conspires to save the Triforce from Ganondorf, she imagines that all she will have to do is gather the keys to the Sacred Realm before he can. At no point does she ever address the problem with bringing the keys together in one place: they become that much easier for Ganondorf to steal. Whether she assumes he’ll give up once someone else has the keys or she simply doesn’t think that far is unclear, but her certainty in executing her shortsighted plan is what leads Ganondorf directly to the Triforce. It also costs Link seven years of his life, which is something she isn’t able to recognize and rectify until the end of the game. Although her age makes her naiveté understandable, it doesn’t change what happened. Zelda asked Link to gather the keys to the Sacred Realm, and when he did, Ganondorf walked right in.
Link wrestles with some unintended consequences of his own when he receives the third Spiritual Stone, the Zora Sapphire. After rescuing Princess Ruto from Jabu-Jabu’s stomach, she offers him the gem, but only after noting that it’s her most precious possession and might be called ‘The Zora Engagement Ring’. The meaning behind this gesture is obvious to the player, but the tooltip for the Zora’s Sapphire makes it clear that Link isn’t so certain: “Her most precious possession? You don’t know what she’s talking about, but you’ve finally collected all three Spiritual Stones!! Go back to see Princess Zelda!” From the double exclamation points to the hyper-focus on the next goal, it’s clear that Link is too excited about his prize to properly consider its meaning. This comes back on him seven years later, when he meets Princess Ruto again and finds he has an unpaid debt. “I never forgot the vows we made to each other seven years ago!” she says. “You’re a terrible man to have kept me waiting for these seven long years…” Link is ultimately let out of the marriage contract when Ruto awakens as a Sage, but the hurt Ruto felt for seven years is not so easily erased.
The last example of the theme of unintended consequences comes about in the back half of the game, when adult Link needs to access the dungeon beneath Kakariko Village’s well. As an adult, he’s too big to fit through the tunnel at the well’s base, but as a child, the well is still full of water. The solution for this problem comes in the form of a bizarre time-loop that starts when Link an adult. By talking to the owner of the windmill connected to the well, Link learns the Song of Storms, which caused the well to first drain seven years ago. Thanks to the Master Sword, Link is able to return to his childhood and play the Song of Storms in the windmill. Not only does this drain the well, but it also creates a loop in which Link learns a song from someone who originally learned it from Link. While the side effects of this kind of loop aren’t fully explored in the game, we’re able to see how Link’s goal-oriented nature has impacted the sanity of the windmill’s owner over a period of seven years. Once again, this sequence reinforces the idea that Link’s actions come with consequences that he cannot foresee, whether through his own youthful ignorance or in his haste to proceed with his quest.
While the theme of ‘unintended consequences’ does not have the same textual support as ‘the power of friendship’, it’s reinforced often enough that it becomes a recognizable through-line in the games plot. Time and time again, both Link and Zelda make rash decisions that end up having an outsized impact on the world around them. In their attempt to keep Ganondorf from the Triforce, they led him right to it, and as they tried to fix the problems they created, they ended up hurting others like Ruto and the windmill owner. Had Link and Zelda been a little older and a little wiser, perhaps they would have considered the potential outcomes of their plans, but then Ocarina of Time would not have its story. Ironically, it’s the very hubris that leads to disaster that makes the narrative so compelling.
Music is the first of Ocarina of Time’s major motifs, and is frequently employed to reinforce the theme of ‘the Power of Friendship’. Thanks to the titular ocarina, Link is able to learn songs that help him strengthen the bonds he forms with others. All but one of the songs he acquires—the Sun’s Song, taught in the Kakariko Graveyard—are taught to him by people he meets in his travels. A full half of the songs come from Sheik, who always speaks of the importance of friendship before teaching a new tune. With these songs, Link is able to use music to travel long distances, access new places, and gain the trust of others. Whenever Link needs to connect with his friends, music is there to help him.
Ocarina of Time’s other major motif, time, is employed to reinforce Ocarina of Time’s secondary theme, unintended consequences. Whenever Link and Zelda are faced with the unfortunate results of their actions, the passage of time plays a role in the problem. The primary example is in Link’s seven-year stint inside the Sacred Realm, caused by Zelda’s instructions to have him open the door himself. Time’s passing has wreaked similar havoc on the rest of Hyrule in his absence. Seven years is a long time for a country to spend under Ganondorf’s dark dictatorship, and the country and its people have changed as a result. The key to saving them lies with the Master Sword and the Ocarina of Time, two devices that give Link control over time itself. Without that control, there are multiple points along the way where Link would be unable to progress. Only by controlling time is Link able to control the outcome of events, along with their consequences.
Ocarina of Time is rich with both mechanical and narrative symbols, the majority of which feature overt meanings. The most prominent symbol, the Triforce, is a a divinely created relic with the power to grant the deepest wish of whoever touches it. As a symbol, it’s often used in connection with either Hyrule’s royal family or places that have been blessed by the divine. To the Hylians, it is a religious symbol, employed with the same reverence as a cross a star in our world.
The Master Sword serves a similar function to the Triforce. Considered to be a sacred weapon, it is the only blade capable of combating Ganondorf’s dark power. As a symbol, it serves as proof that Link is a proper hero, ordained by destiny and blessed by the goddesses. When Link gains access to the sword as a child, he is sealed away until he is mature enough to wield its power; when Link loses it in his final battle with Ganon, he is left crippled until he can regain it. The Master Sword is synonymous with his personal power, symbolizing when he is capable of overcoming his greatest obstacles.
The iconography associated with other aspects of worldbuilding, such as the Sages’ Medallions and the Spiritual Stones, are not loaded with the same meaning as the Triforce and the Master Sword. These icons do serve a purpose, however, as they function as a form of visual shorthand for the player. When a player sees the distinctive curl of the Kokiri Emerald on the back of Link’s Wooden Shield, for example they recognize its ties to the Kokiri people. These symbols also serve as mechanical reminders for certain tasks throughout the game. One example of this type of reminder is in the teleportation pads throughout Hyrule. Each pad bears the marking of one of the Sages, reminding players which song will take them to which pad. Although these symbols lack the narrative weight of the Triforce and the Master Sword, they build out the world and help players move through it.
* 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.