The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Structural analysis: Act II, Part 2

The Third Obstacle

The Wind Waker’s Third Obstacle is compelling because it takes the protagonist to new places while maintaining connections to old characters.

The Wind Waker‘s Third Obstacle acts as a mirror of its First Obstacle, directing Link to familiar islands to reconnect with people he’s met before. If the challenges remained on those familiar islands, this section would run the risk of feeling like backtracking, but Link’s quest then takes both him and his friends to unseen parts of the sea. This mixture of old friends and new places helps invigorate the back half of The Wind Waker‘s narrative while anchoring it with known characters.

Now that Aryll is safe with the pirates, Link is free to restore power to the Master Sword. To accomplish this task, Link must first awaken the two Sages responsible for giving the sword its power through their prayers: the Sage of Earth and the Sage of Wind. Although the entrances to their temples have been sealed in Hyrule, the King believes they can be accessed from above the sea. 

At this point in the game, the player has the option to awaken the sages in either order. One side effect of this is the constraints it puts on the progression of the narrative. Since the scenes can play out in one of two orders, events that occur in one scene cannot have any impact on the other. Hence, both the skills and information Link acquires from either awakening can’t be referenced in the other. This is an example of gameplay and story coming into conflict. The player is allowed more freedom to explore the world on their terms, but the story is limited as a consequence. 

The two barriers sealing the temples in the Third Obstacle are visually similar, emphasizing the resemblance between the two challenges.

As both paths are equally viable for the player and the story, choosing where to start is effectively a coin flip. From a narrative standpoint, starting with the Sage of Earth is slightly stronger, as this takes Link back to Dragon Roost Island and mirrors the structure of the story’s second obstacles. In either case, Link acquires new tools to reach the temple entrances, and the resulting cutscenes follow a similar pattern. At the entrance to the Earth Temple, Link meets the spirit of a departed Zora Sage, Laruto, who teaches him a harp melody that will awaken her descendent. The same sequence unfolds at the Wind Temple, where a Kokiri Sage named Fado plays a fiddle song with similar properties. Both the harp and the fiddle from the cutscenes are instantly recognizable as the instruments belonging to Medli and Makar respectively, so Link has everything he needs to find the new Sages. 

Although the awakening sequences for Medli and Makar play out similarly, Medli’s is more extensive, as her character received more development before her awakening. When Link finds her again on Dragon Roost Island, she’s practicing her harp, but she’s happy to stop and update Link on how Prince Komali is doing. Thanks to Link’s help, he’s grown into a fine young man, and Medli is both proud of his progress and depressed that he’s growing up so fast. She wonders how she can be useful, and hopes playing her harp for Valoo will help. This is a perfect segue for Link to take out his baton and teach her the song he learned from her ancestor, Laruto, which triggers Medli’s awakening. She sees the spirit of Laruto and remembers her role as a sage as she regains consciousness in Link’s arms. Using her newly acquired knowledge, she helps Link through the Earth Temple and plays her sacred song in the centermost chamber, restoring power to the Master Sword. 

In the Third Obstacle, the spirits of the fallen Sages pass on their knowledge to Link, emphasizing the game’s theme of generational change.

Makar’s awakening follows the same pattern, but in an abbreviated fashion. When Link finds Makar beneath the waterfall at the entrance to Forest Haven, Makar has little to say beyond his plans for next year’s concert. While not particularly deep, this functions just as well for a segue for Link to conduct Makar with his sacred song, and Makar is overtaken by the spirit of Fado. When their song is through, Makar returns to awareness with full knowledge of the task ahead, and together he and Link travel to the Wind Temple and restore the other half of the Master Sword’s power. 

Although the open-ended nature of Medli and Makar’s quests constrains the narrative’s ability to build on itself, both quests function well within the larger story. Each ties back to a previous character and place and shows the way they’ve changed through Link’s influence (though this is more true for Medli than Makar). While these story elements exist primarily to guide Link to more dungeons, they do so in a way that shows character growth, utilizes the game’s music motif, and reinforces the theme of generational change. All in all, this section is a solid example of tying mechanical obstacles to narrative obstacles.
The next obstacle, on the other hand, is not.

The Fourth Obstacle

A story can only handle so many narrative obstacles before the Second Act becomes too bloated and momentum is lost. Likewise, a game can only handle so many mechanical obstacles for the same reason. Traditional stories will often keep the post-midpoint obstacles to one, which coincides with the mechanical progression of most Legend of Zelda games. After the midpoint, Link is usually tasked with entering a suite of dungeons that contain fractions of a greater reward. Once those fractions have been completed, the story races towards its climax, hitting the standard disaster beat in the process. While The Wind Waker does hit those beats, it only does so after the addition of a Fourth Obstacle: the search for the Triforce shards, commonly known as the ‘Triforce Fetch Quest.’

The much-maligned Triforce Fetch Quest is the weakest point of The Wind Waker, as it stops the narrative for a series of mechanical challenges.

Before delving into the problems with the Triforce quest, it’s important to first define a ‘fetch quest’. To put it in simple terms, a fetch quest occurs when the player is tasked with collecting items that have no bearing on the plot. In the TVTropes article on fetch quests, an alternate definition is provided. “This is also known as a FedEx quest,” the article states, “since…[the] people, places, and objects themselves are largely inconsequential — you’re just their mail carrier.”1 For a player, fetch quests are tedious precisely because they lack narrative impact; there’s no reason for the player to be doing what they’re doing, except to give the player more tasks to complete. In games that are light on narrative and heavy on multiplayer experiences, like MMOs, inconsequential tasks are common. They’re also almost entirely optional. In single-player games, especially ones driven by their stories, fetch quests are not nearly as prevalent. When they do make an appearance, they’re rarely mandatory. This makes sense, as fetch quests do nothing to develop the characters, the world, or the main conflict. They are, quite simply, filler. Making them mandatory not only wastes the player’s time but also brings the story to a crashing halt.

The Wind Waker’s infamous fetch quest begins after Link has awakened both sages and the Master Sword has reached its full potential, but it’s first alluded to before the sages are awakened. Interestingly, the way it’s referenced changes from the Gamecube version of the game to the high-definition Wii U version of the game, which attempted to make the Triforce quest more tolerable. Both exchanges occur outside the Tower of the Gods when the King of Red Lions tells Link about the Hero of Time, and how he guarded the Triforce of Courage until it split into eight shards when he left Hyrule. The dialogue is largely the same until the King reaches the end of his speech. Here’s what he says in the Gamecube version:  “Even I do not know where [the shards] rest, but this much I do know: they lie hidden somewhere in this Great Sea. The Triforce of Courage is the only key that will once again open the doorway to Hyrule. You must search for it.”In the updated Wii U version, the King’s dialogue reads as follows: “Even I do not know where [the shards] rest, but this much I do know: they lie hidden somewhere in this Great Sea. Might you have crossed paths with someone who knows much about things that lie hidden in the depths of the sea?”

The addition of the Triforce Shards acts as an artificial constraint on Link’s return to Hyrule, as they were unnecessary on the previous two visits.

There are a few ways to consider this dialogue change. While the original text is more straightforward, it’s also misleading, as the Triforce shard quest cannot be completed until after the Sages have been awakened. The updated dialogue, although less direct, suggests actions the player can take to start the mission early while removing the sense of immediacy. In either case, the Triforce shards aren’t spoken of again until Link awakens both sages, at which point the King says that they must return to Hyrule to make sure Ganon hasn’t hurt Zelda. Then, in both the original and the updated versions of the game, he states: “Link, you must search for all the Triforce shards so that we can head back to Hyrule without delay!”

Though this dialogue remains unchanged from version to version, the changes made to the King’s prior statement have an impact on the flow of the story. In the original text, the King has already said that the Triforce of Courage is required to open the door to Hyrule, so this command is simply reinforcing previously known information. In the updated text, however, there’s no prior mention of the Triforce shards’ role in returning to Hyrule, so the King’s command seemingly comes out nowhere. It’s especially strange considering that Link didn’t need any Triforce shards to visit Hyrule the last time, so the new barrier to entry seems forced both narratively and mechanically.

Regardless of the version, the above dialogue is the last thing the King will say about the Triforce quest. Once Link is tasked with tracking down the eight shards, they can be found in any order, which means nothing that occurs on any one branch of the quest can be referenced in any other. In other words, the narrative comes to a dead stop.

The search itself involves a long sequence of mechanical obstacles, including mini-dungeons, mazes, and treasure hunts, and the accrual of a substantial amount of in-game money. Completing these tasks takes hours of playtime, none of which involve any story progression. For a game that’s been tightly plotted up to this point, this quest represents a massive departure from the norm. Fortunately, this is the last point that suffers from a narrative departure, and the reward for collecting all eight Triforce shards is a return to the appropriate pace for the story.

The Crisis

With all eight pieces of the Triforce of Courage, Link is finally able to return to Hyrule. As he does, the King congratulates him on his efforts and names him the Hero of Winds, which means the Triforce of Courage now dwells within him. Zelda is thrilled with Link’s return as well, but her excitement is short-lived as she disappears in a burst of light. 

With the Triforce of Courage assembled, Link is able to return to Hyrule and kick off the Disaster segment.

Ganon’s voice echoes over the room. Just as the King suspected, Ganon knew all about the sacred chamber in Hyrule Castle, and he’s spirited Zelda away to his tower. To get her back, Link must ascend the tower and use the powered-up Master Sword to defeat Ganon, but first, he must fight his way out of the burning sword chamber. 

As far as the narrative structure is concerned, The Wind Waker’s disaster segment is short but effective. In the span of less than a minute, Link loses someone he’s been fighting to protect and is sealed inside a burning room. Unfortunately, this kind of quick turnabout is made possible by sacrificing character growth, as Zelda is given zero dialogue before she’s taken away. Wind Waker is light on character development across the board, however, so this quick change in circumstances isn’t as jarring as it could be. All in all, it does what it needs to do to move the story forward and send Link on the final stage of his quest: saving Princess Zelda from Ganon.

Turning Point Two

When the barrier at the back of Hyrule Castle breaks, Link is able to cross into Act Three.

The Wind Waker’s Second Turning Point is even shorter than its disaster segment. It consists entirely of a threshold-crossing at the back of Hyrule Castle, where a barrier has been erected to keep anyone from escaping. With the fully charged Master Sword, Link is able to dispel this barrier, granting him access to the road to Ganon’s Tower. This is a symbolic, efficient scene that clearly marks the divide between the two acts, literally opening the road to the final confrontation.


 1 TVTropes. Fetch Quest. 2004.  

* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – FULL GAME – No Commentary. YouTube, 2018.

** Reference Script: RPG1377. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Game Script. IGN, 2003.