The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Structural analysis: Act II, Part 1
The First Obstacle
Twilight Princess‘s First Obstacle, the hunt for the Fused Shadows, is the longest single plot point in the game. It encompasses over a third of a twenty-hour run-through, and is also fraught with pacing problems as a consequence. Link’s characterization also suffers as he’s pulled between his two main goals—locating the Fused Shadows, and rescuing the children of Ordon—and neither goal receives enough uninterrupted attention to establish tension. As a result, both quests feel less important than the stakes would suggest, and the narrative bends over backwards to keep him from prioritizing one over the other.
the First Fused Shadow
When the First Obstacle begins, Link has been tasked with defeating the king of shadows and restoring light to Hyrule, but he’s got another problem: all of his friends are still missing. There are no leads on them, either, which Midna hangs a lantern on by proclaiming that they might very well be in the Forest Temple. There’s no evidence to suggest this, but Link still agrees to enter the temple anyway. At best, this suggests Link has no idea what he’s doing; at worst, it says Link doesn’t care about the children as much as first thought. It’s hard to tell which the right answer is, as his motivations aren’t particularly well fleshed out at this point (nor will they be). Still, the game’s hour-long opening places a conspicuous emphasis on Link’s relationship with the children. For him to ignore them in favor of the Fused Shadows would go against everything the story has set up, but since Link has no idea where the children might be, Midna’s suggestion wins the day by default.
Unfortunately, Link’s trip to the Forest Temple doesn’t get him any closer to finding his friends, but it does net him the first piece of the Fused Shadow. Midna recognizes it and pockets it for herself, promising she’ll tell Link more about it if he can find the other pieces. Together they leave the temple and return to the spirit Faron, who informs Link that he can find his friends in the Eldin region. This is useful information: information the spirit could have mentioned before Link went into the Forest Temple, which he only because he hoped his friends were inside. This could be considered a manipulative thing for a divine spirit to do, but it’s more likely a simple narrative contrivance.
Before entering the Forest Temple, Link had two conflicting priorities: saving his friends and finding the Fused Shadows. Had he known his friends were far away from the first Fused Shadow, he would have had to choose which to prioritize, but because the spirit withheld that information, Link didn’t have to make a difficult choice. If this were meant to be a manipulative act on the spirit’s part, it would have been within Midna’s character to comment, even if the stalwart Link had nothing to say on the subject. By moving past the moment without comment from any character, the spirit goes unblamed for the information lapse, and ‘narrative contrivance’ becomes the only explanation for why Link was left in the dark. The story demanded he go in a certain direction; therefore, anything that might challenge him was removed. It’s a disappointing decision from the developers, as it removes a potential emotional moment from a character who is already light on emotion.
the Second Fused Shadow
The quest for the second Fused Shadow exacerbates the goal whiplash from the previous section, pulling Link back and forth between his two goals with little regard to the flow of the narrative overall. Major characters go forgotten to keep Link on one path, then conveniently resurface when Link has time to follow the other path. This causes problems for Link’s characterization as well, as his ever-changing priorities make him appear both forgetful and gullible to a fault.
When the search for the second Fused Shadow begins, Link knows where his friends are, and he’s determined to get them back. Together with Midna, he re-enters the twilight as a wolf and journeys to the Eldin Province. In Kakariko Village, he meets another light spirit who’s been plagued by the dark bugs. Link is once again tasked with collecting them all, but this time, he sees some familiar faces along the way: his friends from Ordin Village. Although Ilia isn’t with them, the rest of the children are there and appear safe. The only problem is that they can’t see him as long as the twilight blankets the world. Gathering all the bugs solves this problem, as it lifts the twilight and makes him visible to everyone. It also frees the third spirit, Eldin, who informs Link that the next Fused Shadow is in the Goron’s mines north of the village.
Once Eldin disappears, Link reconnects with the Ordon children and the adults who were caring for them. The children remember very little of what happened to them. All they can say for certain is that they were kidnapped and left to die, but then the village leader, Renado, took them in. After confirming their stories, Renado asks Link to take the children and flee. The Gorons in the north have grown belligerent with the growing twilight, he says, and he must talk them down before they harm anyone. However, Link has other ideas: he’ll meet with the Gorons himself, as he needs their help to get the next Fused Shadow.
This scene exposes more than a few weaknesses in the early part of the narrative. The first and most glaring is that no one acknowledges Ilia’s absence from the group. It’s as if she never existed, which is a bizarre juxtaposition from the emphasis she received in the game’s first hour. The next weakness this conversation reveals is how the Inciting Incident, the kidnapping of the children, was another narrative contrivance. The Bulbins had no reason to take the children if they were going to abandon them a few hours later, which means they were only taken as a way to force Link out of Ordon Village for story purposes. This is a perplexing narrative choice, especially given that Link was actually on his way to Hyrule Castle the very next day. Since Link was already on the right path, there wasn’t a single reason for the Bulbins to kidnap the children. Regardless of their interference, the story would have unfolded the same way. Link would have left the village, the twilight would have enveloped him, he would have become a beast, and Midna would have rescued him. This negates the Inciting Incident entirely, rendering the kidnapping moot—except for the still-missing Ilia, who goes forgotten by the story until Link fails to reach the Gorons and must return to Ordon Village.
When Link tries to climb Death Mountain and reach the Goron’s city, the heavy-set guards use their brute strength to knock Link away from the entrance. Link goes back to Renado with this problem, and Renado reveals that the mayor of Ordon is the only human he knows who can match the physical strength of the Gorons. Coincidentally, this man is also Ilia’s father, which means Ilia is suddenly relevant to the story.
Link returns to Ordon and asks Ilia’s father for help. His reaction to the news of his daughter’s disappearance reinforces the earlier problems with her plotline:
“So the young ‘uns are in Kakariko Village! Well, that’s good… Renado is an old friend. If they’re in his care, then we can relax. So… Don’t keep me waitin’, lad! Tell me of my little girl! Ilia is with the rest of ’em, right? …Oh! I see… That ain’t what I wanted to hear… Ahh… But Link… I guess I need to think of all five of those poor kids, not just my own… They’re all in danger. What I should be askin’ is how I can help out… What’s that, now? The Gorons of Death Mountain? I see…”
And just like that, the conversation shifts to the art of sumo, showing exactly how much Ilia matters to the story. Her own father’s reaction to the news that she’s still missing is, to re-quote: “That ain’t what I wanted to hear.” That’s all the concern Ilia gets before her own father pivots to thinking of the other children and Link’s unrelated quest. While it’s admirable that he wants to be involved, it’s absurd to ask players to accept that a missing child’s father would take such a practical view. The only way it makes sense is when Ilia is viewed not as a character but as a plot device: something to keep the characters moving from place to place, forgettable until the plot demands otherwise. It’s problems like this that mark the Twilight Princess story’s lowest moments, where characters are emphasized, discarded, and then re-introduced as needed for the narrative. It’s as if these characters cease to exist when Link is not on the screen. Ilia isn’t the only character who suffers this fate, but she’s by far the most prominent example, and the story is weaker for her treatment.
Once Link has learned the art of sumo (and picked up a pair of Iron Boots that let him hold his own against the Gorons), he returns to Kakariko Village in time to witness the Bulbin leader, King Bulbin, running off with one of the children. Link fights King Bulbin and wins, thus saving Colin. While the second kidnapping makes for an impressive cinematic sequence, it’s utterly pointless in the narrative. The sequence ends in the same place as it started: all the children are in Kakariko, Ilia’s whereabouts are unknown, and Link is ready to face off against the Gorons. The only impact it has on the story is to make the bulbins look more inept, which was not something they needed help with.
When Link returns Colin to the village, Renado promises no danger will come to the children on his watch. This rings more than a bit hollow after one of them was just kidnapped out from under him, but Link still has some Fused Shadows to find, so none of the characters acknowledge this. With Renado watching the children—minus Ilia, who is once again forgotten—Link is free to climb Death Mountain and engage the Goron elder in several rounds of sumo wrestling. Thanks to his Iron Boots, he triumphs and gains access to the mines, where he’s able to free the Goron’s leader from the evil energy within. This grants Link the second Fused Shadow, bringing him that much closer to his Act goal.
the Third Fused Shadow
Finding the second Fused Shadow brings Midna to the forefront of the story after a lengthy absence. With two Shadows in her possession, she’s willing to share information about the King of Darkness. His name is Zant, and as he stands now, he’s far too strong for Link to face alone. Fortunately, Link might have a chance with all three Fused Shadows, and the spirit Eldin just so happens to know where the third is located: Lanayru Province, where Ilia is coincidentally waiting for him. Once again, the spirits have chosen to withhold information from Link that could have potentially changed his priorities, and once again, the game does not attempt to acknowledge this.
The news of Ilia’s location is treated as urgent information by the same characters who had forgotten her until the plot called for it. Colin’s command is a particularly egregious example of this, as he says:
“Link… Ilia… You’ve got to save Ilia! Those monsters left me with the other kids, but they must have taken her somewhere else! Whenever I thought I couldn’t go on, I would think of you and Ilia and hold on, Link… See?”
Until this precise moment, Colin hasn’t mentioned Ilia since the first time he was kidnapped. It’s only now that Link has the information he needs to take action that Colin is suddenly passionate about Ilia’s rescue. Some of that can be chalked up to the memory loss he experienced under the shroud of twilight. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that he would have commented on her absence at some point after the light was restored, which happened well before Link’s trip to the Goron mines. The fact that he didn’t proves how unimportant Ilia is to the narrative as a whole. Her disappearance doesn’t matter until it does; finding her doesn’t matter until the plot demands it. It’s the same problem the story’s had since the opening, and it only becomes more glaring as the story moves on.
In search of Ilia and the last Fused Shadow, Link heads to Lanayru Province, the location of Hyrule Castle Town. The area is still covered in twilight, rendering all of the townspeople unable to see him—including Ilia, who he finds in a tavern at the back of town. She’s tending to a sick Zora child whose illness has something to do with the spirit in the spring in Lake Hylia. Since Link can’t help her through the veil of twilight, he heads to Lake Hylia to meet with the spirit.
When Link and Midna arrive in Lanayru, they find a dry lake and a frozen river. Using Midna’s ability to teleport objects, Link thaws out the river with a hot boulder from Death Mountain, and a Zora ghost appears to thank him. Her name is Rutela, and she was the queen of the Zora people until Zant’s beasts raided the river. She had time to send her son, Prince Ralis, to warn Princess Zelda in Castle Town, but Queen Rutela was slain shortly thereafter. She asks Link to save Ralis by lifting the curse of twilight from the world, which he can do by visiting the spirit at the bottom of Lake Hylia, Lanayru. If he does this, she will grant him the power to swim to the bottom of Lake Hylia, where he’ll find the next Fused Shadow. This is one of the rare times where Link’s dueling goals work in concert, as lifting the twilight helps Ilia as much as Ralis, so he happily agrees.
Using the flowing river as transport, Link rides down to Lanayru and purges the dark bugs littered throughout river-lands. When the spirit awakens, it shows Link a vision of the dark power lurking inside the Fused Shadows. This vision conveys important backstory information using a bizarre, surreal tone that strays beyond the edge of Twilight Princess’s unsettling style. While this is neither the first nor the last time the story strays from fantasy to horror, it is the longest sequence shown in that style by far.
As Link awakens from his vision, Lanayru warns him that the power he seeks to control could come to control him if he’s not careful. If he still wants to proceed, he’ll find it in Lakebed Temple. Before Link can retrieve it, he must first save Prince Ralis and earn the power to dive.
Link returns to the bar in Castle Town, where he finds both Ilia and Prince Ralis. Link is dismayed to learn that Prince Ralis has not recovered. To make matters worse, Ilia has lost her memory. This somehow manages to make her even more of a blank slate of a character, which should not have been possible. The bar’s owner, Telma, hopes that taking Ralis and Ilia to Kakariko Village’s shaman will help them recover. Unfortunately, reaching Kakariko involves a perilous journey across a field of monsters. It will also mean yet another detour from the quest for the Fused Shadows. Once again, Link’s two goals are in direct conflict, and pursuing the one steals all the momentum from the other.
Acting as a bodyguard, Link guides Telma, Ralis, and Ilia through the fields to Kakariko. The village shaman, Renado, can help the Zora prince, but Ilia’s memory is a trickier subject. While the shaman is hopeful that it will come back, he can’t promise when that will happen. He can only ask that she stay in Kakariko so he can look after her. This suggestion is both timely and convenient, as it frees up Link to pursue the Fused Shadows without any guilt. If Ilia were well, he would be obligated to return her to Ordon; if Ilia were truly sick, he would not want to leave her. Only through the limbo of amnesia can she continue to exist on the periphery of the plot, keeping Link away from Ordon without shackling him to her side. The story can keep right on moving, and all it cost was any chance of developing Ilia’s character.
Midna, who has gone largely forgotten until this point, briefly returns to the forefront to ensure Link follows the game script. Once he has the Zora Armor, granting him access to the Lakebed Temple, Midna appears to remind Link of what could happen if he gives up and goes home:
“Well, it’s a good thing you found all of your friends and picked up that nifty Zora armor… But aren’t you forgetting something kind of important? That last Fused Shadow… Remember what Faron the light spirit said… He said you would need the Fused Shadows to defeat the dark overlord Zant and save the world… So even if you go back now with all of the people you saved… The whole tragedy would just repeat itself…”
With Ilia in need of protection and Midna in need of the Fused Shadow, Link has enough motivation to go to Lakebed Temple and retrieve the final relic. Once he has it in his possession, he’s officially overcome his Second Obstacle, bringing the narrative to its midpoint at last.
Twilight Princess features a ‘false defeat’ midpoint, where the characters are plunged into a seemingly unwinnable conflict after all of their progress is lost. It also marks the point where the narrative’s focus shifts from the children of Ordon to Midna and the Twili people. The children notably play no role in this midpoint whatsoever, which foreshadows their declining importance as the story moves forward. To replace them, the story shifts its emphasis to Midna’s growth and motivations, which begins as soon as she obtains the last Fused Shadow.
When Link emerges from the Lakebed Temple with the Fused Shadows, the Shadow King Zant is waiting for him. He knocks the light spirit away and plunges the world into twilight once more, reverting Link to his wolf form. Midna emerges from the shadows to defend him, but Zant telepathically hoists her into the air and rips the Fused Shadows away from her. He derides them as ancient and weak: nothing like the new magic source he’s using. To prove his point, he conjures up a ball of dark magic and fires it at Midna, but Link absorbs the blow. When Midna tries to help him, Zant mocks her, saying that Link is one of the light dwellers who oppressed their people. As Zant seeks vengeance for their people, she should join forces with him to cover the light world in darkness. When she declines his offer, he releases his hold on Lanayru and blasts her with the full energy of the spirit’s light. She’s reduced to a grey, sickly version of herself, but the spirit sends her and Link away before any more of his energy can harm them.
When Midna and Link reform in the spirit’s light, it’s outside of Hyrule Castle. Thanks to Zant’s magic, Link is again stuck in his wolf form, and Midna is on the brink of death. Things are now worse than they’ve ever been, suggesting that Midna and Link have been defeated. This is a false defeat, however, as the spirit believes Princess Zelda can help them.
With the ailing Midna limp on his back, Link follows the spirit’s request and heads to Hyrule Castle. Zelda receives them in her chamber, still cloaked in black, and listens patiently as Midna ignores her own injuries to ask how Link can be returned to his normal form. Zelda claims that Link is now bound by different magic than what first converted him to his animal form, and she no longer has the power to bring him back. However, there is a way to restore his human form: the Master Sword, the blade of evil’s bane.
Zelda tells them where they can find the sword, but Midna insists Link will have to go himself. As a last request, she asks that the princess also tell Link how to find the Mirror of Twilight. Zelda laments that Midna is trying to help the Hylians while the Twili people are being punished for Hylian sins. To repay that debt, Zelda transfers her power into Midna, restoring Midna’s health and costing Zelda her physical form. As Zelda disappears into the darkness, Midna swears that they’ll honor her sacrifice and find the Master Sword. It’s a touching moment, but not because Zelda and Midna were close. It’s precisely their distance that makes Zelda’s sacrifice so confounding to Midna, a character who has previously shown no interest in anyone but herself. This moment marks a turning point in her character arc, as it forces her to reconsider her actions thus far.
With Midna fully healed, she and Link set off to Faron Woods to find the sacred blade. They’re impeded by a maze of groves and a series of puzzles meant to test the unworthy, but they prevail and reach the pedestal. The sword’s holy light cleaves through the evil magic and restores his human form, and he takes the sword and wields it as his own. To celebrate his good fortune, Midna gives him a new quest: find the Mirror of Twilight, a relic that may be their last link to stopping Zant. With this new goal, the Midpoint comes to an end, and Link and Midna are ready to enter the second half of Act II.
* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.