On the last page of his book Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin writes:
Video games are truly a metaphor for a vision of life that can be ordered, understood, and conquered. They may start off as broken places, full of conflict and violence, but they are utopias too, in that the things that are broken can be put right. Hour by hour, in most video games, our work is to restore, rescue, and perfect these virtual worlds.
Interestingly enough, this is not the case in The Wind Waker. The player’s job is to preserve the status quo, and the status quo is that the world is terrible.
Let’s consider the fact that Link can only swim for twenty seconds. The boy has lived on an island his entire life, and he can swim, but he dies if he doesn’t get out of the water quickly. Moreover, he is unable to dive. Within the context of the Zelda series, this is very strange. Swimming and diving are major components of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and mechanics for swimming and diving were present in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening as well. Why, in a world covered in water, would Link not be able to swim for an extended length of time?
Even more curious is the fact that the winged Rito tribe used to be the aquatic Zora race, who could survive in both fresh and salt water. Medli says that the gods “saved” the Rito by giving them feathers, but what was it that they needed to be saved from, exactly?
In addition, no other character is shown swimming, and there is an uncanny lack of fish and fish-related design motifs in the game. What’s wrong with the water? Why is it so inhospitable to everything that isn’t a god or a monster?
Regardless of whether the Great Sea is poisonous or not, it’s clear that it’s extremely dangerous. Moreover, the sparse population of the towns and the lack of other boats on the sea would seem to indicate that the ocean has been dangerous for generations.
And yet it’s Ganondorf, who wants to restore Hyrule, who is cast as the villain of the game. Why? If the player’s job is to put right the things that have been broken, doesn’t this goal align with Ganondorf’s intentions? Why is Ganondorf “evil” for wanting to fix things?
Ganondorf is searching for the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, knowing that a hero will come for her if she is in peril. By uniting the hero, the princess, and himself, he will be able to assemble the complete Triforce and wish for the Great Sea to recede from Hyrule. Link has been set on his quest because his sister Aryll was kidnapped by the Helmaroc King, which Ganondorf had sent out with orders to retrieve girls with pointed Hylian ears. As much sympathy as I feel for Ganondorf, the abduction of young women (or anyone, for that matter) is inexcusable. Ganondorf’s actions are directed toward a drastic change, and he doesn’t seem to care about the individual lives affected. In other words, Ganondorf privileges grand narratives over small narratives.
Link, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with small narratives, and his larger quest is composed of helping individual people achieve concrete and practical goals, which only occasionally happen to be in line with his own. A good example of this is the “Withered Tree Sidequest,” which is best undertaken after Link acquires the Hero’s Bow.
After Link rescued Makar from the Forbidden Woods, the Koroks conducted the yearly ceremony meant to mark the start of their journeys out onto the Great Sea. Each of them was given a seed to plant, and each of these seeds has since sprouted into a sapling. Unfortunately, these saplings are dying. In order to nourish them back to health, Link must water them with special Forest Water, which is only found in the Forest Haven. The catch is that Forest Water loses its efficacy after twenty minutes, and there are eight withered trees scattered across the Great Sea. If the player doesn’t water all eight trees by the time the clock reaches zero, then she has to start all over again.
This is extremely difficult, even with a map and walkthrough. The Swift Sail that Link can purchase in Wind Waker HD renders the sidequest somewhat more manageable, as does a swift travel technique that the player can gain access to by making use of the Hero’s Bow in another sidequest, but it’s still not easy. The only tangible reward the player receives at the end is a heart piece. It takes four heart pieces to receive a health upgrade, and there are dozens of them in the game. Collecting heart pieces is not mandatory, and even an unskilled player can make it through the game without the benefit they provide. One could therefore argue that only a completionist would go through the trouble of undertaking this sidequest.
The successful player’s real reward, however, is watching the withered saplings grow into huge and healthy trees. Outside of the Forest Haven and Link’s home on Outset Island, there are almost no trees on the Great Sea, so it’s a rare and wonderful sight to see one spring up from nothing. The Great Deku Tree has explained to Link that the purpose of the Koroks’ mission is to bring the forest back to what remains of Hyrule, and it is up to the player to decide what this means. My own interpretation is that these trees will help to drain or purify the Great Sea while fostering biodiversity by providing shelter for other plants and animals. This method of restoration will take many years, and it is nowhere near as drastic as what Ganondorf intends to do. What makes Link a hero within the value system of The Wind Waker is that he facilitates small transformations that minimize the potential negative impacts of change.
Still, I can’t help but feel that Ganondorf’s motivations are not entirely evil. If something like the Triforce exists, then there will always be someone who feels compelled to use it. Perhaps the blame lies not with the person who wants to change the world for the better, but rather with the deities who created the Triforce in the first place.
( Header image from Zelda Dungeon )