Can Nintendo tell a proper story?
Nintendo and Netflix may be developing a Legend of Zelda TV series, the Wall Street Journal recently reported; or, as Time reported even more recently, they may not. Behind the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation lies a more complicated question: Can they? Do games like these bear expansion into full-fledged stories?
At first glance, a Zelda series seems like a savvy move: HBO’s Game of Thrones has proven that there’s high demand for vaguely medieval fantasies, of which Zelda—a franchise that made its debut in 1986, and that’s grown to include roughly seventeen games—is a prime specimen. And since Nintendo has gradually been losing its share of the video-game market for the past fifteen years, it has every reason to find other ways to wring more value from its globally recognizable intellectual property.
But games don’t translate as easily to TV or film as you might think. In his 2010 apologia Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, perhaps the most thorough defense to date of video games as art, the journalist and essayist Tom Bissell explains why: “The video-game form,” he writes, “is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative progression.” Unlike books and films, games require challenge, “which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.”
Not every video game tries to tell a story, either. Games based on sports, music, strategy, and puzzles often have no more plot than a round of chess—although that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from squeezing a feature-length film out of Tetris, the classic puzzle game without even the semblance of a story.
More often, though, games tell stories halfheartedly. I can’t tell you why the Angry Birds on my phone are so angry, but I suspect it’s easier to market the story of an interspecies feud than it would be to sell a functionally identical game featuring faceless polygons. Ideally, “narrative” video games feature novel game-play mechanics and immersive worlds, but as the game designer Jesse Schell writes in The Art of Game Design, these core features—“the game”—are “not the experience.” Rather, the full experience of a narrative game comes from the interaction among its mechanics, setting, and, yes, its story. In a dangerous world, even an artificial one, a rational actor might be better off just staying home. The story gives the player a reason to push ahead. As Bissell put it: “Traps, after all, need bait.”
The Legend of Zelda abounds in traps and bait—and yet telling a coherent story has always been Nintendo’s lowest priority. An added challenge in translating Zelda in particular is that each game’s story is as likely to contradict as build on the ones that came before it. So in telling The Legend of Zelda, Netflix’s prospective screenwriters must ask themselves: Which legend, and which Zelda?
Unlike Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, The Legend of Zelda is not one expanding legend but perhaps a dozen contradictory story lines, whose recurring characters often bear the same names (Zelda, Link, Ganon) but with such divergent biographies that they could not possibly be the same people as their counterparts in other games. This confusion has existed since 1988’s The Adventure of Link, the second of the canonical Zelda games, in which the protagonist is informed that while the Princess Zelda of the original game remains safe, her great-great-great-[…]-grandmother—also a princess, also called Zelda—is still alive but cursed to eternal slumber, and gathering dust in a castle up the road. In some games the main characters are cartoonishly drawn children; in others they are handsome adults with the world’s weight on their shoulders. At times Zelda is a helpless damsel, at others she is a warrior in her own right. Hearing the cries of fans seeking some semblance of order, in 2013 Nintendo published Hyrule Historia, a best-selling book most noteworthy for a single page in which the games’ makers laid out an official chronology unifying every title to date. It was a noble effort, but also an unholy mess: Nintendo’s makeshift continuity diverges into three parallel realities according to whether and how a player dies in 1998’s Ocarina of Time.
Contradictory plotlines haven’t stopped comic books from becoming Hollywood juggernauts, but Nintendo also has a much deeper problem: its greatest stars are in many ways its least-developed characters. As the wider world of “mature” video games has become more and more film-like, with cinematic expositional “cutscenes” and A-list voice actors such as Kevin Spacey, Nintendo has controversially clung to the same text-based storytelling and silent protagonists found in its earliest games. Mario, for example, has yet to utter anything more substantial than his trademark “It’s-a-me, Mario!” and Zelda’s Link—the player’s avatar and the only character to appear in every Zelda title, as Zelda herself is sometimes absent—opens his mouth only to grunt and scream as he swings his sword. He is effectively a one-man hero with a thousand faces.
Fans are dying to hear Link speak for himself, but there is a risk that they won’t like what they hear. Just as Elijah Wood’s turn as Frodo Baggins has gradually but permanently robbed me of the face I imagined when I first read The Lord of the Rings, Mario and Link are such ciphers that any attempt to specify their personalities will almost certainly disappoint. In 1989, Nintendo licensed a thirteen-episode Legend of Zelda cartoon series, but if it’s remembered today at all, it’s for Link’s insufferable sarcasm and his condescending attitude toward the princess he’s charged with protecting. Within literally the series’ first minute, Link catcalls Zelda with a crack about how nice her breasts look from the balcony above. Such antics don’t exactly connote strapping heroism.
Incredibly, the 1989 cartoon series is not even the worst attempt at characterizing Link and Zelda. In the early 1990s, Nintendo licensed the Zelda brand to Philips for three games on its ill-fated CD-i console. Philips crammed its Zelda games with animated and live-action cutscenes—the most ambitious narrative effort in a Zelda game at the time—but the result was tragically amateurish. The live-action scenes could have been produced by an affluent high school’s drama club, and the animation is about what you’d expect from the Russian studios to which the job was outsourced just a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout these games, Link wanders around muttering Zeldafied clichés like “I’m so hungry, I could eat an Octorok!” (Don’t ask.) Zelda fans mostly pretend these games were never made.
Nintendo’s most notorious narrative failure by far, however, is the 1993 film adaptation Super Mario Bros., the noir-ish tone of which was completely at odds with the lighthearted atmosphere of the games. As Blake J. Harris recounted last year in his industry history Console Wars (which itself is on its way to a film adaptation), pretty much everyone involved knew they were making a horrible movie. Budget overruns, for instance, forced the producers to drop a climactic scene in which Mario climbs the Brooklyn Bridge to defeat his antagonist by dropping a cartoon-like bomb on his head, a maneuver consistent with the mechanics of Mario and similar games; instead, Harris writes, “they opted for the much cheaper alternative of Mario simply shooting King Koopa with a gun.” Morale got so low that the film’s costars, Bob Hoskins, and John Leguizamo, took to drinking on the set, which, according to Harris, “may or may not have been the reason behind Leguizamo crashing a car … which resulted in Hoskins having to wear a cast that could be seen in various scenes throughout the film.”
Then there’s that word, legend, implying that Zelda’s would-be screenwriters have a deep well of myth and lore from which to draw. Not so. In its earliest games, the franchise just piggybacked on the legacy of the Crusades. The original Zelda’s box art prominently includes a crest and, with no real explanation, a distinctly medieval “lion rampant” more or less identical to those found on the Royal Banner of Scotland and coats of arms from Finland to the Philippines. Further buttressing Zelda’s vaguely medieval European setting, Link’s shield is emblazoned with a cross, apparently Christian, plain as day even at a mere three pixels by four. Crosses also appear on unfortunately named enemies like Darknuts and Wizzrobe, and more crosses still pop up in rows to mark graveyard areas in both the first Zelda and its 1988 sequel. And the “Triforce”—the iconic triangle comprising three smaller triangles that serves as the series’ principal MacGuffin—is practically begging to be compared to the Christian Trinity.
Zelda reached peak Christianity in the early nineties, when Japanese promotional materials for A Link to the Past showed Link kneeling solemnly before a crucifix in a dimly lit church. Ironically, that game ended up dropping the explicit Christian imagery and introducing its own polytheistic theology—the game’s original, Japanese title was The Triforce of the Gods, plural. It still featured a church and priests, but in the North American release these features were rebranded as a “sanctuary” and “wizards.” The story of Hyrule’s gods was fleshed out a bit more in 1998’s Ocarina of Time, and since then the series has kept about the same distance from real-world references as any pulp fantasy novel.
Even more difficult than pinning down a TV-friendly Zelda story, however, will be capturing the game’s fundamental appeal: its sense of exploration and discovery. To experience The Legend of Zelda is, more than anything, to spend a lot of time chopping down bushes and blowing up rocks in the hope that such actions uncover some hidden cavern. In a 2010 profile, Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto told The New Yorker that this aspect of the games was based on his boyhood wanderings through the Japanese countryside; as both a longtime Zelda fan and a former Boy Scout, I can confirm that the games do somehow replicate some of the magic of chancing upon a cave in the woods. This sense of discovery even transcends the player’s television set: several early games’ cartridges were painted gold, as if they came not from a toy store shelf but from underneath a mossy stone.
Earlier this week, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata said that The Wall Street Journal’s original report of a Zelda TV series was “not based on correct information.” His comment falls short of a complete denial, and the company, at any rate, has a long history of denying product rumors that turn out to be true. At the very least, though, Nintendo appears to appreciate the challenge of translating its masterpiece to an unfamiliar medium, whether with Netflix or some other studio. If the company is going to take that risk, I just hope it chooses its partners wisely. As we know from the series’ very first line of dialogue, it can be dangerous to go alone.
Ted Trautman has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and others. He lives in San Jose.