This is the fifth article of a five-part series devoted to exploring the philosophical meaning and creative integrity of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (released in 2003 for the GameCube). My intent in posting this series here is to help people view this title from a more thoughtful perspective in terms of its underlying significance and how it is achieved. I believe that The Wind Waker is not just a quality game in a popular franchise, but a pioneering work of artistic merit in an industry searching for ways to craft more meaningful experiences for players.
- PART ONE: Leaving Paradise
- PART TWO: Growing Wings
- PART THREE: Chasing Dreams
- PART FOUR: Planting Seeds
- PART FIVE: Becoming the Champion of Life
- The Challenge of the Sky
- A Matter of Balance
- Darkness and Light
- Time is Running Out
If players visit Sturgeon at the beginning of The Wind Waker, the advice he offers sets the stage for the game that is to follow. Age-old wisdom is passed on to the player as Sturgeon explains some basic gameplay instructions.
"Changing Perspective Leads to Success," reads one note pinned to the old man's wall, describing the camera controls. "The young often assume that they can see all that is before them, but oftentimes they are missing out on a grander view."
"Do Not Underestimate the Sea," warns another note, ostensibly referring to The Wind Waker's swim timer. "It's easy to get swept up by a little success at swimming, but the sea can be fickle! Swimming for too long will drain one's energy, and eventually one will sink."
The lessons continue, reminding players that "A Fool and His Rupees Are Soon Parted," that to improve one's relations with one's fellow beings, "one must be outgoing and press (A) to speak to all people one meets," and that in order to become stronger, "one must first know oneself. The ♥♥♥ in the upper-left shows one's current life energy. As one experiences trials and hardships in life, one will naturally gain more ♥s."
Sturgeon concludes with one final instruction:
This tutorial demonstrates how The Wind Waker goes about creating meaning. Symbolic gameplay mechanics are juxtaposed against dialogue and storylines that illustrate their significance. Players progress through certain dungeons by using companions who fly through the air and plant trees as the storyline delves into the themes of growing wings and scattering seeds. Players quickly understand the necessity of using the wind when sailing, and the game provides numerous examples of characters who fail to apply that lesson to their lives.
In many ways, The Wind Waker is a reflection on life, designed to illuminate the ways to fulfillment while cautioning against paths leading to depression and despair. The game builds a figurative context around its gameplay, characters, and setting to prod players to see the world differently. Sturgeon's final lesson effectively summarizes the game's intent, for one who remembers and applies the lessons of The Wind Waker is destined to become a champion of life.
The Challenge of the Sky
If you think you were born to fly, then take the challenge of the sky to win fame and prizes!
Past Dragon Roost Island, Willi and Obli have prepared a flight platform for visitors to test their flying skills. The mini-game that takes place here builds upon The Wind Waker’s many metaphors and themes, testing whether players deserve the title of champion.
A tall red banner stands in the distance. The player begins the challenge by climbing to the launch platform and jumping into the sky. From there, the player must use the Deku Leaf to fly with the wind towards the goal. A number of updrafts drift across the path, and the player uses these to recover altitude. When the player’s Magic Meter runs dry, the Deku Leaf fails and the player falls into the sea.
The mini-game is all about achieving a goal, which fits in nicely with The Wind Waker’s themes regarding destiny. The overarching storyline emphasizes the fact that this game’s Link, the Hero of Winds, is following in the footsteps of the famed Hero of Time. He is working his way towards an ultimate confrontation with Ganondorf, who is again gathering the pieces of the Triforce. In the mini-game, the distant banner represents the destiny of the hero. It is a parallel to the record set by the Hero of Wind’s predecessor, marking “the site where the Great and Talented Champion, who has flown the farthest to date, crashed into the frothy waves in a massive splash of glory!”
The launch platform where the challenge begins is the figurative equivalent of an island: it is safe, supportive, and restrictive. If the player jumps into the sky without planning, Link plummets into the ocean and the game’s managers ridicule him. Once again, The Wind Waker points out that reckless bravery is hasty and foolish.
When the Deku Leaf isused to catch the wind, it takes the place of wings and sails as the metaphor for inner strength. Here the Magic Meter plays a role as well, governing how much time the player has to fly before being swallowed by the ocean. The ocean below represents death, or the loss of opportunity. People do not have an infinite amount of time available to chase their dreams, and within the mini-game the Magic Meter represents this fact.
Sturgeon warns Link not to underestimate the ocean, that swimming for too long will drain one’s strength. The lesson can apply to the mechanics of this mini-game: as Link flies, he gradually loses altitude. Without any help, Link falters long before reaching the goal. Inner strength has its limits.
Willi tells Link that the secret to the game is using the wind:
The updrafts function as external sources of support, and in this way they are also akin to islands. They renew the strength of one who is weary, restoring the player’s altitude, but they can also become distractions. Players who direct all their efforts towards chasing the updrafts will likely break their focus on the goal ahead and fall short of it. Players must ignore the updrafts that are too far out ofthe way.
At all times the camera should be focused on the path ahead - otherwise the updrafts will be out of view. Again the point is made: look to the future, not the past. If players decide to turn around and fly back towards the initial platform, they are scolded.
The way to find success is to look ahead and focus on the goal, as the mini-game teaches the player. However, the game’s central mechanic is the strategic use of the updrafts. It is a game of balancing inner strength and external support.
A Matter of Balance
Sam sits on a bench on Windfall Island, taking in the scenery. He believes that those who focus only on working and making a profit are missing something important.
On Dragon Roost Island, many of the Rito postal workers are entirely preoccupied with the demands of their jobs. When approached by Link, one Rito responds, “It’s a shame that I’m too busy to spend more time with you. You seem to be a nice enough fellow. Sorry.”
Collect the figurine of this Rito named Pashli and the caption reads, “For reasons unknown, Pashli’s always busy.”
Perseverance and dedication are important, but The Wind Waker argues that life should consist of more than just work and hardship.
Link’s guide, the King of Red Lions, tells Link again and again that time is short, that he must go directly to the next key destination. However, the Great Sea offers many distractions. On any long journey across the ocean, players can choose to take a break and stop at the islands that cross their paths. Ilari the postal worker is tempted to do the same:
As the flight mini-game demonstrates, a lack of focus can doom a person’s dreams. Recognizing this, the girl Medli keeps herself committed to her practice as she learns to play the harp:
Islands and oceans both play their roles in life. Comfort and relaxation are just as important as hard work and perseverance. The key to success is learning how to balance the two.
Darkness and Light
The challenge of the sky is one representation of the pursuit of destiny. When the player arrives at Ganon’s Tower, the final stretch of the road to Ganondorf is also portrayed figuratively, dealing with the same theme as the mini-game.
Within this dungeon, the player must first relive four of the game’s boss battles. During each battle, the music is distorted and the color drains from the setting in the same manner as in Hyrule Castle. These aesthetic touches indicate that time is not flowing as it should as the player faces the monsters of the past. The past is the first obstacle on the road to destiny.
When the player overcomes these monsters, a door opens to the next challenge. The player approaches a dark abyss and leaps into it. The darkness leads to a maze comprised of many identical rooms. In each room, the player chooses one of four doors to open. Some doors lead only to more darkness, bringing the player back to the start of the maze. Others lead to small treasure troves or monster dens, and others lead the player forward towards the Light Arrows. Within each room, Phantom Ganon appears and begins attacking.
This maze is the Room of Illusion, according to the game’s soundtrack. It represents another step on the path to destiny. The way forward is unclear; there are many doors to open, but only one is true.
This is life as it may exist when one lets go of an island, confronting the ocean. In the Great Sea, Link sets sail as he begins new quests. In the flight mini-game, he leaps into the sky. Here, he jumps into impenetrable darkness. All represent the same step.
The design of the Room of Illusion is reminiscent of the Great Sea in a way, the doors taking the place of the shadowy islands on the horizon. In both scenarios the player must identify the way forward from a number of possible alternatives.
“As one is often hasty and acts without thinking when young, it’s easy to get lost on one’s way,” Sturgeon tells Link. “It is at confused times such as this that one must refer to his or her Area Map in the lower-left."
While in the Room of Illusion, the player has no map to consult. To find the arrow that will offer some guidance, the player must confront Phantom Ganon in each room. When the great enemy is defeated his sword-hilt falls to the ground, pointing to the true door. Should life take the form of this maze, the way forward may be revealed by overcoming the great obstacle immediately present – Phantom Ganon in whatever form he manifests himself.
The maze ultimately leads players to the Light Arrows, and then the third challenge begins. There is a long but perfectly linear hall leading to Ganondorf’s chamber. The player runs up a great stair well riddled with monsters, but the Light Arrows reduce each of them to nothingness.
This last challenge represents yet another way of experiencing life. With the Light Arrows equipped, the surrounding world no longer has the form of a maze. It becomes a vivid path, the remaining obstacles easily conquered with the light the player carries.
This is the path of truth, accessible to those who possess power, wisdom, and courage. Within Ganon’s Tower, Link demonstrates his courage by conquering the demons of the past. He demonstrates his wisdom by making his way through the Room of Illusion, and then the moment of opportunity arrives. All comes into alignment and Link is given the power to face his destiny at last.
At the end of the road, there is a great red door that finally brings the player to Ganondorf. This door, reminiscent of the mini-game’s red banner, signifies that Link has arrived at his place of destiny. His confrontation with Ganondorf then begins.
Time is Running Out
When Link returns to Dragon Roost Island after his great adventure there, Medli informs him that Komali is turning into a fine adult. After letting go of his grief and finding confidence, Komali now acts on his own without guidance from his attendant and friend.
Soon, destiny summons Medli to a different place and she leaves Komali to make his way on his own. Ignorant of this, Komali picks a flower for Medli, hoping to surprise her. Though he waits patiently, Medli is gone.
Opportunity passes away, and Komali must accept his loss. Such is life.
We are all given a sliver of time to use as we desire. This single opportunity is all we have, and it too will one day pass.
“Time is running out,dear friends!” Zunari warns the people of Windfall each night at the auction. “Loosen up those purse strings, good people! Cast caution to the wind and bid away!”
The people of Windfall have one minute to engage in “A Thrilling Night of Money and Desire!” at the auction and win fabulous prizes. Some cling to their riches and let the moment pass away, as others toss aside all their earnings in a fury of excitement. But somewhere in the Great Sea, an old fish advises Link that “the key to winning an auction is to be bothpatient and bold.” Recklessness is foolishness, yet those who do not take risks will see no returns. Success is a matter of balance.
Be both patient and bold, and when opportunity arrives you will be ready to seize it.
One moment in this world is all we are given, one chance to place our bids. In that moment, some become champions while others wonder where the time has gone.
“If only I could do things over again…”
So the King of Hyrule says. His life slips away as he spends his days gazing at the past. But before the ocean swallows him, he shares his message with the world in the hope that the living will listen. “I want you to live for the future,” he says.
The Wind Waker carries the wisdom that the king finds at the end of too many years spent in vain. Through a game, this wisdom has been handed down to us and given new life.