Posted by: Drew Weigel
There has been a lot of online discussion surrounding The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The discussion is intense partly because the franchise has a massive fanbase, but partly because it marks one of the grandest design achievements in the gaming industry. It is even more interesting as a microcosm of the greater internet culture, representing but one evolutionary symbiosis between creators and consumers. Fans have argued for years over whether an “official timeline” unites the games, but few realize that in a digital era it is the fans themselves which assemble these monomyths and guide the expansion of fictional universes. At what point does a shared legend become sacred mythology, and a fandom become a religion? L. Ron Hubbard and George Lucas were just the beginning.
INTRODUCTION: FANFICATION, YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST
There are many factors that have contributed to the development of our modern consumer culture, one with so much leisure and luxury that we have developed as system of crafting identity around consumptive habits. Frequently what we consume is controlled by proprietary interests, something we don’t often consider amidst an abundance of options. Not only has the internet provided the tools to form unprecedentedly huge online fandoms surrounding discussion, critique, and experience-sharing with respect to popular media; the internet has also given consumers the means of manufacturing popular media at a pace nearly in tandem with proprietary authors.
The versatility of the computer as both a community tether and an art machine inevitably results in what I would like to propose is the fanfication of artistic works. As a matter of arithmetic, the size of the communities that form around popular works and the speed with which they communicate often outstrip the size—and on the order of magnitudes—of development teams and their creative output. Yet, the communicates which form take such pleasure in these fantasies, that, instead of waiting for officially endorsed content, they simply generate their own content. Idle minds are demonstrably a fruitful playground, and thus any franchise can now potentially carry thousands of terabytes of unauthorized fanfiction, fanart, fan theories, reviews, analyses, critiques, parodies, speculation, personal avatars, memes, and pornography.
The extended universes exist regardless of author consent or knowledge. Most companies allow or even encourage this sort of participation, since in an attention economy they see more profit in amassing participation than preventing unjust benefit. Still others tactfully crowd-source elements of their art from these fanbases, with varying degrees of transparency.
Although this article will contextualize the facts with respect to intellectual property, overall legal analysis will be light. Firstly, the fiction of most video games is incredibly simple; although this facilitates the aim of discussion here, the act of analyzing the copyright amounts to and illuminates little. Secondly, the trademark rights held in major Nintendo properties are self-evident and mostly uncontested; again analysis here accomplishes little. Thirdly, the primary goal of this article is to adequately characterize an emerging phenomenon that intellectual property, for the most part, has not addressed.
Thus, I hope to force acknowledgement of this phenomenon by walking through the phases of franchise development and the startling displays of fanaticism which facilitate it. I also hope to encourage reconsideration of the scope of intellectual property when it grows to a point that steals too heavily from participatory creation and exerts undue proprietary influence on personal identity.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL FANTASY AS THE FRONTIER OF COMMUNAL FICTION
Medieval fantasy is perhaps the oldest pillar of Western fiction, with centuries of reiteration tracing back through Tchaikovsky ballets, Rossini operas, Grimm fairy tales and Shakespearean plays. The pervasive resonance of the genre undoubtedly explains why it is usually at the forefront of fanfication. One of the earliest instances of narrative film was George Melies’ Cendrillon in 1898, and the first feature animated film was Walt Disney’s Snow White in 1940. While these were passive experiences, their ubiquity provided the strongest foundation for pushing media down a slippery slope of interactivity, which have encouraged the formation of our modern cults of consumer identity.
The first themed amusement park, Children’s Fairyland, opened in 1950, quickly eclipsed by Disneyland in 1955. Both relied heavily on a medieval fantasy aesthetic in crafting visitor experiences. These served as a physical nexus for vicariously experiencing fantasy stories under a unified and tangible canon, staking an early claim in the fiction-as-identity market. This blending of tourism and entertainment was later replicated by other (medieval fantasy!) mega-franchises like Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts in Las Vegas and Harry Potter at Universal Studios theme park craft intricate spaces to escape into, and even some film sets like Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings films have been repurposed for similar fantasy fulfillment. Undoubtedly popularization of this medieval experience also spurred Renaissance Fairs.
The year 1977 saw the first wide release of Dungeons & Dragons, marking the popularization of a substantially fleshed-out interactive fantasy world, complete with a library of associated literature. Evolving the fairly primitive mechanics of prior tabletop boardgames into rules by which participants could interact with and affect agency over fiction proved to be pivotal in the development of the video game industry. In fact, most of the original examples of video games drew heavy inspiration from D&D: text-based adventures, rogue-likes, JRPGs, exploration puzzles, even platformers and metroidvania games. To this day, modern powerhouses and prestige titles like World of Warcraft, Shadow of the Colossus, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and Dark Souls owe much of their mechanics and narrative shorthand to the D&D archetype. But the reigning fantasy monomyth in the industry for over 30 years remains The Legend of Zelda.
GENESIS: THE ORIGINAL LEGEND
The Legend of Zelda mythos is both ubiquitously familiar and extremely simple in form, simultaneously archetypal and self-referential: an exemplary model for discussing fanfication. The simplicity lends itself to the dissection into discrete iconographic elements that are reiterated across the games. These elements are: the avatar hero Link, the damsel princess Zelda, the magic pig-beast Ganon, and the mystic McGuffin Triforce. Most of the games involve traversing the kingdom of Hyrule as Link and performing obvious acts of heroism to restore balance to the Triforce. In the context of copyrightable material, these form the major literal elements of the Zelda canon. If you didn’t know everything about the series before, you do now.
Like many successful franchises, resonance is often directly due to the accessibility of such neat, simple, Spartan iconography pulled from earlier works. A polymath, his sidekick, and murders. An alien, a phone booth, and time travel. Indeed, Zelda’s core elements draw broadly from prior medieval fantasy. Link is functionally a hybrid of Legolas and Peter Pan, who pulls swords from stone like King Arthur. Zelda’s earlier designs and paper-thin personality were clearly drawing inspiration from Disney princesses. Ganon’s boar-like design is based in Villaneuve’s Beast to contrast with Zelda and Tolkien’s orcs to contrast with Link. And the Triforce, although interpreted to have Christian connotations in the West, derived from the emblem from the Hojo shogunate scattered across medieval Japanese architecture. The games were designed for children; the story didn’t need to stand up alongside The Iliad or The Tempest.
What is important to recognize, however, is that for the initial installments of the series—The Legend of Zelda and its sequel The Adventure of Link—the stories were skeletally utilitarian and largely a template for mechanics. Aside from new monsters and location designs, the sequel contributed only a minimal amount of literal creativity, ending in a battle against…Dark Link. It mostly was designed to capitalize on the brand of the original. Due to a drastically different side-scrolling system, however, the game was poorly received.
THE FLOOD: EVOLUTION OF THE LEGEND
Subsequent games returned to the overworld exploration system of the original Zelda, but at this point represented an important creative juncture. Formulaicly, they strictly adhered to the literal elements set by The Legend of Zelda. Both A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time recounted essentially variations on the same legend: Link saves Zelda and the Triforce from Ganon. However, they introduced several major elements—coincident with those found in grander mythological narratives—which would open the floodgates to fanfication.
1) Creation Myths and Religion. Earlier Christian icons were abandoned and a mythology behind the Triforce was introduced, complete with three creation goddesses. Bits of lore alluded to a longer history preceding the events of the games. However, no official stories were released, so these were mostly noncanonical, token gestures.
2) Irrelevant Geography. The setting of Hyrule remained the same, but the overworld map completely changed with each installment. Some location names—Kakariko Village, Death Mountain, and Lake Hylia—were retained and appear in later games, although the locations themselves were rearranged. Many landmarks were dropped and added without concern for continuity with prior games.
3) Mythical Races. True to the fantasy genre, a variety humanoid races were introduced, which served as variants on sprites, golems, mermaids, as well as lazily appropriated Amazons and ninjas. These contributed to an appearance of cultural diversity.
4) Parallel Worlds. A Link to the Past introduced a parallel dimension called the Dark World, an identical-but-drearier version of Hyrule. Substantial portions of the game were devoted to travelling between them.
5) Evil’s Origin. Ocarina of Time served as an origin story for the series’ central villain, finding beginnings as a human confusingly named Ganondorf (I continue to make no excuse for the creative direction of the series). This version of the character ultimately became as iconic as the pig-beast Ganon.
6) Time Travel. Ocarina of Time also introduced time travel, that laziest of plot contrivances, to the series. Substantial portions of the game were devoted to travelling between a time prior to Ganondorf’s rise to power and a time after Hyrule’s fall. Through some wonky stasis logic, Link’s age fluctuated back and forth in tandem with this.
These new elements, in addition to the established formula, became standardized in every major Zelda title since. Given very radical differences in art direction between installments, these element mostly make sense as flourishes, unique to each game as an isolated work. No continuity of history, geography, or metaphysics was necessary if the individual works as authored were never intended as more than individual stories.
Yet amidst minor handheld spinoffs, fans were already insistent on crafting theories of fitting the games into an official chronology. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto made several contradictory statements as to whether A Link to the Past was a prequel or sequel to the original Zelda. Some developers of Ocarina of Time believed it to be a prequel to A Link to the Past. In 2001, Nintendo released a timeline claiming that the Links of every game were the same character, directly contradicting intimations by the developers that some Links and Zeldas were descended from others.
None of these statements were of consequence since there remained substantial incongruity between many literal elements of The Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, and Ocarina of Time. In any other medium they would have either been treated as an anthology, or a trashy serial developed without a Bible. All evidence points toward the fact that—to Nintendo—chronological order and an overarching story did not matter. Oddly enough, other video game franchises of the era, even made by the same company, comprised similar variations on a single story, but never carried the same continuity expectations. Fans’ insistence of a unified timeline forced them to project authorship where it didn’t exist. They wanted to believe in a higher order.
BABEL: SCHISM OF THE LEGEND
For anyone who has not played a Zelda game, 1998’s Ocarina of Time is the one you have probably encountered in popular media. Ocarina, the highest-rated video game of all time on rating aggregator Metacritic, proved to be so resonant with gamers that every major installment which followed used its story as a backdrop, to the complete exclusion of previous titles. Now, the mythos revolved not merely around the simple iconography of Link, Zelda, Ganon, Triforce, 5, 6, 7, 8, but felt compelled to rehash the mess of iconography in Ocarina. No less than three major titles—Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword—were released that adopted this coattail-riding attitude, none of which demonstrated an interest in synchronizing mythology with the other two. All three mention the creation goddesses, but also have wildly differing geography. Despite both Ganon and Ganondorf being previously defeated, all three bring him back in ways that contradict the other stories.
Wind Waker, introduced in 2004, was developed as a “sequel” to Ocarina, taking place on a vast ocean that flooded Hyrule. It references a historical King of Hyrule who never existed in prior titles. It referenced the races from Ocarina but was mostly populated with a harpy variant and a different sprite variant. Ganondorf reappears without explanation and is defeated again. Wind Waker additionally spawned a series of smaller sequels that were fairly removed from the Zelda timeline.
Twilight Princess, published in 2008, was also developed as a “sequel” to Ocarina, taking place on a Hyrule map that kept most of the Ocarina locations but inexplicably shuffled them around. It is populated by most races from Ocarina—with the notable absence of the Amazonian race—but introduced a different harpy variant from that in Wind Waker, in addition to a new imp race. The Dark World does not exist, but the Twilight Realm functions identically but contains no narrative ties to the Dark World. Ganondorf reappears again with a backstory that contradicts Ocarina and is, yet again, defeated.
Note that, even with very clear avenues of organizing an overarching mythos, the franchise displayed no interest to do so. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess were developed under the same Eiji Aonuma who directed Ocarina of Time, yet deliberately did not maintain a cohesion between the settings and their inhabitants. It couldn’t be clearer juxtaposing the two games that the form of the epic poetry, the riffing on iconography, was demonstrably more important to development than logically connecting the stories. Nintendo never cared about how these characters and stories fit together; it has only ever cared about one Zelda, and that is the trademark.
But, even in the face of blatant contradiction, the Zelda fandom refused to abandon its sacred timeline. The theories merely became even more elaborate to explain away the inconsistencies. The repeated conflicts with Ganon/dorf were explained by reincarnation. The differences in geography were explained by hypothetical natural disasters. The differences in races were explained by evolution. The flood/no flood dichotomy was explained by Ocarina’s time travel splitting the timeline into a multiverse. Entire forums filled with this chatter, and the loudest and most obsessive theories came to be presumed by many as part of the unofficial Zelda canon. Although developers encouraged these trains of thought with personal musings on the series, they assuredly had never invested as much effort in the details.
Skyward Sword, a 2011 contribution, was developed under new direction as a “prequel” to Ocarina, taking place in a floating civilization above an unsettled Hyrule map which shares region names with Twilight Princess that didn’t exist in Ocarina. It introduced a new goddess who was never referenced in prior games. The Ocarina races were all but abandoned and substituted with newly designed races. Neither the Dark World nor the Twilight Realm exist, but a Silent Realm functions identically to both but contains narrative ties to neither.
Due to pressures from the fanbase, Skyward Sword retroactively canonized the Link/Zelda reincarnation theory, as well as provided a proto-Ganon/dorf, Demise, explaining his reincarnation alongside them. Alongside the game, also undoubtedly due to years of demands from the fanbase, Nintendo finally released an official timeline based on fan speculation of the multiverse splitting. It made even less sense than before, but it was accepted with religious fervor. Little acknowledgement was paid to the fact that Nintendo would not have felt obligated to incorporate these literal elements absent the extensive speculation of the fans. The online discussions had begun to shape the story in tandem with Nintendo.
BREATH OF THE WILD: LEGEND INTO MYTH
Thus, this odd symbiosis between author and consumer served as a backdrop for the most recent Zelda game, Breath of the Wild. The Legend of Zelda is a single myth, being repeated and transformed as it is passed down through oral tradition. This mythological evolution may or may not be diagetic within the games, but it is certainly how the story is being told in actuality by developers. Breath of the Wild is the first game in the series to embrace this interpretation. Prior games merely reiterated on individual successes: A Link to the Past repeated Legend of Zelda iconography, Ocarina of Time repeated A Link to the Past iconography, and subsequent games repeated Ocarina of Time iconography. Breath of the Wild, by contrast, assembles all the games under a single mythology.
In Breath of the Wild, Ganon from The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past returns as an indefinite, looming evil to a post-apocalyptic Hyrule. The map of Hyrule incorporates geographic regions and landmarks from all of the prior games. Architectural ruins are explicitly lifted from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword. The golem and mermaid races from Twilight Princess appear, but so do the harpy and sprite races from Wind Waker. The Amazonian and ninja races from Ocarina are also present. Referential nods to both the three creation goddesses and the forgotten goddess of Skyward Sword are also incorporated.
Instead of branching outward and narratively tripping over conflicting storylines, Breath of the Wild reaches inward and incorporates iconography from across the series with equal favor, treating everything as a forgotten relic. The game functions as a frame narrative which treats everything that came before it as…wait for it…legendary. Suddenly, all of the games are both canon and unreliable. It is the Bible the series never had, the timeline that fans had been praying for, the word from god that excuses the inconsistencies because they are just vestiges of the oral tradition. After thirty years, The Legend of Zelda has finally cemented its identity as a religion of gamers.
DISCUSSIONS: WHOSE STORY IS THIS?
Unity of authorship has been on a slippery decline since the beginnings of mass-produced fiction; pulp novels gave way to radio soaps and eventually television serials, none of which claimed to derive from a single imaginative mind but shared a common narrative and brand. On the part of fans, what is displayed here is a fallacy often encountered in many ideologies: the equation of brand unity with authorship unity.
This is consistent with prior observations of pop culture. Other serial forms of media, if pulpy, have functioned similarly as modern mythology and are equally subjected to cults of canonicity and theorization. Brands, too, have managed to form cults around their own mythology, allowing consumers to craft their own identities through the assembly of a thousand tiny fictions and simple marks of social worth. Those brands can also be unified under cults of celebrity, with a charismatic authoritarian serving as figurehead. The Zelda franchise, being a commercially-streamlined franchise emphasizing basic, brandable iconography, easily satisfies an ideological niche for many.
Yet this is not an anomaly. Nearly every media franchise of note has an online community of fanatics. And the intertextual connection of media into ever-growing expanded universes is not unique to the Zelda franchise. The earlier examples of medieval fantasy described in Disney and D&D have been undergoing their own forms of retroactive intertextualization in their online communities. And, in truth, if one wanted to look at the clearest motivation for Breath of the Wild, one need only look at the extensive work of a particular Zelda fan game—completely unmonetized—to see where Nintendo would have felt both inspired and obligated to keep pace.
What The Legend of Zelda demonstrates is the recent emergence of a geek culture which electively sorts itself into pseudo-racial communities based on the media it consumes. Or, put another rway, communities which share common stories, historical identities, and beliefs. Religions of pop culture that now worship at the altar of the internet. Football isn’t just passively cheered from televisions anymore; now anyone can contribute to the football story. Celebrities are no longer put on pedestals by albums and film roles, but by cults of social media followers. There is little point in debating whether the transformation of franchises into religion is a bad or even reversible thing, because the phenomenon exists across the internet. It is not only irreversible, but arguably a natural evolution of the biological and social processes which developed older mythologies.
But, seeing as we have now, the substantial contributions consumers can make en masse to a work, the existence of intellectual property in a digital era is cast in an oppressive and exploitative light. In one respect, free speech seems less free when these expressions, incorporated religiously into consumers’ identities, hold copyrights and trademarks. In another respect, the exclusive monopolies held by owners of such franchises feels unearned when large aspects of their content may be crowd-sourced. This is in fact a loophole exploited by many online companies already. If indeed pop culture is so wholly integrated with identity, are we fluidly organizing into phyles of preference, or are we collectively losing our freedom of expression? When someone gets a tattoo depicting, say, their favorite video game, should we be viewing that as branding themselves as a sheeple, or asserting a partial stake to ownership?