Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Written by: Michael James
Edited by: Shania Kuo
Good games come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. Some are long, encompassing epics like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Some barely stick around long enough to end your day, like Furi. Some have amazing soundtracks that stay in your mind long after you put them down, while some don’t have much of a soundtrack at all.
Yes, a “good” game depends on many factors, but something we cannot overlook is the presence of an engaging story. Well-planned writing can take a project from “decent” to “amazing.” It can turn fun gameplay into a rewarding experience, and a catchy soundtrack into a memorable tale.
So we know that a good story can do wonders for a game, but what makes a good story? There are countless tales out there, all with their own nuances and styles. So what makes a game stand out from the rest?
I am so glad that you asked.
Welcome, dear reader, to the Literature in Gaming, and today I’m going to discuss with you the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age, using one of the most popular video games out right now: Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The bildungsroman, or “coming-of-age,” is a popular story trope used in literature. The word itself is German, and yet many iconic stories in English use it, such as The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.
So, what is a coming-of-age story? Simply put, it is a story where the protagonist ventures out on a journey and, by the end, has matured either morally or spiritually. In RPGs this can usually present itself as levels, but what we’re aiming for here is the story aspect. More specifically, we’re looking for how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (henceforth referred to as OoT) exemplifies this. To do this, we first have to identify the core aspects of the bildungsroman and why they make for a compelling story.
To save you time and keep you interested, I am putting these aspects in a bullet-point list:
Our young, starry-eyed hero sets out on a journey.
Life quickly kicks the shit out of them, forcing them to abandon their naïve mindset.
They change, often making mistakes along the way, and learn valuable lessons.
They emerge at the end a metaphorical (and often literal) adult.
Through this easy, four-step plan, we see our protagonist changed. Character growth is something universally accepted as enjoyable storytelling across most mediums, and the bildungsroman often portrays this in the most literal of ways: our character literally grows up during their story. With these helpful tools in mind, we can start on our understanding of OoT as a bildungsroman and use it as a checklist.
Ocarina of Time starts off with our silent protagonist, Link (or whatever you decide to name our starry-eyed hero), being woken up from his sleep by his soon-to-be companion Navi—a bright blue fairy that is more glow than body. Navi beckons Link to the Great Deku Tree. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, Link exits his house, introducing the player to this:
Welcome to the Kokiri Forest, a hodgepodge of metaphors for childhood. Here, eternal children live in innocent wonder forever, running across rope bridges and sleeping in treehouses. They do not age, and there is no immediate danger to Link’s life. As long as the player stays here, they face no real threat from the game. They can listen to the upbeat, whimsical score and enjoy the cheerful atmosphere.
Of course, this is not to be. This is a video game, and conflict is abound.
Link eventually meets the guardian of the forest, the Great Deku Tree. The game presents the arboreal deity as something of a father figure to the Kokiri. He keeps them safe from forces outside of his forest, and assigns a fairy to them. Link, despite not being a Kokiri, looks to the Great Deku Tree as a protector—the same as all of his peers.
It is this protector that Link is forced to watch die.
This isn’t to say that Link fails. On the contrary, he succeeds. Unfortunately, this is still not enough. The guardian of the forest, the Great Deku Tree, still dies from the curse inflicted on him by Ganondorf. The curse, a magical parasitic monster, had already eaten away at his life. Thus, Link is forced out of his home and his idyllic safety.
When Link leaves the forest, however, he doesn’t necessarily abandon his worldview. Link embarks on a new adventure, but nothing happens that is particularly distressing. If anything, Link succeeds in his endeavors: saving the Gorons from starvation and rescuing the Zora princess.
No, Link’s adventure in OoT seems perfectly okay until—
Link, fresh off of completing the three dungeons and gaining their trophies, watches as a fleeing Princess Zelda rushes past him on a horse. He watches as she goes, only to turn back to see her pursuer: The Future King of Evil, Ganondorf. The player feels utterly helpless as the main antagonist brushes Link aside, and the game bombards them with threatening accordions and no chance to fight back.
The tone of the game shifts here. Before, the game was lighthearted and happy, but Ganondorf’s appearance changes that. Link gets knocked out by his enemy—the very apt and almost literal shit kicked out of him—and a bitter end to a cheerful adventure.
Once again, the game thrusts the player, and Link, into a much darker reality than the one they were used to. Unable to do anything about the man, Link continues on, forging through to use the Ocarina of Time to retrieve the Master Sword. A momentous cutscene starts, and Link pulls the legendary blade from its pedestal to receive:
I understand; a lot of things are going on here. Allow me to explain.
OoT does something that isn’t used very often in storytelling—it sets our hero out on a journey twice. When Link leaves the Kokiri Forest in the beginning of the game, it is to a world of intrigue and wonder. The game then challenges Link’s knowledge of the world, showing him death and sorrow and longing, but it doesn’t unsettle him. When Link pulls the Master Sword free from its pedestal, however, his real journey begins.
The nature of the game changes from this point. Link no longer roams from one area to another, fixing problems as best as he could and being rewarded for them. From the moment he becomes an adult, Link now has responsibilities. He goes from being the precocious child to being the legendary Hero of Time, and people’s lives now depend on his actions.
Of course, since Link is silent, you don’t hear his opinions, but the player can feel the effects of the change. The world becomes far darker, and NPCs go from cheerful to melancholy. Characters die as Link grapples with his destiny and, as foretold in the beginning with the Great Deku Tree, even if the player does everything right, things do not turn out perfectly.
Being a video game, it isn’t surprising to learn that the hero wins in the end. Link beats the bad guy and saves the princess and things get better, but it isn’t without losses. The game captures Link’s journey, and his bildungsroman, excellently. From the loss of his innocence, not once, but twice, to the hero that he must learn to be and the allies that he must accept losing.
Link ends the game triumphantly, but he is far removed from who he was when he began it. Though his body eventually returns to being that of a child’s (play the game), he is mentally an adult. Navi’s departure portrays this very well, as she was not only his guide and companion, but his last link to the Kokiri Forest and his childhood.
After watching her leave, Link turns and continues onto his next journey. He is an adult and a hero now, and has ended his coming-of-age.
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