Hyrule Historia was released in Japan to round out the year of celebration for Zelda’s 25th anniversary in 2011. For those of us in the west, the English translation just arrived here in time for Zelda’s 27th anniversary, as yesterday marked 27 years since the original Legend of Zelda was released in Japan.
For those interested in the artwork of the series there are hundreds of pages full of concept designs and sketches. For those who enjoy Akira Himekawa’s Zelda manga adaptions, there is also some of that. Hyrule Historia is also full of facts about the series and makes an excellent resource.
By far the book’s best section is “The History of Hyrule,” which provides the official series chronology in great detail. Back in 2011 it seemed like a drastic turn-around for Nintendo to suddenly release the timeline out of no-where, when for a quarter of a century they had left it for fan interpretation.
Regardless of people’s opinions on the actual theory and layout of the timeline, one thing is for sure: Nintendo did an excellent job at conveying the nature of the timeline itself.
For the first couple of releases into the series, the timeline was by no means complex, but as more and more titles were released, then the timeline became a matter of debate. However, when prompted with questions on the timeline in the past both Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto have said that there is a timeline, but it’s a secret.
“For every Zelda game we tell a new story, but we actually have an enormous document that explains how the game relates to the others, and bind them together. But to be honest, they are not that important to us.” - Shigeru Miyamoto
“Yes, there is a master timeline, but it is a confidential document!... The only people that have access to the document are myself, Mr. Miyamoto, and the director of the title. We can’t share it with anyone else!” - Eiji Aonuma
Hyrule Historia seemingly provided fans with that very document, or at least a version of it, to our surprise. My biggest concern for releasing the official timeline was how it may affect the player’s freedom to forge their own legend while they play as the hero himself.
It seemed as if Hyrule Historia could potentially rob fans of their freedom to speculate and theorize, as they’d been encouraged to do for decades beforehand. However, those concerns are invalid, as Hyrule Historia does a great job of conveying the timeline’s nature of not being absolute.
While the book is full of factoids and information that confirm long-held theories, such as Rauru taking on the form of Kapeora Gaebora, it still successfully leaves many things ambiguous, even highlighting other tidbits such as the relationship between the Loftwings of Skyward Sword and the Oocca of Twilight Princess as “unknown.”
Though very carefully selected and translated words and phrases such as “it is said that,” facts can be presented without entirely destroying fans’ freedom to think otherwise and entertain alternate theories. That freedom of thought is something that has come to be important to Legend of Zelda fans, and even the official timeline release manages not to completely destroy that.
In his concluding remarks for Hyrule Historia, Aonuma cleverly wraps up the nature of the overall Zelda storyline by talking about the development process, and how stories are a device that arise to facilitate the gameplay themes tackled in each title. Aonuma stresses that although the plot lines may appeal a lot to fans, they are, after all, more of an afterthought than a driving factor.
In this regard Aonuma asks fans to keep an open mind, because inconsistencies run rampant throughout the series. Below is Aonuma’s full statement. The emphasis is mine:
“The History of Hyrule” allows players to determine where each Zelda game is positioned in the chronology of the series. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the question the developers of the Legend of Zelda series asked themselves before starting on a title was, “What kind of game play should we focus on?” rather than “What kind of story should we write?” For example, the theme of Ocarina of Time, the first Zelda game I was involved with, was, “What kind of responsive game play will we be able to create in a 3-D environment?” The Theme of Phantom Hourglass, which I helped develop for the Nintendo DS, was, “How can we make the game comfortable to control using the stylus?” Lastly, the theme of Skyward Sword, the latest entry in the series, was, “How can we use the Wii Remote Plus to allow players to freely manipulate the sword?”
Because the games were developed in such a manner, it could be said that Zelda’s story lines were afterthoughts. As a result, I feel that even the story of “The Legend Begins” in Skyward Sword was simply something that came about by chance.
Flipping through the pages of “The History of Hyrule,” you may even find a few inconsistencies. However, peoples such as the Mogma tribe and items such as the beetle that appear in Skyward Sword may show up again in other eras. Thus, it is my hope that fans will be broad minded enough to take into consideration that this is simply how Zelda is made.
Aonuma’s sentiment is largely expressed also in the introduction to Hyrule Historia’s Chronology. While presenting an official timeline, it is done in such a way as to not become the be-all end-all, which is frankly necessary for an ever-evolving game series.
The following extracts are taken from the chronology’s introduction, and further highlight the nature of the timeline as evolving, not absolute. They stress for the readers the nature of the timeline as a legend. They stress it’s nature as one of a constantly changing mythology. Again, the emphasis is mine.
“This is an introduction to the history of Hyrule, told chronologically, which weaves together the numerous Legend of Zelda stories. Is it a legend? Is it an accurate history of a cycle of rebirth? There is evidence that the story of The Legend of Zelda begins with Skyward Sword. Up to this point, the legends of Zelda have been surrounded by myth and mystery, but now, with the help of the following information, you will be able to discover for yourself the real history of Hyrule.”
“This chronicle merely collects information that is believed to be true at this time, and there are many obscured and unanswered secrets that lie within the tale. As the stories and storytellers of Hyrule change, so, too, does its history. Hyrule’s history is a continuously woven tapestry of events. Changes that seem inconsequential, disregarded without even a shrug, could evolve at some point to hatch new legends and, perhaps, change this tapestry of history itself.”
“The heroes of these chronicles all share the name Link. These Links might have been the same person, a series of familial descendants, or a number of heroes with different names entirely. The Links of certain eras may also have been named after the legendary hero. Hylian princesses bearing the name Zelda have also appeared throughout the history of Hyrule. It is likely that the name was handed down through the generations.”
An accurate way to describe Nintendo’s portrayal of the timeline is as open. As Hyrule Historia details each of the three splits of the timeline, it concludes with comments to leave everything nicely open for the series to develop and advance, which, again, makes sense as a gaming franchise.
Following “The Decline of Hyrule and the Last Hero” arc: “Did generations pass, full of peace and the light of prosperity? Or did the curtain rise on an age of darkness, when people quarreled in their search for power? The future of this timeline has yet to be unraveled.”
Following “The Twilight Realm and The Legacy of the Hero” Arc: “Will the Light World never be free of the threat of darkness? There may come a time when the land will have need of the Four Sword once again.”
Following “Hero of Winds and a New World” Arc: “With the lineage of the gods not yet exhausted, who can say what successive generations will bring. The story will continue to unfold.”
With the chronology revealed in Hyrule Historia, it is satisfying to finally be able to say “this is the timeline,” but at the same time we have the freedom to consider alternatives. We know that it can change and alter, that time will not only provide additions, but alterations. Due to the focus of gameplay over story, the plot will always be up for interpretation with an open mind.
Hyrule Historia does provide a great amount of detail about the games and their backstories, but it does not make everything black and white. It may provide the timeframe of when the Interlopers of Twilight Princess attempted to invade the Sacred Realm, but it does not confirm their identity. There is still room for interpretation in the complexities of Zelda.
Of course there are contradictions and things that can’t fully be explained without some pretty out-there theories, but Aonuma asks that we understand that and gives us the freedom to try and explain them. Even with the chronology said and done we must accept that they are just legends, even hypotheticals based upon whether a given Link succeeds or fails.
I am glad that at the end of the day, that even with an official timeline, we still must remember that each tale is “but one of the legends of which the people speak.” Each story is “obscured by the mists of time and became legend.” Even with everything seemingly laid out on the table, Zelda is still just a collection of myths. It remains, in essence, a collection of ambiguous legends about Link, Zelda and Demise’s lingering curse.