I’ll just get this part right out of the way before everyone runs to the comments in rage over the idea of an M-rated Zelda – that’s not at all what this is about. This is not an argument for a bloody, sexually-fueled Zelda game for ages 17 and over. Rather, this is a discussion about what Zelda can gain from being a truly mature title.
What, exactly, does it mean for a piece of entertainment to be “mature”? Surely all entertainment is, in its base form, immature in the sense that it’s a form of escapism (whether it be books, movies, video games or what have you). However, as given genres of narrative-based entertainment grow into popularity, they also grow into fully-fledged mediums and enter maturity. The tipping point in this slow evolution is when things that are truly entertaining also start to make you think.
Just look at movies – when film first debuted, it was no more than a simple toy; an easy pleasure to distract people from their daily lives (such massive hits included men sneezing and trains about to “crash” into the theater). Cinema has evolved tremendously since this point. There’s a constant flow of entertaining and thought-provoking movies in the modern day. Its place is secure.
Video games, on the other hand, are generally considered to need quite a bit more growth to meet that tipping point. Of course there are truly mature titles out there – BioShock, Portal and Shadow of the Colossus to name a couple – but they’re far and few between. Rather, much more focus is placed upon comparatively crass entertainment like Gears of War, or Call of Duty.
But where does Zelda fit into all of this? After all, this is about Zelda – not video games in general. As a fan of the series, I’ve noticed a lot of hesitation on the part of many fellow fans to think about the series growing up. The fear tends to be rooted in the worry that Zelda will somehow lose itself, that it will cease to be what it once was. In a strange sort of way, the evolution of the Zelda series needs to follow the path of time’s flow into adulthood that many games in the series themselves portray (see Hylian Dan’s excellent Immortal Childhood).
I believe we’re going to see video games evolve into the same position as film – and I also think that, if Nintendo were so inclined as to do so, Zelda could be a huge leader in that movement. But again – how would Zelda mature? Surely the series has had a fair share of mature moments (namely, the entirety of Majora’s Mask), but as a whole it seems locked in a permanent state of retelling the same stories with different twists – stories where good and evil are clearly defined, and no one has to actually think about the many shades of gray in life.
If Zelda truly needs to evolve in any category, it needs to mature the storyline. No, that doesn’t mean a “darker” tale of depression and woe, and it certainly doesn’t mean Zelda needs to waltz around in a skintight armored bra. Maturity in storytelling means accepting your readers/viewers/players can think about concepts on a higher level, and in turn challenging them with more exciting narrative possibilities that touch on a broader spectrum of ideas.
For an example of a truly mature video game (and one published by Nintendo at that), I submit Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Most people would write this off as childish entertainment, and they’d be right in a way. The Thousand Year Door is perfectly accessible and enjoyable for kids anywhere, and many have loved it.
However, it’s also a title filled to the brim with humor and plot elements that are clearly aimed at an adult audience – when I first played it as a kid, I loved it to death but didn’t get much of the comedy until I grew up (the Godfather references among other things). Now it stands as one of the most well-written video games ever made, with truly memorable and well thought-out characters that get excellent development.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a mature title – one filled with both wall-to-wall Nintendo-brand fun and moments that only grow in depth over time.
Another more timely example of the kind of maturity Zelda can garner is the animated television series The Legend of Korra (a sequel series to an earlier Western plot-based cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender). Korra just had its first season finale, and has received both record-breaking amounts of viewership and incredible critical response.
Is Korra a fantastical adventure story full of childlike magic, fun action scenes and plenty of comedic relief? Of course. Is it also a tale that touches on the nature of war, technological encroachment of nature, the distribution of wealth in society, security vs. liberty and what truly defines who you are? You betcha.
Does it manage to do both perfectly without coming across as unnatural or confusing, weaving a tale that is fully entertaining and viewable by all ages whilst simultaneously asking big questions and sparking debates and discussion? The answer is an astounding yes. As these two examples show, it’s fully possible for Zelda to retain its fantastical soul in its entirety through evolution - if anything, it can only become more meaningful.
This is what it means to be mature. The strongest aspect of any piece of media is its ability to both entertain and provoke thought simultaneously. The Zelda series has touched on this concept many times (again, see Majora’s Mask), but it has yet to fully embrace it. Skyward Sword was a very entertaining game, but that’s only half of the picture. There were no questions of morality, no questions of true character or growth. While it was entertaining, it didn’t truly provoke thought.
I believe it’s time for Zelda to mature. As the players, I’m sure we’re capable of understanding concepts beyond Link being good and all these monsters being evil. We don’t need to have our hands held all the way. We can handle it if Link (and by extension, we the players) feels adversity and confusion at times through both the gameplay and plot.
Video games are going to mature – there’s simply no way around it. More and more series are continuing to grow (no matter how bleak a picture some major franchises paint), and that’s not going to stop anytime soon. Zelda has real potential to be the leader – the series everyone points to as one of the hallmarks of gaming’s evolution into a fully realized medium. Will it do so? We can only wait and find out.
What do you think, dear reader? Do you believe Zelda can gain real growth from maturity? Comment away!