Nintendo has always had an interesting relationship with horror in video games. For the entirety of its lifespan, horrific and/or violent video games have not made the shelves on Nintendo’s consoles nearly as readily as fantasy or family fun titles. Mario and Co. have explored haunted mansions, Pokémon trainers have met with spectral spirits in graveyards, and even Kirby has transformed into a ghost. While all these situations have the makings of inciting fear within the player, they tend to come off too cartoonish and scripted to affect our psyches deeply. An example of a Nintendo staple that does horror a little bit differently is Zelda. There have been numerous moments playing Zelda when I have been truly afraid or disturbed, and this has never been to do with gruesome violence or cheap shots. The answer lies in something a bit more psychological.
The execution of horror in the Zelda franchise is subtle and nuanced, and much of this fear instilling relies on triggers. A perfect example of this is the ReDeads in Ocarina of Time. Now although ReDeads appeared in later games, such as Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, Ocarina of Time was the game which brought them into the realms of the truly scary. To analyze their terrifying nature, a number of factors must be taken into account, one of which is the conditions in which you first encounter them. The player as Link is underground, beneath a graveyard. Your vision is obscured by toxic smog which floats up from some sort of poisonous sludge lying in pools on the floor. You walk forward to one of the figures, a type of figure you haven’t seen before; it doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by you and slowly turns around. At this point, the eeriness of the situation is building, but the gravity of it is not entirely perceptible to you.
It is this building of a mood of uncertainty and unsettlement which makes what happens next so poignant—a blood curdling scream is let out as these strange anthropomorphs make eye contact with Link, at which point he is paralyzed, helpless. And often in this situation, will remain so until one of these creatures takes hold of him and starts biting into his head until his entire health is drained. Everything about this is quite terrifying, and although the end result is quite horrific, it is simply the sum of a number of unsettling smaller events; this first encounter strikes fear into the hearts of players through suspense, sound triggers, and a feeling of utter helplessness. This in turn makes every encounter with a ReDead thereafter a psychological ordeal, and a trigger within itself. Personally, my heart still skips a beat every time I replay that scream in my head as I write this.
And now, why is it, that one of the most abhorred and feared creatures in all of Zelda, is a standard enemy which does minimal damage, and then disappears? This irony can be chalked up to Nintendo’s clever scare tactics. Now, Zelda games are often praised for their musical score, but often it is the background sounds and ambience that are so easily overlooked when considering what creates the mood of a space. It is not necessarily how scary an enemy is without context, and it would seem that there are many other Zelda enemies which would appear scarier next to a WallMaster if placed side by side with it in a white room. It is the context of a low vision area, a sound trigger, and the way in which the WallMaster attacks which make it the ultimate scare-master.
As the player wanders the Forest Temple a fear of stopping overcomes them, as a sound which can only be described as that of a sinking stomach belies the monster on the ceiling, descending to attack. But why is this situation so terrifying when all this creature will do is take you to the beginning of the dungeon it inhabits? It is self-serving, and it is this establishment of the fear itself which makes the fear exist. Once again, it can be attributed to the helplessness of the situation. To be helpless is a scary situation, and as video games are an environment in which we as the players have a great amount of control in a completely safe context, we obviously take risks which we would not with our own lives, often to fight to the death.
A game over in a video game is rarely a moment of horror, rather a point of frustration. When a developer can imbue a feeling of helplessness onto a situation, then something more primal, deeper than “playing a video game” is born. Helplessness breeds anxiety and fear, something which Nintendo has masterfully shown in the Zelda series. The definition of fear is “an emotion induced by a threat perceived by living entities.” As living entities, it is difficult to perceive fear in a video game unless we are brought back to the real world by removing our control.
Continuing this theme, another of the darker enemies in Ocarina of Time further instills a creation of fear through helplessness. The rather ironically named Dead Hand in fact has very much alive hands, which emerge from the ground and grab you, rendering you helpless in a similar fashion to ReDeads and WallMasters. Perhaps then, the condition of helplessness could further imply confinement; another limit on the level of control we as players have within a video game.
The battles with Dead Hand take place in specific chambers in The Bottom of the Well in Kakariko Village and the Shadow Temple; they are dark ossuaries, and once again, what is to be feared is implied rather than given on a platter. The Dead Hand situations focus on this implication and triggers like much of the horror in Zelda, but also on a play on the gruesome. Though nothing more violent than in the rest of Ocarina of Time takes places in these battles, it is the implication that something much more violent could through triggers such as Dead Hand’s bloodstained body and sharp jagged teeth; its many tiny disembodied hands and almost omnipotent range over its entire chamber. While no graphic violence is ever shown, through the implications of the situation none needs to be shown for the player to be fearful of this beast.
Skyward Sword contains another notable example of the way in which fear is established in the Zelda series. In the Silent Realm (the name of which already holds sinister connotations), the player must race against time to retrieve all the Sacred Tears. The Guardians of the Silent Realm are single-hit kill enemies which are impervious to any attacks the player may throw at them. The feeling of uncertainty and pursuit pitted against these godlike figures, and the seeming futility of the situation, combined with a race against time, something which incites adrenaline within us as players, are all factors which contribute to the scariness of the situation.
These influential factors mean that Nintendo has been able to take a very subtle approach to horror—and with perhaps an even more mature situation than the Nintendo 64 games—where the setting is not distressing, the enemies are not typically terrifying aesthetic
ally, and there is no overt violence. Once again it can be seen that the fear aspect relies on psychological cues, emotions, and reactions incited within the human playing the game, not creating the perfect terrifying situation within the game. This is, in my mind a more intelligent approach to scaring players—it seems that many developers take “cheap shots” today, where everything in an environment could be deemed scary. To have one or two factors which influence and subvert other parts of a game environment in order to create perhaps more fear through juxtaposition, is an intelligent and subtle way of doing things, and the nail has been hit on the head in the Zelda series.
And of course in Skyward Sword there are also the underground caverns of the Ancient Cistern, an area laced with rivers of poison and curses, inspired by Eastern legend. The dark purple dungeon—in the realest sense of the world—is such a stark juxtaposition to the lily-pad strewn, gold-plated temple above it, that the initial shock of it is enough to unnerve the player. The lower chambers represent a form of Hell, and despite Skyward Sword’s slightly bright and cartoonish aesthetic when compared to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, it remains an unnerving and unsettling place hinged on fear and distress. At no point is there any real reprieve or moment to relax in the caverns, and there is a constant feeling of oppressive despair and darkness. A more subtle form of terror than a surprise scare; perhaps it was intended to seep under the skin as the poison water does to curse Link. It could also rely on a player’s fear of Hell in the real world though, a notion which may have permeated a collective psyche.
Contrasting this, the things in Zelda games which scare us are not always things which we should be obviously fearful of. The Happy Mask Salesman is the perfect example; though an unsettling nature is implied, no truly scary or violent acts are committed by him—bar picking up and shaking Link—and his main incentive is to get back his own property, for which he helps the player enormously. Despite this, the Happy Mask Salesman remains one of the more frightening characters in the Zelda series, because of Nintendo’s understanding of nuances which create distress and unease. There is no need for him to be a knife-wielding maniac, for his erratic actions and unnerving smile strike a chord far more laced with discontent.
This is reinforced with the copies created by the Elegy of Emptiness, hollow shells with an uncanny valley quality about them, rendering them as terrifying, heavy puppets. Apart from what these copies imply—a shell of the souls Link has healed, and of his own form’s soul—their look alone has sparked what is undoubtedly the most popular Zelda Creepypasta to date, suggesting that their strange, dead faces, despite not posing any real threat, have left their own mark of fear on the collective psyche. Similarly, the Moon in Majora’s Mask has a dead-eyed grin which seems to swallow the entire of Termina, arguably a main factor in people’s thoughts on the games dark qualities.
There are also the masked children in Majora’s Mask, four kids in white clothes, playing in a field innocuously enough, apart from the fact that they are wearing the faces of the bosses Link has earlier defeated. The climactic moment of entering the moon with Tatl to find a calm field with these children running about makes the environment much more unsettling than if it was the average danger-ridden, fear-inducing final dungeon. They ask you questions to unnerve you further such as “is the face behind the mask your true face?” All of this becomes a form of psychological warfare, a strange melting pot of things which shouldn’t be distressing, but become so through the context of where and how they are presented.
The uncanny valley returns in Twilight Princess in both Yeta and Princess Zelda herself. Perhaps —because I honestly do consider these situations quite disturbing—because we have been tasked with saving these two characters, our fear becomes not for ourselves, but for them. Because of the emotional connection developed through completing tasks for these characters, we have become inextricably bound to them, yet they are possessed to destroy us; it is us or them, and fear arises from this situation in which there can be no real winner. And although the worst case scenarios never do eventuate, it is this knowledge in the back of our minds of what could be that makes fighting Yeta (as Blizzeta) and Zelda, so awful.
Also in Twilight Princess, Zant is also a prominent fear-monger, in a similar way to the Happy Mask Salesman. Unpredictability is terrifying, as we are not able to prepare for it, so to have a villain whose troubled mind is driving him, rather than megalomania and pure evil as is the case with Ganondorf, is perhaps an even more terrifying outcome. Zant is almost like the power of a true evil, married to the unhinged nature of the Happy Mask Salesman, making him a force to be reckoned with and a ticking time bomb to be feared.
Link, with his inextricable bind to the Triforce of Courage, is the perfect conduit for us as players to experience fear in Zelda. Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that frightens one,” an extremely fitting role for Link. The Legend of Zelda is tenuously hinged on fear and horror, and not only is Link courageous within the context of his own setting, but also within our own, as we use him to face up to our own in-game fears. The Legend of Zelda, a game developed by the most family friendly name in video gaming, with no emphasis in its storyline or marketing on horror or violence, manages to convey an extremely sophisticated concept and execution (no pun intended) of fear. Nintendo has approached not what scares us but why it scares us and transplanted that into Zelda in order to scare its audience in an intelligent and entertaining way, something which in the games industry, we see less and less of today.