While I was in the process of deciding how best to tackle the themes of The Wind Waker, one of our resident writers, Melchizedek, contributed a series of pieces on that very topic. Live for the Future covered the game’s attention to the grand purpose of life, Face Your Regrets took it one step further and warned against living in the past, and It’s Always About What You Haven’t Got explored the pitfalls of covetous ambition.
Instead of slipping into redundancy and repeating these same story points again in my own words, I think the best way to look at The Wind Waker is to examine its treatment of the Hero’s Journey. This tale in particular, in both its story and its core gameplay, epitomizes the sense of discovery that has long defined The Legend of Zelda series.
In an article I wrote back in September, I discussed how the most important element in the Zelda series is the sense of adventure that accompanies the player’s journey through the vast world of Hyrule. I made the rather bold statement that “Wind Waker was more like the original Legend of Zelda than any of the other recent games in that the central element was Link’s exploration of the seemingly-endless sea.” The time has come to defend that claim.
Many may protest: “But Wind Waker‘s world was so empty! It’s just wide open space, and it takes too long to get from place to place!” This is true in a sense, because the means of travel – a sailing ship – demanded a wide, open ocean area. At the time a means of solid maritime combat while Link’s ship was in motion hadn’t been developed yet (but would later show up in Phantom Hourglass), so while there were areas that had some enemies, there weren’t nearly as many enemies as we see in the early 2D games. Not to mention that sword combat, the staple of the series, is impractical to incorporate altogether while at sea.
The comparisons to The Legend of Zelda have more to do with some of the other features of the Wind Waker overworld: namely the abundance of hidden treasures, an overworld that requires a map and compass to explore, and the fact that large portions of gameplay are staged on the main map and not in towns or dungeons.
The original game had us burning trees, pushing boulders and gravestones, and bombing walls to find secret caverns and goodies. Wind Waker has many of the same features, but we find them instead by sending our crane to the bottom of the ocean or scouring the various islands for nooks and crannies to crawl into. Whereas most recent games have worlds that are easy to navigate because they consist of mostly wide open spaces with small passageways branching off to other areas, both Legend of Zelda and The Wind Waker require some degree of planning due to their grid-like layouts. Most of the secrets in both games are out in the field (or the ocean in Wind Waker‘s case), rather than tucked away in a town or a dungeon area like in Twilight Princess. Wind Waker goes particularly above and beyond by requiring you to not only complete gameplay objectives, but also to coordinate a search of the overworld by comparing your treasure maps to your sea chart. That’s not to say that the other games don’t have any exploration to them – just that these two games devote particular attention to scouring the world as part of the adventure.
It’s this sense of discovery that sets The Wind Waker apart from other games. But it’s not just a feature of the gameplay – it factors heavily into the message of the game as well.
Link starts out in The Wind Waker in much the same way he did in Ocarina of Time – he lives in a part of the world that has little contact with the peoples outside. It is only when the Helmaroc King swoops down to kidnap his sister that he finally breaks free of his little corner of existence and gets a chance to experience the wide world beyond. Taking this story along with the first items he receives in his quest – the trademarks of the hero: the green garb of legends, and a sword and shield with which to fight his foes – we can see that his movement away from the place he has always known marks growth and experience that will later lead him to his heroic destiny.
Unlike Ocarina of Time, however, which focused specifically on the changes that accompany growth through its time travel trope, Wind Waker instead focuses on the process of journey and discovery itself. Throughout his quest, Link gains several things that aid him not so much in fighting evil and becoming stronger, but accessing more and more of the world now open to him. The telescope, a gift from his sister, represents looking beyond his current state; the King of Red Lions represents his inner voice, which guides him through the seas of time from his past to his future; the grappling hook represents a breach of the gaps that separate him from a greater existence; the Deku leaf represents a capacity to soar to new heights; the Master Sword, finally, the key to unlocking his purpose.
This strikes a chord with the message of previous games, but what it leaves us with is ultimately that growth is about more than awakening from childhood and growing up and moving on from the past, it also comes from our experiences themselves. They are what shape us and make us who we are, and while we shouldn’t try to dwell on these too deeply as Daphnes did, we should always embrace that process of growth – by seeking new sights, new places, and new experiences.
Themes in Motion is a regular article series that plans to cover the major story themes of every game in the Zelda series. As you read, please consider your own reactions to the games’ stories and feel free to reply in the comment sections with any thoughts you may have that differ from or go beyond what is explained in the article. Entries in the series will release every other Tuesday, each covering a different theme.