Nintendo loves the number three. I can’t say I blame them; it’s a magic number, after all. When we think about sets, about grouping things together, there’s a sort of bizarre, inexplicable attraction to the number three. Movie franchises with only three films are exceptionally common, to the point that we even have a word for a set of three movies: Trilogy (the term “duology,” which is a set of two connected films or similar works, is hardly ever used, so sets of three tend to be seen as more important than sets of two). In some cases, franchises with more than three movies are still grouped into multiple sets of trilogies — look no further than the Original and Prequel Trilogies that comprise the Star Wars franchise. Movies themselves often follow a “three-act structure,” in conventional screenwriting wisdom.
Gaming, too, is not immune from the bizarre fixation on the number three, but it takes on a new form within the gameplay of many series. It’s called the “Rule of Three,” and refers to the tendency of game design to both group similar tasks into sets of three and require three repetitions of a singular task in order to accomplish a goal. For instance, in most Mario games, defeating a boss requires attacking their weak spot — usually by jumping on their head — three separate times. The Rule of Three isn’t an actual rule, but rather a coincidental tendency of game design to reflect the real fascination with the number. There is no concrete understanding of why the human mind tends to sort and group things in threes, but game design has embraced that tendency nonetheless. It’s a number that doesn’t feel too excessive, but nor does it feel too small. Hitting a boss three times as opposed to two (which would feel like too few) or four (which may feel like too many) can make a significant difference in the feel and flow of the game, so the Rule of Three is a good rule of thumb for these sorts of things.
The Legend of Zelda, however, has lately been somewhat hamstrung by the Rule of Three’s total governance of much of the series’ structure. Ever since the series’ leap to 3D with Ocarina of Time, there has been a very clear trend of the Rule of Three dictating much of the games’ early stages. There are a number of areas in the Zelda series that, in one way or another, could be vastly improved or streamlined by a lessened adherence to the Rule, resulting in better, fresher, and more engaging games overall.
Three Dungeons, Three Tokens
Probably the most evident example of the Rule of Three within the series is the first set of three dungeons. In Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword — all of the 3D titles save for one — there is a preliminary set of three dungeons that the player completes before moving on to the “second half” of the game, so to speak. This division between the first set of three dungeons and the latter set of however many dungeons (it varies from game to game) is created primarily in two ways. The first is through the similarity of the goals of each dungeon; in most cases, each dungeon is a task undertaken to acquire one of a set of three items. The second is through the major plot revelation that occurs at the end of the set of dungeons. In every case, the major plot revelation significantly alters the story, the gameplay, or both in a way that creates two clear and distinct segments (not quite halves) of the game: One segment being defined by the trio of dungeons that was just completed, and the other segment being defined by the new goal or game mechanic introduced (e.g., the ability to switch between Wolf Link and Hylian Link at will in Twilight Princess, which significantly altered the way the player traveled the world and completed dungeons).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this structure, but it causes two distinct “issues” (a term I use lightly, as it comes down mostly to personal preference). One is that the game’s story tends to stagnate during this early phase of the game, as there is no real plot advancement until that third dungeon is completed and players are treated with a revelation, and another is that it creates a feeling of contrived MacGuffinism.
Let’s talk about that term quickly: “MacGuffinism” refers to a mechanic of a plot which involves the pursuit of a mostly inconsequential item that is required by the constraints of the story for plot advancement. In the case of a Zelda game, it refers to items like the Spiritual Stones or the Goddess Pearls; items that Link needs to acquire solely to advance. They exist not as an actual object that the player or character desires, but rather solely as a means to drive them to complete ostensibly secondary tasks. For instance, in Ocarina of Time, Link’s mission is to deliver a message to Zelda, and help her. Helping her involves stopping Ganondorf, but to do that, Link must first acquire three Spiritual Stones. The Spiritual Stones are “MacGuffins” — or “plot tokens” as they are sometimes derisively called — items that he needs to acquire because the plot demands he do so in order to advance, but items that are not a part of his direct goal. They are ultimately a gating mechanism between the player and the end goal of the plot. Alright, still with me? Great.
The issue with MacGuffins is that, as I said above, they feel contrived. The best plots are those which involve events immediately following as a result of the previous ones. When a character must halt their immediate plans — in the case of Ocarina of Time, as stated above, to defeat Ganondorf — and complete secondary objectives in the pursuit of MacGuffins that will allow them to proceed, it brings the plot to a screeching halt. The pacing of the story then feels staggered, rather than flowing naturally. Ocarina of Time’s collection of the Spiritual Stones, The Wind Waker’s collection of the Goddess Pearls, and Twilight Princess’ collection of the Fused Shadows fall prey to this quite severely. Skyward Sword, to its credit, manages to avoid the use of MacGuffins by having there be a clear, immediate goal at the end of each dungeon: The promise of finding Zelda. Of course, reaching the end of Skyview Temple and the Earth Temple does not accomplish that goal, as Link is just a bit too late, so the plot still feels a tad staggered, but ultimately the flow is far better in Skyward Sword than in its predecessors.
Even Skyward Sword, however, falls into the other pitfall that the Rule of Three creates in this situation: Predictability. When a game clearly divides both its setting and its early plot into three segments, anticipating the plot twist becomes not a game of spotting hints and clues, but a game of simple observation. Once you’ve finished that third dungeon in that third province and acquired that third MacGuffin that you’ve been searching for the whole time, you’ve exhausted the initial goal that the game set for you. But of course, the game isn’t about to launch into its final stages yet. So the only logical conclusion is that you’ve got a plot twist coming! It’s always tremendously unfortunate when a game telegraphs that a plot twist is imminent. Plot twists should be moments of surprise that disorient the player, rather than moments that can be seen coming a mile away.
So let’s imagine, for a moment, that there were no Spiritual Stones to collect, no Goddess Pearls, no Fused Shadows, and no Ancient Tablet fragments that provide access to the three provinces. How, then, would the game direct the player from destination to destination? Why, through novel exposition and a logical sequence of events! Instead of just going from discrete story to another discrete story in regions defined by MacGuffins, the plot will have to provide a direct impetus to travel from one region to the next. Perhaps, for instance, after clearing out Dodongo’s Cavern, Link returns to Goron City to find an envoy from the Zora requesting some form of remedy for Lord Jabu-Jabu. This provides Link with a cause to travel there beyond “you need a stone that comes from there.” In Twilight Princess, the drive to rescue the children served this purpose surprisingly well; the Fused Shadows were merely an added distraction to provide Link with a reason to complete the dungeons, solving the problems of the Goron and Zora despite having already found the children he was looking for. It comes close to being a plot purely driven by cause and effect and not MacGuffinism — but it’s ultimately a half-measure. If the game were to rely solely on plot driven progression through the first set of dungeons, rather than requiring a set of three MacGuffins, the pacing and flow would improve tremendously, and the plot twist that would likely still occur after the third dungeon (although it wouldn’t necessarily have to do so once freed of the three MacGuffin structure) would be less telegraphed and more genuinely surprising.
Three Pieces of the Triforce, Three Characters
The Rule of Three’s impact on the Triforce is also rather pronounced, as it’s less of an impact and more the entire core concept of the Triforce — it’s in the name, for crying out loud. In truth, it’s not the concept of the Triforce that is the real issue at play: it’s the way the concept is manifested in the characters of the series. It is typical for the game’s plot to involve three principal characters, each possessing one of the three parts of the Triforce: Power, Wisdom, or Courage. In most cases, these three are Ganondorf, Zelda, and Link respectively. Sure, there is Zant in Twilight Princess and Ghirahim in Skyward Sword (who is working for Demise, a distinct being from Ganondorf, but filling the same role and playing into many of the same thematic tropes), but both villains are pawns in a grander scheme. The ultimate conflict boils down to these three characters, and unfortunately that’s limiting and not nearly as compelling as it could be. While I have always and continue to like the idea of three characters thematically representing these three traits, it tends to manifest as these characters being retreads of previous versions of themselves, as well as being a rather one-note conflict throughout the series.
To shake off the shackles of the Rule of Three in this instance, we’d have to — and bear with me on this — discard the concept of the Triforce altogether, and instead allow for any number of characters representing any number of concepts. The series has even done this in the past: Examining the central plot of Majora’s Mask, there are four major parties at play rather than three, and none of them embody the same concepts as the Triforce. Link embodies the concept of healing, as evidenced by his quest being one primarily of healing the sorrows of deceased heroes and bringing closure to many of Termina’s citizens; the Skull Kid embodies sorrow and resentment, as evidenced by his history of being hurt by his former friends and his acting out in a petulant manner out of resentment for their leaving him; the Giants embody order, as evidenced by the song that calls them, Oath to Order, and their opposition to Majora’s machinations; and lastly Majora embodies chaos, as evidenced by his (her? Ambiguity!) tendency to sow chaos and discord through his puppet, the Skull Kid. There are four unique parties at play in the central conflict of the story, and none of them represent the typical Triforce ideals.
It’s a unique situation that avoids retreads, and the series has not featured a conflict quite like it since. Instead, the 3D games that have followed have mostly been focused on the three components of the Triforce being represented in its three principal actors (though once again, Skyward Sword manages to mostly avoid this pitfall by sidelining Zelda somewhat early on and having Link take full possession of the Triforce; there’s a lot of repeated character beats, but it manages to feel distinct all the same).
Three Sub-headings, One Conclusion
The Rule of Three isn’t a bad thing, but the Zelda series has incorporated parts of it so often that it’s become rote formula at this point rather than some form of inspired structure. It’s dismaying to see, as simply eliminating the tendency to sort things into groups of three opens up a lot of potential for the series, potential that is being lost with an unfortunate adherence to formula.
This is not to say that the formula doesn’t work, because it does, and I love all of the games I talk about, even as I criticize them for not taking risks to reach their full potential. But in the process of adhering to this formula, it’s simply exacerbating the problems. The more times people see a trio of dungeons before a major plot revelations, the more they’re going to be able to anticipate a plot revelation in the next game. The more times people collect MacGuffiny plot tokens to advance the story, the more they’re going to be irked by staggered pacing.
It comes down to a matter of mixing things up and not adhering to a consistent structure. The Rule of Three is a very popular and enduring trope of gaming, and as such players have grown too familiar with it. For maximum impact, developers — and in particular the developers of the Zelda series — should consider leaving it behind, and delivering something that players won’t be expecting at all.