In her now-classic analysis of digital media, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray laments that video game narrative is based on a win/lose dichotomy and that this only allows for somewhat simple stories because all of them would need to have happy endings. Of course, this book was written in 1997, and we have gone quite a long ways since then on creating sad endings even if you win the game, or games that have very dramatic and tragic narratives even though you end up winning, like Majora’s Mask.
In fact, many people consider that game to be the saddest, most tragic one in the Zelda franchise, given how many people die, how many lives are torn apart, and some extremely moving yet disturbing scenes that are sure to put a tear in our eyes—remember when Cremia let her sister get drunk so that she didn’t have to live through the fall of the moon? But in this article, I will argue there is a Zelda game which is way, way worse than that. Link’s Awakening is, in my opinion, the saddest, most profound game in the whole saga.
Our first reaction to such an assertion is that such a thing cannot be true. Majora’s Mask has this whole disturbing vibe, from the frightening tunes playing on the most dramatically tense moments to the suffering faces link makes when he puts on a mask. Link’s Awakening, by contrast, has extremely happy music on an extremely sunny and beautiful island with people who are extremely happy to be there. There are some hints that give away that such happiness may not be completely honest, though.
First of all, there’s the setting of a game. The whole map you can explore here is Koholint Island, and nothing more than Koholint Island. This is an extremely claustrophobic prospect, if we compare it to games where you can go from one island to another, like Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, or to the general encyclopedic nature of the rest of the saga, where you get to explore the whole known world. In contrast, Link’s Awakening doesn’t let you get any further than the shoreline—in fact, we should remember that the whole point of Link’s quest is to get away from there. He’s not trying to save the world from evil or to reunite the Triforce once again, not at all. Link’s mission in this game is to escape.
There are, then, some characters that get us in a gloomy – or just outright weird – mood as well. Remember the sad little ghost that haunts his own house out of nostalgia? The old man attending the telephone line but who is unable to talk to real people because of his social phobia? What about the creepy shop keeper who not only holds some kind of mystical power every major boss in the Zelda saga would envy, but is also willing to kill you instantly if you steal something from him? Not to talk about how Christine deceived Mr. Write in their distance love relationship by having him believe she is actually a blonde beauty (Princess Peach, no less!), when she’s not even human! But perhaps the most disturbing part of it all is the fact that all of the dungeon bosses can speak, and do so to give us quite unsettling messages about the nature of the island.
However, I have to admit that the game itself is not particularly sad or brimming with tragic characters or stories. In fact, I would even have to go as far and admit they are quite happy. They are happy little people who are in love with their happy little island. Only, they are not people at all and your mission consists on vanishing all of them for good. The whole Zelda saga has yet to come up with a plot twist that is as shocking and game-changing as that we suffer when we go to the Southern Face Shrine: everything is a dream. All the beautiful places in this island and all the people we have met and come to love are nothing but a dream and our quest involves making them disappear forever.
What adds even more dramatic strength to this fact is that we are not told this at the end of the game, oh no. Link is faced with this terrible truth just in the middle of it, when he still has a long way to go. This means he has to go on solving dungeon after dungeon, defeating foe after foe, all the while knowing what consequences his actions will bring about. This leaves many interpretations open for our silent hero: is he a desperate man who is willing to sacrifice everyone just to overcome the claustrophobic anxiety of the island? Is he a stoic warrior whose heart is breaking as he soldiers on, all the while thinking he must do what he believes to be the right thing? Is he just submerged in a chaos of emotions and just pushes on because he doesn’t know what else to do, because vanquishing monsters and evil is all that he has ever done?
However, what moves me the most is the implicit love story between Link and Marin, which is fully realized in the manga adaptation of the game. There, not only do these two love each other, but our hero decides that he’s not going to wake the Wind Fish so that she doesn’t ever have to fade away. After getting a blessing from Tarin, they try to sail away from the island on a little boat… Only to find that it is impossible, that every time they try to do so the waves will just bring them back, over and over again, thus reinforcing even more the claustrophobic feeling of the island. Link has an emotional breakdown then, as he realizes the only way to flee from there is by making the woman he loves vanish forever. If that is not tragic, then I don’t know what is.
Link’s Awakening, for me, is the most tragic and dramatic game in the whole series because, even when you win, you have actually lost. All the memories in the island, all the people you have met, all of them are lost forever. There is no coming back to them, no way of ever seeing them again. If we delve in the depths of our imagination – or fan fiction – we can imagine Link going back to Termina, as the place is actually there; or maybe sailing back to every island he visited in The Wind Waker, or stopping by every familiar station in Spirit Tracks. That is not possible in Link’s Awakening. In that game, there’s just no turning back. And that is why Link’s is not the only awakening in the game.
Janet Murray, as I said in the introduction, wanted dramatic narratives that would let us deal with real-life situations in order to be better prepared to confront them, such as having to be in a hospital’s emergency room or dealing with modern era problems. That way, she says, we can better prepare ourselves to face such dramatic situations: in her opinion, fiction is a way to deal with everyday problems by making us be involved enough to care but detached enough to be able to retreat if the suffering is too much. Some psychological therapies treat phobias this way, by exposing their patients to virtual manifestations of their fears in order to overcome them.
In that sense, then, Link’s Awakening is also the most mature Zelda game in the series. It makes us deal with irretrievable loss, with the vanishing of a loved one, with going away from a place we have come to love, knowing that there’s no turning back. This is a game that makes us deal with death and change in a sense no other, more realistic games do. For that, I think that Link’s Awakening is not only the saddest instalment in the saga, but also the one that teaches us the most.