Two Sides to the Story: Can the Downfall Timeline Be Rationalized In-Universe or is it Hypothetical?
Posted on April 18 2013 by Dathen Boccabella
An official release of the Zelda chronology was something that fans always wanted, and yet never thought they’d get. Thanks to the release of Hyrule Historia last year we now have exactly that, but find ourselves still trying to fully understand it. Everyone has their interpretations and opinions, especially when it comes to one of the main points of contention—the cause of the new third split which has come to be known as the “Downfall” or “Decline” Timeline.
In the return of our “Two Sides to the Story” series, we’ll be looking at two different takes on the Downfall Timeline. Senior writer Alex Plant will present the case for the new arc as able to be rationalized in-universe, and former Zelda Informer writer Dathen Boccabella will contend that the split is entirely hypothetical in a guest contribution. Read on for two sides to this story, where we present the theories and you make the decision.
Hypothetical Hyrulean History
By Dathen Boccabella
About the author: Dathen was a lead writer for Zelda Informer from 2009-2012. He left us for a professional position at the major sports-news website The Bleacher Report, but still writes here on occasion as a guest contributor.
Hyrule Historia may have provided a wealth of new details about the Zelda series, but with such a small amount of content area dedicated to each topic, it also failed to be very specific. Consequently, there is little more explanation to the cause of the Downfall Timeline other than “Link, the Hero of Time, challenges him [Ganondorf] for the destiny of Hyrule, but is defeated,” which refers to the final battle in Ocarina of Time.
Although Hyrule Historia further details how Link’s failure progresses into A Link to the Past, it offers no further details on how the split in the timeline occurs. However there is no need for such an explanation, for the lack reveals the answer in and of itself. If the split were in-universe, it would be explained as such within Hyrule Historia. However, instead it merely tells us that if Link defeats Ganon The Wind Waker will occur. If Link fails, then A Link to the Past follows.
This third split revealed in Hyrule Historia is based entirely upon the conditional “if”. That is, “if Link fails”. Within the canon of the game universe Link cannot both succeed and triumph. We all know that Ocarina of Time’s true ending sees Link victorious, as he always is within he Zelda universe. As fans we can’t then seek some ridiculous explanation, such as saying the timeline splits every time players get a Game Over, which some fans seriously contend.
The Downfall Timeline is not to be seen so literally. Merely take it as “if” Link happened to fail in Ocarina of Time’s final battle then this is what would have happened. For too long fans have mainly thought of the timeline as one in-universe continuum, be it with a split in it. The Downfall Timeline is only hard to accept; therefore, because it somewhat alienates the classics from the rest of the series.
Nintendo’s explanation connects the classics to Ocarina of Time, with the events following Link’s death serving as the Imprisoning war. However the separation of the Downfall Timeline is not evidenced within the games. Consider the original Adult and Child split in the timeline which is explained within the Zelda universe.
Because of Zelda’s actions Link disappears from the Adult Timeline, causing no hero to arise in The Wind Waker’s backstory. The Triforce of Courage is also found fragmented in The Wind Waker because Link was unable to carry it to the Child Timeline with him. This initial split arises out of events that occur within known Zelda titles. The new Downfall split with the classics is not evidenced as such within the series because it isn’t to be thought of in the same way.
While fans may see the Downfall Timeline as a cop-out, it is by no means when you consider the legends theory of the Zelda timeline. Prior to Hyrule Historia’s release some theorists divided the timeline into three distinct continuities. The first was the standard Adult and Child split; the second was the Four Swords series; and the third was the classics arc which is now the controversial third split.
Ultimately, the official timeline is little more than the legends theory with the Four Swords series integrated into it. Legends theorists concluded long ago that there were too many inconsistencies for Ocarina of Time to be the Imprisoning War, so separated A Link to the Past and the classics.
This is what the Downfall Timeline does. By separating the classics, and adding some further storied events as only the developers can, Ocarina of Time’s ending with Link’s death leads perfectly into A Link to the Past. Ocarina of Time has always been the center of the timeline, and is the means by which all games can be connected, but its various endings are also the cause of the split between the classic Downfall arc and the main series timeline.
Although thinking of the Downfall arc as a hypothetical seems to exclude it, this is not entirely the case. A closer look at the Adult Timeline reveals that the Downfall Timeline is very literally an alternative Adult Timeline. In that sense, they can be thought of as two different versions of the Adult Timeline, based upon the hypothetical of “if Link dies” or “if Link succeeds”.
If Link is defeated, than Ganon obtains the Triforce and wishes upon it, leading Hyrule on the ”road to ruin”. The effects of Ganon’s evil can never truly be repaired. If Link is successful in defeating Ganon, then it is Daphnes who wishes upon the Triforce and causes the founding of the New Hyrule, where the filth of Ganon is washed away. The two potential timelines are almost the balanced opposites of each other.
Both timelines are legends and, in a sense, are hypothetical variations depending on the outcome of Ocarina of Time’s final battle. On the adult timeline the first game to follow is The Wind Waker, which refers to the events before it as “but one of the legends of which the people speak.” As for the downfall timeline, where A Link to the Past comes first, the events of history are “obscured by the mists of time and became legend.” Both timelines are built upon the blurred events of Ocarina of Time’s adult endings, but vary only in one factor: that hypothetical “if Link fails” or “if Link succeeds”.
To make an attempt to rationalize the Downfall Timeline in-universe is completely fruitless. Not only because no solid reasoning can be made without gross speculation, but also because of the words of Zelda series Director Eiji Aonuma in his concluding thoughts of Hyrule Historia:
“Some parts may look contradictory… I’d like to ask everyone just to enjoy the book and to be broad-minded, and to think that those parts are the way they are because of the way Zelda games are developed.”
Aonuma asks that as fans we remain “broad-minded,” accepting that many parts of Zelda are inconsistent because gameplay has always come before the storyline. Aonuma speaks directly to those fans that are still searching for ways to rationalize the Downfall Timeline, telling them to accept that Zelda’s story is largely inconsistent legends that are disjointed and, at times, hypothetical.
For further explanation of the hypothetical theory please see my previous article “Explaining the Third Split in the Official Zelda Timeline”.
Link’s Downfall is Part of Hyrule’s “Real” History
By Alex Plant
“Because what is being spun is the flow of history right up until the end of time, we wish for you to touch true adventure with your own hands and try to ascertain it for yourself.”
This line concludes the introductory paragraph to Hyrule Historia’s explanation of the official Legend of Zelda series timeline. A close reading reveals two central themes: history and truth. The stories spun in legend chronicle “the flow of history right up until the end of time.” When we dive into these stories, we “touch true adventure with [our] own hands.” In interpreting the Zelda timeline, we perform the work of historians.
The so-called Downfall Timeline, despite its unprecedented twists and turns, must therefore be taken in the context of actual history. But are there any clues that help us unravel how Link’s defeat at the hands of Ganondorf might have unfolded?
It’s important to note what Hyrule Historia has to say about the deciding moment. I have omitted the parenthetical note indicating that Link’s defeat will lead to a new timeline and the page that continues the story on that separate thread and instead synthesized the two texts. You can see the results below:
“Ganondorf, who had held Link under observation, kidnapped Princess Zelda and took her to the castle, and, in an effort to obtain the Triforce, lured Link to him. Once the Triforce of Power, possessed by Ganondorf, the Triforce of Wisdom that dwelt in Princess Zelda, and the Triforce of Courage that dwelt in Link became one, they would resonate together. Finally, the time had come to battle with Ganondorf.
“The Hero of Time is, of all things, defeated by Ganondorf. Ganondorf obtains the Triforce and becomes the Demon King, Ganon, who continues to menace the world even in later eras.”
From this description, we can glean a few key details. Ganondorf captured Zelda as part of his plan to reunite the three Triforces so that he could claim them for himself. If Link is defeated, there is nothing to stop the full Triforce from becoming his. We must also note that Link’s downfall occurs during the battle with Ganondorf atop Ganon’s Tower, not during the fight against the demon beast Ganon after the tower’s destruction.
Hyrule Historia refers to this battle as the “decisive battle.” This description is important because, given that this battle results in two different outcomes, each leading to different timelines, it tells us that the results of the battle were not fixed. By contrast, in both the Downfall Timeline and the Adult Timeline, when Ganon transforms into a demon beast, the Seven Sages are able to seal him away in the Sacred Realm. The results of that particular side of the struggle are fixed.
But that still doesn’t explain why the outcome of the decisive battle is not fixed. For that, we’ll need to look at the prophecies surrounding the battle over the Triforce.
The Forked Prophecy
Prophecies in Ocarina of Time take two forms. One form, the most common form and the one most people are familiar with, is the fixed prophecy. This kind of prophecy explains in plain terms what is going to happen. It has a defined (though perhaps vaguely stated) outcome, and offers no potential alternatives. Perhaps the most keen example of such a prophecy is the Legend of the Five Temples told by Sheik:
“When evil rules all, an awakening voice from the Sacred Realm will call those destined to be Sages, who dwell in the five temples. One in a deep forest… One on a high mountain… One under a vast lake… One within the house of the dead… One inside a goddess of the sand… Together with the Hero of Time, the awakened ones will bind the evil and return the light of peace to the world…”
Everything mentioned here is pre-ordained. Despite Link and Zelda’s best efforts, Ganondorf still manages to get the Triforce and still manages to spread his evil influence. Inevitably, however, the hero’s intervention, coupled with the power of the awakened sages, is able to overcome the darkness and seal it away.
The Child Timeline doesn’t quite fit as neatly into this scenario, but the key points from the prophecy still apply. Ganondorf still acquires the evil magic to rule all thanks to the Triforce of Power, the Hero of Time still awakens the sages to action against Ganon through his warning to Princess Zelda, and the sages still manage to bind up Ganondorf in the Twilight Realm.
We can also apply this prophecy to the Downfall Timeline. Everything proceeds exactly as it does in the Adult Timeline, with the main point of divergence being that the Hero of Time dies in his battle against Ganondorf. However, he still is responsible for awakening the sages and in the end they successfully cast their seal on the evil one.
That core prophecy remains fixed even as the specific conditions under which it plays out change.
The other kind of prophecy is the forked prophecy. This kind of prophecy takes on a dualistic structure. “If Condition A is met, then Outcome X will happen; but if Condition B is met, then Outcome Y will happen.”
Here’s the earliest example of a forked prophecy in Ocarina of Time:
“The three goddesses hid the Triforce containing the power of the gods somewhere in Hyrule. The power to grant the wish of the one who holds the Triforce in his hands. If someone with a righteous heart makes a wish, it will lead Hyrule to a golden age of prosperity… If someone with an evil mind has his wish granted, the world will be consumed by evil... That is what has been told…”
Hopefully you can make out the prophecy’s fork. If not, I’ve laid it out for you:
Condition A: “someone with a righteous heart makes a wish”
Outcome X: “a golden age of prosperity”
Condition B: “someone with an evil mind has his wish granted”
Outcome Y: “the world is consumed by evil”
Of course, the avid logician will know that even if both of those statements are true, there’s no reason why either condition has to exist. It’s possible for Condition C (an alternative to Conditions A and B) to exist instead, with Outcome Z taking place as a result.
Condition C: no one makes a wish
Outcome Z: no outcome is guaranteed
The three major timeline branches each revolve around fulfilling one of the conditions of this prophecy:
The Adult Timeline involves a long drawn-out struggle that ends up concluding with the first condition-outcome pair when the King of Hyrule makes his wish at the end of The Wind Waker.
The Downfall Timeline results in the second condition-outcome set when Ganondorf kills Link and gains the full Triforce. (A Link to the Past later involves another forked prophecy concerning the Great Cataclysm and ends with Link reclaiming the Triforce and bringing about Condition A.)
The Child Timeline involves a sort of defect where the Triforce splits on its own, not in accordance with prophecy, and ends ambiguously with Condition C.
The other key feature of forked prophecies is that they describe potential conditions but define their actual outcomes. The conditions are variable, but within those conditions the outcomes are fixed.
There is a view called “modal realism” which revolves around the idea that all possible worlds—that is, all possible combinations of conditions and outcomes—are as real as what we consider to be the “real world.” It’s similar to a split timeline, but does not require time travel. Instead, it considers all various possibilities as having a causal relationship with actual outcomes.
This idea may seem completely foreign to the Zelda franchise, but the split timeline concept did also until the series incorporated a time travel narrative. Now that we have an additional timeline branch revolving around alternative outcomes, I think it’s time to consider the different branches of forked prophecy as focal points around which various possible worlds hinge. Though these possible worlds may have isolated histories, each is just as “real” as the other.
You’ve heard the arguments, but as Mr. Aonuma said, it’s up to each of us to experience the legends for ourselves to ascertain the truth. In the end, all we know for sure is that the classic games fall on a separate story that spins off of the legend of Ocarina of Time. We don’t know whether the series’ description as legendary means that it’s inherently mythological or whether its description as history means that we’re to read it as the literal history of the fantasy land of Hyrule.
So what’ll it be, Zelda fans? Is The Legend of Zelda timeline a mythological “history” or a history handed down as the stuff of “legend”? Does the Downfall Timeline chronicle actual events, or is it merely an alternative story arc? Let us know what you think of this new controversial piece of Hyrulian lore.