It’s always amused me that Ocarina of Time is essentially a game about how two ten-year-old kids plot to murder a grown man, bless their hearts.
For me, there have always been two major mysteries at the heart of Twilight Princess. First, why does Ganondorf feel the need to possess Princess Zelda at the end of the game? Second, how does he manage to put his hair up in such an elaborate style? When these two questions are viewed side by side, the answer to both becomes obvious.
One of the things I love about the worldbuilding in the Legend of Zelda games is how gorgeously Gothic it is. Monsters and captive princesses and buried secrets, oh my! This comic isn’t just about castle spires and demon lovers and enchanted princesses, however; I also wanted to explore the troubled gender and racial politics of the Zelda series and make a statement about how the exclusionary prejudices that create monsters and damsels are hidden but ever-present in the legends that make heroes.
Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.
The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.
This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.
I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?
Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.
The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.
Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.
Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.
What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.
To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.
Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!
IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.
Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.
In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.
I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.
I’m really interested in the relationship between Ganondorf and Tetra in The Wind Waker. While Link’s journey is full of light and laughter and discovery and growth, both Tetra and Ganondorf are associated with some fairly dark themes. They’re also literally in the dark in Hyrule Castle, which has lain dormant for centuries under the Great Sea. The Gothic creepiness of this scenario is fascinating, and I love how both Tetra and Ganondorf are painfully human even as they represent mythical forces that are much larger than themselves.
It’s been a difficult semester; so, instead of taking another stab at Nier Automatica or finishing Gris, I started playing Ocarina of Time again.
Ocarina of Time is a beautiful and perfect game, but some of its dungeons are quite difficult, and there are the infamous one hundred Gold Skulltulas to collect. I therefore haven’t ever played the game without a walkthrough, meaning that the experience can sometimes feel a little like homework.
What I’m trying to do this time around is to train myself to memorize the game so that I’m able to get 100% completion without a walkthrough. This involves playing two save files simultaneously, the first with a walkthrough and the second entirely from memory a few days later.
Back when people were still posting garbage hot takes about “walking simulators,” I often heard the opinion that playing a video game shouldn’t be like walking through a museum. I actually really enjoy walking through museums, and I’d like to be able to walk through Ocarina of Time like a museum. I think it’s very relaxing, not necessarily to know exactly where you’re going or what you’re going to see, but rather to have confidence that you’re not going to get lost or stuck or miss something important.
During the past two years I’ve begun to present and publish academic papers on the Legend of Zelda series. During my research I’ve encountered a lot of fan speculation about the many mysteries of the expansive universe of the games. I ended up taking notes on some of the more common theories I’ve encountered, as well as some of the stranger headcanons formulated and shared by fans, and I’ve noticed that these theories tend to fall into six main categories:
These theories aim to fill in a sizeable gap in the story of a specific game.
Example: The Gerudo became the Twili in Twilight Princess.
These theories attempt to impose a sense of order on the shared universe of the games.
Example: Breath of the Wild is set in the distant future of the Twilight Princess timeline.
These theories offer a deep reading of the stories, characters, and themes of the games.
Example: Majora’s Mask is based on the five stages of grief.
These theories go out of their way to hurt you by providing the darkest possible interpretation of a specific story element.
Example: Navi dies at the end of Ocarina of Time.
Fridge Horror Theories
These theories go beyond “dark theories” in that their only purpose is to keep you awake at night. Example: Link recovers his energy by eating the bloody raw hearts of the enemies he slays.
What are these theories, what are they even.
Example: Ganondorf and Princess Zelda are secretly dating.
I’m not going to try to organize the theories I’ve collected by this typology, however, because they’re all over the place. Some are silly, some are creepy, some are actually plausible, and some are genuinely bizarre. Like urban legends, these theories have been circulated by word of mouth on online message boards. Some of the oldest appeared on the forums of Something Awful and Albino Blacksheep, and the more recent spread by means of Reddit and Imgur. Essentially, wherever people get together to have conversations about video games, someone always has a Zelda theory to share. In no particular order, here are some of the theories that have caught my attention.
– Paya, Impa’s granddaughter in Breath of the Wild, is shy around Link because she doesn’t often get the chance to interact with people her own age. Almost every Sheikah teenager leaves to join the Yiga Clan, which is why there are so few young people in Kakariko Village and so many Yiga Footsoldiers.
– Groose from Skyward Sword is the ancestor of the Gerudo. He settled in the Lanayru Desert, which is filled with ancient and contemporary technology, because of his love of machines. It’s possible that Ganondorf is a reincarnation of Groose, which is why he was affected so strongly by Demise’s curse.
– Tetra’s pirate crew in The Wind Waker are all reincarnations of the royal aides whose group portrait hangs in Hyrule Castle. This means that Princess Zelda isn’t the only person whose soul is reborn in different eras of Hyrule’s history.
– Agitha in Twilight Princess is Zelda’s sister, which is why she calls herself a princess. Like other princesses of the Hyrulean royal line, she experienced visions of a coming calamity, and these visions were so overwhelming that she lost touch with reality. She had to leave the castle for her own protection, but she is still wealthy enough to reward the hero who appeared in her visions for catching golden bugs that resemble the insects plaguing the Spirits of Light.
– Because only one male is born every hundred years, the Gerudo in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask reproduce through gynogenesis, which is similar to cloning. This explains the relative lack of phenotypic diversity among the Gerudo, as well as their comparatively large population. The pregnancies following unions with Hylian men result in more noticeable genetic permutations, including those resulting in the rare Gerudo males.
– Link died while protecting Zelda during the Great Calamity that occurred one hundred years before Breath of the Wild. The Shrine of Resurrection created an entirely new body to house his spirit, much like how Ganon attempted to fashion a body for itself using the ancient technology hidden within Hyrule Castle. This is why Link is so weak when he wakes up, and it’s also why he has so much trouble remembering the past.
– According to Hyrule Historia, the “Downfall Timeline” leading to the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda results from Link dying at some point during Ocarina of Time. The world of Termina in Majora’s Mask is a purgatory that Link’s soul moves through on its way to the afterlife. The four main dungeons and final set of dungeons on the moon are therefore meant to represent the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Everyone Link meets in Termina symbolizes an aspect of the trauma he experienced in Hyrule, and Link must help them in order to heal himself and pass on peacefully.
– Super Mario Bros. 3, which Shigeru Miyamoto has said is a stage performance, is popular in Hyrule, which is why the Happy Mask Salesman in Majora’s Mask has a Mario mask on his backpack. The King of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time is a fan of the play, which is why there are paintings of Super Mario characters in his throne room.
– The Oocca in Twilight Princess, who live in the City in the Sky, are the descendants of the Loftwings in Skyward Sword. The differences in their appearance and level of sapience are due to a divinely facilitated evolution similar to the event that transformed the Zora into the Rito prior to The Wind Waker. There is a related theory that holds that the Rito are the descendants of the Oocca, who used their technology to alter their appearance in order to better acclimate to Hylian society after the existence of their city became widely known in Hyrule.
– Ghirahim, an anthropomorphic weapon who serves as the main antagonist of Skyward Sword, was created by Hylia, not Demise. Hylia knew that Demise would have to be unsealed in order to be defeated, so she created a copy of the Master Sword that would serve its own “master” by working to break the seal she placed on him. Unlike Fi, who remained in stasis while waiting for the chosen hero, Ghirahim gradually developed a personality, but his character became twisted by social isolation and his centuries-long failure to make progress on the task Hylia created him for, which could only be completed once her soul had been reborn.
– The people who were exiled from Hyrule and became the Twili in Twilight Princess were originally Sheikah, as demonstrated by the Sheikah-style eye motif on Midna’s crown and Zant’s throne. Another theory holds that the Twili are what became of Ganondorf’s followers who were imprisoned in the Arbiter’s Grounds.
– The Arbiter’s Grounds in Twilight Princess were built on the site of the Spirit Temple, the sacred site where the Gerudo in Ocarina of Time worshiped the Sand Goddess. The Hyrulean army destroyed the Spirit Temple during the war against Ganondorf and then made use of its ruins to build a concentration camp to house the Gerudo during a mass exile (or execution).
– There is a fourth piece of the Triforce, which is actually the Tetraforce. The fourth piece of the Tetraforce is the empty center of the Triforce, and it is depicted at the bottom of the original Hylian Shield (which the developers supposedly redesigned in response to this theory). The Triforce can be split into multiple parts (as demonstrated by its eightfold split in The Legend of Zelda), and it split into four parts in Ocarina of Time. There are two common theories about what happened to the “missing” piece. One is that it is shared by the Great Fairies, four of whom appear in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The other is that it seals away the darkness in Link’s heart and gives it physical form, which manifests as the Dark Link who appears in the Water Temple.
– The Fierce Deity in Majora’s Mask is, as the eponymous villain says at the end of the game, “the real villain.” Majora gives the Fierce Deity’s Mask to Link in order to corrupt him, knowing that the mask will steal Link’s soul. The Link from Ocarina of Time appears to the Link in Twilight Princess in the form of a rotting corpse because he has been cursed by the Fierce Deity’s Mask and cannot die unless he is struck down by the Master Sword.
– Every episode in the Legend of Zelda series is a dream experienced by the Link who wakes up at the beginning of each successive game. The entire series is therefore a dream inside a dream inside a dream inside a dream (including Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, which are canonically dreams).
– The Zelda series takes place in the same universe as the Silent Hill games. The Order, the evil doomsday cult that performs torture and human sacrifice in the town of Silent Hill, Maine, was originally a renegade faction of the Sheikah that was banished to another world like the Twili in Twilight Princess. The main basis for this theory is the similarity in the Satanic design motifs associated with the Order and with the Sheikah, which include staring eyes, magic circles, and bird-headed imps.
– Linkle, the “female Link” who is a minor playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, is the daughter of Tingle, the green bodysuit-clad creeper best known for causing unnecessary delays during the Triforce Quest at the end of The Wind Waker. This implies that Tingle somehow managed to breed. Congratulations! Now you can never unsee it. You’re welcome!