Living in Hyrule

A subjective (but thorough) analysis of
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Kokiri Forest

"In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule..."

The hero rides on his horse through Hyrule Field, repeatedly passing through the frame from one side to the other. The camera, always in motion, focuses more on the ground of Hyrule Field than on the rider himself. We see the gates of Hyrule Castle, and Death Mountain in the distance, and Lon Lon Ranch.

The music that plays is an extension of the whistle tune from the first Legend of Zelda in 1986.

We see the horse stand on her hind legs in a dramatic close-up, and as they gallop off again the camera leaves them and moves toward the entrance of Kokiri Forest, where our story begins.
Ocarina of Time is the fifth game in the Legend of Zelda series, and right from the start it wants you to know it's going to be different. In the mid-1990s when Nintendo started working on this game, 3D videogames were still a new and unproven concept. It remained to be seen whether the Zelda series -which tended to trap the player in small mazes filled with monsters- could work at all in the new format. So while the opening sequences of past Zelda games aimed (a) to quickly evoke a sense of epic fantasy and (b) to present the backstory, the opening here is instead giving a sense of how the Zelda experience will adapt to the third dimension. The world is not cramped and crowded, but open and expansive. The music is not bombastic and quick, but slow and relaxing. This version of Hyrule is not a claustrophobic and dangerous place, but rather an inviting one. And with the addition of the horse Epona who can swiftly traverse great distances, the player may feel more like a master of his surroundings rather than a trespasser within them.

The hero's name -"Link"- apparently comes from the idea that he is the direct "link" between the player and the game. It is said that Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to create The Legend of Zelda by his experiences wandering into caves as a child; naturally, the original game began immediately with a cave, which the player would enter -unprompted- out of his own personal curiosity. That is to say, he would maneuver Link into the cave, but as far as the player was considered Link was just a stand-in for himself. The player identified at once with this silent, nondescript fantasy character simply because it was his avatar in the game, so that it was the player who explored that cave and discovered what was inside, the player who fought monsters, and the player who felt clever for figuring out where to go next. In that game, the character was under the player's complete control, so whatever happened as a result was the player's personal experience. The player was further encouraged to identify with Link by entering his name at the menu before playing (beginning an inadvertent no-girls-allowed policy which holds to this day), and in the third and fourth games Link would even be referred to in dialogue by the player's name. Though the plot and presentation became more complex from one sequel to the next, the core idea driving all four games was to present a big and exciting world, give the player an avatar with which to experience it, and then get out of his way.

At first glance, Ocarina of Time seems to be continuing this legacy. The title sequence places the focus of the game on the world which will be discovered, starting in the middle of it and wandering out in random directions. But there is an important difference between this scene and anything that preceded it: the player is not controlling Link's movement. The boy in green is as silent and nondescript as ever, and the camera avoids showing him too closely to obscure a later plot twist (which is then carelessly spoiled in the first demo clip), but now this lack of characterization only serves to distance us from our avatar. He is an enigma, a stranger, and he is not us. In one simple video, the "link" between player and avatar has been broken.

I don't think this was a conscious decision on anyone's part. They were simply making the most of the technologies they had available, and trying from the very first moments to impress an audience with their newfound skills. In the Nintendo 64 they had a system which could mimic the camera angles, rhythms, sound quality, etc. of movies. They wanted to see how much they could do with it, and they wanted to impress an audience with their abilities right from the title screen. Interestingly, Miyamoto originally envisioned Ocarina of Time with a first-person perspective, which might have given players a greater sense of agency than they could ever have gotten from 2D games. (source) But they chose to let the players see Link, both because the character model looked too good to keep hidden and because it would allow the character to undergo visible changes as the plot developed. In other words, they prioritized presentation and storytelling over the demands of the gameplay. They could have presented this title sequence in first-person, from the eyes of Link on Epona. Or they could have allowed the player to control his movement here, so that he is engaged from the moment he turns on the console. Either of those choices would have greatly increased the level of identification between player and avatar that gives the game its emotional value.
If the player waits for the scene to end, he is shown one of three clips with no context offered:

All four previous Zelda games used the pre-game sequence to set up the backstory. The first two games followed their titles with single screens of text containing the games' very simple plots (A princess in distress! Rescue princess!). The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991) had a much more complex narrative, and told its backstory in a two minute long cutscene after the title screen. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (1993) for the Game Boy preceded its title screen with a minute-long cinematic cutscene which quickly set up the story. Though the method had changed, the idea remained the same: tell the player what's going on, so he can jump right into the game. If the player was not interested in the backstory, in all four cases he could press Start to skip past it and start playing. The opening of Ocarina of Time by contrast makes no reference to the plot, and after the title screen the player sees not what has happened but brief glimpses of what is to come. The backstory is instead parceled out slowly over the course of the game as a reward for progress.
A long, unskippable cutscene begins.

On a blank screen, text appears: "In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule... Long have I served as the guardian spirit... I am known as the Deku Tree...". The Deku Tree tells us about the Kokiri children, and we observe Link inside his house. Link tosses and turns in his sleep.

We flash forward to Link's first meeting with the villain Ganondorf, presented noninteractively through a series of quick, dramatically choreographed shots. We hear only sound effects (no music): the lowering of the castle's moat, thunder, a horse's neigh and the stamping of its hoofs as it runs. The quiet is interrupted by Ganondorf's musical motif, as we see him for the first time.

The Deku Tree resumes his narration: "Navi... Navi, where art thou? Come hither....". Navi the fairy is introduced and sent to join Link, "whose destiny it is to lead Hyrule to the path of justice and truth".

We see Navi's point of view in flight, passing through all of Kokiri Forest on the way to Link's house.
We will catch up to this scene later in the game, and it will still be noninteractive.

Up until Navi's flight, this entire cutscene is made of overcooked cliché. That has always been true of the Legend of Zelda stories, but Ocarina of Time is putting its story front and center. The flash-forward is not that different in function from the beginning of A Link to the Past, which used rain, dramatic music and an in medias res starting point to create an effectively dark atmosphere. But with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's 16-bit capabilities, just showing the players some rain would have bored them stiff. To stay entertaining, the opening moments needed to be completely interactive, even though the plot was predetermined. Freed of the old technical limitations, I feel that the developers got a bit carried away with their cinematic ambitions, forgetting to engage the player at all for the first three and a half minutes of the game. (In 2002's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the developers were so enamored with the Gamecube's aptitude for facial expressions, that the opening cutscene lasts over five minutes!)

The tone changes drastically once we leave the Deku Tree. The low strings and ominous harmonies of the Deku Tree music are replaced by a high-pitched tune which is bouncy and playful. This music facilitates the sudden transition from a fantasy melodrama echoing the beginning of A Link to the Past to a friendly and safe starting area reminiscent of Link's Awakening's beginning. Ocarina of Time evidently wants to combine everything that has ever worked in a Zelda game, to create one definitive Zelda experience. And in combining these two drastically different tones, we get a very interesting contrast: there's evil, but few are aware of it. As far as the innocent Kokiri are concerned, life is simple and good and there is nothing to be afraid of. The only ones without a false sense of security are the Deku Tree, being the adult of this scenario, and Link (through the prophetic dream), who over the course of the story is going to need to grow up. The narration has emphasized that Link, unlike the rest of the Kokiri, does not have a fairy sidekick, painting him from the very beginning as an outsider. Though he is young, we know he doesn't belong among happy children in an idyllic forest. He belongs out in Hyrule Field, comfortably riding a horse as we saw before we started playing. We know that that is where the character of Link is headed.

And with all the information we're getting about his background, he is very much a character in his own right rather than an avatar. In some ways his story will mirror the player's experience during the game, and in some ways it will not. With the attempt at a more significant plot (a continuation of the trajectory the series had from the start, and has not deviated from since) came the need for a more substantial main character. Ocarina of Time therefore takes tiny steps toward giving Link more personality, and each game that followed went further. By The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006), the default name for Link was "Link". The player can still insert his name if he so chooses, but the series is no longer committed to treating that player as the hero of his own journey. Even though Link is still (mostly) silent, the storytelling has become closer and closer with each passing game to the Japanese Role-Playing Game and its love of cinema. Look closely at the attention paid to Link's animations in Ocarina of Time, and listen to the restrained voice acting, and you'll understand how the series got farther and farther away from what used to be its core idea: drop the player in an exciting world, give him an avatar, and get out of his way.
Navi enters Link's house, introduces herself, and tells him to come see the Deku Tree. He rolls over and tries to go back to sleep. Navi keeps pestering him until he gets up. Control is then passed to the player.

Since A Link to the Past (and to this day), it has been a tradition for Zelda games to start with someone waking Link up. This awakening is meant to be seen metaphorically: up until this point Link was oblivious to the problems around him, but now he is awake and will do his part to fix the world.

Kokiri Forest
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