The Obsessive World of 'Zelda' Timeline Fanatics

The Obsessive World of 'Zelda' Timeline Fanatics

How fans have spent decades trying to decipher the chronology of 'The Legend of Zelda'

How fans have spent decades trying to decipher the chronology of 'The Legend of Zelda'

One of Legend of Zelda superfan Michael Damiani's favorite discoveries is inside Hyrule Castle in the acclaimed 2002 GameCube title, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. If you skip down the stairs below the altar that holds the Master Sword, you'll find several stained glass windows peering into a lonely, waterlogged basement. They depict Saria, Rauru, Darunia, Impa, Ruto, and Nabooru – who along with Princess Zelda were the seven sages who sealed Ganon in the sacred realm at the end of Ocarina of Time. It was a confirmation that these two games – with their radically different worlds, art styles, and mechanics – were linked on the same ancestral thread.

Damiani once held a speedrunning record in Ocarina of Time, so it's surprising that one of his favorite moments in the series arrives in a quiet room with a few stained glass portraits. But that's the thing with the Zelda timeline. This is a franchise that defiantly resists easy, chronological categorization. Frankly, the idea that there's any correlation between the games can feel like a nutty conspiracy to the uninitiated. But a small group of theorists will always believe. They congregate on the Zelda Universe "theorizing" board or on the Zelda subreddit and poke holes in each other's treatises. These are places where theories reference "quantum superposition" – the scientific notion that explains the idea of parallel universes – to justify some of the weaker links in the canon. They might seem crazy, but that's part of the fun.

Today, Damiani is a producer at the Patreon-funded content studio EasyAllies, formed last year by a group of former GameTrailers employees. Back in 2013 he gained notoriety in the Zelda community when he produced what many describe as the definitive series on Zelda lore, "Timeline: The Legend of Zelda" – a three-part documentary for GameTrailers that boiled down years of timeline theories into 40 incredibly informative minutes. Since the release of the third Zelda game, A Link to the Past in 1991, the community has been feverishly concocting wild theories to explain the overall story – the first Zelda games takes place in the distant future, the events of Ocarina only partially happened – and Damiani has been there every step of the way.

This might all sound insane if you're a casual fan, especially considering how understated the Zelda narrative is compared to, say, the relentless exposition in Metal Gear Solid. But in 1998 Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed in a Nintendo Power interview that the Legend of Zelda series is actually connected through a common history. It was an unusual decision for a company that tends to treat their other heroes (like Mario, Fox McCloud, and Kirby) as reusable conduits for gameplay structures. There is no cartilage between Yoshi's Island and Yoshi's Wooly World. And let's be honest: to all outward appearances, Zelda works the same way. Most games debut a new Link, a new Ganon, and a new princess. You will stomp through Kakariko Village. There's a boomerang in a chest somewhere, maybe in a forest temple. Most of us are satisfied with digesting a new Zelda game like a retelling of a classic fable. But if you dig deeper and read between the lines, you can start piecing together a grander tapestry. For the truly committed, the real thrills come when you stumble into places like that stained-glass window room.

Damiani's curiosity was originally piqued shortly after A Link to the Past, when Nintendo took advantage of the processing power available on the Super Nintendo to flesh out the intricacies and traditions of Hyrule. In those days, a small community of self-described "timeline theorists" started posting their postulations to prehistoric online forums. The information they were using was pulled from instruction manuals and a few bits of in-game dialogue, but they surmised that A Link to the Past was actually a prequel to the first two NES games. The achronological narrative felt like a big revelation, especially back in 1991, when games weren't particularly ambitious in their storytelling.

"A big part of the draw for me and the other fans was that it was another puzzle element to the series," says Damiani. "I would solve the puzzles in the dungeon, and at the same time I'm trying to decipher all the clues and uncover any cryptic secrets."

Things have only gotten more complicated from there. If you look at Nintendo's official timeline – first published in the Dark Horse Comics encyclopedia Hyrule Historia in 2011 – you'll see a three-pronged epochal narrative sprouting from Ocarina of Time's ambiguous ending. 2011's Wii and Wii U game Skyward Sword is actually the first game in the series, per the timeline. Meanwhile, 2015's Majora's Mask and 1993's Link's Awakening are apocryphal side stories, and (as you may know), 2007's DS game Phantom Hourglass and 2009's Spirit Tracks fill out the Wind Waker saga that began on GameCube in 2003. It's a mess, and that's before you factor in the lazy canonical implementation of minor titles like GameBoy Advance games Four Swords and The Minish Cap, which seem almost deliberately out of place.

But that's par for the course. Tracking the Zelda timeline is not for the faint of heart. This was a hidden secret for a select group of people who were willing to put up with constant, unrelenting opaqueness. Damiani himself tells me that the excavation could often be a "frustrating" experience. "I don't necessarily think Nintendo themselves did a good job handling the lore," he says. "I think the fans really carried the mantle on the timeline."

Ascribing a grand unified chronology to a franchise that resisted traditional plot elements was tough work. The Zelda timeline community earned a "tinfoil hat" reputation for their quixotic persistence to connect dots that probably weren't there. Damiani didn't mind the association. “[The timeline] was always a popular thing. Whether you hated it or loved it, everyone read about it. It was a giant magnet,” he says. But more recently, Nintendo has started addressing Zelda lore with something resembling actual clarity. Majora's Mask was positioned as a direct sequel to Ocarina, the Skyward Sword's hype cycle was built around the unveiled origin stories of Ganon and the Master Sword. Even when Nintendo partnered with Dark Horse to publish Hyrule Historia it still wasn't enough to end the timeline community's speculation.

"The people who followed [the timeline] the most take issue with Hyrule Historia, which just goes to show that it's so complicated that even the book that Nintendo cobbled together doesn't fit the rules that they've established in their own games," says Damiani. If you're curious, there are several rants on the internet that carve up some of Nintendo's more dubious claims. There's something deliciously bold taking up a canon debate with the creators of the games themselves, but it also makes sense given the context. Historia was released long after the timeline faithful had established their own lore, and settled on their own ideas about where the games fit together. Nintendo has mostly stayed quiet in regards timeline placement, so it understandably pissed some people off when they resurfaced and invalidated longstanding fan-devised dogma. One of the most notorious examples was the idea of the "third timeline," which takes place in an alternative dimension after Link hypothetically fails against Ganon at the end of Ocarina. The concept was unceremoniously revealed in the book (you can see it on the left in the image above), and some took it as a flat, jarring retcon. That's the unfortunate thing with speculation: things get a lot less satisfying when there's an official answer on hand.

the more mundane (and possibly credible) answer is that Breath of the Wild is essentially a reboot for the Zelda canon.

"I think it comes down to fans wanting their own beliefs and theories to be valid. Which is understandable, since many people had their own interpretations of Zelda lore before Hyrule Historia released, and being told that you've been wrong this whole time isn't fun,” says Tye Marini, a longtime theorist who hosted a panel on the timeline at an Arizona fanfest called Taiyou Con in 2012. "Nobody expected Nintendo to drop a third timeline like that. But it did fix up a lot of things, too. Ultimately, though, details in Zelda games are often left vague, likely on purpose, to give the developers more freedom with future games. Some fans think they have better answers to those questions, and that's where the tension come from, I think."

But regardless of the bellyaching, Hyrule Historia has made the field of Zelda Timeline Studies more mainstream than ever. Damiani told me the knotty, overcomplicated lore has reached near "meme status" for other gamers. He's not wrong. It's a bit of a mess. We are all fascinated by the lunacy, because we all have our own pet obsessions baked in the framework of other, equally fictional universes. It's a wondrous feeling, knowing that anything can go as deep as you'd like.

As is tradition, the Zelda timeline theorists have another big question on their hands. Breath of the Wild is new territory for the franchise on multiple fronts, but most notably: it doesn't fit neatly into any specific moment in the established lore. There are items in the game that reference an "ancient sea," which position it as a potential late-period entry in the Wind Waker thread, but the existence of a regal Temple of Time moves it closer to Ocarina. Breath of the Wild's setting – a techno-primitive wasteland littered with machines left over from a distant apocalypse – has no analogue in any previous Zelda game. Link wakes up in a cryochamber. It's dangerous to go alone.

For now, the Zelda timeline community is at a loss. Some people are trying – futilely – to slot Breath of the Wild into the existing canon, and there's some other wild speculation that the game takes place at a moment where the three disparate timelines are "rejoined" due to some unforeseen magical calamity, which would explain the mashup of iconography. But the more mundane (and perhaps credible) answer is that Breath of the Wild is essentially a reboot for the Zelda canon. Maybe Nintendo was tired of keeping up with their self-imposed dogma, and after the slightly subdued response to Skyward Sword, they decided to tear everything down. The Legend of Zelda was always supposed to be a legend, right?

Series reboots don't usually sit right with fans. The timeline community has spent years staring at stained glass windows. If Nintendo is truly starting from scratch with Breath of the Wild, it might be the healthiest thing for the series. Damiani compares the idea to Disney's jettisoning of the Star Wars Expanded Universe – a necessary diet for a franchise that had grown out of control. Instead of coming up with answers, it might be time for Nintendo to start brewing mysteries again.

"Personally, I believe that they wait until the [end of each game's development] to put together the story, and they think of each game as self-contained for the most part. At the end, they say 'how can we loop this into another game to get the fans excited?'" he says. "I think that burns everyone. It would be nice, if they actually care about mythology and lore, to have Breath of the Wild [be a reboot.]"

Not everyone shares this perspective. Tye Marini fell in love with Zelda when he started hunting for connections to other games in the series. If Nintendo did decide to silo off all their previously established rules, he says he'd find that "very disappointing."

"I could see a potential soft-reboot, meaning that Breath of the Wild happens so far into the future that it doesn't really matter how it connects to other games," says Marini. "While I wouldn't say it's necessarily good or bad for the series, I can understand the developers wanting to make this game as far removed as possible to give them as much freedom as they want. We'll just have to wait until the developers decide to comment on the game's timeline placement before we get our answers!"

It's fitting that after releasing a demystifying history book, Nintendo would once again cloud Zelda's mythology. But that's also the perfect prescription for the timeline community. They relish the chance to overanalyze limited information. The debate is more metaphysical this time around – the questions tacked on Breath of the Wild start with "if" rather than "when" – but the timeline theorists are back in their comfort zone. They will scour a mysterious world. They will bang out lengthy postulations on Reddit. They will get absolute radio silence from Nintendo. Once again, they find themselves on the tip of the iceberg, once again, they are falling in love with The Legend of Zelda.