Some of you might not know it, but a work of great cultural significance just celebrated its 20th birthday. On November 21st, 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time came out, and nothing in the video game industry would ever be the same again. I’ve written about the combination of elements that made The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time so widely regarded as the best game ever. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I dusted off my old Nintendo 64, put my game in, and started playing. The Holidays leave one with a lot of free and fun time. I wanted to use some of it to not only relive the experience of playing the game, but to immerse myself in those elements that made it such a great story. If you’re in the business of telling stories (and if you’re selling anything, you are), you could do worse than learning from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
20 years later, these moments still hit you, and you appreciate them even more. There are subtleties as an adult you can’t appreciate as a child – which is something The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time itself is based on. You’re also aware of the creative narrative technique that went into making these moments and take notes about what you can do when telling your own stories.
In fact, what makes this game so powerful is precisely the fact that the protagonist hardly ever speaks. It makes you feel as if you are, indeed, him. This was done deliberately, for the same reasons Scott Adams remarks on in Win Bigly:
You might know that Dilbert has no last name. His boss has no name at all. You don’t know the name of Dilbert’s company or what industry it is in. You also don’t know its location. All of that omission is intentional. It is a trick I learned from hypnosis class. I leave out any details that would cause readers to feel they are different from the characters in the comic. If Dilbert had a last name, it might tell you something about his ancestry. If you knew for sure that Dilber’s background differed from your own in some big way, it could be an irrational trigger to make you feel less connected. Likewise, if you knew Dilbert’s company was in a specific industry that was different from yours, you might feel less connected. By intentionally omitting those details in the design of the Dilbert comic, I make it easier for people to think Dilbert’s job is just like mine. – pg. 78
This series, and this game, excels at this. All of the moments are far more meaningful because they follow this dynamic.
10. Seeing Hyrule Field for the first time
After you complete the first major mission in the game and break the curse on the Great Deku Tree, you have to leave the area you started in, the Kokiri Forest. During this first stage of the game, you’d heard from various sources that leaving the forest would kill you. The Kokiri were all children, happily confined in their little neck of the woods and ignorant of the outside world. One of them tells you she doesn’t even know about the castle you’re supposed to journey to.
When you leave the forest, which was a constricted, small landscape, you’re suddenly presented with a vast world that stretches as far as the eye can see. Though Hyrule Field is small by the standards of modern games, it was huge in 1998, and the real power of it came from the contrast it presented with the tiny world you were introduced to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in. It’s a subtlety not many others have bothered to present.
9. Escaping with Epona
The world gets smaller when you’re an adult. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time made sure that it didn’t gloss this over. One of the first things you can do after emerging as an adult is to get a horse to make your travels easier. After an adrenaline-filled mini game, you’re successful, only to discover that your antagonist won’t let you leave the ranch this horse, Epona, was raised on.
Not to worry! In one of the most iconic scenes in the The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you jump over the wall with your horse and land in Hyrule Field. Now that vast land that you saw as a child becomes easier to cross. Things don’t look so big anymore.
8. An awkward crush
You’ve had the experience of not reciprocating the feelings of someone who was attracted to you. Everyone has. These feelings are even more awkward when we’re children. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time gives you such an experience. Within the third major portion of the quest, you encounter Princess Ruto of the Zoras, an aquatic race.
At first, Ruto is an arrogant pain to deal with, but after you complete the third mission, she changes her mind and tells you how cool you are and how awesome it was to watch you fight. The cutscene is hilarious. When you see the differences between the two characters, you realize that it would never work out.
7. Seeing Hyrule Castle after 7 years
The world changes over the years. The transition from childhood to adulthood is cruel. Gone are the carefree days. The weight of responsibility gets heavier. Cynicism takes hold. The world loses its charm. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time took those realities and supercharged them.
Immediately when you emerge as an adult, you see the world in a much crueler way. What used to be a bustling city surrounding Hyrule Castle has become a ruin. Decaying buildings surround you. The only residents are zombies that will attack you. The one remaining shop is at the entrance of the ruined drawbridge, which will buy angry ghosts from you.
Hyrule Castle itself has become a ghastly parody of itself. It floats over a moat of lava and stares out at the ruined world its ruler loves.
Adulthood hits you in the face before you know it. Things are serious now.
6. Meeting Ganondorf for the first time
Your cynical adulthood is foreshadowed when you first meet Ganondorf. After staging a coup at Hyrule Castle, he chases Princess Zelda out of town, trying to get hold of the Ocarina of Time, which she threw away, entrusting to your care.
Ganondorf asks you where Princess Zelda went, but you refuse to answer, drawing your sword. Ganondorf laughs at this and swats you away like a fly. The cutscene shows just how outmatched you are at that point. You’re not only shown how much you would ultimately need to improve, but that in the state you were in, it was foolish to try and go against him in the first place, particularly when he didn’t have what he wanted (more on this later).
5. Leaving Saria behind
Before you get to that amazing sequence where you initially see Hyrule Field, you have to leave your old life behind entirely. That means leaving your first and only true friend to that point, Saria.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time came before high definition graphics, but that face Saria gives you is something that’s hard to forget, even after all these years.
The scene is a poignant reminder that friendships fade away as we move into the future. We leave old things behind, enter new worlds, and not everyone from the old era takes our journey with us. To see the new possibilities, we sometimes have to endure the pain of leaving the old things behind. Few friendships last over a lifetime. The ones that do should be cherished.
That wasn’t the final meeting with Saria, of course. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time takes you her way at numerous other points in the game. She’s still your friend. You can still talk with her. You haven’t left her behind entirely. But…nothing is ever truly the same again. You’re on different paths. Saria says as much when she awakens as a Sage years later.
4. Meeting Ganondorf again
Ganondorf plays the organ as you ascend up the stairs of his castle to meet him. Everything has come to this. It’s time for round two against the villain. You didn’t stand a chance as a child. Now it’s time to face him like a man.
The entire scene is masterfully done. It fully immerses the player and tells him that the end of his hero’s journey is coming with a bang. Will you actually become a legend or will you fail at the last minute?
3. Meeting Zelda
Unsurprisingly, the top three moments will concern Princess Zelda herself. Your interactions with her were few, but they were the most meaningful in the game.
Everyone needs something to fight for. In this game, your reason was vague until you met Zelda. The area around her is different than any other. It’s the most peaceful place you’ll find in Hyrule. The brilliant music for the area was an excellent touch.
When you first meet Zelda, the chemistry is immediate. After the initial awkwardness of “how did you sneak past the guards?!” is overcome, she trusts you without a second thought. She’s so confident in you that she tells you the secrets about the Triforce and forms a plan with you to get it. She’s devoted to you. That’s for sure. In this world, not many people are.
You do the heavy work of course, but from the atmosphere and her reaction to you, you’re thinking about her more than you are about stopping Ganondorf. Maybe it’s because she thrust the mission on you so suddenly, but the chemistry of the scene helps that along.
2. The final goodbye
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a tragic fantasy. Your childhood is spent chasing folly and your adulthood is spent undoing all the damage that you were responsible for. Your reward is that you get sent back to your childhood to regain your lost years and live them in peace, but it feels empty.
Why should such a reward feel that way? Because it forces you to depart from Zelda. After all the two of you have been through, you don’t want to leave her. You spent so long looking for her, only to now lose her again. She is the focal point for the fact that you have no tangible rewards for your labors in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Indeed, the Hero’s Shade in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess bears witness to this.
That last scene with Princess Zelda makes you wonder – “what was the point?” We often wonder this throughout our lives.
1. Meeting Zelda again
This was the cutscene that always had the most impact on me. Very late in Ocarina of Time, you reunited with Princess Zelda at last. She had been following you all along through adulthood in disguise and eagerly awaited your return. She couldn’t throw off the disguise until your task was nearly completed and you were ready to confront Ganondorf.
Seeing her standing before you after all this time – and the game did make you feel like it was actually as long as seven years – felt like the final reward for all your labors. It was Zelda who sent you on the quest and it’s to Zelda that you return, far stronger, and more capable of protecting her. She appreciates everything you’ve done, too.
Only, your tender reunion is interrupted as soon as it begins. Ganondorf steals it away from you. It’s now time to prove yourself a real man once and for all. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was always good at providing you with incentives.