By M.J. Kuhn
In my opinion, one of the best parts of any video game is the story. Most modern games honestly feel a lot like a really long movie where you can influence the outcome, and just like any movie (or book), the most compelling part of the plot is often the cast of characters we meet along the way.
We all have our favorite one-off oddball characters, I’m sure (hello, Tott, the Elvis-wannabe from The Wind Waker), but the characters that really stick with us are usually the ones who grow and change as the plot of the game progresses. This is why I wanted to explore a few of my favorite character arcs in the Zelda games.
As a heads up, this post contains plot spoilers for the following games:
Breath of the Wild
Let’s start with my all-time favorite Zelda character: Midna.
I will admit the first time I played Twilight Princess, I was low-key afraid of Midna for the entire escape from the dungeon. I didn’t trust that oddly carnivorous smile… with semi-valid reason, it turns out! In the early parts of the game, Midna helps Link, sure, but she has some serious ulterior motives. In the beginning, Midna’s only goal is to cast down the usurper, Zant, and reclaim her place as ruler of the Twili. Link is just a convenient means to that end.
She is brash and quick-witted and perhaps a little insensitive to Link at first, but as the game goes on, her cracks become less pointed and more playful. The writing really does a great job of slowly showing that Midna is actually starting to care about the Hylian she is using as a pawn in her games against Zant. These small attitude shifts culminate when they encounter Zant after retrieving all the fused shadows. Link tries to protect her and gets trapped in wolf form again for his trouble. Zant asks Midna to join him, but she refuses. Part of the reason she refuses is that she hates Zant, I’m sure, but she’s also really starting to care about the world of light at this point.
This new worldview only strengthens when Zelda gives her life to save Midna. From that point on, Midna is basically a full-blown hero. She is fully committed to saving both the world of light and the Twilight Realm. She even attempts to sacrifice herself to defeat Ganondorf in the end of the game.
Midna was never really a bad guy, but I can’t see her making that same sacrifice play in the beginning of the game--can you? She goes from pursuing a good goal (defeating Zant) for the wrong reasons (regaining her status as ruler of the Twili) and ends up striving to defeat Zant and his puppet master, Ganondorf, in order to save both her own realm and a realm she didn’t really care about in the beginning. I wouldn’t call it a full-180 by any means, but she definitely goes through some growth… all while keeping that brazen charm we love so much.
The next character I want to talk about comes to us from Skyward Sword. Of course, I am talking about the King of all Pompadours, Groose.
Ugh. Beginning-of-the-game Groose. The WORST. A bully. A bird-napper. A saboteur. A total creep when it comes to Zelda. When everyone is still up on Skyloft, Groose does everything he can to prevent Link from winning the Wing Ceremony. He’s rude and annoying and reminds me a lot of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, honestly.
We see the first sign of something vaguely positive from him soon after Zelda goes missing--he actually tries to go after her. Of course, a lot of this seems to be ego (again... cough Gaston cough), but it seems like he really does care about Zelda. After some Stereotypical Alpha-Male Posturing, Link finally earns a smidge of respect from our tall-haired friend by stopping The Imprisoned for the first time. This is the start of Groose’s journey from gross to kind of awesome. He lets his ego take a backseat, and instead of insisting that he be the one to go rescue Zelda, he lets Link run off and stays behind to help “Grannie” (Old Impa) hold back The Imprisoned if it comes back.
SPOILER ALERT: it comes back. More than once. And every time it has new fingers and toes and weird helicopter apparatuses… And when it comes back, Groose is fighting on our side! He builds a bomb-slinging weapon called the Groosenator (all right, I never said his ego was TOTALLY under control). And, if we’re being honest, he saves our skin multiple times.
From here on out, Groose is basically cool. Sure, he still talks a big game, but the bite has been taken out of his words. He has a real affection for “Grannie” and is a real team player, willing to sit out of the direct fight to guard the Sealed Temple and protect the frozen Zelda. In the end cutscene, he returns to Skyloft, leaving Zelda and Link down on the surface.
Groose was never evil, but he definitely sucked enough in the beginning for me to call this a full redemption arc. He starts out in direct opposition to Link (on some very petty matters, but still) and ends up wholeheartedly on his team. This is one of the biggest change arcs we see in all the Zelda games I’ve played, at least!
Lastly, I wanted to include a traditional Hero’s Arc… but I don’t mean Link. There is another character who goes from young, green, and filled with doubts to owning and embracing their full potential. Yes, of course I mean Zelda! Specifically, Zelda in Breath of the Wild.
Now, this one is a little tricky because in the game we piece this whole story together after the fact, probably out of order (and over the course of several months if you play video games as slowly as I do). So I’m going to talk through this arc in actual sequential order of those flashbacks.
Unlike both Midna and Groose, Zelda has her priorities straight right from the beginning. She knows what must be done, and she is willing to do it… the issue is her confidence in her ability to do it. In the first few memories, we see her work with Link… but only begrudgingly. As Urbosa says in the very first cutscene, she basically just sees him as a reminder of her own failure. Ouch. I wouldn’t necessarily want that hanging around me either.
Throughout the course of the memories, we see her researching and working, trying to access her sealing powers. She finally comes around, accepting Link as an ally in her quest after he defends her from some Yiga clan members, but still, when it comes to her own destiny, she is struggling. We see the king looking like a total jerk, casting further doubt on her when she already doubts herself. We see her pleading with the goddess statue at the Spring of Courage. We see Calamity Ganon awaken. She’s frustrated and scared that she has failed everyone… but like a true hero, she doesn’t give up so easily.
Just when all seems lost--and when Link’s life is on the line--she is able to unleash her power at last! Power and confidence unlocked in tandem, we see a decisive, self-assured Zelda from there on out. And in the end, as we know, Zelda and Link manage to push back the terrifying, giant flaming pig Calamity Ganon, saving Hyrule (for now, at least).
The arc of underdog-to-champion is a mainstay of fiction for a reason --it’s both inspiring and relatable. It’s a shame that almost this entire arc takes place outside of the actual bounds of the game timeline, but we do get to see its conclusion in real time, at least. I am one of the few people on this earth who actually did not love Breath of the Wild (not that I hate it! It’s gorgeous, visually, but just not one of my favorites in the franchise), but I can say BotW is one of my favorite incarnations of Zelda. A big part of the reason is because of her growth: she starts out afraid, emotionally guarded, and magically weak and grows to be brave, vulnerable, and strong. We truly love to see it.
That rounds out my top three character arcs in the Zelda games! Which of your favorites am I missing? Chat with me on Twitter @mj_kuhn to let me know!
Also, if you’re interested in reading more of my unsolicited opinions on story structure and all things related to writing and publishing, check out my personal blog at mjkuhn.com/blog!