Triforce of Stooges: The Wind Waker’s Slapstick Problem

Wind Waker HD Logo

The Wind Waker HD logo

Theory of Gaming loves The Legend of Zelda, except when we don’t; but trust us when we say that’s the exception, not the rule. Some would call us fanboys for the franchise. We’ve argued in favor of Skyward Sword’s unique controls, reminisced about experiencing Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina of Time and noted The Legend of Zelda’s influence on Super Mario Bros. But one game has always stuck in our collective craw: The Wind Waker.

The first time I played the game I described it as “like running errands for my mom.” I didn’t make it far into the game before I gave up from boredom. Fellow Theory of Gaming co-founder Josh Snyder made it a bit farther, but gave up when it came time to seek the pieces of the triforce by sailing around the map. I never had any intention of playing the game again, but I when I received The Wind Waker HD for the Wii U at Christmas, I figured “what the hell, I’ll give it another go.” So I set off in The King of Red Lions once more in another hero’s journey to save the world from the forces of evil. What I didn’t expect to discover was a quality game and story, one which was masked beneath cartoonish events and a slapstick delivery.

The Wind Waker’s Three Stooges Approach

Much like every other game in The Legend of Zelda franchise, The Wind Waker centers on serious issues, including family ties and community values (the hero often embarks on his quest to save his family/village from impending danger), coming of age (the hero must transform from a weak and helpless boy into a conquering hero), religion (temple spirits often serve as guides and aides in the quest), a healthy respect for nature (each dungeon involves mastering a force of nature such as wind, fire, water), and of course the restoring the balance of good and evil when one (evil) becomes too strong and seeks to destroy the other. But unlike every other game in the The Legend of Zelda franchise, the game’s delivery of these messages is stashed under a coat of Three Stooges slapstick paint.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the cel-shaded artwork, which in this instance produces a cartoon-like feel. In fact, many cartoons and comics have often served as an excellent delivery method for serious material. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for example, successfully dealt with the Holocaust in graphic novel form. Hayao Miyazaki routinely incorporates Shintoism into his animated films, including the wildly successful Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. A number of video games have successfully employed cel-shaded graphics while delivering serious stories and themes including Skyward Sword and The Legend of Zelda-esque Okami, which, much like Miyazaki’s films, focuses heavily on Shintoism.

What distracts from the story themes and holds the game back is the slapstick manner in which some critical moments are handled. Take, for example, the first time the player approaches the Forsaken Fortress, where young girls, including your sister, are being held against their will. Because of the many searchlights surrounding the fortress, the pirate ship which transported the player here cannot safely approach without being spotted. What’s the solution? The pirates will catapult the hero into the fortress! Worse than the solution, is the hero’s hammy reaction:

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated event; these slapstick absurdities permeate the entire game, such as when the player places the final goddess pearl in the statue to raise the Tower of the Gods. When the statue begins to glow the hero runs for cover; when nothing happens he returns only to be blown sky high, crashing into the tower as it rises:

Or there’s Medli’s reaction when the hero throws her and she runs into a wall and stars spin around her head like in Looney Toons:

Or you can look at the exaggerated death animations from The Wind Waker:

Now compare it to those of Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword and you’ll notice an immediate difference.Each of these death animations is much more succinct and the tone conveys the gravity of the situation, which happens to be “game over.” The closest death animation to Wind Waker in the 3D Legend of Zelda games comes from Twilight Princess, which utilizes the same exaggerated motions, but the tone of the scene is completely different. This could be a product of the artwork actually playing against The Wind Waker, with the cartoonish effect pushing the death animation over the edge of silliness, but that could have been accounted for with a simple tweak of shortening the sequence so the hero wasn’t stumbling around like Amilyn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Each of these examples conveys to the player that this game isn’t meant to be taken seriously, which is unusual and out of character for The Legend of Zelda franchise.

Delivery Matters

Josh Snyder previously wrote about why character design matters in video games, choosing to focus on the over-sexualization of female characters and why that’s a poor choice for most developers:

Of course, every developer has a different vision for what they want their game to be – it’s pointless to argue the sexism in Leisure Suit Larry, for example, because the developers were aiming for low-brow humor and content. But where this hurts the medium is when developers making high-quality games still insist on using over-sexualized female characters.

But even in games that don’t feature hyper-sexualized characters like The Wind Waker, character design still plays a critical role in delivering the story and messages of the game. After all, the characters in the game are the primary method for drawing players into games, and it’s why so many games allow players to design the look and feel of the player character. But even in games that don’t, the player character still serves as the player’s primary connection to the world as all of the events directly impact the player in some fashion. When that connection is attempting to draw the player into a world full of serious events – such as defeating an ancient evil from destroying the world – lighthearted, slapstick moments at best seem out of place, and at worst jar the player out of the world they’ve just been drawn into.

Can you imagine if BioWare had borrowed the terrible dialog (consisting mainly of inaudible grunts) from Gears of War for Mass Effect? Or gave Commander Shepard a chainsaw machine gun? Both are Sci-Fi games with third-person shooting elements, but it’s obvious when you play Gears of War that the game and story aren’t meant to be taken seriously – and say what you will about the story, dialogue, etc., at least they remained consistent. But taking some of those elements and applying them to the Mass Effect universe, which has a serious tone and story, and the game would have been completely disrupted by these mismatched components.

Other games that nailed tonal consistency include Limbo and Bastion. Much like The Wind Waker, these games both used cartoonish artwork to present a serious tone and story, and both managed to do so effectively by remaining tonally consistent throughout. Deaths in Bastion and Limbo aren’t overly drawn out, the games don’t feature slapstick animations to try and insert lighthearted moments into otherwise bleak worlds on the precipice of disaster.

But if Nintendo needed inspiration for delivering a strong and serious story through character consistency, they only needed to venture as far as past 3D Legend of Zelda games – Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask both succeeded in this regard. Maybe they realized their mistake as Twilight Princess returned to the serious flavor of those games, eschewing the slapstick moments delivered in The Wind Waker.

Underneath the Clown Makeup

There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted moment in a serious game, but when those moments are prevalent enough to create a running slapstick theme, it’s probably time to take a step back and evaluate the merit of their inclusion. Developers should ask themselves if these moments are distracting from the story that they’re trying to tell, and if so, they should tone them down or remove them all together.

It’s too bad that The Wind Waker had so many of these off-kilter moments as what I found under all that clown makeup was an engaging story and quality game. I was actually quite surprised by this, as my first time playing I quit pretty early on, frustrated with the pointless nature of the early quests, coupled with tone I couldn’t wrap my head around. As I anxiously await the release of the new Legend of Zelda game for the Wii U, it gives me hope that Nintendo seems to have realized their mistakes with The Wind Waker … or did they?

Only time will tell.