I was initially planning to write a single article about Link’s Awakening; but after I cleared that supposedly unique post, I found myself yearning for more. More development, more depth, more dwelling on that great game; you name it. I thus started a second playthrough and set myself to write about a specific point that has always been dear to my gamer’s heart, namely Link’s Awakening’s incredibly moving Plot Twist. I only brushed the subject in my last post, and mentioned it briefly in my article about Avalon Code’s own plot twist prior to that; and I feel that the time is now ripe to delve deeper into the matter. There will of course be mountains of spoilers, so if you never played Link’s Awakening and intend to do so, avert your eyes right away—or better yet, go play that great game and see the unfolding of that striking event for yourself before coming back and reading my musings on the matter.
As I mentioned before, I’ve seen my fair share of plot twists over the years, and I can honestly say that Link’s Awakening plot twist is the one that struck me the most in my entire gaming life. It was one of these defining gaming moments that are bound to stick into any gamer’s memory for the rest of their life. In fact, the first discovery of that plot twist is embedded so strongly in my memory that I can still remember where I was and what time of the day it was when it happened, not to mention my reaction to it. I consider this plot twist to be a true masterpiece, both structure-wise and content-wise, and here’s why.
Link’s Awakening amazing plot twist is exactly that: a plot twist, in the most literal sense of the word. It’s an entirely unexpected development that strikes as a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, taking the player entirely by surprise and twisting the plot in a drastically different direction. Sure, there are some hints here and there in the game world, if you look closely: Koholint Island is littered with owl statues delivering cryptic yet foreboding sentences regarding the nature of the island, and the dream theme is prevalent in the storyline and addressed in various ways: the Wind Fish is asleep, you have to jump in bed to recover the Ocarina, and so on. However, making any deductions about the game world’s nature from these clues would be absolutely far-fetched; it’s much easier to see them as an overall thematic, especially if the player doesn’t expect a plot twist in the first place. The effect of that sudden and unexpected revelation is conveniently devastating, pulling the rug out from under the player’s feet and drastically altering their vision of the situation.
This dramatic effect is only reinforced by the very sober way in which in this plot twist is introduced to the player. Less is more, as they say, and it’s never been so true. The presentation couldn’t be more low-key: this vision-altering event is basically nothing more than the reading of a couple of sentences on a bas-relief, and yet it is powerful enough to shake your vision of the game world to the core. I find it similar to the infamous plot twist in The Empire strikes back, in which a simple four-world sentence shatters Luke’s—and the viewer’s—beliefs with full force. You don’t hear Link scream in pain and despair as Luke does after the big revelation, but it’s telling enough that this elicits his only sentence in the whole game, an incredulous “What? Illusion?”. Anyway, it’s not like you need any virulent reaction from Link at that point: you are so shocked, hurt and in disbelief after uncovering that plot twist that you really don’t need any kind of reinforcing display of emotion from routinely mute little Link. This low-key presentation cleverly leaves room for your own feelings, giving them the opportunity to conveniently overwhelm you. A grander, more elaborated setting may have diverted your attention from your emotions, diminishing their impact on you; better let you as alone as possible with them so that they can properly flow and sweep over you.
This doesn’t mean that no effort was put in the setting or that it was not thoughtfully and carefully conceived and executed. Low-key it may be, but it’s highly purposeful in its sobriety, with every single element being designed to enhance and reinforce your feelings at that time. The most obvious and striking element is the music: the tune that plays in the Southern Shrine where the plot twist takes place is undoubtedly the saddest tune of the game. It conveys full-blown sorrow, loneliness and desolation and is bound to exacerbate your own oh so similar feelings upon discovering the plot twist. The darkness trick may seem innocuous and mundane at first, but it is also designed to enhance your emotions. For a quick reminder, you need to light up torches with magic powder in order to be able to read the bas-relief; and as you stay immobile in front of it, struck and in shock after having uncovered the plot twist, the lights will die out, leaving you in the darkness again, which will increase your feelings of sadness, fragility and your dismay over what just happened. It is a simple yet very powerful trick, and it works beautifully. Even after all these years of playing that game, I still exit the room immediately after reading the bas-relief just to avoid finding myself engulfed in that oppressive darkness. The game cleverly expands the experience by creating an aftermath to that plot twist, in which your feelings are subtly echoed rather than enhanced. The sixth dungeon, the Face Shrine, follows immediately after and features a musical theme that perfectly resonates with your feelings at the time. It’s a variation of the Southern Shrine theme that conveys a quieter, somewhat subdued sadness, along with a quiet resignation and a burgeoning resolution to forge ahead. To say that it fits your feelings at this point of the game is a euphemism: never in my gaming life had I seen such a perfect correspondence between my feelings and a piece of in-game music. It’s pretty obvious that this plot twist is supposed to be a twofold experience from the get-go: the two shrines are explicitly linked to each other, two pieces of the same structure. The Southern Shrine delivers the blow and the Face Shrine allows you to slowly digest it and assimilate what you just learned. At the end of this twofold trip, you will reemerge from these shrines as a new Link, now fully aware of the nature of the world around you and of what your quest entails. This plot twist is actually structured like a spiritual journey that first summons pain and sorrow, followed by a slow acceptance and crowned by a quiet yet firm resolution; the fact that it takes place in two places referred to as ‘shrines’ or ‘temples’, i.e. places of spirituality, indicates strongly that the developers wanted to have it come across as such.
Crossing the rubicon
The whole ‘This was but a dream all along, ha-ha!’ trope can be regularly encountered in various forms in movies, the most famous incarnation of it undoubtedly being ‘The Matrix’; yet, for some unfathomable reason, it is extremely rare in videogames in general and in the Holy Realm of RPG in particular. And yet, it turns out to be extremely engrossing in that very context thanks to the interactivity factor. Not only is your vision of the game world turned upside down, which is a similar experience to the one you would go through when watching a movie using this kind of plot twist, but your responsibility as a player is also engaged. The game entrusts you with the power of controlling the main character, which often then entails the duty to save the world; but in Link’s Awakening, you end up with the power to erase the game world from existence, which is truly a horrifying and overwhelming prospect. Yet, interestingly enough, you do have the choice to keep consciously things as they are: just like Cypher in The Matrix, who decides to remain in the Matrix while knowing fully well that it is nothing more than an elaborate dream, you can decide not to wake up the Wind Fish and remain in Koholint instead. You can keep frolicking from one place to the next, play the Rapid Ride mini-game over and over, listen to Marin sing, talk to everyone under the sun, burn everything in sight with the Magic Rod and exact at last your revenge on those annoying, aggressive Maple dogs by roasting them alive if such is your choice, and nobody can prevent you from doing that. Of course, it may not be the most interesting thing to do as a player, but you can still very much do it if it pleases you.
Still, most of us will of course want to clear the game by waking up the Wind Fish, especially the first time around. It may be a convenient thing to play the game and give up just before the very end because you know where all this leads when you’re a seasoned Link’s Awakening player; but when this is your first playthrough, you will want to get to the bottom of things, especially since the game keeps taunting you by implying that, you know, it may all be a dream, but maybe not after all, who knows? But this desire to see things through goes along with strong emotions: sadness, loneliness, and most interestingly, guilt. Upon learning that you have the power to erase the game world and must use it to get out of the island, you will feel terribly guilty of having to do so, especially since at that point, you have likely grown quite attached to Koholint and its inhabitants. I swear that the first time I played the game, I had a hard time coming back to Maple Village knowing what was in store for all these lovely people and knowing that I would be the one responsible for that. Heck, even roaming the beautiful Koholint grasslands to get there in the first place was painful, making my heart ache and my eyes sting as I thought about what fate awaited this lovely island. It’s not so often, if ever, that you bear the overwhelming responsibility of destroying the very game world you’re roaming: you usually have to save it, not erase it entirely to save your own skin. Link’s Awakening is quite a unique and bold game in that regard, putting you in a dire situation that you will undoubtedly remember for all your gaming life.
Interestingly, the situation is more complex than it may seem at first sight. It’s pretty much obvious that the Wind Fish is dreaming and that you are somehow stuck in their dream world, but what about your own current state as Link? The game starts with your boat getting struck by a lightning bolt, after which you wake up on the beach in Koholint Island; but you sure cannot be fully awakened at that very moment, right? The game seems to whisper in your ear that you are also dreaming alongside the Wind Fish; you may think you’re frolicking around in Koholint, but in truth, you are very likely lying passed out on a wood plank in the middle of the ocean after this lightning bolt destroyed your boat. Not only that, but your own dream likely mixed with the one of the Wind Fish, who was probably sleeping nearby when you fainted from the accident. This explains the presence of Moblins in Koholint, as well as the striking resemblance between Marin and Zelda and the fact that the ever-morphing final Boss takes the form of Ganon and Agahnim; these are elements lifted from Link’s former adventures and brought in the dream world by Link himself, not by the Wind Fish. The very title of the game also seems to hint strongly at the fact that you are indeed asleep the whole time, as well as the Wind’s Fish final words to you: “Let us awaken together!”. There would be a lot to say about the different possible interpretations of Link’s Awakening plot twist and general storyline, especially the more metaphorical ones, but that would stray too far from this post’s subject. My job here was to praise the very moving Plot Twist of that game, and I feel that the deed is done.
By the time I wrote this post, I also cleared my second playthrough of Link’s Awakening, and I’m now ready to move on. After this pleasant dwelling on Koholint’s well-known yet still enticing shores, let the winds of inspiration carry me to new ventures! As always, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!