Link’s Awakening got away with one of the worst storytelling sins

By Grayson Morley on February 22, 2023 at 1:00 p.m

Even if you’ve never attended a writing workshop, you’ve probably heard at least a few of the proverbs being thrown around. Kill your Darlings. Show, don’t say. Among other things, these succinct and therefore memorable sentences are disseminated in the writing world in order to avoid clichés and common mistakes when writing fiction. The young writer takes these things as truths never to be forgotten and always followed as if they were sacred edicts and not general advice. The truth is, sometimes (sometimes) there are reasons not to kill your loved ones. It is often actually better, at least temporarily, to say than not to show. Still, I think we can all agree that the “It was all a dream” ending is really unsatisfying and should never be used.

…To the right?

In 2023, Polygon embarks on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is an “it was all a dream” tale. While sailing through stormy seas, Link is knocked unconscious and washed ashore on the island of Koholint. There he is awakened by someone who isn’t quite Zelda in a house that isn’t quite the house from the beginning of A Link to the Past.

From the opening moments of Link’s Awakening, the game’s dreamlike logic is omnipresent. Link mistakes his savior Marin for Zelda like in those dreams where it’s your friend but it’s not your friend but it is one. Enemies from the Mario and Kirby series populate the world, including Goombas, a Chain Chomp, and the absurdly named “Anti-Kirby.”

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Image: Grezzo/Nintendo via Polygon

At one point you have to dream in the dream to get an ocarina that allows you to revive a dead rooster via a song given to you by Mamu, who is just a wart from Super Mario Bros. 2. A haunted father named Papahl somehow knew he was going to get lost later in the game and asks Link to take care of him once that happens. In the Switch remake, the edges of the screen are aggressively blurred, underscoring the dreamy in-between world of Koholint: an island that’s the Windfish’s dream, which you must awaken to complete the dream that is the game.

Or is it Link’s dream? Or is it real? Part of the reason young writers are encouraged to avoid the “it was all a dream” ending is because these questions are not a satisfying ending to a story. Put simply, when a reader (who stays at writing terms for now) invests their time and attention in a story, they have a reasonable expectation that that time and attention will be respected and rewarded. The dream ending turns the reader’s investment on its head and tells them that everything they thought was important actually isn’t. At best, the reader will feel hollowed out by this revelation. At worst, they feel frustrated, even angry. “It was all a dream” is just another way of saying “You wasted your time”.

Image: Grezzo/Nintendo via Polygon

So why don’t I feel this way about Link’s Awakening? From a certain perspective, this is the least significant of Zelda, having no real narrative impact on later titles in the Zelda series. The Wind Fish and Koholint are never seen again. After all, it was all a dream. As a former writing teacher who made a fuss every time a student turned in a dream story, I should slam this game, right?

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Image: Grezzo/Nintendo via Polygon

Except that games aren’t fiction and players aren’t readers. Games, like dreams, have their own set of rules that must be followed. What makes Link’s Awakening so unique in the Zelda series is its commitment to being a dream, playing with the player’s expectations from screen one, and then the weird, mislabeled imagery of Princess Peach and characters simply created by others were drawn, amass series. The remarkable thing about Link’s Awakening is not that it is a dream narrative, but that it is recognizable as a dream narrative at all.

Zelda is one of those gaming franchises steeped in history enough to give you a sense of what’s commonplace in the series – themes, rules, and conceits that recur from game to game – and therefore what is “real”. . Playing Link’s Awakening, especially in 2023 with Zelda on Zelda stacked on top of it, means talking to what you know about the series. The game is only recognizable as a dream because the player knows it’s not “real” that a Chain Chomp inhabits the same world as Link. It’s not “real” when bosses say, “I’m your villain this time!” It’s not “real” for Link to lift a person over his head the way he does a new item:

Image: Grezzo/Nintendo via Polygon

But that reality itself is only real because of the accumulation of other Zeldas – and Marios and Kirbys. It’s only real because you’ve played them all.

Link’s Awakening works because playing a dream is better than hearing about one. If you’ve ever tried to tell someone about a dream you had, you know the folly inherent in these kinds of stories. Everything sounds fake. Nothing is difficult. It’s lost all the weird meaning it seemed to have when you dreamed it. But if your dream could be experienced on its own terms – if it could be acted out – then dreams could be just as meaningful as anything else. The memory of the dream would no longer ring hollow, but, as the Wind Fish says, “It is this memory that makes the dream world real…”

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