The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 1

The Dragon Prince is good, but…

The new series by Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond is a fun family fantasy adventure. Its core cast is young, children and teenagers, and they navigate a world of weary adults who have often left principle behind, making hard sacrifices. The youngsters band together from diverse backgrounds to attempt a quest that will hopefully restore peace and harmony to a war-torn world. If that basic premise reminds you of Avatar: The Last Airbender, well, Ehasz was head writer and a co-producer on that show.

Another obvious Avatar crossover is Jack De Sena, voice actor for Sokka in Avatar as well as Callum, the “step-prince” and aspiring mage who is one of the three protagonists in The Dragon Prince. Callum is joined by his younger brother, Ezran (voiced by Sasha Rojen), the heir to the throne of their kingdom; Ezran’s pet “glow toad” named Bait; and Rayla (Paula Burrows), a Moonshadow Elf would-be assassin who decides to help the brothers when she learns that the egg of the deceased Dragon King was not destroyed.

Okay, that description sounds overly complicated. There’s a lot of lore, and a fair amount of plot, that’s dropped in the first few episodes–especially in the opening exposition of the very first episode. But it’s easy to pick up, and after the initially heavy dumps of information, we’re more gradually dropped little glimmers of the larger world. More attention is focused on developing and deepening the characters, with side adventures often bringing out more of the characters’ backgrounds and deeply held fears and beliefs with (refreshingly) emotionally honest dialogue that is sure to remind the viewer of Avatar. I’m not going to further info-dump here, though; if you choose to watch, you’ll get more than enough of that.

I’ve seen many comparisons to Game of Thrones, and while those comparisons are certainly relevant, I felt that the most salient reference point for The Dragon Prince is Dungeons & Dragons. The way they talk about spells, the formation of a party, the main quest interrupted by a slew of side quests, the medieval-light fantasy setting–even the emphasis on elves, dragons, and magical artifacts–seem drawn from D&D. And the setting is rather diverse, with a balance of male and female characters, a mixture of people of various skin tones within the same human kingdom and without comment, and an incredibly badass deaf warrior woman who is quite proficient in ASL (General Amaya, commander of the border guard and aunt of Callum and Ezran). D&D has similarly made a push to demonstrate and encourage greater inclusive diversity starting with the 5th Edition (maybe not always successfully).

So all of the above is good. If I were to talk about the show one-on-one with another new fan or a potential viewer, I’d focus on the great cast of characters, the witty dialogue, the pacing, the setting, the lore…But I’d also have to discuss the animation. I’m actually a fan of the character models and art, and the show often uses beautifully vibrant color, but the animation just seemed awful to me. Characters move in janky fits and starts. Slower, character-focused scenes can seem blocky and stilted. The action pieces look…better, fluid and dynamic, but there’s still a sort of retro-anime vibe. I don’t know if I just adapted or if the animation genuinely got better over the nine episodes of the first season, but by the end I was substantially less bothered. Nonetheless, for at least the first third, the animation style is very jarring and distracting.

I’m not an animation snob, and it’s weird for me to emphasize animation as such a critical weakness, but it was truly that disorienting. I hope that any future seasons will have a more streamlined look.

And I definitely hope there are future seasons! In almost every other way, I loved the show (other, minor points of criticism: watching concurrently with Adventure Time, it’s hard not to observe the bloat in even relatively short half-hour episodes, and the heavy-to-the-point-of-parody Scottish accents for the Moonshadow elves were sometimes grating). This series certainly deserves more. It ends mid-arc, and it would be disappointing not to see the plot more fully developed, or to never see more of the elaborate fantasy world planted here.

With reservation about the animation quality, I nonetheless would recommend this to any and all fantasy fans in general or Avatar and D&D fans in particular.

Some of the Shows

This is a shorter post, and the last of all the things. I don’t have any movies to discuss, and my recent TV history has been relatively light.

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I’ve been following along with the Clone Wars rewatch on StarWars.com in intermittent bursts. Behind again, on pace again, behind again. It is a fun way to rewatch, and the pace isn’t too slow, but as I inevitably get behind, it’s also not impossible to catch up on easily enough when I have the time.

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My wife and I have also been making a dedicated effort to watch Adventure Time from start to finish. I got into Adventure Time fairly late–during a prolonged period of hospitalizations, I would pass the time with daytime television and quickly discovered Adventure Time and Steven Universe to be quirky, clever, and heartfelt. We watched the first season or two on Netflix a couple years back, but that’s all Netflix had. We got Hulu in the past year, and we’ve only recently decided to focus on watching these shows from start to finish. We started with Adventure Time (now mid-season 4), and we plan to go to Steven Universe once we finish. Just a random, related recommendation: Bee and PuppyCat. Another cute, quirky animated show full of heart and weird sci-fantasy. It was fun to see screenings of this series at Gen Con in the past, and that leads me to believe that it must have a fairly sizable following, but I don’t hear this show pop up in conversations often enough. It deserves more attention.

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Lastly, I’ve started The Dragon Prince, the new Netflix animated series helmed by Aaron Ehasz (co-executive producer, head writer, and director on Avatar: The Last Airbender). This is a show that I’ll want to write a full review for after finishing the nine episodes of season one. But I can already say that the dialogue, voice acting, plot, and humor are great, and I like the artwork (especially colors and character models), but the animation is very bothersome. Everything seems to be running at a reduced frame rate, and it’s irksome to watch characters twitching across each scene, always moving too fast but animating too slow. Hopefully that will improve some–if not by the end of this season, then with later seasons.

And with that, I’ve completed my report on all the things, for now.

Swan Watch: Clone Wars Adventures

Bultar Swan stars in “Impregnable,” the third story in the short comic anthology of Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7. The script’s by Chris Avellone, with art by Ethen Beavers and colors by Dan Jackson. It’s a fine little action story. Swan, her forces demolished, strides into an allegedly impregnable fortress, slowly dismantling defenses and sealing the surviving commander inside. Locking an opponent in as the life support fails is more “Cask of Amontillado” than Jedi Code, though. I thought the story worked well enough for the format, but I was very disappointed by the use of Bultar Swan as the protagonist. This seems to go against what little character development had already been established for her. A ruthless killer willing to leave someone to die is basically antithetical to what interested me about her in the first place. (And while it goes unaddressed, her ability to simply walk into the fortress certainly suggests she might have sacrificed wave after wave of soldiers for little purpose.)

Plus, she’s silent the whole time, while the despotic villain in the fortress core taunts her throughout. It’s not an unheard-of form of storytelling, and it can work well, but her silence and martial prowess evoke uncomfortable comparisons to the silent, stoic Asian martial artist cliche. In this light, the otherwise forgivable caricature of her facial features that is typical of the style of art employed comes off as a way to accent her Asian-ness while removing much of the character’s resemblance to her film counterpart. There’s even one panel where her face is bathed in a greenish light (which does not affect the warm colors behind her), calling up comparisons to the racist and offensive imagery portraying villainous Asians in mid-twentieth-century America.

Outside of this rather disappointing Swan appearance, I overall enjoyed the anthology, which captured the visuals and action-packed fun of the television miniseries. The first story, “Creature Comforts” (script and art by The Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison) was a near pitch-perfect portrayal of war hero Obi-Wan and Anakin at their wittiest while being tossed from monster to monster. The one misstep is at the end, when Obi-Wan rather cruelly crushes a tiny crab “monster” to stop its cry. It’s meant to be funny but makes Obi-Wan seem like a sociopath rather than a kindly, wizened Jedi Master.

The other two tales try out a girl-power spy story (“Spy Girls,” script by Ryan Kaufman, art by Stewart McKenny, colors by Dan Jackson) and a bank heist gone wrong (“The Precious Shining,” script by Jeremy Barlow, art by the Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison). I might have enjoyed the last story the most, as it showed people caught between the Republic and the Separatists. It presented a level of moral nuance, and a more down-to-earth perspective, that was more likely to be found in the later Filoni-helmed series on the Clone Wars, though it ends in a simple twist of fortune.

The anthology was slender and quick to read. It was mostly fun. Too bad that this was my least favorite portrayal of Bultar Swan yet. At least she got to be an action hero for a little while.

Review: Disenchantment Part One

I watched Disenchantment over the weekend. Ten roughly half-hour episodes spaced over a couple days didn’t quite feel like a “binge.” So it’s easy to digest, and not a huge time commitment. With that in mind, I can safely recommend it. But so far, ten episodes in, it’s mostly just OK.

For those who are unaware: Disenchantment is the new Netflix-original series from Matt Groening. It has justly drawn ample comparison to Groening’s Futurama: it’s of course an animated parody of a particular type of genre fiction; the character models are similar; there’s a fair amount of cartoonish violence; many of the voice actors are Groening veterans; and the core cast is familiarly divided between a reckless warrior-woman leader (Princess Bean, who wants purpose and meaning beyond being married off in a political alliance), an ignorant and lovelorn dope (Elfo the Elf, whose purpose on leaving his tightly regulated society quickly becomes earning Bean’s affections), and a Bad Influence. The Bad Influence in this show–the demon Luci–is perhaps the most different, in a subtle but important way: where Bender typically was willing to show fondness for friends but could sacrifice them at a moment’s notice, Luci is more adamant that he despises everyone and is explicitly there to corrupt them but regularly goes out of his way to save his new pals. By the end of the first season, there’s even some evidence that he might be overriding his prime directive as a dark influencer bonded to Bean, but that’s about all I can say without major spoilers. In other words, while he starts off cruel and malevolent, he often reminds me of ultimately benevolent bonded spirits like Mushu in Mulan or Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Despite the simultaneous release of the ten episodes, Disenchantment nonetheless feels like a show that was attempting to find itself and adapt to an audience throughout its run. For the first seven episodes, the show refuses to commit itself to serialized or episodic storytelling; there’s a broad background story, and events in earlier episodes typically inform future events, but death doesn’t seem to stick, and some events (like a renewed war mid-season) just get reset to the baseline level for narrative convenience after the fact without any acknowledgment of how or why things were reset. Disenchantment is prepared to laugh in the face of any such criticism, or any attempt to really unspool its continuity; in the episode “Castle Party Massacre,” a city-dweller challenges a newly arrived “land viking” by complaining, “Well, I’m sorry; things get confusing in a world with occasional magic and curses, and while I am a fan of such worlds, I just feel some more clearly set-out rules for what can and cannot happen would help–,” but he is unable to finish the thought because the land viking has already killed him.

It’s cute and cheeky, the backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the voice acting is consistently good, and there are a lot of fun background gags and references to medieval fantasy stories, but the show challenges any effort to take it too seriously or to expect consistency. Despite this, the final three episodes radically shift to a grand dramatic narrative that ends with several mysteries, some surprises, and virtually every character in shockingly different circumstances. Despite the collossal stakes, I found myself intrigued but not invested, and I think that comes down to the light absurdity and casual tone of the bulk of the season as well as the comically broad interaction between the primary characters. They were all selfish and spoiled in a world full of horrors for most; I just couldn’t care about their petty complaints, even though I laughed at many of the jokes and generally enjoyed the stories being told. Even the central will-they-won’t-they romance between Bean and Elfo was too forced (and commented on directly as a joke), and I couldn’t see why these two characters without any chemistry or common ground should be together at all, especially since the romantic feelings appear to be entirely one-sided except for when Bean is seeking attention or intoxicated. Then there’s my usual complaint about serial fantasy installments: the opening arcs typically feel like unnecessary prologues. Here, there’s very little needed world-building, so it feels especially pointless. If the phrase “medieval fantasy” means anything at all to you, you already know enough to understand the tired tropes that get parodied, occasionally subverted, and often used seemingly without irony in the show. I’m more excited about what Disenchantment promises to be in the future, but it wasted so much time to get there.

While watching ten half-hour episodes isn’t the biggest television commitment out there, you could probably get away with watching the first episode and then the last three without missing anything vital.

Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.