The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and the Art of Overanalyzing a Video Game

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

“Dream Within a Dream,” by Edgar Allen Poe, lines 12-24

The Legend of Zelda series has received more literary analysis and discussion than any other video game franchise. You have a mile-long list of video essays on YouTube such as RealmW’s “The Politics of Twilight Princess,” HeavyEyed’s “Majora’s Mask in 2021 is an Existential Nightmare,” and Good Blood’s masterpiece “Ocarina of Time – A Masterclass in Subtext.” I even own a book that is literally called The Psychology of Zelda, which contains a collection of essays written by various academics. Some of my most popular blog posts include essays analyzing Breath of the Wild’s subtext on faith and Skyward Sword‘s subtext about adulthood. I can guarantee that with the release of the upcoming game The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, a new wave of these essays will come ashore, and I’ll probably find myself among them.

What is it about the Zelda series that gets us to scrutinize every detail and talk about them years after they’ve been released? How can a small handful of games be interpreted so differently?

For me, the answer to that question lies deep in my past. I’ll need to explain how I’ve interacted with the Zelda series myself, beginning with my childhood and the very first Zelda game I played, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

A Mystery Just Beyond My Grasp

As a young kid in Indiana, I loved watching Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film My Neighbor Totoro. It was slower-paced than other cartoon films I saw at the time, but it captivated me in ways I had never experienced before. When I saw the children explore their new dilapidated home on the TV screen, it made me want to explore my own home. When I saw the kids helping the plants grow overnight, it made me want to help my mother tend to her garden. When I saw the titular Totoro sleeping, with his large belly rising and falling, it made me think of how massive and god-like my parents appeared, at least to my young eyes. I loved the closing song; I could easily hum along to it. My brother and I watched it several times. And yet parts of the movie felt opaque to me, lying just beyond my reach. It was like looking at a swimming pool and noticing the deep end, a place I wasn’t allowed to swim yet. Why was the mom sick? Why did the older sister worry about the younger one? I couldn’t answer these questions.

Part of what makes Miyazaki’s films beloved by children and adults alike is that you can interact with the movies in a myriad of ways. You can simply enjoy them on the surface level and take in the beautiful animation. My Neighbor Totoro can be just a cute kid’s movie about nature and family. But if you watch them again when you’re older, you may notice and understand its deeper moments. In fact, the more you watch it, the more you’ll notice other details, which inspires more ways to interpret the movie.

When I first played The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on my Game Boy Color, I had a similar feeling to when I watched Miyazaki’s films. At first, I enjoyed the surface-level experience as an action / adventure game set on a mysterious island. And I’m sure this is partially why the games are so popular. Even if you don’t put a magnifying glass over every detail, the games are still enjoyable to complete. It’s fun to solve puzzles and explore dungeons. It’s fun to meet such a weird cast of characters. However, the game’s mysteries and iconography gave me the impression that there was more going on beneath the surface. An owl constantly talks about “Waking up the Wind Fish.” Marin, the girl who finds you on the beach, monologues about leaving the island some day. I could see the “deep end” to this game, but I couldn’t quite reach it yet. The most mysterious part was the giant egg resting atop the island. You don’t exactly need a magnifying glass to notice that. I couldn’t help but ask questions: How did it get there? Where’s its mom? What’s inside the egg?

And then watching the island disappear as you wake up the Wind Fish filled me with a bittersweet emotion. I’d never felt that way from a video game before. The game makes your victory come at a cost. Even during a casual playthrough, Zelda games achieve a vague sense of depth and mystery thanks to their rich symbolism and their world’s intricate tapestry of details. It compels you to try the game again, with the goal that maybe this time the game’s secrets will be revealed to you.

Dreaming of Symbolism

Symbols and archetypes have existed within human religion and art for as long as religion and art have existed. Like I said in my essay about Tetris, finding connections and associations is part of how humans create meaning. Symbols and other figurative language can help us pack a large and dense amount of meaning into a small and recognizable image. To make a symbol, all you need is a sign and an association for it. Take the Triforce, for example. On its own, the Triforce may look cool, but it doesn’t mean anything — it’s just three golden triangles stacked on top of each other, forming one large triangle. But thanks to how the Zelda developers have used it throughout the Zelda series, the Triforce has become the symbol for the three goddesses of Hyrule as well as the Hyrule royal family. In fact, it’s used so frequently that it has become the de-facto symbol for the Zelda series as a whole. It can help you easily identify a fellow Zelda fan.

However, that’s not the end to what the Triforce can represent. Further actions that characters do around a symbol will become extensions and additional associations. Your first time seeing the Triforce may have been during the opening to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which leaves an overall positive and grandiose impression. However, as you learn more about the story of A Link to the Past, you discover that many greedy travelers tried to find the Triforce, only to be turned into monsters. The Sacred Realm, the place where the Triforce resides, ended up becoming a twisted distortion of the real world, aptly named The Dark World. With this additional knowledge, you may start to think of the Triforce as a dangerous weapon, a nefarious genie reflecting the duality of humanity. But maybe you played a different Zelda game first, meaning you have different associations. Other games emphasize each individual piece of the Triforce instead of the Triforce as a whole. You see the parts pertaining to Wisdom, Power, and Courage, and the three characters who are fated to embody them generation after generation. To you, the Triforce may symbolize destiny, or the cycles of rebirth, or a person’s hidden talents. This is where the interesting part begins. Not every person will interpret the same events in the same way. The same symbols will achieve different associations. This is how we can get such different interpretations on the same video game, and I find it fascinating. I love learning someone’s new ideas of this series’ rich symbolism, even if I start to think that the writer may be stretching it a bit. These analyses are a food for my soul, and a way for me to learn more about people. It inspires me to pay more attention to the games and find more things to write about.

As I’ve played and replayed The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening through the years, some symbols have stuck out to me more than others. The following six are just the beginning of what you can find:

The Egg. In Link’s Awakening, this egg symbolizes your final goal. By extension, I associate this egg with sleep and the mystery of the unknown. In the real world, if you find an egg and don’t know what species laid it, you may wonder what’s inside. Similarly, if you see a person sleeping, you may wonder what they’re dreaming about. The Egg may help us recognize the barrier between our inner world and other people’s inner worlds.

The Seagull. In a touching scene with Marin at the beach, she wonders where the coconut seeds come from and what lies beyond the horizon. She wishes that she could turn into a seagull and fly past that horizon. The seagull represents freedom and knowledge. It’s rather touching that you see Marin’s image near the end of the game followed by a seagull. I imagine that Marin got her wish in the end when the island vanished.

Link’s Sword and Shield. At the beginning of the game, Link’s first task is to recover his sword and shield. He identifies them because his name is inscribed on them. These objects tie him to the outside world. They’re reminders of who he is and where he came from; they’re tokens of his role and his skills. These anchor Link to reality and prevent him from losing himself inside the dream, not unlike the trinkets from the film Inception.

The Eight Instruments. These instruments serve as an alarm to wake up the Wind Fish. By association, the Instruments are the foil to the Egg. The Egg represents sleep, mystery, and ignorance; the instruments represent alertness and knowledge. Since you acquire a new instrument to mark your progress in the game, you could also say that the instruments represent hope and self-actualization.

Koholint Island. Koholint Island as a whole can feel symbolic as well. The strange enemies, the bizarre townsfolk, the entire game world feels… off. Koholint Island’s overworld could be interpreted to be a Postmodern symbol. In fact, it fits right in line with Existentialist and the other Postmodern media of the 1990s such as Metal Gear Solid and The Truman Show. We know that video game worlds are artificial, or in other words, “dreams” created by the developer and experienced by the player. And while Link never realizes he’s in a video game, he does realize that Koholint Island is a dream made by the Wind Fish. You could interpret Link’s Awakening as an allegory about video games, in which the player (Link) has to approach the developer (The Wind Fish) in order to complete the game. And just as it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to Koholint Island, sometimes it’s hard to finish a video game, where you have to say goodbye to the world and its characters. JRPGs are especially difficult for me when I finally see the credits roll. I’ve invested so much into the game that… it’s hard to just say goodbye like that.

The Dungeons and Nightmare Bosses. Nightmares and monsters are one of the most common symbols in media. But in the context of Link’s Awakening, they take on a specific role and purpose. You could interpret the overworld, with its sunny weather and bright colors, as “good dreams,” where you can fly or beat the person bullying you. Your good dreams represent your positive feelings and wishes. On the other hand, the dungeons and nightmares represent your fears and insecurities, the subconscious parts that you’re ashamed of.


“And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream.”

KJV Bible, Dan. 2.3

Ever since Biblical times, people have been deciphering the meaning of dreams, either hoping to uncover spiritual truths, or seeking warnings of future disasters. Our cross-cultural connection to dreams makes Link’s Awakening an ideal title for discussing symbolism in video games — we are used to interpreting dreams this way. The first time I finished Link’s Awakening as a kid, all I felt was a vague melancholy. The twentieth time I finished Link’s Awakening, I was an adult, and I was diligently taking notes for this blog post. Every player becomes a Daniel seeking wisdom as they solve a game’s troubling dream.

It’s tempting to think that I’ve been stretching the ideas in this post. I admit, it may be tempting to say that about all of my posts — that I overanalyze the games that I talk about. It’s easier to think that the game developers intended a single “true interpretation” of their work, and that everyone else is just “wrong.” It’s even easier is to just ignore the deep stuff entirely. I have nothing against people who want to interact with games that way. After all, having hundreds of different interpretations on a video game sounds confusing and chaotic. However, video games are complex. People are complex. Even if you used “Authorial Intent” as your guide, most of the time, multiple people worked on the game, and they all slightly differ on what the game is about as they make it. No matter how you slice it, almost every video game has a nebulous deep end somewhere. And I can’t write about video games without at least trying to navigate my way through that deep end.

As unsettling as it may seem that so many people could have such different interpretations of a video game, if we handle these discussions respectfully, we can use that opportunity to understand each other in ways that we might not have known otherwise. We are a diverse species, and we can’t change that. We can, however, communicate with each other and grow our knowledge. We can discover our similarities as well as our differences. We may even learn something about ourselves along the way.

Further Reading / Sources:

Anthony Bean. The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series. Smart Pop, 2019. ISBN: 978-1946885340.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s