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Princess Zelda holds the Master Sword upside down with her eyes closed in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

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Zelda games were always religious, but Tears of the Kingdom pushes it even further

Link’s pilgrimage across Hyrule echoes Zelda’s early iconography

Chapter 6 of the 1992 Japanese guidebook to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past contains what might be the strangest officially licensed image of Link ever created. In a black-and-white church, bathed in the holy light of an arched window, our hero kneels in worship. He’s not wearing his usual pointy hat; instead, you see the long Hylian ears poking through a thick Joe Dirt mullet. But it is Link, tunic and all, and he isn’t worshiping Din, Nayru, the goddess Hylia, or any other figure in the evolving Zelda pantheon. He’s worshiping Jesus Christ.

This illustration has made the rounds over the years, usually alongside other bits and pieces from the early history of the Zelda series that hint at Christian origins. In the original Legend of Zelda, Link’s shield has a cross on it, and the “Book of Magic” was called “Bible” in the Japanese version. In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the cross is an item that allows Link to see invisible enemies. In A Link to the Past, our hero enters a sanctuary with stained-glass windows and pews.

In a 1992 guidebook for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Link kneels before Jesus Christ on a crucifix Image: Nintendo via Melora (@HistoryofHyrule)

Does this mean that Shigeru Miyamoto and co. originally intended for Link to be a Christian warrior, or that The Legend of Zelda is “about” Christianity in some fundamental sense? Not exactly. Max Nichols, a Bungie developer and Zelda superfan who maintains the Hyrule Interviews archive, said he wasn’t aware of any explicit statements from the developers about religious themes or symbolism in the early years. Instead, he said, it’s more likely that Nintendo reached for Christian references “in a careless, off-the-cuff way” because “they were drawing inspiration generally from pastoral Europe/medieval/fairy-tale imagery, legends, etc., and that source material would have included some of this Christian imagery.”

Nichols’ suspicion is totally plausible and probably right. But it still feels a little unsatisfying — not because the Zelda series truly is Christian, or has remained Christian, but because the series hasn’t exactly shied away from religion since those aesthetically chaotic early years. If anything, it’s done exactly the opposite, reaching for religion in deeper and stranger ways. In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Zelda ditched explicitly Christian symbolism in favor of a bespoke mythos involving “three golden goddesses” who, according to the game’s creation myth, “descended upon the chaos that was Hyrule.” And yet, infamously, it featured an Islamic prayer chant in the Fire Temple that was removed from the game after its first printing. It also depicts the Temple of Time as a church echoing with a solemn Gregorian chant, establishing a ritualistic vibe that has remained with the series ever since.

No, in 2023, you’re not going to see official promo art of Link on the cross. It’s the Koroks who are getting crucified. But I would argue that the series has only intensified its engagements with real-world religion with each installment, to the point that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom might be the most religious Zelda games of all.

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.]

Link looks out over Hyrule, and Dueling Peaks, in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

More than any other Zelda game before it, Breath of the Wild draws inspiration from Japan itself. Pagoda-like roofs and sliding doors define the architecture of the game’s Kakariko Village. In a developer interview, art director Satoru Takizawa revealed that the long, mysterious Jōmon period in Japanese history — an era that stretched from roughly 14,000 to 300 BCE — provided the basis for the game’s Sheikah structures and artifacts.

But the game borrows something else from Japan, too, something that arguably defines its entire gameplay loop: a model of religious pilgrimage that involves trekking across a vast distance to visit a specific number of holy sites. The two most famous examples of these journeys in Japanese religious history are the Saikoku junrei and the Shikoku henro, circuits that involve visiting 33 and 88 Buddhist temples, respectively. In the Saikoku junrei (巡礼)a term that, as religion scholar Hoshino Eiki points out, contains both the sense of “going around” (jun, 巡) and of performing austerities (rei, 礼) — travelers retrace a pilgrimage route dating back to the 11th century as they visit temples to each of the 33 manifestations of the Buddhist deity Kannon.

Pilgrimage also traces back to medieval Europe, of course, where peregrinatio (from the Latin per and ager, “one who passes through wild places”) was a widespread spiritual practice. But Eiki makes an important distinction. Western pilgrimages have tended to have a linear structure, focused on reaching one major site. More than almost any other place in the world, Japanese pilgrimage culture embraces the idea of a nonlinear journey to many sites.

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Breath of the Wild is full of pilgrims. In Zora’s Domain, one quest involves hiking around and visiting the 10 stone monuments that record the ancient history of the aquatic race. Throughout the game you run into NPCs on journeys of their own, making the trek to sacred sites like the Spring of Wisdom atop Mount Lanayru — a clear echo of real-world mountain pilgrimages like the kaihōgyō ascetic trek to Mount Hiei. Zelda’s entire backstory, told through flashbacks, is about her own sacred pilgrimage to those springs, one that frustrates her because she expects more from the experience, not quite realizing that the key to pilgrimage is to expect less. The game draws an interesting contrast between her and Link. She, overly self-conscious and burdened by her own identity, doesn’t find what she’s looking for at the sacred sites. He, the ultimate empty cipher, wordless and selfless, is the one who can enter Hyrule’s 120 shrines, earning blessings from shriveled monks.

And then there’s the other pilgrim: you, the player. In playing Breath of the Wild at all, you take on the ascetic mantle of a wanderer. You don the Old Shirt, put on the hat, and focus your gaze on a singular, narrow goal. Follow the road. Cross the river. Get to the shrine. Going around and performing austerities: that combination is the game’s secret sauce. And like any pilgrimage, the game asks its player to make sacrifices. You don’t get to do as much as you do in other games. You don’t get to be as much. The world is largely empty. Yet these don’t feel like trade-offs; they feel, if anything, like liberations.

The term yugyō (遊行), another of many overlapping yet slightly different Japanese terms for pilgrimage, combines the idea of ascetic practice and journeying (gyō, 行) and “play” (yu, 遊). There’s something gamelike about pilgrimage; there might even be something pilgrimage-like about games. Both involve leaving behind the world of the everyday and adopting the temporary rules, goals, and even costumes of another way of being. In their book Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner famously described pilgrimage as a practice that puts you in a “liminal” space, a space separate from the real world. By confronting the “fresh and unpredictable troubles” of the road, pilgrims experience “a release from the ingrown ills of home.”

Link pauses on  the precipice of a Shrine in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Scholars in the field of game studies have been rightly skeptical of the idea that games do the same thing; you never quite leave the world behind, or yourself behind, when you pick up the controller. But they do allow us to retreat, at least partially, into the conditions of simplicity. In his book Games: Agency as Art, C. Thi Nguyen makes the case that games are powerful precisely because they transport us into a space of “practical reason” where obstacles and goals are more clearly defined than they are in the real world. Pilgrimages do the same. Cross the river. Get to the shrine. Receive the blessing. Repeat.

Maybe it’s a little ridiculous to say that playing a video game, let alone one of the greatest games of all time, counts as ascetic practice. But Breath of the Wild does bring you into a headspace of quiet, focused wandering. And when you don the tunic of the pilgrim, you leave behind more than you might think.

Nintendo necessarily took a different direction with Tears of the Kingdom. Shrines don’t feel as mystical. The old monks are gone. The game can’t be austere. It has to be chaotic, maximalist — an everything bagel.

On the other hand, that also means that Tears of the Kingdom goes wild with religion, expanding far beyond the restrained and spiritually coherent template of its predecessor. In keeping with its aesthetic mishmash — yellow-treed sky islands above a mangled earth above a ghoulish underworld — it presents a religious pastiche that pulls in everything. Noah’s Ark and a Dantesque vision of heaven, earth, and hell exist alongside ancient goat people with pseudo-Aztec architecture and Hindu third eyes.

Statues of Rauru and Sonia, with outstretched hands, about to offer Link a Blessing of Light to dispel Gloom damage at the end of a Shrine in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Nonlinear pilgrimage lies at the center of the experience once again, reframed this time as a journey of purification. Link has been stained by evil, his body corrupted by gloom that he needs Lights of Blessing to cure. Like pilgrims throughout time, he seeks holy places that can heal the sick.

Yet he undertakes another pilgrimage at the same time. Early on, the game presents you with “geoglyphs”: huge, crop circle-like diagrams that have been spray-painted across the surface of Hyrule. Each one gives you access to a memory of Zelda’s story as she tries to escape the ancient past to which she accidentally traveled back. Watch enough of them, and it becomes a story of sacrifice. The world falls into ruin under the Demon King, and Zelda sacrifices herself to redeem it, becoming an immortal dragon.

The dragon itself, like the dragons in Breath of the Wild, draws from a deep well of Eastern mythology and folklore, signaling that Tears of the Kingdom is as invested in specifically Japanese notions of spirituality and divinity as its predecessor.

The Light Dragon lets out a scream while flying through the skies in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

But the geoglyphs have another energy. To visit them feels more than a little like the game’s version of the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Suffering”), a Christian pilgrimage that involves retracing the steps of Jesus Christ before the Crucifixion. The tears, like the Catholic Stations of the Cross, present snapshots of pain, betrayal, and determination before Zelda’s redemptive self-sacrifice — before her transformation into a form that is, within the world of the game, divinity.

So, in a way, the Crucifixion returns to Zelda in Tears of the Kingdom, 30 years after that weird picture of Link kneeling before the cross. But it lives in the realm of subtext, where, like lightroots in the Depths, spiritual ideas continue to feed a series that has only grown more mystical over time.

Special thanks to longtime Hyrule historian Melora (@HistoryofHyrule) for the original scan of the 1992 guidebook for A Link to the Past and for helping to locate Christian references in early Zelda materials.

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