Even if you’ve never taken a writing workshop before, you’ve probably heard at least a few of the adages that get tossed around. Kill your darlings. Show, don’t tell. Among others, these pithy and thus memorable phrases get bandied about in the writing world as a means by which to avoid cliche and common errors when writing fiction. The young writer absorbs these things as truths, never to be forgotten and always to be followed, as though they were holy edicts and not generalized advice. In truth, though, there are sometimes (sometimes) reasons not to kill your darlings. Often, it is in fact better, at least momentarily, to tell, not show. Still, I think we can all agree that the “it was all a dream” ending is really unsatisfying and should never be used.
In 2023, Polygon is embarking 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” narrative. Sailing on a stormy sea, Link is knocked unconscious and washed ashore on Koholint Island. There, he is awoken by someone who is not quite Zelda in a house that is not 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 pervasive. Link mistakes his rescuer Marin for Zelda, like those dreams where it’s your friend, but it’s not your friend, but it is. Enemies from the Mario and Kirby series populate the world, including Goombas, a Chain Chomp, and the absurdly named “Anti-Kirby.”
At one point, you must dream within the dream to get an ocarina that will allow you to resurrect a dead rooster via a song given to you by Mamu, who is just Wart from Super Mario Bros. 2. A harried father named Papahl has somehow divined that he will be lost later in the game and asks Link to look after him once that happens. In the Switch remake, the edges of the screen are aggressively blurred, which underscores the dreamy in-between nature of Koholint: an island that is the dream of the Wind Fish, whom you must awaken to end the dream that is the game.
Or is it Link’s dream? Or is it real? Part of the reason that young writers are encouraged to avoid the “it was all a dream” ending is that those questions aren’t a satisfying conclusion to a story. Simply put, when a reader (sticking with writing terms for the moment) invests their time and attention in a story, they have the reasonable expectation that said time and attention will be respected and rewarded. The dream ending upends the reader’s investment, telling them that everything they thought mattered actually doesn’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.”
So why don’t I feel this way toward Link’s Awakening? From a certain perspective, this is the least essential Zelda, having no real narrative bearing on later titles in the Zelda franchise. The Wind Fish and Koholint are never seen again. It was all a dream, after all. As a former writing teacher who made a fuss any time a student turned in a dream story, I should be denouncing this game, right?
Except, games are not fiction, and players are not readers. Games, like dreams, have their own set of rules to be followed. What makes Link’s Awakening so unique in the Zelda series is its commitment to being a dream, to messing with the player’s expectations from screen one, then piling on the weird, mislabeled pictures of Princess Peach and characters who are just straight-up pulled from other series. What’s remarkable about Link’s Awakening is not that it is a dream narrative, but that it can be recognized as a dream narrative in the first place.
Zelda is among those gaming franchises storied enough to have established a sense of what is commonplace to the series — themes, rules, and conceits that reoccur from game to game — and thus what is “real.” To play Link’s Awakening, especially in 2023, with Zelda upon Zelda stacked on top of it, is to be in conversation with what you know about the series. The game is only recognizable as a dream because the player knows that it is not “real” for a Chain Chomp to inhabit the same world as Link. It is not “real” for bosses to say “I’m your bad guy this time!” It is not “real” for Link to lift a person over his head in the same way he does a new item:
But this reality itself is only real because of the accumulation of other Zeldas — and Marios and Kirbys. It is 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 telling somebody about a dream you had, you know the folly inherent to these kinds of stories. Everything sounds fake. Nothing is weighty. It’s lost all of the strange importance it seemed to have while you were dreaming it. But if your dream could be experienced on its own terms — if it could be played — then dreams could be just as meaningful as anything else. The memory of the dream would no longer ring hollow, but instead, as the Wind Fish says, “That memory makes the dream world real…”