Miyamoto is of a different class and philosophy from most game designers of today. He comes from an older school, from a time when we didn't know as much as we do now -- and as such, we didn't know what was impossible. We also didn't have much of a history -- so it was up to artisans like Miyamoto to create one for us.
In this respect, he is essentially a bard. With a handful of details, a rough outline, and his whims, he spins tales for his audience. With every telling and every audience, his stories go down a slightly different path. No one performance is more accurate than any other; the truth is in the telling.
There is a reason why every Zelda game (save the odd direct sequel) is a new beginning, with a new (yet nearly identical) Link and a new Zelda. It's the same reason why there are so many versions of Journey to the West or the legend of King Arthur, and even why there are such varied translations of an epic like Beowulf.
Our linear sense of time is only a recent innovation, as is our precise concept of history. Legends such as these are based in a world where existence is of a circular nature. The seasons come and go; life flourishes and wanes -- and then it begins again, albeit in a slightly different form. For as long as this form persists, it is the only reality. Once it has been recycled, the same is true of its next incarnation.
With the rapidly-aging medium of videogames, this cycle is greatly accelerated. Every five years comes a new generation of players, with their own collective assumptions and their own inherent ignorance of history -- save whatever stories might be passed down from their elders. For each new wave of gamers, the story must be adapted and retold again.
The problem is this concept of progress that we have in our modern day. Whereas only a few hundred years ago the world was much the same from one year to the next, now technology has thrust us on a non-stop bullet train to nowhere in particular. Our minds have become warped by this perception, and we no longer see the cycles that used to define our very existence.
Our rhythms have been broken, replaced with a contempt for all that is perceived as "old". The future is our goal, while the past represents all that is outdated or otherwise effectively dead to us. Mere existence is taken for granted; it is progress which matters.
We live in a society which has invented history so that we may dismiss it in our own delusional pursuit of grandeur.
Wind Waker is a game caught in an unfortunate dilema between these two world models.
The first time I saw the new, stylized look that Nintendo had planned for Wind Waker, I was struck by how much the game seemed to resemble a storybook. A press of the start button, and this impression seems more or less confirmed; the strangely touching introduction sequence lays out the concept for Wind Waker in a series of still block print illustrations. These images naturally segue into the opening shots of the game world -- a world drawn in much the same style, only now full of motion.
Some of the best elements in Wind Waker stem from this change in presentation and general scope from the earlier Zelda games. Broad gestures and Skies of Arcadia-style facial animation compliment quirky dialogue and a surprisingly character-oriented plot. Monsters, NPCs, and Link all show far more personality than in the past -- and rarely does it get either too maudlin or slapstick.
Endearing is the term which most readily comes to mind. It is easy to get personally swept up in the game's events; I found myself playing more to see how the plot turned out, or to see more interaction amongst the major characters, than for any other reason.
These changes bring along some epistemological baggage, however; Wind Waker is a sort of a meta-game. For various reasons, it is the first game in the Zelda series to make entirely conscious reference to the nature of the Zelda legend. Not only does the game comport itself as an animated storybook, but it makes continuous reference to the ancient tale of which it seems to be yet another incarnation.
This is, in fact, the conceit on which the game's plot is based from the outset. The game itself, and the characters within it, take the existence of their series as a given, but tend to be a little bewildered and reluctant to believe that they are a part of it.
At the same time, their surprise is dampened somewhat by an overbearing weight of fourth-wall-breaking dialogue. Throughout the game, characters speak in terms of player controls and in-jokes about the logistical problems faced in a videogame world. (At one point a professor attempts to explain why townspeople will tend to repeat themselves whenever Link returns to speak with them a second or a fourth time.)
This lighthearted sort of a self-consciousness is all amusing on one level, if not entirely novel. (The N64 games were also laced with a number of irreverent devices of the sort -- though to a far lesser, and less obviously intentional, extent.) On the other hand, it's also a subtle sign of the internal conflicts present on a deeper level of the game's consciousness.
If you bear with me, I'll attempt to illustrate just what I'm talking about.
[Next: an example]