Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is that, as the player, it’s not your job to prevent the end the world. Rather, your goal is to ensure an apocalypse that has already occurred is not reversed. In an ironic role-reversal, it’s the villain of the game, Ganondorf, who wants to save the world by correcting a cataclysmic ecological disaster. He is not wrong to do so. Why, then, is he the villain?
The Wind Waker encourages the player to understand that the natural world must be allowed to transform itself at its own pace without drastic human intervention. Ganondorf is not wrong for wanting to save the world, but the deeper message of The Wind Waker is that the world does not, in fact, need to be saved.
The Wind Waker has a backstory that is surprisingly dark and complicated for a game with such cute graphics. It’s difficult to explain how the apocalypse that proceeds the game happened, but suffice it to say that, because of an environmental apocalypse, the once-flourishing land of Hyrule lies beneath a seemingly endless body of water referred to only as “the Great Sea.” No one remembers the ancient kingdom, and people live on small islands rising from the waves.
Link’s journey begins on one such island, appropriately named Outset Island. A giant bird suddenly appears and kidnaps his sister Aryll, so he hitches a ride with a passing gang of pirates who deliver him to another island called “the Forsaken Fortress,” which is rumored to serve as the base of operations of someone searching for girls with pointed ears — a marker of the ethnic heritage of the royal Hylian race.
The master of the Forsaken Fortress is Ganondorf, and he is in fact searching for the descendent of Princess Zelda. Before Hyrule was flooded, the Hylian kings and queens guarded a magical artifact called the Triforce, which was said to have the power to grant the wishes of anyone who touched it. Knowing that Zelda’s descendent will be able to lead him to the Triforce, Ganondorf scours the Great Sea for her, hoping to use the Triforce to make the waters of the Great Sea vanish. Link’s sister turns out to not be Zelda’s descendent, but this has nothing to do with the boy’s desire to rescue her, and so his quest begins.
In The Wind Waker, the player’s main goal is to defeat Ganondorf. This goal is established through various methods of exposition, which are strongly reinforced by the gameplay. Link confronts Ganondorf at several points in the game, but Ganondorf never makes any move to harm him — even going so far as to say that he does not wish to kill the boy, despite the fact that Link has attempted to attack him. Nevertheless, every step the player takes to progress the story involves finding the means to harm Ganondorf, and the player cannot successfully complete the game unless Ganondorf is violently vanquished.
In other words: the game offers no other option to resolve its battles save for physical force. Link cannot, for example, talk to Ganondorf or try to reason with him. Various characters in the game justify this murder by describing Ganondorf as the mythical demon Ganon, the supposed “emperor of the dark realm,” and Link is never given any cause to question this demonization.
The player, however, is offered multiple indications that Ganondorf is not a monster. On the occasions when Link confronts him, he speaks in strikingly lyrical language, both in the original Japanese version of the game and in the English-language localization. At the end of The Wind Waker, immediately before the final boss battle, Ganondorf delivers a monologue explaining why he once attacked Hyrule, thus beginning the war that ultimately resulted in the apocalypse. In the era before the flood, Ganondorf was the leader of a minority ethnicity living on the inhospitable fringes of the prosperous kingdom of Hyrule. He says:
“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing … Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”
In the English translation, Ganondorf engages in rhetorical flights of fancy, which are intended to convey the highly poetic nature of his speech in Japanese. The original Japanese for his iconic statement “I coveted that wind, I suppose” is Washi wa, kono kaze ga hoshikatta no kamo shirenu, a sentence that serves as a good example of his tone. For “I suppose,” he uses the premodern verbal conjugation shiranu instead of the contemporary shiranai, and he also uses the first-person pronoun washi, which was much more common in the late nineteenth century than it is in the present.
Ganondorf’s word choices — many of which are drawn from classical poetry — could constitute an entirely separate essay, but what even a young Japanese player would pick up from his pronouns and verbal conjugation is that he uses the language of a statesman from the late nineteenth century, when Japan was establishing itself as a modern industrialized nation. The archaic touches of Ganondorf’s language therefore mark him as standing outside of the flow of time in a world that has already moved on without him.
Despite having been magically sealed away by the flood that was summoned by the people of Hyrule to douse the flames of war, Ganondorf is acutely aware of the harsh conditions of the present world. In another monologue addressed to Link, he claims that life on the Great Sea is slowly fading away, and that the waters of the post-apocalyptic ocean do not nourish life, but destroy it. By this point in the game, an astute player will have already suspected this, as Link cannot swim in the Great Sea for more than a few seconds, nor are there representations of fish or other aquatic life anywhere in The Wind Waker. Even as Ganondorf nostalgically yearns for the greener world of the past, he despairs for the slow decline of humanity in the present.
Ganondorf’s poetic language and his desire to restore Hyrule to its former glory hardly characterizes him as a mindless, rampaging brute of a villain. When he laments the loss of beauty and culture caused by the apocalypse, he is not wrong. When he attacked Hyrule as the leader of an oppressed minority, he was not wrong. Although the gameplay forces the player to confront, attack, and eventually impale Ganondorf with the legendary Master Sword, many fans of the Zelda series have expressed sympathy for the character in the fifteen years since the game’s initial release.
So why does the player have to kill Ganondorf at the end of The Wind Waker? Why not allow him to use the magic of the Triforce to resurrect the lost kingdom of Hyrule, with its green fields and gentle wind? This is where ecocriticism — specifically ecological feminism — can serve as a useful a critical lens.
In their 1993 co-authored essay collection Ecofeminism, sociologist Maria Mies and physicist Vandana Shiva argue for a view of “the world as an active subject, not merely as a resource to be manipulated and appropriated.” Furthermore, the authors encourage the reader to problematize state-driven concepts such as scientific progress and efficient resource management “by exposing the destruction inherent in much of what capitalistic patriarchy has defined as productive.”
Essentially, Mies and Shiva entreat us to question the media discourses and political policies that encourage the forceful reshaping of environments that are not “productive” to large-scale human interests. Although an ecological feminist approach to the environment is not antihuman by any means, it advocates for a less anthropocentric viewpoint. Humans can precipitate and mitigate ecological disasters, but we cannot prevent or control them.
The legacy of ecological feminism has continued to the present day, with popular audience books such as Annalee Newitz’s 2013 speculative thought experiment Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction becoming a bestseller and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. As we have come to see the dangers and flaws inherent in a modernist understanding of the environment in which the state regulates the natural world, we have begun to imagine what the peaceful end of human society as we know it would look like.
The embrace of the apocalypse has been a recurrent theme in many works of Japanese popular culture as well. Writing on animator Hayao Miyazaki’s epic seven-volume graphic novel Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — whose heroine chooses to allow the people of her world to die so that the environment might take its own course — literary scholar Peter Paik points out that the process of halting or reversing an ecological disaster is rarely portrayed as a just or moral action in Japanese science fiction, especially when there is no real difference between the means of salvation and nature of the initial destruction.
What Ganondorf does not seem to understand is that the magical wish-granting Triforce, which was used to trigger the watery demise of Hyrule, cannot be used to suddenly force the Great Sea to vanish without incurring the same environmental shock as the initial apocalypse. Furthermore, Ganondorf only views the environment in its relation to humanity. He privileges the gentle wind of Hyrule over the harsh winds of the desert and the Great Sea, and he will do anything in his power to claim this resource for himself. He does not consider the effect of his actions regarding the natural world on individual lives, but only on the greater scale of nation, progress, and productivity.
This is why — according to the value system of The Wind Waker — Ganondorf is indeed wrong, and this is why he plays the role of the villain of the game. As indicated by his poetic yet archaic language, he represents a mode of thought that belongs to the past and must be dispatched in order for humanity to begin to reevaluate its place in the natural world.
The Wind Waker is a post-apocalyptic narrative through which elegiac stories play out against a setting in which human civilization is already in decline. Far from presenting the gradual downfall of humanity and our political power structures as a fate to be avoided, however, The Wind Waker encourages its audience to consider the apocalypse in a positive light. By allowing the player to experience the thrill of exploring a beautiful world largely devoid of people, The Wind Waker reconfigures ethical valuations of villainy and heroism through a fantasy in which humanity is not privileged over the environment and its natural processes.