30 Years of Games Manage to Justify the Amnesiac Hero Trope
Y’know, I would be astounded to find out that I was the only person who is quite over amnesia-based plots in shows and video games. For those who need a refresher (cuz you forgot? Cuz amnesia? Do you get it) here’s the TV Tropes page for the Amnesiac Hero. As you might know, the latest Legend of Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, has the non-titular hero Link awakening to find he’s lost all of his memories– he has no idea why he woke up in a tank full of glowing goo wearing nothing but some stylin’ boxer-briefs. And only recently, after about 50 hours of gameplay, I feel like I’m actually able to appreciate the Amnesiac Hero trope, maybe for one last time.
I’ve always seen use of the Amnesiac Hero in media as a plot device that allows minor characters to introduce the protagonist (and thus the audience) to aspects of the world they inhabit via direct exposition without having to suspend disbelief. It’s the NPCs you talk to prefacing their conversations with history and culture expositions that most grade-schoolers in that world would know. Yes, thank you merchant, I am relatively aware of the devastating magical war that raged here ten years ago. My entire family died in it, in fact, and gave me this bad-ass scar, that’s why I’m the protag in the first place. It’s one step above the three-word oxymoron As You Know, something that I personally detest in stories, because OF COURSE I KNOW THAT you tottering arseweasel, stop explaining something that’s painfully obvious to me! However, sometimes writers have to pick their poison, as they may not have the time or resources to clarify a whole bunch of important background info in order to contextualize the current events of the plot. These tropes are time-tested because they work, and telling an immersive and cohesive story without relying on them is not an easy feat. (But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try).
So why do I like it in Breath of the Wild? Because it doesn’t feel like the writers put it in out of necessity. This feels a bit complex to explain, so let me start with my love for stories in which there is a “disparity of context” between the characters and the audience. Specifically, stories in which the audience knows more about the plot than the characters, even if the audience doesn’t understand the world as well. My mind always goes back to Death Note, a series in which the audience had a near-omniscient view of a police hunt for a protagonist that killed through magical means in an otherwise mundane reality. There is something uniquely thrilling about being in a seat of power, watching heroes and villains reach conclusions that you’re already privy to. This feeling is likely what draws people to the horror genre, but that’s for another post.
The disparity of context in Breath of the Wild comes from the majority of players having any amount of knowledge of the prior 30+ years of Legend of Zelda games. Zelda games are nothing if not formulaic, but it’s a winning formula that has kept it a Nintendo flagship series for multiple decades. When we boot up Zelda, many of us know the drill. There’s a tune that comes to mind, which is almost 20 years old now. (Credit to Josh Spaulding for video and Joe Pleiman for original song). You’re an elfy guy named Link in a green floppy hat. To Do List: Get Master Sword. Find Zelda. Defeat Ganon. Somewhere in there, spend 10 hours on a finicky, leisurely minigame to get a collectible. The audience knows that Breath of the Wild doesn’t deviate from those standards, even if this iteration of Link does not.
Breath of the Wild feels like it utilizes its own motifs and mythos in more grandiose ways than any other game before it. They’ve been building a legend for thirty years, and now they’re milking it for all its worth (in a very good way). The map of Hyrule is a compilation of locales that should be nostalgic to most long-time fans, littered with familiar enemies that have vexed them for decades. Almost every point of interest is named in reference to a character or location from the series’ history, and more than giving the player a twinge of nostalgia, they serve as guideposts for those who know that places named after Gorons will be hot and placed named after Zoras will be wet. The musical score is mainly composed of sparse, haunting piano refrains of the series’ most iconic tracks; the composers know they’re playing to an audience that will have flashbacks from hearing as much as the opening bars. Ganon, the canonical Devil figure who often appeared as some kind of pig-giant is now a roiling manifestation of hellfire and caustic evil. No matter how many times Zelda and Link seal him away, he will return, but so will they. And so the Legend goes on. (Sometimes in three different chronologies, but hey, every good mythology needs some ambiguity to argue over).
So, even when Link wakes up at the start, as he has dozens of times before, he’s not at a loss for what to do, because the player knows what’s up. I like to think of this as representative of The Destiny that entwines the heroic archetypes of Link, Zelda and Ganon together. Wherever he goes, people recognize him as The Guy, who’s supposed to do The Thing, either because they’re also 100 years old and have just been chilling waiting for him to get back or because his reputation precedes him (by far more than 100 years). They also recognize that he’s lost his memories, and thus give him gentle nudges towards what he should be doing (but they don’t railroad him on a single path; there’s always time to chase some butterflies and cook up some dubious food along the way).
In this way, another overused aspect of the Amnesiac Hero is thwarted, in which the hero suddenly remembers/discovers their true identity within the context of the story, usually in the third act. In Breath of the Wild, there are no such surprises; the very first NPC Link meets catches him up to speed on the details of this particular fated run-through. And, as I mentioned before, his destiny is instinctively guiding him through the motions as soon as he gets out of his century-long soak. If nothing else, this narrative set-up lets players say “yeah yeah, I get it dude, I’ve done this before” and hop off into Hyrule on their sweet-ass glider, in any direction they god-damn please. Just like Link, they know what they have to do on an instinctual level. But this new land is in dire need of explorin’, monsters need smackin’, and an ensemble of weirdos need their quests done.
To be entirely fair, Link’s identity as a silent protagonist means there’s not a whole lot of personality to be salvaged from the amnesia. That’s not to say he’s not lovingly personified during the game (it’s easy to see how much he enjoys cooking, if nothing else), but this Link is not the same wisecracking smartass from the CD-i games or the TV show (thankfully). Although some of that sarcasm might come through in the dialogue options; entertaining dry wit makes an acceptable cover for the lack of actual narrative choice. So perhaps the Amnesiac Hero trope is easier to integrate into a game like this. Either way, I will continue to sit back and be impressed with how Nintendo can employ a meta-narrative so successfully to create a new shining star in a Legend.