Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sword and Sorcery and Video Games, Part One

Hello Cromrades! Josh here. It has been on my mind for a while to explore the influence and prevalence of sword and sorcery in video games. I've decided initially to focus on games that were first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System during the 1980's.

Before delving into a discussion of the tropes and references found in these video games, perhaps a brief exploration of what constitutes sword and sorcery is in order. We know that Robert E. Howard popularized the genre with his heroes Kull, Conan, and Solomon Kane. We know further that the term was coined by Fritz Leiber, first in the April 1961 issue of Ancalagon as a response to Michael Moorcock's call for a name for the type of fantasy story typified by Robert E. Howard. In the July issue of Amra that same year, Leiber wrote the following (the embellishments are mine):
"I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!"
Lin Carter follows up on this idea later, in an essay titled "Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers" which serves as an introduction to the anthology Flashing Swords volume 1.
"...We call a story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land or age or world of the author’s invention—a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real—and a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil."
Carter's description is vague, and could be used to describe almost any fantasy story, but clearly there is some element that separates high fantasy from sword and sorcery. So, what are those "points of culture-level and supernatural elements" that distinguish sword and sorcery from other closely related genres? This is a point of contention, and a quick web search will result in several varied interpretations that usually mention a tough, often brooding hero, a treasure or magical artifact to serve as a MacGuffin which drives the quest, an elderly person who provides information or magical aid to the hero, Sometimes the quest might involve some kingdom-spanning peril, while most often the conflict is of a more personal nature. More often than not, magic users are people displaced in time or from an exotic locale, and they often have evil tendencies. Most descriptions focus on the intensity of action described through the story. In light of this framework, let's discuss the video game that kindled my love for fantasy tales, mythology, and gaming: The Legend of Zelda (1987).

I want to focus on the first game of the series, using only the material I would have had at my disposal as a 6 year old opening the cartridge and playing the game for the first time. That includes any story elements from the game, along with information from the manual which included this background to the game:
"A long, long time ago, the world was once in an age of chaos. In the midst of this chaos, in a little kingdom in the land of Hyrule, a legend was being handed down from generation to generation, the legend of the "Triforce", golden triangles possessing mystical powers. One day, an evil army attacked this peaceful little kingdom and stole the Triforce of Power. This army was led by Ganon, the powerful Prince of Darkness who sought to plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule. Fearing his wicked rule, Zelda, the princess of this kingdom, split up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments and hid them throughout the realm to save the last remaining Triforce from the clutches of the evil Ganon. At the same time, she commanded her most trustworthy nursemaid, Impa, to secretly escape into the land and go find a man with enough courage to destroy the evil Ganon.
Upon hearing this, Ganon grew angry, imprisoned the princess, and sent out a party in search of Impa. Braving forests and mountains, Impa fled for her life from her pursuers. As she reached the very limit of her energy she found herself surrounded by Ganon's evil henchmen. Cornered! What could she do? ... But wait! All was not lost. A young lad appeared. He skillfully drove off Ganon's henchmen, and saved Impa from a fate worse than death.
His name was Link. During his travels he had come across Impa and Ganon's henchmen. Impa told Link the whole story of Princess Zelda and the evil Ganon. Burning with a sense of justice, Link resolved to save Zelda, but Ganon was a powerful opponent. He held the Triforce of Power. And so, in order to fight off Ganon, Link had to bring the scattered eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom together to rebuild the mystical triangle. If he couldn't do this, there would be no chance Link could fight his way into Death Mountain where Ganon lived."
This provides a sense of the scope and breadth of this adventure. We have several elements of a fantasy tale: An evil wizard, a good princess, a wise woman, an altruistic sword-wielding hero with a sense of justice, and a quest to find a magical artifact which is the only thing that can stop the antagonist's scheme. So, is The Legend of Zelda a fairy tale, or a sword and sorcery story? Let's compare some tropes from the Conan stories to those found in the Legend of Zelda.

  • Antagonist: An evil wizard seeks to "plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule," and only a magical artifact can stop him. (cf. Black Colossus and Thugra Khotan. See also The Hour of The Dragon and Xaltotun's motivations, as well as The Heart of Ahriman.)
  • The Initiation of The Quest: Link's quest is initiated by Impa, who represents the wise elder in our story. However, during the course of the game, Link meets an old man who often gives him magical weaponry or hints as to how to proceed (refer to Epimetrius from The Phoenix on The Sword, and Pelias from The Scarlet Citadel.)
  • Unnatural monsters: Ganon's minions include ghosts, skeletons, and other monsters beyond comprehension (see the pits of Tsotha-lanti, and Thog from The Slithering Shadow.)
  • Magical items: There is a magical item that is necessary to inflict damage upon Ganon during the game's climactic boss battle, the Silver Arrows (refer to the phoenix-marked sword from The Phoenix on The Sword.)
  • Medicine: A beverage that Link can find or purchase during his quest will completely or partially heal his wounds (see the golden liquid found in Xuthal from The Slithering Shadow.)

I am not saying that Shigeru Miyamoto was directly influenced by Robert E. Howard for his game. Instead, I am suggesting that Robert E. Howard's influence on the genome of fantasy literature was so pervasive that elements from his stories became tropes in the genre, and they were expressed in The Legend of Zelda as a result. While later entries in the Legend of Zelda franchise feel more mythic, more like high fantasy, I believe that the quest Link undertakes to reunite the pieces of The Triforce, to rescue Princess Zelda, and deliver the kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon's tyranny are closer in nature to the writings of Robert E. Howard than to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

I ran across some art by David Palumbo (here's a link to his blog) that casts Link in a gritty, pulp fantasy inspired way. Picture these in your mind's eye the next time you play The Legend of Zelda, and see if they capture the nature and feel of the game in a way that feels very natural. 

What do you think? Is The Legend of Zelda a fairy tale, or an example of the influence of sword and sorcery in the early days of 8-bit gaming? Sound off in the comments, or send us an email (thecromcast at gmail dot com).

Until next time!