What Zelda Gets Right About Time Travel

If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen Hyrule — the magical kingdom that is the setting of most of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games — in good time and bad. In perhaps the most culturally pervasive game in the series, those good times and bad times are separated by only seven years.

I’m talking, of course, about Ocarina of Time, the 1998 edition of the game and the first on the Nintendo 64. In it, our hero Link is tasked with traveling back and forth in time in his quest to defeat the evil Ganondorf. At the start of the game, Ganondorf is but an ambitious man in the desert with hopes to conquer Hyrule. Seven years in the future, he has done so.

Without going too much into the story (which comes with some relief, due to my unwillingness to be lectured by those who know their Zelda far better than I do), the game’s central mechanism is Link’s ability to travel seven years into the future to see Hyrule under Ganondorf and to fight for its freedom from his reign. I can confirm the presence of an ocarina in all of this.

But one thing that’s interesting about that is how Ocarina of Time presents time travel. When Link takes to the river of time, he doesn’t wash up quickly and looking the same, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Instead, he’s brought to what is essentially a different dimension called the Sacred Realm. He then wakes up seven years in the future, and he’s also aged those seven years. It’s less like he travels through time and more like he’s put on ice while it passes.

According to Scientific America, this sort of dimension-diving time travel might have some basis in reality. Quoting writer Kyle Hill:

String theory in pop culture is usually shorthand for “something really complicated.” It’s true; string theory is at the forefront of resolving numerous mysteries in physics, even though it has little empirical evidence to support it. But it does make some fascinating assertions. According to the math, and in order to jive with quantum mechanics, string theory asserts that we live in a universe of many dimensions, not just four. We can do some asserting of our own and suggest that perhaps the Sacred Realm of OoT resides in one of these elusive dimensions. What better place to cloister the Triforce?

It isn’t a crazy assertion either. In the classic book Flatland, the author describes what it would be like for a strictly two-dimensional creature to experience the third dimension (you can watch Carl Sagan describe this brilliantly here). The third dimension is inhabited by 3D beings, but is completely invisible to the simple 2D creatures. They cannot even dream of what an extra dimension looks like. Similarly, if Link were plucked from above into a higher dimension, it would be as if he simply vanished from the universe and returned seven years later.

Unfortunately, Hill writes, these principles wouldn’t work for Link’s traveling back in time. That would require, as he puts it, a “resort to magic.”

Check out the Scientific America article to read more about the science behind the time travel in the Zelda series.