This article contains minor spoilers for dungeons, broad plot developments and one major quest location in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
My visit to Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s Forgotten Temple began auspiciously with the tragi-comic death of my horse, Dennis. I was peering into a deep canyon north-west of Hyrule Castle, trying to work out the precise elevation of the quest waypoint on my minimap, when Dennis came charging across the grasslands and went right over the cliff, disappearing into the murk without a sound.
I plunged after him, fanning my glider a few feet from the bottom, and caught up with my valiant steed’s crumpled body just as it despawned. Not in a cloud of purple smoke, as with defeated enemies – that touch of pantomime which stops Zelda’s fights feeling like slaughter. My dead horse just vanished, deleted from the simulation. I felt like I’d crossed a boundary of some kind. Looking up from the space where Dennis no longer was, I found myself on a huge expanse of sandstone, cut into long blocks and raised circular designs.
I walked in one direction for five minutes, scrambling awkwardly across squat geological motifs that were too high to jump over but too low to glide from, only to find myself at another cliff face, without even a Korok seed to compensate me for my troubles. I set off in the other direction for another five minutes, and came to an edge. I dropped over it, flew in a lazy circle with my glider, and belatedly discovered what I’d been standing on: a massive, sunken building with a sloping, pillared entrance way, huge enough to house a family of dragons.
The Forgotten Temple exists in the previous Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, and it looks the same here from a distance. But it feels different. Partly it’s that it’s no longer full of clapped-out robot spiders with laser eyes: all you have to worry about, on your first visit, are a few stray Bokoblins. And partly it’s that Tears of the Kingdom’s additional systems – many of them defined by the act of addition – throw the essentially subtractive nature of the Forgotten Temple into sharper relief.
The Forgotten Temple isn’t just another ruin, like the charming Zonai confections you find in Tears of the Kingdom’s skies. It’s a gap in Zelda’s understanding of itself. The game’s other Temples are precision engineered puzzleboxes, made up of symmetrical paths to sub-objectives and challenges with relatively clean solutions. You can brute-force or short-circuit their workings by crafting weird or crude machines with Ultrahand – fortunate, given that I swiftly lost patience with the Fire Temple’s passion for minecarts – but they are, nonetheless, ostentatiously intentional spaces that embrace your presence, conversations between the player and some chuckling, avuncular designer, carefully built around Link’s expanding capabilities and bodily proportions.
The Forgotten Temple feels like the aforesaid designer reached a colossal hand into one of those temples and tore out the fittings without looking, the smiling mask of the designer falling away to reveal… blankness. It’s the shell of a Zelda level, with just a few ladders, a smattering of random resources, and a lot of tiny disappointments that quietly accrue into something menacing: gaps between or behind toppled statues that only look like secret routes, pillared bridges that, once you scramble up to them, contain nothing of great interest, an overwhelming refusal to deliver that weighs on you like a blossoming migraine.
There’s a major quest to undertake here, one that sends you out all across Hyrule. But the space itself rebuffs the very curiosity it kindles. The immense sandy surfaces stretch out obliviously and the distant Bokoblins dance around like sparks thrown up by the embers of their campfire. The cyclopean trenches dug into the floor take too long to walk along, and the collectibles glinting at the other end always feel like they’ve been placed there to annoy you. Your eyes unfocus and the time drips away.
The Forgotten Temple does things to my mind. Its negative space is an assault of some kind. There’s something more labyrinthine about it than any labyrinth. All you have to do here is make your way through several gigantic, gutted chambers to the far end of the building, but the sheer lack of the place had me hunting for things to fill it with, and overlooking obvious routes to my objective. I built machines with Ultrahand to solve terrain puzzles that didn’t exist, taking elaborate measures to reach high points I could simply climb or Ascend to. I ferreted about for concealed doors and threw my hands up in consternation, only to suddenly notice the enormous gap in one wall – impossible to miss in hindsight, yet deviously permitted to blur with the dessicated yellows of the wall directly behind.
If Tears of the Kingdom is, as Donlan has elsewhere argued beautifully, the act of excavating the pleasing linearity of certain older Zeldas from the dirt of Breath of the Wild, then the Forgotten Temple feels like a part of the game where the process has begun to move into reverse, the fixtures disappearing backwards into the open world firmament, leaving the explorer in limbo between conceptions of Zelda.
It also spells out that Zelda at large is one grand cycle of forgetfulness. Some Zelda games have explicit amnesiac elements, like Breath of the Wild, but even those that don’t hinge on the ceremony of “forgetting” the core workings of the Zelda myth, whereby Ganon or something like him rises from darkness, Zelda or someone like her is endangered, the backstory is unravelled by visiting the appropriate sages or temples, and evil finally vanquished through some combination of McGuffins, sweet tunes and factional alliances. Each game introduces these narrative fixtures as if for the first time. Savouring their stories is a pleasing ritual, not a journey, a mechanical and comforting performance of suspense and revelation.
Tears of the Kingdom takes this to the point of parody with its Temple cutscenes, in which the Sages relive the same flashbacks about the war with the Demon King, the dialogue repeating almost word-for-word – by the third iteration, I wanted Link to check out and start browsing Twitter in the background. But as a direct sequel, Tears of the Kingdom also overwrites Zelda’s trick of forgetting itself by restoring large swathes of the world map from Breath of the Wild, its geometry often immediately familiar underfoot. The bald irony of the Forgotten Temple in the new game is that it’s a place you remember, however transformed. This is now a realm with an enduring, traversable history – not just a pool of water enchanted with a cinematic of some freshly invented mythological backdrop, but an elder incarnation of the same geography that exists side-by-side on the Switch menu screen.
As such, it’s an important escalation in the on-going debate about whether Zelda is best thought of as an endlessly modified fairytale or a rambling chronological epic with different games corresponding to different eras. A strictly episodic Zelda series with a tangible, navigable past no longer has the freedom to generate its own history in order to pursue different themes and mechanics, or the gorgeous evolution of its symbology. It can’t forget in order to weave the legend afresh, like a parent improvising a new bedtime story from the hazy remnants of the tales they themselves were told as a child. It must reckon with the gravitational pull of the previous game – and with the urgent need of certain Zelda fans for consistency and chains of causation.
Tears of the Kingdom also walks an intriguing line with its object-crafting elements, which again rely on “forgetfulness”, but also aspire to permanence like no other Zelda game before. For all the rhapsodising about the freeplay potential of Ultrahand and Fuse, the godlike yet whimsical agency these tools confer upon the wanderer, the principle force driving them is loss. The Fused weapons still shatter, however artfully “earned” by the imaginative player. Even the sturdiest Ultrahand builds evaporate when they pass beyond sight.
As with Breath of the Wild, the world is prone to theatrically erasing the player’s conquests, with Blood Moons rewinding your massacres and restoring enemy outposts to fighting fitness. Ultrahand and Fuse underline this atmosphere of transience, by letting you spend minutes and hours constructing things you can’t keep (though Autobuild, at least, lets you duplicate or rather, buy back your choicest Ultrahandiwork using chunks of Zonaite). I’m not offering this as a mark against Tears of the Kingdom, but I think it’s important to emphasise that videogame “creativity”, even within the magic circle of a first-party Nintendo title, is as much about artificial scarcity and inconvenience, disposability and frustration as it is some poignant daydream of uninhibited childish tinkering.
Visiting the Forgotten Temple clarified all this for me. It’s one of Tears of the Kingdom’s few “authentic” ruins – not just a deceptively tumbledown playspace, but an engulfing absence believably formed by erosion and entropy, which serves as a threshold to the wider mysteries and contradictions of Zelda as a “fairytale epic”. It hints at the frightening vacuum beneath the game’s bounty, the negative attractors that determine your behaviour as much as the shocking abundance of destinations, props and combinations. It’s a connective particle of nothing, a wormhole to its likeness in Breath of the Wild, with which it exists simultaneously in a state of quantum amnesia. It is forgotten, remembered and misremembered, all at once. I kind of love it here, pseudo-intellectual miseryguts that I am. Though I do rather miss my horse.