There are minor plot spoilers for many Zelda games in this article and one notable spoiler from 'Skyward Sword.' There will also be plot points from 'Breath of the Wild' that were confirmed by the Treehouse. If you consider those spoilers, then you have been warned.
After two and a half years of long waiting, Nintendo has finally graced us with our first real look at the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW). The game seems to truly take the franchise back to its roots with an emphasis on exploration we haven't seen since the original Legend of Zelda.
I've been a lifelong Zelda fan, so I managed to spend most of my day watching Nintendo's E3 Livestream, Treehouse Live. During the stream, series creators Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma joined with Bill Trinen and other members of the North American localization team (the Nintendo Treehouse). They spent the day showing fans gameplay from a demo which they claimed was set up with the intent of giving nothing away about the greater plot of the game. They did a good job, too. We only got a few nuggets of the story, but, from these nuggets, I started to theorize about the greater plot.
As I was thinking, a fun idea popped into my head. Then, I started to think, "What if it is more than a fun idea?" Then, I started noticing things from around the demo that supported my idea, and I think I could very well be right. If I am right, we are in for one memorable ride for Zelda's 30th anniversary. I wrote this theory and posted it on the Nintendo subreddit, where it has sparked discussion. I woke up the morning after posting the theory to the sub to see a request to share my theory with Now Loading, and I am happy to oblige.
The goal of my theory is to place this game onto the timeline, tell you a few things about Hyrule as it stands, and, most importantly, tell you just who the hero of this game actually is.
The "plot" of the 'Breath of the Wild' demo
Before I get into the meat of my theory, I want to go over the plot points that I gleaned from the Treehouse live footage. As I mentioned, the plot in the demo is pretty bare bones, but here is what we are given:
The game starts off with a feminine voice telling Link to wake up, in an awakening that seems straight out of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. As he emerges from a pool where he seems to have been held in stasis — basically naked — he is given a mysterious tablet called a Sheikah Slate. Next, he finds some (optional) clothing and then he leaves the cave from which he awoke (which is named the Shrine of Resurrection). After leaving the Shrine, Link is met with the vast wilderness of the Great Plateau. From this point on, the player is free to do whatever s/he wants.
The Treehouse showed one of the first nuggets of plot Link can find. There is an old man sitting by a campfire near the Shrine of Resurrection who tells you that the Kingdom of Hyrule has declined. He advises you to explore a decayed building which, upon further inspection, is (without a doubt) the Temple of Time from Ocarina of Time. Anybody who ventures to the top of the Temple of Time is greeted by a Korok, a creature from Wind Waker. Both these details are important, but we will get back to them later.
For the rest of the demo, players were encouraged to explore the Great Plateau and venture into the Shrines that were sprinkled around the map. One tower Link could visit gives us a small piece of exposition telling us that Link was asleep for 100 years. We get our biggest plot revelation after completing the puzzle of any single Shrine; the Sheikah who guards the shrine will say:
It is important to note this is Ganon, not Ganondorf. For those not familiar with the difference, Ganon is the pig-like monster most notably from the original game and A Link to the Past. Ganondorf is his human form whom we see in Super Smash Brothers, Ocarina of Time, and most modern games. In some of the past Zelda games, Ganondorf has transformed into Ganon; however, the transformation is usually a last resort we don't see until the very end of the game.
In games where the beast Ganon is exclusively the main villain, he is referred to only as "Ganon" throughout the entire game, never as "Ganondorf." The fact that the main villain appears to be Ganon may seem small, but it will be important later down the line.
To summarize, the Treehouse footage showed Link leaving the Shrine of Resurrection, meeting an old man, finding the ruined Temple of Time, and learning that Ganon, not Ganondorf is the main villain of this world. These pieces of information reveal more about the game then they may at first seem to. But first, it helps us place the game on the timeline.
Placing 'Breath of the Wild' on the Zelda timeline
Zelda timeline 101
For those unaware, the Zelda timeline has always been fairly convoluted. For a long time, fans tried to make a chronology that linked all the Zelda games into one cohesive story. Before the official timeline was released, we had even been told that, after Ocarina of Time, the timeline split. In Ocarina of Time, Link travels between his present and seven years into the future in order to defeat Ganondorf. Most fans assumed the timeline would be split in two — one branch following the reality of the future that Link saves (called the Adult Timeline) and the other timeline following the altered present Link creates when he goes back to his original time (called the Child Timeline).
Fans finally got an official timeline in 2011 when the Hyrule Historia was published — (notice A Link Between Worlds and Triforce Heroes are omitted because they had not been made in 2011). To the surprise of many, the timeline split into three branches at Ocarina of Time. There were the expected Adult and Child timelines but also a third where Link fails to defeat Ganondorf and presumably dies. This branch has always seemed like the black sheep because it appears to be a branch where Nintendo just piled all the games that couldn't logically fit into the other timelines.
The process of elimination
The pre-split or unified branch is where many people placed the game before E3, due to the aesthetic similarities with Skyward Sword. They also pointed to Link being right-handed and the uncivilized feel of the land. Most people in this camp speculated that this would be a direct sequel to Skyward Sword. The game would presumably tell the story of Link's quest to establish Hyrule with Zelda. However, the presence of a Temple of Time in ruins and the fact that Ganon is an established villain both seem to strongly point to this game taking place after Ocarina of Time rather than before it.
Chronologically, Ganon and Ganondorf are both first seen in Ocarina of Time. With this in mind, all the clues in the game's world seem to suggest this game takes place in one of the three post-Ocarina branches, which leads me to believe we can safely exclude the unified branch from consideration.
After that, I had the fun of finding which of the three branches the game should go on. I have not seen — nor have I thought of — a strong case for this game taking place in the Child branch, so I never seriously considered that timeline. In fact, we can look to the Temple of Time again to help eliminate the Child Branch. In Twilight Princess, Link finds the Master Sword in the ruins of a Temple of Time that is completely destroyed aside from the Pedestal of Time. In Breath of the Wild, the Temple of Time is in a bad state, but it is still standing. This means the game cannot be a sequel to Twilight Princess.
It doesn't seem to be a prequel to Twilight Princess either; Hyrule is a robust civilization in Twilight Princess before the story begins. It doesn't seem likely that Hyrule would recover in the way it would have to in order for Breath of the Wild to be a Twilight Princess prequel. (For those who point to Wolf Link, I think that is definitely just an Amiibo bonus. It is a cool bonus without a doubt, but I don't think we can use it to place the game on the Child timeline.)
There is a decent case for this game to take place on the Adult branch as a sequel to Wind Waker. One of the minerals you can find while journeying around is rock salt the came from an ancient sea receding. Many fans have assumed that this is an allusion to the Great Sea. We also know that the Koroks, who were previously seen in Wind Waker, are hidden around the game. I think the case for the Adult timeline is a valid one, and I can't disprove it; however, I don't think the evidence given means the game must be in the Adult Timeline.
The ancient sea could just as easily be the sea that receded into the Lanayru Sand Sea from Skyward Sword. I could say the Koroks might just be an Easter Egg but that would be lazy. The evolution of the Koroks seemed to be voluntary, and I don't see why they can't have undergone the same transformation in the timeline in which I think Breath of the Wild will happen.
My case for the Death of the Hero timeline
As you have probably guessed, I believe the game takes place on the Death of the Hero timeline. I will openly admit my evidence is more circumstantial than the case for the Adult Link timeline. This started as a gut feeling when I saw the decayed Temple of Time, but I believe I am right. The first thing I will point to is Hyrule itself. The land has an open, barren feel to it, and there is very little in terms of civilization (I know that the demo was set up so Link wouldn't encounter any villages). This barren Hyrule is littered with allusions to a great civilization that had fallen. The only other Zelda games that gave me this feeling were the original two Zelda games, both of which reside on the Death of the Hero timeline.
Another point is how similar game mechanics are with other Fallen Hero games. This is the only timeline where the games feel really exploration-based. The games on the other branches are all more action-adventure focused and are fairly linear in terms of plot progression, where Death of the Hero games are freer.
There are also some thematic elements that seem to point to this game taking place after A Link to the Past and its sequel, A Link Between Worlds. The first is in the logo; the Master Sword weaves its way through the Z in "Zelda" just like it did in A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening, which were both Fallen Hero games.
For my next point, look at the picture of the Master Sword at the top of the article. It is placed on the Pedestal of Time but seems to have been abandoned there to rust for quite some time. The Pedestal of Time we see in this picture seems to most strongly resemble the one from A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds. The Master Sword is out in the open, in the middle of the woods as opposed to being in the Temple of Time's ruins.
It is also important to note this game is being made to commemorate every aspect of the Legend of Zelda franchise. Although its release date will have it missing the anniversary itself, there is a certain sentimental value to the Death of the Hero timeline since that is where the NES original and A Link to the Past reside.
The final piece of evidence I will point to for the Death of the Hero Timeline is Ganon as the main villain: There has never been a Zelda game where Ganon is the sole villain outside of the Fallen Hero timeline. Ganon has appeared outside of this Timeline, but only as a transformation of Ganondorf. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt Ganondorf is in this game since the Sheikah would have referred to him as Ganondorf instead of Ganon.
Placing 'Breath of the Wild' in the Death of the Hero Timeline
Placing the game exactly on the timeline is a challenge, and there isn't as much direct evidence for my assertions at this time, but I think this game should be after Zelda II. In Zelda II, we see a Hyrule that is mostly barren but with a few small villages — which sounds very similar to the Hyrule we were shown at E3. In Breath of the Wild, we clearly don't have a bustling, robust civilization; it seems as if the monarchy has completely fallen, since the fleeting references to the Kingdom all appear to be in the past tense. The game's logo supports the idea that this game takes place late in whatever timeline 'BotW' takes place in.
The logo sports a rusty, chipped Master Sword and the word "Zelda" is decayed and even has a flower growing on it. This seems to indicate that the game takes place later than any other Zelda game up to this point. Breath of the Wild taking place after Zelda II doesn't need to be the case, however.
My theory on Link can fit pretty much anywhere on the Death of the Hero timeline but, in terms of the greater narrative and considering the state of Hyrule, I think having the game after what the timeline calls the "Era of Decline" makes the most sense. I strongly believe this game will take place after Zelda II, but there is another place on the Death of the Hero Timeline Breath of the Wild could be placed and still hit many of the same notes as a Zelda II sequel.
It is also possible Breath of the Wild could be a prequel to the original game, The Legend of Zelda. The original game's Hyrule is in a similar state to the one we saw in Zelda II. One of the people reading my original piece pointed out that the Master Sword in the logo may be indicative of a Zelda I prequel. The Master Sword is not present in either The Legend of Zelda or Zelda II, which seems to indicate the blade was either lost or destroyed before the events of those games. Perhaps a rusty and battle-worn Master Sword will see its last battle in Breath of the Wild? This would also tie into the sentimentality this game is going for.
The parallels between Breath of the Wild and the original may be because you are exploring Hyrule in its state directly before the events of the first Zelda game. The picture below shows just one parallel between the two worlds, and Aonuma said on the Treehouse Livestream he wanted to recreate the picture on the right when Link first left the Shrine of Resurrection.
The main characters
Unmasking the Old Man
Realizing who the old man is started me on the path to my whole crackpot theory. One of the first things he tells Link also reveals the secret behind his identity. As I mentioned previously, after you leave the Shrine of Resurrection you talk to an old man who points you to the Temple of Time and gives you some exposition. This old man had a knack for showing up and bothering Link in a couple Treehouse Live portions. One of the people playing drew a parallel with Kaepora Gaebora, the bothersome owl from Ocarina of Time.
After the first talk with him on the Treehouse Livestream, Bill Trinen continued on his merry way, burning down portions of Hyrule indiscriminately. However, there is some other footage of people who talked to him again. If you ask him what he is doing he says he is "passing the time" in green letters, which seems to emphasize a connection between the old man and the passing of time. By now, I am hopeful that I have led some Zelda aficionados to my conclusion on who the old man is.
I think the old man is the Sage of Light, Rauru, from Ocarina of Time.
Rauru serves as the guiding figure for Young Link in Ocarina of Time through Kaepora. After Link traveled to the future, Rauru is the one who gave Link the quest to find the Seven Sages, which is Link's main quest for much of Ocarina of Time. Although he resided in the Temple of Light during Ocarina of Time, the only way for Link to get to the Temple of Light without the help of a Sage was through the Temple of Time, which Rauru built during the Era of Chaos on the grounds of the Sealed Temple to protect the Pedestal of Time and the Sacred Realm.
In Breath of the Wild, we meet the old man near the ruins of the Temple of Time — which are very important to Rauru. His comment about him biding his time is clearly emphasized, and this creates an association between the old man and the passage of time. Finally, the parallels with Kaepora Gaebora all seem to point to the old man being the Sage Rauru.
What is up with Zelda?
I am going to put a disclaimer out saying that this is the leg of my theory with the least support and the most likely to be wrong. I created this vision for Zelda since it seems like the natural progression for her character given the groundwork laid by 'Skyward Sword' and the clues we have been given by the game so far.
Aside from the title, I don't think the name Zelda has been dropped at all in-game; she is noticeably absent. This leads me to believe there won't be a Princess Zelda in this game. Instead, I think she will play the role as the goddess Hylia, and I believe it is her voice that woke Link up in the Shrine of Resurrection. I think it makes sense for there not to be a Princess Zelda since it seems as if there really isn't much of a Kingdom of Hyrule at this point. This is further supported by the Sheikah of each Shrine.
They ask the goddess directly for aid. It seems to indicate the goddess Hylia herself — and not a mortal incarnation of her — will be present in Breath of the Wild. In Skyward Sword, it was revealed that every Zelda is a mortal manifestation of the goddess Hylia who takes physical form to intervene in the machinations of Hyrule directly. I think the goddess Hylia will play a passive role, giving Link exposition and helping through indirect means. The Sheikah whom Link talks to all implore the goddess to help him on his journey, and then they give him a Spirit Orb. Perhaps as he gathers more Spirit Orbs he is endowed with more of the goddess' power?
Who is Link?
Here it is, the part this whole theory has built up to. Most of what I have written up to this point leads to my final solution for who Link is. The entire opening scene in the Shrine of Resurrection gave me the vibe that this Link wasn't a new character. From the “Link, wake up” to the cave being called the Shrine of Resurrection, it seemed to me that we were playing as an old Link who had been brought back.
My first guess was Skyward Sword's Link. He is right handed after all, but it seems unlikely Nintendo would go that route so soon after Skyward Sword. Either way, there is a far more fascinating option that wraps up one of the biggest loose ends in the Zelda Timeline. For the past 5 years, the Death of the Hero timeline has been the dark horse of the Zelda franchise. Before the official timeline, we knew there was a split but always assumed there were only two: the adult timeline and the kid timeline. Nobody had guessed the Death of the Hero timeline was a thing before the Hyrule Historia timeline came out, and it always seemed out of place.
Why go to the trouble of having a timeline where the Hero of Time failed if the timeline could be explained without it? The answer is simple: Nintendo needed the Hero of Time to die for a reason. I think it's all been building up to this game since at least the time of Hyrule Historia's publication. Why? Because in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild we are playing as the resurrected Hero of Time, who has been brought back to life finish the quest he failed in Ocarina of Time.
My narrative for the Death of the Hero timeline
It all starts in the ruins of Hyrule Castle at the end of Ocarina of Time. Link has just defeated Ganondorf and escaped from Hyrule Castle with Princess Zelda. As anyone who has played Ocarina of Time knows, Ganondorf is not dead yet. He emerges from the rubble and transforms to the beast, Ganon, where he immediately disarms you of the Master Sword — Link must defeat Ganon without the legendary blade.
In the game, the player succeeds in defeating Ganon at this point, but I think this is where it makes the most sense for Link to fail in the Fall of the Hero timeline. This is the first time we see Ganon chronologically and the point where Link is the most vulnerable to being defeated. After Link is killed, Zelda would be Ganon's next target. Once both of them are defeated, Ganon is finally able to reunite the Triforce under his power, and his next targets would be the remaining sages.
As Ganon is hunting them down, Rauru recovers the body of the Hero of Time — perhaps the Hero still has a spark of life. Maybe Rauru or Hylia has the power to raise the dead, but either he or the goddess use the same magic that sealed Link in the Temple of Time for seven years to put him in a stasis in the Shrine of Resurrection in order to recover him.
The fight between Ganon and the sages would result in Ganon being sealed until A Link to the Past. After this, Rauru goes into hiding and bides his time until the Hero of Time comes back. When Link is fully healed, Hylia calls on him to wake up, and that is where the game begins. Link doesn't seem to remember anything, but Rauru and Hylia will lead him along the way as Link rediscovers who he is and sets out once more to atone for his previous failure.
Aonuma has said in an interview with Polygon that Link will only find more information about the plot as he explores. In theory, the player doesn't need to know anything about the rest of the story to beat Breath of the Wild, and I think this is perfect.
Breath of the Wild's story is something you earn; nothing is given to you. The only way we will uncover the truth is by finding it ourselves, and I think that will make theorizing in the year leading up to this game far more fun. Obviously, I could be reading into everything way too much and be off my freaking rocker. Most likely, I got bits and pieces right but missed the grand scheme. The most important parts of my theory, however, are its placement in the Death of the Hero timeline and the fact you are playing as a resurrected Hero of Time.
Think back to what I said about this being a celebration of Zelda. Without a doubt Link's most iconic incarnation is the Hero of Time. The thought of it being him came into my mind, and then I realized it would be the perfect way to celebrate the series. The most iconic Link, the Hero of Time, taking out Ganon in the Hyrule of the first game sounds like a match made in heaven. No game has made me think like this before. I don't want people to accept this at face value, though. I want this to make people think, in the same way The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has already made me think.