Video games, like other artforms, have long placed emphasis on the power of narration. Even in the early days of the 8-bit era games like Mega Man, which were by no means text-heavy, featured complex and convoluted backstories packed away in the instruction manual. Indeed, predating home console action games were the text-based adventure games on PC like Dungeons and Dragons, which were nothing but story.
As the medium evolved and the technology advanced, games grew more able to take on more narrative complexity. By the early 1990s, RPGs on the Super NES became renowned for their epic-scale plots; by the end of the decade, Hideo Kojima was revolutionising the industry with his cinematic Metal Gear Solid.
As the videogame market was becoming more lucrative, publishers became more eager for sequels to successful games that would replicate their appeal. Of course, videogame franchises were nothing new; unlike other mediums, game sequels allowed for developers to iron out technical issues, add content cut from the original and offer a new take on an established formula.
Sometimes, it appears as though the whole idea of a game’s ‘universe’ was ignored in favour of churning out the next blockbuster in time for Christmas
Nevertheless, pressures on developers to create sequels that matched or even exceeded the ‘epic-ness’ of their predecessor led to inconsistencies appearing in the overarching plot of each franchise. Sometimes, it appears as though the whole idea of a game’s ‘universe’ was ignored in favour of churning out the next blockbuster in time for Christmas.
Perhaps the most infamous example is that seen in the Legend of Zelda series. From A Link to the Past (the third game in the franchise) onwards, the main character Link is depicted as a distinct member of a broad family tree, with each iteration a descendant of a previous ‘Link’. On top of this, the games often featured a radically altered world to previous instalments, which made placing them in any kind of order hugely challenging.
In 1998, Nintendo released Ocarina of Time to great acclaim, at which point the question of the timeline became very, very messy indeed; the time-travel component of the gameplay which was highly praised at the time has a large portion of the blame for this. In addition, its plot was very similar to its predecessor, A Link to the Past, while at the same time having major differences (such as time-travel, which never featured in the third game).
Another problem was the sheer difference, for instance, between 2003’s The Wind Waker, in which the land of Hyrule has been completely flooded by the Great Ocean, and the following game, Twilight Princess, in which Hyrule is very much on dry land. Not only that, but both games feature totally contradicting backstories concerning the aftermath of Ocarina and the fate of chief antagonist Ganon.
This issue, and many others (such as where the multiplayer Four Swords games fit) led to the Zelda timeline becoming something of a meme in gaming circles, with absurdly complex timelines featuring multiple parallel timelines. Most commonly, fan timelines featured two branching timelines, usually with Ocarina as the point of divergence.
Eventually, bowing to fan pressure, Nintendo released its official timeline in the 2011 book Hyrule Historia, which featured no less than three alternate timelines: dubbed the Adult Link, Child Link and the Downfall Timeline). This placed Ocarina of Time as the point at which the story diverged (given the time-travel elements of that game’s plot). However, the latest release, 2017’s Breath of the Wild, appears to contradict this. It is set after Ocarina, but appears to be in all three timelines. This has reignited the debate among fans and many now totally reject the ‘official’ timeline in favour of their own interpretations.
While the Zelda timeline has essentially been nothing more than something for nerds to scream at each other about, the individual games are thankfully self-contained (to an acceptable extent, at least); an expansive knowledge of the series is not required to jump onboard the Breath of the Wild love-boat.
the highly complex plot that runs through the series (main features: clones and the military-industrial complex) can overwhelm any unfortunate newcomer who picks up the wrong entry as a jumping on point.
The same cannot be said for the Metal Gear Solid franchise. The series debuted on the MSX2 computer in Japan and Europe in 1987, and quickly made the jump onto the home market. Unlike the Legend of Zelda, MGS’ troubles come from the fact that many of the games are ambiguously canonical. In addition, the highly complex plot that runs through the series (main features: clones and the military-industrial complex) can overwhelm any unfortunate newcomer who picks up the wrong entry as a jumping on point.
While the first two games are canon, their NES ports (which are better known in the west) are not. Snake’s Revenge (the 1990 NES sequel) was produced by Konami without Kojima’s knowledge. It was purged from the timeline with the confusingly-titled Metal Gear II: Solid Snake replacing it later in 1990 , but only in Japan. To add to the sequel confusion, 2000 saw a Metal Gear Solid appear on the Game Boy Color (known in Japan as Ghost Babel). It too posed itself as a sequel to the original, but was conceived as a non-canon, ‘alternate’ sequel.
This did not stop Kojima from referencing the game’s plot in later (canon) MGS entries. Worse still are the status of the obscure entries, like Metal Gear Solid Mobile for the console/phone hybrid oddities, Nokia N-Gage and Verizon. It purports to be the missing link between Metal Gear Solid and its sequel Sons of Liberty, and while nothing in it explicitly contradicts established canon it appears to have been totally forgotten by Konami, as it is absent in the various official lists of the series. With the recent departure of Kojima from the company, it is not inconceivable that there will be more complications if Konami attempts to capitalise on the series without its creator.
In the case of both the Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear Solid, what makes the timelines confusing for both is that the release order of the games does not correspond with the canonical order. Surely it would be easier for everyone if MGS 3 was the third (or, more strictly speaking, fifth) chapter in the narrative, instead of the earliest game story-wise. Or that the original Legend of Zelda was the first game in both release and canon, and not the tenth (depending on how you order alternate timelines). While it is extraordinary, sometimes inspirational, to consider the time, effort and dedication some fans have demonstrated in rectifying these issues, the fact that they exist appears to be a consequence of the video game industry’s prioritising profit over the quality of the games they produce.