Mise-En-Game: Meeting Ganondorf

As gaming has evolved, video game makers sought to expand the possibilities of the medium as a form of entertainment. One of the key developments of these efforts was the addition of a “cinematic” aspect to gaming, drawing gamers into the world through the familiar medium of visual storytelling. In this series, we’ll be examining how game makers use cinematic language to tell stories through cutscenes. We’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly, but above all the goal will be to study the effectiveness of this combination of two different storytelling mediums.

Today’s subject: 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. By looking into a key development in the game’s narrative: The first encounter between protagonist Link and antagonist Ganondorf, we can appreciate how the simple use of shot compositions, character blocking, sound design, and simple actions taken by the characters can all come together to convey an exciting moment.

Scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLXch32truM


We start with an extreme wide shot that pans left across the sky over Hyrule Field. There’s no music here, instead, our soundtrack is the quiet but eerie calm before a literal storm. The sky blackens, thunder cracks, and bolts of lightning strike over Hyrule Castle Town. As the camera settles in front of the sealed entrance gate, rain begins to pour down in sheets. A simple but important technique to notice is how the camera is angled low on Castle Town, making the structure look large and imposing. Between the cinematography and the manipulation of the environment, one thing is abundantly clear: This isn’t the Castle Town we were ecstatic to enter the first time we trekked across Hyrule Field.


As rain continues to pour, the drawbridge slowly lowers. We pull back, rushing over the shoulder of Link as he stands alone in front of the gates. Again, the camera is positioned slightly lower than usual, making Link appear even smaller than he normally would. Low angle camera positioning and specific placement of characters in the frame are going to be a running element throughout this cutscene, and while they may be very simple forms of composition, they’re used quite efficiently here.


Lower and slightly askew, the camera now catches a white steed dashing out of Castle Town. The horse runs out of frame from right to left. Hard cut to Link, who barely manages to avoid being crushed by the horse. The cuts between shots are becoming quicker, emphasizing urgency. Our next shot is a close-up that reveals Princess Zelda to be one of the horse’s riders. She looks terrified, and as the camera pulls back, we see that she is huddled under the arms of her caretaker Impa. Impa looks determined, pushing the horse to move faster as they speed through the rain.


In one of the more dynamic shots of the cutscene, Zelda sits up, taking Impa by surprise, as she hurls something back towards Link. The camera pans out and over the field while it simultaneously continues to keep pace with the speeding horse. The positioning of Zelda and her protector in the moving foreground creates an interesting effect, as it makes her effort to throw the object in her hand towards the constantly receding Castle look impossible.


A flat, static shot of the Castle Town moat shows that whatever Zelda threw managed to land in the waters surrounding the structure. It’s a brief shot meant to get information across to the player. Cinematically, it’s a bit boring; and it could’ve been handled better or outright removed if delivering gameplay info wasn’t a factor.


Link now stands in the left foreground of the frame with Hyrule Field stretching out in front of him, a complimentary piece of framing to the shot of Zelda throwing her item from horseback. However, this shot is actually about to become more dynamic than its counterpart, as the camera swoops low, circling around Link as he turns in reaction to something behind him. As Link finishes pivoting, he’s now in the right foreground looking up with the audience at a man atop a jet black horse. Thunder cracks again as we hear the scene’s first use of music.


Said music, now a more sinister use of the game’s synthesized combination of ocarina, percussion and horns, scores a low angle shot that comes up onto the red-headed man as he stares determinedly off frame. We finally stop with the man framed in close up, and with this, we get our first piece of dialogue: “Arrrrgh! I lost her!” Maintaining our close up, the man turns and looks down, establishing an eye-line with Link based on where we last saw the boy standing in frame. With a smirk on his face, the man asks: “You, over there! Little kid!”


For the first time in this scene, the action is now framed at a high angle, and the usage here is important. With the man on horseback dominating the right side of the frame, this high angle camera work helps to make Link look smaller and more helpless than he’s ever been. Combined with the rising unease brought about by the score and there’s no denying that we’ve just encountered one bad dude. The camera holds this position as he continues to speak to Link. Link, clearly unnerved by this man, begins to back up hesitantly.


We return to a continuation of the shot wherein Link first caught sight of the man in black. Link takes up the left side of the frame, but he doesn’t rule the space the way the dangerous rider did in our previous shot. Again, we’re back to low angle composition; and although Link earns more emphasis in the foreground, he’s still clearly no threat, made even more evident by his apprehensive, defensive body language. The black rider picks up on this, as his questioning turns into amused observation: “So you think you can protect them from me…You’ve got guts kid.” At this, Link draws his sword and shield.

This act of defiance earns a chuckle from our sinister antagonist, as we come up to a medium shot of him continuing to look down on Link. “Heh heh heh… You want a piece of me?! Very funny! I like your attitude!” He brings his hand up, and begins utilizing a magic spell that fills the frame with bright lights that permeate the darkness.


With a flash, we’re now behind Link, watching him get thrown back from the impact of the spell. He’s thrown down, and as he sits up, we rush in towards his assailant, framed now like never before: large, terrifying, and powerful. “Pathetic little fool!” he cries, “Do you realize who you are dealing with?! I am Ganondorf! And soon, I will rule the world!” His declaration finished, Ganondorf rouses his steed and rushes out of frame.

We catch our final glimpse of Ganondorf from a distance, hovering over the moat right around where Zelda’s item fell. As Ganondorf speed off, we whip around, to the left, circling by Link as he picks himself up. Link never takes his eye off of Ganondorf, and as we finish our orbit around Link, the storm has started to give way to the morning sun. This dynamic camera movement serves an interesting purpose, as along the course of its journey, the player not only gets a sense of what kind of power Link is up against, but the camera’s path from over the moat to right in front of it reminds the gaming audience that something awaits them within the water.


Link continues to watch Ganondorf depart in a medium shot that slowly zooms in on the boy’s face, with Ganondorf’s musical motif beginning to fade down. Our cutscene finally ends with a contemplative closeup before we dissolve out over a white frame.

In just two minutes and 24 seconds (depending on how quick you cycle through the game’s dialogue), we’ve been delivered a simply constructed but incredibly insightful introduction to one of the games most important characters: Ganondorf. We understand his impact on Hyrule, his ambitions and goals, and his relationship to Princess Zelda and Link. In addition, the game has laid the narrative seeds that will birth the next movement of the story. Will Zelda escape and live to see another day? Can the seemingly all-powerful Ganondorf be stopped? Can Link, a mere boy, stand up to this tyrant when he so easily brushed the green-clad hero aside? The questions are many, but they only serve to give the player more motivation to press on. All we need to do is figure out what’s in that moat…


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