The music of The Legend of Zelda is home to many of gaming’s most popular pieces of music, and for good reason. Zelda music has a certain inexplicable charm to it, that no other series has been able to accomplish on such a consistent basis. All of it is catchy to a degree, but it seems like the music of the N64-games that get the most attention, the music for their various temples in particular. Like the broader selection of Zelda music, the specific appeal of these temple theme isn’t easily explained, but there is a quality they share that may shed at least some light on their popularity. They all have an aspect of mystery and weight to them, carrying a sense that there is more to these dark, disparate places than their roles as obstacles for Link to overcome. Of all the temples from the N64 games, the one that best exemplifies this is Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple and its theme.
Here’s some background information on the Forest Temple: It’s an ancient place located in a sacred grove in the heart of Hyrule’s Lost Woods. As with most Zelda dungeons there is almost no info on it’s origins and purpose, which is left up to the player to decide. What we can surmise based on its them and design, is that it isn’t just a mysterious and important place, but is possibly somehow alive in its own right as well.
The Forest Temple theme is an example of a song perfectly descriptive of its space. The temple wouldn’t make sense without it, and the theme would not work for any other temple, even the other forest temples in the Zelda series. Take a few moments to listen to it and examine the mental image it inspires. What kind of place does it describe? What feelings does it appeal to?
Having played the game extensively, for me this theme immediately inspires images of past traversals through it’s many rooms but that’s just the surface. It speaks of an ancient place, once actively used in honor of the vast forest and its spirits before being inexplicably abandoned and left for the forest to claim for its own. It’s not a malevolent place, but one filled with life unseen and spectators that watch passively from the shadows. Neither the dark creatures that inhabit it’s shadows nor the hero wandering it’s halls inspire much interest. It is an ancient place, and such things have always come and gone, and will do so again.
It’s the layered quality of the song that grabs the imagination. There’s so much going on in it, and each layer by itself would make for a much more lively piece. Put together however, they all create an aged feeling of tranquility. It’s a piece filled with life, but life that is passive, and harmonious in that passivity.
One of the wonderful things about game music and indeed music in general is its subjectivity. Unlike more concrete works like print and video, which always define themselves to a degree, music’s interpretation is entirely dependent on the listener. When it comes to game music, it is experience that tends to inform our interpretation of the myriad themes and scores. While this helps make each experience and interpretation unique, it may also color our perspective on it in a way that deviates from what the actual intention or emotion of the song. Due to this, an uninformed ear will have insight where experience cannot.
We’re all gamers after all. So even if we have not played the game a song is from, we can still have valid and insightful interpretation of that song. So please, what do you hear in this theme? What about it grabs you? What imagery does it inspire in your mind? Again, if you haven’t played the game your insight is just as valid as my own, perhaps even more so.