The Best Life Lessons from The Legend of Zelda



Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Walter Oelwein on lessons for life learned from Zelda.

Walter is one of my colleagues at Microsoft, and he knows his stuff.  What’s his stuff?  Performance improvement.  Walter focuses on improving performance through systems, skills, and tools to get results.

Walter has more than 15 years experience as a management and performance consultant,  where he improved business and strategic planning skills at the individual, team, and organizational level at places like Microsoft and Nintendo.  Walter also has a varied background with a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature, a Bachelor’s in English, and he has been a student of philosophy in Paris.

What intrigued me the most is what Walter learned from the game, The Legend of Zelda, and what we could apply to life.  So I asked Walter if he could share his gems of insight with the readers of Sources of Insight.

Without further ado, here’s Walter on life lessons learned from Zelda …

Walter Oelwein on Life Lessons from the Legend of Zelda

I like to joke that, at one point in my career, I was the “The World’s Greatest Zelda Theorist”. Back when I worked at Nintendo of America, I had the awesome job of training the Game Play Counselors, the people who would help you get unstuck in your game via phone support. Yes, this was before game walkthroughs were commonly available on the Internet.

As the Game Play Trainer, it was important to understand the structural underpinnings of 2000+ games that we provided support on, and, of course, in the gaming world nothing matches The Legend of Zelda games for its structural elegance in creating a gradually unfolding adventure. Zelda games were also, by far, the game that drove the most call volume.

So every Game Play Counselor needed to know Zelda. So I developed a module in the training program called “Zelda Theory” and taught it over and over again to the waves of intrepid newbies joining the mysterious elite known as Game Play Counselors. Once you knew your Zelda theory, you could effectively translate the theory into effective game play counseling, not just on Zelda games, but on any adventure game.

That is how important Zelda is.

I was proud of my Zelda Theory. The thousands of calls we took that helped people get unstuck provided ongoing practical application of Zelda Theory to the incoming slew of Zelda players who needed to know where to find that last heart piece or which item was to be used to get out of a dungeon room. It was applied Zelda Theory.

So proud was I of my Zelda Theory, that I mustered the courage to tell the great Shigeru Miyamoto, while he was on a visit to Nintendo of America’s headquarters, that I was the “World’s Greatest Zelda Theorist.” He listened, and did not dispute this wild and impossible to confirm claim. Yes!

After amusingly recounting this anecdote with J.D. Meier, he asked me to write this article, “Life Lessons from Zelda.” I guess that when you claim to be the world’s greatest Zelda Theorist, this is the kind of assignment you get. So here goes.

Quick Overview of Zelda Theory


Now, the core of my Zelda Theory was developed for Game Play Counseling purposes. This is not to be confused with Zelda Timeline Theory, which attempts to construct a coherent timeline of the different adventures and improve the narrative cohesion of the series. My Zelda Theory draws significantly from the critical approach of Structuralism, which examines an underlying (or overlaying) structure to understand the greater whole in a system — in The Legend Zelda’s case, that’s Hyrule.

In Structuralism, the use of binary oppositions informs the structural elements. In Zelda Theory, the key binary opposition that must be understood is the distinction between the “overworld” and the “underworld”.

The overworld is a single connected world that provides access to several distinct underworlds.

In Hyrule, Link explores the overworld in a seemingly haphazard manner until he gains focus on what the main task is – go into the underworld (either a dungeon or palace), pick up a key item that grants Link a new skill, and defeat the boss that adds to his lifeline (heart piece). The item obtained will open up new sections of overworld, and the quest-style adventure continues.

Once you know that the overworld is for exploring, and the underworld is for focused action, you now have the core understanding of Zelda Structuralist Theory.

I could go into other Zelda Theory, like Zelda Psychoanalytic Theory (seminal text: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, with it’s strong themes on dreams and Link’s unconscious) but that doesn’t have the same immediate practical application of Zelda Structuralist Theory.

So now our key life lesson from Zelda Theory: There’s a time for exploring, and a time for focused action.


Overworld Ethos

The Legend of Zelda games teaches us that when you first start, you know very little about the world, and it is best to just wander around and talk to people, pick up pots and throw them against the wall, and cut down bushes in hopes of finding rupees (money). You may also get refills of your magic, bombs, and arrows.

Fine, so real life doesn’t really net money and other weaponry when you cut down bushes haphazardly (so this is decidedly not a life lesson from Zelda), but what this does teach is that it is OK to just wander and explore – get to know people who may help you out, and soon you will get an idea for what is important to you and you can create specific goals. You will also pick up inventory in the process.

So don’t forget life in the “overworld” – it is a key phase that one must return to on an ongoing basis – a time for discovery, exploration, opening new parts of Hyrule. Use your new skill to explore the edges, and you’ll discover new things and have new adventures that will get your further on your quest – but in an exploratory, unfocused, and less risky manner where people are available to help.

In the overworld, the elements are: Talk to people, wander around, try new things, listen, and gradually gain focus on what to do next.

Underworld Ethos

But life isn’t only an “overworld”; there is also an underworld. Zelda Theory teaches us that in an underworld, there are very specific actions and goals. At the most basic level, Zelda Theory teaches us that there are Items to be found and Bosses to be defeated. There’s always that focus. When you go into a palace or dungeon (an “underworld”), you have specific tasks with limited resources:

The task: Get the item, then defeat the boss (a structural consistency across all Zelda games).

The resources: Your existing inventory of items and knowledge of how to apply them, limited heart pieces, limited magic, limited arrows, limited bombs, no keys, and no map.

So prior to going into the underworld, max out on the resources you can get – do not go in with half of your heart pieces filled or a half-filled quiver of arrows. Also, make sure you remind yourself what the items you have in your inventory can do – Zelda games do an excellent job of requiring that you apply your recently acquired knowledge and items – better than any other game series, ever. When in the underworld, the focus continues: If you find something in an underworld, like a map or key, you use it in that same underworld. There’s definitely an opportunistic element of the underworld experience!

Explore with a Focus on Getting Further

During this focus period of “getting something done” in the underworld, you still need to explore, but it is done under duress – increasing amounts of enemies, escalating puzzles, a dwindling lifeline, quickly-shutting doors. So you must manage your resources, take risks, and master each successive room. You may need to exit the underworld and replenish. But you aren’t going out to the overworld to wander around, as before, but to use the less stressful time to recharge.

Once back in, get focused and battle – Zelda games require that you apply your recently acquired skills. What was the last item you obtained? You most likely need to use it in a new and creative way – either to get further into the dungeon, or to defeat the boss. This may take a few tries.

Apply Your Collective Knowledge on What Works

It’s easy to get stuck in a Zelda underworld. The first lesson to apply here is to “try everything” (that worked before). When exploring an underworld in Zelda, you must first defeat all enemies (unless they can’t be defeated, like the pesky laser turrets in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past), and then apply your full repertoire to try to open the door to the next room. Depending on the Zelda game, this could include the following:

  1. Defeat all enemies
  2. Push on walls
  3. Push on all blocks (from all angles)
  4. Pick up and throw blocks/pots
  5. Step on switches/push or pull levers
  6. But most importantly – look at what you have recently learned, and try applying that to the situation.

If you got the Hookshot recently, you need to select it from your inventory and try it. It could help you get across that chasm that was impossible before. The same goes for the boss. Got the Bow and Arrow recently? Try that on the Boss.

In later underworlds, you will probably need to use a combination of your items in creative ways – Create a block with the Cane of Somaria, throw it over the chasm, and use the Hookshot to latch onto it and you are now on the other side.

Celebrate Achieving Your Goals and Reflect on What You have Learned

Once you have achieved your goal in an underworld (you have obtained the item and defeated the boss) you are now stronger (with an extra heart), have new skills, and you should take a moment to celebrate. That’s a good life lesson.

Now take the newly acquired skills and apply it back to the overworld with general, unfocused exploration. You will meet new people learn new things by just talking, and eventually arrive at the next focused task. But what’s the hurry? The overworld experience informs the underworld experience, and vice versa.

Key Binary Oppositions in Hyrule

So Zelda Theory teaches us that there is value in both the overworld and underworld experience, even though they have opposite qualities:

Overworld: Singular, Expansive, Unfocused, exploratory, “light”, unthreatening, replenishing, upbeat

Underworld: Multiple, Limited, Focused, clear objectives, “dark”, depleting, somber

You need to be creative in both phases, but there is value in the different modes of learning. Precisely because of the “darker” elements of the underworld(s) in Zelda, this is where skills are stretched the most. But you also need time in the overworld. Don’t forget that, or else you will always be “in the weeds”, where it is always dark and you will be defeated.

Always Learning

You are always learning in Zelda, whether in the overworld or underworld. In fact, the only time one is considered “stuck” is when you have stopped learning. And a common way to be “stuck” is not applying to your adventure the things you have most recently acquired. So Zelda teaches us to keep learning and exploring and acquiring new skills, and it can be done by either exploration or by focused action with objectives, and is best done when you apply a combination of both.

Zelda has tons of life lessons, as does Zelda Theory! This only scratches the surface as the Zelda universe and accompanying theory possibilities are huge. I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to Game Play Counseling’s intro to Zelda Theory, and how it applies to life!

About Walter

Walter Oelwein is a former Game Play Counselor Trainer at Nintendo. After having achieved his aspiration of becoming the world’s greatest Zelda Theorist, he is currently working on his ambitious project of becoming the world’s greatest Management Theorist, and publishes his musings about People and Team Management Skills.

Image by Walter Guru Larry.

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  1. Lohohoved it ton!
    Amusing and educating.
    Best peices I am taking away:
    * pick up inventory in the process
    * there are Items to be found and Bosses to be defeated

    beautiful 😉

  2. […] a time for exploring, and a time for focused action. Always Learning Like this:TetszikJelezd els?ként, hogy neked ez tetszik: post! By lpttlm, on 2012.03.06 at […]

  3. Hi Walter,

    I grew up on Zelda so this was a great treat to read and something I certainly wasn’t expecting to see today.

    But I am certainly better for it. One of my best performing articles that even got syndicated is called “Why Game Designers Are Better Motivators Than Your Boss”.

    I think we laugh at games, but they actually understand humans better than many leaders do.

    I think I’m the lone geek in my office, would love to have these kind of discussions at work.


  4. Hi Walter and JD .. I’m not sure the Zelda theory really applies but I need to work through something to understand it, and as I don’t have a knowledge of how to research a project other than common sense – I’ll come back and look through your ideas in more detail (ie carefully read!) ..

    Cheers have good weekends .. Hilary

  5. Interesting way to look at life. I can see where this applies. The waves of life, learning new skills and applying them. I guess the question is does the universe (even sometimes) structure life like Zelda where you learn something just before you need to use it? that’s a faith based position that I’ve heard others use on their lives.

  6. This was fascinating, but since I have great difficulty playing any kind of game – I still don’t know Zelda…

    I would rather walk in the snow?

    I am totally going to share this everywhere.
    I thought it might be cheezy, but the perspective on the gameplay is truly incisive and stellar– I suppose that’s why when it’s applied to life, it’s a natural heavy-hitter!

    Thanks for this post, and I hope Nintendo still remembers your help!

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