The Zelda Time-Line Explained – Part 1: Why We Needed a 3rd Time-Line
The reason that the end of Ocarina of Time creates a second time-line is because whenever you go back in time, you change the past, thus creating an alternate time-line. Since you have to go back at least once during game-play, there has to exist a time-line where Link just disappears before accomplishing anything... hence there are 3 (not 2) Zelda time-lines.
One thing that had always bothered me about Zelda was a sense of inconsistency within it's rules. It seemed incongruent that the end of Ocarina of Time would create an alternate time-line but the time-traveling events within the game itself wouldn't. There has to be some sort of logical standard that the story maintains from beginning to end. Either you travel back and forth on a single time-line or you don't. Because of that, the "splitest" theory (as James Rolfe puts it) never sat well with me.
But the time-line HAD to split because the idea that a time-line continues to exist after you leave it is fundamental to the story of Majora's Mask. There's a sadness that sticks with you, knowing that even though you brought the two lovers together, they are destined to die soon anyways. There is a taste of bitter irony that lingers with you after you beat a dungeon or reunite the deku princess with her king only to play the song of time again. You know that your success within that time-line is going to be short lived because, regardless of all that you accomplished, the moon will destroy everything and everyone in a matter of moments.
If you travel back and forth on the same time-line, not only would that level of heartfelt storytelling not exist, the game's core mechanics wouldn't even work. On a single time-line, we would start to see a whole bunch of Links all simultaneously going about the tasks that you've already done. That would be crazy! So yes, the Zelda universe operates under the assumption that when you go back in time, you create another time-line while the original one continues on. Now, let's apply that knowledge to Ocarina of Time...
This in turn means that there has to be a time-line in which the citizens of Hyrule would believe that Link was defeated... because in that time-line, he just disappeared. It is possible to play OoT and only return to childhood once during game-play. You have to do it though... once. That single unavoidable event means that Link's failure time-line has to exist in canon. It has nothing to do with dieing and everything to do with disappearing. This also works better than believing that OoT was in fact the Imprisoning War (as some had previously believed), since this game had no war in it at all. A war implies armies of soldiers, not one kid on a personal adventure. Link's success made the Imprisoning War not necessary (for the two appropriate time-lines, that is).
As a bonus, I'd also like to point out that the differing art styles of the franchise tend to match with their respective time-lines. The original time-line (the one in OoT that continues without Link after he first returns to childhood) is a mixture of both light and dark. Although it's not full out cartoony, it's also not too foreboding or too realistic. Skyward Sword is an example of this as it has realistic character models paired up with bright painterly textures. The art direction for both Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past are both probably the most middle of the road among all the games in the series. With this time-line, it seams that the further you go, the darker it gets. Skyward Sword and The Minish Cap are definitely the brightest, while the NES games are definitely the darkest (especially Zelda II).
The child Link time-line is the darkest of them all. We have Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess setting the tone for this one. On the other hand, the time-line where Link defeats Ganon is completely cartoony as every one of them has a cell shaded art style.
...I wonder if any of this was intentional?
Alright, so now the 3 separate time-lines are beginning to make sense but how does this whole thing affect all the Zelda games that are yet to come? Well, join me in part 2 of my in depth examination of the Zelda time-line.
Here's the.. uh... Link