“A Viewers’ Guide to CD-i Zelda Sign Language”
Outsourcing has its downsides, believe it or not. Never mind the possibility (often certainty) that you’re exploiting foreign workers who can’t argue for their credit (mmmm). What if those foreign workers decide to include their own foreign customs in your product, without your approval and with you none the wiser? Something similar seems to have happened to Philips, the Dutch technology company, best known here for its forays into gaming consoles and Nintendo licenses.
With the legal permission, if not complete approval, to create multiple games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, Philips pushed ahead with two games released on the same day in 1993: Link: the Faces of Evil and Zelda: the Wand of Gamelon. As an added bonus, and possibly a distraction from their old-fashioned side-scrolling gameplay, these were to be the first Zelda games with full-motion video cutscenes. Most of the scenes were the creation of four Russian animators flown into the US by Animation Magic, the game’s developer. This was apparently the first time that Russian animators worked in the US, which would’ve been difficult to do during the Cold War. (It wasn’t the last, either; the Russians animated more of the developer’s games, like I.M. Meen.)
Although viewers can see the Russian influence in the blocky, surrealistic character designs, the actual animation is a bit trickier to place. One thing everybody seems to notice, besides the strange zoom-ins and close-ups, is the bizarre movement of the characters. The best way to describe most of the character movement is with a TV Tropes term, “milking the giant cow.” People flail their arms and hands about in ways that don’t seem to mean anything. At times it borders on a kind of secret sign language between the animators, Cyrillic-influenced or not, I have no idea. I also don’t know what Philips thought of these animations. In all likelihood, they didn’t care about the quality or “look” of the cutscenes, instead seeing the mere presence of cutscenes as a sure factor in the games' success.
The end product didn’t exactly give the game the intended kind of fame, though. We all know these cutscenes as the quintessential Youtube Poop sources, probably the most infamous, baffling, and memetic Zelda videos on the Internet. The games’ writers and casts tried to make sense of this footage, but in the end, the voice acting only added to the confusion and hilarity. Hand gestures either fell out of sync with the dialogue or had no relation to it whatsoever. Why in the world does the King make a sideways, palm-down hand motion when he says “dinner”? What does “squadallah” even mean? Questions such as these have surely baffled viewers and poopers alike, even if they haven’t dwelled on them.
However, I think I might have the answers. A decade of Youtube Poop and inside jokes has given me the knowledge to attempt a guide to understanding this esoteric language. Just through near-constant re-watching of the CD-i cutscenes, in poops or on their own, it’s possible to glean the meanings of the characters’ wacky arm movements and hand gestures. The dialogue really helps, although sometimes you need to throw it out the window to make sense of the movement. At any rate, I hope you enjoy my amateur guide to CD-i Zelda Sign Language, also known as CDIZSL.
Link begins The Faces of Evil by showcasing two of his less flattering qualities: his thirst for bloodshed and his stupidity. Proclaiming that he finds Hyrule boring in a peaceful era, Link stretches his arms out above him in a familiar “yawning” pose, to show how he’s tired of not having things to kill. As he finishes the sentence, his eyes rotate and he becomes momentarily cross-eyed. Everybody online knows that cross-eyed people usually have a derpy disposition, and Link also has a slightly stupid-sounding voice to go with it. Obviously, this was all meant to represent Philips’ alternate take on the character of Link. In this game, he’s not the Hero of Time, but rather a dim-witted, cold-blooded killer who’s clearly bilking the King for food and lodging, and whom Hyrule is only too eager to send off on another quest.
The World-Famous Mah Boi Pose
The King takes a break from his raging alcoholic binges to lecture Link about the value of peace. Proclaiming “this peace is what ALL true warriors strive FOR” (and improperly ending his sentence with a preposition), the King raises his pointer finger into the air, makes a fist with the rest of the hand, and looks at Link with a stern face. Besides the strange emphasis on the word “for,” this scene is known for the “mah boi” pose at the end. It’s called that because of the first two words King Harkinian says (spelled exactly like that), but the fist and finger don’t really have anything to do with bois. He might just be further emphasizing the word “for,” bringing greater attention to his grammatical mistake for some reason. Or, the King’s finger might be a reference to Plato, the philosopher who only believed that ideal forms and values were real, the rest of life just pale imitations of those. Plato is pointing upwards in Raphael’s famous artwork The School of Athens. Here, Harkinian also points upward, showing that peace is not simply a silly ideal, but a reality, one for which true warriors strive, to put it grammatically correctly. Given how King Harkinian’s CD-i appearance resembles this painting of a saint, and not his cartoon counterpart, it could be an intentional reference to art history.
Masaccio, St. Peter Healing the Sick With His Shadow
The Island of Koridai
After making a small, respectful bow to "your majesty," Gwonam gives some bad news about Koridai. Apparently Ganon and his minions seized it. (Why couldn’t they seize the canonical mystical lands?) When Gwonam mentions Koridai, he raises both of his arms to the sky, palms upwards, while tilting his head backwards. It looks like he’s trying to bring the rain down or something. What this gesture means depends on whether it refers to the island or Ganon and his minions. If it’s the former, then Gwonam might be showing the immense width of the island, or the long distance to it, with his wide arm span. (He gets there pretty quickly on his carpet, though, so that’s suspect.) If it’s the latter, then Gwonam might be giving the King an image of the huge extent of Ganon’s impact on Koridai. Whatever it means, he sure looks funny doing it. That might explain why the King is smiling before going into his thoughts.
"How Can We Help?"
King Harkinian is such a benevolent ruler. When another country’s in danger, he only needs to think and say “hmmm” for a few seconds before deciding to help. (If you freeze the video right before he says “hmmm,” he also has a stoned look on his face.) He represents his helping gesture by raising his hand palm-up to the sky, showing off his “helping hand” (although it also looks like he’s praying). Speaking about himself in the royal third person, he asks how “we” can help, with a beaming face. We should have more people like the King in the world, although there might not be enough dinner to satisfy them all.
“Your Sword is Enough”
I really have no idea what Gwonam is doing here. Either he’s begging Link to stop wasting time, or he’s praying in the direction of Mecca. I know Nintendo removed the chanting from the Fire Temple music in Ocarina of Time due to a “no real religion” rule, but I don’t think Philips had the same rule with its own games. So he’s either a Muslim genie or a Gerudo wizard with lighter skin. (Note: Russians have a not-great relationship with Muslims, especially Afghans, so the inclusion of such a positive Middle Eastern role model in these scenes is kind of amazing. Unless he’s secretly working for Ganon, as some have suggested.)
Link Takes Rejection Well
Link gets really close to Zelda and asks for a lucky kiss. As he does so, he winks to the audience, as if this were a TV sitcom and he already knew what was going to happen. That might explain why Link is stifling a laugh after Zelda rejects him. Maybe he was supposed to look embarrassed, covering his face out of shame or something, but the way it’s drawn makes it look like a laugh. Either Link is aware of the fourth wall and trying to make this scene seem funny, or it’s another part of his stupidity.
While Ganon offers to give Link the greatest face in Koridai, he makes some flamboyant gestures with his arms, first holding them to his chest (“join me, Link”), and then flapping them up and down while talking about Link’s face. He clenches his fists while saying “the greatest in Koridai.” I assumed that he was doing all of this to keep Link’s attention, since Link obviously doesn’t want to join Ganon (and the player doesn’t have the choice to take Ganon up on his offer) and is probably dozing off at this point, just wanting to kill some more. There’s no other reason to flap your arms up and down so much, unless Ganon is actually a plastic surgeon and is showing off his hands-on face-greatening skills. Also noteworthy is Ganon’s ultimatum, where he covers his face with his hands and then makes his face cover Link’s entire view. “Or else you will DIE!” It must be Koridian custom that when a person tells another that they will die, they have to be extremely close (and incredibly sexy) to them.
While trying to escape the flammable Book of Koridai, Ganon at first slides to the right of the screen, and then back to the left, clenching both his fists and yelling “IT BUUUURRNS!” This is one in a many gestures where characters make a fist, although it’s never quite clear what the fist means. It feels wrong to call Ganon’s movements “fisting,” although that would indeed BUUURRN somebody’s ass, especially if Ganon was doing it to them. For now, let’s say that Ganon’s swaying and fist-making represents how the Book of Koridai has a “hold” on him. No opportunity for Martin Ssempa lectures here.
“Well done, Link!” When Gwonam wants people to follow him, he puts his hands together and brings his arms down at the same time. Contrary to popular belief, this hand gesture does not represent ejaculation.
The Hero of Koridai
Apparently, being the hero of Koridai means that old wizards have permission to breach your personal bubble. After making birds appear out of nowhere and asking if it’s beautiful (Link seems to agree: “Golly!”), Gwonam happily tells Link that he is the hero of Koridai, as it is written. And to show this, he puts his hand next to Link’s face and opens his fingers up, making Link wince. Link gets back by shoving Gwonam down into the carpet in the next shot, to ask Zelda for another kiss. Of course, she refuses. So heroism gets him touched by an old man, but it’s still not worth a kiss from a hot girl. Oh well. It doesn’t seem to bother Link too much, though.
When you’ve won, what can you do except put your hand in the air like you’re waving at a nonexistent person, signifying that you have no friends and your victory doesn’t mean that much, seeing as it happened in a disowned game? Apparently nothing, if your name is Link.
"The Evil Forces of Ganon"
In the beginning of Zelda: the Wand of Gamelon, the King himself gives the bad news instead of Gwonam (who’s completely disappeared and been replaced by IMPA?). As he tells of Ganon’s evil forces attacking Duke Onkled, he pulls his left hand and arm up in a diagonal fashion, and then thrusts it straight left. It looks like the motion of someone drawing a sword, except the King doesn’t have a sword. It could be a visual representation of the word “attack.” In a smaller gesture, he clutches his chest while mentioning the Triforce of Courage, in a stance that suggests strength and protection (not that kind). He’d do better with a sword instead of taking the Triforce that was meant for Link. No wonder he gets captured.
Probably the most straightforward gesture in any CD-i game. The King makes a stop sign with the hand because he wants people to stop talking about his safe return. This makes me wonder, did he jinx his own chances of safety by doing this? We all know what happens to heroes who deny their dependence on the gods. Odysseus thought he could do just fine without them and it took him 15 years to get home. King Harkinian thought so too, and his daughter had to save him. If the King is an ancient Greek hero, his tragic flaw is pride, not gluttony – although he does love his DINNER.
“My ship sails in the morning!” After wiping through the air, the King puts his hands together in a “thinking” pose, before putting his hands on his throat and looking up at the ceiling. The folded hands usually show that someone is deep in thought or secretly plotting something. The latter doesn’t hold here, since the King keeps telling everybody about his ship. The former makes a littler more sense. A king has to be punctual, after all, and he might just be thinking hard about the ship he has to take next morning. (He must be thinking about some deep ship.) I’m not sure why he clutches his throat at the end of the line. It might be a sign of hunger, prefiguring the classic dialogue about dinner that comes right after this line.
A dinner bell can be faintly heard while the King talks about his ship. After that, the king proclaims that he wonders what’s for dinner. While he says this, he puts his hand palm down and drags it to the left in a wiping fashion. I’m not sure how this is supposed to represent “dinner.” Maybe Harkinian is moving his hand towards the dining dinner room, or maybe he’s hinting that his dinner plate will be wiped clean when he’s done. The King isn’t the only one to make confusing signs before dinner. When Link talks about his hunger for Oktoroks, he first clenches his hands as if he has to ship really badly, and then pushes them outward and rears his head back on the word “Oktorok.” This must mean that Link will be inevitably constipated after he eats his massive Oktorok dinner. (He also touches his tummy at one point, a more common sign of hunger, but those are less fun.)
“A Whole Month Gone…”
This gesture is a little bit easier to read than the rest. While bemoaning the lack of communication from King Harkinian, Zelda throws up her hands in frustration, as if to say that she’s given up any hopes of hearing from him. She then puts on some invisible makeup for no apparent reason, and then finally puts her face in her hands to simulate crying. All the stages of grief in one brief bit of animation: frustration, makeup, and sadness. Good job, Russians.
“No Match for the King”
While trying to allay Zelda’s fears about “that old Ganon,” Link first throws his right hand up in an angular fashion. This can be best interpreted as Link making a dismissive gesture, like he’s saying “as if!” or something appropriately airheaded. When he gets to saying “the King,” he suddenly throws both of his arms up in the air and clenches his fists again. This is pretty obviously a pose to demonstrate strength and power, which King Harkinian apparently possesses. It also gives Link the chance to flex and show off his muscles, which aren’t all that impressive, really. The King could outdo him in that department, although all that dinner also gave him a lot of girth. Unlike Link, though, the King definitely IS a match for old Ganon.
When Link claims that he can’t wait to “bomb some Dodongos” (more hints of his impatient, violent nature), he first makes a fist in both hands without grabbing anything, and then moves his right arm in a punching motion. This isn’t how Link throws a bomb in any Zelda game; it takes him both hands to pick up a bomb and throw it. Either Link is so cocky and eager to kill stuff that he’s now throwing bombs one-handed like a pimp gangsta, or he just wants to beat up Dodongos in the old-fashioned style, with his fists. I can’t tell which is crueler to the Dodongos.
"All Right, Dear..."
After being awoken by Zelda in the middle of the night (or something, it’s daylight in the next scene), Impa agrees to go with her. Because of her voice acting, she seems unwilling to go. Before going to fetch the Triforce of Wisdom, she puts her left hand up in the air palm down (similar to the dinner pose), and then points at something. Everyone in Hyrule must be left-handed or something. Meanwhile her right hand goes up and down like she’s lifting something. Did they forget to animate it? Anyway, I guess the left hand must be a comforting gesture, like how she puts her arm on Zelda while saying “I’m certain he’s alright.” After that, she could be pointing to the shelf where they put the Triforce, since apparently Triforces can just be picked up and carried around in this game.
"You Must Die!"
I’m cheating a little here, since this isn’t really an example of sign language, but I know I couldn’t get away with not mentioning it. Ganon covers his face with one of his hands to shield himself from Zelda’s light. (“You DUHARE bring LIGHT to my LAIRUH?!?”) While sentencing her to death, he puts both of his hands out palm down, in preparation for the lightning bolts that come out of them. So wait, if he doesn’t like light, then why does he attack with lightning?
"You've Saved Me!"
Another fairly straightforward gesture, with Zelda opening her arms to her father in a welcoming gesture, and King Harkinian similarly beckoning her to him in a mood of gratitude. Why they didn’t do this right when Zelda rescued the King, I don’t know. Did they spend the whole return trip in silence? Did they even go back together? I ask because the King enters the castle looking slightly pissed, but Zelda is already there, waiting for him. As the King says, “hmmm….”
In this line, each of Duke Onkled’s motions can be interpreted as an effort to appease King Harkinian in one way or another. First, he flexes his fingers, showing off all the mad bling he owns. He looks richer than the King, come to think of it. He’s probably offering to pay the King a great deal if he’ll let him go. After saying “please, your impotence omnipotence,” he then makes two fists and holds them close to his beard. Two possibilities: he’s willing to give the King sexual favors, as in fisting, for mercy. Many, many poopers have featured such a relationship between the King and the Duke. Or he could just be constipated, like in this earlier frame, where he’s taking “a very long and very huge shit.” Finally, Onkled timidly moves his left hand upward, palm up. In the good old days of corporal punishment in schools, children would hold their palms up to get them beat with a ruler. Hyrule doesn’t look like it’s moved beyond those days, so this might be the universal gesture to show that someone is willing to suffer violence. So the order of mercy goes: paying a fine, sexual favors, and the satisfaction of seeing a traitor get violently beaten. Fortunately for the Duke, the King’s actual punishment is considerably lamer.
The King's Mighty Digit
“After you’ve scrubbed all the floors in Hyrule, then we can talk about mercy!” While giving a royal decree, King Harkinian uses his pointer finger as an extension of his authority. This scene would make more sense, though, if Harkinian didn’t point up at the ceiling while mentioning “the floors” and point down at the floor while saying “Hyrule.” Maybe he got the floor confused with the ceiling. (Scrubbing all the ceilings in Hyrule is a marginally better punishment, I guess.) At the end of the speech, he brings his hand up, again in the “dinner” fashion (palm down). This is after he says “mercy,” so it might mean that the King is not going to bless (i.e. lay his hands on) Duke Onkled. The last part is the easiest to understand. The King pulls his hand backwards to show his lack of interest in seeing more of the Duke, and orders the weird Spanish guy to “take him away!” And they never saw him again.
Morshu’s Sales Pitch
This is an example where dialogue isn’t completely unrelated to the visuals; instead, the latter just fall out of sync with the former. We see Morshu holding his two hands apart as if to measure a length of rope, but the problem is he says “lamp oil” first while making the sign, and then says “rope.” He also holds up a ruby (sorry, not “rupee”) before saying that Link should have enough of them, and even puts it away and folds his hands together before he’s finished talking about it. Occasionally it all matches up, like when Morshu points towards Link while asking him, “You want it?”
The other parts of Morshu’s pitch seem more random. When he says “bombs,” he makes fists, puts them next to his head, and appears to be yelling. Unless this is the face that someone makes before getting bombed, its meaning is unclear. Also, he points away from himself an awful lot when refusing to sell Link an item on credit. The first time is when he says “credit,” the second comes after he says “mmmmmmmmm…richer!” Perhaps Morshu is hinting that Link should seek his riches outside the shop before buying stuff, hence why’s he pointing outside. The thing is: if he wants Link to go away, then why does he get so uncomfortably close to the camera while mmmmming? Actually, that tends to happen a lot during the cutscenes. Either the Koridians are a culture of close-talkers, or the invasion of personal space is another aspect of the language that we’ll never understand.
Here’s a bonus round of smaller gestures throughout the games, just for all you completionists out there.
When making a personal request in Koridai, it’s important that you touch the nose of the person from whom you want help. Apparently Link doesn’t know about these customs and looks very uncomfortable while the fat lady touches him, although he’s uncomfortable around her all the time, as well. The intimate sign language doesn’t stop there. Once Link actually brings her the necklace she wants, she briefly feels her own breast up – and no, this isn’t open to interpretation, she actually feels herself up! Oh, those crazy Communists and their sexual promiscuity. Pssh!
Ipo, the Secret Princess of Fruit
Ipo, the self-proclaimed reader, makes bizarre use of sign language in his (her?) few scenes. He throws his hands up in the air while talking about the book of Koridai, and makes a whispering motion when he mentions “the secret verse.” Actually, that last part isn’t too hard to decipher: whisper = secret. Later on, when he actually reads the book, he continues to wave his pointer finger around like the King. He also moves his second and third fingers up and down as he talks about Ganon killing with a single look. Obviously Ipo is demonstrating how he wants to finger Ganon, who has looks that kill according to him. He can’t say this out loud due to shame, so he alludes with movement and remains the secret princess of fruit. (I have to thank nickshorts’
Gwonam's House Dance
Gwonam praying to Mecca the Gerudo Valley for the fourth time that day. Look, you can even see his prayer mat! Be careful that he doesn’t see you, though, or he’ll congratulate you on finding his house and insist on guarding you from the “sand croomies” (leevers?) outside. First off, those don’t exist, and second, his house isn’t that hard to find, or even that impressive. It could use a good floor-scrubbing by Duke Onkled, or even maybe a face-greatening from Ganon.
“This is illegal, you know!” Mayor Kravindish, often mistaken for a judge due to his poofy white wig and uppity demeanor, demonstrates the illegality of the villains’ actions with two hands, raised upwards with fingers outstretched at the same time. Now this just completely baffles me. Is he offering himself up for arrest? Then why is he complaining about illegalness? I imagine that they wrote the script before animating the cutscenes, but Kravindish’s line doesn’t sync up with his mouth movements. Was he saying something different in an earlier version? Do you care enough to want to know what it was? I didn’t think so.
"Keep the Runt in Chains!"
Another fisting gesture from the grand master Ganon, in this case referencing his tightening grip on his prisoners. I guess it’s not too hard to understand, but I am curious about the face Ganon makes after he yells “Silence!” Watch him while he says the name “Hektad” (Hector?). He looks worried and even a little frightened, his eyes darting nervously around; he even sounds a little subdued, before getting his mojo back on the next command. Is he really that scared by a Spaniard shouting “hey”? Well, he was transfixed by a fishing rod in the climax of Twilight Princess and killed with a single hit at the end of both CD-i games, so he might just be a big breast after all. Maybe he really is no match for the King.
That’s right, there are only two CD-i Zelda games – and don’t you forget it. Let’s draw the line and say I won’t have to write about an old wizard fellating his scroll in Zelda’s Adventure. I hope you enjoyed my guide, and I look forward to analyzing more aspects of the CD-i Zelda universe in the not too distant future. Until then, I wonder...what's for dinner...
Special thanks to Robotic, for making the wonderful .gif images. Click here if you want to see all of them.