Experiential Limitations, Or, My Quarter-Life Crisis in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild

The term “quarter-life crisis” — hopefully a joke from the very start — is being beaten to death all around us by broke college kids with blogs who fancy themselves writers. I’d like to talk about mine here, on my blog, where I self-consciously refer to myself as a writer.


I don’t play video games. I haven’t played an RPG since about 2012, which was the last time I replayed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game which came out before I had the motor function to beat it. Even then, in September of 2012 I shouldn’t have been playing Zelda. I had “better” things to do. But, it was my first time living away from my parents and I was aiming for full on, Nickelodeon-original-movie levels of self-indulgent irresponsibility. Which, incidentally, I accomplished, but that’s another essay.

In general, I don’t like most of the video games that are popular. My mother never let me have toys or games involving guns, so first-person shooters are well outside my wheelhouse, and sports games are somehow even harder for me than actual sports. There are a few fighting or racing games that I’ll play if they’re out at a party, and I’ve picked up an RPG here and there, but ultimately, I find the medium to be a long walk for a short drink of water when it comes to storytelling. Which is a viewpoint I wouldn’t force on anyone, by the way. I know plenty of people don’t like Kickstarter indie comics or narrative podcasts like I do. It’s fine. To each their own.

When it comes to video games, the exception for me — in case you haven’t guessed — is The Legend of Zelda franchise. I have played through every one of Link’s adventures across Hyrule and beyond, most of them more than once. There’s nothing logical to it, I’m sure Zelda shares mechanics with a million other RPGs, but they don’t hook me. For some reason, to hold my attention, it’s gotta be a spritely dude facing down monsters for a princess in a castle. Well, actually, that spritely dude facing down those monsters for that princess in that castle. I know it’s likely because it’s the game I played most often when I was growing up.

I got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas when I was nine years old, and it took my developing brain years to get all the way to the end of Ocarina. I cut my teeth on those puzzles, trained my mind on those mysteries. Back then, the very limits of the medium I criticized above enthralled me. I couldn’t believe that after I spent every afternoon for a month picking apart The Deku Tree, there was a whole other dungeon awaiting me across a pixelated digital field. To my absolute delight, there were eight more, not counting side quests and all that in-between action. My mind reeled imagining how long it might have taken to create the world that was difficult for me just to play through. It never felt like a long walk for a short drink back then, I relished the two minute cut scenes and plot points, never comparing them to the hours I spent positioning blocks and slashing at bats in between.

I remember mowing innumerable lawns and shoveling innumerable driveways to save up for a booster pack and a copy of Majora’s Mask. I remember huddling over a computer with my cousin, ignoring a beautiful summer day, watching the trailer for Twilight Princess again and again, memorizing every detail. I remember the two of us playing remakes of A Link to The Past on our Gameboys late into the night, me on the top bunk and him on the bottom, whispering so our parents wouldn’t here. I remember scoffing at Wind Waker but playing it anyway. I remember playing Minnish Cap surreptitiously on the bus, my back to the window so no one would see. I remember goading my Call of Duty-obsessed friends into playing Four Swords just for an hour. I remember praying for the flu in twelfth grade so I could stay home and play Skyward Sword.

I also remember just last year — my final year of college — as I was working full time and scraping a decent GPA by the skin of my teeth, when I saw my little cousin playing the new A Link Between Worlds, and decided with a heavy heart that I didn’t have the time, that I couldn’t spend the money, that Link would have to do this one without me.


That should have been it for me and Hyrule, so what happened this past March? Let’s unpack it and decide if it merits the categorization “crisis.”

For one thing, in the last year my little sister has become a really incredible game designer. In her junior year of college she rendered 3-D environments and worked on professional games that I couldn’t believe. It forced me to take a closer look at video games as an art form, and reconsider my opinion of them as, for lack of a better term, a waste of time. By this, I never meant a waste of time for everyone, simply a waste of time for me, and anyone else with ambitions or creative pursuits. I never held it against anyone who played video games on a regular basis — I simply assumed they were knowingly prioritizing it over their own art, or improving themselves. However, when I realized how hard my sister worked, how much of her creative energy really went into a 3D rendering of a lakeside hut in a mystical world, I had to begin assuming that anyone who looked at it would get as much out of it as a story or a script I had written. It follows, logically — if they’re equally valid as art forms, they should elicit equal emotional reactions from viewers, and be treated equally as worthy of consumption, right?

This isn’t the case, however. Virtual worlds are more saturated with nuance than any page of self-aware prose I could ever post on a blog. Every time, for example, I played my sister’s game, and marveled at the rippling, reflective surface of the water, she would try from over my shoulder to redirect my attention to a patch of grass, explaining how it was tricky to get it to waver just right in the wind, or a flock of birds overhead, pointing out self-consciously that they would become flat just before disappearing into the horizon, a discerning eye might notice. In a real way, these accomplishments, or faults, or neat little features are a part of the story my sister has created, and she has reason to fear that if she doesn’t point them out, I’ll steer the joy stick straight ahead and pass right over them.

Still, for a working artist in 2017 to worry that you’ll view their work but miss the details is not too shabby. At least people play games. In Breath of The Wild — which I’m getting to, I swear — they sort of count on you missing easter eggs and elements, or finding them out of order. It’s how their open world model functions, it makes the game feel organic. It’s how they accomplish the one thing people really want out of a video game — experiential art. Their art form is contriving an experience, and then making it feel uncontrived. The reward is full audience immersion, the punishment is severe lack of a full-on, academic, top-to-bottom, post-modern analysis of every single pixel of their work. Likewise, I’m sure we all miss the small nuances in Breaking Bad that Vince Gilligan is most proud of. I’m sure Jordan Peele agonized over some set piece in Get Out that my eyes passed right over. I’m sure nobody ever pointed out the precise three-word combination that Faulkner was most proud of in his novels, back when Faulkner wrote novels and people read novels. I’m sure Da Vinci would jump for joy to read the piles of stroke-by-stroke dissections of his paintings. I’m sure the people who painted the cave walls at Lascaux would correct us on a thing or two if they could hear us talking about their work.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the rest of us art school sad sacks jockey for position. Vince Gilligan, Jordan Peele, and my sister lie awake at night wondering if anyone out there noticed a certain color contrast or a lighting change. Eiji Aonuma wonders if anyone will ever find an entire cavern full of puzzles and monsters and items that he hid in the corner of the map in Breath of The Wild. Me and all the other baristas from my last college workshop wonder if our online portfolios will hit double digit views this month. Obviously, I’m blaming myself here. And the other baristas. I’m not shaking my cane at the world telling it to put down the controller and be changed by my prose. At worst, I think I’m saying I want to write something so great that the world is forced to hit the pause button and give it a read, but I don’t think that’s it either.

Like I said, I don’t play video games. I read. I have friends who don’t read, they play video games. But every once in awhile, I’ll get them to take a break and read some comic I recommended or listen to an audiobook I really liked. So what is it about Zelda that gets me to set aside my books and my writing, shell out $400, and spend three months tapping a total of fourteen buttons again and again and again, every time they release a new version of this same story?

There’s no denying that the story of Ocarina of Time — to use a classic — could be told in a two hour movie. For that matter, Breath of The Wild could be a one hour special following just the main plot, with a three hour director’s cut on a second disc. So why do we prefer to spend a hundred or more hours playing them? Why do we want so badly to guide our green-clad avatar into every corner of every dungeon, across every pixelated field, for weeks or months just to end with one movie’s worth of storytelling completed? For heightened identification with the hero? For deeper immersion? For more hours of escapism? For a false sense of personal accomplishment?

All of the above and more, most likely. For me, that green stocking cap and winged blue sword carry a sensory memory. My eyes see them and my thumbs twitch to push them around. My tongue fizzes with the taste of powdered kool-aid. Whatever stress I have doesn’t melt or disappear, but it goes as far to the back of my mind as it can.

If, for example, I’m a twelfth-grader with only two friends left at school, if I feel I’m disappointing my parents, if I’m facing down a decision that will affect the rest of my life and put me into insurmountable student-loan debt, no amount of cheap plastic bottle whiskey and crudely affected cigarettes will calm my nerves. Instead, I’ll fake sick for two weeks and play Skyward Sword. I’ll become Link. I’ll be Link. It’s as easy as that.

If I’m a freshman in college, trapped in writing workshops with someone who only writes Bones fan fiction, finding that I hate my classes and I’m bad at making friends, finding that the way I drink bums people out and leaves me feeling sick most of the time, I’m liable to retreat back into Ocarina of Time within the confines of my dorm room. I’ll stop trying to get a career and I’ll save Hyrule instead. Easy-peasy.

On the other hand, if I’m a senior in college, and I have a full time job, a full course load, and a lot of big plans, I might see an announcement for A Link Between Worlds, and not even think about it. It might completely slip my mind. Even as my cousin texts me saying it’s the greatest game in ten years, even as my co-workers play it across the table from me at lunch, I’ll barely think about it. I’ll work all day, cook healthy meals and find time to churn out a few short stories.

So back to the question at hand: what happened this spring? I wasn’t working full time anymore. I wasn’t in school anymore. The job applications I had jumped into so eagerly began to feel like the hardest work I’d done in my life. Each rejection letter from a small publisher sent me flying past depression and straight to lethargic and sleepy. I wondered if I’d ever move out of my parents’ house. I began to doubt my three year machinations to move to New York City and become an editor. I knew for a fact that the checks I was making part time at the gluten free cafe wouldn’t cover this new Nintendo system everyone was talking about, nor this revolutionary Zelda game that flashed in my eyes in Twitter promotions. Same as the year before, I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the time.

The Legend of Zelda; Breath of The Wild was released on March 3rd. I didn’t buy it. For almost a week. Then, on March 9th, I got up early like every morning since graduation. I sat down at my desk and submitted as many job applications as autofill would do for me. Assistant Editor. Assistant to the Editor. Editor’s Assistant. Data Entry Analyst, for good measure. When I came to one that wouldn’t fill itself out, I closed the tab and opened some rotten short story I was working on. It was really, very terrible. So I turned around in my office chair, and I saw my Nintendo 64 poking out of a box in my closet. I got it out, brushed it off, and fired it up. It still worked, good as new. Maybe I’ll play Ocarina, I thought, just to scratch the itch. Then I went looking and realized I still had a Gamecube, and Twilight Princess still ran as well. The same was true for my Wii and Skyward Sword, as well as my old Gameboy. In the basement, I found a Super Nintendo, an original NES, and a ten gallon bin of games. I began to dust everything off.

Three hours later I was leaving Gamestop, having traded in hundreds of dollars in retro games, now carrying a refurbished system and the brand new Zelda game. I didn’t feel triumphant. I had just given a mound of plastic to that store for a small amount of new plastic. I’d spent hundreds and hundreds of cumulative hours on that old mound of plastic — probably thousands. It hadn’t amounted to anything. I was twenty-three, broke, unemployed and indebted. I knew that this new plastic wouldn’t change much of that either. Still, when I sat down and slew my first monster in this new version of an old story I knew so well, triumph is likely the closest description to what I actually felt.

So I spent most of this spring in a vortex of denial and Zelda. I stopped writing every day. My tongue fizzed with the taste of powdered kool-aid, but I never drank any. I explored a foreign world and it never felt contrived. I did my best to find everything in it that Aounuma would want a rabid fan to appreciate. If it were seventy years ago, I suppose, I might have procrastinated on my adult life by diving into a stack of Faulkner novels instead. If I’d have had different formative experiences, I might have done it by binge re-watching Breaking Bad. But I’d have needed twenty more seasons of Breaking Bad or a full library of Faulkner to kill as much time, to go as deeply as I did into Breath of The Wild. I lost myself. I became Link.

Quarter-life crisis is a stupid cliche. Life is full of intermittent crises. Life in the twenty-first century is a crisis. There’s too many people on the Earth. The planet is melting. We as a species have devised a million ways to blow ourselves up, but that’s the mischaracterization — we as a species do very little. A few people are born into positions where they make top-down systemic choices that determine how the rest of us will live, but one way or another we fight as much as we’re going to fight and we cooperate as much as we’re going to cooperate. The rest of the time, we’re trying to find something to do. Sometimes, it’s go to work, if they’ll have you. Make your art. Tell your story. Other times, it’s lay back. Relax. Be Link.



It always begins with me.

A gradually mounting discomfort, constant sweating, perhaps a pimple or two. It becomes harder and harder to leave the house in the morning, takes longer and longer. I begin to dress differently. I wear hats, hoods. There is a brief, defiant period. Let them look. I’ve never been one to bury the ugly parts of myself. I bear my suffering for the world to see. Finally, inevitably, I am my first attacker. Standing in the breakroom at work, or chatting in the office of a respected professor, I run my hand involuntarily through the Einstein mop on my head and say it: “I need a haircut.” The self conscious comment hangs between us like a faulty toss. We’re both unsure if it’s in play. Then the other person — friend, coworker, classmate, though usually either my mother or girlfriend — says, “Yeah.”

I tell myself that I don’t avoid haircuts. I don’t feel like I do. I just feel too busy to be bothered with the pomp and circumstance, the too-specific chair and all the gadgets. It seems superfluous. I may go three or four months putting it off. At last, when I’m losing track of my ears, when I need to let my snapback baseball caps out a peg, when I realize to my dismay that I look like a lazy college kid, not a crazed creative genius, I find my way to the barber shop.

It’s actually nice at first. I don’t know why I wait so long between appointments, I think. It’s a fun place to hang out, actually. There’s one TV with sports on and one with talk shows. There’s an X-Box where kids play racing games while their dads get shaved with straight razors. If you arrive on certain days, with certain staff, they have a mini fridge full of beer from the local brewery while you wait.

I think of my coworkers at the warehouse — most of them five or ten years older than me. They brag about the frequency of their haircuts, stress about their constant need for an edge-up. “Two weeks,” they often say, clucking their tongues at themselves. “I’m looking bummy.” I have always chalked this up to an expression of insecurity — socio-economically victimized men finding this one acceptable ways to take pride in their appearance without threatening their masculinity. These same men  catcall the few women at the warehouse on a daily basis, and talk for hours about the one night they’d been able to afford to go out to the casino in the past year. They never seem to rationalize their bimonthly haircuts with their late rent checks and missed child support payments in the same thought. “When we getting overtime?!” they cry out to anyone who will listen.

Still, sitting in the waiting area of the barber shop, I can see why they’d be drawn to this place. There’s something to be said for style. I can’t knock style. Style for it’s own sake is, in some ways, subversive. It excludes the upper class because it’s organic, it’s a moving target. They can’t afford to be up to date with it. They’ll always be cutting their hair the way we were cutting it last month. “We,” I say, as if I’m not the odd man out among my warehouse coworkers. I live with my upper-middle class parents, I always have. I’m the only employee there who works forty hours a week, then crams a full University class schedule into every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — what comprises my “weekend” on this waterfall schedule. I’ll always be alienated from my coworkers, who take this mid-week reprieve in stride — getting together for a brutal paintball game since the course is cheaper on Tuesdays, then drinking half their checks away at Dave & Busters. At the same time, I’ll always be alienated from my classmates, who go straight from Medieval Lit class to Blarney’s Pub on Thursday nights. My classmates who spend Sunday mornings recovering from hangovers while I’m at the warehouse by 7AM. My classmates — at worst, wannabe hicks — would never talk about their haircuts the way my coworkers do. I can’t identify either group as more or less insecure than the other, but the white college kids in Bass Pro Shop hats and flannels would be much more afraid to spend too much time in those spinning leather chairs, admiring themselves in the mirror, than the guys at the warehouse. I have a foot in each of these doomed worlds, and I’m a part of neither. The bright side, so far as I can tell, is that I’m allowed to get a haircut as often or as infrequently as I want.

The barbershop I visit is closer to the world of the warehouse than the University. Here, I’m bearing witness to something effortlessly cool. There’s no shame in wanting to look a certain way here — even on purpose. The men in the chairs small talk with the men holding blades. The regulars hassle them. Everyone accuses everyone of going bald and being gay. Except for JR, who is bald, and Tomas, who is gay.

If there is a wait, I am already discouraged. It’s so rare for me to have the time for a haircut during normal business hours. At the warehouse, I work four twelve hour days, Friday through Monday. The rest of the week is just enough time for classes, papers, exams, and stress. If I had more time, I’d squander it. Still, it would be nice to have a day off here and there for things like haircuts. Instead, I must plan a week or more in advance. I can’t stop for a haircut after work — I leave there drenched in sweat and too sore for conversation. I’d never subject a stylist to that greasy mess. If the stars align, if I don’t need to stop for gas, if I read my annotated Chaucer over breakfast, I can sometimes stop on my way to school on Wednesday morning.

But then — lo and behold — I walk into the barbershop on Wednesday morning five minutes after a parade of men who are decidedly not in a hurry. I sit waiting, examining my class notes on my phone, keeping careful track of who got here before and after me, so that I am not skipped. The tension mounts. I may have to leave. If I’m not in the chair in five minutes, I think, there won’t be time. I’ll have to come back next week. I’ll have to wear that hat again for a week. It looks fine, but by the end of the workday it pinches my temples. And it’s beginning to smell. Is it machine washable? Oh, God, maybe I should just go for a ponytail.

At last, I am summoned to a chair. I greet the barber — he has cut my hair before but neither of us is sure the other remembers. We don’t do names. He has knuckle tattoos and some kind of special barber shirt. His tools are meticulously laid out. His mirror is stickered with carefully chosen insignias of local businesses and independent tattoo artists. He spins his chair and offers it to me with a flourish. I take my seat, and at this moment, I always remember precisely why I haven’t been here in four months: I dread haircuts the way most people dread the dentist.

It starts, of course, with the smock. He unfurls the neoprene poncho and whips it around my front without words. Then he velcroes it tightly around my throat, as if any precaution will keep me from being covered in my own hair for the next two or three showers. Here, I must tell you, for whatever pity it’s worth, that I was an asthmatic child. It was the kind of asthma you outgrow around puberty, and I can hardly say it stopped me from enjoying anything, but it was inextricably linked to panic attacks. I’d stop dead in the middle of gym class, clasp my throat and wheeze like a guppy, then spend the rest of the day in pure mortal shock. Now, this isn’t a traumatic experience, or an uncommon one. This is all simply to say: I don’t like things touching my throat. It gives me anxiety. It’s a small compulsion which barely affects my day to day life — I don’t wear necklaces and all my shirts fit loosely. I sleep on my side with my shoulders shrugged — the blanket either resting under my armpit or above my chin. I may yank a seatbelt down from time to time. Other than that, the old throat grasping panic alludes me almost everywhere — except, of course, at the barbershop.

But really — and this is not a rhetorical question — what am I to do? Please email me if you know. I’ll tell you exactly what I am not going to do: I am not, under any circumstances, going to ask the barber to loosen the useless smock he has draped across me. I can’t. Because, as I’ve clearly demonstrated, the barbershop is the domain of the unapologetically hyper-masculine. Despite the obvious parallel of the salon, despite the tender caress of one man’s finger on the nape of another man’s neck, despite the self-indulgence and self-obsession, the barbershop is not a place to show the slightest sensitivity. Make no mistake, it would be punished, swiftly and permanently. I’ve played the scene out, I always play the scene out in my head, as I sit for those first few heart-pounding seconds, trying not to feel my pulse against the collar I’ve been shackled with.

Me: Hey — sorry — could you, uh, could I loosen this?

Barber: Too tight?

Me: Yeah.

[I loosen the smock to the degree that would make me comfortable.]

Barber: You’re gonna get hair on you, man.

Me: That’s alright.

Barber: You wanna try a different smock?

Me: No, no.

Adjacent Barber: What’s wrong?

Barber: My smock is too tight for him, you got one?

Me: No —

Customer of Adjacent Barber: You got a fat neck, man.

[All laugh]

Barber: Hold on, let me get the gauze wrap–

Me: I just don’t really like stuff touching my neck, okay?

Someone on the other side of the room: What’s wrong?

Barber: He doesn’t like stuff touching his neck.

It sounds okay. Not too much to go through, especially when you average four haircuts a year. Except that the rest of that twenty-five minute haircut would consist entirely of discussion about my neck. My throat. And, inevitably, some ingenious prank of tickling my neck with a comb or a swatch of severed hair. I don’t know the barber too well, but it’s a safe bet he falls somewhere on the spectrum from “Bass Pro Shops hat undergrad” to “Man I need an edge-up warehouse guy,” and either way I’m the one who will be punished for having a weak spot between my face and my chest.

Of course, we’re not really through yet. I’ve merely set the scene. Me, in a vulnerable state of sensory-memory anxiety, with the overpowering social pressure to not deal with it. Now the haircut begins. Like Chinese water torture. I watch in the mirror as the barber takes his time. Considers his plan of attack. He wants to give me my money’s worth. He doesn’t want to appear rushed. I wish he would. I know I’m getting the same haircut as the three guys before me. I am counting my breaths involuntarily. Three long, drawn out breaths for every one snip of his chrome scissors. Then, at last, on the fifth snip, he speaks.

“Cold out there?” Or: “See the game?” Or, gesturing out the window: “That your truck?” In any case, and in any variation of these, I want to get up and run out screaming right then and there. Why is it a mandate of masculinity to be boring? I refuse to believe that any adult is interested in my 1997 Ford Ranger. They simply don’t know how else to begin a conversation without compromising the veneer of aloof, post-macho manliness.

Still, I sit in repressed panic, answering politely as my conversation with my barber inevitably peters off. I can’t maintain that kind of stoic meaninglessness. I’m not equipped for it. I went to art school and I dropped out of art school. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t think I’m better than anyone, but I never learned the language they use, and they can hear me faking it. It strikes the ear wrong. So my barber turns to the adjacent barber. They talk to his customer. Maybe an even larger group discussion crops up. But I never have any part in it. I have nothing to say about Steph Curry, about this season of Survivor, about whether or not Andy should get an F150 or a Tundra. Even if I have something to say, it never feels worth it to interject with them. When they’re two scandals behind on Donald Trump, or when the latest shooting of an unarmed black man comes up, I can sense how unproductive my participation in these musings would be. How much further my words would push me into alienation. How it would increase the likelihood of me leaving with a crooked patch on the back of my head.

After twenty five minutes I burst from the smock like a phoenix from the ashes. I toss cash at the barber and don’t wait for change. In the parking lot, I am alive again. I have survived. I have paid my debt to the mundane world. They won’t be collecting for four months at least, if I have anything to say about it.

I arrive at school later than usual, take a bad spot on the top of the parking garage. In the student center bathroom, I try to rinse the pomade I didn’t ask for out of my hair. Then I rush to English 202, where I’m a Teacher’s Assistant. “Nice haircut, Mike,” says the professor. I thank her, run my fingers along the prickly edge where the barber insisted on adjusting my hairline with a straight razor. The students stare at me — they can’t help it, their chairs face the front. But I know in my heart that they’re all either thinking that my hair looks dumb now, or else remembering how dumb it looked before. Either way, it’s never a University haircut, or an upper-middle class haircut, or a Bass Pro Shops hat. It’s a low-maintenance haircut, with no bed head. It’s a long lasting haircut, that can grow out for months without looking sloppy. It’s the haircut of someone who sweats a lot, who can’t have hair in his eyes slowing down his production rates at the warehouse.

And then I’m back at the warehouse. The jokes aren’t malicious. I recognize them as an invitation into the fold. We make fun of each other, it’s how we show that we’re thinking about one another without risking the dreaded diagnosis of “gay or somethin’.” But my differences are causing me a lot more loneliness than theirs are. I seem like an easy target, an elephant in the room. The fact is that I’m getting hit from all sides — especially by myself. I’m in a freight truck at noon, stacking boxes to the ceiling for shipment. Every bead of sweat that rolls over the razor burn on my hairline makes me irritable. I’ve got one bluetooth headphone that I snuck in past security, I’m wearing it in the ear that faces away from the entrance, listening to an audiobook version of The Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man. It’s terrible. Really, it’s just a bad book. I’m perfectly comfortable implying that I could write a better one. I plan to suggest just that in the response paper that’s due next week. But I can’t write a better book right now, because I’ve got four more trucks to load today to hit my quota. Then I’ll need a big bowl of chicken and rice, and a long hot shower. After that, I may just be able to stay up long enough to review some papers for my students in English 202 before I load more trucks tomorrow.

And why?

That’s what my coworker asks me, for the hundredth time, when he comes into my truck and drops a snide comment about my haircut, and I tell him to fuck off, and it looks like I’ve hurt his feelings, so I apologize and drop all of the above paragraph on him.


Why do you need to work here and there? If your parents are doing well enough to own a house in that neighborhood? And you don’t really have that many bills? Why not work a few hours at the grocery store? Why not drop to part time classes? Why torture yourself like this?

Obviously, I don’t answer him. The answer is that it start with me. It always starts with me. I don’t fit in here or there, so I split my time between both without every really going into either. I can’t wander down to Blarney’s and gossip about who blew whom in which dorm, while student loan payments loom ever closer, like a demonic storm cloud. Likewise, I can’t rinse the sweat off after work and bet on fantasy football with the guys from the warehouse. And what I’m really afraid of, is that behind either of those, I won’t be able to do what I keep claiming I want — to head home and sit alone with my laptop, writing something to blow James Joyce out of the water. Because I won’t fail if I don’t try, but I know I’ll fail, because there’s one thing James Joyce was certainly better at than me — one thing a writer has no excuse to be bad at: making small talk in the barber shop.

The Story Ends Here: Leaving Kong on Skull Island Where He Belongs

An American cinema icon was re-imagined this spring, with the release of Kong: Skull Island. This fresh take on the megalithic gorilla delves deeper into the mysterious island he hails from, and re-orients his story in history, making use of newer technology to explain the phenomena of his discovery. However, the cosmetic updates and soundtrack full of beloved hits from the seventies aren’t the reason that this new take has breathed life back into Kong. By comparing this blockbuster to it’s eighty-four-year-old predecessor, it’s clear that the work this story needed was embedded much deeper, in the archetypes and narrative patterns it explores. Skull Island repairs weak spots in King Kong’s story structure by including a more authentic female protagonist, providing a more succinct, rhythmically satisfying third act, and — most importantly — by allowing Kong to represent the unconscious and the unknown, in the way that the audience has always interpreted him anyway.

The drastic change from King Kong’s helpless, timid Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island’s inquisitive, assertive Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is one of the key shifts that this update represents. It completely transforms the archetype of “damsel-in-distress” into “fully-actualized-heroine.” At first glance, this 180 degree turn likely rattled social conservatives, men’s rights activists, and vast contingents of Reddit commenters. However, this shift represents far more than affirmative action. The Kong franchise needed a real female protagonist to stand any chance at a complete and satisfying story. This is because the heroine — as the one who directly interfaces with Kong at key moments in the plot — must be the one to undergo the hero’s journey. The whole crew travels around Campbell’s circle, but the leading lady is the one who invokes Kong’s vulnerability, and discovers the capacity to change. This is nearly impossible in the 1933 film — or the remake thereof — where Kong is little more than a jingoistic projection of Western fear and racism. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes frequent allusions to the fable of Beauty and the Beast in the original film, suggesting that Kong is capable of compassion. However, rather than exploring what it sets up, the film takes an odd, fetishistic turn. The hypothetical vulnerability never comes to the surface, and Ann Darrow never has the chance to go searching for it. Instead she spends the second half of the film being traumatized and re-traumatized in New York, never more than a victim. Kong, meanwhile, rages on against the might of modern weapons and Western culture, until all the mystery is stripped from him and he must be put down. America — true to form — creates its own enemy, defeats it, and then mourns its loss. Despite having been lead to believe in Kong’s innate gentleness, the audience is forced to root for his demise, and the triumph of man over God.

In Skull Island, however, Mason Weaver is given the chance to redeem Kong — or, more accurately, redeem the Americans in Kong’s eyes. This is much more satisfying for our narrative sensibilities as humans, and more true to the archetypes this film presents. Once the film has revealed Kong’s protective, divine attitude towards life on Skull Island, as well as the invasive, violent nature of the Americans’ arrival, there is a moment of mutual redemption when Weaver places her hand on Kong’s nose. The shift in color and tone mark an unmistakable Meeting With The Goddess moment in Campbell’s terms, and in this case, the film’s heroes take this second chance to do the right thing. They help Kong to overcome Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and empower him to continue his battle against the serpentine monsters from below. Their decision is a form of surrender to the unknown and unknowable, to mystery and ineffability. It pays off. In the ensuing CGI battle between Kong and the Skull Crawlers, Weaver continues to try assisting him — at the risk of her own peril. At the climactic moment of the film, she is knocked into the water and sinks, apparently unconscious and helpless. However, unlike Ann Darrow, Weaver has earned this moment of helplessness, and her proactivity earlier in the plot justifies her passivity as she sinks, at last in need of saving. The yonic symbolism of the water further portrays her total surrender. She has stopped investigating and questioning — she believes in something now, and she’ll die for it. Kong repays this devotion with a massive hand plunging into the water to save her, and pull her through what Campbell would undoubtedly call The Return Threshold. Unlike the original King Kong, this film has no gruesome sexual undertones between the woman and the ape — instead it explores what it takes for a protective deity to trust a non-devotee, and for a bound truth-teller like Weaver to surrender to an ineffable force.

Of course, Weaver’s active participation isn’t the most obvious fix made to Skull Island’s third act. Die-hard fans of any iteration of King Kong likely noticed the stunning lack of Empire State Buildings in the film. This choice — though undoubtedly hard for some fans to swallow — was the only way to make for a satisfactory ending to the great ape’s tale. From the view of the hero’s journey, Skull Island represents the unconscious mind, the world that the hero must delve into to find the capacity for change. Kong, as king of Skull Island, is therefore the embodiment of the unconscious by extension. This is why Kong’s death in the original film registers as such a tragedy for viewers across generations. The modern men capture their own unconscious divinity, chain it up, and exploit it for money, ultimately killing it. All the while, the audience understands Kong to have the capacity for — at the very least — gentleness, deep down. Unfortunately, something as mysterious as Kong simply can’t thrive in New York, nor in the concrete world of the conscious mind. His death is inevitable, however, it upsets the structure of the story. It’s deeper than a tragedy, it’s a neutering of the creative force in this fictional world. The heroes finish their journey with no greater capacity for change than they began it with.

Skull Island succeeds by taking the gentleness we see in King Kong and expanding it. Rather than presenting the ape as a buffoon with a penchant for undressing screaming women, the writers here understood that audiences want much more out of Kong. He must be inherently wiser than us. His presence in American cinema has become, in some ways, sacred, and his presence on Skull Island needed to reflect that. This is why charging Kong with the protection of life on the island’s surface healed the structure of this old tragedy. It creates a science fiction ecosystem that audiences can understand on a literal level, but also puts some biblical stakes to the struggle, and endows Kong with a sacred mission. By keeping Kong enclosed on the island, they allow him to retain his power as a force of the unknown. They also, conveniently, allow themselves to make out like bandits on innumerable Kong sequels in the future. In this case, proper story structure pays off twice.

Kong: Skull Island is a fun action movie to kick off this year’s blockbuster season. It breathes fresh life into a franchise that many people have become understandably jaded about. However, it also does a great service to American cinema, by redeeming one of its most iconic figures. All in one film, Kong’s persona has been revised to remove the racist, abusive, fetishistic elements that have problematized one of our country’s most beloved fables. The writers achieved this not by pandering to previously underserved demographics, but by taking an honest look at an old story and asking how it could be brought more into line with the natural rhythm of the conscious and unconscious minds — the very system which drives us, as humans, to tell stories.

Unsolicited Thoughts On Narrative Structure in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra

Earlier this week, a discussion on Twitter — instigated by Shawn Murray (@HighbrowShawn) — sought to debunk an unattributed assertion that Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra was “as good, or better than” its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. While no defenders of this position emerged, the conversation was spirited and put me in the mood to examine the franchise’s evolution more closely. At first, I jumped in merely to point out what I thought was the closing argument on the case. “They never knew that they were getting another season,” I wrote, “so every season is self-contained.” To me, this was all one needed to know. Avatar has an epic, overarching narrative that spans three seasons. It’s perfectly paced and never in doubt of going somewhere. Korra, on the other hand, is comprised of four disparate seasons, tracing no clear linear progression and never building to the same catharsis. However, there’s more to it than that. Korra has more to answer for than its questionable release schedule. It represents an entirely different approach to world-building in the fantasy genre — curious, coming from the ingenious original creators of Avatar; Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.. The Legend of Korra suffers from its persistent testing of its own boundaries, and breaking from the static world which is sought to draw viewers back into.

Avatar: The Last Airbender drew fanatical viewers from a remarkable range of ages and backgrounds. It captured the imagination of a generation or more, and it satisfied at every step of its progress. Three seasons, three acts, a perfect hero’s journey, and a hopeful, unexpected resolution. However, it isn’t praised enough for one of the hardest aspects of large-scale fantasy storytelling: consistency in world-building. In the pilot episode of Avatar, the viewer knows the “rules,” for lack of better term, of the world in which it takes place. There are benders, they can manipulate elements. There are four nations, there is a map — something objective and unchanging. The story’s conflict is a war. This has nothing to do with the existence of the world we have just entered, or any fundamental parts of it. The war is strictly political. It’s recognizable. It’s a colonial story. However, there’s no threat of a spirit suddenly bursting into the material realm, for example. Viewers know what to expect and it is delivered. Even Aang, our hero, the one chosen by fate to do something unprecedented, is merely a part of a historical system. He’s the current protrusion of an endless line of “avatars” into the material world. Everything is preordained. The storytellers are playing a game on a board made specifically the right size.

The Legend of Korra is not so successful in this department. While lifelong fans were excited for the return of Aang’s world; to explore its kingdoms and empires more, to meet new tribes of obscure benders or hybrid animals, they were instead thrust into a steampunk caricature of the old franchise. Somehow, the feudal world of Avatar had reached the twentieth century overnight. This is not off-putting because fans wanted to be told the same story over again, it’s off-putting because it betrays the timeless nature of this world as we understand it. In every flashback throughout the show, Aang’s past lives seem to live in relatively the same world as him — with the same technology, customs, and culture. It was clear that Aang lived during a disastrous one hundred year war, but that still functioned merely as an illness of the world, not a fundamental change of it. Life went on, people still worked, cabbage salesmen hawked their wares, and the war took its course. Suddenly in Korra’s time, the world has shifted permanently. Republic City is outside of all nations. Cars replace wagons. Movies are produced. This is hard to swallow after buying into the countless hundreds of years that the world was, as far as viewers know, exactly as Aang left it. It also minimizes one of the Avatar’s main functions: to maintain balance. “Balance” suggests a comfortable type of global stasis. In Aang’s world, everyone knew how things were supposed to be. There was no question of going backward or forward. There was only peace or war. With those mechanics, it’s hard not to see advancement as an agent of either one or the other. It’s hard to imagine the rise of guys like Verrick above kings and queens without some effect on the overall “balance” that Korra is sworn to protect. Most importantly, the satisfying ending that viewers have come to expect from a story in this world is a return to balance, to stasis, to peace. With Korra’s world changing constantly, they can never expect to see that again.

Of course, the habit of Korra’s creators of changing their fictitious world had several shake-ups worth examining. For example, Korra’s decision to merge the material world with the spirit world. This subtly and permanently altered how spirits were characterized in the series as a whole. In Avatar, they were archetypes, outside of time. They were manifestations of the ethereal. They weren’t subject to growth or change. The decision to turn them into characters, even in the capacity that they did, cast a different light entirely on all of Aang’s experience with spirits.

There are also the additions to the mythology to consider, particularly Raava and Vaatu. While the two part episode “Beginnings” stands out as one of the series’ best, the inclusion of Raava and Vaatu physically within Korra’s story ultimately subtracted from the efficacy of the Avatar world. For one thing, it over-achieves its goal of raising the narrative stakes. It feels as though nothing has ever had more magnitude, and nothing ever will. The very fabric of reality is under threat. This is simply too big of a conflict to fit into the world of Avatar as fans know it. What’s worse is that there is no satisfying return to balance, as mentioned above. Korra fails to hold the world together. She loses her connection to all of her past lives — a remarkable leap to make in a franchise like this — and permanently opens the door to the spirit world. The season ends confusingly — no triumph, no peace-as-usual — only questions as to how the world of Avatar will look when viewers return, and if they will still recognize what they liked in it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is not flawless, and The Legend of Korra is not completely flawed. However, it’s incredible to study how a brilliant piece of fantasy storytelling like Avatar morphed into an experimental boundary-pusher like Korra. It may serve as a lesson in what creators should or shouldn’t do in sequels — even of their own successful franchises — and how an intellectual property can grow with its viewers. Korra probably isn’t the last we’ve heard from the world of Avatar, and it’s unlikely that Korra’s problems will deter viewers from the next iteration. Hopefully, however, the Avatar’s return will usher in a renewal of tight, well-planned storytelling, of consistent world-building, and of balance.