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.

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