he Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

The Fun of “No-Fun” in ‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’

The creators of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom have created a video game worthy of Kant’s maxim, “have the courage to use your own intelligence.”

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Aonuma Eiji and Fujibayashi Hidemar
12 May 2023

Journey Into a
Radical Alternative World

What is fun, really? I pose this question to those playing Nintendo’s new game, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Its 2017 predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is a landmark game that garnered huge commercial and critical success. It has sold over 30 million copies and won numerous awards. Breath of the Wild is a game about relishing the present moment at hand, exploring, and using creativity to push forward. Tears of the Kingdom amplifies all this while trying to reach even greater heights by affording players even more freedom of play.

Tears of the Kingdom adds building and customization to the open-world gameplay (nonlinear free-roaming experience in virtual space) that made Breath of the Wild such a darling. Tears of the Kingdom is more than just an open-world game, though. It’s also a stalwart adventure in the heritage of the “educational” games that Nintendo has been fine-tuning for the past decade. Tears of the Kingdom’s producer Aonuma Eiji, director Fujibayashi Hidemaro, and their team have created a video game worthy of Kant’s maxim, have the courage to use your own intelligence. It is embedded with the player-driven craftiness of the Mario Maker series, the programming and problem-solving found in Game Builder Garage, and the inventiveness and quirkiness of the toy-to-life concept Nintendo Labo.

Tears of the Kingdom is a playground for the imagination—a sanctuary, especially for those for whom playing outside is less feasible. It offers a potentially radical alternative to players looking to play a mainstream game with some added queerness. For instance, I played the game hoping to exercise the concept of fugitivity as exalted by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their 2013 book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Though trivial, and frankly an immaterial place to exercise fugitivity, Tears of the Kingdom creates a play space where I could, within the limits of its virtual world, become “a being in motion that has learned that ‘organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves’” (Harney & Moten). I approached my play of Tears of the Kingdom to explore and challenge obstacles posed by the hegemonic principles of play. I was amazed by how flexible and accepting Tears of the Kingdom was toward this approach.

Complete Freedom of Moment

Video games constitute virtual playing spaces, which allow home-bound children… to extend their reach, to explore, manipulate, and interact with a more diverse range of imaginary places than constitute the often drab, predictable, and overly familiar spaces of their every-day lives”

– Jenkins, Henry, “Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces” (2006).

Media scholar Henry Jenkins in his essay “Complete Freedom of Movement” discusses the underdeveloped play spaces (forests, large swaps of grass, etc.) of childhood. He laments the increasingly limited access to underdeveloped spaces for the purpose of play and exercise of the imagination. The scarcity is attributed to our increasingly urbanized world. Playing video games has become the only way many engage their imaginations in unfamiliar spaces through play.

For many, the vastness and open-ended approach taken by Tears of the Kingdom will be overwhelming. The game is aware of this and mitigates it by providing a linear(ish) tutorial during its first few hours. This is a direct contrast to Breath of the Wild, where players are ostensibly free to do as they please, including forgoing any tutorials immediately after starting the game. This contrast is acceptable and welcomed.

The immensity of Tears of the Kingdom’s world is unlike anything most players have experienced in a game, myself included. Playing Tears of the Kingdom for the first time is like being dropped into a new world with a distinct culture and ways of being. Luckily, I had familiarity with the language, so to speak, as I completed Breath of the Wild and knew the lore of The Legend of Zelda series. The tutorial’s linearity is needed for new players and those unfamiliar with the series. Think of it as some hands-on cultural immersion.

The initial lack of “freedom” in Tears of the Kingdom is a calculated design choice. It aids players in coming to terms with the plethora of choices available to them as they play through Hyrule’s verdant post-apocalyptic world. Like its predecessor, Tears of the Kingdom facilitates immersive play by allowing players to transcend their immediate environments. To do this. Tears of the Kingdom employs what Jenkins identifies as “complete freedom of movement”, an intensive experience that is also an escape from oppressive regulation. Tears of the Kingdom achieves this via a rigid concreteness (mostly hidden from players) and the vividness of its world design. Take this as one will, Tears of the Kingdom is a virtual safari space.

Wild spaces are important in the development of children’s imagination because they, according to Jenkins, “allow for many more opportunities for children to modify their environment”. Modification of the play space has been one of the great trends in video game development. Minecraft, for example, has become an emblem for this specific type of design through its sandbox world and DIY play aesthetic. The player shapes the world absolutely. Nintendo has followed suit and created several games in a similar yet limited form, Tears of the Kingdom being the latest example.

Back to the wilderness, a distinguishing feature of The Legend of Zelda series is how its origins continue to mold its aesthetic and themes. As a child series creator and longtime producer Shigeru Miyamoto explored the wilderness outside of his hometown. His adventures influenced the creation of the series and contributed to its signature feeling of exploration of the unknown. Exploration continues to be at the core of the series even after changing lead producers from Miyamoto to Aonuma in 2007 with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Most contemporary open-world games, such as Ubisoft’s overly-designed Assassin’s Creed series, inhibit exploration by plastering objectives that exhaust players. Breath of the Wild was heralded for its uncanny understanding of the wilderness. Tears of the Kingdom continues this by giving us more to explore by way of the skies above Hyrule and the abyss below.

Jenkins pronounces that the places where we play are sacred. Tears of the Kingdom has sacred places in a game whose massive environment exists solely for the purpose of play. The remains of withered temples are meant to be climbed on and jumped from during your adventure. I took the sacred spaces of Hyrule seriously and worshiped in my own personal way by actively looking for an alternative to fun—”No Fun”— and I found it. It was an enlightening time.

“No Fun” in the Ruins of Hyrule

Tears of the Kingdom’s world offers players “complete freedom of movement” beyond the game’s manifested virtual environment. The complete freedom, in this case, is not restrained by what Professor Bonnie Ruberg identifies as fun’s more negative qualities: ‘cultural, structural, gendered, racialized, and inseparable from larger structures of power, privilege, and oppression.” For Ruberg, “speaking out against fun also means speaking out for the right to make meaning from gameplay… fun is insufficient at best.” I was pleased to find that in Tears of the Kingdom, the player character’s actions are not associated with gender roles.

Following a framework outlined in Ruberg’s excellent chapter “No Fun: Queer Affect and the Disruptive Potential of Video Games that Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt” from their 2019 book, Video Games Have Always Been Queer, I played Tears of the Kingdom queerly in hopes of achieving “no-fun”. According to Ruberg, “no-fun” is “a counterhegemonic force that disrupts dominant and implicitly heteronormative presumptions about the effective purpose of video games.” It “…challenges the belief… that there is one, universal way to feel good while playing games.”

“No-Fun” is characterized by feelings of annoyance, boredom, disappointment, sadness, or alarm that can arise while playing a game. As Ruberg explains, “…playing video games can be understood as queer through the ways that players feel.” Boredom, for example, something not readily attributed as fun, is essential to making something enjoyable as it often informs the essence of fun by being its counterpoint. Circular logic aside, Tears of the Kingdom is full of moments where one must wait and enjoy the scenery while one reaches its destination.

Tears of the Kingdom‘s sprawling game world and tools allow players to challenge the notion of fun. What is fun, really, when a game allows you to do so much that it can easily boarder on work or performing a chore? In Tears of the Kingdom, for example, before adventuring into the hazardous frigid Hebra Mountains, you might want to cook several meals that will offer boons against freezing temperatures or dress Link (the player character) in the proper clothing so he doesn’t freeze to death. You might also want to use one of Link’s new abilities to construct a vehicle that might make traversal through the rough terrain easier. Whatever you do, choices will be made.

I presented some of the “good” choices one can make for the specific task. But what about the bad or queer choices that Tears of the Kingdom engender? What if instead of wearing the proper clothing for the occasion of climbing the Hebras, you decide to dress Link in clothes that don’t protect him from the cold in hopes of seeing if he can climb the mountain with the added challenge of being more susceptible to the elements? Such choices are available and can change the game considerably. Depending on the player, this experience can either be enjoyable, if not thrilling, or a great annoyance bordering on no-fun.

Tears of the Kingdom, like its predecessor, is a challenging game. Its world is massive and overwhelming; enemy encounters can be hazardous and lead to potential failure. These things don’t sound like fun. Link’s ragdoll physicality and the numerous “Game Over” screens that most players will experience during a playthrough can lead to a perverse joy for those that want a challenge. There are numerous compilations on YouTube of the various ways that one can experience a “Game Over” in Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom is no different in this respect, and it adds many more ways of seeing that “Game Over” screen. This is one way that Tears of the Kingdom represents a queer way of enjoying a game.

Breath of the Wild also has a fervent speedrunner community. Speed running is a queer way of playing games, requiring players to exploit glitches (malfunction or irregularity). Glitches are often seen as ruining the player’s experience. Speedrunners break a game to finish it in record time. Some even diligently study a game’s code in hopes of finding ways of further breaking the game. Since when has studying become part of having fun?

I played Tears of the Kingdom, hoping for an experience beyond fun. When examined critically, fun is a means of keeping the status quo. Normative enjoyment, though present, is not essential to experiencing Tears of the Kingdom. Games like Lucas Pope’s 2013 Kafkaesque bureaucracy simulation Papers Please, and 2017’s infuriating by-design game, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, rely on frustration, boredom, annoyance, disappointment, and sadness as the core of their experience. In contrast, Tears of the Kingdom provides an emotionally rounded way for players to experience the game. However, there is no “right way” of playing. Individuals will bring their own styles of play and consequently will feel different emotions while doing so.

Tears of the Kingdom further breaks down the hegemony of “fun” through its visual presentation. It eschews the current generation’s graphical fidelity found readily available on the PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Personal Computers. Instead of possessing the photorealism of many AAA games, it doubles down on the Zelda series staple cel-shade (or toon shading) graphical aesthetic first used in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The artistic approach to Tears of the Kingdom’s visual presentation is a mixture of impressionist art and Japanese animation. As writer Kathryn Hemmann says in SideQuest, the series’’’ “cel-shaded graphics continue to shine in a red ocean of gritty photorealism”.

Is Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom a Good Game?

Finding the pleasures in alternative ways of playing video games can be liberating for the psyche. That Tears of the Kingdom is made by one of the world’s biggest and most protective game companies might seem a contradiction to that liberating experience. Tears of the Kingdom’s massive world, artistic presentation, and gameplay are possible only due to the budget and expertise a company like Nintendo has available. Yet Tears of the Kingdom’s embrace of “no-fun” and thus the queering affects present in the game are more akin to what small independent studios or DIY games found on the website itch.io offer as an alternative to the standard gaming experience. By design Tears of the Kingdom lets players have fun, “no-fun”, or get an education as they please.

Tears of the Kingdom is not the revelation that was Breath of the Wild. It’s an improvement, expansion, and finetuning of the systems and gameplay found in its predecessor. Take that as one will. As good as Tears of the Kingdom is as a game, it won’t shock players the same way Breath of the Wild did when it was released. Much more can be said about what Nintendo has accomplished with Tears of the Kingdom. The game allows for abundant ways to play, all driven by the player as they explore Hyrule.

One thing is certain, though, Tears of the Kingdom is one of the highest expressions of the late great designer Yokoi Gunpei’s philosophy of “lateral thinking of withered technology“. Yokoi, the chief engineer behind the GameBoy, reveled in the challenge of creating new ways of playing with old technology. The Nintendo Switch is over six years old, and the least remarkable game console in terms of hardware strength in regards to its internal technology is decades old. Yet, for a massive, intricate, and artistically beautiful game as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to be created exclusively for such an old technology is an astounding accomplishment—a masterstroke.

Works Cited

Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. “Fugitive Planning & Black Study”. Minor Compositions. 2013.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “How Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Navigated Fan Expectations”. Sidequest. 2 May 2023.

How Nintendo Solved Zelda’s Open World Problem, YouTube.

Jenkins, Henry. “Complete Freedom of Moment: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces“. Web MIT. 2006.

Ruberg, Bonnie. “No Fun: Queer Affect and the Disruptive Potential of Video Games that Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt” in Video Games Have Always Been Queer. NYU Press. 2019.