Games

Stories We Tell

You know the story. You’ve lived the story, and you're destined to relive it again and again.

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and thinking about the legend of Zelda -- the central narrative of good and evil and light and dark that these games keep retelling. Wind Waker opens with a cutscene that summarizes the series’ recurring myth. Once, the land of Hyrule contained great power in the form of the Triforce. An evil man named Ganondorf stole that power for himself but was defeated by a young boy clothed in green. The young boy went away. The evil man came back. During the course of the game, it’s revealed that Hyrule was submerged beneath a flood in an attempt to seal away evil forever.

It didn’t work, of course. If evil was completely banished, there would be no game to play and no story to retell. Wind Waker’s intro cutscene presents Hyrule’s history as a sort of folktale, as if the story had been passed down from generation to generation. But you, the player, know the story. You’ve lived the story. If you played through Ocarina of Time, you got to travel across Hyrule and defeat Ganondorf yourself.

In other words, Wind Waker knows that you know how this goes. Nintendo is often criticized for exploiting players’ nostalgia, and while there’s some truth to that criticism, Wind Waker plays with the burden of the franchise’s past in surprising and interesting ways. Clay Routledge, a professor at North Dakota State University who studies the psychology of nostalgia, told Eurogamer that games can often trigger stronger feelings of nostalgia than movies or music or books: “I believe there is good reason to suspect that gaming-related nostalgia is made all the more potent because the experience of gaming is so immersive" (Damien McFerran, "Crippled by Nostalgia: The Fraud of Retro Gaming", Eurogamer, 9 December 2012).

This rings true to me. When I watched that cutscene, I wasn’t thinking about Hyrule or the Triforce or the battle between good and evil. I was thinking about sitting in my basement at age 12, playing Ocarina of Time on the Wii with a GameCube controller, my sister at my side with a GameFAQ pulled up if I got stuck. I was thinking about the story that I had lived, about how I went from a solitary boy in the forest to becoming the Hero of Time, about how I journeyed across mountains and deserts to defeat evil.

Then the game begins. The world is bright and cheery and cartoonish -- it doesn’t look like a Zelda game. Link doesn’t live by himself, either, but with his sister and grandmother. And there are no mountains or deserts, just a huge expanse of ocean. Right off the bat, Wind Waker announces that while the basic elements (boy in green, golden triangles, evil man, etc.) may be familiar, their context is entirely different. The past has been swallowed by the sea.

Over at the AV Club, Jake Muncy interpreted Wind Waker as being a “fairy tale against fairy tales, showing reverence for received stories even as it warns that they should not be blindly trusted” ("Wind Waker breaks from Zelda’s recurring legend to warn against blind faith", AV Club, 4 March 2015). As ever, Ganondorf reemerges from his slumber and captures Princess Zelda, at which point it is up to Link to save the day. But Ganondorf is strangely melancholy. He’s lived this story before, and he knows that it doesn’t end well for him. “It can only be called fate,” says Ganondorf before his final confrontation with Link. “That when power, wisdom, and courage come together, the gods would have no choice but to come down.” He’s going through the motions, because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Link knows. He puts a sword through Ganondorf’s head. He frees himself from the legend passed down from generation to generation. He carves out a new future for himself and the people that he loves. After all, Link’s just a kid with a whole life ahead of him.

***

Not everyone liked Wind Waker when it came out. It was too cartoon-y, too childish, too different. If you want to see how nostalgia can turn gamers into whiny, reactionary traditionalists, try pursuing Wind Waker's negative Metacritic user reviews at the time of its release. "[T]his game SUCKS. maybe a 5 year old would like it,” wrote LinkFan in 2003, for example. Apparently, the irony of complaining about a game for being too different when its very message was about the dangers of repeating the past was lost on early players.

I understand the sentiment, though. We want what’s familiar and comfortable to us. We want more of what we know. I want to experience the feeling that I had when I was 12 and scared but strangely confident, fighting my way through dungeons and banishing evil with the swing of my sword. Chasing this feeling is why sequels and remakes and HD remasters are so popular. It’s why there’s a new Call of Duty every year, why one of the biggest announcements from last year’s E3 was a remake of the 17-year-old Final Fantasy VII, why Wind Waker itself was re-released in HD. (Again, it seems the irony of rehashing an old game about the dangers of repeating the past was lost on Nintendo as well.).

What story about video games do we tell ourselves? “The present is great because computation is the smallest, fastest, cheapest, and best it’s ever been,” wrote Erik Fredner about a presentation on the history of video games at this year’s GDC. “And the future looks bright, over there there in the hazy not-now! That’s the place where the chips are even smaller, faster, cheaper, and better than they are today” ("The Peculiar Future of Videogame History", Polygon, 21 March 2016).

And so we buy the latest box and play the latest sequel/remake/remaster and marvel at how much prettier everything looks. I don’t think that it is a mistake that video game players are often termed “consumers.” It’s no mistake that “games are typically considered to be commercial products, rather than creative works; consider the fact that game titles, unlike the names of, say, movies or songs, appear in most newspapers and magazines, including this one [The New Yorker], un-italicized and without quotes” (Nick Paumgarten, "Master of Play", The New Yorker, 20 December 2010).

***

Once, there was a boy in a land named Hyrule who defeated a great evil. The boy was blocky at first, a mass of green and red pixels, but as time went on, he became more colorful and detailed. He gained a dimension. His poly count grew higher. He became more lifelike and expressive. But no matter how advanced the visuals or intuitive the motion controls, he was imprisoned by his story. He was good, but what is goodness without evil?

The most recent 3D Zelda game is Skyward Sword. I enjoyed it when it came out in 2011. It didn’t give me the same feeling that I had when I played Ocarina of Time for the first time. I suppose nothing will. The final boss that you confront isn’t Ganondorf, but an entity simply known as “Demise.” You can’t kill it, only subdue it. “This is not the end,” it tells you. “An incarnation of my hatred shall follow your kind, dooming them to wander a blood-soaked sea of darkness for all time.”

We’re destined to do this forever.

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