I haven’t been playing a lot of games lately. There are reasons: the prohibitive price of gaming, whether that be the games themselves or the hardware required to run them: certain changes in my personal life which have left me far less time for sitting on my arse in front of the telly; disappointment that those must-play titles I had rushed out to buy were, by and large, a waste of money; but all that really needs to be said is that I apportion far less free time to my favourite hobby nowadays. It’s a lot harder to summon the will to settle down and play games which just don’t grip in the way they once did. Relating these woes to a friend, he confessed to his own mounting apathy towards our shared pastime, despite many attempts to reinvigorate the love affair. He’d played almost every AAA title of recent months alongside a slew of indie and retro games, but just wasn’t feeling the spark. What felt most striking about this was not the shared sense of something that verged on despair, nor the implied doubt of our self-image (as gamers, we game – if we do not, then who are we?) but the conclusion he drew from it.
Maybe, he suggested, we had outgrown video games.
The idea is as worrying as it is thought-provoking. Is it possible to outgrow video games as a medium? Doesn’t that suggest that, subconsciously or not, we still pigeonhole games as toys and therefore as something childish, to be put away when adulthood beckons? It stands in stark contrast to other forms of entertainment media that even a so-called “hardcore” gamer considers our medium something to be left behind in the fullness of maturity. Had my friend told me he thought he had outgrown television or books, I would certainly have found the statement much stranger than I did (though, thanks to a similarly odd social convention, comic books are also the province of children and stigmatised in adults). Despite my own acceptance of video gaming as an artistic medium, there was still a part of my brain willing to accept that as an adult, ostensibly mature and responsible, casting off games as childish playthings was reasonable.
It’s not an idea that the rest of my brain subscribes to. It is perfectly possible to outgrow content, but the system of content delivery? Video games are nothing more than a way of providing experiences, and those experiences need to be judged on their own worth rather than as representatives of a medium. The Disney cartoons which thrilled us as children may not cause our adult selves to flock into showings of the latest offerings from the House of Mouse, but that doesn’t mean we’re too sophisticated for cinema. Yet this is not an entirely uncommon reaction to the malaise garnered from years of video gaming. Years ago, minor celebrity & television presenter Iain Lee ran a column on the now-defunct MSN-UK site detailing his own love of gaming, of which the final column was a message reflective of my own; Lee still loved gaming as a concept, he claimed, but was finding himself increasingly apathetic towards the actual playing. Much as he craved it, the old magic had departed. Although he promised to return when he found the will, I do not remember another installment ever appearing.
Considering the current clutch of games sitting by my 360, I feel no stir of excitement or interest. Dishonored. Hitman Absolution. XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Far Cry 3. Assassin’s Creed 3. All well-reviewed, popular games and all gathering dust on a shelf. These are all games for grown-ups, specifically targeted towards people within my age bracket and brimming with murder, questionable moral decisions, betrayal, loss and other depressing concepts we like to call “mature”. I am a grown-up, at least according to my driver’s licence, ergo these are games tailored to myself and my supposed interests. If this is true, why the burn-out? It’s not that any of these games are particularly bad. All are, at their worst, competently constructed if uninteresting. Even the best of them, XCOM, is a struggle to play thanks to the emotionally draining nature of the game. The notorious difficulty, the permanent loss of valued troops, the seemingly inexorable slide into chaos of a terrified humanity; after completing a mission, this supposed leisure activity can be so fatiguing I feel the need for a break. Could it be that my flagging interest had its roots in my choice of titles?
It was probably this line of thinking which led me to accept, rather to my surprise, the offer from a cash-strapped friend to buy a second-hand Wii. The platform had never before been of particular interest, derided by fellow gamers as home to shovelware and an enabler of the filthy casuals. However, ran the reasoning, if the supposedly hardcore and mature games were no longer pushing my buttons, what harm could it do to explore a different aspect of video gaming? With this in mind, I picked up a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (because I’ve got my finger on the pulse of what constitutes cool in 2006) and set out to explore whether I could find in simplicity what I had lost to complexity.
Stepping out onto the bright green grass of Hyrule Field felt like coming home.
Familiarity, we like to say, breeds contempt. Sometimes, perhaps. Other times familiarity can be a balm, a soothing sensation of safety (for added alliterative appeal) and reassurance. Returning to the world of Zelda felt like taking a step back in time, to the days before everything I was expected to enjoy abounded with gore and potty-mouthed cussin’. I’m not the child I was when I first guided Link from the safety of his village into a world alive with the promise of wonder, but the child in me still felt that excitement stirring at the rise of the familiar tune and the sight of a wide-open plain ahead. It’s all still there, different but similar enough to ring those same bells; tiny Kakariko Village nestled at the foot of the fearsome Death Mountain, the bustling market town that surrounds towering Hyrule Castle, mighty Lake Hylia and the alien-looking Zoras who make their home near to its sadly diminished shores. There’s a very strange sensation of being in a place both new and old, fresh but familiar at the same time. Recognisable enough to be comforting but altered enough to reignite the urge to explore, to discover all the little secrets hidden away beneath rocks and atop trees, Hyrule has a timeless quality which transports me all the way back to childhood.
My first venture into the world of Zelda came back in 1994, with Link’s Awakening on the Kubrickian monolith that was the original Game Boy. I loved this game. For months at a time, no other title would lay claim to that chunky cartridge slot as I battled (in horribly inept fashion – give me a break, I was seven) around Koholint Island on a quest to collect sacred instruments and awaken the Wind Fish from his slumber in a stone egg atop a mountain, and escape from the dream world Link was trapped within. That may sound as if I’ve been drinking the Toilet Duck again, but the storyline of Link’s Awakening was genuinely as batshit mental as it sounds, and it was wonderful. Of course, although it served as my introduction to the franchise and I still think fondly of it, Link’s Awakening certainly wasn’t the Zelda game which made the greatest impression on my young mind.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is as close as you can get to a perfect game, but you don’t need to be told that because you have a soul and therefore you’ve played it. There is very little left to say on the subject – it’s a masterpiece, and one which seared itself onto my and many others’ souls. At the point in my development when it arrived, it was a revelation the importance of which cannot be overstated; to go from daily firefights in Goldeneye 64 or looping endlessly around Mario Kart 64 tracks to being dropped into a sprawling world alive with possibility was stunning. My first foray into Hyrule Field, after struggling through the great Deku Tree, was breathtaking. I felt as if I’d been handed a whole world to play in, and for the first time been given the freedom to not simply progress between objectives but to wander aimlessly, exploring and adventuring. Without Ocarina, I would not be the gamer I am today, an RPG addict never happier than when discovering every corner of an enormous open world.
Twilight Princess makes no secret about hitting the same beats as Ocarina. In fact it glories in it. A peaceful village, the hero who rises to defend his friends, the supernatural helper who comes to his aid, the elemental temples and collectibles and weapons are all predictable and reassuring. Twilight Princess is not attempting to massively innovate or to surprise the player, though the series has clearly evolved since the days of the N64; instead it revels in taking a well-worn formula and making it engaging all over again. Perhaps what’s most refreshing about the experience is that no attempt is made to introduce gritty characters or world-weary cynicism – Twilight Princess is unashamed to be a black-and-white story of the noble hero striving to save the land and rescue the princess, free from conflicted emotions or the crushing pressure of momentous decisions. If there is evil to be thwarted, then it’s time to put on your thwarting hat and get to work. It’s a tale of a boy and his fairy, Doing The Right Thing. While it may have been marketed as a “darker” Zelda game, one can only assume that this was a literal reference to the shadows blanketing Hyrule, as in no sense is the tale aiming to appeal to a more mature audience than its predecessors. The younger Tom who whiled away hours hunting for Poes and pestering chickens would have felt immediately comfortable within the new/old experience.
A large part of the instant sense of connection between the Zelda of now (well, of seven years ago, but who’s counting?) to the Zelda of then so well is the eternal champion, Link. The intention behind the name is for the character to function as representation of the player’s link to the game world, but over time the name has come to take on a dual meaning. Not only is the green-clad warrior the access point to the world of Hyrule for the player, but he also functions as a connection to every other pointy-eared protagonist of the series. Link is always Link, a reversal of the hero with a thousand faces – he’s a thousand heroes with a time-share on the same face and fetching tunic. His presence connects the game of the moment to the nostalgia of childhood, summoning memories of other heroes and adventures gone by. In my time as a gamer I’ve fought monsters as a hundred space marines, shot cops as a jaded criminal or criminals as a jaded cop, mowed down wave after wave of terrorists, Nazis and whoever else happened to be standing in front of my gun. Often the experiences are quite forgettable, blending seamlessly into one another in an extended parade of explosions and mutilation.
With Link, each adventure is distinct in my memory despite the clear likenesses between separate games, each character the same but different. Link has been a Hero of Time and a dreaming castaway, a seafaring swashbuckler and a reluctant werewolf, but these details are secondary as players guide the familiar avatar through familiar dungeons with familiar weapons. We know going in what to expect; the early progression through forest, fire and water, the collection of slingshots, bows, boomerangs and hookshot; that at some point the iconic shield and the Master Sword will likely find themselves in Link’s hands. We’ll meet new characters and test our strength against new beasts and bosses, but rarely will there be something unrecognisable and out-of-place to jar us from our comforting state of belonging. Underneath it all, he’s still Link. And because he’s still Link, in a way I’m still the same kid who insisted on rolling across Hyrule Field (because dude, it’s totally faster!) and hunted down gold Skulltulas with a slingshot. The connection between our heroes is also a connection between our past selves, the prior incarnations who loved these games so much. When Link takes a break to go fishing I’m not only remembering the Link who paid 10 rupees in the hope of catching a fish for a piece of heart, but the boy who sat in the back of his father’s car frantically trying to shield the screen from sunlight as he mashed the B button on that old grey brick.
Zelda games, and by extension the other Nintendo franchise games keeping the Heroes of Yore relevant for the Market of Today, function as a safe space within a self-conscious game market. Aware of the aforementioned association of games with childhood, even by some of the most avid players who will fight to the death against such assertions, AAA games are structured ever more towards what we call maturity, a blood-soaked orgy of violence and tragedy. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Attempting to invest a game with more adult themes and storytelling can result in a deeper experience for the player, and the idea of fountains of gore being artistic expression is a valid one. It’s nice to know, though, that amidst the plethora of games which push the envelope of gritty realism there are games like the Zelda franchise adamantly refusing to be drawn down a darker path. They tell us that it’s OK to want simplicity sometimes, that it’s fine to indulge the inner child who so fondly remembers adventures past. My tired, cynical adult self is reinvigorated by echoes of the joy I felt all those years ago, and all of a sudden my apathy towards modern gaming doesn’t seem quite so distressing. Games don’t have to be weighty and challenging, immersed in hyperviolence or a jaded outlook where all is shades of grey (or greenish-brown). Sometimes that’s what we want, and there’s a whole buffet to choose from when it is.
Sometimes it’s OK to just be a kid. Adherence to the notion of Games As Art does not necessitate abandonment of Games As Toys. There is plenty of room for both to peacefully coexist, for reflections on the dark nature of man to share shelf space with simplistic experiences designed only for play. The former does not invalidate the latter any more than the existence of The Godfather invalidates Aladdin. We all need play sometimes, that purest sense of play where we simply experience joy from participation in an activity, and The Legend of Zelda is a perfect place to find it.