A Link to My Past

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.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.