Link Un-Linked: On the Water Temple and the Shadows of Psychoanalysis

What do you mean by “mys­te­ri­ous”?’ ‘Well, I have the same impres­sion with them as I have with a buried spring or a dried-up pond. You can’t walk over them with­out con­stant­ly feel­ing that water might reap­pear’ — “The Uncanny” (p. 129)


I start­ed this quest in the mid­dle: my fas­ci­na­tion with the water tem­ple and Shadow Link. Sigmund Freud, psy­chol­o­gist, wrote on the very same topic of dark dou­bles, evil twins, and dop­pel­gangers say­ing: “this uncan­ny ele­ment is actu­al­ly noth­ing new or strange, but some­thing that was long famil­iar to the psy­che and was estranged from it only through being repressed.” (The Uncanny, p. 148). For its hero­ic quest so ubiq­ui­tous­ly tout­ed since 1998 as the per­fect game, Ocarina of Time has an inner psy­che too often ignored.

Why use Freud to study games, let alone art? Because for all the misog­y­ny and het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty Freud forced upon psy­chol­o­gy he made a few hon­est obser­va­tions – there are sys­tems we can­not see that nev­er­the­less gov­ern our asso­ci­a­tions and thoughts so effort­less­ly that the mech­a­nism of con­trol remains entire­ly hid­den. Freud asserts that analy­sis is often not self-evident. Only after the blitz of media, reviews, and mid­night release do the stead­fast crit­ic and even more cau­tious his­to­ri­an begin to make sense of a par­tic­u­lar work. Critical analy­sis always offers many angles of approach, Freudian thought being just one of many tools in the toolk­it. In film, psy­cho­analy­sis was a polit­i­cal tool that Laura Mulvey employed in her land­mark 1975 piece, “On Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey direct­ed her cri­tique not only at the con­tents of Hollywood cin­e­ma, but at the camera’s fram­ing. Her explo­ration of the male gaze laid the foun­da­tion­al lan­guage that would later pro­pel Anita Sarkeesian’s crit­i­cal work to iden­ti­fy and address the under­ly­ing sex­ism and patri­archy found with­in videogames. Quite the lin­eage set down by a cigar-smoking man often accused of think­ing every­thing is about either sex or your moth­er (there’ll be more about that mis­con­cep­tion later).

A psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic read­ing looks into the uncon­scious qual­i­ties of a medi­um. The con­nec­tions, as my essay title sug­gests, that we assume have always been plugged togeth­er. What I find unique to the Shadow Link encounter is how the game slips out of the nar­ra­tive and into a med­i­ta­tion of play itself. The appear­ance of a cloned, dig­i­tal avatar lays bare the uncon­scious and estranged cal­cu­la­tions per­formed by both play­er and machine. In this moment of rev­e­la­tion, the play­er must destroy the twin that threat­ens to take over the game.

Shadow Link Mini-boss Room (3DS

Role of the Double

The dun­geon room con­tain­ing the mini-boss departs from the water temple’s gloomy stone inte­ri­or. Like step­ping into a dream, a vast and empty pond extends to the hori­zon bro­ken only by sev­er­al pieces of stone ruin, a isle bear­ing a dead tree, and a small build­ing. Shadow Link appears only after the play­er cross­es the inch-deep lake and attempts to enter the locked build­ing oppo­site of the entrance. Upon turn­ing around Shadow Link mate­ri­al­izes at the foot of the tree, wait­ing for the encounter. Freud writes in “The Uncanny” that:

[The double’s] uncan­ny qual­i­ty can sure­ly derive only from the fact that the dou­ble is a cre­ation that belongs to a prim­i­tive phase in our men­tal devel­op­ment, a phase that we have sur­mount­ed, in which it admit­ted­ly had a more benign sig­nif­i­cance (p. 143)

Here the psy­cho­an­a­lyst sug­gests that the uncan­ny is not only a repressed moment in chrono­log­i­cal time but also in devel­op­men­tal time. A dop­pel­ganger impli­cates both phys­i­cal and men­tal rep­e­ti­tion, forc­ing the view­er to return to the inter­nal state marked by that first encounter. For exam­ple, return­ing to a dilap­i­dat­ed ver­sion of your child­hood home con­jures thoughts about the orig­i­nal state of the home as well as your per­son­al expe­ri­ences with­in the build­ing. The dou­ble dou­bles.

On the blog, Abnormal Mapping, M’s read­ing of an early moment in the Ocarina expe­ri­ence will help us under­stand the struc­tur­al rhyme of Shadow Link’s appear­ance. In that piece, M argues that the scene when young Link leaves his friend Saria to explore Hyrule rep­re­sents the most emo­tion­al­ly mature cin­e­mat­ic sequence in the series.

Even rudi­men­ta­ry ani­ma­tion is able to cap­ture these com­plex emo­tions of hes­i­ta­tion and of being over­whelmed slow­ly turn­ing into a very hon­est child­like fear. Link takes a few steps back, and then turns and runs off to Hyrule Field and the rest of the game.

The sequence can be viewed here and demon­strates the “prim­i­tive phase,” that Freud’s sub­ject has “sur­mount­ed.” First the cam­era watch­es as a neu­tral third party from the side of the bridge. Then, after Link bolts away the cam­era zooms onto Saria from the same angle where, moments before, Link stood and gazed at her. Finally, the counter shot hangs behind Saria but gives the audi­ence her per­spec­tive of Link leav­ing even as the cam­era draws fur­ther back into the Lost Woods, as if the woods were already suck­ing her back.

M con­cludes the piece with a fem­i­nist cri­tique of Link as a blank char­ac­ter who out­sources his emo­tion­al labor onto sec­ondary female char­ac­ters in order to plunge for­ward towards his des­tiny. M’s cri­tique of Nintendo’s sto­ry­telling deci­sions folds neat­ly against my own player-centered inter­pre­ta­tion of the scene. If the play­er does not empathize with the emo­tion­al blank slate oth­er­wise known as Link then this presents a prob­lem of cir­cuit­ry. What does the play­er access when they con­nect to the game through Link?

Ocarina of Time invokes a dark world, seven years in a future where Ganondorf took power and set evil over the land. The cen­tral mechan­ic of switch­ing between young and adult time­lines is cen­tral to under­stand­ing the themes of mem­o­ry and self-identity. A mys­te­ri­ous char­ac­ter, Sheik, teach­es adult Link songs to nav­i­gate the world in search of the Sages’ medal­lions. Before enter­ing the Water Temple the play­er lis­tens to Sheik instruct: “The clear water’s sur­face reflects growth… Now lis­ten to the Serenade of Water to reflect upon your­self…” Her request sig­nals a larg­er sys­tem of mir­rors and reflec­tions at play of which the shal­low reflect­ing pool is only one of the more lit­er­al sym­bols. Among all the rush of adven­tur­ing the act of turn­ing around to sum­mon Shadow Link slows down the quest and neat­ly inverts the scene of Link leav­ing Sarah the Lost Woods.

Forced to look back, the play­er observes a self that is not self. A sense of iden­ti­ty that frac­tures like bro­ken ice (recall the stim­u­lus for enter­ing the Water Temple is to save Zora’s Domain from the dark magic that has frozen all its peo­ple). The mini-boss appears as a gray, vague­ly translu­cent, repli­ca­tion of Link’s three-dimensional wire frame. It walks like Link, jumps like Link, and swings a sword like Link. All the same ani­ma­tions have been re-appropriated as the automa­ton begins to duel. Though these ani­ma­tions are iden­ti­cal, they are also strange­ly unfa­mil­iar because through­out the game the play­er usu­al­ly just observes Link’s body from the behind. The dou­ble’s appear­ance draws com­par­isons to Freud’s obser­va­tion that: “We have par­tic­u­lar­ly favourable con­di­tions for gen­er­at­ing feel­ings of the uncan­ny if intel­lec­tu­al uncer­tain­ty is aroused as to whether some­thing is ani­mate or inan­i­mate” (p. 140). When viewed from the front, this forward-facing wire frame alters the play­er’s con­cep­tion of Link’s avatar by mak­ing the famil­iar for­eign sim­ply through rota­tion. The same ani­ma­tions that car­ried Link across the world become visu­al­ly and mechan­i­cal­ly sev­ered from the play­er’s con­troller. As you may sur­mise, the mini-boss encounter forces the play­er to con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Link unlinked, a game with­out a play­er.

Fighting Shadow Link Over Reflecting Pool (3DS) [http://​www​.zel​dain​former​.com/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​20748​/​s​h​a​d​o​w​_​l​i​n​k​_​f​i​g​h​t​_​_​m​e​d​i​u​m​.​jpg]

Naming the Shadow

At this point a more sim­ple inter­pre­ta­tion must be acknowl­edged before unpack­ing the greater com­plex­i­ty at work. One might assume Shadow Link is inher­ent­ly evil the way Phantom Ganon embod­ies an ethe­re­al malev­o­lence. This inter­pre­ta­tion elides the actu­al threat present in Shadow Link’s appear­ance. Again, I make a move to reject the con­ven­tion­al Hero’s Journey inter­pre­ta­tion that the hero must defeat him­self apro­pos Luke Skywalker fight­ing him­self wrapped in Darth Vader’s mask in the cave of Dagobah. Luke has desires while Link, as M has observed, is void of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. What we see in Shadow Link is not a dark man­i­fes­ta­tion of a character’s inner flaws, but some­thing much more sub­tle: a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the game that does not need us.

Suppose Shadow Link kills Link but then con­tin­ues on with the quest. Imagine this dig­i­tal penum­bra pick­ing up exact­ly where the play­er left off and car­ry­ing through until he drove his sword through Ganon and became the hero of time. If the game solved itself we would be reduced to mere spec­ta­tors watch­ing a long, and at times, repet­i­tive fan­ta­sy movie.

Yet Shadow Link is not a per­fect repli­ca­tion. When the play­er makes a sword-thrust the shade has the abil­i­ty to jump and land upon Link’s sword before strik­ing a counter attack and back-flipping away. The play­er has no access to such agili­ty. It’s as if the com­put­er mocks our slow reflex­es. The maneu­ver ren­ders a moment when the game asserts its power over the human play­er. Even though we all learn at a young age that com­put­ers can com­pute many kinds of cal­cu­la­tions faster than our own thoughts, our cul­ture works to ignore that real­i­ty and focus on what makes humans unique. Shadow Link’s height­ened reflex­es ask whether play itself might be bet­ter per­formed by the com­put­er? (Indeed, a whole sec­tion of gam­ing cul­ture and exper­i­men­ta­tion fol­lows such a the­sis and con­structs AI to achieve oth­er­wise impos­si­ble speed runs and chal­lenges).

Shadow Link Battle Begins (N64)

There Is Another

The Legend of Zelda series has come to rep­re­sent a cat­e­go­ry of videogames offer­ing a soli­tary expe­ri­ence woven from the game code and play­er agency. This kind of dig­i­tal magic exists beyond the daily stres­sors and demands of an increas­ing­ly inter­con­nect­ed world. Zelda games give play­ers power by mak­ing them the cen­ter of the leg­end and allow­ing their actions to shape the king­dom’s his­to­ry. Shadow Link becomes a men­ace jeop­ar­diz­ing the escapist mon­o­myth play­ers wish to enact. In Freudian terms, Shadow Link threat­ens to cas­trate the play­er and sever the power they wield over game world.

For psy­cho­an­a­lysts who con­tin­ue to parse and build upon Freud’s the­o­ries, cas­tra­tion takes on many mean­ings and def­i­n­i­tions depend­ing the inter­preter. Here I will take a Lacanian con­cept of “sym­bol­ic cas­tra­tion” which does not rep­re­sent a phys­i­cal or imag­ined muti­la­tion but rather “the dual somat­ic and psy­chi­cal dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing effects… of being made to depend on the for­eign­ness of sig­ni­fiers and every­thing they bring with them” (Johnston). In a game stud­ies sense, these “for­eign sig­ni­fiers” exhib­it an amal­gam of mechan­ics, con­trols, and user inter­face that con­tribute to the play expe­ri­ence. As I con­clud­ed in the above sec­tion, Shadow Link is no reg­u­lar enemy, it chal­lenges the very con­cept of play as a con­nec­tion between play­er and game. The mini-boss pro­duces a dread that the play­er casts aside much like the other dou­ble to promi­nent­ly fea­ture in the game: the oca­ri­na.

Yes, the hum­ble Fairy’s Ocarina. The gift that Saria pro­duced when Link left the Lost Woods proves to be an orig­i­nal replaced by a dop­pel­ganger, that Ocarina of Time. Gone is the only object that con­nects Link to his mem­o­ries in Kokiri Village. The sec­ond instru­ment por­trays a dou­bling so sub­tle, so innocu­ous that the game will­ful­ly ignores any sen­ti­men­tal value the orig­i­nal might have sig­ni­fied. As M point­ed out, Link refus­es to bear the emo­tion­al hard­ships nec­es­sary to estab­lish and cul­ti­vate his growth as a char­ac­ter. Instead, the game dis­cards the one item most like­ly to have per­son­al sig­nif­i­cance in order to upgrade it for a new McGuffin to drive the plot. This moment in the game illus­trates the strongest case for sym­bol­ic cas­tra­tion; the moment when Young Link becomes sub­sumed into Zelda’s leg­end as anoth­er ves­sel for a per­haps end­less series.

As Zelda enthu­si­asts might know, a canon­i­cal time­line of the games hinges around Ocarina of Time split­ting the time­line into two par­al­lel tracks. Thus Ocarina rep­re­sents how Nintendo repli­cates this con­cept of “the dou­ble” both with­in the indi­vid­ual game and the series as a whole. With each new install­ment, a cer­tain set of sig­ni­fiers (like the boomerang, hook­shot, and bombs) and geo­gra­phies (Zora’s Domain, Mt. Doom, Hyrule Castle) over­lay onto the dig­i­tal space and invoke all the old mem­o­ries a play­er might recall from pre­vi­ous­ly played games.

Without digress­ing too much into Capitalism’s engine for nos­tal­gia, one must observe how these games dis­tort and under­mine indi­vid­ual mem­o­ry for any par­tic­u­lar game. The “leg­end” emerges from a murky expe­ri­ence defined by a tri­fec­ta of agents. Machine. Game. Player. The myth can only be osten­si­bly per­formed when all three ele­ments unite. Shadow Link depicts a rebel­lious moment when the Machine seems to attempt its own eman­ci­pa­tion. The Machine attempts to reclaim its own agency by don­ning a hero’s cos­tume of its own and, by doing so, reveals that the play­er is unnec­es­sary. The link goes both ways as the Machine decen­ters the play­er to become the sub­ject of the reflec­tion. A cer­tain ambi­gu­i­ty in Navi’s com­mand “Dark Link /Conquer Yourself!” rein­forces the idea that the Machine wants to take over, remove the play­er, and sever this end­less nar­ra­tive. Yet the Player is pow­er­ful. The threat to this trin­i­ty is even greater than Ganon’s desire to con­trol the Triforce. Shadow Link’s flick­er­ing uncan­ny exis­tence dis­si­pates once Link defeats the mini-boss and resumes look­ing towards his des­tiny rather than his reflec­tion.


At this point, I hope to have estab­lished a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic tool­box for future game stud­ies. Perhaps the most obvi­ous sequel to these obser­va­tions would be an inves­ti­ga­tion into the uncan­ny qual­i­ties of Majora’s Mask. As a dark and moody direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, it is famous for reduc­ing pro­duc­tion costs by direct­ly dou­bling the first game’s assets to pop­u­late the game space of Termina. Many char­ac­ter mod­els that were once ene­mies become re-written as friends while the masks that con­tributed to a periph­er­al, child­hood side quest return as the cen­tral mechan­ic of pro­found power.

Dreams and repres­sion; the uncon­scious; the id, ego, and super-ego. Whether you are aware of it or not, Freud’s the­o­ries of psy­cho­analy­sis con­tin­ue to affect how Western cul­ture con­ceives of the indi­vid­ual mind. Indeed, Freud was no stranger to art and lit­er­a­ture. Many of his essays, includ­ing “The Uncanny,” invoke close-readings of lit­er­ary pas­sages much in the way I unpack Shadow Link to demon­strate a work’s inte­ri­or psy­chol­o­gy. A schol­ar of Freud knows that what remains unspo­ken is often curiosity’s most reward­ing pur­suit. For a medi­um so depen­dent on the sub­con­scious inter­face between play­er and machine, videogames offer a vast, unex­plored id.


Freud, Sigmund, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” James Strachey (trans.), W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 1961. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny,” in The Uncanny. David Mclintock (trans.), Penguin Books. New York. 2003. Print.

Johnston, Adrian. “Jacques Lacan.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2 Apr. 2013. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017. <https://​plato​.stan​ford​.edu/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​w​i​n​2016​/​e​n​t​r​i​e​s​/​l​a​c​an/>.

Luckerson, Victor. “The Cult of ‘Zelda: Majora’s Mask,’” The Ringer. 3 March 2017. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017. <https://​theringer​.com/​t​h​e​-​c​u​l​t​-​o​f​-​z​e​l​d​a​-​m​a​j​o​r​a​s​-​m​a​s​k​-​1​b​2​b​2382​f​b84>.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 83344. Web. Accessed 1 June, 2017. <http://​www​.com​pos​ingdig​i​tal​me​dia​.org/​f​15​_​m​c​a​/​m​c​a​_​r​e​a​d​s​/​m​u​l​v​e​y​.​pdf>.

M. “Who Am I Rooting For Again? – Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and the Problem with Link.” Abnormal Mapping. WordPress, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017. <https://​abnor​malmap​ping​.word​press​.com/​2015​/​02​/​03​/​w​h​o​-​a​m​-​i​-​r​o​o​t​i​n​g​-​f​o​r​-​a​g​a​i​n​-​o​c​a​r​i​n​a​-​o​f​-​t​i​m​e​-​m​a​j​o​r​a​s​-​m​a​s​k​-​a​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​p​r​o​b​l​e​m​-​w​i​t​h​-​l​i​nk/>.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Body Language & The Male Gaze — Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” Online Video Clip. Feminist Frequency. WordPress. 31 Mar. 2016. Web. Accessed 1 June, 2017. <https://​fem​i​nist​fre​quen​cy​.com/​v​i​d​e​o​/​b​o​d​y​-​l​a​n​g​u​a​g​e​-​t​h​e​-​m​a​l​e​-​g​a​ze/>.

Sheik Quotes,” Accessed 1 June 2017. <http://​www​.angelfire​.com/​a​n​i​m​e​2​/​a​n​i​m​e​f​i​c​/​s​h​e​i​k​.​htm>.

Nintendo EAD. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo, 1998. Nintendo 64.

Grezzo, Nintendo EAD Tokyo. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Nintendo, 2011. Nintendo 3DS.