There’s an adage that adorns classroom walls, fills self-help books, and summarizes inspirational speeches in sports movies all over: you are your own worst enemy, and the greatest thing holding you back is yourself. The pervasiveness of this belief is largely symptomatic of a neoliberal capitalist ethos that implores people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, refusing to admit that external forces can significantly affect personal and social advancement. Of course, the “yourself” that opposes you is not an actual person or thing, but an idea. It’s laziness or incompetence, emotion or lack of will — in other words, a deadly sin as either Christianity or capitalism would understand it.
Because of the dominant design philosophies of videogames, the medium is especially capable of exploring the concept of social mobility. You advance through a game, accruing capital on the way — in the form of coins or musical notes or souls or anything else — and gradually improve both your character and yourself through labor. Your work pays off, as victory brings with it neatly wrapped, ribbon-tied endings. Evil is gone, and the protagonist can live a regular life; there may even be a wedding (between a man and a woman) and some kids. Occasionally, games contain moments that explore the ways in which individual ideological subjects fuel the cultural significance of social mobility narratives. I’ll call those moments “self-duels.” They are instances in which you, as a character, fight something that comes from or resembles you (a shadow, a mirror image, or something else that makes the “self” that limits you tangible and defeatable) in order to prove your mastery over the game and the systems that run it. Self-duels also tend to promote or affirm the character’s status in a social hierarchy, and thereby tie your mechanical refinement to in-game socioeconomic success. The character’s social standing, then, is as mobile as your skill level.
Contextualizing self-duels in their narratives, however, reveals that games that appear to endorse the glories of social mobility often doubt its legitimacy. To start, the resonance of social mobility narratives relies on the existence of classist structures. There must be a top toward which we can aspire, and a bottom away from which we can fly. Many, if not most, games propose that to navigate such frameworks you must be violent, whether physically or economically — you usually achieve upward mobility in games by defeating enemies in combat, and in real life by competing in markets. In the case of self-duels, you battle not just the outside other, but also your own inner being. The self thus becomes an economic subject fashioned and defined by the violence of rigid classism. And by implicating you in that process, self-duels contend that social mobility narratives and the ideologies they sustain remain relevant because individuals and societies buy into them. We act in ways that obey commands to aim for higher socioeconomic perches, and in doing so lend those commands authority. The self-duel ultimately suggests that to achieve the truest social mobility — the kind that does not lie on beds of the trampled and maimed — we must operate outside of the systems that vow to guide us beyond classism with one hand while pinning us inside of it with the other.
Final Fantasy IV, released in 1991 for the SNES, features a prototypical self-duel. Toward the game’s climax, Cecil, the protagonist, learns that he must complete the trials of the aptly named Mt. Ordeals in order to defeat his archenemy. At the mountain’s peak, Cecil undergoes a rite that sees him transition from his class as a Dark Knight into that of a Paladin. (The Final Fantasy series refers to the specializations of characters as either “classes” or “jobs,” which is a wonderful socioeconomic phenomenon in and of itself.) Cecil’s shift is basic in its symbolism: on his quest to both redeem himself and defeat evil, Cecil abandons his dark power in favor of white-washed righteousness. Simple.
The straightforwardness of Cecil’s transformation belies its implications as a process. First, the how: in order to fully become a Paladin, Cecil must defeat his reflection, which materializes from a wall of mirrors and takes the shape of Cecil’s Dark Knight form. He faces the physical manifestation of his troubled past in order to, in his own words, “amend [his] past guilt.” Cecil manages to win the fight, and his self-duel conveniently leads to a cookie-cutter narrative resolution. After a lifetime on the run — from his parentless youth, the atrocities he has committed, and more — Cecil succeeds in escaping his past. He ends the game by restoring peace, marrying his lover, Rosa, and becoming the crowned king of the realm of Baron. Cecil’s self-duel, then, is the pivot that sets him toward an idealistic, traditional lifestyle, reminiscent of America’s fabled white picket fences and housewives clad in apron-battle armor. It is an insistence that social mobility is real and reachable, despite the events, conditions, and traumas that might batter us. We need only strive.
With the ending of Final Fantasy IV in mind, we can understand the game as a tale of successful socialization. Cecil achieves social redemption for the things in his control (like his wrongs) as well as those beyond it (like his orphanage) by assimilating into homogeneity. When Cecil and Rosa get married, they replace Cecil’s fractured genealogy with an acceptable family structure. They are heterosexual, wealthy, and powerful, with the material strength to rule and prosper. In short, they are as “normal” and “successful” as a couple can be.
But Cecil’s atonement, in practice, is superficial. Rather than seeking to understand his inner demons, Cecil shatters them with the same violence that they represent. This legitimization of combat makes overt the violent channels through which social mobility flows. Cecil battles himself to both survive and display his expertise — his self-duel is thus reminiscent of cutthroat economic competition, where survival of the fittest and self-interest reign. While Cecil does take in Rydia, a young victim of the violence that turned him toward repentance, he never truly makes peace with his past. He flees it, pruning his inner being to become an acceptable subject of the social frameworks in which he is nestled. There is no reawakening or change that results from Cecil’s self-duel. It occurs, and Cecil continues to atone only violently, by washing his sins in his own blood and that of his foes. He even includes Rydia, the child that he raises while on his warpath, in his violent crusade, constructing with her an upward path built of bones and death.
Final Fantasy IV thus, rather than extolling the virtues of social mobility, prompts us to question the fate of Rydia, a child who knows nothing of the world but a society in which movement occurs only through violence. At the end of the game, when an eidolon (a fantastical summonable entity) calls Rydia beautiful, she states that “The heart is what’s important. Right Cecil?” In future remakes of the game, this line becomes, “The most important thing is that we are alike on the inside, not on the outside. Isn’t that right, Cecil?” Both versions of Rydia’s response are comforting testimonials to shared humanity, but they crumble before Cecil’s actions. “We” are not all alike. If we were, Cecil would not have had to defeat his reflection in order to restore the nobler aspects of his humanity — he would have spoken with it. His inner being would have taken a different shape, a more universal one, rather than embodying the wounds that haunted him. The self, then, is not an untouchable spark that grants humanity the preordained ability to work toward success. It is a flicker, a ghost that ideology conditions to look and behave a certain way. That Cecil must put his self to the sword is ideological subjugation; a realm in which we are all material and economic, our livelihoods both dependent on and powerless against violence.
Seven years after Final Fantasy IV’s initial release, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time presented players with a slightly different interpretation of the self-duel. In the game’s Water Temple, protagonist Link battles an all-black palette swap of himself, Dark Link, who tells you to “Conquer yourself!” This fight takes place atop a bed of water, which literalizes the nature of the self-duel. It is an act of violent reflection, self-realization, and validation. However, Link’s function as a character makes discerning the narrative meaning of his self-duel a bit difficult. The Legend of Zelda games don’t feature voice acting, which causes dialogue in their worlds to feel muted (outside of your head, at least). But, Link ups the ante of silence by refraining from talking at all. There are no text boxes that tell us what Link says or thinks, so, in a way, he is the perfect role-playing character. We control not only his rolls and sword swings, but also his thoughts. Absent our button presses and imaginative extrapolation, Link is a dummy, empty and waiting.
Therefore, to make sense of Link’s self-duel, we must analyze the context of the game world. Dark Link doesn’t appear to have any narrative significance binding him to the Water Temple. He is simply there, waiting for Link, in a chamber that might have housed him forever. His presence in the dungeon thus seems to be thematic more than anything else. He is a reflection in a reflective room in a ruin filled with the earth’s most basic unit of reflection. But what does Link gain from fighting his shadow, besides the item that awaits him, nestled in a treasure chest and promising progress through the game world?
The narrative context of Link’s self-duel requires some sussing out, but proves to be fairly straightforward. The game takes place in two parts — one in which Link is a child, and another in which he is a young adult. Link visits the Water Temple as an adult, but, in his childhood, he had saved Princess Ruto (a member of the Zora people for whom the Water Temple is a sacred site) from danger. An interesting thing happened when Link saved Princess Ruto: she engaged herself to him. Link had been looking for the Zora’s Sapphire, the third of a trio of jewels that Princess Zelda (another princess, this one of the land of Hyrule) had sent him to recover. Before giving it to Link, Ruto explained, “My mother gave it to me and said I should give it only to the man who will be my husband. You might call it the Zora’s engagement ring!” Link was oblivious to what that meant — the text that appears upon your obtainment of the Sapphire says, “Her most precious possession? You don’t know what she’s talking about, but you’ve finally collected all three Spiritual Stones!” The game reminds you that, although flattering, Ruto’s crush on Link is not his main concern. He has finally completed the task with which Zelda entrusted him, and he can now run to her, gallantly, with prize in hand.
Link, with wordless devotion, very clearly loves Zelda. She ushers him from his life as an other — he is an orphan in a secluded village in which he is the only member of his race — into one of heroism. Link’s adventure is his courtship, as he runs to the ends of the earth for Zelda, committing years of his life to prevent the fruition of the storms in her nightmares. He goes above and beyond for his love, collecting not one but three precious stones to appease her. As had likely been the case with the player, Link was an unaware individual wrapped up in an old-fashioned life trajectory. He worked in order to earn the possession of valuable gems that would bind him to a woman — his journey throughout Hyrule was an endeavor akin to a grueling trek to the jewelry store. That the game closes with Zelda sending Link back in time to his childhood is Ocarina of Time’s rather painful, contrarian contribution to the social mobility narrative: you can check all the boxes and jump through all the hoops, but, sometimes, the world has a way of keeping things from you. Your bootstraps might be a little too far from your hands, your goals of social mobility and its rewards might be a few systems and lifetimes and histories away, and the princess might remain all that her title implies — higher, distant, and impossible.
Link’s conflict with Dark Link, then, is not as central to his experience with social mobility as Cecil’s self-duel was. But Dark Link himself is a question mark — he might be the unknowable version of Link that said yes to Ruto, dedicating himself to her instead of Zelda. Perhaps falling in love with the former would have yielded a more fulfilling life than the one that Link lives, resulting in success and family rather than a forced return to the past. Dark Link is the possibility that Link is doomed to repeat his cycle of work and aging and heartbreak, to keep facing his inner darkness in the Water Temple, forever. To continue returning to his genesis after Zelda thanks and abandons him anew. To work a lifetime’s worth of work, again and again, only to learn that, in his case, love and labor aren’t enough.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, released almost 17 years after Ocarina of Time, carries the torch with which Link set out in a variety of ways. Kingdoms in distress? Check. Love triangles? Check. A narrative with the complexities of social mobility at its roots? Check plus.
Geralt of Rivia, the game’s protagonist and its titular witcher, appears to follow the lineage of Cecil and Link to embody the pursuit of social mobility. Witchers are individuals who, after having gone through rigorous training and alchemy-induced mutations, hunt beasts and creatures with the use of their superhuman senses and combat abilities. The rarity and supernatural nature of witchers feed into a myriad of stigmas, causing Geralt to experience the world as a person always on the fringes of society. But the way that Geralt finds a socioeconomic place for himself is the very thing that others him: his job of slaying monsters. He destroys entities more dangerous and menacing than him, and thereby provides social utility and receives acceptance.
An easy-to-miss side quest contains a self-duel that speaks to the complex nature of Geralt’s work. After tracking down a doppelgänger that had been stealing from merchants in the city of Novigrad, Geralt faces the deceiver in combat. Immediately prior to the fight, the doppelgänger morphs into a physical clone of Geralt. The ensuing battle proves anticlimactic, though, as the faux-witcher surrenders after a few swings of Geralt’s blade. Geralt has a victorious quip locked and loaded, as always: “Might be able to look like a witcher, but that won’t make you fight like one.” Geralt doesn’t admonish the doppelgänger for imitating his image, as what matters is not how he looks, but how he fights — or, in other words, how he functions as an economic actor, given that his work consists of killing fiends for a living. Because ultimately, Geralt’s job title is the name of the game, the engine of its plot and play, as well as the verbal judgment that passersby spit at him like venom or a slur. If his effectiveness were to lose its value, Geralt would be nothing, the skin on a defeated doppelgänger.
However, rather than cementing Geralt in a linear social spectrum, Geralt’s self-duel proves that he operates independently of classist divides. It is telling that, after defeating the doppelgänger, you have the choice to either kill it or let it live. Geralt is content in his place beyond the structures that would bind his movement, killing not out of self-interested pursuits of strength, but to further his mission of protecting his loved ones. His spurning of the societies around him allows him to swiftly move between the ranks of their fundamentally classist frameworks, dealing just as often with bandits and thieves as he does kings. Geralt therefore evokes idyllic social mobility, but the way that he attains that mobility is meaningful. He does not enter his self-duel with wishes of metamorphosis (in fact, he rejects the doppelgänger as a reflection of himself, totally aware that it is a separate being), nor does he work toward upward social movement. His only goal is to save his daughter-like ward, Ciri. He is violent, yes, but solely because the world is violent to its core; because he must survive to ensure Ciri’s survival.
One of the game’s multiple endings sees Geralt fully realize his repudiations of classism. After he secures Ciri’s safety, he eventually retires to a life of quaint romance with Yennefer, the sorceress. So unlike Cecil, Geralt does not become a king, but unlike Link, he does end the game changed. He reaches a life removed from society and the socioeconomic strata into which it breaks up its subjects. This might seem at odds with an earlier, overt appeal that The Witcher 3 makes to the potential of social mobility: Jad Karadin, a witcher-turned-merchant, explains his change in profession by stating that “Not one among us doesn’t dream of changing our life. I simply did not stop at dreaming.” But Geralt’s journey attests to the power of seeing beyond hegemonic narratives and ideologies, and causes the “dream” of which Karadin speaks to represent something greater than the capitalist American one — something clearer and freer.
There are many characteristics and conditions that unite Cecil, Link, and Geralt. All three heroes are parentless outsiders who, to varying degrees, work with the wellbeing of their families and friends in mind. They all also interact with royalty to varying degrees: Cecil becomes a king, Link defends the daughter of one, and Geralt parlays with various wielders of absolute power. The crowned rulers with whom the protagonists deal stand in for the elite atop societies organized around socioeconomic imbalances, and the differing levels of individual change that Cecil, Link, and Geralt achieve all speak to the principle, or myth, of social mobility. Sometimes, you can’t move — and when you can, you do so with violence.
Self-duels are reminders that the union between you, games, and ideology doesn’t end when the dollars leave your hand or drip from your bank account. It often persists with every meeting between you and controller, and with each mechanical conversation and breath of pixelated air. Indeed, so much of what we find rewarding about videogames owes itself to the ideologies that have shaped our lives. It feels satisfying to find rupees in treasure chests, and to scavenge gold coins from corpses, because our muscles and the backs of our minds welcome the acquisition of socioeconomic capital and the betterment — however material — of our selves. So the self-duel doesn’t stop at the brink between the protagonist and the screen. It rumbles within you, reaching completion when the end credits roll and you have shown the game and yourself that you are done, developed, and indestructible.