‘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.
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.
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).
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.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/lacan/>.
Luckerson, Victor. “The Cult of ‘Zelda: Majora’s Mask,’” The Ringer. 3 March 2017. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017. <https://theringer.com/the-cult-of-zelda-majoras-mask-1b2b2382fb84>.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833–44. Web. Accessed 1 June, 2017. <http://www.composingdigitalmedia.org/f15_mca/mca_reads/mulvey.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://abnormalmapping.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/who-am-i-rooting-for-again-ocarina-of-time-majoras-mask-and-the-problem-with-link/>.
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://feministfrequency.com/video/body-language-the-male-gaze/>.
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