“Go to the next room”

I played: The Legend of Zelda, released in the U.S. on the NES in 1987, two years before I was released, i.e., born. It’s the first in the series and one of the most beloved and recognizable games of all time. Evidently the complete Japanese title is The Hyrule Fantasy: The Legend of Zelda, which is now and forever my official name for it.

The first time I played it: all the way through was last summer (2020), if I remember correctly. My earliest memories of playing the game are a little anachronistic. In my childhood home (I’m the youngest of three) we always had the current Nintendo console. The earliest I remember playing at my house was the SNES, which debuted in the U.S. in 1991.

My grandparents’ house in west Texas, though, had an old Magnavox TV in the corner of the dining room with an NES that remains there to this day. Whenever my extended family would assemble for long holiday weekends, usually some combination of kids (we were 12 cousins total) and the occasional cool uncle or extremely cool grandmother would be crowded around the screen playing retro games together in between meals and board games.

Most of the boys in my family tended toward traditionally masculine hobbies, and I often spent those weekends coming up with excuses to get out of playing football in the backyard or shooting rifles at the farm, afraid my clumsiness at both would reveal something none of us was ready to acknowledge. When I felt especially bold I’d follow my heart over to the round table to make bracelets or other crafts with some of the girls. But the NES was gender-neutral ground where random combinations of girls and boys played together, the rare corner of the house where I could do something I enjoyed without worrying about anyone’s expectations.

The rhythms of our family gatherings didn’t lend themselves to a puzzle-adventure like The Hyrule Fantasy. Occasionally one of us would start it from the beginning and play it for 20 minutes, and then another cousin would nominate a multiplayer game like Excitebike instead, or our parents would holler out for dinner, and any progress was lost. Most of my nostalgia for the game stops at the soft bounce of pressing the cartridge down into place, the chirpy buzz of the iconic theme through the speakers, the warm smells of Thanksgiving wafting in from my grandmother’s kitchen, the next room over. And, of course, the glow of the narrow forest clearing where the solitary boy starts his adventure, the loneliness of hoping that a crowded house of relatives couldn’t see me for who I really was.

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When I played it this time: I was so taken with how desolate its world is. The Hyrule Fantasy is, like many of its sequels, characterized by loneliness. No towns, no friends except humans—everything else is an enemy to fight. In this game there are no young people (except the protagonist and the princess you rescue), only elders, each alone on their small plot of the map, usually hiding in caves. And there’s the enormous graveyard, where I counted 72 individual tombstones, many times the number of living characters. The first person you encounter in the game greets you with a warning, one of the most famous lines of dialogue in video game history: “It’s dangerous to go alone.” Plenty of geeky Valentines and proposals have referenced the scene, but here in the game the character offers not companionship but a sword: “Take this.”

Or did I bring the loneliness to Hyrule with me? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recent post from Anne Helen Petersen and the ways I’ve structured my adult life with, and without, community:

Existences many of us understand as the height of privilege — to live absolutely alone, and thus have utter mastery over one’s choices, or to live just with a partner who does not significantly challenge those choices — have revealed themselves as vulnerabilities. We spend so much time wishing for dominion over our own spaces and lives and forget just how lonely it can be once we arrive there.

Control has always been a central tension of my relationship to this series and, more broadly, with solitude. I have great memories of playing Zelda games with friends (whether in real-time or via that network of problem-solving). Often—especially when I’m playing a game for the first time—I carve out time to play by myself so I can work out the puzzles and take in the sights at my own pace. It’s not unlike how my introversion finds great joy in spending time alone at a restaurant or hiking trail or museum. But sometimes loneliness accompanies me to those places, too, and I start to wonder whether I avoided inviting anyone else in order to avoid the risk of them declining. If I choose to be alone first, I don’t have to wonder whether I actually had a choice.

The truth is that many of my early memories playing Zelda games are profoundly lonely, escaping into another boy’s body in Hyrule when the idea of being known in real life felt impossible. There is a version of solitude that is beneficial, even necessary, for participation in community, especially for an introvert like me. And there is a version of solitude that is more about fear and control, the version that grabs for a sword, for “utter mastery over one’s choices,” rather than welcoming vulnerability as an invitation into the risk of connection with others. As an adult I’m learning how to tell one from the other, but I don’t always get it right. So sometimes I wind up feeling insecure on a solo hike, or some weeks I’ll pack my schedule full of plans with others and wind up exhausted and resentful.

If there is any loneliness inherent to The Hyrule Fantasy, its tight quarters amplify it. This 8-bit adventure can only process one screen at a time. You view your character’s movement from a bird’s eye view, and when he walks to the edge of a screen, the entire landscape shifts one screen in that direction to reveal the next plot of landscape. More recent Zelda games offer more convincing escapes to sprawling kingdoms with massive fields and canyons and lakes, but here the tiny terrain made me feel constricted and self-conscious. This was especially the case when I played it for the first time last summer, in the midst of a pandemic that trapped us each in our own quarters and often trapped me in my own head.

The silver lining of the game’s piecemeal pacing is that it makes the task ahead of you seem altogether manageable. Later games in the series involve complex puzzles stretched across cavernous dungeons and intricate temples. But in this entry, the puzzles are limited to one room (i.e., one screen) each. You only have to make it as far as the next screen. You can’t even tell what’s coming next until you get there. In one of the game’s final challenges, a massive labyrinth, you stumble upon an old man who advises, “Go to the next room.” It’s meant to be a hint that detonating a bomb on the western wall reveals a secret path that allows you to advance, but the ambiguous suggestion comes across more like a mantra: One room at a time. Each room has enough trouble of its own.

Because I grew up playing later entries in the Zelda series, exploring The Hyrule Fantasy as an adult was like encountering the primary texts of a sacred tradition, or even like a biology lesson: “Ah, I recognize this character / tune / weapon as a primitive precursor to one I know well from later games.” I think I encountered some of the origins of my seclusive tendencies, too. My world is much bigger now than it was when I was a kid playing the first 20 minutes of this game on a Magnavox TV. My secrets are much smaller, and being known in real life feels so much more possible than I could have imagined. But some habits are difficult to outgrow, and while my solitude isn’t always motivated by fear, it isn’t always free of it.

As for the puzzles I face these days: They’re much more complex, but the old man’s advice is no less relevant. “Go the next room.” One room at a time.

Read the other essays in this series here.

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