“Thanks a million.”

I played: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, released in the U.S. late in 1988, just a few months before I was born. It’s a direct sequel to The Hyrule Fantasy and one of the least-loved games in the Legend of Zelda series (more on that below), though evidently it was well received when it was released and has a few passionate fans.

The first time I played it: to the end credits was last summer (2020), and before that I think I’d only played the first few minutes to get a sample. I avoided it because of its reputation for being punishingly hard and a dramatic deviation from all the things I love about Zelda games. Last year when I determined to play through all the games in release order, though, I became excited and curious to experience this entry in the series that I knew so little about. Otherwise I have no nostalgia for it beyond the NES aesthetic.

When I played it this time: I found myself asking frequently, “Is this…fun?” which is one of those questions like “Am I happy?” that one tends not to stop and ask when the answer is “Yes.” The game has a lot going for it, like an ebullient soundtrack, some rad side-scrolling swordplay, and (especially compared to the sparseness of its predecessor) a thriving world of colorful towns and chatty NPCs. (Lest I portray it as too cheery, though, there are significantly more graves in this kingdom than the first game’s count of 72.) The introduction of more complex NPCs into the series here provokes a lot of philosophical questions I’ll save for a later entry, but suffice it to say that there’s a character whose entire existence consists of waiting in a house to tell you, “I AM ERROR,” which is a hell of a life.

But did I have fun with it? A friend who loves the series more than I do couldn’t believe I was choosing to subject myself to the game more than once. I unapologetically used an online guide to breeze through the game’s arbitrary puzzles, but there are no shortcuts around its brutal combat and navigation. If you die three times (which happens, especially in later dungeons, exceedingly often, and frequently for reasons you have little control over), the game sends you back to the beginning of the map to trudge your way back, so that you might spend a good portion of any play session merely retracing steps to regain lost ground. In order to make your character’s stats stronger early in the game, you need to “grind,” which means repeating a mundane action like defeating enemies over and over. It’s common parlance for many games that involve improving your character’s abilities through working for experience points, the operative word there being “work.” At best games like this provide an outlet for anxious energy. It can feel good to turn off your brain and clear out a screen of glowing monsters with the electric crunch of a sword. But more often, and especially on this playthrough, playing games with this much repetition and grinding inevitably drives me to a point of robotic, frustrated restlessness, focused only on progress and resolution.

It’s a feeling I know well, even outside the virtual kingdom of Hyrule. Recently I’ve been rereading The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery along with my small group, which means I’m especially conscious of the best and worst expressions of my type, 1w9, typically known as the “Perfectionist” or the “Reformer,” which means (to borrow Cron and Stabile’s language) that I’m “motivated by a desire to live the right way, improve the world, and avoid fault and blame.” I also recently came across a couple of articles from Anne Helen Petersen (making this my, uh, second post relating Zelda to AHP) about the way burnout can transform things that started as hobbies or rest into yet another to-do list item, essentially turning fun/pleasure into work/progress:

“The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being,” an article in Elite Daily explains. “Adulting therefore becomes a verb.” “To adult” is to complete your to-do list — but everything goes on the list, and the list never ends. “I’m really struggling to find the Christmas magic this year,” one woman in a Facebook group focused on self-care recently wrote. “I have two little kids (2 and 6 months) and, while we had fun reading Christmas books, singing songs, walking around the neighborhood to look at lights, I mostly feel like it’s just one to-do list superimposed over my already overwhelming to-do list. I feel so burned out. Commiseration or advice?”

That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance. Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.

When the pandemic hit and I started working (and doing everything else) from home, I leaned hard into what one friend calls my tendency to “optimize.” I started calculating out, almost unconsciously, how to squeeze the most out of every day through the power of routine and efficiency: sleep, meditation, exercise, three meals, work, all of it. How to fit a grocery store run into a 30-minute lunch break. How to do 50 pushups a day by spacing them out 10 at a time. Which meals I don’t mind eating on repeat so I can prep them en masse on Sunday. Any new variables (like adopting a dog) were fun challenges to fit into an increasingly-optimized life. It’s unsurprising behavior for an enneagram One spending a year trapped at home. Soon my life flattened “into a list of tasks,” and soon everything started to become “tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.” At the lowest points of my mood late in the pandemic—peak languishing—I’d find myself greeting the new day with resignation: “Time to walk the dog like yesterday, and then make another bowl of oatmeal like yesterday, and then clock into work like yesterday, and then…”

In The Adventure of Link, the stakes of losing couldn’t be higher. If you run out of lives, you hear a villainous laugh over a menacing graphic of Link’s eternal enemy: “GAME OVER / RETURN OF GANON.” In other words, you don’t merely die. Because you failed to do a good enough job, the bad guy wins and takes over the whole kingdom.

In light of that devilish threat, the game’s ending is remarkable. When you do defeat the final boss (which, strangely enough, isn’t Ganon—the last enemy to be defeated is a shadow version of yourself, which, if you ask me, is not nearly as narratively interesting in the context of the game as a lot of reviewers seem to think), the rescued Zelda calls you a “real hero” and thanks you with an implied smooch behind a curtain, one of the only kisses between the two characters in the entire series. The credits roll, and a final screen greets you: “THANKS A MILLION. PUSH START TO REPLAY.” I’m sorry—“Thanks a million?” After countless infuriating defeats (“RETURN OF GANON”) and hours of retreading the same worn paths, the game has nothing to offer but this trite salutation and a limp invitation to start over and do it all again? (Did I mention that the deadly sin for enneagram Ones is resentment?)

If the emotion one feels after spending time alone on their chosen hobby is underappreciated, I’m aware that one should probably find a new hobby (or a new attitude). But it’s the same way I feel at the end of those days when I’ve leaned most aggressively into my tendency to optimize: Underappreciated. Underwhelmed. Unsatisfied. The stakes aren’t quite as high as the imminent return of Ganon, but it feels like failure nonetheless: Another day that email didn’t get answered. Another day the floor didn’t get swept. Another day the dog didn’t get enough attention. Even when I do miraculously bat a thousand and cross every single item off my list, there’s no real satisfaction. “Thanks a million,” the day says to me. “Push start to do it again tomorrow.” I didn’t realize the word for it was “burnout” until Peterson’s piece named it for me.

To be clear, it’s not every day, or even most days. But I’ve learned to see the attitude of burnout coming, an attitude that typically consists of a kind of miserliness with my time and money and a tendency to behave as if true joy is to be found in completing something and not in, you know, enjoying the thing itself.

As for rest, I’ve always had a hard time with it, struggling to identify leisure activities I enjoy and that give my task-oriented brain a rest. It’s amazing how easily one can quantify hiking, quilting, reading, etc. Last year I decided I wanted to play through all the games in the Legend of Zelda series in release order, but I could only give myself permission by assigning myself the task of writing short reflective essays on each one. Which means the hobby became something that finds its way onto my weekend to-do list, if only implicitly: “Make more progress in The Adventure of Link.” Like many adventure games and especially RPGs, the game doesn’t inherently require but does naturally enable this kind of progress-mentality. (It didn’t help that I had to finish this before I’d allow myself to start the next game in the series, A Link to the Past, an all-time classic.) There comes the question again: “Is this…fun?”

In Petersen’s piece about online shopping as a coping mechanism, she concludes on a poignant note:

Today, I want the framework of my consumptive desires visible. I want to denaturalize the compulsion to soothe myself through consumption — make it strange and ridiculous. I want to continually name the script in my head and, in so doing, chip away at its power over me. I want to do all of this without shaming myself or others, because it takes years to unlearn a learned behavior this invasive, this robust. The problem isn’t buying shit, at least not exactly. It’s misidentifying, again and again, the source and character of our sadness.

On those days when I gaze at all the grace and beauty and mystery around me but can see only a horde of assignments demanding to be completed—when I feel the “compulsion to soothe myself through” project-managing my life—how do I shake it? So far the answer seems to be somewhere in the language of gratitude and contemplation and attention. A friend tells the story of washing the dishes one evening and being awestruck by the sight of a kaleidoscopic array of soap bubbles. Looking through those eyes, even an 8-bit video game provides an opportunity for wonder, a chance to be expanded: like the way an artist uses light and shadow and pixels to portray the haunting, hulking frame of a monster; or how a composer creates an atmosphere of real tension despite technical limitations through the power of complex rhythms and chords; or the strange pathos stirred up by a curious grammatical anomaly like, “I AM ERROR.” Looking through those eyes, I can breathe and relax, and I tend not to stop and ask whether I got enough done today, whether I’m having fun, whether I’m happy.

Read the other essays in this series here.

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