I played: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, released in the U.S. in 1992, soon after my third birthday. As the third game in the series, it’s a massive step forward for the franchise, frequently appearing in “Best Video Games of All Time” lists and ranking high on many Zelda diehards’ ranking of the series. Oh, and in Japan it was advertised with this amazing commercial.
The first time I played it: is hard for me to identify. My brothers and I had a Super Nintendo but, to my memory, never owned this particular cartridge. It’s been re-released enough through the years that I’ve dabbled in it, and significant chunks were fresh to my memory, even if I don’t know it backwards and forwards like I do later games in the series. Last summer was probably the first time I played it all the way through.
When I played it this time: I gobbled it up as the most delicious comfort food. After the sparse desolation of The Hyrule Fantasy and the punishing grind of Adventure of Link, Link to the Past is a feast full of color, life, and—finally—fun. One of the goals of this series of reflections is to get to the bottom of my ongoing relationship to the Zelda series, the way I keep returning to games time and time again, what they’ve meant for me through the years, whether I think they’re worth carrying with me (further) into adulthood.
With this playthrough, there was very little mystery to it: I played to escape. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve felt overextended this summer, between one-and-a-half (mostly remote, i.e., on screens) jobs and the pace of social life increasing a little more quickly than I was ready for. A few weeks ago when I heard the news my grandpa had died, I started rushing to pack and rearrange my schedule so I could travel to Texas for the funeral. In the midst of all the grief and stress, all I wanted to do was sneak away and play A Link to the Past, the next Zelda game in line. It was a strange longing, almost a compulsion. One evening before I left Chicago I tried to start the game but didn’t make it very far; I was caught off guard by how much the game’s dramatic, moody opening score brought my grief to the surface.
It’s a theme I’ve hinted at and will likely return to throughout this series—how much the Zelda games have offered an escape from difficult seasons and emotions throughout my life, whether I was feeling panicked as a middle schooler with emerging same-sex desire or overwhelmed as a high school senior facing decisions about the future. Try as I might to explain my affection for the games as something profound or mysterious, the simple fact is that while my friends were escaping to Narnia or Middle-earth, I retreated to Hyrule, finding its monsters easier to defeat than my own, its characters less complex than the people around me. (I did escape to Narnia and Middle-earth, too, and Tatooine and Hogwarts and the Mushroom Kingdom and the Andalite homeworld.) Sometimes I wish my imagination would have laid its roots in a more theologically rich or philosophically mature mythology that would have aged with me better. For all its recognizable iconography and archetypes, I’ve always found the animating narratives of the Zelda series to be rather flat. But I chose Hyrule as a homeland at a formative age, and it’s always the world I want to visit when this one is too much.
Flimsy mythology aside, the SNES version of Hyrule is a lovely world to visit, even without the nostalgia that clouds my perception of games I’m more familiar with. All these textures and monsters, so many details, like the gnarly sound that plays when you travel between the Dark and Light Worlds, or the stained glass windows in the church-not-a-church sanctuary, or the young flautist who transforms into a flautist-shaped tree before your eyes. For all its luscious scenery and music, Link to the Past comes most alive in its characters, the NPCs who guide you and help you and, when you are misrepresented as an enemy of the kingdom, even chase you out of town. My favorite NPC in the game is known as the “camper,” a balding man hiding under a bridge with naught but a small tent, a campfire, and a glass bottle. He offers you the bottle freely and humbly, saying, “Yo! Link! You seem to be in a heap of trouble, but this is all I can give you.” The dream: A life of simplicity and solitude, waiting for someone to appear so you can give them one of your few remaining possessions.
The day after I finished Link to the Past and returned back from Hyrule to our world, two friends had me over for dinner. On my walk home I passed a strange assortment of plants and signs on the sidewalk. Looking closer, I realized it was a full garden of herbs and vegetables, thoughtfully labeled and free for the taking, with a simple, cheerful sign: “Help yourself! Snip some, but please save some for the rest of us!” They might as well have continued: “This is all I can give you.” I came back the next day to photograph the lovely assortment, and on the way I noticed a nearby tree someone had adorned with whimsical wooden eyes, nose, and bearded mouth.
During the strictest lockdowns of the pandemic, one of our many losses was the absence of spontaneous generosity from strangers. Life became much more rote and routine. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, how one person’s willingness to inconvenience themselves for the sake of helping a stranger is like a conscious act of opting out the protagonist role. Someone else becomes the hero, and your generosity puts you in the position of an NPC, even if only for a moment, a brief encounter that can (as we have all experienced) change the course of their day and even their life.
I’ve been thinking as well about the ways we structure our lives to give and receive grace, even in non-spontaneous situations where the relationship is less “protagonist-NPC” and more egalitarian and mutual. Earlier this summer my mom sent me a gift card for a massage. Lying on the table, receiving the grace of healing touch from a stranger, I couldn’t stop thinking: “This guy is spending an hour of his life giving care to me.” For that hour he gave all of his attention and physical effort to alleviating the tension I was carrying in my body. It felt incredible. I had a similar experience when I got a haircut and beard trim in Hot Springs. I spent nearly an hour in the chair, the barber in no particular rush. An hour of another guy’s life spent tending carefully to me, in this case just to my hair.
Link to the Past ends with a gorgeous credits theme —a piece of music that took my breath away when I heard a live orchestra cover it as part of the Zelda Symphony at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater with a friend in 2015—and a cute series of animations and captions that describe all the happy endings that greet the NPCs after you save the day: “The bully makes a friend.” “Your uncle recovers.” “Flute boy plays again.” (Somewhat hilariously—and surely an in-joke from one of the English translators—”The return of the king.”) It’s a little too tidy for the dark and menacing adventure you’ve just completed, but it’s gratifying. In Hyrule, your good deeds are good enough to save the day.
Out here in our world the outcomes are much less predictable. But there are so many ways we can offer grace to each other, and there are so many people offering grace to us, through food and touch and whimsy and fresh herbs for the taking.
Read the other essays in this series here.