I played: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX, released in the U.S. in 1998. It’s a color-upgraded version of the original Link’s Awakening released in 1993. It’s beloved by fans for its quirky humor and melancholy story, beloved enough that it was remade for the Switch in 2019.
The first time I played it: was within the last five years or so when I came across it on the Virtual Console, as far as I can remember. I don’t think I ever owned the original Game Boy (Color) cartridge, though I became hooked on video games during the Game Boy era. (I didn’t discover the Zelda series until Ocarina in ’98 or ’99.)
My impressions of my own childhood are vague and unsorted, so I rely a lot on external context clues to orient my memory. The first games I vividly remember playing obsessively were Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest (SNES, 1995, when I was six) and Pokémon Blue (Game Boy, 1998, age nine). Most of my earliest video game memories are wrapped up with my two older brothers. I mostly played what they played until my own interests and tastes emerged. As you might can imagine if you have brothers (or sons), those memories are fraught. Conflict in games could easily erupt into conflict in real life, but still we played for hours and hours together, and I’m glad we did.
I’m trying to piece together how my affection for video games started because I’ve never quite felt at peace as a so-called “gamer.” I’ve described the way games sometimes intensify my loneliness and occasionally become a frustrating grind. I’ve also described how they can be an absorbing escape from pain. Among other commitments and interests and hobbies, video games have occupied a significant place in my attention for as long as I can remember (at least, evidently, since I was six years old), except for a period in early adulthood when I disavowed them. Really what I was disavowing was an attitude of mindless consumption and consumerism, inspired by a freshman-year-of-Bible-college encounter with the gospels and writers like Shane Claiborne who envisioned a Christian ethics of simplicity and generosity. It was a chapter when I was a particularly intense teenager, prone to extreme opinions and practices—it’s when I caught the bug for long-distance running—and I look back on that version of me with a lot of fondness. At that time I weighed my possessions and felt compelled to sell my Nintendo Wii, mindful that video games are a hobby that lends itself to ongoing accumulation (new consoles, new games, new accessories) and skeptical whether time playing video games was really quality time, whether alone or with friends. Why stare at a screen when I could share a meal instead, or read an engrossing book, or even play a tabletop game that allowed for more eye contact?
For the next almost-decade I didn’t buy new games or systems, although I’d jump at the chance to play with others. (This meant I missed the release of a few major Zelda titles, though I followed news about them voraciously.) I finally bought a 3DS to play with friends in 2016, and then the buzz around Breath of the Wild persuaded me to pick up a Switch in 2017. Playing that game was near-revelatory, both because it’s a masterpiece and because I hadn’t owned a Nintendo console since the Wii. Truth be told, I’m still uneasy about the way video gaming is a hobby that lends itself to ongoing accumulation, especially accumulation of consumer electronics. (So far my best solution, which isn’t really one, is to buy used or refurbished when I can.) Sometimes I still wonder if it’s time well spent: Aren’t enough of our experiences mediated by screens? Isn’t it ultimately more satisfying and more restful/restorative to engage art and entertainment that requires just a little more from us—more deep thought, more active attention, more conscious engagement? If I’m playing to escape, isn’t it better simply to face the thing I’m trying to escape?
(I think this is at least a little of what Roger Ebert was trying to get at with the whole “Video games can never be art” discourse. I’m not especially concerned with whether we should classify video games as Art, though I do think he was flatly wrong. But I’m sympathetic to his concern that “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” There’s something about engaging with a work of literature or art that speaks entirely on its own terms, even if it was designed for popular or mass appeal, that seems to invite a different kind of participation than games invite. Maybe another way to say it is that by giving me more control, games keep my consciousness on my own decisions and capabilities, even as I might feel like I’m getting “lost” in a game, rather than drawing me outside of myself. But I am still working this out—these are all live curiosities for me!)
I’ve had great experiences with video games, too, alone and with friends, and video games are one of the only places I can really play—really relax and experiment and waste time in the best way. They’ve served an important, even essential, role in my development, especially my development as a queer person, giving me space to try on different identities and personalities, letting me play the hero. Gaming is one of the only things in my life I can’t easily justify in terms of its usefulness or value or significance. My sewing hobby produces beautiful gifts and useful household goods. My running hobby is good for my health. My video game hobby is…fun, plain and simple, something I do because I enjoy it. Is that enough?
When I played it this time: I kept noticing how gosh-darn cute it is. There’s lots of fun history around the game’s development, how it was originally conceived as a port of Link to the Past but became an original game, or how its director said it felt like the team was making a “parody” of Zelda. Playing the 8-bit adventure after the grand spaciousness of Link to the Past‘s 16 bits elicits an affection not unlike the strange delight of eating a tiny version of a regular food (sliders, Pizza Bagels, mini waffles, etc.): all the ingredients are still there, just, you know, tiny.
Although it’s only the fourth game in the series, by this point the basic mechanics and tropes of Zelda games were well enough established that the developers of LA could both embrace and skewer them. You collect items like a boomerang and bombs and a bow as you make your way through eight dungeons. But characters also make self-aware statements, like how the second boss greets you: “HO HO HO! I’m your bad guy this time!! HO HO HO!”
Over the course of the game’s story, the uncanny dialogue becomes a little more sinister. The story begins with an amnesiac Link waking up after a shipwreck on a strange island, Koholint, full of friendly villagers, talking animals, and cameos from other Nintendo characters. A seemingly omniscient owl guides Link and tells him that the only way he can leave the island is to awaken the Wind Fish, a godlike whale, by collecting eight magical instruments. Eventually you come to learn the game’s infamous, dark twist: Koholint actually exists only as a dream in the sleeping Wind Fish’s unconscious, and waking the Wind Fish means the end of the dream, and of Koholint. The game’s peaceful inhabitants are clueless, but as the game advances, its villains become more and more explicit in their warnings, like the eighth boss’s dying words: “Why did you come here? If it weren’t for you, nothing would have to change! You cannot wake the Wind Fish! Remember, you…too…are in……the dream…”
Games were already so meta, nearly 30 years ago! As the player you know your job is to follow the benevolent guide’s instructions (what else are you going to do?), and as a Zelda player you know your job is to collect all the Magic Whatevers to fight the Big Boss. (Admittedly, this game’s eight instruments are my favorite MacGuffin in the series.) So what do you do when the game is driving you toward a goal that seems to threaten your avatar’s existence, when the villains seem to be the only ones telling the whole truth? Of course, that villain (a lava monster) is also talking about the game itself, and the paradox of all video games: Accomplish the goal, and the game ends. Effectively Koholint does cease to exist.
LA also turns the player-NPC relationship on its head: Although NPCs are always inherently limited in the scope of their dialogue and movement (especially in the 8-bit era), games use that limited dialogue and movement to invite you to imagine them as conscious, living creatures worthy of protection and kindness and, well, saving. But in LA you’re asked to sacrifice them all to save your own conscious self, and the game assures you they’re not really real—they only exist in the Wind Fish’s dream. Get attached, but not too attached, and don’t forget that eventually the game will end.
That these characters become so dispensable is a shame, especially since they’re some of the best in the series. One subplot has you deliver a letter from a talking goat to a lonely man, inadvertently helping her to catfish him: “She’s so beautiful,” he remarks, holding up the selfie she included, which turns out to be a photo of Princess Peach. Or just look at all the adorable, sweet details in this short cutscene featuring Marin, Link’s love interest. “Will you stay and talk to me for a while?” She asks. The plucky, bashful rendition of the game’s main tune (the tune that will, keep in mind, wake the Wind Fish and end all this), the sounds of the seagulls and crashing waves, the way Marin keeps stealing glances at Link. My heart!!
I may have spent too much of this playthrough reflecting on my relationship to video games as a hobby, rather than merely enjoying LA itself; but it sure seems like this game naturally lends itself to that kind of reflection. One of the most poignant sequences in the game involves a ghost who appears out of nowhere, following you, begging you to lead him to his house. When you do, he looks around the dilapidated structure and mutters, “…Nostalgia… …unchanged… …boo hoo… …Enough… …cemetery… …take me… …my grave…” When the two of you reach his grave, he disappears, finally at rest. (This game marks four out of four in the series so far that feature a large graveyard spanning multiple screens.) Nintendo as a company and Zelda as a series lean hard into nostalgia and reward long-time fans with clever callbacks and references—Breath of the Wild had dozens, including a major, subtle reference to LA—but here is at least one character who has no time for that kind of sentimentality.
Maybe there’s a simpler explanation to my ambivalence about video gaming: It reminds me of the awkward, clumsy six- or nine-year-old who turned to Nintendo because the pixelated lines on screen were so much clearer than the self-consciousness and insecurity clouding the real world. It reminds me of the way he would lose hours zoning out with Link and Mario, shutting off his experience of real life. (“Remember, you…too…are in……the dream…”) I had friends and connected easily with others, but I was intimidated by boys and all the ways they seemed to relate so naturally, especially through sports. Back then gaming gave me a framework to connect (literally, to physically connect with cords, like the link cable that connected one Game Boy to another for trading Pokémon) with others. I don’t like to revisit all that self-consciousness and insecurity. I like to believe it exists wholly in the past—to bury it, as it were, with all the other regrets and shames in a graveyard that spans many screens.
I’m writing this a couple days after the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics, which were scored by a series of orchestral covers of video game soundtracks, celebrating and embracing the canon as a major cultural pillar and export of Japan, fully confirming video gaming as a mainstream hobby. There have been seasons of my life when gaming became a compulsion, clearly out of balance, clearly bearing emotional weight that belonged somewhere else. And there have been seasons of life when gaming was a hobby, a way to let my productivity-oriented brain relax, even rest. That’s the kind of play I want, and probably need, more of: not zoning out but present and engaged, not losing myself but enjoying myself, and enjoying a world that someone else—even a sleeping Wind Fish—imagined.
Read the other essays in this series here.