I played: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was released on the Nintendo 64 in the U.S. in 1998. It’s widely recognized as one of the best video games of all time—as of this writing, it’s the top-ranked game on Metacritic—and pioneered a number of design elements that became normative for other three-dimensional video games. It also reigned as the nearly-unchallenged favorite Zelda game among fans of the series until Breath of the Wild was released in 2017, though many still consider it the best. It’s my favorite video game and one of the most formative pieces of pop culture in my life.
The first time I played it: was soon after its U.S. release. At least that’s my best estimate, working backwards from the many months I spent eagerly anticipating the October 2000 release of its sequel, Majora’s Mask. In 1998 I was in fourth grade, and sometimes my mom would swing by Blockbuster on her way home to rummage for a game that might entertain my brothers and me. One night she brought home Ocarina of Time, my first Zelda game, and I wonder if she knows she gave me my first hit of what would become a lifelong obsession.
Somehow I eventually scrounged up $60 for my own copy (or persuaded my parents to buy it), and the adventure consumed me completely. I distinctly remember reaching a pivotal milestone in this game for the first time: After questing across the land to collect three Spiritual Stones and deliver them to the Temple of Time, the game’s protagonist, Link, draws the legendary Master Sword from its pedestal. I happened to reach the Master Sword early on a Sunday morning, just minutes before it was time to leave for church, and ours wasn’t the kind of family that would miss Sunday worship, even for one of the most iconic video game moments of all time. I couldn’t save or quit the game mid-cutscene, so I left the Nintendo 64 powered on for a few hours, all the characters suspended in time in our TV, until I burst through the door after lunch to finish the cutscene and continue the adventure. What I can’t tell you is anything the preacher said that day.
My friend Scott was playing Ocarina at the same time, and at school we’d trade vital information back and forth, like the sequence of turns to take in the maze-like Lost Woods to navigate to the Sacred Forest Meadow, which I still know by heart (right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). Scott loved to draw, and we’d spend hours with pencils in hand, replicating the official Ocarina of Time artwork: the hero’s leather boots, the laced collar of his tunic, the intricate design of the scabbard strap across his chest. I developed something between celebrity-obsession and hero-worship for Link, and my admiration for Link grew as my friendship with Scott deepened.
I wouldn’t recognize what else was emerging within me until much later. What I see now is how carefully I was studying and exploring and recreating Link’s body, like the muscles on his legs, the curve of his bicep, or his sharp chin. And I see now that Scott was probably my first crush, always a few paces ahead of me in the game and a little more adept at drawing, the shape of his adolescent body closer to Link’s proportions than mine was. It would still be a few years before I’d notice another boy’s body in the locker room and feel a conscious surge of attraction, raising all sorts of urgent questions I was wholly unprepared to ask. For the time being, I was simply thrilled to be close to a friend, enjoying the strange electricity of intimacy, the kind available only to queer adolescents in a social context where boys played with boys and girls played with girls.
As you can imagine, the game’s explicit text (not even subtext!) about the physical transition from childhood to adulthood was especially pertinent to my prepubescent curiosity. Recall the aforementioned cutscene in which Link obtains the Master Sword in the Temple of Time: When he draws the sword as a 10-year-old boy, he’s too small to wield it, so a mysterious sage places him into a long slumber. Link emerges as a 17-year-old man into a world transformed by violence. The moment effectively separates the game between its first half, when you play as a child, and the second half, in which you play as an adult with all new abilities. As a 17-year-old, Link is strong enough to wield the Master Sword and big enough to ride a horse, Epona, across the huge field that separates the game’s different regions. And though the 64-bit polygon animations obscures the details, he moves through the world with muscular legs and biceps and a sharp chin.
Little did I know how much the game’s aesthetic would shape my own perceptions of beauty and the lean, smooth ideal to which I’d compare my own changing appearance. In the late 90s I started paying more attention to all the male bodies around me, and what I observed in pop culture was a trend of gaunt, hairless, white masculinity: Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, Erik von Detten in Brink!, even Disney’s Hercules and Tarzan. Rumor has it the game’s Japanese designers based Link’s appearance on Leo DiCaprio or some other contemporary American celebrity. I would have been 9 or 10 when I was playing, right on the verge of the same transformation Link undergoes, anxiously anticipating what I would look like when it happened to me, how much bigger my world might become.
When I played it this time: it became all the more clear why I’ve been obsessed with Ocarina of Time for so long. Generally I’d tell you I love the Zelda series because of its gameplay, puzzles, and music. I’m not unique in my relationship to Ocarina, even among white gay men. As I’ve replayed the game through the years, I’ve noticed the themes that contribute to its mass appeal and its appeal for me, like Link’s status as an outsider, his posture of passive dutifulness, and the way his transition from a young body to a mature body feels so sudden and confusing. But I started this project of playing through all the Zelda games and writing about them in order to try and understand just why this series is so important to me, even in adulthood—to try and read the games closely, to scour the texts for all the details that shaped me. It surprised me just how closely the Ocarina narrative maps to certain narratives I’ve told about myself over the years.
The story is never the strongest part of any Zelda game, so bear with me. Link begins the story as an outsider, the only child among his peers in the enchanted Kokiri Forest who doesn’t have a fairy companion, until the day comes when the forest’s guardian spirit, the Great Deku Tree, commissions a fairy named Navi to accompany him. Most of the other kids greet the news with surprised delight—”Oh, you have a fairy now?! That’s great, Link!”—except for the bully Mido, so-called “boss” of the kids. Jealous of Link’s favored status, he doubles down on their difference and declares, “I, the great Mido, will never accept you as one of us!” Another Kokiri kid tries to prevent Link from leaving the forest, warning him that Kokiri will die if they do. But eventually Link does leave the forest for the larger world of Hyrule, and he survives. He travels across the world, over mountains and under rivers, getting wrapped up in a grand adventure with Princess Zelda, eventually finding his way to the Master Sword and that sudden leap seven years into the future. That’s when Link discovers that Mido’s suspicions were well-founded: Link isn’t actually Kokiri. He’s a Hylian, a different race, something closer to Hyrule’s noble class, whose mother entrusted him to the Great Deku Tree for safekeeping during a war. As an adult, one of Link’s first objectives requires him to return to Kokiri Forest. In his seven-year slumber, it’s become overrun with monsters, but the bigger surprise is the Kokiri kids. None of them have aged a day, and now Link towers over them in his adult body. Most of them don’t recognize Link or suspect the identity of this Hylian stranger, including the remorseful Mido, who unknowingly laments, “I’m sorry for being mean to him.”
My own narrative has never been quite so tidy, but the sensation of returning to Kokiri Forest as an adult and recognizing how small your childhood bullies and obstacles look in perspective was strikingly evocative and poignant this time around. Early in the game, Mido is actually the first obstacle Link must overcome in order to advance in the quest—he blocks Link’s path, acting as a gate until Link finds a sword and shield hidden in the forest to persuade Mido that he’s adequately equipped to face the danger ahead. There’s something immediately familiar about the way Mido, in his cruelty, seems to be the only one in the room willing to acknowledge what is actually true about your difference. Sometimes I wonder if I might have matured more quickly and more easily if I had been willing to own my own difference a little more in the culture that raised me—that I was gay, that I was sensitive, that I was gentle, that I was creative and curious—at least to get some perspective on the smallness of the homophobia and other obstacles that blocked my path until I equipped myself and stood up to them. It is difficult, no, it is probably impossible to heal from wounds that you haven’t named as wounds. And it is probably impossible to integrate and embrace parts of yourself, like sensitivity or curiosity or even your sexual orientation, if you perceive them as the cause of your exclusion rather than other people’s unwillingness to embrace them, and to embrace you.
Instead I largely minimized or denied my difference, though, as best I could, which led to many complicated feelings about Link in 1998—especially since I wasn’t the only one aware of the young adult’s boyish good looks. Many characters of all genders comment on Link’s striking appearance, but Link is a famously taciturn protagonist, and the game’s script plays his reticence as a kind of sexual naivety. For the most part I took a similar approach as a teenager, my active denial of my orientation manifesting as a kind of willful ignorance, played as innocence, to all the hormones in the room. The only problem is that I was interacting with actual humans—not artificial, non-player characters (NPCs)—and it would take me years to recognize the ways I misled and hurt others through my inability to identify and communicate what I actually felt and wanted. It has also taken me a long time, probably too long, to integrate all these different parts of myself because, among other things, I’ve been unwilling to cut off any one identity to make room for another. As much as I may have felt like I didn’t belong in the religious and familial cultures that raised me, I know there is no twist in the story where I am revealed as a different category or class of human. That hurts, because it means there’s no new information that will justify the exclusion and bullying I experienced. But it heals, too, because it reminds me that I belong just as much as anyone else, and at my best I can be an agent of relieving the exclusion of others. Whenever I’ve returned home from whatever wide world I imagine myself embarking into—whether driving home for weekend trips in college, or even now when I fly to Texas from Chicago—I always found that my family and my church of origin had all grown seven years older, just like I had. They were no more trapped in time than I was.
There is something strangely comforting to me about entering a dungeon in a Zelda game, the kind of warm relief I felt as a kid being home after school on a rainy evening, knowing I wouldn’t have to reenter the world until the next morning, at least. Dungeons are one of the many gameplay elements Ocarina of Time inherits from earlier entries in the series, along with other touchstones like classic weapons and enemies. The game’s structure alternates between wandering the big, open world of Hyrule and exploring these dungeons, which are like labyrinths filled with monsters, puzzles, boss fights, and rewards.
(A brief aside to illustrate how profoundly formative this game was for me: After this recent playthrough, I am fully convinced that my practice of buying an enamel pin for each National Park I visit as I attempt to visit them all in my lifetime is merely a real-life emulation of the Spiritual Stones and Medallions that Link collects from each dungeon he completes.)
As the first fully three-dimensional Zelda game, Ocarina‘s dungeons utilize a new dimension of complexity and ambiance, so that each dungeon feels like a distinct interior environment with its own mood and history. Dungeons are self-contained episodes, and in spite of all the danger that lurks within, they offer a break from the game’s enormous world and all its branching ambiguity in favor of a more linear challenge. Yes, Link might have to wander a bit to find the right combination of keys and items and locked doors, but all roads lead to the final boss, and then the exit. With a few exceptions, Link faces these dungeons accompanied only by Navi, so they serve as crucibles where Link’s abilities are tested in solitude. In the Water Temple, famously the game’s most punishing dungeon, Link fights against a Dark Link doppelgänger. It’s a callback to Zelda II that proves more symbolically effective than the original, if only because of Navi’s terse instructions: “Conquer yourself!”
Whenever Link defeats a boss in any Zelda game, he stands alone and fatigued in the boss arena—sometime’s with the enemy’s remains still in view—until he walks over to collect whatever Macguffin the game has you collecting. One of my favorite details in each Zelda game is the music cue that plays in this specific moment between defeating the boss and re-entering the world. After an hour or so advancing through the dungeon (which usually has its own subtle, moody musical score) and the climax of a boss fight in the dungeon’s final chamber (with a chaotic, needling musical theme), it is as if the game is inviting Link to take a few deep breaths to steady himself. And in that moment the tone of the music shifts to something in between victorious relief and a kind of hanging loneliness. Link is so tirelessly driven to complete his quest that these brief respites are rare interruptions. In Ocarina of Time, all you hear is the droning hum of the portal that leads you out of the dungeon. My favorite version of this music comes in the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening, a swirling and dreamy ambiance.
Outside the dungeons, the main story of Ocarina of Time contains the most developed theology and mythology of the series so far, but between you and me, that isn’t saying much. I’ve previously described how Hyrule wasn’t as philosophically complex of an imaginative landscape as I might have encountered in other fantasy worlds, like those crafted by Tolkien or Lewis. Here a lengthy cutscene introduces a creation myth involving a trinity of goddesses. Strangely enough, the goddesses create law before creating living things to uphold the law. In this case, it seems humankind was made for the sabbath. This time through I noticed a few other details of religious world-building, like the winsome footnote that Hylians like Link have long, elfin ears so they might, according to one townsperson, “hear the voices of the gods.” (The same townsperson laments, “I’ve never heard them!” and when one side quest finds you selling a hood that resembles bunny ears to a man who jogs across the countryside, he’s delighted: “I bet with those long ears you can hear the voices…”) There is, as always, a graveyard—with many fewer graves than previous entries, but who can say whether that’s an aesthetic choice or a technical limitation—with ghosts and a few of the series’ creepiest dungeons, full of skeletons and torture devices and other images of death.
The game’s most curious world-building is the mythology of its sages. Each dungeon that Link completes as an adult ends with a cutscene awakening a new sage, typically a character you’ve met before, revealed in the moment as wholly more important to this world-saving drama than perhaps either of you initially realized. What is so curious is the specific nature of these sages and their vocation. When Link meets them, they’re each living ordinary lives (albeit often occupying positions of power) among their respective civilizations, but when they are awakened as sages they are summoned into the Chamber of Sages, a kind of metaphysical sanctuary. This revelation provokes a range of reactions, including, for some, surprise. One sage confesses, “At first, I didn’t want to become the Sage of the Forest….But I’m glad now. Because I am helping you to save Hyrule, Link! Yes, I am!” Another humbly asks, “Isn’t it funny? That a person like me could turn out to be the Sage of Spirit!” Their vocation isn’t entirely clear, but it may involve celibacy; one sage who had made explicit romantic advances toward Link acknowledges, with some regret, that her higher calling precludes her pursuit of him: “I grant my eternal love to you. Well, that’s what I want to say, but I don’t think I can offer that now. I have to guard the Water Temple as the Sage of Water…” As a child I imagined the sages living in the Chamber permanently, like monks in a monastery, supporting Link’s efforts through their ministry of prayer and occasional supernatural intervention. (Reaching the game’s final challenge—Ganon’s Castle, where Zelda is imprisoned—requires all the sages to channel their power to create a magic bridge across a gaping chasm, and ultimately it is the cumulative power of the sages that imprisons Ganon in the Sacred Realm after Link deals his final blow.) It’s a reading supported by the text of the game, especially since Link never encounters a sage in the “real” world once they’ve been awakened, even if 10-year-old me was supplying a lot of Christian teaching between the lines.
Even if the Zelda games didn’t establish a complex philosophical landscape for me, perhaps they did provide a kind of architecture for spiritual practice. Zelda games are about loneliness, but they’re also about solitude and the ways it can sharpen you and clarify your perspective. What began in my childhood as steering Link through dungeons developed, in later years, into the pursuit of a different kind of solitary adventure, one bearing more resemblance to the work of the sages in their Chamber. It’s what I seek out in labyrinths and retreat centers and even a special chair and candle in the corner of my bedroom, searching for refuge from—what did I call it?—the enormous world and all its branching ambiguity. I believe there are few problems or dilemmas or decisions that cannot be solved with a day or two away in silence and prayer. If the dozens of dungeons and bosses I have defeated over the years have taught me nothing else, they have at least taught me that you always come out alive on the other end. Nothing in the silence will kill you. And then you exit, back into the world.
A few years ago, my friend Duke helped me accomplish a lifelong goal. When I was young I distinctly remember my oldest brother, who was in high school, wondering aloud to a friend if it would be possible to play Ocarina of Time from beginning to end in one 24-hour sprint. The challenge sounded so epic to me. I don’t know if they ever tried, but they planted a seed that bloomed two decades later, when I mentioned the idea to Duke. We started the game one Saturday morning at 7:00a, armed with Zelda-themed snacks and drinks, and we played all day until we delivered the killing blow to Ganon around 11:00p. Friends came and went throughout the day to cheer us on or tease us. We took off our shirts for the final boss fight, in a brazen display of beer-soaked machismo. Indeed the challenge was epic, and it was so damn fun, and it became a geeky annual tradition. Each year or so since we’ve attempted to play an entire Zelda game over the course of one Saturday, our menu of cocktails and dishes becoming more elaborate every year. I am writing this in between part one and part two of our Twilight Princess marathon. (After Wind Waker had us playing till 3:00am, we decided to spare ourselves by splitting Twilight Princess into two day-long events.) Playing all of Ocarina in one sitting demonstrated how small it is, that if you already know the game and don’t have to spend any time solving puzzles (or don’t have to leave it suspended a few hours for Sunday church), you can finish it in one day’s time.
Recently I discovered a website that serves as a kind of digital video game museum. (I’m omitting the URL out of fear that any increased traffic will increase the odds of the website being taken down!) Select a classic game from a list of a few dozen, and you can explore all of that game’s environments like virtual dioramas. I selected Ocarina of Time and was overcome with that surreal feeling of seeing something you know intimately well in a new light: Here were Kokiri Forest and Hyrule Field and the Water Temple. But rather than exploring them from Link’s ground-up perspective, I could use my keyboard and mouse to fly up and down and around, zooming into all the nooks and crannies and then zooming out past the boundaries of each region, seeing with my own eyes the infinite digital emptiness that was always just beyond the walls carefully designed to give players the impression of a complete, tactile world. I felt a little like Emily Webb’s ghost returning to New Hampshire to relive her 12th birthday.
There are some narratives that sustain us our whole lives. I utterly delighted in replaying Ocarina of Time this time through, and I like to imagine I’ll replay it every few years for the rest of my life. Honestly, the papery sound of Epona’s hooves you hear when you boot up the game is like an automatic dopamine-release button for me—this game is near the top of my pop culture comfort food list. I’m lucky to have attached myself to such a popular game, since video games are a medium uniquely and notoriously susceptible to being lost to time. (Older games are dependent on physical cartridges or disks that can be damaged and that only work in specific, aging systems that are harder and harder to find.) But Ocarina is mainstream enough that Nintendo will probably never stop remaking and rereleasing it. In fact, they just announced a few weeks ago that it’s one of the N64 games they’ll be porting to the Switch, their current console. However many more times I disavow video games as unworthy uses of my time or money, I hope I’ll always have whatever cords and cartridges are required to ride Epona through this 64-bit Hyrule Field.
But some narratives only serve us for a season. When I played Ocarina this time, I felt its age through Link’s clumsy, blocky movement the same way minor aches last longer in my own aging body than they did in fourth grade. At times I have minimized my own difference in order to survive. Other times I’ve amplified it in order to give contrast and definition to the shape of my difference within systems that tried to silence it—tracing that difference out again and again like a pencil on paper. Some days I still need practice. I hope I am closer to integration, letting go of these incomplete, piecemeal stories, becoming someone who is both differentiated and deeply connected.
Near the end of Ocarina of Time, Link discovers that returning the Master Sword to its pedestal in the Temple of Time allows him to travel back to the past, returning him to childhood and undoing the violence that occurred during his seven years of slumber. Picking it up again returns him to the future, back to maturity. One of the game’s final dungeons, the Spirit Temple, requires Link to shift back and forth between the two timelines, his child and adult bodies cooperating across the years in order to advance through the dungeon. Booting up this game and hearing the sound of those papery hooves has a similar effect on me, as if I have the power to reverse the last twenty-plus years, or at least take a break from them. I am slowly learning how to cooperate with all the younger versions of myself, how to listen to them and celebrate them and treat them more gently. And they, in turn, are doing the same for me.
Read the other essays in this series here.