The Hero of Anxiety

When the original Legend of Zelda came around, there was a line in the instruction manual that read, “YOU ARE…’LINK.’” I think that sentiment is what’s spun me into naming every iteration of Link, as well as any given male protagonist in RPGs, after myself. If you’re wondering who the title of this article is referring to—I’m certainly no Hero of Time.

Let’s return to “unprecedented dread and despair” by discussing, of all things…the first-person shooter genre. About a decade ago, these shooty-shooty games were everywhere. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Halo and its sequels, Gears of War, BioShock—these games were made well, and they sold well. As much as I’d like to assume the role of an armchair analyst and assert that these popular games’ collective dark & gritty tone have led to the color and vibrancy being drained from mainstream gaming as a whole outside of Nintendo, I will spare you. There’s no denying the genre was, and perhaps still is, extremely popular, though.

Today’s popular genre is the “open-world” game. Thanks in part to epic quests like Skyrim, and to a larger degree of popularity—Minecraft—the “open world, exploration” bug has extended far beyond its once comfortable niche, to encroach upon many a franchise that may or may not have needed its influence. It’s bitten Final Fantasy with XV—it’s even gone so far as to influence Dragon Quest, a series whose turn-based conventions have more or less been uniform for thirty freaking years.

But no proof of concept, no game that’s yet to be in our hands, fills me with as much existential dread as…The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

I wonder if I’ve already lost a handful of you. For those that have stuck around, let’s start here: I played the game at E3 2016, so I’m speaking from a relatively informed position. Everything about this game that the majority of the Internet seems to pine for—I can’t stand. Of the few truly open-world games I’ve dabbled in, I’ve only enjoyed their narrative scope and presentation…I loathed everything else. If I’m camping out, forging weapons, cooking food, or experiencing anything “ultra-realistic” like temperature changes, hunger and what-not…odds are decent that I’m having a pretty miserable time of it all.

As I’d already outlined in my E3 write-up: Breath of the Wild is, at its core, an attempt to modernize the original Legend of Zelda. From the limited time I spent with the game…good gosh, does it seem to be an absolute success in this endeavor. It totally made me feel just like I was a kid again, in the midst of a bunch of well-dressed strangers in Los Angeles—a scared, intimidated child that had no freaking idea what to do or where to go, and who would ultimately put the game down in frustration before I’d managed to advance anywhere meaningful.

I must have reeked of fear, because someone working the booth at Nintendo pulled me aside after I was done, and said I looked distressed. Thanks to his intervention, I found myself talking to a man named Andrew who worked for the Nintendo Treehouse. He wanted to hear my concerns and potentially take a few brief lines directly to the folks working on the game. It’ll be interesting to see how much of my feedback—which was largely concerned with localization (e.g. “follow the Sheikah Tablet to the cave” vs. just “follow the Sheikah Tablet”) and signposting more than major philosophical differences—is addressed in the final game. A little tender loving care towards the UI and script that holds my shaky hand steady…might just convince me not to let Breath of the Wild be the first mainline Zelda I ever…outright skip in almost thirty years.


ᴹᵃᵖ ᵒᶠ ᴴʸʳᵘᶫᵉ ᵇʸ ᴮᶦᶫᶫ ᴹᵘᵈʳᵒᶰ

Thinking back to the first Legend of Zelda: Lots of people have played it, but how many people do you know that finished it? Here’s a small poll from a friend. I was never able to, or at least never had the patience to, until it came to the Nintendo 3DS…and had the aid of Restore Points. Even outside of the intimidation a large game world instills upon me…I just don’t have the time to “get lost in a world” anymore. If a game’s world has me spending several hours wandering in a cave finding food for myself so I can restore my health, or mining for coal so I can make a weapon instead of moving on with the main story…I typically leave that game behind and go find something more streamlined. Plenty of people will play Breath of the Wild, and hopefully enjoy it…but I do wonder how many people will see the end. One of the questions I have for these Breath of the Wild Faithful is…did you manage to finish the NES original that inspired it?

One last nod to my E3 piece: A lot of the responses to it have said it’s “sad [I’m] stuck in the kiddie hand-holdy days” or some variation. People may respond to my further thoughts here in the same way, for all I know. But for what it’s worth: I do not find the fact that open-world games intimidate me…or simply don’t appeal to me…“sad” or even worthy of criticism.

Kids that play games today have grown up around Minecraft and the boon of the “open-world” genre. They’re probably way more comfortable with everything Breath of the Wild is, conceptually, than someone like me—who grew up around entirely different sets of games, and whose preferred Zelda experience is absolutely the top-down, linear, more character-driven kind. The grown folks who enjoy what looks to be “The Legend of Zelda: Skyrim” simply…moved forward with the times, while I stayed behind in my comfort zone.

I don’t watch horror movies—nothing about excess gore and the “thrill” of being terrified or anxious…is constructive or relevant to my interests, personally. Millions of folks out there may feel differently than I do, but I don’t find that difference of opinion “sad” or worth invalidating. There are so many different types of video games out there that don’t feature a world that makes me take one big long look at how huge it is and go, “NOPE!” I’m a little worried that Breath of the Wild may push one of my most beloved Gaming Things away from me, if it sets new standards and evolves future games in ways that disinterest me even further. But worrying is what I do. To have & embrace anxiety is not to invite anyone’s pity.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is the only game I’ve never finished. I’ve even made my way all the way through Zelda II despite being turned off by it in many ways—I guess I have a respect for @Atsinganoi to thank for that. But ye olde race against the clock? …No thank you.

Majora’s Mask is, at its core, a smaller more intimidate 3D Zelda…one you’d think I’d enjoy! It’s creative, experimental, chocked full of the kinds of things that made Link’s Awakening so great to me as well…except there’s this GIGANTIC MOON LOOMING OVER YOU AT ALL TIMES. Heh, it’s not just literal…it’s figurative too. See: I like taking my time to explore these games…and Majora just…takes that away from me. I spend less time enjoying my surroundings and the characters…and more time stressing about inventory management, getting all the dang mini Great Fairies in a single dungeon, or just…running out of time while side-questing in general. Just that one omnipresent system in Majora’s Mask undoes everything else endearing about the game for me, wigs me out, makes me ultimately unwilling to continue the experience and see it through ‘til the end.

I know you can slow down time. I know it’s an easy inventory to manage…and the tasks before you are really no different than Ocarina of Time’s. I know it—but I’m still terrified of time in general. I even bought the Nintendo 3DS remake of the game digitally, to see if a little modernization helped make my bitter pill a little easier to swallow. I’m sitting in front of the Great Bay Temple right now…exactly where I stopped almost sixteen years ago. Now that I can call “sad”—because it’s a $39.99 investment that’s sitting there gathering dust.

I’m not going to be an old man and lament about how things used to be. But as many modern video games have gotten downright huge in scope…I’m less inclined to feel invested in what they’re trying to accomplish. A game like Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past on 3DS is…probably the best example of the type of long-winded game that can actually appeal to me. You rebuild what is eventually a massive world from nothing…one tiny, enduring step at a time. While it ends on the note of the big open sea—the game itself is linear, and gives you an appreciation for what your tiny island has become by the end.

Zelda, Final Fantasy, and even modern Dragon Quest have now seemingly…shown us all how “big & epic” they can make these sandboxes we all play in, see? AW, IT’S NOT LIKE IT USED TO BE. Rather than lament about this new direction some games appear to be going in, this new “thing” they’re embracing…like FPSes from a decade ago…I just gotta say goodbye. If nothing else, I’ll have my memories.

Maybe someday I’ll find the courage that Link has.
Maybe someday I’ll find the time.

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About radicaldefect

Jonathan Higgins has caught all currently known Pokémon, and he hopes to capture your attention next. You can check out more of his work at GamePodunk.com, or follow him on Twitter @radicaldefect.

4 Comments

  1. Courage and time!

    I have so many thoughts about this piece.

    1) You’ve blown my mind, because ever since I was a kid I preferred games without time limits, and have been on the record in saying that simply removing the time limit would improve many games like platformers, and how time limits *do have a place* in game design but it is valuable to recognize the paradigm shift it creates, enforcing a time limit only increases stress while removing it encourages creativity and exploration, etc. — but, all that being said, Majora’s Mask has always been my favorite Zelda game, one of my top-8 favorite games altogether… and it’s the only Zelda with a time limit. What the heck does that say about me?! I am not sure yet, but I will be thinking on it.

    2) This encourages me to take more seriously the task of writing out my thoughts and feelings on speedrunning, which I have a weird relationship with. I 100% respect (and often, even drop my jaw in awe of) those who are into it, but the idea of playing a game solely to try and complete it as fast as possible, to the extreme absolute frame-by-frame timing extent… does not appeal to me at all, and even makes me feel a weird sort of *sadness* to consider, in some aspects. I can relate, a little, to this idea of watching gaming culture gradually gravitate towards something that I just don’t ‘get’ quite like the masses seem to.

    3) This, the writing of yours, makes me think about video games and video game players and how we view and play video games and why we enjoy them and — it makes me think about video games in new ways, basically, and that is fun, to peek into those dimensions, and I bet there is value there. I commend ya.

    Good stuff.

  2. I totally agree on the signposting being important.
    More than once I have stopped playing a Metroid game because where and what to do next was unclear (notably in Prime 2 and Zero Mission).

    Can Zelda work as an open-world game? Yes
    Will Nintendo nail it first time with Breath of the Wind? Maybe

  3. Nice write-up, Jonathan!

    I know we’ve talked a lot about this very topic before, especially not long after your E3 adventure. And it’s an unfortunate reality that not every game will be for everyone, even when it comes to games in a series they enjoy. I’ve felt the same way in some regards; Never having been much of an FPS fan and, I still gave the Metroid Prime games a shot and ended up leaving all of them unfinished, mostly out of disinterest.

    But while I know this is where modern trends have headed, I also don’t think that Breath of the Wild is being open world just for the sake of it. If there’s one criticism that Zelda games (especially the 3D console Zeldas) have received in recent years, it’s that, for games premised on the idea of a grand adventure, they’ve stuck to the same essentially linear structure since Ocarina of Time, with Majora’s Mask being the only true outlier. Unless you’re using exploits, everyone has to do the same basic things in the same order to get the same result. And the amount of tutorializing can be absurd (ex: Being told what a blue rupee is the first time you pick one up every time you turn the game on).

    A lot has happened in video games since Ocarina of Time, and, at least in my mind, it was about time that Nintendo took the clean slate to making a Zelda game. And while open-world titles are sort of the design-du-jour at the moment, it’s a fitting one for Zelda to approach. Aonuma’s team set out from the start to break away from coventional Zelda designs, and in so doing ended up coming up with a game that, as you noted, is very much a modern take on the original Legend of Zelda.

    But I think if you use your experience with the original Zelda as a major reference point for any experience with Breath of the Wild, you’ll probably do the game a disservice. Zelda 1 was one of the first of its kind, offered no guidance at all (outside of poorly translated game text), and if you’re brand new to it (as opposed to someone that’s had thirty years of familiarity) you’re going to start off having no idea what in the world to do or where to go. Breath of the Wild is already a thousand steps ahead of that, as it gives you navigational tools and a guiding voice right out of the gate. How effective those tools are will vary from person to person, of course, but Breath of the Wild is a modern game that’s had decades of its own legacy and the designs of other games to reflect on.

    Oh, and that little note about Final Fantasy? Final Fantasy XV has an open world, yes, but the game still has a linear story and the car can practically take you where you need to go on rails. Though I guess my larger point in that is that no two open world games are precisely alike in how their open worlds operate.

  4. Hmm. its an interesting one. As tempting as it is to tidy everything into a tidy narrative, the ‘bigger, open, more epic’ impulse is one that’s just as old as linear grey-brown corridor shooters. There’s something poetic about the fact that Halo: Combat Evolved was released within a month of the arrival of Grand Theft Auto 3, as these two releases seem to have inadvertently defined the modern era.

    Compared to what’s come before, i don’t think modern open world titles are too different from their forebears in terms of scope. I haven’t got round to Skyrim, but what was Oblivion if not simply a Morrowind that had discovered a colour palette wider then brown, green and grey?

    For me, I think the key issue Jonathan highlights is Minecraft (possibly Red Dead redemption as well.) If i can play an open world game for an hour – hour and a half and come away having done something (beaten a dungeon in a Zelda ’em up, qualified for a decent community in something like Elite) then I’m ok with that, even if I’m unlikely to stick around to complete the entire experience.

    The problem is, if i start having to micromanage everything, suddenly those who can snatch 60-90 minutes at a time can no longer do anything. I have enough time to complete something like Double Dragon II twice, yet in a modern game i can all too easily end up just using my entire play session to prepare for my next play session. They did this to me in Elite: Dangerous with the introduction of crafting. Where before i generally had enough time to work towards building a comfortably awesome ship, post crafting i’d have to spend about 3x the time charging around the galaxy in order to avoid flying around space in the intergalactic equivalent of a Ford Fiesta.

    In fact, I think this disrespect for the audience’s time is something that’s spread wider than games. I don’t understand why Fury Road was about half an hour longer than the original Mad Max, for example, despite realistically having about half the story.

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