Zelda, Calamity, and Living Beyond The End

I have a much longer, much more theory oriented post which I imagine no one will read in the works, but instead I want to take some time today to talk to you about playing video games under quarantine.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped four days ago and I’ve already sunk almost 19 hours into the game (sorry, Mama), the game I bought to keep me company on the plane and fill some of the downtime while I am here is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I played it on the plane and in the airport and during my unexpected seven hour layover in Munich (I also took a nap), and I’ve played it while trying not to completely lose my mind cooped up in a house by myself except for my several hundred tiny wingèd roommates whose demise I plot with increasing vigor with every passing day.

AC:NH has been a pleasant way to remain connected to the idea of Outside –– it has bugs and sunshine and weather and fishing and running around and changing outfits (with the exception of the first one I have almost none of those things) –– but BotW has been the most philosophically and narratively poignant choice.

A rough outline of the game’s plot/setting for those who might be unfamiliar:

In BotW you play a newly awakened swordsman, Link, who has been in some kind of mago-technical suspended animation for the last 100 years. He was mortally wounded in battle against a malignant magical entity named Calamity Ganon while defending the princess Zelda of Hyrule as she attempted to banish Calamity Ganon with magic. You take your unclothed self out of the stasis chamber, acquire some pants and another mago-technical device (which, somehow, reminds one of a Nintendo Switch) and go out into the world to discover your fate. (Spoiler alert: Your fate seems to be saving the world from the increasingly powerful, though still contained, Calamity Ganon.)

More importantly, for this moment in time, you step out into a world in ruins. Literally, the first thing you encounter is the Temple of Time, which is in shambles. It’s falling down and falling apart, and you pick through its crumbling bones for arrows and small arms. As you come down off the plateau where the temple sits, you are met with ever more evidence of a civilization, and empire, which did not survive that which befell it.

There are big open fields of grass, dotted with trees, and moss covered, tumble down walls. Wooden structures poke out of the hills like they’ve forgotten they aren’t overgrown stalks of grass. Tattered cloths with faded heralds hang dirtied and limp amongst the ruins.

At the same time, the world teems with life. The plains of Hyrule are largely devoid of humanoid habitation, given over to monsters and history, but wild horses cavort, and everywhere you walk you are serenaded by a million tiny insect orchestras. The natural resources are bountiful and you learn to cook what you can find to restore Link to the picture of health and to aid him on his journeys. Once you get beyond the area given over to a state of nature, overshadowed, as it is, by the swirling malignancy of Calamity Ganon where he-it teems around Hyrule Castle, you quickly realize that you are far from alone.

Beyond that immediate desolation and its ghosts, the rest of the world is populated with entrepreneurial spirits, adventurers, travelers, inventors, villagers, and fanatics. They tell you how their communities and their peoples suffered as a result of the Calamity, 100 years ago (a little less than the average lifespan of the people of this world), but how things have returned to a slightly uneasy peace since then. Every village has children, it has young and old people and they all have stories to tell and little problems for you to solve.

In short, though they live in proximity to ruins, they nevertheless live.

A part of me quickly pulled up the simplistic explanation; I’m sure you’ll think of it – it’s an easy one for American liberal guilt and uncritical, cookie cutter analyses of Japanese culture. All of Japanese popular media can be condensed into the atomic bomb if only the West tries hard enough. And maybe the generational gap between the young adults and the elders who remember the calamity can be paralleled by the generational gap between those who remember the war and those, like me, who make up the main part of gaming’s target market.

But it seems unfair, not only to the Japanese who have surmounted any number of calamitous events both before and since the U.S. dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to the rich world which has so carefully and painstakingly been built and rolled out in the game. Given that BotW is also another installment in an already extensive (though famously convoluted) narrative universe, and the names repeat (Zelda, Link, and Ganon are staples of every game in the series), one gets the impression that by this point the lessons and metaphors can be allowed to function within their own, self-made space.

There is, from a player perspective, a Sisyphean quality to Link’s existence. He has been carried through time on multiple occasions for the purpose of saving Hyrule from Ganon and yet every time a new game comes out, Ganon returns in some new and horrible form. In BotW in particular the veneer of humanity has been eradicated from Calamity Ganon, transmuting him into a magical infection which poisons the land, bubbling up in places where his control is strongest, creating glowing, pulsating growths that injure you when you touch them. He’s no longer the dark wizard who might be familiar from Super Smash Bros. but instead he is a disease, a pollutant, something which has embedded itself into and become a part of the environment rendering the natural world hostile.

Perhaps it whispers of the reactor meltdown in Fukushima. But again, the one-to-one analogy is bitter and unfulfilling after this sumptuous feast of a game.

To put it another way, this is a game where if you sneak up closely enough, you can ride a deer. The detail and care put into it, the number of hours of coding and sound mixing and rendering and writing and translating and acting, makes it impossible to simplify into historical analogy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take something from it. (And I don’t just mean the soothing lullaby of the sound design.) I think what we should do our best as we face our own calamitous times to remember the villagers and the travelers. Far from being populated exclusively by those who would see Calamity Ganon freed and bring an annihilating waste to what’s left of life in the territories surrounding Hyrule (though there are always some), there are people who did more than survive. They built towns and families and lives. They planted trees and loved each other and their children and recognized that for all the chaos and uncertainty of calamity, it’s not really that much more uncertain than life itself.

So, be cautious, for now. Wash your hands well and often, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and try to keep a healthy physical distance from others. But don’t forget to love one another, don’t forget to plan for the future, don’t forget to lean out your window and breath in the fresh air, listen to the night sounds, and remember that uncertainty is just another facet of living. It is no different from trying new foods, telling someone you love them for the first time, or unexpectedly hearing a beautiful song.

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