It was Christmas, and I was seven: still young enough to entertain the idea of Santa, and still young enough to wake up early, feeling as if the house had been touched by a magic that made you whisper despite your excitement.
This particular Christmas was a memorable one for me. This was the year I got an Aerosmith shirt and Poison shirt. Both were way too big for me, but it was still the 80’s, and that made it ok, and both were designed with some measure of neon green ink because that was “the” color for hairband t-shirts. This was also the year that I got a new pair of roller skates, a baseball glove “signed” by Darryl Strawberry, and a Lil Miss Makeup doll with a bright pink strip of crimped hair. I dare you to find a more 80’s haul than that. But wait, there’s more! This was also the year my sisters and I unwrapped our Nintendo Entertainment System, complete with a golden Legend of Zelda cartridge.
Technically, the Nintendo was given to my oldest sister, but it was given with the explicit instructions that she share it. And honestly, sharing was easy enough back then – and arguably the better way to play – with games like Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros, Galaga, Pac-Man, etc. With games like these, turns were comparatively short. At least, they were for a group of four siblings aged between six and nine. We were not yet skilled players, and thus, the exchange of turns was not only rapid but meaningful. We watched each other play, learned from one another’s mistakes, offered unsolicited advice, argued, and generally learned how to navigate emotionally charged conversations as player 1’s turn ended, and player 2’s turn began.
This type of gameplay also acted as a new kind of litmus test for us. While previously we had assessed the quality of a person by how fast they were in tag or how well they hid in hide in seek, now we could measure a person by their preference for Player 1 or Player 2. For instance, my eldest sister is hands down, a Player 1. She was (and is) headstrong, defiant, brave. As the eldest sister she was our leader; of course, she was a Player 1. I, on the other hand, was (and am) a Player 2. Introverted, introspective, and terrified or failure and embarrassment. Being Player 2 gave me the chance to watch and learn silently, to notice both the strong and the weak strategies of Player 1’s and to apply what I’d when my time came.
And my time usually came quickly enough. In the beginning, the time between turns was measured by mere minutes. It was not uncommon to be caught by a ghost, hit by a Goomba, or destroyed by an insect alien while still on stage 1. Eventually, of course, our turns grew longer, but our patience and the thrill of play grew along with them. Our discussions grew more critical, we cooperated more, thrilled by how far any player had made it and what the best next choice for them would be. We began to thrill in mutual discoveries and having two players suddenly became two ways to get further in the game than we had before.
The Legend of Zelda was different, though, and it was its difference that made it so valuable to us the and what has kept it so memorable for me, decades later. Here was a game that wasn’t two-player at all. There was no swapping between lives, no dialogue about how to get past the Hammer Bros, or what the behavioral differences were between Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. It was just you when you played. You had your hearts and the warning that it was dangerous to go alone (something a Player 2, like myself, understood well). Hearts were everything: a thing to be treasured and left unbroken for as long as possible and – pending the inability to do that – healed and replenished. When you were playing, the game belonged to you and no one else. It was something to be cherished and guarded. When you were playing, it was just “your turn.” It was your moment, your time, and no one could take it from you.
With three sisters, such moments were rare, and we treated those gameplay sessions as sacred. And it wasn’t just sacred during our own turns, but when someone else was playing, too. The golden rule applied to this golden cartridge: you gave others the time and respect to play as you wished them to give you the time and respect to play.
My time with Zelda was, I now realize, sacred for other reasons too. Despite being seven years old, I couldn’t yet read (tl;dr I have dyslexia, and it wasn’t diagnosed till I was eight). This meant that Zelda’s intended story was lost on me unless a sister was around to read the text. This also meant that I had the freedom to understand the story as I wanted and based on my own assumptions, critical thinking, and understanding of typical story arcs, paradigms, and tropes. My interpretation was reliant only on that which the game could show rather than on what it opted to tell.
This also meant that my experience of and my nostalgia for the game are altered by the story I told myself, the story I wanted to be there rather than the story that actually was. Of course, memory is always subjective and, of course, everyone’s experience of any game is unique, but for me, the way I conceive of Zelda and my relationship to it is distinctly different than my relationship with other games. Whenever I have revisited The Legend of Zelda, I still find a good game, but I never find my game. Now, in my 30’s, I can’t ignore the text. The words immediately register in my head. The magic I brought to it, the sacred act of playing it, the mysteries it contained, and the story it allowed me to create for myself are all gone.
If I’m honest with myself, the juxtaposition of my experience, my story, against the game’s intended narrative experience has been foundational to my current career path. I now work in the Narrative Systems Lab in the school of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications. Within my work with narrative system design, I spend a lot of time (like dissertation-level amounts of time) thinking about narrative systems and how they create stories. And let me be very clear about this right now: narratives and stories are not at all the same thing. Narratives are merely story vessels, while stories live independently of their narrative container.
And for me, the magic of Zelda, the magic the game has lost for me now, was the way it made room for me to craft a story of my own making within its narrative vessel. It provided enough structure, environment, and linearity for me to make logical assumptions. Even without access to the text the game presented, it gave me space, as a player, to understand the story on my own terms. There were no system interfaces suffocating my experience.
This has basically led to my overall belief, and one that I continue to work with, that the more games tell us, as players, the less they show us ways to create stories, to think for ourselves.
It seems such a simple observation, but one so infrequently acknowledged. Instead, the trend continues wherein games threaten us and beg us to believe their statements. “Clementine will remember this,” “+5 Renegade,” “this action will have consequences.” These statements, by and large, translate to “this is a game with a branching narrative, and your story will change based on the input you give/have just given. Please take notice. Did you notice? This game is narrative. This game gives you choices. Please notice. Notice!”
I imagine a Zelda of today, one created free from its history, and I lament that Link would now wander into a cave only to be told “Take this sword, or don’t. Your choice will have memorable consequences. Your progress will be tracked by the system. The system will remind you and judge your every choice. Your choice will be measured against the choices of others. You will, for a moment, feel as if your choices matter, but later, you will realize you had less freedom, less choice, less story-building capacity than you did 30 years ago. Oh yeah, and watch your hearts.”
That’s not a Zelda I want to play, not even as a Player 2. Because even as a Player 2, introverted and introspective, I want space to create and play. I want the opportunity to discover a story and feel as if it is my own. I want to be shown that characters notice things, not be told that they do. I was to assume my choices matter, not be assured (repeatedly) that they do. I want to be able to bring myself to the game, and I want to game to welcome me, hand me a sword, and wish me well on my journey through its narrative system. And then, I want that system to let me craft my own damn story experience.
I promise; I’ll know to guard my hearts.
This post was written for the August edition of Blogs of the Roundtable at Critical-Distance. Check out the other great contributions!