A spiritual sequel to Let’s Play.
A long time ago, now, I used to play Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I’d play it every day before school, during lunch time, or on one of my breaks, during the downtime waiting for food runs between the table-top role-playing games I’ve always had with my friends, and before bed when I really needed to sleep.
It wasn’t even the DX version, which might date me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I did play it once and while when I got a GBC, but more often than not it’d be my old Gameboy with its chartreuse, grey-white casing, and faded grey yellow screen where I’d play the original. One of my friends might have told you about that already so I guess you’re not hearing anything particularly new.
Some retro players I know say that they like the 8-bit tunes: that it brings them nostalgia. You know the kind: the type that reminds you of being kids, not having to pay taxes, not working a dead-end job, not being on welfare or disability, always have energy — being so damned restless, vibrating with it — and going over to your best friend’s house after school. A lot of players like the original Zelda because of a similar feeling, you know? The Legend of Zelda was all cryptic and obscure on the NES, but it was really all about weird symbols, fighting monsters, and exploring. You never knew what you were going to find in that 8-bit world.
But to me, the music and pixels aren’t nostalgic. They don’t remind me of something that happened to me, of my childhood, or what I used to be. Playing those games reminds me of a place that doesn’t exist: that never did. When I played A Link to the Past, for example, it was new and exciting and tapped into a mythic place that even when you were directed to where you needed to go, there was still something new to discover in that colourful, dark world between worlds. And yeah, I’ve played Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask that both tried to be all third dimensional, and all the games that became part of a timeline. The Hyrule Historia is a beautiful clusterfuck that tried to take iterations of a legend and a myth, and impose a linear-chronology onto the experiences: or a least a heroic test of multiple choice.
And every time, when left to my own devices, I’d return to Link’s Awakening. But just like I don’t wear baseball caps nowadays, I don’t play that game anymore, at least not as often these days. I always said that one of the reasons why it’s my favourite Zelda game is that the game’s not about Princess Zelda at all … if any of them ever really have been. I’d relax into the familiar koan of Link gradually realizing that he is asleep in the dream of a greater, ancient being that dreamed an entire island into existence on the open sea. And I’d think to myself, way before the Historia ever came, that this was more the Adventure of Link than Zelda II, and its cool side-scrolling uneven linear weirdness, had ever been.
Way before I knew about artificial intelligence attaining consciousness, or awakening — far before dealing with Mother 2 and its Magicant that we barely missed out on in North America, I just felt that quest of Link encountering all the strange entities that made up his dreaming mind: his hopes, his humour, his play, his fears, and his pain. I mean, can you imagine being someone knowing that you will always have to save a princess? That she will never really be safe? That no matter what you do, you will have to go out there, or your kids, or spiritual successors will need to head out and fight the demons and the monstrosities that you can never fully quell? After a while, if you were that character — if that kind of character had a consciousness — the cycle would all seem so utterly meaningless.
But I think what made me really stop playing Link’s Awakening, was Marin.
Zelda isn’t the only girl you meet in the Zelda series. From Malon to Princess Ruto of the Zoras to Nabooru and her questionable gifts to helpful little boys … to Midna and her clever little games that lead to her true nature, all of them were interesting. And sometimes you had to save some of them, or fight alongside another, or do a quest for them. And whatever else, they always wanted something from Link.
Even now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just life really, miniaturized and making you see just how things are. But Marin is … she was different. At the beginning of Awakening, Marin is the one that saves you. She nurses you back to health at her and her father Tarin’s hut. She sings songs in the Animal Village and it’s her song that helps you progress past the Walrus. And all you have to do, in exchange, is spend time with her. That’s it. You fool around with her in Mabe Village, falling down a well, playing the Trendy Game, and eventually talking on the side of the beach where she found you the first time … and you almost talk about real feelings.
Even when you do have to save her on Tal Tal Heights, she almost tells you something important: something that isn’t part of waking up the Wind Fish. By the time the game is almost over, she will teach you “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” and ask that you remember her when you leave the Island, as she will never forgive you if you forget her.
Of course, you always discover the truth: that Koholint Island was created from the dream of an ancient and powerful being known as the the Wind Fish, and that once the Nightmares keeping it asleep are defeated, it will awaken and the Island and everyone on it will cease to exist.
In the end, when I look back on the game now Marin, the girl who saved Link, and never asked anything from him aside from spending some time with her … also never existed. At least Midna exists somewhere in the Twilight Realm. In many ways for Link, it’s so much worse than someone you love being dead, than not being in the same reality anymore, than your Princess even being in another Castle.
I’m a lot older now, obviously, since the first time I played this game … since even the first couple of times I played it. I can refer, roughly, to a Japanese sentiment of mono no aware: an understanding of the beauty of sadness in the transitory nature of things. I can also go into some Classical Western thought and look at a woman representing the wisdom that a man gains when he ultimately loses her, especially by his own hand: as Link did when he beat all Eight Nightmares, and used the song that Marin taught him to awaken the Wind Fish.
Yeah. Even now, I’m still not comfortable with either thought: that Marin had to cease to exist, that she had never existed, so that Link could complete his own awakening as a whole person away from Zelda … before, you know, presumably returning to Hyrule and reaffirming the cycle all over again. Hell, Marin even looked like Zelda, when it comes right down to it.
That was my final koan, really, as we all finished high school. What did it mean when you met someone — when Link meets someone who helps him, who just wants to spend time with him in exchange and ends up never existing? Is gaining and losing someone like her the only way he could be free? And was he truly free? I used to dream about it, at times, even when I fell asleep in front of my laptop playing the “Sword Search” theme of Link’s Awakening: the song making me think of a Link who had gone old and grey, who’d retired from adventuring, who had put the Master Sword away for his successors, and dozed on his front porch remembering bygone days when he was a hero and he persevered, and had many quests. I wondered if sometimes, in his sleep, he thought about a seagull singing her song across the world. I wondered if, in his sleep, he ever murmured her name, after all that time.
I was a very angry kid back then. Like I said, the game was never nostalgic. For me, it always reminded me of the present. And when the present became the past after a while, and I got tired of playing and watching playthroughs past 5 am, I put the game away, and moved onto other things.
The thing about a game is that when it frustrates you, it generates the opposite of a Zen state. And it’s in that negativity, when you can’t solve that part, that sometimes you need to step away and do something else for a while. Maybe one day, after I’ve played some other games, I will return to this one, searching across an invisible shore, an ephemeral beach. And maybe then, I’ll finally find the answer.