It’s hard to find anything new to say about “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”. Announcement by many like the greatest game of all time, more ink has been spilled on this game than perhaps any other.
I have always found that “Ocarina of Time” had something special to say to people like me, born at the turn of the century, just as the game was released in 1998. The game is a reflection of the demons of our time, the the struggles we have inherited and the intricate tapestry of our inner lives. I could explain endlessly the technical prowess of the game or its lasting impact on the support of the game; all of these things are notable and contribute to the title’s legendary status.
The aspect of “Ocarina of Time” that resonates most with me, however, is the precision with which it describes the experience of my generation, a characteristic that cements its place as my favorite game.
“Ocarina of Time” is a game about growing up. The central mechanic of the game is the protagonist Link’s ability to travel through time between the world of his childhood and his adulthood. This basic concept, in addition to enabling fantastic puzzles, makes the game a treasure trove of environmental storytelling.
As a child, Link’s adventures are idyllic and full of promise; the characters he meets are friendly and colorful. The tasks are fun, like a mission where Link is sent to wake up a sleeping farmer with endangered chickens. Link and the player succeed effortlessly and many mentors keep saying they are destined for greatness.
Then Link grows up. After reaching the goal of collecting three Magical Macguffins, Link is transported seven years into the future. This event marks an important change of tone. All of the places the player has explored previously have been shockingly changed. Instead of a bustling city square and the Temple of Time, the player finds a hauntingly ruined city. Link’s childhood home is overrun by monsters. The Zora water realm is frozen. The world the player has known is suddenly terrifying and alien.
Link’s adventures also change dramatically. He embarks on missions of immense weight, such as when tasked with saving captives from being eaten by a beast and reversing the effects of magical brainwashing. His victories are bittersweet, seeing childhood friends again only to leave him forever. Even his childhood looks darker in retrospect; in a number of cases, the story forces Link to go back to his childhood to tackle mini-dungeons far darker than the rest of his youthful adventures. Through this tactic, “Ocarina of Time” literally gamifies the all-too-familiar feeling of looking back at the sometimes distressing realities of our youth through the nuanced prism of adulthood.
The fights of our generation are reflected in the mechanics of the game and the tonal changes. Time and time again, parents, teachers and even public figures have assured us that we are destined for exceptional greatness. Instead, we have grown up to step into a dark world rife with inequity and conflict: systemic racism, cataclysmic climate change, and plutocratic pseudo-imperialism. We found ourselves propelled not by promises of a bright future or personal glory, but by devotion to those we hold dear and a desire to make the lies of our childhood a reality in the future. Likewise, Link is not motivated by a sense of inherent greatness, but by a sense of duty to the friends he loves and the world he has lost.
Link’s is a dismal journey, but not a futile one. Despite everything, Link makes the difference. His world has changed indelibly, that’s for sure: too much time has been wasted, too much cruelty inflicted for it to always be the same. The absence of the people Link lost resonates louder than any change for the better. And yet, in the midst of this despair, there is still hope.
Link sees new life blooming around every corner. True, the new world of his adulthood is filled with horrors, but there are also signs of rebirth: a child named for him and his heroic deeds, a refuge built for the vulnerable flourishing in the midst of armageddon, and natural beauty restored to its fullest. The sacrifice demanded of Link – demanded of us – was not fair, but there is assurance in his worth. We were both promised greatness but inherited a world in ruins. In Link’s turn, he promises the last generations are struggling but leaving the world a better place than it has found it. We are trying to do the same.
Maybe I’m projecting too much into this game. Maybe these things I see in it are nothing more than inventions strained to justify the struggles and doubts in my own life. But even so, “Ocarina of Time” gives me hope. It tells me that in the end my struggles will be worth something. Link’s story tells me that even in the midst of these doubts, I cannot sit idly by; instead, I must fight for justice even though the fight seems hopeless. This game tells me that loved ones leave in painful and sudden ways, but some of them stay and stay for good. And the beauty of this game is that it sends the same message to everyone who plays it, both my generation and beyond. I see the ways “Ocarina of Time” speaks to me personally, but I also recognize the way he speaks to everyone.
“Ocarina of Time” shows what good, real, lasting video games can create. These games help us understand ourselves and become better at loving and being kind. Most importantly, these games give us hope.