I’m Tired and Sad, So Let’s Talk About The Legend of Zelda: Episode 16

It has been one fuck of a past 10 or so days for me (as of writing this) and I just need something enjoyable to focus on. So, instead of continuing to reflect on my traumas, things adjacent to my traumas, or traumas I’m starting to realize are becoming more and more common, I’m going to write about a game I’ve played many different times throughout my life and had a different reaction to every time. That’s right, I’m writing about The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening!

In all three versions of the game, you play as Link, but that’s where the thematic simularity to the typical Legend of Zelda game ends. The game starts with a cutscene depicting Link on a ship, sailing through stormy seas before his boat is struck by lightning. Next, Link wakes up in a house in a little village and is told that he washed up on shore. As Link goes about retrieving his sword, understanding the world around him, and trying to figure out how to get home, the game hints to Link and the player that this world is maybe not the world he’s originally from. Eventually, it all becomes clear when a mural in a dungeon depicts the island as the dreamworld of a being called The Wind Fish (which has reappeared a couple times in other games now as well) and indicates that Link can only escape by waking The Wind Fish, which would essentially destroy the world he’s currently living in.

If you’ve played the game and understand this secret already (or are very good at remembering the minutiae of the interactions you’ve had with NPCs in the past), you can easily see all of the foreshadowing. There is a degree of melancholy to the more “lively” characters as they interact with Link while he’s pursuing his quest. In fact, the character you interact with the most (a young woman named Marin who found Link unconscious on the beach) seems to understand that the world is the dream of The Wind Fish and that your quest to wake it will ultimately spell her demise. She seems to accept it, though. Gracefully assisting you and (in the most recent version of the game on the Switch) tempting you to appreciate the world around you so that you might consider staying instead of leaving without using guilt in her attempts to keep you around.

As a child playing the black and white version originally released for the GameBoy, this was my first real introduction to the idea of a compelling story existing in the context of a dream that the dreamer eventually awakens from. While the plot might be relatively simple, the writing of the varies characters gives the game a level of depth that had (prior to that) been lacking in the Legend of Zelda series. It would be expanded upon in Ocarina of Time, as they developed a full plot and gave increidble depth to all of the characters you interacted with more than in-passing (including a few that appear to be adaptions of some of the important characters from Link’s Awakening). It was an important step in the development of the series, which is why it make sense that it was remade incredible quickly for the GameBoy Color.

There were a few additions to the GBC version, but most of those changes were mechanical in nature and bits of content that could be tacked on outside of the general plot and direction of the game. They were fun to experience when I eventually got my hands on a copy (quite a long time after it came out because my parents did not approve of me buying or being gifted something I already had in their estimation), but the plot largely stayed the same. I was in high school when I replayed it, emerging out of a long period of insomnia that made a year and a half of my life a lingering nightmare that even now I don’t properly recall aside from a few moments scattered throughout the timeline and some random flashes I can’t actually attach to any period of time. Given that the game is about emerging from a dream world inhabited by nightmare creatures you have to fight, you can see how it might have impacted me much more heavily at fifteen or sixteen than at six when I played the game originally (about a year before the GBC version came out, actually).

I, of course, bought the latest remake of the game on the Switch the day it came out. I feel like I played this version all the way through around the time it came out, but I also thought it came out during the pandemic. In reality, it actually released in 2019, so I’m not sure when I first played through it anymore. Regardless, I was happy to learn that the adaption/port for the Switch held up against the nostalgia I felt and that every aspect of the game that I had enjoyed previously had only gotten better with time. It is still a bright, melancholic world that exists for the length of a dream with wonderful music and characters who know the world they’re living in is not one meant to last forever. There’s a bunch of 4th-wall breaking dialogue from multiple NPCs who talk about how to play the game, referencing specific buttons and how the saving mechanics work, and then disclaiming that they have no idea what the advice they just gave you actually means from their perspective as inhabitants of this world.

One of the questions the game asks you, helpfully implied by the interactions Marin has with Link throughout the game, is if the world Link is currently inhabiting is real. This world, dreamed into existence by a sentient flying fish with some kind of magical powers and then populated by a mixture of nightmarish monsters who reflect creatures Link has had to fight in the past and people who have knowledge of the player and the console the player is using that they clearly don’t understand, is vibrant, living, and full of people trying to live the best they can. Are they fake because they only exist in a dream and will largely cease to exist as anything but memories of Link and The Wind Fish once the plot is resolved? Are any of them not truly present and real because their existence is far more temporary and ephermal than Link’s? And then, taking it a step further, as these characters any less real because they cease to exist when you turn the power off to your GameBoy or Switch, despite having a place in your memory like any other person you knew long ago and haven’t seen in decades?

One of my favorite parts of the podcast Friends At The Table is that they address similar questions in multiple seasons and in multiple ways. Ultimately, though, they always say that the answer is yes, all of those people are real even if they don’t have physicality or pemenance in a mode that we currently understand as “reality.” A person who exists entirely in a virtual environment is still a real person, even if they don’t have existence in physical space. People who emerged from software gaining sentience or the various ways such synthetic lifeforms might reproduce are still real people. Beings brought into existence by a nearly omnipotent force of nature who are copies of someplace else and that can be turned to dirt, sticks, and leaves through violence are still people worthy of protection. As someone who has listened to the entire library of this podcast twice in the past 12 months and who has always struggled with not feeling like real person, this question really resonated with me and is one of the main reasons that Link’s Awakening is one of my favorite games in the series.

I replayed the game again recently. Last summer (around the time I wrote the first post in this series, actually), as I slowly sifted through my games in an effort to fill my nights and weekends while the pandemic was still in full swing despite so many people around me trying to pretend otherwise. It was everything I wanted, a bright world with wonderful music, familiar puzzles, and a fulfilling but not demanding gameplay experience. I got to the end of the game quickly, in maybe a week or less, because I had just replayed it a year or two ago. All the puzzles were fresh in my mind and it isn’t a terrible long game in the first place. This time, though, as I was listening to a story about a people who made no distinction between the virtual and the physical brought to life by a bunch of friends around a metaphorical table, I couldn’t bring myself to take the final challenge of the game. I had collected all the necessary instruments and then climbed to the top of the mountain upon which rest the egg that was the resting place of The Wind Fish, but I couldn’t make myself play the song to bring an end to this wonderful world.

I was struggling with some hefty depression at the time (which was one of the reasons I restarted this blog, to give myself something to do that felt productive) and I couldn’t stand the thought of bringing this world I had loved for the vast majority of my life to an end. This was the first Legend of Zelda game I played that was for me alone rather than something I shared with a source of painful memories. This was a world whose music is so core to my life that the Mabe Village theme is what my mind fills in when I think of “music” without reference to a specific song. It was the first thing that taught me stories are just as real as the person reading them, and it reinforced that idea throughout my life. Sure, playing the game to completion would show me the “secret” ending that makes it incredibly clear that this idea is supported by the creators of the game as well and the world wouldn’t end since it would live on in replays of the game and my own memories, but it would mean that I, through Link, decided that he needed to return to his original world. Given how messed up things have been in my own world, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I haven’t played the game since then, which isn’t really that different from playing through the final boss of the game and waking The Wind Fish since the game has stayed off just as much. I haven’t gone back to revisit that world, and I haven’t even thought about it much since I realized that my feelings about the world and the game was an indication of some things I needed to work on in my own world. My attention has been occupied. Still, it feels nice to know that the world is there if I ever want to go back. That Link, for once, chose to embrace a good dream for a little bit longer. Maybe to rest and enjoy the peace he can afford to have on Koholint Island that was so lacking in his original world, but maybe because sometimes it is okay to embrace a better world we know we need to leave, if only for a little while.

To be honest, I’m still not sure I want to go finish that file or just leave it the way it currently is so I can reenter that world when I need it and enjoy wandering around places as familiar to me as my childhood home. There’s a lot to be said about finishing things, about conclusions and the game’s explicit embrace of things carrying on in a new form as time passes and change occurs, but I can’t deny the temptation to leave the door opened just a crack. Someday, I expect I’ll go back to that game and finish it. The final boss is fairly easy and I won’t be tempted to do a full restart because I clearly haven’t forgotten what was going on in the game when I left it, so I expect it will take fifteen to thirty minutes for me to complete. Maybe I’ll go do that tonight, now that I’m thinking about it again. After all, I’ve never actually seen the “secret” ending as a result of my own play-through of the game, so that might feel nice to be able to mentally check off.

This game has been a part of my life for longer than one of my siblings and almost as long as the two I still routinely talk to have been. It will continue to be a part of my life no matter what I start to do. It will be as real as ever if I finish the game or never touch it again. The only thing I gain by putting off the game’s conclusion is a reason to go back to it someday and that’s enough for now.

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