Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Link: He Speaks Like No Child

Everyone has a firm grasp on the general story in the Zelda series: A young boy ventures forth lead by the tip of his sword and his sense of duty. With the help of people he meets along the way and by using unique items he acquires, this boy is able to overcome every obstacle in his way up and through the final battle with the embodiment of the opposite of our main characters very being; evil. Upon winning this battle, the adventure is over and life for our hero returns to normal. But this is simply a template for any adventure. And Zelda being an adventure game, has hardly deviated from this formula. Though many have claimed that the formula needs to be abandoned or dramatically reinvented, I feel that there is nothing wrong with its place in the Zelda series.

In the grand spectrum of literature, there are too many stories to count that share the same formula. And without being unnecessarily reductive, some literary critics categorize stories as being either a tragedy, romance, comedy, or a satire. Even within the same style and formula, thousands of different stories can exist. Likewise, even if Link rose up to battle Gannon in every Zelda game (which he doesn’t) how he gets there and the experiences along the way would greatly differentiate each game.

The critical-gamer is interested in observing how the story unfolds for the player from the beginning of a game to the end, but goes beyond describing and analyzing individual plot elements and details in themselves and seeks to draw a connection between the story elements and the gameplay. The critical-gamer seeks to discover if the story elements hinder or enhance the play experience and how the balance is created.

In the case of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, our faithful main character Link sets sail on the open seas acquiring items and aid from friends to build enough strength to defeat his adversary in order to save his friend Tetra, who we all know as Zelda. Although the formula may seem quite banal, what unfolds in this adventure is psychological exploration of a world of the “lack” as psychoanalyst Lacan would say. As the main character teeters on the edge of adolescence and innocence, he comes face to face to a world where the grown ups have lived a life without something very important to them. Stuck in state of arrested development, many of the characters that populate the game world have ruined their lives devoting their time and energy in pursuit of their goal many times at the sacrifice of their families. This searching isn’t the only apparent psychological trait in the game. The world is littered with doppelgangers and a peculiar attraction to death that makes of the death work. These rich and apparently hidden story elements enhance the gameplay experience by using the game’s mechanics and structures to place the player in a role that can interact and eventually help these characters without becoming one of them sufficiently accentuating Link’s role as the main character.

First, I’ll establish the main character and perspective of the player. The player takes control of Link, and aside from a few small cooperative segments on Goron and Dee Ess Island where the player controls a small rolling Goron, Link is the only way for players to interact with the game world. Everything from swinging a sword, buying wares, retrieving items, and visiting characters are available for the player to shape the game world. True to Zelda form, Link never speaks a word. This feature brings the level of interaction closer to the player as everything he/she does is what Link does. In other words, by not saying anything, words can never be put in the players mouth. As if sending a direct message to those who still yearn for Link to utter more than a stifled gasp every now and then, Zauz the blacksmith says this: “People talk just as loudly with their hearts. But because people have mouths, they don’t pay attention to their hearts.” For the Zelda designers, actions speak louder than words, especially when an entire adventure has been carefully crafted to respond to the language of the player’s actions.

Early on in the game Link joins up with a few companions; Linebeck and Celia. Linebeck is everything Link isn’t: grown, a boat owner, cowardly, self centered, evasive, and ultimately childish. These traits make Linebeck the perfect foil for Link. And to increase the level of interplay between these two characters, Celia acts as Link’s voice.

Linebeck: "Kid, adventuring with you gave me a taste of what its like to be a hero. But here we part. It's all up to you now. I'll just be back here mopping the deck."
Celia: "Hey, what got into you Linebeck? Why so serious all of a sudden?”
Linebeck: "Take care of the kid. You [Celia] look out for him got it?"

But just who is Link anyway? To the people in the game world, Link is nothing but kid: “Young people,” Oshu; “pretty brave for being so short,“ Linebeck; “Young man” the mom from Mercay; “little guy” Fuzo from cannon island; “sea shrimp” Eddo the cannon man; “Hey kid!” Romano. Even the bar man serving milk on Mercay Island thinks Link is a “tad too short” to be drinking milk. Milk was perfectly fine for Link in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Super Smash Brothers Melee. Restricting link now from drinking milk makes it clear how the world views Link. As a kid who is also a rising hero for the supposedly second time, many characters in Phantom Hourglass talk down to Link because of his age and appearance.

Link enters this mysterious world through the fog after somewhat foolishly attempting to rescue his friend Tetra. From the outset of the adventure both the player and Link are clear about their objective: get Tetra back. The framework of the adventure is also the theme of majority of the character’s dilemmas: loss. In Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Lacan describes how humans experience an extreme sense of lacking after they realize they are separate entities from their mothers. This happens at an early age, and to fill this gapping lack in their lives, people take on language. And from there, a multitude of behaviors can emerge that are ultimately an effort to fill the gap and return to that state of complete care and oneness. Link has a lack, but he lacks the language, making him the perfect pivotal perspective for the game to relate and tell the rest of the story. Everything is directly related to Link’s character and the players actions. Playing the game from the main character’s perspective, makes the player constantly aware of the difference between Link and everyone else.

Several characters in the game search for a way to fill their lack as a kind of condensation, or when one substitutes a person or object for something else they desire. The Wayfarer searched for the romantic life of a seaman, and yet couldn’t reel in Neptoona, the legendary fish of the seas. Beyond the search for this fish that he has long given up on, the Wayfarer now searches for a more elusive type fish; a mermaid. This man has sold everything he owned to buy objects that he believes will attract a mermaid. Now that he only has his tales from his more successfully wayfaring days, he’s depressed and he’s and stuck. When the player informs the wayfarer that a mermaid is nearby and interested in the Wayfarer’s stories, the Wayfarer has a difficult time believing Link: “Ahh….I’m a fool to believe such a wild tale. How could you toy with the hopes of my romantic, wayfaring heart?!” Aside from the Wayfarer, the treasure hunters search the seas for common treasures that are rare back where they originated from. Romanos’ dad searched for adventure and was lost, and soon his son follows in is footsteps. A Goron on Goron Island pines after Linebeck’s Ship from a far perhaps to an unhealthy degree, and searches for a way to get one of his own.The wives on Molida Island have lost their husbands while they’re out at sea fishing for a living. However, by the end of the game, the seas have been thoroughly combed by the player and there husbands are no where to be found: "My husband left on a fishing trip and hasn’t returned"

Immune to deficiencies of the inhabitants of the watery world of Phantom Hourglass, Link helps anyone he can by doing what he does best: adventuring and being a kid. It is ironic that Link is one of the more mature, focused, and clear minded characters. And it is even more ironic that Link is one of a few character that takes up arms to become a hero. There is not a character that changes more throughout the game than Linebeck. From self centered, awkward, snappy, somewhat quixotic treasure hunter, Linebeck couldn’t help but change. Link’s purity and courage must have rubbed off on him. At first he underestimates link: “The temple is dangerous. No place for err.. a kid like you.” Later, Linebeck expresses his gratitude by writing Link a letter even though they see each other in person quite often. Soon, Linebeck comes around and even compliments Link face to face: “well you're sort of a good guy Link. Wow. That was out of character for me wasn't it!" During the epic final battle, Linebeck even takes up the sword in order to aid his captured friends. Linebeck’s character is so interesting and complex, he could be the subject for his own essay. I won’t go into too much detail about him here, but just know he is a refreshing deviation on the main-character-hero formula.

But there is still more to this world and these characters that is worth pointing. Within the game world there is a mysterious fascination with death. Skeletons of over-adventurous treasure hunters litter the floors of many dungeons throughout the game. Not only do these bones serve as a reminder of what could have happened to Linebeck and even Link, they also talk. The spirits of the dead are chatty and quick to offer advise to the living. They might mention things about their past life, secrets that they uncovered in their travels, or, as a way of preventing more deaths like theirs, they warn you of imminent dangers. On the Island of the Dead, Link talks to the ghosts of four knights and the ghost of King Cobble himself. Furthermore, Kayo, Astrid’s apprentice, had died and Link speaks to his ghost for tips. Many of these characters were drawn to perilous situations, exhibiting somewhat reckless behavior that classic behavior of Freud’s concept of the Death Drive. But it’s not death that many of these characters seek. It’s life. All of the troubled characters in the game are trying to find the life that has meaning for them. And for some, it’s the after life that is the biggest mystery of all. Romano’s dad sacrificed his family and his old life to pursue adventure:

Mom: "He used to talk about how he had visited that island. My husband...was once content to be a fisherman until he left this place. He sought uncharted lands. At least that's what he said when he finally left. He refused to work, instead ruining his boat by braving the northern fog repeatedly! The last time we saw him was over a year ago... My son... that boy hasn't worked in a long time either. He's peeved at his dad, I think."

Romanos: "All this endless babbling about living with a lust for adventure. Can that put food on the table? Can that make your family happy? Going your own way... is no way to survive in life. My way's a lot better. Staying home, eating cheese, that's the life!”

Dad's letter: "To my son, Romanos. If you're reading these words, you have found my true hideaway...Which means you also have developed a desire to find your own way in life...Know that I'm truly sorry for putting you and your mother through so much...I'm well aware that I'm the world's worst father, leaving you both behind...There's so much about the ways of the world I don't understand. Such as why the Ghost Ship appears and steals people. Where do its victims go? I have decided to dedicate my life to finding out the answers. If I fail to return, please take care of your mother. And please forgive me. In closing, one more thing...Embrace your wayfaring ways, my son!"

What drives these characters is the same thing that drives many of us. We have questions, and sometimes finding the answers at all costs becomes more important than living a life without knowing. Phantom Hourglass is a game in a world filled with people that can’t help but make up and define their own lives by what they believe. It’s a world where each individual has to make up their own minds. The player isn’t excluded from these choices either. They player has to decide whether or not to believe in Astrid’s fortunetelling, Kayo’s ideas on fate, the wayfaring life at sea, romance of the sea, what’s really at the bottom of the Anouki and Yook prejudices, or anything else in the game. Balancing the thin line between youthful innocence and the maturing effect of being a hero, Link’s characters exists at the perfect distance away from all of the issues the game raises. All of the “yes or no” questions that are presented in the game don’t have any significant consequences one way or the other. And the way the responses are phrased comically limits the player into participating in the role of the inconsequential kid that the world of Phantom Hourglass constantly tries to put Link in. The differences between Link and the world creates a level of introspection as the player is constantly reminded that he/she is different and that he/she must make decisions on their own.

The player is faced with a choice in what to believe in on many levels of Phantom Hourglass’ story that extends to the frame work itself. Players have to decide for themselves if the Wayfarer and Jolene’s sister dressed up as a Mermaid is a sufficient reality for either of them. We all know she’s not a real mermaid, but the Wayfarer believes it. We know that Jolene doesn’t have adequate pirating skills if she can’t even take out Link in a sword fight. Yet, she makes bold claims about returning for a rematch, and she refuses to give up on finding Linebeck. We know that McNey the famous explorer is dead because we found his pile of bones. Beyond this, the whole adventure is set up in such a way that the players have to either take it or leave it. Apparently, on my 35+ hour adventure to save Tetra, I was only gone for 10 minutes. One of my shipmates says: “It was probably a bad dream.” Was it all a dream? All of these questions still linger with me when I think about Phantom Hourglass. I hope by now, especially for critical-fans of the Zelda series, you realize that the greatest part of an adventure is the adventure. It’s not the beginning or the ending, but how you get there. Likewise, getting there and how that changes you is where the story lies. No dialog trees. No voice acting. For the Zelda series and Nintendo, function creates the ultimate role playing, and actions speak louder than words. Clearly there was a lot to say about a kid trying to get his friend back that speaks like no child.


Michael Abbott said...

Thank you for devoting so much time and thoughtfulness to this subject. We've both written at length on the Zelda series, so I'll spare you further analysis here, but I'm especially taken by your notion of the undercurrent of death that pervades these games. I don't think most people have noticed it, but it's certainly there, and I'm glad you saw fit to consider it.

This melancholic tone contrasts with the light-heartedness that's much more prominent, but it also adds texture and weight to the series. Twilight Princess is a flawed game, but this particular aspect of its narrative is especially notable.

Thanks again for your essay.

KirbyKid said...

It was one of those things that I noticed and then couldn't get away from. An essay was bound to jump out of my fingers at some point.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Reading about your understanding of Lacan in the game, it strikes me that Phantom Hourglass has been something of a Zelda waiting to happen. I've never read any Lacan, and it's been a long time since I played any Phantom Hourglass, so I hope you'll forgive me if I misrepresent or confuse his views.

Characters in Zelda games have lacked for a long time. In most of the series' iterations, there is at least one character who wants to trade their possessions with Link for some long sought-after treasure. Historically, though, these characters and their lacking have been less important than Link and his own predicament.

Phantom Hourglass does it best. In the beginning, it forces Link and Zelda - who are so safe and comfortable together - apart. Similar parallels to Lacan's theory concerning motherhood can be seen in other Zelda titles. In Ocarina, Link is separated from the Deku Tree, from Saria, and from 'mother nature.' In Majora, he loses Epona and his ocarina, which is a memento from Zelda.

Link, then, lacks a maternal presence. He can't make up for this using verbal language, and so he attempts to do so by acquiring fighting skills, and by building up his inventory. By the end of each game, he is skilled in combat - the language of the warrior.

It seems to me that here is a theme which has been present in all Zelda games, but which has not become such a driving force until now.

Something has changed, though. A lot of the earlier Zelda titles seemed to me to be Bildungsromans (or variations on that style). Phantom Hourglass (and, if you'll indulge me, Majora and Wind Waker too) is not. It represents a closer look at the absurdity and unique perspective of childhood, which is touched on to a lesser extent in earlier games.

In a strange way, I feel that Phantom Hourglass is both a culmination of everything which has come before it, and something very new, and very different.

A the same time, I get the feeling that I'm talking out of my backside here. This isn't something I've given a lot of thought to, and it doesn't look like I'll have a lot of time to in at any point in the immediate future, but I was moved by this essay, and felt instinctively that I should respond to it. I'd love to know your thoughts.

KirbyKid said...

Spencer Greenwook...

I copied your comment over to my new blog, and I responded as well.