New games, old stories: the mythic element in video game series

Well, today is Memorial Day in America. If you’re not from America, what that means is A: it’s the ritual opening of the summer season, as compared to the astronomical/meteorological beginning next month. B: people are cooking out everywhere. C: it’s the holiday for recalling the actions and sacrifices of soldiers – it was originally the day of celebration for the treaty that ended one of the World Wars, I think the first one. Many families use it as their family reunion date, and do more or less military-themed stuff as they prefer. Why does this matter? Well, other than my assumption that many of you will actually see this tomorrow (Tuesday), I also thought it would be the best opportunity/excuse I had to finally write about something I’ve been thinking of – game series and their critics. That’s vague. Let’s say, games like Mario and Zelda and their critics. That’s, uh, a little better.

OK, what I’m trying to say specifically is that I am interested in video games that reiterate a certain theme or pattern, usually both. That is, Mario is always saving the princess, Link is always saving Zelda, and Samus, uh, shoots bug things. Critics I’m actually pretty fond of have wanted to see a Zelda game in which Zelda’s the main character, or Mario does something the hell else with his life (I dunno, run a farm? Wait, Nintendo already has that overall guy who gives ladies eggs). Whatever they want, they all generally agree that it’s a failing of the games that they always use different mechanics to do the same things, in terms of both gameplay and narrative. I don’t agree with that. And I’ll tell you why. But first, let me say a few things about comic books.

Particularly, American comic books – because this same criticism has been leveled against superheroes for decades now. Nothing changes but the art styles. Every month it’s the same sort of puzzle – figure out how to get out of this thing that’s marginally different from something similar three years ago. Yes, it can get repetitive, but that’s also one of the strengths of the form. There’s a reason people go on and on about superheroes as pop culture gods, and it’s not that the characters themselves caught hold of any particularly spectacular godfire. No, it’s actually because of the ritual nature of their stories. Myths were ritualized stories, not simply told, but often performed. And in every iteration things had to be the same, obviously, but embellished, altered in some way. Superheroes hold the place they do in people’s hearts because they know they’ll never die. Not for real. “Batman and Robin will never die.” Superman is always looking out for us. Superman first appeared in 1938, which means he’s been protecting us, usually from ourselves but also from alien machine brains, for 75 years. Odds are you were born after Superman – and you will die before him.

Now, I was born before Link and Zelda – just by a few years, but still – but I have taught people who were not alive when The Legend of Zelda came out in 1986 (just for those playing at home, that makes Link 27 years old – since I teach predominantly freshman, last year Link was 26 and I was dealing with 18 year olds, so Link was 8 when they were born). And maybe it’s still too soon to tell, but I doubt it – Link will still be rescuing Zelda when I’m dead, just like Superman will be rescuing us. Link is an embodiment of adventure and determination, while Mario still manages to be the major video game purveyor of whimsy.

So what about the repetition? Well, isn’t it necessary? Don’t we need each iteration so it can re-instill the spirit of that character into us? It’s not that we want repetitive games. In fact, People who play every Zelda game would be the first to complain about repetition, but from outside it looks like each game is the same, because it has the same items and the same characters doing (broadly) the same things. Now, is there room to improve? Yes, I would say so. Just like in comic superhero stories (which are going through their second or third growing pain period), there’s a lot more that can be done within the lineage of The Story. It will likely take a long time for that to happen though, particularly with stuff like Mario and Zelda, considered both the flagships of their company and things to help people relax in a comfortable setting (these games are made by Japanese companies, after all – it would be a bit like asking an American man-shooter company to try their hand at complicating the narratives or the mechanics of a Call of Honor – and we recently had Spec Ops: The Line which, from what I’ve heard, did just that).

But I can already see it happening, to some degree. Ocarina of Time is, along with being about Zelda and Link and what that is always about, also about growing up. It throws Link into adulthood in basically the way we’re likely to feel thrown into it ourselves coming on late teen years. The latest Pokemon game generation might have gotten a lot of press for having a “PETA” group that ends up being villains, but in between that stuff is a philosophical question about the difference between truth and ideals, as well as the status of power, particularly its status in a world in which power appears to be relegated to games and not politics, warfare, or capitalism.

I’m not trying to say that these games have been tackling deep philosophical issues all along – or that they need to be. But their status as touchstones in our lives, narratives we know even as we come to each one afresh, keeps them in the same position as other narratives, like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, or Batman. They will always exist, and that is part of their strength. They exist in part to continue existing, because they are our ideas of what greatness could be. And those ideas will shift over time, but in a culture that has contiguity with its own past, there will always be seeds of similarity.

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  1. On the Symbolic Meaning of Forestry | Wondrous Windows

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