Here lies Part II of The Legend of Zelda: Linking the Past to the Future, a series following me through each Zelda title as I prepare for the birth of my child.
Courage. What's more important for a father to have? To go into parenting without it would be a deadly mistake. Courage is required to accept even the most basic responsibilities of the role. It takes courage to make good judgement calls, and it takes even more to exercise true kindness. But not only that, Courage is also needed for discovery, and I feel now, being less than eight months away from the birth of my child, that I'm in for a load of it. However, I've learned that discovery is not aimless. In fact, it's usually very specific, and while you may not have to know what to look for, you've got to have the courage to see it. All of this I discovered while playing through The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
I realized more than anything this time around that The Legend of Zelda is children's literature in it's purest form. It's simplicity, it's sense of hope, it's understanding of mystery and how that fits in to the eternal child in all of us blends together to form a work that is truly profound. It dissects the human experience into a simple game that drives to the core of what makes us and what breaks us with the optimistic claim that we can all be better at the end of it. This keeps the player attempting again and again past defeat and disappointment, seeking simple redemption and triumph over the forces of evil that plagues not only our world, but own hearts as well. For this children's tale not only focuses on the courage to stand up against evil, but, more importantly, the courage to explore.
The beginning of the game finds us in an open space surrounded by cavernous walls. There's no one telling us where to go. There's nothing telling us what to do. At first glance around we see that three paths are open: one to the east, one to the north, and one to the west. We can take whichever we like. Noticing above on the northern wall, however, we find a cave entrance. Now, imagining we're new to the game, we have no idea that there's just a friendly old hermit living inside who wants to give us a sword. Something about this cave draws us toward it, but knowing what we know about caves, heading inside could be really dangerous. They are dark, nasty things usually full of creatures and deadly pit falls. We have nothing to protect ourselves with other than a flimsy shield. But we just can't leave it alone. Something tells us to go inside.
This is the first motivation we get in the game, and it comes from within. It's the desire to discover. Later, it will push us up craggy steeps, guide us through dark, labyrinthine woods, and plunge us deep into subterranean depths as we quest to save the kingdom. Other than a short story we get from the game manual, we really don't know much about what we are looking for or how we are to find it. But along the way, we will collect the necessary tools to progress across this open world. It's an effective game mechanic that is finally making a comeback after all these years, and it all came from a child's sense of courage.
I'm not talking about Link's courage in the game, though I will get to that later. I'm talking about the designer, Shigeru Miyamoto as a young boy in his village of Sonobe outside of Kyoto. He often speaks candidly of his childhood and how that lead to the sense of wonder that drives the Zelda series. Exploring the region around his home led him to some memorable discoveries, such as a cave he'd explore using only a small lantern or a hidden lake in the wilderness. Interestingly enough for me, Sonobe, geographically, isn't too different from where I grew up in East Tennessee. The low valleys surrounded by high, wooded mountains marked with maple trees and caves, flowing springs, and a mild temperature year round characterizes both places. Like Miyamoto, I grew up around a rich country full of secret wonder, which was often open for me to explore. The young woods in my own back yard held many adventures. It's sapling trees offered enough shade to keep things a little mysterious, but enough light to let all kinds of dense foliage grow along the forest floor. This gave it something of a challenge. Thick briars and brambles snagged you at every step. Most of the time, the adventures would end in tears, but I would always find myself coming back.
During those days an old sycamore tree towered above the young forest just from inside the furthest edge. You could see it's black, twisted boughs looming high above the canopy of the other trees, strange shapes perched upon its branches: bats, snakes and wooden gargoyles, still sentries watching over the forest day and night. If you managed to push past the thorns on the ground and make it to the base of the tree, you would find that it was guarded by a tall, thick hedge of thorny bushes, which would grow with honeysuckle in the summertime. Most of the time, my brother and I would simply eat the honeysuckle, but there were a few occasions when we decided to test the wall. I can't remember how we did it, but eventually we found our way through, and inside we discovered a peaceful chamber, a small clearing between the wall and the trunk of the sycamore. Yellow butterflies feeding on the honeysuckle flittered in the purple and copper light of the evening sinking fast above us. It felt like finding the inside of a magician's chamber, one that might hear the scurrying of little boys and turn himself into a squirrel just before you saw him. It was that thrilling feeling of fantasy in the periphery. For the first time on that summer evening, I laid hands on that tree's rough bark. The knowledge of the discovery would stick with me forever.
Playing through The Legend of Zelda reminded me of that discovery so many years ago, and beating it for the first time felt like conquering that old wall of thorns. But I couldn't help comparing where I was now to where I was then, when spirits and mystic tribes partied in my back woods and I would stop at nothing to find them. I traveled all through the past, asking questions I haven't thought to ask before. When did I stop exploring my world? How did it come about in that time between then and now that I began trading courage for caution? When did the world became less wondrous and more terrifying, and what kind of person have I become as a result of this? And then I took another path into the future. What kind of dad will I be? Will I pass down courage to my child, or a fear of danger and of taking chances? I had hoped that I would have done a little soul searching during these nine months before the birth of my child. When I decided to play through the Zelda series it was more or less kind of a challenge with an experimental side, a time trial with a bucket-list goal to be done in connection with a life-changing event, but I wasn't sure how much I would really get out of it. I'm one game in, and already I'm delving much deeper and finding out more than I could have imagined. This is what I have found to be one of the greatest charms of The Legend of Zelda. It not only asks you to explore the world, it also asks you to explore yourself.
We are Link. Or, in other words, Link is our 'link' to Hyrule, the world of the game. This is why the hero never speaks. His reactions are our reactions. His words are our words. So when the game supposes something of Link, it's really supposing it of us. Take the story of the first game: Link is wondering alone in a wilderness when we come upon an old woman being attacked by monsters. Without a moment's hesitation we leap into action, effectively saving the woman's life. That would have been enough for Link to win the hero badge, but our good deeds in Hyrule are only just beginning. The lady goes on to tell us that the Princess of the kingdom has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and asks us to rescue her. But in order for us to do that, we have to venture into perilous depths full of monsters and find eight hidden pieces of a relic known as the Triforce of Wisdom, the only thing that can oppose this wicked man's power. We don't know these people. We don't even really know much about this kingdom. But for some odd reason, we decide to help anyway. Why? Some of it may be due to curiosity and a sense of adventure. But I can't help that what the game really is supposing of us is kindness.
If I can choose what kind of father I am going to be, it will be a kind one. I think of all the kindness that has been shown to me in my life - from my mother and father, my brother and sister, my wife and friends and a good amount of strangers along the way too - and I now realize that courage was present behind most of it. Kindness often means self-sacrifice. We take risks to be kind. We give aid at the risk of being taken advantage of. We offer pardon at the risk of being walked-over. We put ourselves out in life-threatening ways sometimes to help the ones we love. This is a pretty melodramatic way of looking at it, but its better than having a cynical one. We can become everyday heroes to the people around us if we have the courage to be little selfless. But the other side of that is when we let fear and caution keep us from being kind. You hear it all the time. "I wish I could feel okay with picking up hitchhikers on the road, but you just don't know these days." It's true. We really don't know. I've found that I have given in to much caution because of that sort of fear and distrust of the world. But that's not the sort of world I want my child to live in. I want them to live in a completely open world driven by the madness of courage and kindness in union, theirs to explore and discover and make better wherever they can. But I realize now, having collected all eight pieces of the Triforce and defeating the evil Ganon, that I first have to create that world for myself.
The Legend of Zelda doesn't lie to us. "It's dangerous to go alone!," the old man in the cave assures us. I'm lucky, because I'm not alone. I have a courageous wife who's going to be a wonderful mother, and the support system of an incredibly selfless family that will all add to the well-being of this child. And just as Link began with no sword, I begin with little too. But I hope to continue exploring and collecting whatever I need a long the way, by treacherous dungeon, by wilting sycamore, and by the failings and successes of a young parent.
Next up: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - "I AM ERROR."