Today in Tedium: 2022 was not a great year for my family. We lost my father in mid-April (on Easter Sunday). That itself was unexpected and devastating. He’d been dealing with some health issues, but we didn’t see it coming. In the aftermath, we had to sort through his life and find a way to move on. When things finally started to seem like they were improving, my father-in-law—who was like a second father to me—also passed. And my aunt passed away about a week ago. In the face of all this, I found solace in family, friends, writing, therapy, and (much to my surprise) video games. I began revisiting the Legend of Zelda series because it has a special meaning to me. And although it wasn’t something over which my father and I bonded much, it still managed to help me cope with some of my grief (so much so that my therapist actually recommended I play Breath of the Wild more frequently). Today’s Tedium is going in a slightly different direction. It’s a story about how three different Legend of Zelda games somehow managed to help me process and understand my own grief. But more than that, it’s a story about my life and some things I haven’t thought about for a very long time. — David @ Tedium
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The price my family paid for a second-hand copy of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (and, incidentally, a copy of Shadowgate thrown in for free) from a consignment shop in the early 1990s. It was the gold version of the cart, complete with instructions, and in pretty good condition. We were supposed to get brand new copies of both games for Christmas the previous year—we found the games in my parent’s closet a few months prior—but we found nothing of the sort when the holiday finally rolled around. It turned out my father had returned them one day. We never discovered why, but I have a feeling it had something to do with putting food on the table. So it made sense when we found out dad went out of his way to find us a copy later on. If one of you collectors has a cart only copy of the game with my last name scratched into the label, I’d love to see it again.
A Link between friends
There are some video games that are simply timeless. The Legend of Zelda is certainly one of them. Just take a quick look around YouTube or the internet at large and you’ll see what I mean. Even the music has a life of its own. And yes, I know how to play some of the game’s songs on the guitar. But that’s not unexpected. This story really begins with realizing the way the Zelda games can connect people together.
In an interview for the Zelda history book, _Hyrule Historia_, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto says the game’s protagonist is named Link because he “links people together.” Although that’s certainly true throughout the series, it works on a real-world level too. And the first part of our story is about exactly that.
The first (and for a long time, only) game in the series I played was Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. It’s also one of my favorite games to this day.I know, I know. Zelda 2 isn’t as beloved as the original and can be somewhat divisive (especially online). So what? It’s a fun video game. Also, for the record, it consistently topped Nintendo Power reader’s polls and sold like hotcakes, despite the 1980s chip shortage that impacted Nintendo (it actually delayed Zelda 2 from being released on time). From the moment I figured out how to beat Horsehead in Parapa Palace, I was hooked on the series. Of course, the game could be difficult at times—especially with all the vague clues—but my young mind loved the puzzles and the feeling of finally figuring out a puzzle (that feeling doesn’t go away, either, as I learned when 20-something me finished A Link Between Worlds a few decades later).
I didn’t have access to Nintendo Power or the Internet back then. But luckily, I had a good friend, Michael, who seemed to know everything there was to know about the NES. Want to know the 1-up trick in Super Mario Bros? Mike could show you how to stomp on the turtle at just the right moment. Need to know the code for Sub-C in Star Tropics? It’s 747, bro. How about some maps for TMNT and the first three Mega Man games? Mikey would let you borrow his tattered NES Atlas to guide you through. He loved RPGs and had a vivid imagination. He was also a bit hyperactive and sometimes got himself into trouble on occasion. He was a great friend.
Growing up in the 1990s, I remember being a lonely kid. I just wanted to read, learn about everything, and play Nintendo. I wasn’t any good at sports and didn’t fit in at school. My father—an Air Force Staff Sergeant—was often away. We moved a few times, too. So it wasn’t exactly easy to make friends.
One day, I somehow ended up at a summer reading program. That’s where I met Michael, who would become one of my best friends from the time period. We spent a long time hanging out, playing video games (and later, Dungeons & Dragons) and talking about ridiculous stuff. I got him into Weird Al’s music and he got me into Dr. Demento.
Michael was the oldest of three kids and spent a lot of time playing video games. He introduced me to Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link became an important part of our friendship. As we grew older, we often discussed the series, origins of the characters, and how we would create our own Zelda game. Even after A Link To The Past came out, we’d still discuss the series. He had a Super NES and finished the game pretty quickly. But for me, we were stuck with the NES versions for a long time. Playing Zelda 2 became a regular occurrence and it was a game I’d revisit at least once a year … until I eventually lost interest.
I hadn’t thought about any of this in years, up until this year. Revisiting Adventure of Link reminded me of those fun times and all the silly stories we came up with back then.
I find it interesting that after the fact, many of the town names from Zelda 2 showed up as the names of sages in Ocarina of Time. Even Breath of the Wild repurposes character and location names (much of the nomenclature of the Zora region, for instance, comes from characters who dwelled in the Majora’s Mask version of the area. Hyrule Historia retconned the naming conventions into the series’ official timeline, which is pretty cool.
I’m also convinced Chu Chu Jelly from BoTW are evolved versions of the little blob monsters from Adventure of Link. But that’s a story for another time.
Around summer 1995, I remember Michael bragging about how he was going to get a Nintendo 64 when the new “Zelda” came out. I don’t think he ever did. By that point, everyone in our cohort was rapidly moving away from Nintendo and over to the PlayStation. I never personally owned an N64, either, so didn’t experience Ocarina of Time—outside of playing it a few times here and there—until my son got a 3DS in 2012.
Mike and I remained friends for several years—until we eventually lost contact in the early 2000s. Sometimes I wonder what happened to him and sincerely wish him well. I’ll always remember our friendship every time I play Adventure of Link again. And as I’ve gotten older and experienced more loss, sometimes I think back on those happy memories and am grateful for having experienced them in the first place.
The year The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was remastered and re-released for the Nintendo 3DS. It was on one of my favorite systems and it offered an opportunity to play a remastered version all the way through. I’d only previously played it a handful of times and had some trouble getting onto the narrative at first. All that changed when I started playing it more frequently as I took my father to his medical appointments. To kill time while we waited, I started playing Majora’s Mask. It took a long time to finally beat it—something that only happened a few weeks ago. Doing so brought a strange, unexpected sense of closure to my life. And after reading a certain section of The Psychology of Zelda, I might understand why.
Majora’s Mask and the unmasking of grief
There’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding Majora’s Mask: the idea that the game is a metaphor for each Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. Grief is a highly subjective experience for everyone, but the five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are a common benchmark and tool by which to learn to handle grief. They don’t really occur in any order, nor do they happen in succession. This is especially true in the idea that Majora’s Mask somehow epitomizes and represents these five stages.
I stumbled across it shortly after my father’s passing and there’s certainly a chance it rendered my playthrough a bit more emotional—especially as I began to see the parallels for myself.
Anyone who has played through the game knows it doesn’t shy away from tragedy. Every transformation mask—the deku mask, goron mask, and zora mask—is essentially the embodiment of a now-deceased, beloved member of their respective community. The Deku mask might represent a denial of one’s self or a denial of the current situation. Other masks, like Kamaro’s mask, might represent denial in a different way. The spirit who possesses it was a dancer in life who, in death, manifests when he hears music. In a way, it’s a denial of his own demise as he eventually learns to cope with the fact he’s departed this mortal coil.
That’s already a bit of a tragedy. But then there’s the story itself. The people in Clock Town seem to be in an ongoing and perpetual state of denial. The Deku king is angry at the monkey whom he erroneously believed imperiled his daughter. There’s a lot of bargaining happening when we meet Darmani, the goron who becomes Link’s Goron mask.
I rather like the idea that Goht—Snowfall’s resident robotic masked beast—is a representation of someone spinning around and around in a desperate attempt to bargain their way out of the inevitable. It gets much deeper, with plenty to say about depression and Lulu in Zora’s domain, and how Ikana Valley represents acceptance. I can see that, sure.
When I played Ikana Valley for the first time, it was approximately six months into my own grieving process. And honestly, by that point, I was beginning to accept it. In my own experience, playing through the bizarre twilight of the area and experiencing the neverending battle between dark and light seemed like a parallel to realizing that eventually things do get better and there’ll always be a bit of darkness and light at the end of the tunnel.
There’s a fantastic layman’s breakdown of the theory over at The Zelda Dungeon (not to mention any number of videos on the subject). It’s such a well-known theory that the game’s producer eventually weighed in on it.
Although he didn’t outright deny the connection, Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma told Game Informer in 2015:
It’s certainly true that each one of these different episodes you talked about has a different emotional cast to it. One feels like it’s tinged with sadness, and another with anger – that certainly was intentional. But, I also want to point out that it’s not that each one of these episodes only has the one emotion that they are conveying. There are certainly other notes that we’re trying to hit as well.
Although it may not have been intended that way, there’s certainly some gravity to the Majora’s Mask grief theory—at least in my experience. And for what it’s worth, finishing the game at that time felt like a momentous achievement that—in no small way—helped me heal at least a little bit.
“Breathing new life into such a beloved and classic game can certainly present a challenge. Nintendo effortlessly rose to the occasion with this remake of the Nintendo 64 classic. The game focuses on Young Link as he endeavors to save Hyrule from an ultimate evil. Traveling back and forth between adult Link feels so intuitive in this version and the transitions are seamless. The best part? The water dungeon is much easier to navigate with the ability to map the iron boots to any button. On top of that, the use of 3D in this game is top-notch and made me wish for more 3D Zelda on the system—a wish that was granted with the equally wonderful 3DS update of Majora’s Mask released a few years later.”
— Me, in our 3DS send-off from 2020. We had this to say about Ocarina of Time. Although Majora’s Mask has easily overtaken it (on a personal level) since, I stand by my mini-review of OoT. Revisiting it this year brought back some pleasant memories, starting me on the journey that eventually led to taking on Breath of the Wild.
How Breath of the Wild has helped me process grief this year
The first time I played it in 2017 (on the Wii U), I didn’t enjoy Breath of the Wild nearly as much as everyone else seemed to be. It’s arguably the most popular game in the series, and the best selling. And it makes sense. The game is fun, inspiring, visually spectacular and offers an immersive storyline—if you’re willing to search for it. But for 2017 me, it felt like there was too much to do and it seemed overwhelming. Fast forward to this year, when a discussion about something completely different veered toward The Legend of Zelda and something interesting happened.
I began to describe how revisiting the Zelda games was helping me process some of my grief and that I discovered a strange sense of calm while playing them. So, it was recommended that I play them a bit more. And that’s how I discovered an entirely new appreciation for Breath of the Wild. It wasn’t just that I found the ability to go anywhere and do anything relaxing. It was the ability to live a structure-free, burden-free, low-key, and ultimately engaging existence without worrying about the real world.
Sure, the primary quest is always there. It’ll need to get done eventually. But one can take their time and choose whatever path feels right. There’s a sense of freedom there that doesn’t exist in real life. And that in and of itself helped me realize that it’s okay to slow down and do things more deliberately in day-to-day life.
It reinforced the point that sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to do nothing at all. More importantly, the relationships and sense of loss Link’s character deals with as the story progresses is relatable. He is burdened with the knowledge of these losses as time goes on and he perseveres. He keeps going, even in the face of death, disillusionment, and inevitability. The world is completely against him, yet Link perseveres, meets new friends and creates new memories along the way.
For me, this is oddly comforting and part of why I’ve found myself playing a bit more frequently these days—along with spending as much time as possible with my family and going to therapy. And as a fun side effect of the game’s popularity, it’s super easy (and quite fun) to find info about the game by merely querying an in-game item via a search engine. One can Google “where to find fireproof lizards” or search for any given shrine name, and search engines automatically know the user wants to see some BoTW content.
“When I consider the medium of video games, above intra-series continuity, it’s far more important to me that the player is left with a satisfying ‘aftertaste’ once the experience is over.”
— Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of both the Mario and Zelda series, in a 1999 interview for an old strategy guide. He’s not wrong about the need for a satisfying after experience with a game. Fortunately, most games in the Zelda series provide that consistently—especially Majora’s Mask and Breath of the Wild.
Although studies are almost always ongoing, there is some evidence that demonstrates how video games can help create positive emotions and enhance social well-being. In essence, some types of games can aid in improving mental health, under some circumstances. That’s a fascinating idea, one that can certainly be applied to many of the games in the Zelda franchise.
According to Wired, games that feature impactful death or build a connection with the topic can actually help create a healthy conversation around death. Animal Crossing—another well-known and beloved Nintendo property—has a community that honors loved ones who’ve passed away in-game. It’s not uncommon for online communities to use the immersion of their games to help people cope with loss, isolation, loneliness, or other issues. There’s something more relatable for many people in games and those who are grieving can find solace in some types of games.
Some psychologists say someone feels most of their grief in the first six months following the loss of a loved one. Although grief often persists longer—the feelings of loss never truly go away—other positive experiences and love can grow around it. And that’s something revisiting The Legend of Zelda has helped me accomplish. That, and the tremendous support I’ve received from my family, friends, and colleagues. There’s a wonderful kind of joy in playing some of these games during your free time and I’m glad I rediscovered them during this bizarre time.
As for me, it’s time to start living life again and maybe get cracking on that NES homebrew game we’ve been talking about since 2018. Maybe I’ll finally make an album, too. Who knows?
In the coming year, we have some exciting new topics planned for Tedium, too, so stay tuned and have a safe new year!
Thanks again to David for sharing such a thoughtful piece. Find this tale interesting? Share it with a pal—especially if they’re a Zelda fan.
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