Friday, July 19, 2013

Reflecting on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda is a series that means a lot to me. I honestly think that, without Zelda - specifically, the classic Nintendo 64 entry The Ocarina of Time - I would not be the person I am today. That might sound dramatic, but it’s true; before Ocarina, games were just a hobby for me, not a passion. I had played a lot of games on Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Nintendo 64 before I got Ocarina, but they were just fun ways to pass the time. They didn’t speak to me on a deeper level; they didn’t excite my imagination. They were always lacking some crucial spark. Then, Ocarina came along and completely changed how I felt about games.

First of all, I had never played a true adventure game before. For whatever reason, we didn’t have A Link to the Past on our SNES (or if we did, I don’t remember playing it). Everything I had experience with up to that point had been Mario or something similar. I thought of games as things with discrete levels. You beat level one, then moved on to level two, and so on until the end of the game. Super Mario 64 had a hub world, sure, but at the end of the day it still adhered to the level formula - you beat a world, got a star, and moved on to the next one. Ocarina of Time was different. Yes, there was a linear set of dungeons that you had to beat to progress, but there was so much to do outside of that. You could win a horse at Lon Lon Ranch; you could play your ocarina for the Skull Kid in the Lost Woods; you could shop for masks in Castle Town. There were Pieces of Heart to collect and Gold Skulltulas to kill. The world was enormous (at least compared to what I was used to), and it seemed like there was an infinite number of things to see and do. Leaving the Kokiri Forest for the first time and seeing the vast expanse of Hyrule Field in front of me was a powerful moment in my childhood. I really felt like I was on an incredible adventure, with a world of possibilities to explore. To this day, I treasure that feeling of adventure and exploration in any game that can provide it.

Another aspect of Ocarina that changed the way I saw games was the plot. I suppose that a modern audience might not be as wowed by it as I was in 1998, but back then, it blew my mind. It probably helps that the games I had played before were pretty thin in the plot department. As I said, I had mostly played Mario games, which rarely deviate much from the old standard of ‘Bowser has Peach, go save her.’ Ocarina, on the other hand, is an epic clash of good and evil that spans almost a decade. It has everything a kid could want: plot twists, magic swords, a rich mythology, fantastic creatures, time travel - and all this from a medium that I didn‘t even associate with storytelling. There were a lot of elements of Ocarina that I had never experienced in a story before; for instance, it was probably my earliest exposure to the idea of time travel. It was also my first major foray into fantasy, and I’m certain it’s the reason I became such a big fan of the genre. While books like Harry Potter clearly influenced me as well, Ocarina is the reason I love classic Sword & Sorcery tales more than anything else.

Ocarina was also one of my first brushes with the idea of tragedy in storytelling. I recognize that I’m in the minority there, but keep in mind, I was only six years old when this game was released. Most of things I had been exposed to at that age were pretty cheery. About the saddest thing I had seen or read by that point was Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and even that was tempered by my confidence that he would be okay because he was, after all, magic. Ocarina has some truly sad scenes, though. One of the most powerful moments in the game comes right after you finally obtain the last Spiritual Stone and open the Door of Time. This should be a triumphant moment; you’ve fought hard, gathered the stones, and now you’re getting the Master Sword! Surely, you have everything you need to defeat Ganondorf, right? Wrong. It is revealed that this is, in fact, exactly what Ganondorf had planned for all along, and by opening the door you’ve brought his evil plot to fruition. Not only that, but the Master Sword has sealed you away for seven years, allowing Ganondorf to reign over Hyrule unopposed. This showed me, for the first time in my life, that heroes could be fallible, and that they might not always win. It was a fairly new concept to me. Yes, I had seen heroes make mistakes, but never like this. It’s one thing for Edmund to be temporarily seduced by Turkish Delight; it’s quite another for Link to unwittingly doom an entire kingdom. Sure, everything is fixed in the end, but the finale is still bittersweet: Link loses his closest friend, and even as a kid I understood that his life would never be the same after what he had been through. For a child who is used to unambiguously happy endings, such a bittersweet denouement certainly came as a surprise. Overall, I learned a lot about the way stories are told from Ocarina of Time; more importantly, I learned how effective games are at telling stories.

Ocarina also has an incredible soundtrack. Although it was limited by the hardware of the N64, it had some very impressive tunes, and I still enjoy listening to it. The Song of Storms has to be one of the catchiest songs in any game; and then there’s the Gerudo Valley theme. If you haven’t heard the orchestral version of Gerudo Valley, go listen to it right now. It’s on YouTube, and it is incredible.

Ocarina has always held a special place in my heart. I recently began playing it again (on my original gold cartridge, which remains one of my most prized possessions), and it’s every bit as good as I remember. That’s why I wanted to write this post. Reflecting on what this game means to me has also got me thinking about a lot of other games that are important to me - games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. I might write about those sometime, too. In a society that still largely views video games as toys for children, I think it’s good to sit down and analyze the deeper impact a game can make. Games are a lot more than just simple entertainment for me. While entertainment is certainly a part of games, they also have educational, emotional, and creative components that I feel elevates them above the status of ‘toy’ and into the realm of art. That’s certainly something I want to talk about more in the future.

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