March: Exploring

Too much fun.

Too much fun.

Here's a vivid memory I have: I'm 5 years old playing Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. My dad bought it for me after reading a newspaper article about how it was one of the best video games ever made. I'm calling my mom into the room every five minutes because I can't read yet, and I need her to tell me what the characters are saying when the text appears on screen. The lore is complex and confusing and neither my mom or I understand it, so I spend most of my time in this small village hitting chickens with my sword. If you hit them enough times the chickens begin to attack you and it's one of the most incredible things I've ever experienced.

I talked last month about how video games were a huge occupier of my attention when I was young. I'm talking very young. Like a three year old playing Mario 64, trying to conceptualize how to pick up the giant bomb king at the top of the mountain so I can throw him off kind of young. I was born right into the three-dimensional era of gaming, so almost every game I played had these large levels where you could move about at your own free will. In most of these games there are objectives that you need to complete, but I much preferred the games that wouldn't bother you if you were just running around doing whatever. I remember playing Tony Hawk's pro-skater with my sister. We'd play split screen and instead of competing for tricks or points, we'd create our own skatepark and make up stories about our characters.

And in that bizarre way, video games became my primary creative outlet as a young kid. Often I'd play the game as it was until I got bored, then I'd make up my own stories that I thought were more interesting. Now, make no mistake, that's incredibly lame. But I had so much fun walking around these worlds playing pretend within an already pretend digital landscape. Something I'm always seeking when I play games today is that sense of freedom and wonder. A place where you can go through the story beats or go climb a rock and have just as much fun.

Breath of The Wild came out three days into this month and I really wish it hadn't. Mostly because I have so much to do and no time to do it, and also because I can't put anytime into a video game without the overwhelming dread of being a colossal failure. Playing a video game, more than any other medium, weighs on me in a dark way. Putting anytime into this leisure activity I relatively enjoy usually accompanies a sense of anxiety that I'm falling behind, missing a chance to be productive, or just in general growing into a failure. It's a really strange and bizarre feeling that keeps my game time to a minimum in my adult life. That is, until a Zelda game comes out.

A big Zelda came has come out every 5 years or so since I first played Ocarina of Time in 1998. With each game I was a dramatically different age, in a different location, and a different place in life. Yet each release reduces me to the same wonder that five year old version of myself had back in '98. These are colossally important markers in my life and I have vivid memories of each game and who I was as a person when I played them. They're essential to my identity, the way Star Wars and Harry Potter is for others, and I will be forever bias towards a piece of media with the Zelda name on it. Even the bad ones like Skyward Sword (and yeah, that one is NOT great), still enrapture me for hours on end. The games come out every five years. I obsess for a month or so. Than I move on with my life.

I'd much rather Breath of The Wild come out in December, or sometime where I at least had a few days off to go be by myself and get this temporary obsession over with. But unfortunately, it came out March 3rd, and I was not ready. Not only is the new game perhaps the best in the series but (please keep in mind what I said earlier about being eternally bias) maybe the best piece of interactive media yet.

The game is impeccably designed with that sense of discovery that kept me occupied for so many hours as a child. Except this time the world is so dense, so deep, and so well fleshed out that my childhood self would hardly have had to make up anything. There's a lot to go on about, and it's very nerdy stuff, but essentially: the developers created a world so dynamic and filled with life that your own journey through it will no doubt be as interesting as it is unique. I have spent many hours this month playing this game. Often I find myself sitting back, impressed with how the designers thought out this particular moment or system. Other times I'm having too much fun to play armchair designer. It's so good and such a wonderful reminder of why this medium is important, that I am almost able to eliminate that feeling of dread in the back of my head. Not quite, but almost.

Ok, so the dread feeling. It's shame, I believe. We often see video games tied to lazy, unattractive men who have no motivation or ambition in life. I often see myself as that when playing and even though I know it's not necessarily true, I begin to worry it will become true. It's a hobby with a lot of negative connotation around it.

Here's the thing though, you can't really blame people for seeing video games this way. For one, the games industry started by marketing to boys in the 70s/80s, then teenage boys in the 90s, and finally bro-y adult men in 00s and today. In terms of representation, the video games industry is maybe the worst offender in terms of blatant sexism and non-inclusionary bullshit. 90% of the games you see or hear about are about huge white dudes shooting aliens with huge guns. The other 10% is Pokemon, Mario, etc.  These aren't all games by any means, but these are the games that get the most money and press. It creates that image of the lazy dude with no ambition cause it feels like that's who they're marketing towards.

Video Games, or interactive media in general, are such an incredible art form in terms of engagement that it's genuinely a shame how homogeneous they've been. In recent years we've seen an independent video game scene emerge. Here, there are games pushing boundaries of video games as art and a more active effort to create games that appeal to different kinds of audiences. I think of Undertale, Inside, and The Witness to name a few. But truly I think these games are so exciting because they are made and completed by as few as one person (shout out to my friend Kenny Sun). Just like independent films and theater, you can see these games challenge and change the status quo of the medium in exciting and daring ways.

Ten years ago there were barriers between people who played video games and people who didn't: Consoles / capable PC's, common knowledge of universally accepted controls, harsh difficulty curves. Today, the spectrum is so much wider. You can play a deep and complex game like Zelda or blow your dad's mind with The Stanley Parable. Still, I think it's a shame that so many of my friends, particularly my artsy friends, shun interactive media as child's play. I acknowledge there's a lot of work the games industry needs to do in order to make this an environment they feel comfortable returning to. I myself would love to take a stab at it one day. I think exploring a narrative in conversation with someone who's interacting with the story is way too interesting to pass up.

Until I do that, though, I'll continue playing games like Zelda. Keeping in mind that the thing I feel in the back of my head isn't so much shame or failure as it is guilt. That other people around me weren't given the same privilege (a game starring someone who looked like me, made by an industry that largely catered towards people like me) to enjoy this wonderful sense of exploration I've gotten to have throughout my whole life.