My name is Nathan Grayson, and I have a problem: I can’t stop dicking around in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
When I play Zelda, I feel like I’m wasting time. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a masterpiece of a game filled with rewarding activities and delightful surprises. I just don’t really, uh, do a ton of those things. Let me explain with a quick anecdote.
A couple weeks ago, I was at a friend’s place. We were both playing our respective copies of Zelda, because 2017 might be a harrowingly dystopian shit boulder chasing us down a mountain at a thousand miles per hour, but at least the Nintendo Switch is cool. As we played, it was hard not to notice the disparity between our play styles. She was decked out in armor I didn’t even know existed, plunging ever onward through the big Goron dungeon. She solved puzzle after puzzle, as though possessed by a demon that really liked solving puzzles.
I spent an hour-and-a-half trying to feed enemies.
OK, OK, hear me out. So you know how you can give food to horses and dogs? I figured, you know, maybe moblins, lizalfos, and hinoxes might be hungry too. Or at least wolves? They’re basically dogs, so I thought maybe the same rules would apply. They did not! Enemies just kept trying to hit me, seemingly unaware of the raw chicken leg rolling around their battle-calloused toes. I was heartbroken to realize I couldn’t befriend every enemy in the game with my great cooking.
Then a familiar feeling began to sink in: had I wasted my time? Sure, my culinary friendship excursion was good for a few laughs, but I hadn’t really done anything. I failed to break off so much as a chip from the eternal jawbreaker that is Breath of the Wild. My friend, meanwhile, had three times as many hearts as me and an intimate knowledge of Zelda’s character arc.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve also spent hours figuring out exact bomb trajectories to launch enemies into specific pits of lava like basketballs, and of course there was the time I knocked off skeleton enemies’ heads, carried them to towns, and introduced them around as my “adventure buddies.” The townsfolk were not amused. But they actually reacted! It was amazing.
Breath of the Wild is this huge possibility space that constantly asks, “What if?” And it often rewards you, albeit in small and surprising ways, for trying to answer that question. But that doesn’t feel like traditional video game progress, so I’m having a tough time reconciling my desire to fuck around with my desire to move forward and not feel like I’m wasting my precious free time. I’m so used to the ample carrots on sticks offered by modern game design that I can’t have un-directed fun without feeling guilty. It feels really good to just chill out and play a game completely on my terms, but only while I’m doing it. Afterward, I start doubting myself.
On top of that, living in a society steered by the dual wheels of social media and capitalism means that I feel like I should be using every second optimally, and if I’m not, I’m falling behind in terms of what I can offer both to discussions (around games, in this case) and, perversely, to humanity as an effective and productive person. In games as in life, there’s an overwhelming temptation to min/max, even if it comes at the expense of your own happiness.
In some cases, such as Persona 5 (which is still great, mind you), these systems mirror each other a little too well. I really want to just play Persona 5 at my own pace, but I also want to min/max my virtual life so I can meet everyone and do everything and kiss every hot anime friend. I feel immense stress every time I make a decision without consulting a guide. The truly insidious question underlying it all isn’t, “What if I’m doing it wrong,” but rather, “What if I’m not doing it all perfectly right?” And if I’m not, have I wasted my IRL time? Could I have instead spent that time playing other games or pursuing new projects that might turn into opportunities or kissing real people? And so, in one fell swoop, I’m min/maxing my virtual life and my real life, due to interlocking, weirdly similar social and economic pressures extending from both.
The fucked up thing is, none of these particular details really matter that much. The pressures that lead to these anxieties are absolutely worth examining, but the bottom line is, I’m playing these games regardless. Whether I choose to lob apples into the slavering mouths of moblins or solve a dungeon, I’m exploring Zelda’s massive, masterful world. Whether I’m doing everything perfectly on my first run through Persona 5 or spending a bit too much time at the cool punk doctor’s office, I’m still experiencing an interesting, important tale about what it’s like to be a young person in modern Japan. And if I decide to let anxieties about playing correctly or optimally dictate what I do, those playthroughs aren’t really mine anymore, are they? As a result, I care about them less and, ultimately, the game in question doesn’t stick with me as much. So it’s all counterproductive to actually playing games optimally, in addition to everything else.
Still, though, if guilt was a feeling I could banish with a single, rippling flex of my brain, I’d be probably never feel shame again. Just because it’s not rational doesn’t mean it’s not there. Anyway, I’m gonna go see if I can push a Breath of the Wild Guardian into a fairy fountain. Wish me luck. And reassure me that it’s fine to do it and I’m not missing out on anything by devoting three hours to this dumb project. Thanks bunches!