Way back in the past I was lucky enough to see Ilya Kabakov’s installation work School #6 out at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. It’s pretty much as per its title: a school. Specifically, an abandoned Russian school with bits and pieces of evidence of life remaining. A guitar, displays, pieces of paper, etc. Open to the elements. Wonderfully mysterious and evocative. A place within a place. And I think to myself: games can do this, right?
I’ve been returning to my playing of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past again lately after a bit of an absence from that particular world. It’s kind of hilarious in comparison to the other games I’ve played in the interim (such as Mass Effect and Kane and Lynch 2) in that it’s just so ridiculously challenging to play (for me). A part of me says, “they don’t make ‘em like this any more”, but of course they do, just quite possibly not as often.
My experience with this Zelda reminds me a bit of playing Far Cry 2 for the first time. They’re both games that are surprisingly unhelpful in terms of indicating what you should do, though in different ways. The difficulties I faced in Far Cry 2 centred around feeling blindingly incompetent to take out the various military personnel I was up against. In Zelda, the problem I tend to face is working out where to go or how to get where I want to go.
In both cases, I’ve used walkthroughs to varying extents to try to make my playing easier without totally compromising it. I wrote (a long while ago) of how using a walkthrough while playing Far Cry 2 strangely improved my experience of the fiction of the game because it enhanced my sense of competence (the mercenary following strict orders, following optimised lines of attack etc.). Using the walkthrough in Zelda, however, feels like a bit of a defeat each time because it’s mostly a question of spatial navigation, and almost always results in me thinking “oh right, I should have thought of using the grappling hook to cross the river at that point.”
Completing Zelda seems like it requires one hell of a lot of time, and the game itself seems to require that amount of time not because it has so much content, necessarily, but because it requires so much navigation and “meta-navigation” (as in, learning the ways of navigation in the game world). Contemporary games most frequently make navigation fairly straightforward – they might add little extras off the beaten path, but the beaten path will generally lead you to where you need to go. Zelda‘s not like that – there’s just the world and you just need to deal with it, often in a number of non-obvious ways.
It’s not at all clear to me how people experienced this game “back in the day” when it came out and there was no GameFAQs.com, for instance. I guess they just kept on playing, eking out hard-won victories against an impassive world? I guess they just left no stone unturned (literally necessary, in the case of Zelda). And it’s possible they simply spoke a different language of play to that which I’m used to – different expectations of the game, different understandings of the game’s expectations of them.
In the end, Zelda‘s one of those really game-like games for me. I don’t have much of anything invested in the narrative, nor the fictional world. Even most of the combat is pretty trivial (not that I’m good at it). Rather, it’s an enormous spatial puzzle, one largely unaided by the narrative or other fictional elements. You simply have to live in the world, get to know it, notice things about it. And this seems exceptional to me. It reminds me of The Zone from the movie Stalker (and thus, I suppose of the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as well – though I didn’t quite play enough of it to get the same kinds of feelings about the world, so couldn’t comment).
Zelda is about as close as I’ve personally experienced to just a digital world. You do happen to be “achieving” various narrative-y things, but by and large you’re just living in that world, trying to make sense (mostly spatially) of what’s inside it.