Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Ocarina). It would be a waste of my breath to pay any further tribute to this acclaimed game. Shamefully, I never played any Zelda in earnest prior to this one on my 3DS; I only heard of its legend (until my ears ached). Now I have beaten it. I saw its ending in the last hour of 2011. It was a fitting finale to the personally tempestuous year, since the journey was (to my surprise) very long, generally hard, at times tedious, sometimes downright testing my patience, but eventually fulfilling---instead of being purely awesome and pleasant as one might expect from an acknowledged masterpiece.

I love the feeling of "THE END" after a truly weary journey, and I don't get it quite often enough, so I will try to savor it by writing my impression of Ocarina before the feeling fades away. But I do believe there is an important lesson from my time in the world of Ocarina, and I believe this lesson might be worth sharing.

A Hard Adventure Writes Itself

One thing that really struck me about Ocarina was that there is little storytelling, at least in words. This is problematic for a person like me, who views a game as a medium to tell stories, and deplores some modern (mostly shooting) games that lack worlds of their own and simply supply ephemeral sensory stimulation. The storyline of Ocarina is a classic "There and Back Again". A boy named Link (though I named him Karl) starts out from a peaceful world (called Hyrule), but must save the day when an evil man (called Ganon) breaks it, and the boy triumphs in the end. Since there is neither voice acting nor lots of script (as in games like Dragon Age: Origins), only the most important parts of the story are briefly scribed in words, in conversations.

Later I learned that the story actually manifests itself through the experience of playing the game. Your adventure in Hyrule will, before you know, itself be a story. In a more direct storytelling medium such as a novel, movie, or some other game, you will read about (or watch) the story of a hero who ventures to an ice cavern, solves tricky puzzles and traps, and slays a monster. There is no such story explicitly prepared for you in Ocarina. It is implicit when you do it, even though you might not realize when you're doing it.

The journey is not an easy one. I'm not saying the game is difficult; hardly anyone will be unable to beat this game. It simply takes an abundance of patience to tip-toe through deadly traps, and be punished for failures. It's a trace of an old game. An old game doesn't shy away from pummeling the players for their mistakes. How many times did I utter slow groans ("#@%*&#$!") when I had to start over from the beginning of a dungeon for losing to a boss. And I think I lost to that damn drum-playing bastard (Bongo Bongo) at least 4 times...

And it's not just one or two hardships. You have to go through fire and earth, water and ice, desert and shadow, the inside of a behemoth, deep forest and wide field, and even time itself. In each of these stages, fresh tribulations and frustration await. In each stage, a boss or two lurk to give you a fight of a lifetime.

In the center of the earth I knocked a fire dragon out of its senses.

In the midst of mirage I defeated my dark self.

Finally, I faced the power-crazed "King of Evil" Ganon himself.

By the end of my adventure, I knew the land of Hyrule forward and backward, (forcefully) having ridden from one end to the other on my horse Epona several times. I felt an urge to just quit the game when the merciless restarts got on my nerves, but I kept on.

It wasn't just blood and sweat through and through, though. Light is all the more brilliant against darkness, and darkness is only profound in the presence of light. I'm sure that everyone who played Ocarina was moved in the Fountain of Great Fairies, where, after exhausting battles and mazes, a startlingly beautiful music envelops the luminicent wall of clear water drops. In the Fountain, as I walked deliberately and slowly to the center, breathing the peaceful atmosphere and looking around the waterfalls illuminated by torchlights, I felt a level of immersion that would be absolutely impossible had I not spilled blood and sweat on my part in this world.

This is probably the heart of the lesson I learned. Things are very difficult to be meaningful without some pain. I love movies; I watch all kinds of movies, from the popular to esoteric. I love books; what better place to wield imagination? But this sense of membership and connection is simply infeasible in such media, where you're told what's going on. You have to live it. And it ain't come easy. It's not an easy and exciting ride like a movie, which keeps things rolling without efforts on your part. Even reading a book (which by many is considered a nontrivial intellectual exercise) doesn't provide pain and frustration necessary to build the momentum. Only a game can provide such sensation.

Am I saying all games should be bloody stressful? No, some of the worst games I've played just make things hard for the player for no good reason. And I don't think the experience alone can justify the quality of a game anyway (by that reasoning, a crappy MMORPG game is a good game if it happens to provide a good experience). A memorable game must have a believable and beautiful world, and the frustration of game play, though it hurts when it hits, if well-designed, can dramatically enhance storytelling in a way movies or books can never hope to.

As a person in the field of Natural Language Processing, it is astonishing that this non-linguistic storytelling convinced me to deeply care about yet another "There and Back Again" story of a boy, written by playing.

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