I called Link Zelda the first time I played the game.
I had a Game Boy Color, I had a new game, and I didn’t real the manual. Even though I was an avid reader, I had no time for manuals, especially when I knew a whole world was about to open up to me, locked inside a chunky transparent box a little bigger than my eight-year-old hands.
I had bought a Game Boy for Pokémon, but the first game I remember, the first game to vividly imprint itself on my psyche, was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I had no context for the game itself—I’d never even heard of an SNES, much less seen one. I had no idea there were other Legend of Zelda games, no idea that I was stepping into a continuing series built on lore I’d never experienced.
In that sense, Link’s Awakening was both a blessing and a curse. Of all the Legend of Zelda games, it stands most removed. It includes neither the Triforce, nor Ganon, nor Hyrule, and Zelda herself is only present in the form of her double, Marin. Cut-off from the sense of history and lore that pervades the other games, I had no context by which to read the narrative, no sense of expectation to ruin the slow development of the narrative, the build-up to what would otherwise have been an obvious twist: that Link must leave the island, and that to do so, he must destroy the island and everyone on it by waking the Windfish.
I didn’t grow up on an island, but in some ways, I might as well have. The heart of my childhood was Derrynavaugha, a small valley in the Burren region of County Clare, Ireland. It was a landscape of exposed limestone, riddled with deep cracks, set in long low hills that cupped the sky like the lip of a bowl. Small, scrubby hazel woods grew through the valley and up around its sides. The Irish name Daire na Bhfathach means “Oak Wood of the Giant,” but all the oaks had vanished hundreds of years ago. It was so sparsely populated that there was not another house for at least a kilometer in either direction, and a small child such as myself was given perfect freedom to roam. I was safe as long as I didn’t try to walk along the narrow road by myself.
Alone and free, I made the valley my cradle. The massive stone by the river I christened the Carrock, after the similar edifice in The Hobbit. The stream in the hills had water as sweet as the water of the eastern sea in Narnia. The rath behind my house, a rough circle of grass-coloured rocks that marked out the boundary of an ancient dwelling, was home to the fairies. There was no place that was not infused with history and magic.
Against such interwoven narratives, the strange island of Link’s Awakening felt not like a departure, but a homecoming. The strange monsters, the shifting scenery, the hidden places of the game were an extrapolation of what I already lived. Entering one of the dungeons by solving a series of puzzles felt like a more fanciful version of the long grass that grows over the holes in the Burren stones, making a trap for unwary feet. In the world of my childhood, nothing was as it seemed.
What resonated so deeply with me in Link’s Awakening was not the world, but the choices. I was not, and perhaps never have been, a natural gamer. My eight-year-old self found Zelda hard. I had to have a friend help me through the first dungeon, and even when I solved that, I would find myself stuck for days or even weeks on simple segments. It’s more a testament to my isolation and lack of money for games that I managed to finish Link’s Awakening than any evidence of skill. But I did finish it, and it was the ending that truly transformed the narrative for me.
I loved the island of Link’s Awakening. I loved the people. They had stories and narratives that I enjoyed interacting with, their own ways of seeing and being that I had come to know. Beating the game meant accepting the destruction of all those narratives—not just their ending but their ultimate unreality. The worst part, though, was that I could delay the ending. I was free to wander around, to revisit areas and re-kill the endlessly spawning monsters, to gather every last rupee, and to buy everything in every last shop. I could do anything I wanted, except create another ending. At some point, I had to push the buttons that would signal the end of the world.
If games have some potency denied to novels and films and the other media that preceded them, it is the blurring of the line between player agency and character agency. A novel, like Lolita, may present us with reprehensible characters, but it does not ask that we become them. Games, when they recognize their potential, have the power to ask us to make these ugly decisions ourselves, and in doing so, to think about why they happen. Link’s Awakening may seem like a simple game to have taught me such a dark lesson, but that was what I took from it and what has always stayed with me.
That, and the isolated, fragile beauty of an island built on dreams, saturated with colour, full of puzzles to solve and monsters to defeat, a lonely bounded realm, like the memories of childhood looked back on years later.