Zelda in Simulacra
Koji Kondo’s familiar refrain from Zelda picks up quickly in the beginning of the Nintendo 3DS game The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013). The game uses the same overworld as the popular Super Nintendo entry The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991), and the same top-down oblique view. The view gives the effect of little figurines traversing a landscape.
The Nintendo 3DS is the great-grandchild of the Game Boy (I still call the 3DS a Game Boy), which produces a stereoscopic 3D effect without special glasses. I felt high when I first tried it.
In A Link Between Worlds, Link soon encounters fissures in the world of Hyrule, which lead to the Below world of Lorule, with its own shadow/inverted version of the series’s Triforce talisman. Link passes through thresholds, cracks in the “Above” world of Hyrule, to enter the “Below” domain of Lorule. To move from one to the other, Link becomes a flat drawing on the wall. A fissure in a fashionable lady’s room in Hyrule leads to a demolished version of that same structure in Lorule.
I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, my first Zelda game, early on in my switch to 3D gaming. I expected the 3D effect to pop out beyond the screen, like in traditional 3D, but with this game and a couple of others, the screen created a window to a diorama that I looked down into.
Gaming feels like playing with dolls to me, and the 3D effect shines brighter light on that idea. Switching to 3D, I noticed the roundness of the villagers’ heads in Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013), a peaceful life-sim where your neighbors are bunnies and frogs and foxes.
In drawing classes at art school, teachers advised you to “draw through” things, to feel the volume of objects beyond the planes that you face. My teacher John Gaunt said that over the years, he saw only a few students faithfully translate the shapes of heads, rather than making the common mistake of rendering a skull with little area between the ears and the back of the head. New mothers included that area of the head because they saw and felt their babies’ heads from above. They cradled their kids’ fragile bodies in their arms, and became intimately aware of their volume and shape.
I had always struggled with drawing through; with my triple fire sign chart, I often raced to the outlines, without slowing down to take in the dimensions of a box or a body.
The 3D effect heightens the feel of a little living dollhouse, coupling powerfully with the oblique projection.
The creator of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto, thought so too, when he was asked about designing the Nintendo 64 Zelda game The Ocarina of Time:
…When I was younger I used to enjoy creating puppets and doing puppet shows, so [designing 3-D games was] like doing puppet shows in a 3-D video game space.
A Link Between Worlds (2013) took the gameplay back from the more “realistic” feel of games like Ocarina of Time, in which the camera circles around the protagonist, to the fixed perspective of earlier games. In the games, the young Arthurian-style hero, Link, pulls a sword from a stone. He explores the overworld of Hyrule, and the underworlds of dungeons, and he fights monsters and solves puzzles. The thrill lies in the games’ open design, as the player gets to look around, talk to people, and wander.
After playing, I walked outside and visions formed; houses connected to their backs, and their floors and foundations. Circles appeared that wrapped around tree trunks.
The 3D Zelda game reminded me of the large red dollhouse my grandfather built for me and my little sister. Its cutaway wall in the back laid bare the relationship between the interior floors and walls, the exterior, and how they all fit together. It even rested on a brick foundation, indicated by a strip of a sticker with a red brick pattern.
I remembered the Thorne Miniature Rooms in Chicago, where artificial light spilled from open windows into meticulously-made period rooms the size of shoeboxes, looking as though mice might don the Victorian dresses and drink from Art Deco teacups.
The shift to simulacra helped me see the fullness and volume of my “real” life. The limited perspective of Zelda’s visual style engages the senses. Reduction of information makes the player more actively participate in the scenes. Like a John Porcellino King-Cat comic in which John walks out by his garage and the phrase “fall sounds” appear to indicate whichever autumn noises you remember, the simplified puffy shapes of Zelda indicate the memory of trees rather than attempting to paint a picture of the “real” thing.
Shigeru Miyamoto directed, designed, and produced the original Legend of Zelda game for the NES in 1986, and acted at least as a producer for most of the following Zelda games. A year before, he worked with the hyper-linear platforming of Super Mario Bros. (1985).
When you play the NES Zelda, you stand in an open field, where you can wander into a cave near you. An old man inside gives you a sword. Eventually, you weave through pathways between bushes and come across a lake. Miyamoto explored the landscape around his Kyoto home as a kid, and one day found a cave, eventually working up to exploring it with a lantern. The dungeons and their puzzles, he said, came from his getting lost among the sliding doors in his childhood home.
I spent a lot of my time playing in the rice paddies and exploring the hillsides and having fun outdoors. When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There’s a place near Kobe where there’s a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there’s a big lake near the top of it. We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game and we were creating this grand outdoor adventure where you go through these narrowed confined spaces and come upon this great lake. And so it was around that time that I really began to start drawing on my experiences as a child and bringing that into game development.
The idea for Zelda sparked when Miyamoto opened his desk drawer and imagined a tiny garden inside. Of designing games, Miyamoto said, “I realized the joy of doing something that hasn’t been done before, and working in the unknown.”
There are imperialistic overtones to Zelda. It takes place in a medieval-flavored world of lords and ladies, populated by monsters that disappear and reward you with money or health when you kill them with a sword. But Zelda compels me because of its ability to mirror a walk through the woods.
Under the under
Carl Jung wrote that stories reflect dreams, because both take emotional and psychological material, and use fantastical imagery and allusive leaps in logic to get at the truths we subconsciously hide from ourselves.
The prefix “sub-” of “subconscious” or “subterranean,” comes from the Latin “sub,” meaning “under, close to.” Link goes underground to reach dungeons below, as Orpheus descends to the underworld to face Hades, and as Perseus explores the darkened Labyrinth to face to Minotaur.
The original NES Legend of Zelda game begins as the yet-unnamed Link descends into a cave, and finds an old man who offers him a sword. Jung called the archetype of the wise old man a “senex,” and for different dreamers, he takes different forms. For the writers of the Arthur myths, it was Merlin, and for George Lucas, he was Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Bodies of water figure prominently in the underworld. The boatman Charon guides souls across the river Styx. The fluidity of water reflects the unconscious, and as Alison Bechdel’s therapist suggests in Are You My Mother?, creativity as well. Humans are animals, and we can’t see well in the dark. We project our visions into the void, into what’s underneath.
“The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent.”—Jung
Time for extreme measures
Around when I started playing A Link Between Worlds, I got obsessed with the Guy Maddin movie My Winnipeg (2007). The film comes as the last part of a memoir trilogy, following Cowards Bend at the Knee (2003), and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). Each silent film-inflected piece shows an oblique, magical take on Maddin’s autobiography, just as Miyamoto created a dream-mirror to his own experience. My Winnipeg posits itself as a documentary. An actor plays Maddin, and a voiceover from the real Maddin resonates as the actor Maddin sits in a darkened train car that passes through Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The reduction of the perspective helps to create the frame, in a small, manageable space, with which we move through the narrative and the city.
The voiceover informs the audience that Winnipeg is a town full of sleepwalkers. Guy looks out the window, looking for his childhood home of 800 Ellice Ave., a split-level home above a beauty salon run by his mother. Guy intones in a trance-like voice, “White. Block. House.” as a brief overlaid shot shows a pair of hands turning over a Lego version of 800 Ellice Ave. Like Miyamoto’s little garden, the world becomes manageable as it shrinks into diorama-size.
On the train, Guy says,
All a dream, all a dream. I need to wake up! Keep my eyes open somehow. I need to get out of here! What if… What if I film my way out of here? It’s time for extreme measures!
Guy then rents out the building to re-enact his childhood for a movie. Let’s call My Winnipeg, the movie we’re watching, the “Above” film, and the untitled filmed re-enactment the “Below” film. In the Above film, Guy brings in his mother to play herself in the Below film, played in reality by veteran noir actress Ann Savage, who reportedly terrified such tough gals as Bette Davis with her intensity.
In Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, Llosa calls such stories, as they appear in Don Quixote or The Arabian Nights, Chinese box stories or matryoshka stories. He also names them “mother” stories and “daughter” stories, because the effects of one reverberate to the other.
Some tales contain “granddaughter” stories, and in My Winnipeg, one such tale is Ledge Man, an old Winnipeg-based TV show that Guy’s mother starred in, in the universe of the Above film. In Ledge Man, her character belittles her son, who stands on a ledge, threatening to kill himself. At the end of each daily episode, the son comes back through the window. Maddin’s own brother, who he brings back to life through an actor’s portrayal in the re-enactment of the Below film, killed himself in 1963, at seventeen.
In the Above film, Maddin hires actors to play his brothers and sister, and they dress in period ‘fifties garb. In one of the movie’s great comic touches, these actors play their lines either disinterestedly, or over-the-top. Histrionics break out in one scene where Guy’s mother harangues Guy’s teenage sister and calls her a slut. During the filming of the Below film, the current owner of 800 Ellice opts to stay in her house during the shooting, so she sits in the living room, unfazed, breaking the dream that Maddin in the Above film tries to create.
Fissures reveal themselves. Maddin reveals layers in Winnipeg. He speaks of a First Nations story of “the forks beneath the forks,” rivers beneath the forked Red and Assiniboine Rivers. He also returns to a potent scene of his childhood, of a three-story community pool, separated out by gender, with pools under pools.
“Who’s alive?” Maddin asks at the end of the film. “Who’s alive? Sometimes I forget.” Like Orpheus, we often go deeper in grief.
Maddin plays with veracity. He called Brand Upon the Brain! “97 percent true,” though he admits that he did not grow up in a lighthouse (“maybe that accounts for one percent”), and his parents didn’t run a Grand Guignol-style orphanage. But, he said, the films are “emotionally true, melodramatically true.” Like Miyamoto, Maddin transposed his memories into a shape in which he could hold, but in order to do that, magic had to enter.
Alex Smith of Metropolarity said to me recently after we talked about The Matrix (1999) for my podcast,
At this point, I don’t care about a story unless it has some kind of magic in it. Or, it doesn’t have to have magic, but it has to feel like something magical could happen.
As Rachel Pollack says, the Magician’s gesture—pointing up and holding an instrument, and one hand pointing to the ground—suggests the phrase,
“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…” Hermes Trismegistus
There are fucked-up things about A Link Between Worlds. It appropriates Egyptian hieroglyphic imagery. Its villain, Yuga, is a campy make-up wearing trans woman-type. Hilda the cute witch calls him a “weird jerk”—and I love Hilda, so this broke my heart a little. Despite my misgivings about these sort of aspects, the layering of the worlds made magical, melodramatic sense to me. It affirmed my fears and feelings around confronting my own Shadow self, the Jungian idea of the self who hides in dreams, who holds trauma and fissures within the dark night of the soul.
Best of all, in order to move between Hyrule and Lorule, Link becomes a drawing, just as he began, a series of marks upon a flat surface. Link’s form, with its 3D shapes and bright colors, transforms to a 2D design with thick outlines. The transfiguration grants power to that idea of Link, that drawing of Link, to move over walls and in-between cracks to the other side.
[This comic was funded through Patreon under Slept-In Comics, an imprint of the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check outpatreon.com/mammonmachine!]
If you’d like to read more of my work about games along similar lines, you can check out my 2014 comic “Shadow Manifesto” part 1, also published by ZEAL / Slept In Comics.
Thanks to editors Rory, J Bearhat, and Aevee Bee.
97 Percent True, dir. Guy Maddin, documentary produced for the Criterion edition of Brand Upon the Brain!
Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo 3DS, 2013.
Gilles Néret, Michelangelo. Taschen, 2010.
Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols. Dell, 1968.
Eurogamer, Miyamoto on World 1–1: How Nintendo made Mario’s most iconic level, 2015.
The Legend of Zelda. NES, 1991.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Game Boy Color, 1998.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Nintendo 3DS, 2013.
Jennifer DeWinter, Shigeru Miyamoto (Influential Games Designers series), Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Jill Schar, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review: Portrait and Landscape Modes. Tom’s Guide, 2013.
John Gaunt, Drawing 1 class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2005.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist, Picador, 2011.
My Winnipeg, dir. Guy Maddin, Buffalo Gal Pictures / Documentary Pictures / Everyday Pictures, 2007, and an interview with Maddin conducted by Robin Enright on Criterion edition Blu-ray.
Q&A: Shigeru Miyamoto On The Origins of Nintendo’s Famous Characters, NPR, 2015.
Rebel Without a Cause, dir. Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, 1955.
Ruth Voights, Personality Theories class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2008.