Consider this totally not original thought: games are weird. An obvious statement, sure, but the ways they are strange are more interesting than the simple fact that they are. For instance, many of them force you to divide the concepts of literal action and gaming action; what you see may not always be what you’re actually doing.
A common example of this is any of the Uncharted games. Protagonist Nathan Drake, while being controlled by the player, kills hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys and suffers numerous injuries that he more or less shakes off with a Cheshire grin and a witty retort. But as soon as it is most impact or proper for the story, he takes a single bullet to the gut while facing down one dude.
And it’s supposed to be meaningful despite our nigh supernatural combative skills we’ve been showing off and honing for the past four hours because we divorce ourselves from the idea of literality in games. Much of what we do as the player (compared to what we see as a witness in cutscenes and whatnot) is taken on the level of a fish tale. The sea bass you caught was how big?!
The crazier thing, though, is when the game forces you to mash those two halves of the metaphorical and the actual, reconciling what basically amounts to nonsense, a blatant lie, or some sort of disturbing fever dream. Anthony John Agnello over at Gameological wrote a bit about the oddities of the weirdest Zelda game in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He ruminates on the idea that the morality of Link’s actions in the game is decidedly gray, if not all the way malignant.
In Link’s Awakening, our familiar hero Link wakes up on the beach after a tumultuous storm ruins his seafaring jaunt away from Hyrule. He then embarks on a quest of listening to a giant talking owl on how to awaken an even bigger whale sleeping inside of an egg on top of a mountain. The issue is that the world Link has found himself in is all a dream inside the whale’s head.
So waking up the slumbering beast could spell the end of the world, its inhabitants, and, potentially, Link himself. Very obviously the question of the morality of destroying a world on the pure assumption that it doesn’t really exist is a great one and Agnello addresses it thoroughly, but consider the game actions of it all as well.
Link still, in this game and those that come both before and after it, is a maniac that tears through people’s homes and possessions. He kills those that seek nothing more than to exist and have malevolent connotations by simply existing. He fights to keep living simply so he can die.
It’s a dark game, but most notably, one that has its two halves neatly overlapping in their themes. It’s something greatly missing from the non-adventure genre where the mechanics directly (instead of merely analogously or tangentially) drive the story. Think about how in every other Zelda game, Link’s virtuous task at hand of rescuing a princess or saving a kingdom excused much of what he did in your mind, from simple theft to unabashed murder. Link’s Awakening removes that veil and lays pretty clear the insanity of it all.
Of course, it would be terribly hard to create games without the ability to sit approximations next to precise accounts of reality. Even when we watch an action film and see the body count top 20, we often think that even that is a bit much. So when we play Far Cry 3 and somehow singlehandedly clear an island of hundreds of dudes that seemingly never stop wanting to get sniped and blown up, we further remove ourselves from the idea that our actions impact the world in any way beyond “progress.”
Perhaps we could do more with games that lift up that divider between literal and game action. Or maybe we get enough as it is. I don’t know if there’s a single right way to address it or if it even needs addressing, as if it were a problem that needs fixing, but I do know this: video games are weird, guys.