December 12, 2006

Princess Zelda and the Childish Adult

by peterb

Several years ago, one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, wrote a scathing review of the Harry Potter books called "Harry Potter and the Childish Adult." In this review she roundly criticized not Rowling, but the adults who chose to read her books. She said, essentially, that there was something fundamentally misshapen about adults who would choose to invest so many hours in a work created for children.

Byatt took a lot of heat for this review. I was disappointed because it was clear that Byatt couldn't correctly articulate her problem with Rowling. She wrapped her critique in some fairly sophomoric Freudian analysis before getting to the real point: Byatt observed — correctly — that Rowling's prose is somewhat drab and clumsy. Rowling does not write beautiful sentences. It's clear, at least to me, that if Rowling wrote with the precision and playfulness of someone like Terry Pratchett, Byatt would have overlooked the subject matter and approved of the works.

This is the sad truth behind literary criticism: there's a widespread belief that the craft of storytelling is not as important as the craft of writing. This is, of course, ludicrous. For the novelist, both skills are important, but I'll take a clumsy storyteller over a brilliant but boring linguist every time. When you have a great storyteller with a superb gift for words you end up with Martin Amis. When you have a great storyteller who doesn't construct brilliant sentences, you end up with Rowling. When you have a stunning linguist who can't tell a story to save her life, you end up with Donna Tartt.

Frankly, I'd rather be bludgeoned about the head with Rowling's entire body of work than have to sit through another page of one of Tartt's sickening apologias for the overprivileged. There is more depth in any one page of Rushdie's "children's book" Haroun and the Sea of Stories than in the entire body of the latest vapid favorite of the overeducated-but-shallow, Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

All of which is a preface to the point that one can have a great story and tell it in a bad way, or vice-versa, and that things written for children can be enjoyed by adults without guilt.

Which brings us to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I've been pondering this game for a while now, as I play it. I won't be reviewing the game in this space — you can read my review in the holiday issue of Played To Death— but I found some aspects of the way it is constructed to be interesting, and it reminded me of Byatt's essay. Not because it's poorly written, or a bad game — I'm enjoying it immensely — but because I find the maturity level of the game to be so confusing. This isn't a game written for children. This is a game written for adults who played an earlier Zelda game when they were children.

The games in the Zelda series have always treated unapologetically in adolescent and heroic archetypes. The story of every Zelda game is this: an evil power threatens the land of Hyrule. An orphan boy, Link, is drawn in to rescue a friend. In doing so, he acquires various weapons and tools of legend (a boomerang, a magic bow, a magic sword, a grappling hook, and so on). In overcoming obstacles, he inadvertently delivers the power of the godhead to the villain. Link must then confront the enemy and defeat him to save the land.

The details in each game change, but the pattern is the same, which is fine. The previous game, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, was beautiful to look at. The characters were cartoony and iconic. Backgrounds were rich, saturated, and looked like they came straight out of a 1940's-era Warner Brothers cartoon. From a purely graphical perspective, Wind Waker was designed with a bold, uncompromising vision.

I thought the Wind Waker art style was daring and wonderful. It fit the ideals underlying the world perfectly. But among many fans, this gutsy art style was a complete flop. My understanding of why is somewhat limited, but it seems to have something to do with the misapprehension that playing with things that look like children's toys will shrink one's penis. Regardless of the reasons, many people complained about this style, and one can't help but worry about the possibility that the stylistic decisions made in Twilight Princess were a direct result of this feedback.

Twilight Princess takes the basic pattern of Zelda and puts it in a "dark" world, drawing elements from a number of other games including Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Silent Hill.

The end result is a game that is too scary for children to play, but not scary at all to adults. The fear in Silent Hill, for example, came not from the eerie music and atmosphere, but from the fact that the rusted, fecal exteriors in the game were so patently signposts pointing to the sexual and violent elements of the player's psyche. Shadow of the Colossus was disturbing because it cast the player, implicitly, in the role of a villain, of someone who becomes his own Shadow. Such possibilities are never even remotely imaginable in Twilight Princess. Link is a good guy. His Shadow is not something he would even think about becoming.

As I said, my theory is that Zelda ends up in this stylistic bind because their platonic Zelda player is an adult who has played the other Zelda games. What they're trying to do, I think, is present the story as "dark" or "serious" to avoid the player shunning the game for fear of being infantilized. At the same time, they have to maintain the essential innocence of the characters, because that's what the archetype requires: evil, even evil that has tainted us, must always come from the outside. I think that the tension between these two goals resulted in a visual design that doesn't quite sit snugly on the shoulders.

Perhaps I'm simply wrong, and projecting, and really a whole new generation of 7-year olds are encountering and loving Twilight Princess. As a game, I think it is clearly the best of the series. But stylistically the game looks like a compromise to me, and it is weaker for it.

Posted by peterb at December 12, 2006 09:40 PM | Bookmark This

I too loved the art style of Wind Waker, and thought it was perfect for the game. But the desire for a "realistic" Zelda had been fuelled by earlier builds for that game, and created a commercial headlock which meant that while Eiji Aonuma and his team liked the look of Wind Waker, they were effectively forced into having more "mature" graphics for the next game.

This was a commercial consequence of Nintendo's internal culture, as I understand. There is little room given for creative freedom in most game development, with the possible exception of Wil Wright's team at Maxis (even here I am uncertain).

Our research suggests that abstract art styles such as cell shaded graphics appeal to Intuitive players more than Sensing players, and the latter outnumber the former by 3:1 (in theory) creating an unfortunate drive towards realism over style in the game graphics for popular franchises.

Best wishes!

Posted by Chris at December 13, 2006 09:25 AM

My only problem with WindWaker was I got lost half way through (after finding that undersea castle thingy) and can't bring myself to go back to it. The art was gorgeous for sure. Twilight Princess is, hmm, too expensive right now, I think I'll stick with the used copy of Metroid Prime I just picked up. Hope I don't get lost. By the way, for someone who mostly hates boss battles, is Shadow of Colossus worth it?

Posted by Alex at December 13, 2006 11:34 AM

I got bored of sailing from place to place in windwalker. It was the only problem I had with it, but unfortunately at the time at least a fatal one.

Posted by Doug at December 13, 2006 03:02 PM


Shadow of the Colossus if you hate boss battles is a tough call. Speaking as a person who absolutely hates boss battles, I found Shadow "worth it" because I enjoy the form of its narrative, and I was able to psychologically steel myself beforehand to accept that this was the nature of the beast.

I'd say a bigger problem with Colossus is simply the pacing. You sort of need to be able to accept long stretches of doing, more or less, absolutely nothing while you figure out where the next Colossus is. I got through it by viewing both the finding and the boss battles as extended, intricate puzzles. But I can't say the game is without its drawbacks -- even if I did find it beautiful.

Hope that helps.

Posted by peterb at December 13, 2006 03:25 PM

I haven't played "Twilight Princess" yet, but I intend to buy it for the Gamecube next week. But from what you write, there is something in the new "Zelda" that I recognize from comics.

Many (well, most) superhero comics nowadays are aimed at people who read superhero comics when they were children. So the writers take all the basic superhero stuff (male adolescent power fantasy) but they put in violence, darkness, mysogyny, sex.

However, most of them do this not because of a bold artistic vision, but rather so people who read "Batman" can now say: "See, it's not for children... heads are blown off and people are having sex. This is really mature stuff."

Yet, the result is that it rather comes off as "sophomore" at best.

As I said, I haven't played "TP" yet, but I really hope that this is not the road they are taking with the franchise as a whole.

(Apart from that: I tremendously enjoy your blog. I've been reading for some two years now, but didn't get around to compliment you for the great work you're doing here.)

Posted by Björn at December 13, 2006 06:04 PM

I know I'm being the worst kind of commenter by objecting to a minor, non-central claim you make, but..

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is neither vapid, nor shallow. Eggers is a mannered writer, and you may not like his style, but the book itself is a deeply touching and sentimental story of his relationship with his young, orphaned brother. Unless you haven't read it (or couldn't get past Eggers' prose), I simply cannot see how you would claim it's shallow. And it's hardly the "latest" darling of anybody; it came out in, what, 2001?

Posted by jeff at December 14, 2006 02:37 PM

"As a game, I think it is clearly the best of the series. But stylistically the game looks like a compromise to me, and it is weaker for it."

As I've been playing the game myself, I've been feeling like there is something /off/ about it, but I could never put my finger on exactly what it was until now. You nailed it for me, and I agree completely.

Posted by Brant at December 14, 2006 03:07 PM


"Mannered" is a euphemism for "affected", right? We'll have to disagree about Eggers; to my taste, given a world of writers who can write to the human condition with pathos and depth, he is as authentic as Tofurkey. However, I'll cop to your point that "latest" was a poorly-chosen word.


Thanks for the kind words. I think the comic book analogy is a good one. If it sets your mind at ease, the posturing in Zelda is not quite as bad as the typical comic book refactoring. It's just a compromise.

Playing through again, there are some points where the game is actually explicitly paying homage to Shadow of the Colossus. At one point, you defeat a boss monster in a particulary SotC-like way, and the musical fanfare is actually taken straight from the other game. So we should always allow for the possibility that I'm wrong. Maybe they just made it "dark" because they really liked SotC. (Nah.)

Posted by peterb at December 14, 2006 10:29 PM

I do believe you're quite right. The cell-shading would make people's penises shrink in their minds. Nevertheless, people play over-childish games; katamari is a good example (i don't now how it went in the US but a huge hit in other places). The line of aesthetic maturity is differently perceived in Japan (and the East, in general). We can see that from all the cosplay and burusera-hentai culture. I believe your perspective is accurate for a Western-reader perspective, specially a teenager one.

Even still, TRENDS are a great part of videogame creation and SotC is one of the great trend-setters, like the first Zelda for the NES.

Anyway, thanks for the insightful comment.

Posted by morado at December 15, 2006 10:51 AM

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