How much certainty do you have?

When you first open your eyes in the morning, what are the thoughts that swirl their way out of consciousness as you falter between two worlds?

Where do you look for guidance as you begin the vertical climb that is standing from the bed?

Life is this weird, magical thing that is connected in more ways than we realize or allow it to be. Think about something that caught you off guard in the last six months. What did it feel like to be stuck in that moment of the unknown? How did you react to it?

Now, think about the time within those same six months where being caught off guard and being forced to live in the moment paid off and granted a new insight that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. Extrapolate from there and think about every tiny interaction you’ve had, from a polite smile in the grocery store to the way that your hand brushed against a sticky handrail that made you shudder. These little moments become so mundane and thoughtless that we nary give them weight, but it is in those that our subconscious is learning and growing. Here, we learn the mightiest lessons that become the backbone for future challenges.

Beyond today lies a heavy mystery that we’ve yet to discover, but we’re already preparing for it today. Everything leads to the next everything and you have to allow yourself to embrace that feeling of uncertainty and the existence in the unknown.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild debuted on March 3 this year and drew heavy influence from its thirty-one year old beginnings. Where The Legend of Zelda had increasingly relied on linear adventures for Link since A Link to the Past on Super Nintendo, Breath of the Wild shifted focus and asked the player to lose themselves for a little while. In its most recent console offering, Skyward Sword, The Legend of Zelda retold exhaustive item descriptions after the console rebooted and in areas would point out the solution to a problem if the player took longer than expected to solve it.

I recall playing one of the early dungeons where I was still having some trouble getting the feeling of Link’s swordplay down through use of the Wii Remote. As I practiced swinging and trying to figure out how to take out two monsters guarding a key, the game paused itself so that Fi, the in-game assistant, could highlight an area in front of me where I might want to consider attacking. This was the first of many moments where I was starting to let myself look for an answer but the game stripped me of the chance to.

Even prior games, ones usually lauded for their quality and ones most beloved, had their fair share of guidance built in. Ocarina of Time introduced Navi, the fairy who incessantly pointed out anything of interest for Link. A Link to the Past, while pretty open to allowing the player to wander, was built on a linear path and gated progression through the acquisition of specific items. It also housed a fortune teller, who for a few rupees, would give the player the next point of direction when it wasn’t otherwise obvious.

Breath of the Wild breaks all of those conventions in a way that truly doubled down on the promotion of discovery for the player. After an introduction that requires the player to obtain essential items for the rest of the game, the world opens up with very little instruction. With a loose goal in mind, the player is pushed to explore and inevitably get lost from the path.

Within the first minutes onto the full map, I set my sights east with a rough idea of where I would be heading. Along the path, my eyes would pull in one direction where something captured my attention and I’d wander off. I started having some really surprising moments and kept finding the discovery of new areas or enemies or items really rewarding and exciting.

I found that sharing my own discoveries with friends and co-workers would often lead to great and elaborate discussions about what we each were finding. Hearing the levels of weirdness that the game was willing to go to without any instruction to do so became the most intriguing part of the game. Every time I sat down to play, I was aiming for a specific goal or target, but the ever-present question remained: “What will I find today?”

I continued through the game solely with the encouragement of others’ stories and my own discovery. I really challenged myself to stay away from the internet and avoid what other people outside of my circle were finding or doing. I especially stayed away from any and all guides or references. In doing so, I created this world for myself that hasn’t existed since the 16-bit era. Our podcast became the proverbial playground, where Uncle Nintendo continued to sprinkle secrets out every day by way the mouths of adolescents. We were once again the little boys we had been because we allowed ourselves to get lost in something in a way we had forgot to.

What made Breath of the Wild so special for me was not necessarily the content of the game, albeit it really marvelous. For me, it was the encouragement from the game and the confidence of its development team to ask me to lose myself and be okay with that. I don’t know how I would’ve felt about the game had I been stopping every time I got stuck and running to GameFAQs. It was me staring at something for fifteen minutes and trying everything that I had before I was able to figure it out that made me love this game so much.

For the first time since Bloodborne, I felt myself fully immersed in this world because I had to be. Throwing away the crutch of the internet forced myself to become responsible for what I was doing and I had to be okay with failing. My adoration and renewed confidence in myself left Breath of the Wild and carried me into NieR: Automata.

Now, thirty hours and five endings into NieR: Automata, I’m completely infatuated with the world that Yoko Taro has built. I believe it was again my willingness to let go of the safety net and feel myself fall below my comfort level that deepened my appreciation for this game and made me feel so connected to its world. Throughout my time with NieR: Automata, I never once felt like what I was doing wasn’t leading me to the next important moment- even if what I was doing was running through an endless desert slashing through seemingly mindless machines.

NieR: Automata is a game and a story that won’t reveal its truth to me until much later from now but it’s important that I let that happen organically. We’ve become a culture so reliant on the immediate that its bled into places where we never should have let it. Faster than I can type this sentence could I have ordered a pizza without ever speaking to a human. Even sooner could I probably purchase a new wardrobe. Everything that we do must be immediate or we don’t find it worth the time. Even the illusion of something being faster has more value than the reality. Look at how frequently people will spend twelve hours binge watching an entire series versus how often those same people venture out to the theater to watch a ninety-minute film.

I’m not immune to any of this, but games like Breath of the Wild and NieR: Automata reminded me to try to be. The reward for allowing myself that embrace is far greater than had I just looked it up. It led me to approach other games that I had otherwise abandoned or never even tried, knowing that inherently I could find something rewarding about them.

Take Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, a game that I’ve purchased twice now and played all but five hours of. I got through the first area in the game, not really finding many of the secrets and not really feeling encouraged to explore the same areas more than once. The way the game is designed actually forces you to enter the same areas. The first stage lets you wander through a part of the mansion, while the second takes you a little further, and the third a little more until you’ve unlocked the whole mansion to wander freely through. This stage-based progression really forces you to get to know the layout of the map and where potential secrets might lie. However, our need-it-now mentality pushed me away from wanting to see any of it. Once I saw the same area repeat itself, I unconsciously was pushing through so I could make it to the second mansion and get out of the familiar.

Now, I’ve returned to the game and I’ve let myself stare at the same room for a while. I’m noticing more how the developers designed puzzles in this game and how valuable it can be to spend some time trying things before giving up and moving onto the next area. Sure, I could run through each stage and force my way through puzzles to get to the next room and capture the next ghost and unlock another mansion to run through, but I won’t find truly what this game has to offer.

I also recently beat Super Mario World for the first time. I was on the Genesis side of the fence during the original era and only played “the weird Mario,” as I knew it, at a friend’s house from time to time. Since then, I’ve bought the game on every iteration of Virtual Console and I’ve made it maybe five stages in. Perhaps once, I finished a castle. Anytime the game came up against Super Mario Bros. 3, I always fought for the 8-bit predecessor as my ignorance got the best of me. It’s now a little more difficult for me to stand up for one over the other, but I finally have reasons to consider the argument for either.

Super Mario World is a game filled with hidden worlds and secrets- all of which I’ve never known because I just stopped. Playing the game in an era where I’ve become used to and where I expect immediate gratification, I’ve never given it the proper chance it deserved. Instead of seeing what lies beneath each potential pipe, I’d race my way through the obstacles laid out for me and do what I could to jump through the goal as fast as possible. Had I played the game in its original release in an era where my distractions were few and my dedication to the game in front of me was much stronger, I likely would have played it until I had found every last secret and exit. Instead, I’m rounding the end of my twenty-seventh year off learning where Mario’s cape can truly take him- and me.

I think it’s important that we encourage ourselves to continue learning in whatever ways make sense for us. We do what we can to avoid looking or feeling stupid but how often are we mistaking those feelings for something else? How frequently is it that we should instead realize the potential of the unknown as an opportunity to grow? If we begin to see the ways that the shortest moment can lead to the most impactful changes, we can shift and find ourselves entirely different on the other side.

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Posted by Joe Dix

Joe is the creator of The Free Cheese. He eats a lot of pizza and takes thousands of pictures of his pugs Oswald and Earl every day. He has a disorder that causes him to believe that he is Batman and his favorite video game is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

One Comment

  1. […] was designed by a team who really didn’t understand what makes Metroid so exciting. I wrote earlier this week about the idea of discovery in games and how it’s been lost on me since the 16-bit era, prior […]

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