I have a friend who believed that he could gain enlightenment from a video game. He sat in the school cafeteria and the quad every day: just plugging away at his old Gameboy with its off-white frame, chartreuse buttons and yellow green-grey screen. Come to think of it, I don’t think there was any place I hadn’t seen him playing that game, except after … stuff happened.
His favourite game was Link’s Awakening: the first of the Zelda series ever made on Gameboy. I’d see him there–especially in those latter days before graduation–immersed in piping miniaturized synthetic tones and colourless 8-bit sprites as he sought Link’s sword for the millionth time … and attempted to find something else as well.
He didn’t always play it, mind you. We table-top role-played as well: old-school gaming with paper, pencils, Lego figures and dice. We were part of a group that even now still meets up from time-to-time whenever our schedules allow. My friend was–is–a good, quiet person: the kind of guy that you could always talk to. At the same time, he would sit stiffly and tense: as though uncomfortable in his own body … or his surroundings when he wasn’t occupied with something. But this all changed whenever we had a game on. You just couldn’t get him to shut up. The tension, wound in him like a spring, would uncoil and he’d get crazy energized. He got aggressive and vicious in-character: becoming this very manipulative, charismatic monster of a mage or dark warrior.
It’s funny how an introvert who liked to play Zelda games also liked to play the bad guy.
One time, when we were bored, I asked him why he kept playing that one video game. I mean he passed it several times at that point. Of course, he was still playing it while I asked him that question, but looking back it was one of the only times he really started talking about anything else outside of our game sessions.
He told me that Link’s Awakening was the only game where you got to see Link develop as a person: a person not defined by rescuing a princess. The way he saw it, Link left Hyrule and Zelda to find himself again … or even find himself for the first time. He argued that Koholint Island–the place where Link finds himself marooned–is a space inside his own head where he could confront his personal demons and know who he is.
My friend also told me that every time he played the game, he found something new: some small detail that he’d missed during his last few playthroughs and that over the years many of the challenges, as well as the in-and out-of game references started to gain more sense and nuance with time. He said that the puzzles became like koans that he meditated on through interaction: small little mysteries that he liked to solve.
Although he didn’t go into much more detail than that, which was deep enough, I also think he liked the repetition of it: the symmetry of those puzzles, the rhythm of the battles and the cycle of music that played and linked it all together. It’s really fitting in retrospect that he used the word “koan,” because I think these elements more than anything else let him come close to a Zen-like calm while he played his game. It was probably the most at peace I had ever seen him.
The more … stuff changes though, the more it stays the same.
My friend doesn’t play that game anymore. In fact, he doesn’t play any video games these days. Now he only watches “Let’s Play” YouTube videos. I’ve seen him. Sometimes he looks satisfied watching other people resolve conflict, combat, and puzzle solving in nice, immaculate patterns. Other times, he gets utterly exhausted and falls asleep in front of his laptop: with the forlorn beauty of a nostalgic 8-bit track playing in the background on a feedback loop. But there still many more times where it’s like he’s watching for something, looking intently at those video recordings while trying to find something new or rediscover something lost with a silent kind of desperation.
Ever since he stopped trying to help Link awaken, my friend is a different man. He’s still polite and helpful, but he’s somehow quieter, less tense, but … emptier somehow, and very, very tired. When we role-play nowadays, he doesn’t play villain characters anymore. Instead, my friend likes to play heroic characters with good and honourable intentions: even when they go horribly wrong.
That, more than anything, says something to me. In fact, it speaks volumes.