Important news: There is a new video game out called The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, it is the best video game I’ve played in years, possibly ever, and it is ruining my life.
In Tears of the Kingdom, you play as a lad called Link who dives out of the sky to save a princess1 after acquiring incredible powers that allow you to create great and terrible machines and attach mushrooms to your sword and (most importantly) swim through ceilings. This makes much more sense when you play it.2
In real life, I play as a very-late-30s man with a demanding day job, a young child, a mortgage to pay, and an inexplicable newsletter about my self-help obsession. I have no incredible powers, getting a mushroom stuck to my chopping knife has no enjoyable gameplay implications, and all my attempts to swim through ceilings have ended in failure.
In this, I am far from alone. I am the target market. Nintendo knows this, and cruelly made their Tears of the Kingdom ad about specifically me.3
The combination of a demanding day job and a demanding game painted a picture that — from a very slight distance — looks uncomfortably like a cocaine addict in the midst of a relapse. After a hard day’s laptop-screen-jockeying (in between, of course, scrolling sessions on my little screen) I would curl up on the couch to binge-play the latest adventure of Link on the big screen (which is powered by a medium-sized, portable screen).
Other commitments, like fitness, or this newsletter, or my great nemesis The Lawns fell by the wayside.
Reddit is full of people like me. It understands.
I felt guilty. I dealt with this the only way I know how, by over-committing. My clever friends with excellent Substack newsletters were obvious targets. I have a guest article due for Webworm, because I pitched a guest article for Webworm. Meanwhile, Emily Writes about how she bought her children a “Game Boy thing” (a PlayStation 4.) She’s one of many parents who are, sensibly, flummoxed by gaming and its weird allure for children — and adults. “How would you like a guest article on this?” I texted.
She would, it turns out. Shit. What to do? Better play some more Zelda.
Nostalgia is a drug. You can’t go home again, but that won’t stop you trying. And for as long as I can remember, videogames have been a home. My formative experience with the Legend of Zelda is at a friend’s house, in 1999, with the groundbreaking 3D adventure game Ocarina of Time. We’re on the Water Temple; the most difficult of this unforgiving game’s dungeons. After a maze of watery corridors, we open a door, and are greeted with a vista: an endless plain, covered in shallow water, the horizon shrouded in mist. In front of us is a leafless sapling — like That Wanaka Tree, but before it was even a seed.
It stopped us cold. Two sneering teenage kids, rendered speechless.
My mate was the first to get his breath back.
“That is art,” he said.
Over the next few years, my brothers and I would play through Ocarina of Time and its sequels together. I missed them terribly when I went to university, and I needed to escape the baleful gaze of my horrible Christian Vegan flatmates, so I bought myself a GameCube and played through The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I managed to acquire a bad flu at the same time, so my memories of the game involve rivers of snot staunched by handkerchiefs that might as well have been sandpaper. I played it on a 12 inch CRT television, wrapped in blankets and pajamase and drinking cup after cup of the only thing I can stomach: herbal licorice tea. To this day, a sip of licorice tea will yank me back in time to a place that doesn’t exist: The Wind Waker’s gorgeous cartoon-style climate-changed world.
And why wouldn’t we play games? Humans are innately game-playing creatures; play is largely how we learn, and video games shape and mold that intrinsic drive into something extraordinarily powerful. As that Tears of the Kingdom advertisement cleverly shows, videogames give you something that modern life doesn’t: a sense of agency. In a game, every decision you make seems to matter, even if you’re following a pre-ordained narrative. Life will happily tick on with or without you, and the unjust machines of the world will not be unmade by your furious online raging, but in a videogame only you can save the world. People want to matter. Games let them.
Back in the present, Tears of the Kingdom has a mechanic where you can rewind pretty much any moving object through time. Look out! Enemies have set an enormous spiked boulder rolling at you, Indiana Jones style. Not a problem! Rewind it through time and use it to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the Bokoblins.
What would I do if I could rewind all my misspent time? The bingeing tendency isn’t a new thing. I have always been like this. Games are a dopamine hook through the jaw, and I struggle to ignore the bait. I’m going to bed late and waking up tired. Worse than tired; fatigued. I’m spending hours and hours at my keyboard smashing out content for the new website and I just need a break but the break I crave most is the total release from care that only Class A substances and an infuriatingly good video game can provide. The mute frenemies in my subconscious give me their burnout warnings. A brain-buzz here; a muscle twitch there. Gravity seems stronger than normal.
A trip to the big city provides a few hours to catch up on my non-work writing. Instead of doing that, I plummet into the hotel bed and into a stupor. When I wake, I start writing this.
What I’ve woken up to is less an epiphany and more delayed-onset common sense. So far, my self-improvement experiment has been additive. I’ve been increasing the number of new balls to juggle, new plates to spin, all while running out of the spoons I mix metaphors with.
It’s not sustainable. For this experiment to add up to anything, other things will have to be subtracted.
What to start with?
I’ve got Lee Reid staying for a few days and I’d intended to have a sit-down discussion with him about the neurological basis of videogame’s allure, but we only got as far as agreeing that a day playing videogames is pretty much the same (in brain terms) as a day’s hard work before fiddling with Tears of the Kingdom’s hilarious build mechanic until 11 at night.
Awake this morning, bleary-eyed, making a beeline for the kettle to make coffee, thinking: I really have to get a newsletter out, it’s been well over a week. And: it’s time I started taking this self-improvement jag more seriously. Writing newsletters at it won’t increase the number of pullups I can do.
Something has to give, or all the ambitions and ideas I have will wither and die on the vine. But what should I subtract? I just can’t think of what to leave behind.
It really is such a good game, you guys.