The Coming Storm

This is a tribute to the iconic Zac Gorman comic, but with a twist.

I sometimes think about how Ganondorf more than likely didn’t start out as evil. I imagine that he probably went on a journey that paralleled Link’s, but his reaction to the secrets he found in hidden caves and forgotten temples was substantially different due to the circumstances of his life and destiny. While the Legend of Zelda games contain subtle elements of melancholy from Link’s perspective, Ganondorf’s story is more like a full-on Greek tragedy.

Link Loves Revolution

After Nintendo premiered the new Breath of the Wild sequel trailer during E3, all sorts of artists rushed to draw illustrations of the mysterious hero in the sky, but all I can think about when I see these handsome young men is how Link canonically eats bugs. In this house we love our feral son, and I couldn’t resist drawing the Ponyo meme.

Ballad of the Wind Fish

Ballad of the Wind Fish is a bittersweet narrative minicomic that uses the 1993 Game Boy game The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening as a stage to explore the connections between childhood fantasies, nostalgia, and escapism.

The comic is twelve pages long, with one panel per page. I created it for the #Linktober drawing challenge on Instagram during October 2019, but it’s still very near and dear to my heart. Although the comic is ostensibly about Link’s Awakening, it’s really more of a meta exploration of a certain glitch in the original release of the game, as well as a meditation on being a child of the 1990s. I formatted it into a zine and created two pieces of polished art to use for the cover. It’s my hope that this short comic fills the reader with warm memories and sunny summertime vibes.

You can download a free digital copy from Gumroad:
https://gum.co/windfishzine

If you like, you can buy a physical copy on Etsy:
https://www.etsy.com/listing/1035486197/ballad-of-the-wind-fish-zelda-minicomic

The zine is 4.75” square, or roughly the size of a Nintendo DS game case. It’s professionally printed in vibrant full color, and it comes with a 3” circular vinyl sticker depicting the eponymous Wind Fish.

If you’d rather not bother with any of that, you can read the comic as I originally posted it on Tumblr (here).

The Last Campfire

The Last Campfire is a puzzle-centric exploration game with no combat or danger that should take most players between three to five hours to finish.

If we can posit that there are three main genres of video games – shooting, it’s about depression, and Nintendo – The Last Campfire is definitely about depression. You play as a childlike little creature called an “ember” (who are like the red-robed creatures in Journey, but baby) that is either dying or already dead, and your goal is to move on to the afterlife. Along the way, you’re tasked with helping other embers that have gotten psychologically stuck and are unable to complete the journey on their own.

There are four main areas of the game – forest, swamp, marsh, and cave – and you have to help four embers from each area before you can progress to the next. To help an ember, you must first locate it in the overworld before entering its inner world, which consists of a single puzzle or short series of puzzles, all of which are spatial in nature and generally involve moving blocks or floor tiles. None of the puzzles are timed or involve physical dexterity, and you can reset each puzzle by leaving the headspace of the ember and returning. There’s no penalty for this, and loading times are super short, thankfully.

The game has an easy mode that simplifies the puzzles, but all of the puzzles are already so simple and self-explanatory (even for a dumb-dumb like myself) that this isn’t necessary. In fact, I’m going to say that playing on easy mode might actually be more difficult, as it removes some of the discrete steps intended to teach you how the game wants you to solve each puzzle. Either way, nothing important is actively hidden from the player, so you can solve most puzzles just by fooling around with them for long enough.

The difficult thing about The Last Campfire is locating the lost embers in the first place. Like a Zelda game, the overworld has its own share of puzzles, and it’s rarely self-evident where you’re supposed to go. There is zero signposting, and all of the screens that comprise an area have multiple entrances and exits (some of which are one-way), meaning that it’s easy to get lost. It’s also not immediately clear what you can and can’t interact with, and I have to admit that I had to consult a walkthrough very early on to learn that the player is expected to find and physically touch the ossified bodies of the lost embers in order to solve their puzzles and progress through the game.

Unlike the individual ember puzzles, it’s easy to get stuck in the overworld and not know what the game wants you to do. Although it’s fun to explore the beautiful environments, I think The Last Campfire would have greatly benefited from some sort of map. For me, this was the difference between the game taking three hours (which I think is supposed to be an optimal playtime) and taking almost six hours, which I mainly spent getting lost and having to consult various YouTube videos to figure out where I was supposed to go and what specific object I was supposed to interact with.  

I think that the game could also have benefited from giving you the option to turn off the voice acting. The English version of the game is narrated by a woman with the exact accent and vocal pitch and timbre of Björk. While this narration was cool at first, it gradually began to grate on me, especially when I would get frustrated. The actress sometimes puts a heavy “w” sound in some of her lines (as in, “the ember had mispwaced a memowy”), which can get a little too close to Elmer Fudd territory if you’re listening to the same line being repeated for the fifth time while re-entering an area or restarting a puzzle.

(I should say that I don’t mean to hate on Icelandic accents, which are lovely. Still, I think creating a Pavlovian association between frustration and someone’s voice has the potential to generate annoyance at anyone’s accent and vocal patterns.)

The Last Campfire isn’t as chill and relaxing as it seems to want to be, and most people are probably going to have to play it at least partially with a walkthrough; not because it’s actually difficult, but rather because of what I think it’s fair to call a certain immaturity of game design. Still, it’s an interesting little game, especially during the periods when it’s better about subtly guiding the player forward.

In a lot of ways, The Last Campfire reminds me of a 1992 Super Nintendo game called Soul Blazer, which was a very simple and sweet game about freeing the souls of a cursed world’s inhabitants by entering the dungeonlike spaces of their minds. It’s a neat concept, especially in the visual contrast both games display between the lush natural spaces of the outer world and the barren and overly complicated spaces of the inner worlds of individual minds. I also appreciate that both games acknowledge and respect the fact that not everyone wants to be “saved” by a hero. As one ember in The Last Campfire puts it: Not every problem is a puzzle to be solved.

More than anything, it’s the visual landscape of The Last Campfire that appealed to me, especially in combination with the atmospheric ambient music and the crisp sound design. I think that, if you enjoy this sort of game, the merits of The Last Campfire outweigh its flaws. I also think it has a decent replay value, if only in the sense that it may be more enjoyable to play for the second time once you know where everything is and what you’re supposed to do.   

Almost everyone who’s written about The Last Campfire has mentioned encountering a few glitches and frame rate issues. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch Lite and had no problems with that sort of thing at all. The game can easily be divided into short sessions (and its autosave feature is completely unobtrusive and stress-free), so I think it may be better suited to a small-screen portable experience.    

Malice

(The above illustration is by the amazing @mehkuno on Tumblr.)

In my writing logs, I keep mentioning the fanfic novel based on the Breath of the Wild sequel trailer that I’m writing, so I thought I’d try to describe the project. Here goes!

Story
When the long-dormant Guardians begin attacking Hyrule, Zelda, Link, and Ganondorf go underground to try to find the source of energy powering them.

Background Setting
This is an urban fantasy set in a modern-day version of Hyrule based on New York City. In this setting, the cave that Link and Zelda are exploring in the BotW sequel trailer translates to the sewer tunnels underneath the old site of Hyrule Castle, which has been converted into government offices. Everything that happened in BotW took place about three hundred years prior to the present day, but all mentions of magic, the Triforce, and the true nature of the Calamity have been erased from history. Ancient technology is exhibited in museums, but people treat it like art and have no understanding that it’s actually machinery. When the Guardians and other artifacts of ancient technology start going berserk, no one knows what’s happening.

Zelda (visual reference)
Although she comes from a powerful political family, Zelda is interested in the history and functionality of ancient technology. She’s 26 years old and about one or two years out of a Master’s program in Chemistry. She wants to get away from her family’s influence, so she currently works as a lab technician. Her intention is to succeed through her own efforts while pursuing her research. She was reserved and uptight when she was younger, but her relationships with Link and Ganondorf have helped her to become braver and more self-confident.

Link (visual reference)
He works as a courier for a delivery company, and there’s nothing he loves more than driving around Hyrule on his motorcycle. He’s into urban exploration and has a hugely popular account on Skyloft (Hyrule’s equivalent to Instagram). Like Link in BotW after he’s lost his memories of being constantly under pressure, this Link is easygoing, clever with his words, and a lot of fun to be around. He’s a year older than Zelda, and he gradually becomes friendly with her while making deliveries to her lab. As Zelda discovers odd inconsistencies regarding Hyrule’s history and technology, Link corroborates her suspicions by offering evidence of the strange things he’s seen with his own eyes in some of the city’s more out-of-the-way places.

Ganondorf (visual reference)
He works at a prestigious investment firm that specializes in technology. He’s only around thirty years old, but he’s inhumanly good at what he does and has managed to become extremely wealthy. Unlike Zelda and Link, Ganondorf was never in doubt that magic exists, mainly because he himself is a powerful wizard who is able to control both hardware and software. He knows what ancient technology is and what it can do, and he’d like to figure out a way to make it profitable. When his path crosses with Zelda’s, he becomes interested in her research, and he inadvertently becomes friendly with Link in the process. He’s an intense and unpleasant person, but being with Link and Zelda mellows him out and helps give him a sense of humor and perspective.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’m afraid that I may have misrepresented this story as a lighthearted adventure. It’s a psychosexual melodrama with some fairly dark themes.

Link is smart, hard-working, attractive, and charming, but he doesn’t come from privilege, so he’s been jumping from one pointless temp job to another. He does good and interesting work on social media, but he can’t monetize it, which makes him bitter. He doesn’t feel as though he’s allowed to express negative emotions, though, so he comes off as fairly shallow. Later in the story he is going to snap and go feral.

Zelda was horribly abused as a child by her family, who tried to use psychiatric medication to control her. She represents a conflict between science as an incredible driving force of civilization and science as a means of social control, but she’s also my vehicle for working through my own experiences with how I’ve been dehumanized by the mental healthcare industry.

What’s going on with Ganondorf is something of a spoiler, but it’s distinctly unpleasant. On top of some Akira-style body horror, he’s an immigrant in a country where there’s a distinct possibility that the police could arrest (or even murder) him for no good reason. Even though he has an excellent grasp on human psychology, he sees empathy as a luxury he can’t afford, and the way this mentality influences his behavior toward Zelda can be creepy and uncomfortable.

I don’t openly talk about mental illness, but Zelda and Ganondorf are both coping with intense trauma. Neither of them is mentally “healthy,” and I don’t clearly signpost their toxic behavior as such. There’s no violence or angst or abuse for the sake of being edgy, but there’s not a lot of healing. Their character development goes from “bad” to “bad in a different way,” with “empowerment” being an unhealthy but necessary response to horrible circumstances.

When I started writing, I told myself that I would allow this story to become as dark as it needed to be, and it has gone to some places.

Disrupting the Heroic Narrative

I spend a lot of time talking about the character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games as a symbol for the disruption of monarchies, with “monarchies” serving as a cipher for “entrenched power structures based on arbitrary hierarchies of privilege.”

A response I occasionally get, especially on Tumblr, is the assertion that the people who worked on the Zelda series couldn’t possibly have put this much thought into suggesting that Ganondorf is a figure of resistance because they’re Japanese. According to this line of reasoning, Japanese developers wouldn’t hint at the necessity of challenging authority because Japan is a constitutional monarchy.

Japan is indeed a constitutional monarchy, but Japan is also a modern postindustrial society with a highly sophisticated media culture and an enormous population of roughly 126.4 million people. As with anywhere else in the world, it’s impossible for a generalization about the political views of a population of that size to be accurate.

In addition, many progressive thinkers in Japan have been highly critical of Japan’s imperial household and its symbolic role in enabling some of the darker chapters in Japan’s history.

To give an example, Junichiro Tanizaki, often celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese during the Pacific War as a form of protest, as the eleventh-century court romance suggests that the imperial line is very much “broken,” as well as undeniably human.

More recently, Kenzaburo Oe, who received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been a vocal critic of the emperor system and the role of the United States in maintaining it. Haruki Murakami, who is often dismissed because of the popularity of his novels despite being an extremely political writer, has published an extensive body of work challenging Japan’s imperial legacy and advocating resistance against the shadowy forces that allow its ideology to persist into the present.

What I’m trying to say is that stories about toppling monarchies aren’t rare in Japan.

Although Nintendo has frequently been used by Japanese officials as an instrument of international soft power – Shinzo Abe wearing a Mario hat to announce that Japan would host the 2020 2021 Summer Olympics, for example – Nintendo is an international corporation and no more an arm of a national government than the Disney Corporation is a mouthpiece of the American state. Moreover, like Disney, there are hundreds of artists and writers working at Nintendo, and the views of the individuals creating the media licensed by the company may not align with the company’s brand image. In the case of Nintendo in particular, a lot of the key players in Shigeru Miyamoto’s generation don’t make any secret of the fact that they belonged to various counterculture movements when they were younger.

What creators working for these giant publishers do is what artists have always done – they tell stories that will appeal to a broad audience on top of stories that are much more serious and subversive. For example, Lilo & Stitch is about “ohana means family,” sure, but it also sets up a real conversation about the various “aliens” who have come to the Hawai’ian islands and how these flows of people and culture have affected the native population. In the same way, the Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon games are about stopping bad people from hurting animals, but they’re also about how economic development impairs local communities in Hawai’i, not to mention how many of the research foundations that come to the islands to “protect nature” are just as bad as the corporations. These secondary stories aren’t hidden or otherwise kept from the audience, they’re just more apparent in the details of the story and setting than in the main narrative.

So, while the Legend of Zelda games feature a mix of Arthurian legend and Tolkienian fantasy that informs their easily digestible stories about “brave heroes saving our sacred land from evil forces,” they’re made by intelligent adults who are entirely capable of using themes relating to “empire” and “divinity” and “heroism” to offer critiques regarding what this sort of mentality actually does to individual people and entire nations. Even if these games aren’t directly addressing Japan’s imperial legacy – and there’s no reason for them to do so, because not everything coming out of Japan needs to be about the Pacific War – adding this sort of political and emotional complexity to the story is just good art.

I’m not denying that there are clear undercurrents of nationalism in the Legend of Zelda games – and sometimes, as in the case of Skyward Sword, giant waves of nationalism – but I think this is endemic to the heroic narrative that structures the gameplay of the series. The archetype of “the brave hero who fights to defend their homeland against malevolent outside forces” goes back to the earliest recorded human stories, of course, but I think the nationalistic elements of this narrative have been emphasized by the cultural context that shaped the heroic fantasy that directly inspired the Zelda games.

Specifically, the Zelda series gets a lot of its DNA from popular Japanese fantasy epics of the 1980s, including Guin Saga and Record of Lodoss War, which were inspired by Robert E. Howard and Dungeons & Dragons, respectively. There’s no small amount of Lord of the Rings in the mix as well. Nationalistic ideologies from WWII and the Cold War are therefore built into not just the dominant tropes but also the fundamental structure of contemporary heroic fantasy, including many video games.

I think it’s fair to argue that the Zelda series has challenged this narrative, however. For example:

– The hero is deeply traumatized by what he was forced to do (Majora’s Mask)
– We should look at this from the perspective of the bad guy (The Wind Waker)
– It’s possible that our homeland is just as evil as our enemies (Twilight Princess)
– The bad guys are just like us and deserve sympathy (A Link Between Worlds)

I loved Breath of the Wild but was disappointed by its story, which felt incomplete to me. For example, why would the Hyrulean royal family ban technology? What inspired so many people to defect from the Sheikah and establish the Yiga Clan? If Ganon was once a person, how furious and tormented by pain would he have to be for the Calamity to take the specific form it did? Where are the old temple “dungeons” that are present in the other games? Why is the player never allowed to go underground?

The way the game brushed off these types of questions did indeed feel like an excuse to suggest something along the lines of “Hyrule never did anything wrong and is an innocent victim of malicious foreign powers,” a narrative that has disturbing echoes in real-world political ideologies.

Removing (most of) the shadows cast by the heroic narrative made Breath of the Wild’s story seem curiously flat, especially given the relative depth of previous games in the Zelda series. That’s why, when I first saw the trailer for the sequel, my immediate thought was, “Good, so we’re finally going to get the rest of this story,” which has a great deal of unexplored potential.

In any case, the games in the Legend of Zelda series are interesting and complicated, and I think it’s a shame not to give the creators who make them credit for the full range of storytelling they’ve put into their work.

If nothing else, I think it’s always worth challening the assumption that any given person or group of people has no choice but to think or behave in a certain way because of their race or nationality. After all, if someone named “Hayao Miyazaki” can make bold statements about the evils of authoritarian regimes, who’s to say that someone named “Hidemaro Fujibayashi” can’t also tell nuanced stories about the human cost of the narratives used (and misused) for the purpose of maintaining political stability?

Comrade Nook Says ZERO INTEREST

From Isolated to Island-Hopping: China Embraces Animal Crossing
http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005411

A unique feature of the game is the ability to import user-generated digital graphics into one’s personalized island. Within days, some gamers in China had painted their islands a figurative shade of red, adding portraits of communist icons like Karl Marx and Chairman Mao, as well as loud propaganda posters. Consistent with the current zeitgeist, some players have added disease control checkpoints and decontamination areas, or signs in Chinese instructing characters to “please wash your hands.”

Players have outfitted their virtual residences with traditional Chinese decor and furniture, and dressed their in-game characters with hanfu and fancy outfits from China’s most popular period dramas. Widely shared screenshots show one island with huge QR codes printed across them for sending the player money via Alipay or WeChat, while another island featured realistic-looking fruit business advertisements.

I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of people engaging in currency farming for Animal Crossing, but this article has some wild screenshots, and it was interesting to learn about regional subcultures in a game that has managed to become a global phenomenon during the past two weeks.

Pokémon Sword and Shield

I started playing Pokémon Sword on December 4, and I beat the game last night. It took a little more than 42 hours, which is the result of me playing about half an hour a day for the past two and a half months.

I feel like I spent most of my time with Pokémon Sword goofing off in the Wild Area, dressing my character in ridiculous outfits, and figuring out to make truly bizarre unique league cards. I really enjoyed myself.

What I appreciate about this generation of Pokémon games is that, partially thanks to the open-world style Wild Area, the player can create a diverse and balanced team from the start, which means that you can set up your team within two or three hours and then not have to worry about level grinding or otherwise catching up under-leveled pokémon. All the creatures on my team were at level 70 at the end of the game, and they’d all been with me since the first gym battle. I caught 225 species of pokémon without really trying, but it was just for fun.

Compared to previous generations, Pokémon Sword and Shield don’t have much of an overarching story, but I love the location and the characters. I played about half of the game in handheld mode and the other half on my television. I’ve always wanted to play a Pokémon game in widescreen high definition, and this was everything I ever dreamed of. Each of the towns and cities is gorgeous, and the big stadium battles are phenomenal. The major characters have all sorts of interesting microexpressions and small animation flourishes that help you get a sense of their personalities, and their designs are attractive and eye-catching.

It will probably not surprise anyone that I have a crush on Chairman Rose, who tries very hard to be evil but comes off as goofy and adorable. Early on in the game, Rose shows up “incognito” to have lunch with your character at a fancy restaurant in one of the most fantastically Eurotrash outfits I have ever had the pleasure to behold. I was so inspired by his ridiculous combination of sportswear and beachwear that I spent the entire game hyper-focused on earning money so that I could buy clothes and achieve the same glorious antithesis of style.

By the time the player has their final showdown against Rose in the creepy ambient glow of shattered test tubes with a “One-Winged Angel” style choral piece as the BGM, my character was a complete and utter eyesore. I hope Rose was proud of me.

I had a lot of fun with Pokémon Sword. I recently saw – on Twitter, I think? – someone say that there are three main genres of video games: Men With Guns, It’s About Depression, and Nintendo. I totally get that, and I appreciate that Pokémon Sword and Shield are strong “Nintendo” games in the sense that they don’t take themselves too seriously and allow you to play them in whatever way you like. I’m not super-invested in the DLC, but I think it might be nice to return to the Galar region when new content is available this summer.