Opinion What watching my daughter play ‘The Legend of Zelda’ taught me

(Michelle Kondrich/The Washington Post)
9 min

Tom Bissell is an author and screenwriter. His books include “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” and “Creative Types: And Other Stories.”

The Challenger space shuttle disaster and The Legend of Zelda are endlessly entangled in my mind. I’d always remembered — and began writing this essay believing — that, on Jan. 28, 1986, I was home sick from school and playing Zelda at the moment the shuttle exploded. The dates, alas, don’t line up: The game wasn’t released to the North American market until 1987. Still, I think I know why my memory insists on this odd pairing. For people born in the early-to-mid-1970s, the Challenger disaster was our first collective glimpse of national decline — a dismal augury of the generational voyage to come. But Zelda was all brightness and ascendancy, suggesting that video games weren’t the brain-rotting toys of our parents’ worst assumptions but rather something new on this earth.

Before Zelda, kids like me played video games because we were bored to death in our small towns and suburban enclaves, craving the dopamine pellets games reliably dispensed. After Zelda, kids like me played video games because they were engines of powerful surrogate experiences.

What we didn’t know was that Zelda would be growing up right alongside us. The franchise’s most recent iteration, “Tears of the Kingdom,” was released last Friday. It’s a game that my daughter, for one, “waited two whole years for!” In fairness to her, two years constitutes roughly one-fourth of her earthly existence, which is a long time to wait. And so we started playing it the moment she got home from school.

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The original “Legend of Zelda”a game rampant with secrets, hidden passages and lost treasure — felt like a heightened version of childhood, akin to when I crashed around in the woods behind my grade school in the dim hope of finding something unusual. In real life, I rarely found anything, but in Zelda I always found something. A Zelda game is a curiosity-rewarding machine, wherein every weapon or item you find is a potential key, and you can’t walk by a rock or a bush without being nagged by the feeling that it’s hiding something special.

Despite that, over the years, I’ve missed more Zelda titles than I’ve played. But being able to walk away from Zelda and painlessly return to her later is a big part of the franchise’s appeal, at least to me. The Zelda games aren’t overstuffed with inane, distracting lore. They boast a few marquee characters — Princess Zelda, the intrepid player character Link, the big-bad Ganon — but the rest of it, from their graphical stylings to how they actually play, shifts and slides from Zelda to Zelda, sometimes with tectonic severity.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” released in 2017, embraced this path of divergence. It’s often considered the greatest video game ever made. Needless to say, it’s highly atypical when a series of any kind steps up to the plate for its 19th main installment and blasts the ball clear into the parking lot. I say that having barely played “Breath of the Wild.” Instead, I watched my daughter play it, day after day, for weeks, during the opening innings of the pandemic. This was a Zelda game all right — mysterious and endlessly traversable — but it resembled the original Zelda the way a stromatolite resembles a sperm whale.

I’ve worked on and off in video game development for more than a decade, which is to say I don’t think video games are bad for kids. On the contrary, I think the best games are plainly good for kids. Immoderate video game playing, like immoderate anything, should obviously be discouraged, but we never had that problem with our daughter. She’d always liked video games, but they rarely occupied her mind for long. “Breath of the Wild” changed that. Although the story it tells is roughly analogous to that of a Saturday morning cartoon, its gameplay and superb “puzzle shrines” — basically, escape rooms that must be solved via Link’s time- and space-bending powers — often made “Breath of the Wild” feel like the unholy spawn of M.C. Escher and B.F. Skinner.

As my daughter experimented with Link’s abilities to stop time for an object, to manipulate metallic objects with magnetism and to alter objects’ midflight trajectories, I could almost sense the new neural pathways burning their way along her eager little brain. When I look back on developmental milestones, my daughter’s first word, first step, first joke and first day of school are up there with her turning to me, grinning, after having finally figured out how to bypass the fiendish Hila Rao shrine in “Breath of the Wild.” This should explain her anticipation for “Tears of the Kingdom,” a direct sequel to “Breath of the Wild” — only the second direct sequel in the 37-year history of the franchise.

I played Zelda as an impish detective, investigating the humblest corners of the game world, bombing every rock and burning down every bush in the hopes of finding a secret door. What my daughter most loved about “Breath of the Wild,” conversely, was futzing around with its elaborate systems. The cooking system, say, which allowed her to mix and match more than 100 ingredients, which sometimes resulted in a health-restoring omelet and other times in a pile of purple mush the game decorously referred to as “dubious food.” She also enjoyed stacking the effects of Link’s magical abilities — time-stopping a falling crate, say, then whacking it with her sword to redirect its trajectory, climbing atop and enjoying the ride once the time-stoppage effect wore off.

Link has a whole new array of thaumaturgical abilities in “Tears of the Kingdom,” including one that, almost immediately, I sensed was going to be a problem. This ability, called Ultrahand (which sounds like a 1970s prog-rock arena band), allows Link to glue together wood, rock, wheels, tires, planks, engines and other stray items you find around the world. In practice, this allows the player to construct crude Lincoln Log-style boats, motorcycles, wagons, structures or, really, anything you can imagine.

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Once the Ultrahand ability was unveiled, I watched my daughter spend an hour constructing a series of log rafts that were far too large and elaborate to float. Whenever I nudged her toward some enticing cave entrance or, you know, finding the lost Princess Zelda, she shushed me. Finally, she got one of her oversize log rafts to rest easy upon the water, shortly after which she figured out how to imbue it with mechanical rather than wind power. She spent the next couple hours elaborating upon this new development, which mostly involved her launching one unmanned raft after another across a lake.

When we found the abandoned mine carts, the question for my daughter became how many she could glue together and still get them moving along the rusted tracks. Between all the Ultrahand R&D, my daughter was also chopping down trees and fusing together the resultant logs to make lean-to structures, just in case she came back to an area later and it was raining and she wanted to “cook something.” (God help us all, you can cook in “Tears of the Kingdom,” too.) At one point, sensing my impatience, my daughter invoked the Wright brothers as her mathematical proof for the necessity of experimentation. What about all the monsters, I asked, the beasts and creatures she was duty-bound as Link to strike down with sword and bow? “Meh,” she said, shrugging. “Pass.”

“Pass?” I wanted to say to her. “Pass?” Fighting monsters is the whole point of the game! Which isn’t even true, strictly speaking. “Tears of the Kingdom,” like every Zelda game before it, is about wandering, thinking, tinkering. I adored the original “Legend of Zelda” because it made the rural Midwestern world I grew up in feel enigmatic, even mildly dangerous. My daughter is growing up in Los Angeles, in the Hollywood Hills, otherwise known as the Land Without Yards and Sidewalks. She can’t walk outside our front door to play without putting herself immediately in the path of some Porsche Cayenne doing 40 in a 15. Games such as “Breath of the Wild” and “Tears of the Kingdom” might be the closest approximation she has for the sort of unstructured play I took for granted as a kid. I’m not here to lionize the era I grew up in, much less the region, but there’s something to be said for an impossibly elaborate sandbox world that’s filled with peril and secrets but also doubles as a place for a kid like my daughter to be a goal-less weirdo and goof.

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You lose that ability as an adult. Even when we’re in situations overtly shaped by play, we see them merely as opportunities to exploit, expand and conquer. But the purest forms of play are not supposed to incline us to exploit. They’re supposed to incline us to poke and prod and explore.

I know my daughter will eventually get to the epic adventure part of “Tears of the Kingdom,” and I know that, one day, she’ll even rescue Zelda, but not until she has made the game world her own and pushed its systems to their limit. Until then, I’ll happily watch her Ultrahand the most cockamamie wagon imaginable for her horse to drag up a mountainside. I’ll watch her fill her inventory with mushroom skewers and dubious food. I’ll watch her sneak up on wild horses, in the interest of breaking and taming them, even though her stable is already at capacity. I’ll watch her dye her clothing orange, and then red, and then blue, and then orange again. Her life, I fear, as it plunges deeper into the 21st century, will be filled with far more Challenger disasters than Zelda releases. And so I’ll tell her to remember this — the feeling of a world that feels lifted, not collapsed; conquerable, not corrupted; joyful, not terrifying. Remember this. And remember us, too, together. Playing.