When speaking of the imagined bigger-than-presented size of a game, I always think to myself “that’s just nostalgia talking”.
Yet, replaying Link’s Awakening, it doesn’t seem that hard to differentiate the issues1 from the parts that stand the test of time.
A specific element I’m often finding in the games I love, and striving to add to my own, is a sense of the world existing, even when I turn of the device. This sense usually gets destroyed in the process of playing a game, as I grow to understand the characters, their relations, the systems and mechanics, and the progression of acquiring power. An RPG will often feel very big in the beginning, and unfortunately very small as all the wildlife is massacred(sometimes never to return) and my character attains demi-godhood.
Sometimes, a game doesn’t grow smaller in my mind. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but Link’s Awakening was one of those to me.
Let be bastardize my bachelor’s thesis and paraphrase myself from a few years ago. Writing about the traditional Japanese beauty in certain Japanese video games, I came across the notion of Wabi Sabi or simply the wabi aesthetic. For this post, I will simply refer to one of the tenets that I extracted about it, from it from a few different sources.2
In traditional Japanese art that makes use of the wabi aesthetic, suggestion as an aesthetic trait is used to imply a bigger world beyond what is shown to the viewer. Traditional examples are sparse brush strokes in paintings to simply hint at mountains and the landscapes beyond, and the almost short-hand like haiku poetry:
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
(Basho’s Frog Poem)
frogs jumped in
sound of water.
(Translation by Lafcadio Hearn)
I probably don’t have to argue very hard that I don’t have any nostalgic, sentimental feeling about this poem, but I really agree that the three simple lines conjure up the image of a far more detailed and serene setting.
Some games, I believe, manage to make use of this element of suggestion, to create far richer worlds than the sum of their parts.
Link’s Awakening is one these games. The island of Koholint that it takes place on, is it’s little cosmos of legendary locations, small folk and nature. Yet a greater depth is hinted at through the narrative that weaves into the island’s local mythos. The simple questions are “How much of this is real?” and “If this is a dream and I wake up, will anyone survive ?”
This is an noteworthy quality in a game, and enables the discussion of how we can make more tangible, memorable game worlds. While cinema has the mise-en-scene to help them construct a richer world in the mind of the audience, players can wonder around a stage, poking the probs, revealing the superficiality of the game world. This makes suggestion such a worthwhile trait to acquire in a game, whether it’s tied to the narrative, or even straight into the gameplay.3
There was a good deal more to my thesis, and a good deal more to Link’s Awakening, but for now, I think this covers a very admirable and long-lasting quality.
I constantly have to open the menu to switch items (alleviated in some zeldas, often still an issue), and the music constantly starts over, making me (somehow) tired of the Zelda theme. Some puzzles are incredible opaque, and the game is overall way too easy, my progress only hindered by moments that aren’t really tough, but rather super annoying (being pushed over the edge by the first boss). ↩
Haga Koshiro’s The Wabi Aesthetic Through the Ages, Donald Keene’s Japanese Aesthetics, Juniper Andrew’s Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence and Sarah Chaplin’s Makeshift: Some Reflections on Japanese Design Sensibility. ↩
Like how Final Fantasy XII is a big world, even from initial Ester Sands area, where you just stroll around murdering foxes: The huge licence board of abilities and equipment you might acquire, initialy suggests a huge world, pocketed into a smart system, constantly with you, even in the simplest locales of the game. ↩