The Stakes in “Tears of the Kingdom”

This year has been a bit of a wash so far in terms of my own productivity. I caught COVID in early January, fell into a Murakami hole from February to May, and am now fully immersed in Hyrule. I can’t recommend Tears of the Kingdom (TotK) highly enough. I probably need to take a break from it (as of May 30, I’m about 50 hours in), but it is…unparalleled in terms of breadth.

If you haven’t played it yet and are trying to avoid spoilers (which I’d recommend if possible), it’s probably best not to read on. I won’t be saying much, but I’ll be saying something.

I’ve been consuming a ton of media about Tears of the Kingdom as well. Polygon’s article “Tears of the Kingdom is saving me from my checklist obsession” captures an aspect of the game that I also felt about Breath of the Wild, which I played and then set aside before eventually picking back up and finishing. I liked it enough to start a second game last fall (which was also derailed by Murakami). I think I enjoyed it even more the second time. I had the right state of mindfulness to enjoy the game for what it was whenever I happened to be playing it. I didn’t force it along the path. I tried to take it as it came. Whether that was doing a quick shrine puzzle at lunch, exploring a landscape and hunting down Koroks in an area I’d never been before, or advancing the story. BotW is mindfulness condensed into game form. (I also played it English. I’ve realized that I need to play games in English first to understand mechanics so that they don’t feel like study.)

TotK feels denser, and some have argued that it doesn’t have the same open, empty, almost lonely “vibes” as BotW. One of these is The Bad End podcast episode about TotK.

I’d agree with that statement for the most part. BotW feels much more, for lack of a better word, wild. The same sense of mindfulness is, I think, critical to enjoying TotK, but the game perhaps doesn’t distill it as purely as BotW.

That said, I do think TotK does have vibes. It’s just that all of the TotK vibes are stored in a single place: The Depths. This is what I hate to spoil for anyone (which is why I won’t post a screenshot). Essentially, Nintendo created an abstract almost blank wilderness in TotK and set it underneath Hyrule, totally confounding all expectations they created for the game; nearly every trailer and promo for the game heavily emphasized the sky islands, and in a true miracle, most everyone writing about and reporting on the game seems to have maintained an embargo for content about the Depths. While the sky islands do play an important part of the game and have their own unique atmosphere (I love the Philip Glass-inspired minimalist brass soundtrack), I think the Depths captures that sense of the unknown, the expansive, the surprising, and the dangerous that BotW offered us for the first time. It doesn’t hurt that the music for the Depths is hands down the best in the game.

I do think that the next Zelda game will have to reboot the series entirely: I don’t know if the center will hold for much longer. I’m sure there’s something that Nintendo could add to expand the game, maybe even to the degree that TotK expands BotW (?!), but I wonder whether that’s the best idea.

The Bad End podcast is one of the very few complex critical voices I’ve seen discuss TotK, and some aspects they are slightly down on are the story (I laughed out loud when they asked why Zelda hadn’t looked in the basement before) and the mechanics (I think asking whether missiles and homing devices and Minecraft dynamics belong in Zelda is a fair question, but the game is still great for these additions).

But I’m not sure I understand the “Permaweird” angle they take. The podcast uses Venkatesh Rao’s article “The Permaweird” to discuss Hyrule as an encapsulation of the (need for a?) permanent state of crisis in the world.

(The theory itself to me feels like an extremely complicated form of bothsidesism, to be honest. It feels like a true crisis when Republicans are actively disenfranchising minority voters, attempting to make it illegal to be part of the LTBTQ community, and continuing to support the gun lobby, so I can’t help feeling gaslit whenever someone tries to criticize the need for collective urgency. The Bad End is using the theory in a different sense, I think, although I’ll admit I may not fully understand their approach.)

I prefer to use “One Punch Man” as a metaphor for TotK. If you haven’t seen the anime, you should drop what you’re doing and watch it immediately (between sessions of TotK, of course), but basically it’s a send up of “Dragon Ball Z” and other famous anime combined with the satirization of trade associations. The central element it criticizes is the relentless need to find a larger threat, a more evil villain, a more pressing disaster, a more intense voice actor.

To a certain extent, the stakes in Zelda—as in superhero movies—will always be 0 or 100. The world will either end or it won’t. Evil will triumph or it won’t. Otherwise, what’s the point, really?

This is why superhero franchises reboot constantly. A reboot allows them to start fresh without needing to one up (One Punch, as it were) the stakes.

For now, however, TotK has miraculously managed to one up the stakes. Nintendo made a shrewd decision when they used Calamity Ganon as the BotW villain. Calamity Ganon is more abstract and cloud-like than Ganon has been in many Zelda entries. TotK seems to surpass this, ironically, by making Ganon more of a human threat.

Maybe there’s another angle they can take, something that would make me want to spend another 100+ hours in a Hyrule that looks and feels very similar to BotW and TotK, but I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that if they did, I might not be pulled back into the world in quite the same way.

Apologies for the lack of Japanese content this month. I can say that TotK enables you to easily select the Japanese language voice track in the settings so that the cutscenes play almost like an anime. And don’t forget that playing the game in Japanese (and “cheating” in Japanese) is a perfectly good way to study.

Video Game Lingo – 覚悟

I was in the Japan Times a couple weeks back with a look at how to improve your Japanese by cheating at video games: “Cheat your way to better Japanese with walkthrough video game guides.”

I bought a Nintendo Switch over the New Year’s holiday. I’ve picked up three games since then, but other than a weekend spent playing Mario Kart 8 with my brother in St. Louis, I have only been putting time into Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There is so much joy in this game. In every single detail. The weather, the terrain, the puzzles, the atmospheric music, the voice acting, the anime-like storyline.

So much joy that it has outweighed the slight guilt I feel at cheating. In my defense, a friend from college who has two young sons noted on Facebook that the game is “imposiburu” without using online guides. Also in my defense, I just don’t have time to figure out everything. I’ve done most of it on my own, but I have used the guides so I don’t miss things here or there or to save myself some time.

These guides, as I mention in the article, are called 攻略 (kōryaku, walkthroughs), and I’ll let you find them yourself. Finding what you need (or what you want to say) in a foreign language is always good practice. Fortunately, Japanese walkthroughs don’t seem to be the ASCII-laden tomes I remember from the early days of the internets. Even the English walkthroughs these days are more visual and presented in marked up hypertext for ease of browsing.

I think I’m about 60-75% through the main quest in Breath of the Wild, but I have plenty of stuff left to smoke out in terms of side quests and whatnot. I’m kind of in a holding pattern right now, squeezing a little more juice out of the fruit before I start to make more progress on the last leg of the main story. I don’t want it to end.

It’s been fun to play in Japanese. I’ve been running into some of the video game lingo I used to encounter more regularly at my old job. One of these is 覚悟 (kakugo, readiness/preparedness/resolution/resignation).

I’m surprised I haven’t written about it previously, but the search engine tells me there are no instances of it on the blog. You see this word quite frequently in games, such as in this instance:

This was a pretty funny part of the game, and I won’t spoil more than that, but as you may or may not be able to tell, this is immediately before you fight this guy. He’s telling Link to “prepare yourself” with 覚悟 and しな (shi na), which is a short, impolite version of Xしなさい (X shi nasai, do X).

So…are you, punk? 覚悟できているのか? (Kakugo dekite iru no ka).

Get ye to a Nintendo Switchery! Get ye to Hyrule! This game is too good to miss.