Princess Zelda and the Childish AdultDec 12, 2006 · peterb · 6 minute read
Several years ago, one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, wrote a scathing review of the Harry Potter books called “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult.” In this review she roundly criticized not Rowling, but the adults who chose to read her books. She said, essentially, that there was something fundamentally misshapen about adults who would choose to invest so many hours in a work created for children. Byatt took a lot of heat for this review. I was disappointed because it was clear that Byatt couldn’t correctly articulate her problem with Rowling. She wrapped her critique in some fairly sophomoric Freudian analysis before getting to the real point: Byatt observed – correctly – that Rowling’s prose is somewhat drab and clumsy. Rowling does not write beautiful sentences. It’s clear, at least to me, that if Rowling wrote with the precision and playfulness of someone like Terry Pratchett, Byatt would have overlooked the subject matter and approved of the works.
This is the sad truth behind literary criticism: there’s a widespread belief that the craft of storytelling is not as important as the craft of writing. This is, of course, ludicrous. For the novelist, both skills are important, but I’ll take a clumsy storyteller over a brilliant but boring linguist every time. When you have a great storyteller with a superb gift for words you end up with Martin Amis. When you have a great storyteller who doesn’t construct brilliant sentences, you end up with Rowling. When you have a stunning linguist who can’t tell a story to save her life, you end up with Donna Tartt.
Frankly, I’d rather be bludgeoned about the head with Rowling’s entire body of work than have to sit through another page of one of Tartt’s sickening apologias for the overprivileged. There is more depth in any one page of Rushdie’s “children’s book” Haroun and the Sea of Stories than in the entire body of the latest vapid favorite of the overeducated-but-shallow, Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
All of which is a preface to the point that one can have a great story and tell it in a bad way, or vice-versa, and that things written for children can be enjoyed by adults without guilt.
Which brings us to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I’ve been pondering this game for a while now, as I play it. I won’t be reviewing the game in this space – you can read my review in the holiday issue of Played To Death– but I found some aspects of the way it is constructed to be interesting, and it reminded me of Byatt’s essay. Not because it’s poorly written, or a bad game – I’m enjoying it immensely – but because I find the maturity level of the game to be so confusing. This isn’t a game written for children. This is a game written for adults who played an earlier Zelda game when they were children.
The games in the Zelda series have always treated unapologetically in adolescent and heroic archetypes. The story of every Zelda game is this: an evil power threatens the land of Hyrule. An orphan boy, Link, is drawn in to rescue a friend. In doing so, he acquires various weapons and tools of legend (a boomerang, a magic bow, a magic sword, a grappling hook, and so on). In overcoming obstacles, he inadvertently delivers the power of the godhead to the villain. Link must then confront the enemy and defeat him to save the land.
Wind Waker (click to enlarge)
The details in each game change, but the pattern is the same, which is fine. The previous game, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, was beautiful to look at. The characters were cartoony and iconic. Backgrounds were rich, saturated, and looked like they came straight out of a 1940’s-era Warner Brothers cartoon. From a purely graphical perspective, Wind Waker was designed with a bold, uncompromising vision.
I thought the Wind Waker art style was daring and wonderful. It fit the ideals underlying the world perfectly. But among many fans, this gutsy art style was a complete flop. My understanding of why is somewhat limited, but it seems to have something to do with the misapprehension that playing with things that look like children’s toys will shrink one’s penis. Regardless of the reasons, many people complained about this style, and one can’t help but worry about the possibility that the stylistic decisions made in Twilight Princess were a direct result of this feedback.
Twilight Princess takes the basic pattern of Zelda and puts it in a “dark” world, drawing elements from a number of other games including Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Silent Hill.
Twilight Princess (click to enlarge)
The end result is a game that is too scary for children to play, but not scary at all to adults. The fear in Silent Hill, for example, came not from the eerie music and atmosphere, but from the fact that the rusted, fecal exteriors in the game were so patently signposts pointing to the sexual and violent elements of the player’s psyche. Shadow of the Colossus was disturbing because it cast the player, implicitly, in the role of a villain, of someone who becomes his own Shadow. Such possibilities are never even remotely imaginable in Twilight Princess. Link is a good guy. His Shadow is not something he would even think about becoming.
As I said, my theory is that Zelda ends up in this stylistic bind because their platonic Zelda player is an adult who has played the other Zelda games. What they’re trying to do, I think, is present the story as “dark” or “serious” to avoid the player shunning the game for fear of being infantilized. At the same time, they have to maintain the essential innocence of the characters, because that’s what the archetype requires: evil, even evil that has tainted us, must always come from the outside. I think that the tension between these two goals resulted in a visual design that doesn’t quite sit snugly on the shoulders.
Perhaps I’m simply wrong, and projecting, and really a whole new generation of 7-year olds are encountering and loving Twilight Princess. As a game, I think it is clearly the best of the series. But stylistically the game looks like a compromise to me, and it is weaker for it.