Playing The Wind Waker inspired me to build a boat. There, I’ve said it. It still sounds a little silly – to me at least – and I’ll get to that. But can we at least acknowledge that the game made a convincing case for the joys of sailing?
In it, the sea-breeze blew in curlicue swirls and the ocean was a rippling, rolling blanket of azure blue. Seagulls clustered, waves crested, and distant islands sat perched on the horizon like mist-wrapped, unexplored gifts.
So I spent two days one summer sawing and nailing, refashioning old garden panels and abandoned flat-pack furniture into a vessel. One fit for seafaring and sea creatures (read: the nearby lake and the ducks). I made the boatiest thing I could.
Now, I’ve since actually bought a book on making boats, and it mentions all sorts of things like ‘gunwhale’ and ‘stringer’. Nowhere does it mention ‘just build a sort-of table with sides on it’, or ‘leave lots of holes between the planks’. And I never did sail it or – given that it didn’t actually have a sail – slowly float it into any adventures. I certainly didn’t slay any monstrous duck with mystical bread crusts from a local wizard, or whatever. But on the whole I felt satisfied with my effort; hand-crafted and tangible. But it felt a bit awkward, that a project so Enid Blyton-y, so apparently wholesome could be inspired by a video game.
It’s the same with the two Ocarinas I bought years ago – Clay ovals smooth as pebbles and pocked with flute holes. I found them in a market in China, replacing the ‘ethnic’-looking, Aztec-striped one I’d previously bought from a shop (the kind that sells wind-chimes and candles). One of the ocarinas has a mysterious – to non-Chinese readers, anyway – symbol on it, but my favourite is the other one – unadorned, dark grey and vaguely amphibian, like the abandoned shell of a sea crustacean. It feels somehow historic; primal and authentic. Importantly, it’s also unbranded, without any tell-tale clues – a bright blue glaze or embossed triforce logo – that might give it away as an Ocarina of Time-inspired purchase.
It’s normal of course, to try and cover the tracks of your influences. To hide the inspiration behind the new haircut (nothing like Drake’s for the record) or dress style or ocarina purchase. As if revealing the ‘working out’ exposes us, and the embarrassing self-consciousness of our day-to-day roleplay.
Now, here’s the thing: you might think of something like cosplay as one extreme of this; literally wearing your influences on your sleeve/costume/bulging bodice. But there’s that self-awareness that comes with the brazen, plastic-sword-and-tunic shtick. The knowing, wink-wink acknowledgment of games as fun – and fictional – worlds of escapism. A healthy recognition of the make-believe ‘otherness’ of it all.
Whereas I won’t even wear video game T-Shirts, except maybe the Dark Souls II one I occasionally don for a run (see also: promotional charity shirts). Not because games are some secret shame, but because I’m acutely aware of how much video games have informed my general sensibility. For one, these stories built of being and doing have helped foster in me an anxious need for participation, to not just observe but to appreciate through action and engagement – to climb motorway bridges, to make videos and very occasionally, to build crappy table-boats. To ride past buses imagining them as Colossi, or to see Kokiri Forest in floating dandelion spores.
It’s not got a great deal to do with a gaming world referenced in Mario-print T-shirts or triforce keychains. It’s gaming shorn of its specifics, pruned of its particulars – of characters, lore and score. Instead simmered down to something more general, repurposed and reinvented through my own experience, my own (try not to gag) ‘journey’.
Which sounds grand (and pleasingly pretentious), but there’s still a slight dissonance. An uneasiness about seeing Proper Things(TM) – like Nature, or Building Boats – through a lens as seemingly synthetic, as flagrantly modern as video games. That games; as fictional, intangible and ephemeral as the electricity they depend on, can still linger when turned off; like smudges of light when you blink away. Like neurosurgery done with Pullman’s Subtle Knife, carving windows into other worlds that hang in our own. And as silly as it may sound, I think I’ve been trying to find a sort-of mental sweet spot for some time, a framing that might harmonise reality and the roleplay. Something better than blank ocarinas.
I was walking with my brother recently, through a woods carpeted in spring bluebells (just as a break from going to the gym and lifting weights, obviously). As usual, it was Zelda’s ocarina medleys that I unconsciously hummed along the way. Not just as folky-sounding, vaguely ethereal ditties that suited the scenery. But as an instinctive reaction; one inextricably intertwined with my own sense of place within landscape. Melodies tied with movement, sounded out as threads of connection with the environment. It’s a kinaesthetic association; one formed in the hours spent guiding a child called Link through adventures of his own.
I think I accept it more now; that there’s no definitive Venn diagram of our fictions and how they overlay the facts of our day-to-day – there’s no single sweet spot. Humming the Song of Time, I’ve come to realise, is often my reflex response to natural landscapes: too grand to be simply taken in whole. It’s an admission of awe; one best made sense through the theme that plays when Link enters the majestic Temple of Time. And to some extent the tune’s my own, now – a personal resignation to the greater forces of nature; to time, the sublime and my living, moving presence amongst them. But even when I’m quiet there’s that echo – of these worlds we switch off, and the things they leave behind.