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Lessons from Hyrule


Erika Gallion
Mix Tape • Nonfiction

ONE.

Ocarina of Time begins with a black screen and white text. The first line reads: “In the vast, deep forest of Hyrule… Long have I served as the guardian spirit…. I am known as the Deku Tree.” The black screen fades to an interior space shot from above, a birds-eye view of a room made of wood. There’s a child asleep, stomach-down on his bed. “The children of the forest, the Kokiri, live here with me. Each Kokiri has his or her own guardian fairy.” The camera angle changes again and the viewer comes face to face with Link, our hero: “However, there is one boy who does not have a fairy…” We see Link shiver, shifting in his sleep, and the screen fades to black again before a different setting emerges. It’s dark and rainy, and the heavy sound of the castle drawbridge chugs as two sconces blaze.

The camera angle is off-centered and hazy. There’s a quick sound of horse hooves running before the castle’s drawbridge descends. Standing in front of the drawbridge is Link, who looks confused to not be sleeping soundly in the forest. A white horse charges out from the castle, a girl in pink and a woman in blue on the horse’s back. They are fleeing. Link, watching the girl go, feels a presence behind him, and when he turns around back toward the castle, there’s a black horse done up in chains and a tall, intimidating man atop its back. Gone are the ambient rain noises; now it’s heavy organ music, sounds of doom. Ganondorf, the man atop the horse, the man destined to become the game’s villain, chuckles at Link’s astonishment. The scene closes with the camera stuck on Link’s paralyzed, incredulous face. 

That level of shock—an emotion, for me, akin to awe—felt like a distorted reflection of my own emotional landscape during my introduction to Legend of Zelda. I was mesmerized by the game’s musical score, its dungeon layouts, all of the quirky characters. But most of all, I was taken with the writing of the game, the world-building; I savored the cut scenes, especially the one of the three golden goddesses, Din, Nayru, and Farore, who created the land of Hyrule. I loved the word “goddess.” I loved the eight dungeons of the game, all of them unique. I loved that there was a princess in the game but she wasn’t one that necessarily needed saving; in fact, she’s a part of the game’s holy trinity, equally as important as Link. And amazingly, the other holy third is Ganondorf, repellent but also inexorable. Together the three characters make up the Triforce, an iconic symbol of the Legend of Zelda Series. Three triangles form one larger triangle, and when all thirds come together, true and absolute power is achieved. Fates twisted around and betwixt, through generations, the pain felt again and again and again and again.  

 

TWO.

We sat around the television when Dad played. Mom usually sat on the couch folding laundry. Ethan fiddled with his toys, poking his head up at the screen whenever prompted. Dad always sat on the floor when he played and I sat to his side, my legs crossed. When we entered a dungeon’s boss battle I pulled my knees into my chest, and Dad said everybody ready? Ethan and Mom didn’t have an interest in handling Link, and I was horrified by the possibility that I could ruin Dad’s playthrough, so mostly Dad controlled the game play. Sometimes I’d write things down in my diary, locations of curious people or places we’d need to come back to later.  

I played the most in the Forest Temple, finally accepting the feel of that three-pronged N64 controller in my hands. I loved the ivy growing over the walls in that temple, loved the sounds, the way the audio of the game worked in tandem with the plot, propelling you deeper into the dungeon. Oftentimes I’d get hit with a Deku Flower’s long stem and Link would recoil, losing half a heart. My body jumped as if personally attacked and Dad laughed, urging me to keep going. This feels real to you, doesn’t it? I remember him asking me. 

There were nights, then, when the only hour my father didn’t drink was when he turned on the Nintendo 64. He could get absorbed into Hyrule enough that he’d let his beer go unopened. It felt like he’d finally chosen me.

 

THREE.

A dog-eared copy of Sibley Birds East sits on my parents’ kitchen table. Its binding is broken, spider veins climbing up its spine. My father uses pink Post-its as field notes, identifying the birds that frequent his Northeastern Ohio backyard. He and my mother invest in bird houses, seed, flowers. To attract orioles, they plop grape jelly on top of an overripe ear of corn. The trick didn’t work at first but before long my parents called me, the two of them laughing on speakerphone. They’re here! It was alarming to hear my parents squealing like that, almost like they were in love.

They got off the phone to continue watching the puffed chests of the orange orioles and I sat in silence on my couch in Los Angeles, confused. I had parents who FaceTimed me, pushing their faces together to get the best angle of their daughter. Somehow the same parents who yelled, who went weeks without speaking to one another, who sometimes only spoke over the nightly playing of Zelda when I lived at home. Now, they were flirting, egregiously even. How?

My parents recently told me about the Pileated Woodpeckers that live in the tall pines alongside our house. Males can grow up to 16-19 inches in length, topped with dramatic flairs of red crown feathers on their heads. The species is known for the signature shape their beaks leave behind in rotted wood: rectangles. You know, I’ve seen sparrows and robins use Pileateds, my dad says. Use ‘em for their strong beaks! These guys drill into wood and then these littler birds are like, hell yeah, we’ll move in! 

There are smaller woodpeckers in my parents’ yard as well as the Pileateds. My dad says he loves the Downy Woodpeckers, small guys with lines of white dots on their side feathers and a bold white stripe down their black back feather. The male Downys’ heads are dotted with red, but the marking can’t be mistaken for a crown; much less impressive than the Pileateds’ nape. I assumed that my father would prefer the Pileated Woodpeckers, what with their impressive height and their dinosaur-like cries. But he tells me that in his old age he prefers the humility of the Downy to the bravado of the Pileated. He says that Downys are funny, that they can be friendly to other birds, that they can manipulate small areas that the Pileateds miss. I would’ve picked Pileateds as my favorite if you’d have asked me before. Before what, I wonder, but never ask.

How is it possible that it mostly feels like I’m amid a happy ending, where my family birdwatches together on the back patio and we applaud, we literally clap our hands together, at my dad’s ability to identify birdsong. DDDDDDD, my father rolls his tongue against his teeth, trying to mimic the noise of a Downy pecking into wood. And then there’s a drumming from a real Downy somewhere in the trees, a staccato burst of beat that makes all four of us raise our eyebrows in quiet awe.

 

FOUR.

I bring my Nintendo Switch to Ohio when I visit my parents, so that my dad can watch me play Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When I play he gives me tips. He stands in the doorway of my old bedroom, Busch can in his right hand, and he tells me to slow down, quit moving so fast. He tells me to use my hookshot, to use ‘Up C’ to take a look around the dungeon and I resist telling him that neither the hookshot or the C buttons have made it to this new console generation. Dad asks me what Ganondorf is up to and I tell him: same old shit. But that’s not entirely true. There hasn’t been a Ganondorf as sinister or as cool since the iteration in Ocarina of Time, the game my father and I played together two decades ago. No other incarnation of Ganondorf has as evil of a laugh, as intimidating of a presence. 

I’ve played every Zelda game that’s been released since Ocarina of Time. My dad hasn’t played any others. A few years ago, home for the winter holidays, I showed my father Hyrule Hystoria, an encyclopedia of the Legend of Zelda series. For what felt like hours, my father and I pored over the pages devoted to Ocarina of Time, reading aloud to one another, pausing at the two paragraphs mentioning the Water Temple, where we’d gotten stuck years and years ago. I laughed to puncture the pause. Revisionist laughter, the kind that only time permits. In truth, the Water Temple is a place not of laughter but of pain, a kind of shrine to being abandoned by my father. 

 

FIVE.

Ocarina of Time is a story about the passing of time. Link, in an effort to save the land of Hyrule, gains the power of time travel. With his sword, he’s able to advance time seven years; the sword can likewise return him to his childhood self. Switching between adult and child Link is a necessary task in Ocarina of Time; while the first three dungeons of the game are completed only by childhood Link, the final five require Link in both his child form and adult form. The schism of time is felt everywhere across Hyrule. Link bears witness to the wreckage of each land he visited in the earlier part of the game: Zora’s domain, the sanctuary for the Zora people, has been frozen to ice; Goron City, the home of Gorons on Death Mountain, is robbed of food supply; even the innocent Kokiri forest is tainted by Ganondorf, the forest vines sprouting monsters where it once sprouted blooms. Everyone in Hyrule has become more pained versions of themselves, weighed down by Ganondorf’s cruelty.

In the forest, when Link sees his childhood friend Saria for the first time in his adult form, Saria tells Link she must leave to protect the Forest Temple. Sheik, a mysterious sage-like character who enters the game in Link’s adult timeline, watches Saria enter the temple: ‘the flow of time is always cruel… its speed seems different for each person, but no one can change it. Time passes, people move. Like a river’s flow, it never ends.’ Link enters the Forest Temple– the first dungeon out of five in his adult form– saddened at Saria potentially being lost to whatever demonic force ails the temple. 

My father and I loved the Forest Temple. Its puzzles were fun, tricky but not punishing. The music and sounds throughout the dungeon made our musty Midwestern basement feel like a sacred shrine. At the end of the dungeon, Link battles a boss more sinister than those in previous dungeons: Phantom Ganon. My father struggled with the Phantom Ganon boss fight, mostly because of the quick pace required to bat the phantom’s attacks back at him. But the victory, when it finally came, lifted us. We hugged one another, my brother and my mom clapping, too. Dad said something about Ganondorf not fucking around anymore, about the adult-Link bosses being serious shit. A cut scene after Phantom Ganon’s defeat reveals Saria’s fate: she’s sealed in the Forest Temple as a sage, one of six that will eventually assist Link in his quest. We cannot find her in the forest as adult Link after the Forest Temple; in order to see Saria again we have to travel back to the past. We have to pretend that we don’t know what’s waiting for her.

 

SIX.

The game changed when Dad entered the Water Temple. The five dungeons that came before the Water Temple were challenging, tedious even, but the intricacies of the Water Temple were unlike anything we’d encountered thus far in Hyrule. The Water Temple is now famous for its difficulty; the dungeon itself has become a meme in gaming communities, its name a homonym for overly punishing dungeons. But we didn’t know that then. I couldn’t comfort my father’s frustration with the temple by reading him Reddit posts where gamers commiserate together over ill-placed whirlpools and secret rooms. The temple is controlled by three switches; these switches mandate how high the water level will be in the temple. If Link manipulates the switches correctly, he will find his way to the heart of the temple where one of Ganonforf’s evil monsters dwells. But a lot can go wrong with these three switches; Link can activate the wrong one, for example, lowering the water level before he’s ready. 

I remember so clearly entering the temple. Link enters underwater, iron boots equipped. The sound of chimes and gurgling water lifts him to the surface. In the center of the main room there is an ivory tower surrounded by deep blue water. Surrounding the tower there are locked doors and inaccessible rooms. When Dad died in the temple, which was often, this was where we’d return, underwater with ghostly chimes ricocheting. The GAME OVER screen would dissolve and there we were again, at the start of the temple, unsure which underwater path we were last in, which switch we were attempting to reach. 

Hyrule didn’t necessarily feel safe to me as a child. It was dangerous and sometimes scary. But it did feel like home, in the way that home sometimes felt like a puzzle to complete.

It felt like home when my dad rode Epona the horse across Hyrule Field, or when he delivered masks to castle guards on a side mission. The Forest Temple especially felt like home, its trees so similar to our trees, its bird calls sounding like the robins of our front yard. But something shifted in my perception of Hyrule when Dad got to the Water Temple. He grew annoyed, frustrated. He started bringing a case of beer with him when we sat down to play. He started letting Ethan goof off with the controller, wasting our hard-earned rupees. He started taking nights off from the game. 

There was a stretch of time when Dad didn’t play at all. There were nights I begged him to pick up the controller. He’d left Link stuck in a hallway in the Water Temple. I remember how much it hurt that my father couldn’t get unstuck, that he couldn’t find a way out, that I couldn’t find him a way out. In bed at night, I would pray aloud to Din, Nayru, and Farore, asking them to get my dad out of the Water Temple. I’d tell them that I didn’t understand my father’s anger; I’d tell them how heavy gravity got when he did agree to play, after too many beers, and he grumbled, laughed, teased me for my hope. I told them I felt abandoned, that Hyrule, I thought, was the one place my father and I could be happily alone together in. Yes, my brother and mother were there, too, watching the screen, but it was only my father and me reading every word, cradling the controller. It was ours.

I used to fantasize about pouring each of my father’s beer cans out. In the fantasy I went slowly, tipping the cans inch by inch and letting the liquid drip, drip, drip empty into the ground before opening another.

The Shell station was right up the street, though. Busch beer in bulk. If I were to empty one twenty-four pack there’d be another within the hour.

 

SEVEN.

I send my mother a picture of a grackle in Austin, an anhinga in Florida, a small flock of red-crowned parrots screeching through the skies of Los Angeles. I tell her to show Dad. He didn’t have a cell phone until 2019, when we finally made him get a prepaid phone from Walmart. It’s so old it doesn’t even flip. It’s plenty enough, he says. But he likes FaceTime, loves seeing photos from my road trips out west. When he’s on FaceTime his eyes appear half-closed because he doesn’t understand to look at the camera instead of my face. 

 

EIGHT.

There aren’t many birds in Ocarina of Time. Just an owl during the beginning of the game who is used to teach the player basic game mechanics. Everyone hates the owl because he talks too much and he isn’t very helpful, especially for players like me who have played the game through already. There are also annoying enemies called guays which fly at your head and make strange noises. And, best of all, there are cuccoos, Zelda chickens. Players interact a lot with cuccoos during Ocarina of Time; for some reason a lot of the game’s NPCs (non-playable characters) own them or need something from them. Sometimes Link needs a cuccoo’s assistance to close a gap or float across a bridge (if Link jumps off a cliff with a cuccoo in his hands, the cuccoo will fly, acting as a mediocre paraglider). Cuccoos are most beloved, though, for their aggression and their will to fight back. If Link strikes a cuccoo with his sword multiple times, at the behest of the player who is consistently hitting the B button, the screen will go dark. The camera will zoom in on the cuccoo whom you’ve hurt; it will screech, calling forth a cloud of other cuccoos. They fly at you, bludgeoning your health nonstop until you find an exit. They can easily kill you for your cruelty.

It’s a favorite Zelda quirk of mine, and of my father’s. How did the game know so many players would strike cuccoos with their sword? What is it in human nature to be so predictable?  To be cruelly curious, always?

I have personally completed Ocarina of Time four times on my own, but I’ve started the game more times than I can count. I have the first four dungeons of the game– the three during Link’s childhood along with the Forest Temple– so memorized that I can complete them all within an hour and a half. Their secret rooms are well-known to me, as familiar as the cheetah-printed bedsheets I slept in as a girl. The Water Temple and the two dungeons that come after, though, are almost entirely unfamiliar; they give me a feeling of unease upon entering. The victorious celebration that came after my father felled Phantom Ganon in the Forest Temple was absent when he finally finished the Water Temple. I remember only that he got in his red Ford 150 right after the temple’s boss fight, that I had to save the game because he’d forgotten before leaving; after all those deaths, all that time he’d been stuck, he didn’t even care enough to save the game. I knew he was going to the bar or to his friends house. Somewhere with more beer and less me. 

I wish the moment that has hurt the widest, stuck in my throat the longest, wasn’t so pathetic. The words I’d coaxed, the ones I’d been waiting to hear my entire life. You’re the reason I drink. No metaphor. No magical language. Just the accusation, the small chamber leading to truth opening at the pit of my stomach. It hurt as badly as I had feared it would.

 

NINE.

I don’t think I’ve forgiven my father for the Water Temple, or for what came after. I sickened myself with how desperate I was for him to play, only for his eventual victory to feel unwanted, hollow. After the Water Temple, the ceremony of our playing wasn’t the same. My father no longer announced his gameplay to the family; instead he’d play while I was at school, leaving me ignorant of entire floors of dungeons. I do not remember sitting together while my father finally beat the game. I remember crying when the end finally did come, a sigh of relief after the anxiety of the three-part battle with Ganondorf, and I remember hugging my mother in an attempt to mark this moment as important. 

The game ends after Link successfully fells Ganondorf in battle. The castle begins to crumble, and Zelda flees, directing Link to follow. If one can successfully navigate through the falling rocks and broken staircases, Link will wind up at the top of the castle. Ganondorf the man is no longer. In his place is Ganon, a pig-like monster with red eyes of rage. Once Link beats back this monster, Ganondorf is finally felled for good. Zelda and Link get a moment together to make sense of their twisted fates before something strange begins to happen. Due to Link’s success, the game’s sages are powerful enough to reverse the last seven years of pain and terror under Ganondorf’s rule. Link is sent back to his childhood self, back to a market square full of people unaware of what this hero of time has done for them. Only he has the knowledge of what happened in that other timeline; he must care for those wounds alone. 

There are certain areas of the game, characters even, that echo in my chest. I feel, when I see these characters yet another time through, like I’m my childhood self again, hoping against hope that this could save my father. This land, this story.

But that’s a child’s hope. Hyrule did not rescue my father from his alcoholism. It did not change, in any meaningful way, how he talked to my mother, to me, to my brother. The best Ocarina of Time did was give my father a distraction, provide the kind of play that ignites the imagination so much that you forget there’s a can of beer open and warming. It gave the four of us a reason to sit together, comfortably. It gave me my first lessons in storytelling and character development. 

My father drinks as heavily as he did then. But his disease has shifted from cruelty to sentimentality. He calls me now to philosophize about his woodpeckers, to complain about how much seed they eat. He often becomes overwhelmed with emotion. He often cries. Hearing my aging father cry makes me soft. I see the young me in his crying, the feeling of abandonment, and I feel not guilt but something akin to guilt for having been the one to leave. Somehow when I am home now, the four members of my family gravitate toward one another effortlessly, as if we didn’t need a video game to do this for us for years. Somehow I have accepted that this life – swimming with my father, mother, and brother on a perfect June afternoon, singing and laughing – is its own sanctuary. It’s something real, not only something hoped for, something sought out. And the laughter doesn’t negate the tears. The joy doesn’t blot out the pain. Melancholy, saddened by leftover heartache, still oozes out of our home’s walls. 

My father and I share a favorite temple in Ocarina of Time: the Forest Temple. Its soundtrack involves echoes, calls outward, calls inward. Saria and Link, Link and Saria. Voices hum and huh back and forth, like birdsong in my father’s backyard, like the voicemails my father and I leave one another. Constellation in the sky tonight glowing so bright, blue jays hogging the food this week, miss you, see you soon. Echoes of pain followed by echoes of gratitude.

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