Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes
When I was eleven, I convinced my dad to buy The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The pictures—Link in his green tunic, mostly—reminded me of King’s Quest, which I had watched him puzzle through on our computer. My dad had played video games as long as video games had existed, and he was always willing to invest in a new toy. Instead of playing OoT ourselves, my brother, Blake, and I watched him play through it. My dad was the training coordinator (a position I later realized was significantly less fancy than I thought) at Papa John’s, so sometimes he was home during a weekday. Once, I was home sick and helped him solve the puzzles in the Spirit Temple. Another time, he intentionally didn’t save his progress so when I got home from school he could show me King Zora squeaking aside to open the path to Lord Jabu Jabu. (I still make that squeaking noise when I’m squeezing past someone in a hallway or scooching over on a bench.)
When he finally went head to head with Ganon, it took forever. He couldn’t shoot light arrows accurately enough, or he ran out of magic, or he would fall jumping to slash Ganon with the Master Sword. Later, watching Blake play, I realized that part hadn’t been particularly hard—my dad was just not as good at video games as I thought he was.
But he was still a lot better than I was.
The year before OoT, I had saved up money in the summer doing odd jobs for my grandparents to buy an original Game Boy (used, missing the battery cover) and Pokèmon Blue. Other kids in my neighborhood had been playing it, I watched the anime in the morning, and I was obsessed. I loved the idea of little creatures, and I loved the idea of collecting things. But most of all, I loved that the turn-based style of play meant little-to-no stress on my part. I didn’t have to worry about the timing of my button pressing. I could strategize. I could win.
The first day, I played from the moment I got it until I fell asleep. I went through twelve batteries. When I closed my eyes, the phosphenes I saw behind my eyelids were pixelated.
On my first playthrough, I did not learn that I should maybe have more than one strong Pokèmon if I expected to breeze through the Elite Four, so I looked up the Missingno. cheat and rare-candied my way to victory.
But I did it! I beat the game. I have since beaten it one other time, on winter break of my junior year of undergrad.
In sitting down to write this essay, I was trying to figure out how many video games I’ve beaten. I’m not talking “completed” here; for example, I never caught ‘em all in Pokèmon Blue (let’s be real, I didn’t have enough (i.e., any) friends to trade with even if I had gotten close). I asked myself: how many games have I beaten the main quest of and gotten the credits to scroll?
It’s one. It’s Pokèmon Blue.
As a high schooler in the mid-aughts, I volunteered at a place called the Lower Paxton Youth Center. In a squat, one-story, cinderblock building owned by the township, we had poetry readings, vegan dinners, and other weird art events. Our main events, however, were shows: little concerts with local and touring bands. I was on the youth board as secretary, so I was intimately involved with running the place. I sold wristbands at the door. I sold pizza by the slice. I talked to bands between sets. I learned their lyrics and screamed them. I waltzed; I threw my body around; I was a part of it.
However, a group of people came to shows that we, the kids who booked the shows and ran the venue, despised: the scene kids. These were our peers that didn’t care about the music. They didn’t want to contribute to the community. Instead, they wanted to be there because of the scene. Which, of course, meant they wanted to be seen.
When thinking about the way I love video games, my first thought was: Am I a fraud? But this I quickly dismissed. I wasn’t lying, per se. Then, I realized my real question: Am I scene kid?
Here’s the thing. I’m not good at video games. I was good at Pokèmon Blue for two reasons: 1) It was turned based, and 2) I cheated. (Though, the second time I beat it, I won because I patiently trained my Pokèmon in the tall grass and also spent much of my early days getting a Gyrados.)
In Alyse Knorr’s book Super Mario Bros. 3, she writes about how the muscle memory of beating Bowser came back even fifteen years after she had last played: “My SMB3 skills came as a result of hours and hours of childhood practice—enough, statistically speaking, to achieve true ‘expert’ status.” My husband, Kenny, also has these moves stitched into his being. On Friday nights, he’ll often suggest we drink Scotch, order pizza, and play Super Mario Bros. 3, switching back and forth as we beat or lose each level. What this turns into is Kenny effortlessly running and hopping through each level, taking secret paths to collect extra coins, and knowing precisely when to employ different suits, while I try to jump over a chasm and instead jump directly into the center of the chasm.
“Wow,” Kenny said to me one night, after I had died all of fifteen seconds into a level. “You really look like you’re intentionally trying to fall down those chasms.”
I never learned these patterns of muscle memory, partly because I’m less interested in games without explicit stories, partly from watching my friends and family play video games more often than playing them myself. At this point in my life, as a writer, working as an editor, with a baby to take care of, I will likely never put in the effort to learn them. This timing involved with pressing buttons in early classics like Super Mario doesn’t exactly transfer to the modern games I’m more interested in, like Skyrim, but those skills definitely seem to help.
I would say my favorite game series is still Zelda. I’ve dressed up as Link for Halloween more than once (this upcoming Halloween, I plan on being Link, Kenny is going to be a gender-bent Prince Zelda, and our son will wear a chicken hat; he’s going to be a cucco), I own a Link-tunic hoodie with the Hylian shield sewn to the back and a pointy hood to cap it off, and recently I took pictures of myself and my son wearing matching Link outfits. When my son cries in his sleep, I sneak into his room and sing him “Epona’s Song.” It always calms him down. I picked this to be his lullaby in part because it’s my favorite Zelda song (and the more obvious “Zelda’s Lullaby” has notes that are too high) and because, like most video game tunes, it’s meant to repeat on a loop: a perfect way to sing a lullaby for thirty seconds or three minutes. I sang it often when he was still in utero, instilling it as comfort even before he was born.
But all this said, I haven’t even beaten my favorite game, the one I started with: Ocarina of Time. I have tried many times since my dad beat it. I can easily navigate the Great Deku Tree, Dodongo’s Cavern, and Lord Jabu-Jabu’s Belly. Once, I got stuck at the Water Temple (a classic spot to fail). The last time I tried, I got stuck in the Gerudo Fortress. Even looking up how to sneak past the busty Gerudo women, I couldn’t figure it out.
I have played about two thirds of Skyward Sword, but it’s taken me years. In Skyward Sword, you have trials you must complete in the Silent Realm before moving on to the dungeon for that area. In each trial, you transport to a ghostly parallel version of a map you’ve already encountered. Here, you have to collect Sacred Tears. Sounds easy enough, except that there are terrifying shells of armor called Guardians that will come after you with their huge weapons (along with heart-pounding music) if you: 1) take too long to find the next Sacred Tear, 2) are seen by Watchers, these creepy ghost things with lanterns, or 3) touch silvery water (that’s usually ebbing around a Sacred Tear). One hit from a Guardian ends the trial, and you have to start over.
The first time I played through the first Silent Realm, I yelled the entire time. Zelda games, with a few notable exceptions, tend not to be scary (at least not like one of Kenny’s favorite franchises, Silent Hill), but these sections, with their creepy twilight, all-encompassing danger, and ambient music really stressed me out. I, of course, lost my first trial in the Silent Realm and my second. Kenny was sleeping (he had not appreciated my yelling), so I put the game away and didn’t play again for six months. Finally, with Kenny’s emotional support and the volume turned down a bit, I got through the first trial. I beat the dungeon and then, with another Silent Realm waiting for me, got scared and put the game away for another six months. I am still in the middle of this process. Since I started the game, I have gotten accepted into an MFA program, gotten married, completed my MFA program, gotten a job, and had a baby.
The truth of the matter is I’d prefer to watch someone play video games than play them myself. I want to read video-game specific wikis about them, I want to sing my son “Epona’s Song,” I want to have Kenny cross stitch me a Triforce for my desk at work, I want to read books about the history of video games like Alyse’s book, I want to dress up as Link for Halloween, and I want to buy the Silent Hill Soundtrack on vinyl from EBay as a surprise for Kenny because he missed buying it from the source before it sold out. But I only sometimes want to actually play video games. I’d rather sit snuggled on the couch as my baby sleeps, knitting him a cucco hat for Halloween while I watch my husband play through the demo of Prey, yelling and laughing in surprise when a mimic appears.
As much as I can admit this, I can’t help but hate myself a little bit for it. I can’t help but see myself as a scene kid. Because there’s something logically flawed to the idea of rejecting the fundamental purpose of video games: playing them.
Walking to the parking garage at work, I hear three tech dudes talking beside me. These guys always exit the office around the same time I’m leaving for the day, strolling to have a smoke away from the building’s main entrance. I hear one of them say, “Oh yeah, and Half-Life 2 was so glitchy. My copy let me walk right up to the G-man.”
“A-ha,” I say, interjecting myself into their conversation, “but what’s better? A glitchy game or a game that doesn’t exist at all?” I am, of course, implying that the imperfect Half-Life 2 was better than the non-existent and long yearned-for Half-Life 3.
The three men size me up. I am not only a woman but a pregnant one. Do I really know what I’m saying here? I’ve made a safe entrance into this conversation, because I’m going to pass them to get to my car, so I know they won’t be able to probe my knowledge much. Admittedly, I’m more familiar with Portal, the spin-off puzzle game in the same universe, than I am with the Half-Life games. Finally, after what seems like a long time, but is really only a few steps, they chuckle.
“Good point,” one says.
In my car, I feel oddly triumphant (I call Kenny immediately to tell him) but also mad at myself. I don’t actually want to be friends with these dudes, nor do I feel any need to impress them. But in that moment, I wanted them to know their conversation wasn’t exclusive. I wanted them to know that I, too, know about video games.