I vividly remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of talking to strangers online. I was nine years old and the catalyst was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
An action-fantasy game set in what was for the time one of the most expansive and interactive environments around, it’s widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time.
It’s also one of the hardest. Or least, that’s what I told myself as I fumbled my way through it as a kid.
One night I found myself flummoxed by the Water Temple level. Just saying those words is likely to send a chill down the spine of anyone who has played the game. Even now, years later, I’m still haunted by how difficult it was to beat. It’s so hard that a decade after the game was released, Zelda’s director actually issued an apology.
My parents were out that night and I was being looked after by a babysitter. She had spent the night on the computer, presumably browsing through the poorly designed Geocities websites that dominated the internet in the 90s.
Eventually, my failed attempts to best the Water Temple broke me and I flung my Nintendo 64 controller on the ground in frustration. That drew my babysitter’s attention. She asked me why I was so agitated and if she could help.
Unfortunately, she didn’t know what combination of magic and weighted boots I needed to solve the Water Temple’s complex puzzles, but she did propose a solution: internet chat rooms. My sitter explained that there were people who decided to spend most of their night staring into a screen, talking to strangers on the internet. Crazy, I know.
We ended up finding a chatroom innovatively titled “Games” on some long-defunct portal. She asked me to describe my dilemma to her as she typed it all out. We were inundated with people offering to help and sharing tips. (We were probably aided by the fact that someone describing themselves as a 17-year-old girl was in a video game themed chat room on a Friday night).
With the help of my sitter, and online strangers, I managed to beat the Water Temple that night. The experience left me with a deeper appreciation for two things: the challenging, yet satisfying, open world gameplay of the Zelda games, and the ability of the internet to build supportive communities.
Two decades later, and I’ve found myself admiring exactly the same things.
When this period of isolation kicked off a few weeks ago I went through the same thought process as most middle-class professionals lucky enough to have the security of a house and a stable income.
“This is going to be OK! I’ll cook delicious meals every night! I’ll catch up on a bunch of movies! I’ll read a stack of books! I’ll write a book!”
That bout of inspiration faded quickly: isolating while simultaneously trying to make sense of the chaos of the world around you is actually quite emotionally and mentally draining. The lofty goals you set yourself quickly morph into a more mundane challenge: getting through the long, slow days.
But the internet had a solution for me, just like it did 20 years ago: gaming.
Social media, the modern equivalent of the chatrooms of yore, has been flooded with photos and stories of people, some of whom had never played games before, buying new consoles so they make the time go faster, stimulate themselves, or create new bonds with their family.
The pandemic-induced isolation has seen a particularly intense run on Nintendo Switches, the contemporary equivalent of my old Nintendo 64. It makes sense. Nintendo has a reputation for making the most accessible and family-oriented gaming devices.
Bright, light-hearted games with an emphasis on community-building are a much more attractive option in these times than the bleak world of first-person shooters that tend to dominate consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One.
Unfortunately for me, the Switch’s popularity meant it was sold out across the world and manufacturing delays mean new stock won’t arrive for months.
But I couldn’t wait, so I bought the cheaper, portable version: the Switch Lite. The first game I got? The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Released in 2017, it’s the latest instalment in Nintendo’s long running Zelda franchise. It turns out I had bought the perfect game for our current moment.
Within a few seconds of starting the game I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. It was intensely familiar: the characters were the same, the core gameplay mechanics were the same (you run around an open-world medieval landscape killing monsters and fulfilling quests) but 20 years worth of technological development meant the visuals were stunning, and the gameworld more immersive and interactive than ever.
With so much uncertainty and anxiety dominating our lives at the moment, there’s something deeply comforting about being reminded of the simple pleasures of our youth. A lot of my friends have been finding solace in listening to the music of their teenage years, or revisiting old romcoms.
In these moments, when we’re consuming the culture of our past, we can shut out the mayhem swirling around us and tap into the naivety and innocence of our younger selves. It’s a perfect antidote for what we’re all dealing with.
But it’s not just nostalgia that makes Breath of the Wild so satisfying right now. It’s like the game was designed to allow us to live out heightened versions of what we’re all craving: exploring the outdoors, mystery, adventure, and even mundane conversations with people you don’t know.
There’s a plot to follow, sure, but what I’m finding most rewarding is the basics: roaming around the open world, gathering wild fruit, hunting animals, trading with villagers, slaying monsters. Having the ability to shape the game based on your own decisions has always been a hallmark of the best adventure games, but right now, when so much of the real world is out of our control, it’s never been more enjoyable.