In December, I went to a performance of the Royal Philharmonic symphony orchestra, at which they played solely music from the Pokémon games. I wrote a thing about it. That thing was wrong.
That was how I felt at the similar event I attended over the weekend: the Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses. And to be fair, it’s sort of how I felt immediately after writing the thing, because everything I said about how adults should be completely free to indulge in childish glee without “trying to appear cool or unenthusiastic (and those two things are so often seen as the same thing)” is true and important, but the conclusion was a messy addition that doesn’t logically follow.
That conclusion was essentially that we too often forget that games are supposed to be about fun and enjoyment, which is not necessarily wrong but hugely oversimplified. Not that it’s groundbreaking to say that things are more complicated than that, but…things are more complicated than that.
Before we talk Zelda, let’s talk another game that was in the spotlight semi-recently: That Dragon, Cancer. When the developers revealed that they had not yet made any money from sales and discussed the impact that Let’s Plays could be having on this fact, there was a strong thread of response along the lines “well, actually no one wants to play a game about a child who dies of cancer.”
True or not, this sentiment does not follow through to other media. Sad movies and books are often successful in all meanings of the term. And some of the best games are not simply vehicles for enjoyment; most recently for me, I played and loved The Last of Us, and its greatness comes not from it being fun – though I guess it was that too - but from it being thematically and emotionally impactful.
Regardless, critics, if not gamers as a unified whole, have been saying for years that games are about more than just “fun” so before I embarrass myself by further repeating blandness, which is what got me into this mess in the first place, let’s talk about The Legend of Zelda.
I loved Symphony of the Goddesses, but it was not the same distilled joy of Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions. Yet in many ways this made it more worthwhile. Indulging in the pure carefree nostalgia of Symphonic Evolutions was wonderful, but the nuanced enjoyment of Symphony of the Goddesses gave me more to think about with regards to gaming as a whole.
During the show, there were brief interludes with discussions from Shigeru Miyamoto and other Zelda developers. Miyamoto talked about how Link and the player experience a journey throughout the game. This journey is enjoyable, for sure, but it’s not just enjoyable. There’s so much more to almost all games, but especially The Legend of Zelda.
This almost something that is odd for me to say, because playing Zelda has been some of the most joyous moments of my life. A couple of years ago me and my sister 100% completed Ocarina of Time for the first time, and I don’t think I stopped laughing the whole way through. Now we’re doing the same with Majora’s Mask. But playing any Zelda title is more than that.
Playing Zelda is participating in a 30 year history; one that is both communal and culturally significant. It’s sharing in an experience that millions will have, but no two in quite the same way. It’s engaging with something that is more than just ‘fun’. Far more.
All of these things are, of course, intertwined. The Legend of Zelda is more fun because of it’s history, community, and storytelling. Fun also feeds into why the series has been around for so long and has such a vibrant community, and part of the design of the story and world is to allow the player to have fun. It is also, however, to allow the player to feel other emotions, to question the world around them, and to go on a full and diverse journey.
Each of these elements feeds into an overall experience, and they do so in all games – really in all forms of media and art. This is why it’s possible to harshly critique something that was also very enjoyable; the negative elements of a game do not always override the ultimate experience but are nonetheless worthy of discussion.
Ultimately, things besides fun – like the sense of community at a concert inspired by the music of a game – can be the best things about games. They can also be misused – like the man behind me who assumed a woman sitting near him must not be part of this community and therefore asked her whether she had ever played a Zelda game. Many complex interactions feed into both sides of this coin, and all are worthy of examination so that we can make gaming everything that it could be, whilst having fun alongside.
Not forgetting that gaming as a hobby can bring real joy is important. It’s important because it puts our discussions into context, allows us to remain judgement free with regards to enthusiasm, and because it reminds us to involve as many people in our communities as possible, so that they too can experience this enjoyment. But it’s also limiting to consider that “fun” should be the be-all and end-all of video games.