The Campfire is a column where we regale you with tales of our video game adventures. This is a tale of a young boy and an overclocked imagination….
The wonderful thing about childhood is that moments of fear, surprise, and joy all seem profound. Part of this only comes through reflection years later when our mind exaggerates the time in our life when we had nothing to worry about. We have a developed imagination paired with an undeveloped perception of reality. We know a little about the world but not enough to completely understand it. There’s still magic in the seams.
My imagination was bolstered by three specific films in my youth: The Dark Crystal, Willow, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If you’ve never seen any of those films, they’re all fairly terrifying for a kid, especially one groomed on more family-friendly fare. The Dark Crystal and Willow encouraged the more fantastical part of my mind, to acknowledge that not every thing in the world is what it seems. The Temple of Doom forced me to associate the colors red and orange with bleeding hearts and human organs. I was drowning in evocative fantasy images.
So it was that I stepped into the world of video games expecting the worse in things. Like classic fairy tales, art was all about teaching me a lesson. I was 10 years old and my family had just moved into a new home. My birthday was a few days afterwards and I received a copy of Banjo-Kazooie and a Nintendo 64. I loved the game then (and hate it now) but it wasn’t until The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that video games finally clicked with me. Late in December, over the long summer break, my whole family gathered around the TV and took an arduous and rewarding journey through Hyrule.
Why this happened is still a mysterious to me. Perhaps it was the simple allure of new technology, or maybe it was the combination of action and puzzle solving in a strange, new perspective that offered something for gamers and observers alike. It remains the only game I’ve played to engage so many people all at once.
And it’s a good thing too because I needed my family with me. Ocarina of Time was terrifying.
It was an unsettling sort of fear at first. The game opens with murky visuals and a subdued color palette as a moon sets in the background and solitary horse hooves punctuate the silence. A lone horse rider appears in the distance and a reassuring piano arpeggio rings out. The sun rises and the man and his horse cross what looks like an endless world with all sorts of tales to be told and history to be discovered. Surrounded by my family, it was an inspiring look into a world that none of us had ever seen in a game.
I felt utterly alone whenever I saw that introduction by myself. The wonderful music sounded like a funeral march to a lone figure who was desperately searching for someone to share his journey with. Solidarity, gone.
Link became the boy I shared my fears with whenever I was playing alone. Here was a boy plagued by a vivid, unsettling nightmare and utterly alone. Unlike the other children in Kokiri Forest, Link had no fairy companion and was largely ostacized from the community because of it.
The nightmare Link experienced was what really got to me, though. While dissimilar to my own dream, it was a connection that separated my personal experience of the game with my family’s experience. Link was troubled, confused with what the dream was about. Attempting to explain my nightmare only lead to reassurances I was watching too many episodes of The Simpsons and didn’t help me confront what was really going on. Oh, to feel ignored as a child when you’re anything but. I was a snot-nosed kid that wanted answers to all my strange dreams.
And Ocarina of Time was going to help me with something… at least I thought it would. Why else would I play a game I found so frightening? The opening asked me to crawl through a tiny tunnel to get a sword and then traipse into a giant man-eating tree. There had to be something for me after all this effort.
Stepping into The Great Deku Tree with my family transformed the oppressive atmosphere into one where everyone would be shouting out suggestions and clues and the dark recesses of my mind was kept at bay. The giant spiders felt more like a cog in the machine, only there as a part of the greater puzzle to make the dungeons interesting to play. When the Deku kid told of us the riddle “twenty-three is number one!”, we all saw it as a whimsical nod to Alice in Wonderland. Conquering Queen Gohma, a bizarre amalgamation of a spider and scorpion, at the very bottom of the dungeon lost all gravitas when a group of four people are screaming and shouting at you to try ten different things all at once.
The same dungeon took on an entirely new light when tackled by myself. The Deku Tree was going to eat me and I’d find myself absorbed into the dying wood of a thousand-year-old oak. The tree was going to ignite and burn down from all the curious torches inside of it, crushing my poor brittle bones instantly. The spiders hissed and crawled across the walls with an unnatural, fluid grace; their eyes beaming red just before they attacked me.
When I finally broke through the thick spider webbing inside of the first room and fell down to an unusual pool of water, I pressed up against the gated bars and wondered where all the water was coming from. Maybe just down this passageway were the Deku Tree’s roots and a cascading waterfall into… nothingness. Or maybe Queen Gohma was busy guzzling and tearing at the Deku Tree’s organs, or whatever kept him alive, and she’d lunge out of the darkness and grab my frail, little body without a moment’s notice.
And then there was the weight of responsibility that was joyously welcomed by everyone and apprehensively shouldered by myself when we learned of a bigger world out there and our destiny to retrieve the three Spiritual Stones. Hyrule Field was charted by rolls and backflips as a family and cautiously explored and prodded by myself. The gargantuan flying tents with rotating blades on their undersides cut into me before I finally bested them and they exploded in my face, mocking my efforts to wander the fields alone. A night in Hyrule by myself was spent submerged in the closest body of water staring up at the moon, as the undead skeletons clawed up out of the ground and wandered the barren fields.
The journey up Death Mountain was equally demanding. Gunpowder had now entered Link’s arsenal and exploring the depths of Dodongo Cavern was a frightening ordeal with fire, brimstone, and all sorts of mechanized contraptions impeding my progress. The fear of the organic had been superseded by the fear of the inorganic. Laser beams shot out from the eyes of stationary constructs and glorified hockey discs covered in spikes patrolled narrow hallways. I explored half of the dungeon with my family in tow and spent the rest of it cowering in fear at what felt like a deathtrap. My shield burnt up and the ever-present “dinging” of a depleted life bar was unrelenting. When the giant eyes of a skeletonized Dodongo lit up and its gaping maw slowly opened, I travelled down its oesophagus and was promptly murdered by King Dodongo. My dad finished him off for me.
But it was Lord Jabu-Jabu where all control was relinquished to my parents and I stepped into complete backseat-gaming. I could handle trekking into dead things and their mouths but a living, breathing fish the size of a house was another matter entirely. And it really did feel like I was in something alive. If I swung my sword inside the Deku Tree or deep inside Dodongo’s Cavern, I hit wood and stone respectively. But here, inside a fish, everything was squelchy. If I missed my target, my sword struck flesh and a loud, guttural roar echoed throughout the area.
Upon entering the first room of the dungeon, I panicked and attacked everything. The palette-swapped doors inside Lord Jabu-Jabu that resembled fleshy body parts weren’t things to be opened – they were meant to be attacked. I got stuck because I didn’t notice the indicator on the screen pointing out that, yes, this was a door and it could be opened. Turning back only revealed a row of teeth and I didn’t want to go near those. I was stuck.
It was only after Lord Jabu-Jabu and all the secrets inside his belly were bested, and I found myself alone with the game once again, that I found the strength to face my fears. And it wasn’t because of Ganondorf’s sleight of hand to sneak inside the Sacred Realm and steal the Triforce of Power while Link lay in stasis, or because he finally won and was soon to ruin the Hyrule that I had just spent hours exploring. No, thanks to being alone and terrified of what was about to come, I wandered through Hyrule Castle town one last time before heading into the Temple of Time. I distracted myself with slingshot games and dumb masks until I stumbled upon a lone guard down an alleyway. He spoke of Ganondorf’s betrayal and Princess Zelda’s kidnapping before finally collapsing, motionless.
As frightening as Ocarina of Time had been, I had yet to see anyone fall because of my mistakes. If I was afraid, I could simply pass on the controller to my dad and he’d be able to best the challenge that lay before me. Or I could find solidarity by watching my sister play and be equally as hopeless and lost as myself. But they were never going to be around me all the time. They weren’t around me now and this had happened.
Stepping inside of the Temple of Time and being frozen in place for seven long years was my penance for my childish fears and worries. When I finally stepped forth as an adult, it was empowering. I now had the chance to save the world I couldn’t save before.
Ocarina of Time was still terrifying. Braving the depths of the undead in the Spirit Temple and journeying to The Bottom of the Well remain harrowing experiences even today. A thing tried to eat my face and I fell down countless invisible floors. I knew I was going to drown in the Water Temple and it was only a matter of time. But there was a purpose behind my actions now instead of vague wanderings and trepidation. I needed more from the game than the thrill of seeing new things, I needed a reason to care.
When I finally reached the Spirit Temple and flung myself back in time to the little Link I once was, I realized that it had been a long time since my family were huddled around the screen. They’d grown bored with my item hunting and glacial world exploration. I had grown familiar with the land of Hyrule and felt more at ease in exploring it, to stop and smell the roses along the way. This went against the emotional collective of my family who gathered around Ocarina of Time like a game of cards. It was a thing to be completed and put away, we wanted different things. I just wasn’t ready for what I wanted. Now, I had no more use for my childish ways.
And I was no longer afraid.