Getting Philosophical about Legend of Zelda: An Interview with Kristina Drzaic and Peter Rauch

Are video games philosophical texts? They certainly encourage players to make choices and explore what their consequences may be and in mapping those consequences, they can help us to see the world through certain moral and ethical lenses. The challenge, of course, is to encourage players to reflect on the logic shaping their actions and the game’s responses, to move from playing the game to examining themselves and their decisions. A recent book, Luke Cuddy’s The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy, sought to apply a range of philosophical concepts and debates to the long-standing Zelda video game series.

A pair of my former students, Peter Rauch and Kristina Drzaic, both from our graduate class of 2007, contributed to the book and agreed to share some of their perspectives on the blog. I’ve had the pleasure to watch both of them grow as game theorists — and in Kristina’s case, as a designer who now works in the Australian games industry. Both of them did thesis projects for our program which centered around games: Kristina’s dealt with game secrets and included a Zelda case study while Peter’s dealt with the application of moral philosophy to game design. Their piece for the book, “Slave Morality and Master Swords”, showed what happened when they mashed up their two projects — not unlike combining chocolate and peanut butter to produce a new great taste sensation!

Here’s what they had to say about the experience.

Why might Legend of Zelda be singled out for philosophical exploration? Is this book an acknowledgement of its long-standing commercial success or do you think it is a particularly “philosophical” game?

PR: I thought it was a bit strange, honestly. In working with Kristina to develop our ideas, though, I began to get a sense that the Zelda series is more than just the sum total of the individual games that make it up. It’s also the Zelda brand, and the fan culture, the connections between the games, and the way they fit together in the minds of players. The fact that it’s commercially successful is very important in the sense that commercial success ensures both the production of a large number of source texts and the gathering of a large fanbase that responds emotionally to the idea of a Zelda game. At a purely textual, narrative level, Zelda‘s built from some pretty standard genre conventions, and while they might not be original, they are pretty easily amenable to this kind of examination. Stories about heroes just seem to help people think about the nature of their world.

KD: That is an odd thing about exploring the Philosophy of Zelda. Peter and I both agree that the game series of Zelda is not, narratively speaking, a morass of intriguing philosophical questions. Every Zelda game has the same plot and In the Zelda world morality is fully black and white, good and evil. While replaying the same plot might sound boring, it isn’t. Each game looks different, feels different, and behaves differently. Players keep coming back because the play itself is the attraction.

The act of play is where the philosophical questions become interesting. As you work your way through the game world you can subvert the seriousness, the story, and the philosophy itself through your play. In this way, Zelda is a good case study for how philosophical questions can function within a videogame; our book explores the experience of the player vs. the reality of the game.

The contributions to this book have branched out in many different directions. While Peter and I looked at how players of a game can subvert an intended game design and message, other contributors explored death, identity, time, art, utopia and so on.

In the essay, you describe some of your own pleasures in the game, yet I assume you both have separate and distinct personal histories as Zelda players. What can you tell us about your relationship to this game?

KD: As a kid I had an Apple computer for gaming, not a Nintendo console and so I missed out on the early Zelda games. My sole exposure to Zelda was through the Zelda television show.

If I remember correctly, I thought that if a game warranted its own TV show that game must be absolutely, positively the best game ever. Oh yes, if it is forbidden it must be better.

A few years later I tasted the forbidden fruit; My family got an N64 and I finally finally played the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game reached far beyond any imagined expectations, (and happily it was far better than the completely cheesy tv show I loved at age 7.) This game is special: it revolutionized game storytelling and had a sense of world depth that games today still struggle to match. At the time of its release I played the game three times in a row, felt moved to create a Zelda fansite and spread legends about secrets within the game itself. No game before or after has ever been this amazing to me.

Most importantly this game shapes how I play and design games today. When you explore a Zelda world you find the world rewards you for being curious. What could be better than a game that encourages the participant to question and explore the world that surrounds them?

PR: I was five and my brother was seven when the NES launched in the states, so I kinda grew up with the Nintendo brand. We got Zelda for Christmas, and played it to death–I actually discovered the “second quest” cheat before the magazines made it famous, but none of my friends ever believed me. Bastards.

Anyway, Zelda was pretty much the only thing in its genre for years, and each successive game seemed to get better. I fell out of contact with the series when I started undergrad, but I’m getting caught up now. It’s a weird feeling revisiting a series that kept improving while you weren’t playing it. Somewhere between coming home, and coming home to find that your house has been remodeled.

Your essay begins with a discussion of a gliche in the programming of Ocarina of Time which allows the character to defy the laws of physics in this fictional world. How can we understand the pleasure players take in exploiting this cheat in the system? How do we relate this pleasure to traditional understandings of what it means to identify with a character?

KD: Defying the laws of a game is an illicit pleasure. In the case of flying, the glitch play meant being able to explore the space in a new way and see incomplete construction and the game world’s edge. The experience of flying in Zelda was like gaining access to the Disneyland Magic Kingdom underbelly or peeking behind the stage of a play. In flying through the air and playing with glitches you get to see things that are not meant for your eyes. It destroys the fiction but it also gives you, as a player, great freedom and mastery over the space.

Glitches of course, never help players “win” a game. They are deterimental, they might end in a game crash, but it is always intriguing to see a game break and wonder what rule is broken and how it changes the space you inhabit.

PR: Playing with glitches is something I generally don’t try to do; my whole approach to games is about “reading” the rules and looking for that one

optimal path they point to. One of the fun things about working with Kristina is that we take such different things from the same games. That’s kind of the essay in microcosm, actually.

You evoke Roger Callois’s classic distinction between Ludus and Paidia here to explain the experience of playing this video game. Can you explain what you mean by these two terms and describe the different modes of game play experience they evoke for you?

PR: I know videogame studies (or whatever we’re calling it this week) is a relatively new field, and I can’t make a universal generalization analogous to how lit students feel when they have to read Important Canonical Text X for the first time. Still, in talking about Callois with classmates and friends, it always seems to devolve into a nitpicky discussion about whether or not it makes sense to completely separate improvisation and freedom from rules and restrictions in terms of play. In practice, it’s hard to identify any actual case which has only one, and it’d be pretty silly to try to

derive some sort of ludus/paidia ratio from a given text. Gonzalo Frasca helped out by suggesting a cleaner distinction in which ludus games pointed the player toward a desired end condition and paidia games did not, and even though game designers are busily trying to break down that distinction, it’s still pretty useful for describing games on a case-by-case basis.

Conveniently, Frasca’s distinction also works well for looking at different play styles within a given text, which is pretty much where Kristina and I ended up going.

You close the essay with some speculations about Nietsche’s Beyond Good and Evil as a way to understand the different constraints and demands games place on gamers. How do you get from Zelda to the ramblings of “mad anti-semitic Germans”?

PR: First of all, if there are Nietzscheans reading this who are upset by the term “mad anti-semitic Germans”–or mad anti-semitic Germans who resent being lumped in with Nietzsche–I sincerely apologize, and hope you’ll still buy the book. That said, two things academic gamers, at least those in my neck of the woods, can’t seem to stop talking about are narrative/fiction and vague ideas of “meaningful” play. I’ve always operated under the assumption that, to the extent a game can deal with meaning, moral or otherwise, it does so primarily at a narrative level. Granted, non-narrative games don’t exist, so it might be a bit of a straw man.

Still, while rule systems can be used to refer to or play with ideas about morality, the ideas cannot be spontaneously generated from the rule system. What I found in thinking about Zelda that led me to apply Nietzsche was that when you stripped out all the “musts” and “shoulds” the player faces in trying to play a game “correctly,” i.e. to its completion, all you have left is “can.” At that point, the player can either put down the controller and do something more meaningful with his or her life — not something I’d generally recommend — or start generating their own “shoulds.”

The hell with what Link wants to do, I want to throw explosives at chickens for half an hour. In Zelda, it’s not possible to do traditionally “good” or “bad” things without interacting with the authorial narrative, because the narrative gives those actions their moral meaning. When that’s out, it becomes a game about taking this avatar with an extremely limited set of actions and trying to make him do things the designers didn’t want him to do.

How did you come to write this essay together? How does it merge ideas you’ve been working on separately for your thesis projects in Comparative Media Studies?

KD: Oddly it was not nearly as daunting a task as Peter and I first envisioned. My thesis, Oh No I’m Toast! Mastering Videogame Secrets explored the pleasure of playing a game the wrong way, and this kind of subversion means for a player. I’d even used Zelda as an example.

Peter’s thesis, Playing with Good and Evil: Videogames and Moral Philosophy, provided the other half of our analysis; how does the act of player subversion complicate the relationship between player and avatar? We decided to keep things simple: start out explaining how players might play a game in a variety of ways, for the game, against the game, and breaking the game. Then we used Peter’s framework to explore what this meant philosophically in terms of a player/avatar relationship. Even though Peter wrote from Boston and I from Australia the essay wove itself together like magic. Google Docs helped.

One might say it all came together as a kind of symbiotic beast.

PR: I think of it as more of a chimera, myself, but I suppose “symbiotic beast” works well. I think I’ve got a black spider-suit somewhere in the back of my closet.

Kristina Drzaic is a game writer, game designer, a filmmaker and a contributor to The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. Kristina earned her Masters Degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT where she designed games with the Education Arcade and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. She also holds a BA from the Unversity of Notre Dame. Kristina currently lives in the Land of Oz designing an secret game with 2K Games Australia. You can follow Kristina on twitter at http://twitter.com/poniesponies

Peter Rauch is a graduate of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he studied the intersection of videogames, narrative, and moral philosophy. “Slave Morality and Master Swords” is his first print publication. He is currently at work on a number of projects in and out of academia.