My child is 17 months old, which means she is too cost-intensive for me to afford the Nintendo Switch and too young for daddy-daughter videogame time to be my excuse to buy one. She chews on my mobile phone and talks into the bedside alarm clock, God knows what she’d do to a Joy-Con. I therefore don’t own and have not played critical hit title The Legend of Zelda: Breathe on Gene Wilder. I’m aware that as a Game Journalist I need to form an opinion of this seminal title, so I did the only rational thing: I asked a four-year-old what I should think.
Amy is a wild bundle of energy and cheek and flailing limbs, and if nerdiness is hereditary then she has the genes. When her mum Beck and dad Ivan married they mutually completed one another’s collection of Nintendo consoles. The family living room features an enormous TV with four consoles’ game discs underneath, and a glass-panelled cabinet stuffed with in-box Amiibos. For Switch launch day, Beck booked the day off work. Beck is the only one of the village Mother’s Mafia (a group that I infiltrated months ago that meets in the village caff to discuss the PTA, the girl guides, and who on the pub quiz team needs to take a dive in a concrete overcoat) who owns a Switch.
I visit Amy and Beck midday on a Friday. The TV is glowing away with the lush colours of Hyrule and that lovely Link chap running through rustling grass, Amy on the sofa with a Pro Controller in hand, and Beck beside her. I plonk my own daughter Es down on another sofa beside me (bribed with a garlic cracker) and get out my notebook.
I ask Amy to describe the scene on screen. Link is running through green meadows, occasionally climbing and then dropping from a small deciduous tree.
“I’m finding somewhere to cook.”
What can you cook? “Barbecue. Meat!”
Beck prompts her with a question: why is cooking important? “To stop you from being cold.”
Does cooking do anything else? “Don’t remember.”
We’ve hit up on the first real problem with this cute article concept: four-year-olds might comprehend a lot, but they don’t really volunteer full sentences. The second problem – that my daughter is done with her cracker and is demanding another one – requires my attention. When I can look back at the game Link is near a river. I ask Amy to describe Link as a character.
Yes, but what does he do? “To fight.”
Hmm. Do you have to kill a lot of people in this game? “Yes.”
This is at odds with what I’ve seen of the game so far, which seems to be a rambling simulator set in the idyllic countryside of a Constable painting. Amy volunteers a sentence: “I’ll catch a fish!”
Link jumps into the water. Even with Beck’s help Amy hasn’t mastered the dash button and the fish (a sizeable trout or tench) gets away, leaving Link to climb damply up the river while a stamina meter recovers. How does the stamina meter work?
“You just have to wait for it.”
Beck by this point has the fidgety look of a gamer watching another gamer play a game they would very much like to play, tempered by an obvious pride in her little girl’s enthusiasm for the game. She suggests some questions for Amy. Does Link have special powers?
“You can fight. Stab.”
And fly, Beck reminds her. “That’s easy.”
“Ugh, don’t like mushrooms.”
And climb. “That’s easy.”
Amy is spending a lot of time running from collectible to collectible, hoovering up bluebells and herbs, so I ask her which is her favourite. “Mushrooms.”
Then, paradoxically she adds: “Ugh, don’t like mushrooms.”
She means real life mushrooms, mum explains.
Beck wants to show me more of the map so relieves Amy of the controller and goes to the fast-travel screen. Where shall we go? “Not there, it’s too cold. There!”
We can’t warp to that location, Beck explains, as there’s no fast-travel beacon. “Don’t want to walk!”
No, warp. Link dissolves into a spiral of blue sparks and reappears on top of Gerudo tower in an arid desert canyon. With a little help from mum, Amy flies Link off the tower, then into a cliff face. Amy levitates some steel blocks, collects a zapshroom, then runs off to her toybox to get something for my daughter who is weeping because I won’t let her eat my pen. With Amy out of the picture Beck insists I try the game out. I reluctantly accept that the core concept of the article is right out the window, and eagerly accept the controller.
(It’s pretty cool. Don’t know if I’d buy a console for it.)
When Amy returns Beck demonstrates the handheld functionality of the Switch, pulling out the screen from the base unit and handing it to her daughter. The result is, yeah, pretty much as cool as it looks in the adverts. I ask Amy what’s going on.
“Link is on the DS.”
(I picture the head of marketing for the Switch standing in front of a mirror, to which he has taped magazine cuttings of a Wii and a DS, hands braced on the sink basin, eyes closed, growling between gritted teeth: “Fuck you dad. Fuck you dad.”)
And what are you doing? “Climbing.”
““I fell! Dead.”
Where’s the highest place you’ve climbed?
A snicker. I get a lot of snickers in the course of this interview. Has she seen Zelda? Rescued her? “NO.”
Why is it called The Legend of Zelda?
Mum interjects. What other Zeldas has she played? I suspect this prompt comes because Amy has played several and Beck is very proud of the fact, but Amy doesn’t respond.
“I fell! Dead.”
What does she think is the best Zelda? But she needs mum’s help to kill a tough enemy, so the question goes unanswered while Beck takes the handheld. The game soon returns to the big screen and Beck plays for a while while Amy runs off to the other end of the room to rummage through her toybox and point at the fishtank. I notice that Link’s weapons often shatter into shards of white blue. Does Amy like it when weapons break?
“No. I like the hand.”
“The hand comes from a skeleton. When you chop it the monster breaks, the hand breaks with that monster.”
She’s referring to the undead skeletons that plague Hyrule. Beck theorises that Amy likes the way their dismembered arms, which can be used as weapons, twitch and flex when in Link’s grasp. She’s not impressed that a weapon breaking doesn’t result in the next inventoried weapon auto-equipping, as Amy can’t yet operate the quick-change menu. Beck fast-travels again, taking Link to a luridly techni-colored shrine. Where are we?
“The fairies make very good magic.”
“It’s a fairy land!” Amy exclaims.
A titanic drag queen bursts out of a pond and twitters at Link. “The fairies make very good magic.”
The fairies allow you to upgrade your armour, Beck clarifies. Why do we need special clothes? “Because we will die.”
A fatalistic approach to hosiery, perhaps, or an especially strict nudity taboo in Hyrule? Amy is playing with my daughter, a small pile of store cards and a GoGo Crazy Bones. I’m intrigued by the way she interacts with the console – picking up the controller, playing for a little, then hooning off into another world of play elsewhere in the living room. Beck theorizes that she’s used to sitting beside her parents and watching while they play, and taking the controller for a spell – it’s an interesting toy but not something that defines her playtime.
Beck steers Link over to a cooking pot hanging over a fire and brings up the cookery menu, which draws Amy back in. She starts barking out food orders like a tiny Gordon Ramsay.
“Apple. Raspberry. That one. Meat. Honey.”
The five items hop around in Link’s oversized skillet and in a puff of smoke transform into some glazed meat that seems to provide a good health buff.
“An eye. One of those. A wing and a tail.”
Beck thinks that the music is somewhat ominous and the cloud of smoke that accompanies this cookery attempt is distinctly black, but Amy does not accept that the meal is a failure. It is theoretically edible. The last attempt involves three mushrooms, fish, and the final carrot in Link’s inventory. Amy has a strength of will I do not – I could never use the final carrot in my inventory. The resulting mushroom kebab does look pretty good.
“Apple. Raspberry. That one. Meat. Honey.”
My baby is now extremely cranky and obviously overdue a nap, so time is running short for the interview. I ask Amy how much her family have been playing the game. Is it a lot?
Why have they been playing so much?
“Because… lots of weeks.”
Hmm. I was hoping that with her childish innocence Amy could give me a pure and unprejudiced perspective on the new Zelda. Instead I’ve learnt a lot about how a family can play consoles together (and also the limits of a four-year-old’s ability to express abstract concepts.) While I can’t pass (off someone else’s) judgement on Zelda yet, I am extremely excited by the prospect of playing games with Esme when she’s four. Given Nintendo’s history with getting titles onto their consoles, that should be about when the Switch gets its next big game.
Amy runs into the kitchen to wave us goodbye from the window, and Beck offers for us to come back to visit again. Ordinarily visiting someone as an excuse to play their games console would feel like a jerk move but I’m pretty sure that’s what Beck’s aiming at as well. So, until next time. Perhaps Amy can review Super Mario: Odyssey.