It was 1993 when Nintendo released Takashi Tezuka’s masterpiece, arguably the strangest title of the Zelda series, Link’s Awakening. Tezuka and his team worked on the game out-of-hours with no official remit from Nintendo, which is probably what gave them the freedom to produce this truly unique game which remains a shining beacon of radical commentary on the act of gaming itself.
Link’s Awakening contains cameo appearances from characters who belong within the limits of other Nintendo titles, including (famously) Yoshi and Kirby, as well as Dr. Wright from SimCity, and (less famously) some characters from the existential Japanese game The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls (still not available in English), whose engine was used to build Link’s Awakening. This meta-textual or meta-gaming quality runs through Link’s Awakening, asking us to confront the possibility of crossing the boundaries that separate the real from the imaginary.
But the real subversion, in my opinion, is embedded in the game’s plot itself. The entirety of Link’s Awakening takes place not in Hyrule, where the other Zelda games are set, but inside the dream of the ‘Wind Fish’ – a giant creature at the center of the story. It is our quest to awaken this creature from its very lengthy sleep and break out of this dream, effectively sending us back to our reality. Link, we might imagine, would return to Hyrule, whilst we, the gamer, would return to the world outside of the game.
In Electronic Gaming Monthly, Jeremy Parish called Link’s Awakening the “best Game Boy game ever, an adventure so engrossing and epic that we can even forgive the whole thing for being one of those ‘It’s all a dream!’ fakeouts.” In my opinion, this is a total misunderstanding of what Link’s Awakening is about. Instead of being yet another ‘it’s all a dream’ narrative, the game’s plot—and exploration of the relationship between dreams, games, and reality—is properly subversive and requires a detailed philosophical analysis. We should take Tezuka’s admission that the game was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as ample evidence that this is a game asking us to question the boundaries between ‘dreams’ and our concept of reality.
The twist comes at the mid-point of the game, when the non-player characters begin to notice that you are working towards shattering the reality in which their lives and families exist. When you defeat bosses, for example, they begin to beg you to save the only reality they know:
“Why did you come here? If it weren’t for you, nothing would have to change! You cannot wake the Wind Fish! Remember, you…too…are in……the dream…”
Thus Link is confronted with the famous problem that Neo would face in The Matrix some 6 years later in 1999: take the red pill (wake the Wind Fish) and embrace the painful truth of reality or take the blue pill (leave it asleep) and remain within the blissful ignorance of illusion.
But Link’s Awakening keeps on giving, not only anticipating the work of the Wachowskis in The Matrix, but surpassing it. Whilst the ‘matrix’ depends on those inside being unaware of the illusion in which they live, this is far from the case in Link’s Awakening, where we are continually told that we are, as it were, inside the ‘matrix’. As the Grim Creeper in the Tal Tal Mountains dungeon reminds us again:
“My energy…gone…I…lost! But you will be lost too, if the Wind Fish wakes! Same as me…you…are…in…his…dream…”
In a now famous video-clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, philosopher Slavoj Žižek analyzes the choice presented to Neo in The Matrix, claiming that neither option is subversive enough. Žižek says:
“I want a third pill. So what is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake, fast-food religious experience, but a pill that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in illusion itself.”
To simplify, Žižek wants us to recognize that without illusions we would have no conception of reality, no way of thinking in these terms at all. Illusions cannot be simply bypassed and the truth accessed: reality is always mediated through the stories we tell about it and the illusions we live within.
Link’s Awakening, then, actually gives us the ‘third pill’ that Žižek asked for in 2010. Link’s Awakening is not about living in blind illusion or facing the harsh truth, but instead it is about recognizing that we need illusions and that illusions produce our truths and our reality. The characters in the game may not want their world destroyed, but this is not the same as remaining within the ‘matrix’ at all. Instead there is an awareness of the truth of illusions, that perhaps there is no truth outside of illusion, that ‘there is nothing beyond the sea.’