'Tears of the Kingdom' gave me a headache
We should write about how games make us feel. Literally.
I enjoyed writing reviews when I worked for Launcher, The Post’s video game vertical. I found it valuable to anchor myself in a game for a time, and to be forced to think about — and articulate — how it felt to play. A big part of the process of criticism (for me) would involve first recognizing and pinning down a reaction — the intangible emotional stuff but also the physical: face-screwing revulsion, “fuck yeah!” pleasure, the banal pain of holding a controller for too long, etc. — then weighing the merit and truthfulness1 of those reactions, to finally translate the most worthy material into something legible to readers.
With that in mind: On Saturday morning, about two hours into “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom,” I could feel that the game was making my head hurt. I’d like to think out loud about why that is — and why, in the other 8-10 hours I’ve spent with the game so far, that (literal) pain has cooled into a (figurative) restlessness.
I don’t mean to knock the game. I’m still very early in my playthrough. I expect to eventually be won over by its sweeping scope and vision. (I’ve bet $70 on that expectation). But my enjoyment of the first ~10 hours of the game has felt more tenuous and conditional than any of my time with “Breath of the Wild.”2
The culprit, I think, is the starting tutorial island, on which the game’s new powers are explained to Link, the playable protagonist. The scale of the island, at first blush, suggests openness. Before you even enter your first shrine, hills and crags and materials and plants tempt you this way and that. “Breath of the Wild” appealed to me because I am a compulsive turn-over-every-rock kind of video game enthusiast, and the myriad encounters and puzzles scattered around Hyrule really played on that completionist instinct to great effect. One of Nintendo’s great accomplishments in the first game was creating an open world in which line of sight — not an overbearing adventure log or map — motivated exploration. You went over the next hill because you were curious about the plume of smoke you saw billowing out from behind it.
But the openness of the starting island in “Tears of the Kingdom” is illusory. The expectation in that area is that the player will follow a linear path, completing tasks that will teach them the basic verbs of the game world before they’re set loose on Hyrule. Before that become apparent to me, though, I had spent about two hours exhausting the starting island’s landmarks — doing “Breath of the Wild” stuff, basically — and coming up empty. The opening two hours of the game are sunny and warm, but also a bit frustrating and dull, if what you expect is for the big islands to reward you the way the previous game’s big world did.
For two hours, I played as though I was in an open world. And my expectations for the space chafed against the world’s expectations of me, which were: Go in the order we’re telling you to go. Hence, frustration. Hence, headache.3
I realized I wanted to be in the open world. And I felt that way until I got to the open world.
Before I go any further, I feel the need to issue a Media Consumption Disclaimer. “Tears of the Kingdom” isn’t bad or wrong for what I’ve described above. Please don’t put on Metacritic that I think it’s bad. What I’m describing is just… what happened.
Why does it matter? Well, because it’s true! (To me). Even now, I’m net positive on “Tears of the Kingdom.” But I had and continue to have a nagging, unpleasant feeling about some of what I’ve played so far, and I’ve found that being honest about those gut reactions is a good way for me to figure out why I’m feeling them. Crucially, it takes me out of box quote territory.
For example: I recently played and beat “Dredge,” which is billed as a sinister, Lovecraftian single-player fishing game. I really liked “Dredge!” But I did not find it particularly scary or unnerving. The thing that resonated with me was the tactile, cyclical, checkbox-y, to-do list stuff — the game part of the game. Catch fish and arrange them in your inventory, clickety-clack, Tetris-style; turn in your fish to X person at Y place for Z money; spend money on equipment; sleep; start over. “Dredge” operates in a lulling but propulsive register, and that quality appealed to me, even as the game strove (I think) to achieve an entirely different vibe.
Similarly: I play “Valorant” regularly (compulsively, even) and I have come to accept that the game has made me a worse person. I am more terse and less patient with teammates who I believe are underperforming than I was when I started playing. That is not a feature of the game, or a thing one could describe about the game, but I think in some key way it is fundamentally true of “Valorant” (and probably on a larger scale than I know).
I am not sure that the tradition of the game review (reductively: here is what the game is, meaning, a description of the setting/story/core mechanic; here are the features and the degree to which those features work; and here’s the perspective on the total package) is necessarily well-equipped to capture the actual feeling of playing something. Certainly, reviewers aren’t given the time for that (which I’ve written about at length). Which is why “the early hours of this game everyone seems to like gave me a headache” strikes me as an ok thing to write and publish.4
Eventually, the game deposited me on solid ground — the open world I thought I was craving. “Tears of the Kingdom” recycles the Hyrule of “Breath of the Wild,” but it recontextualizes it in some fascinating ways: remixing key landmarks and ecosystems, terraforming parts of the landscape, and placing massive physical obstacles in the player’s way where none existed before. Most of these changes have elicited muted admiration so far, if not real awe.
Eventually, though, I started to feel that “Tears of the Kingdom” was not exactly being generous or forthcoming with me. I began to grow impatient. I really adore “Breath of the Wild.” In the months I spent playing that game, I think I became quite fluent in its mechanics and system. But while “Tears of the Kingdom” starts the player off at Link’s nadir — robbed of hearts and stamina — those aforementioned systems remain mostly unchanged. On this second go around, the world feels just a bit less mysterious and dangerous, even if Link is just as weak and small moving through it.
And so, as I explored this new, wounded Hyrule, I generally knew what to expect of the early points of interest in the wild — the Bokoblin raiding parties; the wide open spaces that scream boss-fight-upon-entry-within-X-radius; the sleeping Hinox; etc. Those things are still good and fun because they were always good and fun. But as nodes on the landscape, magnets to organically pull the player across Hyrule, they feel weaker somehow. I crossed Ludfo’s Bog, hoping for something new to engage with. I didn’t find it. I trotted through the Breach of Demise on horseback, seeking adventure. I didn’t end up stopping.
I don’t think “Tears of the Kingdom” is a bad game — least of all because more “Breath of the Wild” is good. I’m just waiting for it to blossom.
I’m sure it will. I will write about it when it does!5 But for now, I’m still waiting.
Hello new subscribers!
Last week, I was overjoyed to learn that Substack had featured ReaderGrev as a publication of note on its homepage and app! It’s a tremendous honor for a newsletter so young — and on which I post less consistently than I might like.6 I also got a nice "2023 Featured Publication" badge, which you can enjoy in all its splendor on ReaderGrev's About page.
Thanks to that promotion, this newsletter saw an approximately 50% increase in subscribers. (The line on the chart just goes straight up for a few days). So, if you’re a new subscriber reading this, welcome!7
Please say hello in the comments! I’d love to hear how video games, esports, writing and journalism (the chief concerns of this newsletter) factor into your life.
Stuff I’ve enjoyed recently
What If Instead of Trying to Manage Your Time, You Set It Free? — “What do you want your life to be? Ideally your answers to that question are what guide your decisions about how to spend your time. You would hope that you are spending less time on things that you don’t want to be doing so you can do things that you’ve decided are meaningful to you, and I think that there’s something about that culture of making everything more efficient that risks avoiding that question of why. A life of total efficiency and convenience? Well, why?”
// There are a lot of lovely, quotable moments in this. I think what I value in Odell’s work is an articulation of something very elemental and self-evident in a way that connects to traditions and trains of thought that are esoteric but worthy of excavation. Her last book, “How To Do Nothing,” considers how placeness and citizenship in a bioregion might people overcome anxiety and the tug of the attention economy, for example.
// Deep-a-deep doop. Mac DeMarco called this tune “just garbage, but fun to make.” I think it’s neat!