When I play video games, I have a bad habit of taking quest instructions too seriously.
When they tell me, like they do in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, to please hurry in my journey to save the princess, I haul ass to get that princess saved. It’s possible that I do this because I’ve played too many games where waiting is actually detrimental to the game’s ending, but the more likely reason is that I’m high strung.
It is a terrible time to be high strung. The general sense of tension or unease I experience just waking up and brushing my teeth has become the default state of the world under threat from the novel coronavirus, and social distancing alone in one of New York’s hardest-hit neighborhoods has done absolutely nothing to assuage me. I’ve turned to a few video games to distract myself, all the while counting myself lucky that distraction is an option for me, but most of the games I enjoy playing are goal-oriented RPGs that pile my quest log with an unyielding list of tasks to complete. Even virtually, it feels like I have too much to do.
Playing Link as an absolute dumbass is amazing.
Back to my problem with Breath of the Wild. I adored the game when I first played it and spent hours exploring, always with the goal of getting better and stronger for my eventual assault on Hyrule Castle. Whenever Impa or King Dorephan urged me to remember my destiny to locate the Master Sword and save Zelda, I felt a jolt of guilt for any off-mission shenanigans I indulged in between the major plot points of the game. I started playing again, however, during social distancing, and found myself playing differently.
This time, when Link emerged from the Shrine of Resurrection and looked upon the sweeping vista of the Great Plateau, I ran down the hill without stopping to talk to the Mysterious Old Man whose dialogue starts the “real” game. I spent my night picking apples, swimming around in lakes, and throwing stuff at Moblins for fun. Didn’t even crack a shrine open until the next day. I knew eventually I would need to talk to the old guy to get my paraglider and Sheikah Slate runes, but that could wait until tomorrow.
Once I got around to the old man’s beginner shrine quests and received the imperative to rescue Princess Zelda, I…completely ignored it. Kakariko Village was a tomorrow problem. Whenever anyone mentioned Zelda or a sword I adopted Link’s silent attitude and pretended that whoever was speaking was spouting complete nonsense. A princess, you say? That’s interesting. I woke up in a magic aquarium two days ago. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see a horse about a horse.
Playing Link as an absolute dumbass is amazing. As far as my playthrough Link is concerned, he’s a foraging chef whom people keep mistaking for some legendary hero. I did eventually make it to Impa, Purah, and Robbie. But instead of accepting their challenge to save Hyrule, I humored their delusion that Link has anything to do with their problems in exchange for an upgraded Sheikah Slate and the ability to geolocate beehives.
Without the framework of the game’s plot (which, let’s be real, is thin to begin with), Breath of the Wild transforms into an idealized Outside Simulator. My health and location in real life make it difficult for me to take walks or visit a park without exposing myself to unnecessary risk, so springtime in Hyrule is all I’m likely to experience this year. The whoosh of wind over plains of knee-high grass and the splash of colorful porgies off the coast of Lurelin Village are a poor replacement for the real thing. But sometimes when I close my eyes and listen to the game’s ambient noise, I can almost — almost — feel the sun and smell the salty air.
More importantly, neglecting Link’s responsibilities has no bearing on what happens in the game. In Breath of the Wild, I can waste as much time as I want without anything terrible happening. In the real world, my city and planet are suffering under the weight of a million consequences, and at the beginning of this crisis I felt morally required to pay attention to all of it, all of the time. I thought bearing witness was the only way to be a responsible citizen.
In reality, the constant vigilance of a neurotic Brooklynite helps no one. Since I started playing Breath of the Wild: Blissfully Ignorant Link Edition, I’ve been more refreshed and mentally able to contribute in more concrete ways. Instead of huddling under a blanket watching horrible numbers scroll by on the internet, the calming effect of playing Useless Link allows me more bandwidth to check on friends, sign up to help housebound neighbors, and endure the no-effort trial of keeping healthcare workers safe by staying the hell inside.
Those are the quest instructions I actually need to take seriously. Zelda can wait.