The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild European Colonialism and Why We Need to Take Games Seriously.

Who would have thought that from a yellow-ghost-eating ball and a jittery Italian plumber video games would become a medium for complex storytelling (like Starcraft, Bioshock, or Mass Effect) and create worlds of such definition and creativity that would equal and surpass any animation studio?

  1. The Praise

An understatement: Breath of the Wild is successful. To play it is to live another life. It is eclectic, taking the best of the original Zelda games: their magic, the creativity of the puzzles, the need to collaborate with friends and strangers in the internet to solve them. And it has allowed itself to be influenced by others. The size of the world, the fragility and variety of the weapons, the side quests, they mirror Skyrim or Mass Effect.

The plot is not particularly nuanced. There is a protagonist, allegory of order in a western moral system, who faces, with the assistance of secondary characters, an antagonist, allegory of chaos. Like a Harry Potter that faces a Voldemort, Beowulf a Grendel, Elijah a Jezebel.

But simplicity is not the enemy of greatness. The Odyssey is about a man who is travelling home (and has some adventures along the way). James Joyce’s Ulysses is no more than a man who walks through Dublin one day. The beauty (and transcendence) of these works lies on their imagination, the awe of their descriptions, the pleasure in reading them, the complexity and newness of their words, how difficult they are to translate, etcetera.

BoTW has a simple plot, but the attention to detail, the texture of every tree, flower, monster, and character is unparalleled. It does not use words to create the world, but code, and it is some beautiful code! It is a monumental project. It requires an active reader to solve the puzzles in order to move the story along. It is not the same challenge as reading a book, but it is an engaging challenge nonetheless.

  1. The Criticism

BoTW is a metaphor of European Colonialism. The main character, a white, blue-eyed young man is destined to save the world. Like Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (1899)—the racist author of the all-round awful Jungle Book (1894)—Link has the burden to visit the most exotic and wild places of the planet because the inhabitants need him to save them. Like Columbus or Magallanes, he has to “discover” the world, “draw” maps and help underdeveloped peoples to find their way.

Link is the European “I” that faces the “other”. Thus, he finds, for example, the strict matriarchy of the Gerudo; the Gorons, a tribal mining society that appreciates physical strength above all; the Rito, who literally live on trees; and the Sheikah, keepers of ancient wisdom and inhabitants of pagoda-like houses. Link finds all these people of color, saves them, and then, at the end, goes back “home” to save the allegorical woman, who also cannot save herself.

BoTW establishes racial hierarchies and fetishizes the “other”, perpetuates the problematic symbol of the white savior who goes and helps the “third world” or, if you so prefer, the “developing world.” He then goes home and saves the women. Indeed, the video game cover alludes to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting that has often been interpreted as an enlightened European man looking over a world of wilderness.

Video games do not exist in an ideological vacuum. And maybe the important question is not why BoTW sees the world from the perspective of a European explorer that finds underdeveloped peoples in need of civilization. Maybe the question should be: Why does a Japanese studio choose this narrative of world history as a relevant way to tell the story, and a commodity that will find many buyers worldwide? Maybe, European colonialism is still so natural and a discourse that feels so normal, that we will not question it.

Interpreting video games seriously enables us to understand in what discourses we are immersed. In this particular case, it allows us to understand that racism and coloniality do not always manifest as border walls or dead bodies on the shore of the Mediterranean, but can be subtle and, to dismantle them, we must give them the gravity they demand.

 

Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter @realquir

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Moonlight and the creation of the world

 

Moonlight portrays three episodes in the life of Chiron, a black man who grows up in the inner city of Miami. Instead of the totality of his life, or an un-interrupted narrative, the film shows first an episode titled Little, that spans from his encounter with a paternal figure until the loss of innocence. The second episode, Chiron, opens with the paralyzing passivity of a teenager overwhelmed by bullying and his mother’s addiction; and ends where —unfortunately— too many black American teenagers’ stories end: in a cop car, handcuffed, let down by a justice system that would not protect him, but that would readily vilify him. The third one, Black, shows a stereotype of black masculinity: a monumental body with golden teeth, apparently unbreakable, that shatters in the arms of the only man he ever touched.

The film is a Coming-of-age story and depicts the process of identity formation not only of the main character, but also of the world around him. It is a story of systemic oppression, of addiction, of love, the possibility of (re)understanding hegemonic masculinity and choosing vulnerability.

  1. Coming-of-age Stories

 

All such stories are mirrors of the world they represent.[1] They create our worlds, untangling them.

For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) uses the Midwest as the stage of a developing national identity, that struggles with the confusing formation of a united post-civil war persona, among feelings of loss, hatred, and mourning that persist until this day. Huck’s relationship with his abusive father, with Jim, Widow Douglas, all depict an aspect of the nation and, although they do not provide a clear-cut definition of American, they untangle the possibilities of new relationships that had not existed until then. The Coming-of-age Story, as a genre, usefully depicts every aspect of how the world comes to be, by means of a causative mosaic or quilt.

As the main character develops, so is the world created. If the Coming-of-age genre was able to describe the emerging and unified American identity, what can Moonlight tell us about the inner cities of America, the intersections of racial and sexual oppression, about paternity, maternity, and the emerging world?

  1. Little

 

The small Chiron hides from the bullies in an abandoned apartment. Juan finds him and takes him home, feeds him, and becomes a fortuitous father, patient and loving. Within the genre of the Coming-of-age, Juan represents a mentor, a possible path ahead, that of a drug dealer. But Juan is not the stereotypical-Law-&-Order dealer, but a gentle man, with a great sense of humor and a stable relationship. Juan takes Chiron to the sea and he carries him in a rite that looks almost like a baptism for its solemnity. The sea becomes the place where Chiron always returns. In terms of Michel Foucault, the sea becomes a heterotopia;[2] a place that allows non-hegemonic things to happen. where Chiron can escape and the unintelligible takes place.

In a fundamental scene, we see Chiron’s mother, high and violent, scream one of the words that defines the protagonist’s experience: faggot.

In the last scene of his childhood, Chiron asks Juan the meaning of the word. Juan explains that people use it when they want to hurt a gay person. Chiron asks if her mother is an addict and if Juan is her dealer. The answer to the question ends his childhood.

  1. Chiron

 

This episode is about love and the hostility of the world. Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin, of afro-latinx heritage, becomes his object of desire. We know that Juan has died, but we can only see the ripples that his death could have had in the protagonist. His mother, lost in addiction, gives everything for the rock and takes whatever Chiron has.

Chiron goes back to the sea, where he finds Kevin. There, the unfathomable happens: a hiss and an orgasm. The next day, under the pressure of compulsory violent masculinity, Kevin is forced to beat Chiron up. The teachers that break up the fight are unable to protect him.

When Chiron fights back and goes to prison.

There is no place for love in this world, where every relationship means pain. Any semblance of queerness is destroyed. Misery and sexual identity conflate to throw Chiron into the next heterotopia: prison.

  1. Black

 

Chiron ends up where his mentor started, as a dealer. His mother, in a sort of clinic, apologizes. She does not know how to tell him to love himself; but, at least, she is able to tell him that she loves him, even if he cannot love her back.

After a phone call, Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see Kevin once again. Like a mirror of his own story, Kevin has also been to prison, but has become a cook and a father, although he is not married. Kevin’s sexuality is murky, but it needs no clarity. Chiron finally tells him why he is there: because he has never touched anyone else. The episode ends not in a sexual encounter, but in an embrace, in the possibility of love and company.

In the last scene, little Chiron stands in front of the sea, in the moonlight, and in silence he seems to say that everything that has happened could have been different… but the world is the way it is. The justice system punishes the strange and the poor. Addiction, drugs, poverty, and ignorance lay the path ahead.

And, although the world is hostile and media often represents black men as stereotypes of extraordinary strength and unchecked violence, here Chiron, Juan, and Kevin are compassionate. Juan can be the father of a boy he does not know. Kevin can hold his friend. Chiron can be a sea of tears. The beauty of the film is in the intelligibility of kindness.

[1] “In the event-racked revolutionary years of the late eighteenth century, the emergence of the hero’s character increasingly mirrored the emergence— socially, economically, politically, ideationally—of the world around him” (3). Thomas Jeffers. Apprenticeships: the Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[2] Foucault uses the example of the mirror, the cemetery or prison, places where social rules change and enable the intelligibility of death, sex, or any taboo.

 

Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter: @realquir

 

 

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