In Under the Microscope, Ismael uses his unique perspective and a bucketful of fancy words to explore the ways video games can affect us.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is accredited by most as having some extremely memorable and well-written melodies. I’ve been giving the tracks a listen lately, and while it’s great music for a game, nothing jumps out on pure musical merit alone. Despite this, there is one song from the game that has never left me, philosophically or emotionally.
For those of you who have never played this game, or w-WHAT?! You’ve never played Ocarina of Time? Get out! Get out of my article right now!
Alright, alright, I’m calm. Let’s try that again. For those of you who have never played this game, or would simply benefit from me repainting the plot in your mind to make my point, here’s the situation: You, playing as Link, come across a quaint little village nestled between the hills. Within the village windmill resides a strange man, hunched over a strange musical instrument with a crank on the side and a brass trumpet-like protrusion, merrily watching the internal mechanisms of the mill spin as he plays along to it.
It’s all very stable. The man is happy and enjoying himself, watching the gentle, gliding rotation of the mill’s innards. The song he plays, while simple, encapsulates the soft, intermittent breeze heaving the large curved swoops of the windmill’s fins.
And it’s all very easy to forget. It’s a lovely scene, and one that fades from the memory leaving only a brief impression.
But this isn’t what struck me. The reason I remember this moment is how it had changed upon your return as an adult. The windmill is caught amidst a storm. Within, the musician is still there, still playing, curled over his music-box with a look of maddened fury. The windmill’s fins and internal wooden organs no longer ground steadily away but twirled maniacally, like an obscene, gargantuan dancer. With the wind and rain screaming furiously outside and the fins in swift rotation, my attention was focused on the man.
He was still in harmony with the windmill, with the storm, but there was no peace there. Somewhere in his fierce expression, I thought I spied a grin. In the windmill, in the storm too, there was a wild grin. Melody and rhythm had been forsaken for speed, structural integrity of the windmill too had been forsaken for spinning ever faster, and the rain outside – you guessed it – continued to rocket to the ground with that same speed.
I cannot forget that song because of this. Whenever it rains, I hear it still. Why? Because that scene of the windmill, the mad cranking of the music box’s lever, all of this had forsaken safety and order in the name of speed. In the name of raw, growling and wild enthusiasm, for the sake of tipping one’s hat to the threats the world imposes on us and roaring back in its face with unhinged anger. It was cold, it was wet, it was windy, but in that windmill was a fire. In that song, there was a mind-consuming inferno, and when the rain pours down on me here in the real world I cannot help but feel that song, that fire, rise up within me too.
“The thousand years of raindrops summoned by this song are my tears. The thunder that strikes the earth is my anger!”
But, painfully yanking my head out of my own backside, why or how is this significant? What is it about this memory of mine that’s unique to gaming alone? Music is an art of its own, but it’s not just the song that I remember, and what made this so memorable far more so than simply a sound, simply an image or a video, is that I had the freedom to explore the situation.
I could hop onto the base of the windmill and spin on it until I grew dizzy. I could examine every angle of it without being constrained by a camera shot that some director decided would inspire me best, and experience the world handed to me, rather than simply imagine or absorb it. A movie can show you a city, it can lay out a story in front of you, but it can’t let you rummage through every corner of the place. Often, a game can’t either, but the freedom of movement alone at least gives the illusory feeling of being in control of what you see.
There’s a great, great difference in watching a character run from an explosion and being that character, in his eyes, even though only connected by a controller, and running from it yourself. While you may not really be that character, while you may not even have the actual freedom whether or not to progress without running from said explosion, you instruct the action, and that alone makes the entire scene, all of its music, all of its imagery, far more memorable.
How often do you go back to an old game and find that the visuals haven’t aged well? “How can it look this bad?! I remember it being crystal clear, immersive and resonating!” This alone illustrates the semantic impact a game can have on you – because what matters here is what you experienced, and if you experienced fighting a dragon despite the dragon looking like a blurred obese shrimp, what matters is that you remember it being awesome. Why? Because it was awesome to you.
So, next time you see an old man staring at a young boy in green shorts and cranking his lever while grinning and shaking slightly, take a moment to pause, and think about the situation as something to be appreciated, not just overcome.
Also, call the police. You should probably call the police.