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How I Spent my Summer in Hyrule: A Reflection on Escapism, Brain Rot, and Returning to the Outside World

a fire hydrant on the side of a mountain

Posted August 18, 2021

By Dan Robitzski

A few weeks ago, or maybe months, or maybe it doesn't matter because my perception of time has long since broken down, my girlfriend and I were walking through Elysian Park, which is just a short drive away from our apartment in Hollywood.

As we strolled, I spotted a tree standing out on its own at the top of a nearby hill.

"Oh, there's gotta be one in there, right?"

I was, of course, as any well-adjusted and reasonable person would be, talking about Korok seeds, a collectible item in the latest main installment of the "Legend of Zelda" series, Breath of the Wild.

This is an essay about Zelda.

From here on out, various light and generalized spoilers for BotW are fair game. Avoid them if you, like my girlfriend who's currently putting off the assault on her final divine beast (Vah Naboris) because she doesn't want to "run out of story," have somehow managed to avoid completing the game even longer than I did. I mean, I get it: My first playthrough took more than a calendar year. But also, the game came out over four years ago and Nintendo is now advertising a sequel. So, you know, that's kind of on you.

Koroks are strange little forest critters who have hidden themselves throughout the fictional land of Hyrule. Find one — they might be hiding under a rock or a pile of leaves, or they might make you solve a little puzzle before revealing themselves — and they'll gleefully reward you with a seed. Bring those seeds to Hestu, a delightful tree creature and my best friend IRL who wants to load them into his maracas, and he'll increase the storage space of your inventory. There are several times more koroks hidden throughout the game than you can even use for in-game upgrades — if you collect them all anyway, your reward is literally a mysterious turd. Congrats!

In the game, Koroks range from well-hidden — like the ones hiding inside jars nestled within a tree's hollow — to painfully obvious. I wonder what's up with the mysterious boulder at the top of that mountain! Hey, is that pile of leaves glowing?

So when a tree stood alone at the top of a hill (I'm talking about real-world shit, by the way) or we passed a hollowed-out stump alongside our trail, both of us would point it out as though a real korok was lurking nearby — clearly a sign of brain rot inflicted from how much time each of us spent playing the game during lockdown.

This is, of course, dorky. And mildly painful to revisit in the same way it was painful to overhear your middle school crush make fun of, uh, someone else who "still" liked Pokémon. But after a year where the only two activities that we could be sure wouldn't kill us seemed to be staying home to play video games and wandering around parks, we were happy to continue the hunt — in both Hyrule and the greater Los Angeles area.

This is an essay about escapism.
I'm certainly not the only person who escaped to Hyrule during the pandemic. I'm not even the first person who decided that an experience so universal it's already been memeifiedZelda Fan Goes Outside to Understand The References — would somehow make for a good essay.

Even so, I wanted to explore why I found the idea of hanging out in Hyrule so much more appealing. Introspection is tough and something that people pay therapists good, well-deserved money to help them learn. So instead of doing that, I decided to peruse what various brain experts have published on the subject within their academic circles and see what I could find out.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have never quite understood what to make of video game escapism. A survey of the research studies that are out there reveals an unfortunate emphasis on pathology rather than why someone might make an active, rational choice to spend their time living in a world beyond their own.

Take this paper that was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking back in 2014, for example. In it, a clinical neuroscientist and a psychologist from Sweden declared that there's no such thing as good escapism when it comes to video games.

"Factor analysis and construct validation show that positive aspects of escapism are theoretically and empirically unstable and that escapism is best clarified as purely 'negative escapism,' corresponding to playing being negatively reinforced as a way of avoiding everyday hassles and distress," the duo wrote in their paper before going on to discuss addiction to being online and tying it to underlying psychological distress.

Of course, that was 2014, when Obama was still president and things seemed good. The economy was booming and virologists' warnings were being politely ignored. Back then, it was more reasonable for someone to feel incredulous that anyone would want to escape reality.

But the Swedish researchers are far from alone. Contemporary studies took more or less the same approach and drew similar conclusions. Research led by scientists from Italy's University of Palermo that was published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions in 2019 described escaping into video games as a "maladaptive coping strategy for dealing with adverse emotional reactions," based on an analysis of hundreds of "World of Warcraft" players.

The Palermo researchers concluded that the amount of time spent gaming wasn't necessarily linked to escapist tendencies, emotion dysregulation (ED), or some new pathology that they defined as "problematic gaming" (PG). But ED, PG, and escapism do seem to be linked to one another, according to the paper. That's especially true, the scientists note, among gamers who have adopted maladaptive coping strategies like assuming that things being bad now also means that things will be bad forever. Like the last one, this paper came out before our world went to shit. So it didn't wade into murkier waters like whether escapism from a global pandemic that killed 600,000 people in your country while your leaders mostly sat idly by was also unhealthy or if we get a freebie for that one.

A third paper that was actually published during the pandemic in the journal Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports takes a deeper dive into the neuroscience of escapist gaming. While it still adopts the same pathological framing as its predecessors — the term "gaming disorder" seems to have taken root within academic circles by this point — it does offer a glimpse into what's going on under the hood, as it were.

Unfortunately, as with most neuroscience papers that broach relatively new ground, the scientists' main takeaway is "Oh jeepers, this stuff is pretty complicated and we hope someone else picks up where we left off." But there are some points to be gleaned from it. For example, it links gaming disorder to a person's (patient's?) overemphasis on short term rewards and a sense of intense craving coupled with weak inhibitory control — being unable to say no to yourself — both of which are framed as the result of conditioning from loads and loads of time spent in whatever someone's game of choice might be.

Whether gaming disorder is real or not is open to debate. Psychiatrists have, at many points in history, pathologized behaviors that they found difficult to understand, such as “hysteria” or the obscenely racist history of schizophrenia.  Still, even assuming that the scientists are on to something, there's still very little that scientists actually know about the condition or, to shed their pathological framing, about escapist gaming at the level of the individual or biological activity.

"Again, it has to be emphasized that much more research is needed to understand all the mechanisms involved in the development and treatment of [Gaming Disorder]," the third paper reads. "Nevertheless, it is possible that the effectiveness of [Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)] and similar treatments addressing multiple psychological mechanisms results from their complexity and from their effect on multiple neural networks."

"In addition, less is known about the degree of involvement of different psychological mechanisms and neural alterations on an individual level," it continues. "Future research may focus on the identification of biomarkers of psychological mechanisms based on neural, structure, and function as well as genetics."

I'm just self-aware enough to skip over the part where I say "this isn't problem behavior because I'm the one doing it." I'll save that for my drinking. But still, I think that I and all the other like-minded people out there deserve a little bit of slack for getting our kicks in a world other than our own.

I don’t know whether I can justifiably call my time in Hyrule a coping mechanism: Was it a strategy I developed to dodge the stressful world around me? Or was it just something that gave me comfort and a sense of progress during a time the rest of the world offered very little of either? I maintain that anyone who chose to not face the horrors of the pandemic, of unmitigated state violence and unrelenting death, of the death throes of a global environment, head on shouldn’t have to wade through academic discussions of mental illness when they try to understand their own motivations. Perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, they should be allowed to feel good about doing whatever it is that they need to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Breath of the Wild gave me that, and I don’t think it means I’m sick.

During a year and a half spent staring at screens in my living room, Hyrule promised adventure behind every hill. I might make a friend, rescue someone in distress, triumph over danger, or find a treasure (the friends we made along the way) at any moment. Maybe I'd find a reclusive village tucked away in the kingdom's soft-apocalyptic landscape. At one point, I spent a (real-life) day building my own village and befriending everyone who lived there.

In times when meeting new people may have proven deadly, the genuinely weird residents of Hyrule — a flamboyant architect who wants to raze Link's old house; a horny maiden who wants nothing more than to meet the hero of time; a bipedal fish creature who absolutely loves to cliff dive; a warrior who spends her days littering the rooftop of a royal palace with her leftover snacks — were the perfect stand-ins for the friends, acquaintances, or even local neighborhood oddballs I could have met in the real world.

a bird sitting on top of a sandy beach

I'm told I live in a beautiful place. The obscene wealth in pockets of Los Angeles, though certainly not my experience, has created luxurious sights for the rest of us to witness. The dynamic scenery jagging out of the desert has created a, well, let's call it geographically interesting perimeter nestled around an oasis that's main export is aesthetics. Now, ten months after moving here and three months after I first tried to write this essay, I'm finally starting to see it outside of lockdown.

All that is to say that my pandemic activities of taking walks, going on hikes, and drinking beer in nearby parks are probably more enjoyable here than they are in most places in the country. But walking around is an obligation. An act without accomplishment or outcome, performed because it's a good thing to make sure I still do nowadays.

It doesn't help that I also lost my dog almost half a year into the pandemic. The act of getting outside and walking around the block, which had been a perfectly pleasant part of my everyday life and a chance to wave hello to my neighbors — you know, healthy and normal stuff — suddenly became something I had to actively remind myself to do as I grappled with the inherent conflict between my social responsibility to stay put during a pandemic and my need for air and to say words out loud and hear words spoken back to me. I came to realize that there were days when, outside of phone calls and work Zooms, I wouldn’t say words out loud at all.

This is an essay about depression.

For the last year and a half, it's felt like my life was happening without me.

This is an essay about the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic perpetuated and widened existing gaps within our society; how every upturned rock revealed another way that the world was built and operates on cruelty.

But it's not like we didn't try to keep up with life — to fix things — along the way.

Shortly after our Korok-hunting walk, Echo Lake Park, just a few short blocks away from Elysian, became a nationally-known site of police violence. After the powers that be announced that they would be clearing out an unhoused community in the park under the guise of "renovations," armed police bore down on a peaceful protest of Los Angelites expressing neighborly solidarity. Despite ongoing protests and community action since that point, the people in power during the operation remain so.

For months, mostly until my dog got sick, I lent my time, energy, money, physical presence, and voice to a growing movement that aimed to improve the world for everyone. Every day, as I left a vigil or protest, I walked home feeling inspired. Motivated. Better educated. It felt like we were winning.

None of this, of course, is about me. And I hope it comes across that this isn't an attempt to make it so. Also, I would never erase the very real social progress that has been made over the last year. But in an essay about escaping to a fantasy world, it feels necessary to mention why turning inward from reality became the most appealing option.

Police offend and kill with impunity while their bloated budgets continue to swell. And as people cried out for a better world, national leaders responded in kind: allowing 621,000 of us to die through general inaction and indifference while telling us to be grateful and excited for the opportunity to return to a world exactly as broken as it was when we left it behind.

In contrast to a creeping sense of powerlessness against the greatest challenges we've faced in our lifetimes, Hyrule granted me a world of consequences. A world where the good guys made a real difference. A world where the beaten-down denizens of the kingdom's scattered villages and cities might someday be able to safely venture out and meet — thanks to you, the hero.

This was supposed to be an essay about Zelda.

Unfortunately, after my year-and-change-long playthrough, the game vaulted me right back out into reality with what I maintain is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion.

I remember rushing through the game for the first two to three divine beasts. I thought at the time that I was being thorough. But looking back — and while spending weeks backtracking — I'm almost horrified at how much I skipped over. I remember thinking that they had really skimped on the soundtrack. But the first time I let my horse, Bold&Good, steer himself along a road while I simply looked around, listening as the haunting rendition of the classic Legend of Zelda theme crept its way into the plunking background music, it all set in. Moments like that made me realize how deliberately everything was placed; that I had an entire world to explore rather than a mere list of quests to breeze through.

But that grinds to a halt once you complete your lonesome siege of Hyrule Castle and the ~story~ takes hold once more.

There lies Zelda, nestled away inside Calamity Ganon's giant testicle cocoon, unable to escape but immediately insistent on holding your hand through every aspect of one of the easiest boss battles in the game. Zelda tells you that she's kept an eye on all of your progress all of this time — apparently including the many, many in-game months I spent naked hunting koroks, completing bug-catching side quests, and listening to a giant bird play his accordion — but isn't sure you remember her even though she watched as you painstakingly recovered Link’s lost memories, nearly all of which center around her. Look. I'm bitter. It's fine. I'm fine.

Calamity Ganon crawls around while you shoot him a bunch, then you get teleported outside to vanquish his final, lore-fucking form. The endless cycle of Link and Ganon's reincarnation set up in “Ocarina of Time” and "Skyward Sword" is abandoned here because, as Zelda explains, Ganon decides he'd rather turn into a giant glowy pig and fuck around a field for a while as you ride a horse — not any of your horses, by any means, but some horse — and complete an archery challenge that's easier than fighting any Divine Beast.

It’s not just the expansive lore that this moment erases — the final battle ignores what the game has been telling you to be true ever since Link first emerged from the Shrine of Resurrection. Every aspect of the story tells you that you need the Master Sword — now the “Sword That Seals the Darkness” to vanquish Ganon for good. But the game literally couldn't care less if you use the Master Sword or not — it actually doesn't matter. In fact, you can't use it against Ganon's final form even if you want to.

When the dust settles, you're immediately returned to your duties as Zelda's silent guardian as she resumes her research and muses aloud that it's time to hit up your dead girlfriend's dad. The citizens of the world around Link and Zelda have moved on to the tune of 100 years, but the entire century she skipped is overlooked as a blip. An inconvenience. Time to get back to the office!

What, then, was the point of it all? Why did I track down every single memory Link had of Zelda? Why did I hunt so many koroks, knowing there was just a turd waiting as a reward? Why did I spend so much time bettering Hyrule and helping everyone in it if my own memories of the horrors we all witnessed would be called into question? Why did I spend so much time working as hard as I did to stay afloat when the light at the end of the tunnel is a return to business as usual? Why did I ever agree to put myself in any amount of danger for the sake of others’ comfort when even now a delta variant of the pandemic surges through the unvaccinated chuds around us?

I could always load my latest save and turn around. Knowing how disappointed I'll be by the finish line awaiting me only means I can spend even more time in the infinite sprawl that comes before it — I'm literally more excited about the prospect of finally fetching Trott some gourmet meat. But I hesitate out of fear that the fact that I've already crossed that line will taint everything else.

The whole world of Hyrule is still waiting. But unlike the one around me as I type this, it's a world of outcomes and objectives, a world that granted me the ability to improve things for the people around me and to feel like my small role in the universe made a difference — and I would do anything to go back.

Next time, when I inevitably return, I don't think I'll go anywhere near the castle.