Playing with Nature: On “Tears of the Kingdom” as Ecofiction

By Martin DolanJuly 26, 2023

Playing with Nature: On “Tears of the Kingdom” as Ecofiction
IN HIS 2016 book-length essay on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh describes the lack of contemporary novels concerned with nature and the environment as an imaginative failure. He writes that “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena. […] [T]he mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction.” The problem, in Ghosh’s mind, isn’t that we haven’t acknowledged the externalities of a warming atmosphere—quite the opposite, actually—but rather that we haven’t taken the next logical step and interrogated the extent to which the narratives we value are complicit in the status quo. Ghosh argues that “if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed.”

But is that really a failure of our collective imagination? Or is it just a failure of how we channel our imagination—in forms grounded in 17th-century notions of individuality, character, and realism? That is to say, is this a failure of imagination or a failure of the novel?

“Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins,” Ghosh writes, “born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience.” Realism has been at the core of fiction for centuries. Character, plot, setting, and motivation—these are drilled into writers’ heads as the building blocks of story. Ideas that are strange or improbable are condemned with labels like “science fiction” and “fantasy.”

In Ghosh’s mind, the real reason that environmental disaster figures so minimally into our contemporary literary output is because it clashes with what we value in stories. Climate change is, by nature, improbable, extreme, and cruel without motivation. Ghosh uses the word “uncanny.” What is uncanny is improbable yet undeniably real. There’s discomfort there, and that’s the point. The values embedded in the stories we tell ourselves don’t account for the uncanny, its refusal to comply with our notions of “realism” and “character” and “plot.” These foundations of narrative are too convenient for something as inhuman as climate change.

We need to imagine something else.

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This summer’s biggest video game, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, trades in the uncanny. It opens by dropping its protagonist, Link, into Hyrule, the same wide open world that he spent 2017’s Breath of the Wild saving. Except this time, things are different. Monsters have reinvaded the kingdom (it is an action RPG, after all), but the world itself is falling apart as well. Giant fissures have appeared in the ground, gashing holes in the landscape and emitting an arcane, poisonous “gloom.” A never-ending hurricane ravages the northern provinces, the arid regions have become climate-alteringly cold and dry, and sludge is falling from the skies above the mid-continental wetlands. Behind its thin facade of a PG-rated fantasy adventure, the world of Tears of the Kingdom is a parable of climate change in action.

There’s a word for stories like this, a word that Ghosh curiously does not use once in The Great Derangement—ecofiction. Though it’s become something of a buzzword in contemporary criticism, its roots can be traced back to a synthesis of late-20th-century movements—ecological advocacy from writers such as Rachel Carson and the classic science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Usually, there’s a social or activist angle. Although there are few parallels between the setting of Tears of the Kingdom and our own world, looking at how the game tells its (often unscripted) story reveals something important about the capacity of game narratives to excel at the kind of ecocritical sensitivity Ghosh suggests is usually absent from realistic novels.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the previous game was that its world was as much of a character as the protagonist, Link. Besides the light guidance of (optional) quest markers on the map and hints presented through non-player characters’ dialogue, Breath of the Wild was wide open from the moment players finished its tutorials; they were immediately given free rein to head out into the world in any direction. Narrative considerations borrowed from written literature—plot, motivation, pacing—had been discarded in favor of the unabashedly gamey. Exploration and experimentation were the game’s key design tenets. Unlike novels and films, where the pretense of plot drags you from scene to scene, the Zelda games drop you into a world with no guidance and let you write the story. Breath of the Wild was the latest in a series of small but fundamental shifts in the ways designers have approached big budget game design for the past decade. The lineage connecting 2012’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—with its massive world populated by warring factions, moral choices, and an infinite number of procedurally generated quests—to Zelda is clear, but in its most recent console generation, Nintendo has jumped to the cutting edge of the “open world” genre. Tears of the Kingdom takes this freedom-first design ethos to its logical extreme—where prioritizing “play” trumps not just the game’s story, but even its underlying mechanics.

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Beyond the obvious de-emphasis on linearity and a conventional narrative, there are invisible design choices that elevate Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom above other games in their class—the idea of “emergent gameplay.” Coined by famed developer Marc LeBlanc, the ethos of emergent gameplay is to push the standards of game design away from linear scripts toward spontaneous and unpredictable yet authentic scenarios. Layering system upon system to make the virtual reality of computer logic—inputs and outputs, polygons and lighting effects and camera angles—seem eerily real. Making the gameplay uncanny.

The philosophy emerged alongside a wave of late-1990s “immersive sims,” such as Thief: The Dark Project (1998) or System Shock (1994), titles that blended the elaborate, internally consistent mechanics of simulators and strategy games with the exciting, real-time gameplay of shooters like Doom (1993). At their core, these games tried to build elaborate physics engines that, if not totally “real,” contained a web of interlocking mechanics that all made sense within the context of the game. Optimally, these are games in which anything the player thinks should work will work. This includes actions like being able to shoot a lever rather than having to press a designated “interact” button on the controller, or being able to use fire to burn down a locked wooden door. These games rewarded creativity, experimentation, and replayability, developing cult fanbases among early PC gaming communities. Because of their lack of flashy mechanics and costly productions, however, the immersive sim subgenre never caught on commercially. Many games in development or entire studios folded or were bought out.

Still, as technology progressed and even the most action-focused, mass-market games expanded to include elaborate stories and open worlds, one key design aspect of immersive sims ended up crossing over to the mainstream—the idea of emergent gameplay. Basically, by having all objects within the game world—from players and enemies to inanimate objects and buildings—behave according to the same “rules,” developers could have unique gameplay scenarios effectively write themselves. They could simply place objects into the world, letting players interact with them, and the action would start on its own. When you see YouTube videos of three-way gang shootouts in Grand Theft Auto V (2013) or a wild bear attacking an enemy camp in the Far Cry series (2004– ), that’s the philosophy of emergent gameplay working in real time: it’s the immersive sim adapted for the next generation of action gaming.

So, when it came time to revamp its beloved Legend of Zelda franchise for the newest generation of consoles, Nintendo looked to those examples as inspiration. Never ones to chase trends, however, the developers didn’t simply want to create another immersive sim in an open-world skin. For Breath of the Wild, which would become the Nintendo Switch’s killer app, they had a much more ambitious idea—creating an entire virtual nature.

In both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, enemies and animals alike have coded behaviors, a set “rulebook” for how they react to the player and to each other. But so do inanimate objects—materials like wood, stone, and metal—and the various elements, magical or otherwise, that Link will encounter on his adventure. You can climb almost every surface in the game, which seems like an interesting but trivial feature, at least until you realize that it means all objects must be interactable, that they too must exist within this elaborate system.

Buildings, weapons, giant monsters—they all play by variations of the same rules. Additional systems, like weather and a day/night cycle, add seemingly infinite layers to that framework. Rain makes cliffsides slippery and hard to climb, but it also muffles the sound of your footsteps, floods low-lying plains, and makes monsters and animals skittish. In a storm, lightning might strike you if you’re carrying a weapon made of metal, but throwing that weapon into a crowd of monsters can kill them all in one blast. Ideas are also borrowed from the genre of survival games—Link has finite stamina, does crafts, cooks food, and needs to stay warm or cold depending on his environment. Extreme heat can hurt you, but it also burns objects made of wood, blows up explosives, and cooks meat left on the ground. You need to eat hot peppers that grow in the tropics in order to stay warm in the cold, or else equip yourself with specific insulated gear.

And in Tears of the Kingdom, the direct sequel that refines Breath of the Wild’s formula, these systems are kicked into overdrive. With a new “ultrahand” ability, Link can pick up nearly every object that exists in the world, and move and manipulate it in three dimensions. You can now attach anything to anything—make flame-spewing weapons, design elaborate magic-powered flying machines, or simply glue as many planks of wood together as the processor will allow. The game doesn’t care. It almost encourages players to abuse its “rules,” especially when solving puzzles. Another new ability, “ascension,” allows Link to swim upwards through solid objects, completely throwing Breath of the Wild’s finely tuned attention to verticality out the window. The limits are literally up to the player. All the development team had to do was design a world, write a few rules, and let the player loose to break them all. The game practically plays itself.

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So, is it fiction? In the loose sense of the word, yes. But how might a game series like The Legend of Zelda, full of monster fighting and dungeon crawling, operate as ecofiction?

Scholars of speculative fiction have pushed back against Ghosh’s declaration of a “failure of imagination” regarding the climate crisis. In their minds, critics like Ghosh are simply looking in the wrong places. Mark Bould, author of The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021), champions so-called “lowbrow” narratives—a lineage stretching from the comics character Swamp Thing (1971– ) to the TV film Sharknado (2013)—that do reckon with large-scale questions of environmentalism. He’s critical of critics, like Ghosh, whose overemphasis on literary fiction has become something of a blind spot. Speculative and genre fiction are often messy, focused on “worlds” over characters, and reliant on shock value. But so is climate change.

The Legend of Zelda games aren’t as unabashedly schlocky as, say, Sharknado, but it’s undeniable that gaming has historically been written off by the literary establishment in much the same way as science fiction and fantasy. Despite recent progress in both technology and prestige, it is always an uphill battle to get video game stories taken seriously. A well-written game is an event. But perhaps it’s because of this blind spot, the freedom from the critical constraints on novels and film, that games can ask different questions. Bigger questions.

Just like the worlds of video games, novels are self-contained systems. Yet both the code (written language) and the conventions (character, plot, and other “pillars” of storytelling) are restrictive. By contrast, gaming is speculative not just because of its content but also because its interactive form changes the very shape of what we understand as story. Tears of the Kingdom is a game about climate change, but the scope is so much bigger than a novel could ever be. You, the player, change the world around you. From actions as small as lighting a campfire to those as big as slaying a pollution-spewing monster, choices that the player makes in Tears’s virtual nature alter not only the narrative but also the environment itself.

Ecofiction is all about reframing our ideas of story to look critically at our relationship with the environment. Both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom tell stories using their worlds, yet, more importantly, they treat the dynamic relationship between the player and the world—exploration, survival mechanics, emergent gameplay within a virtual nature—as a meaningful story in itself. This may not be as flashy as a movie or as idea-driven as some novels, but these games demonstrate a fundamental shift in our understanding of where ecofiction might productively occur.

Like film a century ago, games are the cutting edge of fiction, a form barely out of its infancy. And just as many foundational moments of the 20th century exist in our collective consciousness accompanied by iconic photos and movies, the great crisis of this generation—climate change—is perhaps going to be reckoned with in digital worlds like Hyrule, with elaborate virtual natures of their own. At the very least, gaming is a sandbox, a playground, where developers can create entire worlds and break them apart at will. That’s part of the fun. Gameplay is defined by conflict, challenges to overcome. But maybe, by breaking enough virtual rules, we can find some solutions too.

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Martin Dolan is a writer from Albany, New York. He’s online at www.dolanmart.in.

LARB Contributor

Martin Dolan is a writer from Albany, New York. He’s currently a graduate student in English literature at Binghamton University. His fiction has appeared in Barzakh and Gandy Dancer, and his nonfiction has appeared in The Millions. He’s online at www.dolanmart.in.

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