Literature in Gaming: The Coming-Of-Age
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Written by: Michael James
Edited by: Shania Kuo
Good games come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. Some are long, encompassing epics like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Some barely stick around long enough to end your day, like Furi. Some have amazing soundtracks that stay in your mind long after you put them down, while some don’t have much of a soundtrack at all.
Yes, a “good” game depends on many factors, but something we cannot overlook is the presence of an engaging story. Well-planned writing can take a project from “decent” to “amazing.” It can turn fun gameplay into a rewarding experience, and a catchy soundtrack into a memorable tale.
So we know that a good story can do wonders for a game, but what makes a good story? There are countless tales out there, all with their own nuances and styles. So what makes a game stand out from the rest?
I am so glad that you asked.
Welcome, dear reader, to the Literature in Gaming, and today I’m going to discuss with you the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age, using one of the most popular video games out right now: Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The bildungsroman, or “coming-of-age,” is a popular story trope used in literature. The word itself is German, and yet many iconic stories in English use it, such as The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.
So, what is a coming-of-age story? Simply put, it is a story where the protagonist ventures out on a journey and, by the end, has matured either morally or spiritually. In RPGs this can usually present itself as levels, but what we’re aiming for here is the story aspect. More specifically, we’re looking for how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (henceforth referred to as OoT) exemplifies this. To do this, we first have to identify the core aspects of the bildungsroman and why they make for a compelling story.
To save you time and keep you interested, I am putting these aspects in a bullet-point list:
Our young, starry-eyed hero sets out on a journey.
Life quickly kicks the shit out of them, forcing them to abandon their naïve mindset.
They change, often making mistakes along the way, and learn valuable lessons.
They emerge at the end a metaphorical (and often literal) adult.
Through this easy, four-step plan, we see our protagonist changed. Character growth is something universally accepted as enjoyable storytelling across most mediums, and the bildungsroman often portrays this in the most literal of ways: our character literally grows up during their story. With these helpful tools in mind, we can start on our understanding of OoT as a bildungsroman and use it as a checklist.
Ocarina of Time starts off with our silent protagonist, Link (or whatever you decide to name our starry-eyed hero), being woken up from his sleep by his soon-to-be companion Navi—a bright blue fairy that is more glow than body. Navi beckons Link to the Great Deku Tree. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, Link exits his house, introducing the player to this:
Welcome to the Kokiri Forest, a hodgepodge of metaphors for childhood. Here, eternal children live in innocent wonder forever, running across rope bridges and sleeping in treehouses. They do not age, and there is no immediate danger to Link’s life. As long as the player stays here, they face no real threat from the game. They can listen to the upbeat, whimsical score and enjoy the cheerful atmosphere.
Of course, this is not to be. This is a video game, and conflict is abound.
Link eventually meets the guardian of the forest, the Great Deku Tree. The game presents the arboreal deity as something of a father figure to the Kokiri. He keeps them safe from forces outside of his forest, and assigns a fairy to them. Link, despite not being a Kokiri, looks to the Great Deku Tree as a protector—the same as all of his peers.
It is this protector that Link is forced to watch die.
This isn’t to say that Link fails. On the contrary, he succeeds. Unfortunately, this is still not enough. The guardian of the forest, the Great Deku Tree, still dies from the curse inflicted on him by Ganondorf. The curse, a magical parasitic monster, had already eaten away at his life. Thus, Link is forced out of his home and his idyllic safety.
When Link leaves the forest, however, he doesn’t necessarily abandon his worldview. Link embarks on a new adventure, but nothing happens that is particularly distressing. If anything, Link succeeds in his endeavors: saving the G