Grow Up Already
What a choice for the young. One so inextricably inter-coiled with the unfurling vector of another’s life, that there was never an alternative culmination of providence but that the parallax of both ends would crash in a calamity of fate. A choice that wrinkles brows and grays hair: would you choose a combustible lizard, an anthropomorphic turtle, or a… a green… thing. I know picking one of the three freaked me out at the beginning of Pokemon: Red Version, but still, it was exciting.
Didn’t you know right there you were at the crispy crust’s edge of an adventure pie, filled with steamy action morsels and globs of drama, zested with a sprinkling of quest? Mmm, what a pie, I mean adventure, indeed. There’s nothing that quite parallels the feeling of that first trek on your own; closing that door behind you, the trees rustling in a personal cheer and a few far and dark clouds glowering, waiting to test young resolve. There was something very empowering about that first step out of Pallet Town. Then again, any day that starts off with a flammable lizard is bound to be an odd one at the very least. Through the impending trials you came of age. To be the very best that no one ever was might sound fun at first, but it really requires getting your nose bloodied (more than once) and growing from each experience.
The coming of age tale isn’t new at all. From Telemachus becoming a man, to Frodo holding the fate of a world, many have set out on the journey, growing up along the way, and it never loses its magic. These are among the most timeless tales, the ones we recite and play out by heart because we all grow up. Characters who go out into a harsh world to find and define themselves have provided some of the most empathized-with stories in video games. We're all too familiar with how klutzy, elating, painful, sobering, exciting, confusing, and sorrowing growing up to adulthood can be, and the added challenges in which some characters have to do this shock and boggle the mind. Yet surprisingly, there aren’t too many games that let you grow through their journeys. In writing this article, I was really surprised to find out that there seem to only be a handful of “coming of age games.” A lot of games today take place within the span of a few days to a few weeks. It's not often that we get to follow a character and grow up with them, and it's truly a shame.
Remember those scenarios we all used to play out as kids? The king needed you to save the princess, or you were the last of a clan of ancient warriors, maybe you found an ancient staff of untold power. Whatever scenario it was, it always had that magic that you, just a regular boy or girl, were destined for something greater. Whenever a game has been able to recognize how powerful these young experiences can be, it's allowed for an amazing amount of personal connection to the game. This was the kind of feeling a lot of us had when playing The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. You were just a little kid from the Kokiri clan, more importantly, the loneliest kid and the only one without a fairy. And of all the kids, the Great Deku Tree chose you to try and save it. Even though you couldn’t, the tree still entrusted you with the Spiritual Stone and a quest to Hyrule castle. Albeit this may all be a bit overwhelming for a kid, but it still meant you were part of something greater.
This is master crafting on Nintendo’s part. How many of us might have felt lonely or different as kids? Maybe you knew a kid like Link in your class, or maybe, you were that kid. Presenting Link like this made him feel real, and it really made us identify with him (unless you were one of the soulless little bastards who was good in gym class). Here, childhood reality and our imagination’s adventures met as a single experience, and it definitely left an impression because as children, in innocence, we wanted to feel special, chosen, the best, destined, or any mark that made us a little closer to our heroes. Maybe it was being the best at dodge ball or being the funniest of our friends. It could have been being the smartest in class or drawing the best; it's a very strong impulse, and it definitely makes grand Coming of Age tales appealing.
Of course, the “lonely/different kid destined for greatness tale” isn't the only Coming of Age element that appealed to Zelda fans. There are few feelings that really match that of starting an adventure. Do you remember when you first saw Hyrule castle? It still runs a thrill through me when I think about it. It was the thrill of discovering a whole new side of me and the possibilities that came with it. It's just like when Phaeton found out he was Apollo’s son, or Harry Potter first learned he’s a wizard. Again, it’s our imaginations manifest, that childhood dream for new worlds and possibilities; that thought of going far and beyond from our roots. It's the dream that ran through Luke Skywalker as he stared over Tatooine’s twin sunset.
As exciting as the proposal for a quest might be, you know, spreadsheets and itineraries and all, there's also the slightly complicated part about the challenges and trials ahead. Think about the difference between going on a bear hunt, and then actually running into one of Smokey's angry and very steroid-positive cousins. Part of the allure of Frodo’s adventures is obviously all his run-ins with orcs, goblins, balrogs, wizards, spiders, and all other magical monstrosities trying to take the ring, but there's more to it.
As Sora goes from world to world, locking keyholes in Kingdom Hearts, he’s charged by hordes of psychedelic-shadow-people- (which always freaked me out) Disney mutants. Every world brought stronger, greater evils to face, and Sora pretty much aged with every key swipe. You could say trials are found in any game, where there are adversaries; just look at Halo. Is every alien skull bash compelling? No. It's not just the fact that there are adversaries, but that these are faced in lieu of everyday adolescent problems. For example, Frodo fights orcs; great, we can see that anywhere. But, Frodo fights Orcs while fighting the temptation of the ring, that's a story we can relate to a little more, and Kingdom Hearts captures this angle succinctly.
Sora starts off as a normal kid with a crush on the pretty girl, unsure of himself, and usually playing second fiddle to Riku. Through his fights with the heartless, he starts to trust his own talents and strengths. Even when he loses the key blade to Riku, he still treks forward without it, now determined unlike before, despite being left by Donald and Goofy. These are pretty normal problems (well, minus Donald and Goofy ditching you) that happen to be in extraordinary situations. I guess that's also part of the appeal of this Coming of Age element. We face all kinds of challenges growing up, but they all rage on Word document battlefields and spreadsheet dungeons. Coming of Age tales romanticize adolescent issues, turning pretty-girl rejections and final papers, into rancors and owl-bears.
Why do we follow certain characters more? Why do we fight through the ambushes, traverse ragged peaks, burn in the deserts, run in the cities, sink in the seas, and gag in cheap motels? Why do we go through it all? In Assassin’s Creed 2, Ezio lived the care-free life of nobility. Chasing women and getting into fights, drinking wine and free running; he took on life with cocky innocence. When his father and brothers are executed though, he's quick to act as any of us would. He takes messy vengeance on the man directly involved and runs from the city with what's left of his family. Upon learning others were involved in the conspiracy, he begins to plan. This could easily turn into a red drenched B-moviepalooza with howls of vengeance, blood-sprinkler murders, and a healthy serving of sexy-lady parts.
Fortunately, Assassin's Creed 2 doesn't do this, well, maybe the blood part. Over the course of thirty years, though Ezio assassinates every single man involved with the Templar plot, it isn’t frenzied or spiteful, it’s understandable. He grows methodical and acknowledges very great powers underlie his own snippet of work. Basically, we see him develop through the course of these high paced moments, and that's what makes this compelling. Ezio's work is selfish at first, such as when he shakes Vieri d'Pazzi's corpse in spite. But after his uncle tells him to respect death, he begins to change. His mission eventually grows into a greater sense of duty. He then acts for others like his uncle and the people of Venice and Florence. It would have been easy to spin Assassin’s Creed 2 as simply a tale of revenge, but it grows into one of finding greater meaning in loss.
If not solely for the sake of inane entertainment, the actual action of any story doesn't mean a great deal without a character's growth; that's the part we relate to. What is it that impacted you the most from any of your growing-up challenges? Do you focus on the memory of being dumped by your three-year girlfriend? Or do you remember all the work you put forth into turning your life around and finally pursuing your dreams? Do you ruminate on that awful MCAT score? Or do you remember discovering the side of yourself that happened to be a great writer? It's the weighing and analyzing of an adventure's challenges, and how it changes the protagonist that really speaks to us, because that's how we think. We go back to our experiences and think and build from them.
We may not be on a quest to find a lost kingdom, but what we face from day to day can sure feel like it. And when we do conquer our “dragons” whether it be getting into that law school, finally moving out, or finding the love of our lives, it sure as hell feels like we got the best achievement of all.