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Let’s Talk About The Ocarina of Time

Some of you may have seen an article floating around recently on a website. This article is a critique of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I in turn wish to attempt a response to said article. You’ve been warned this article will probably spoil more of it than the previous. I am also going to spoil a plot point of The Wind Waker. You’ve been warned.

You have been warned that your childhood has come under direct attack! By whom? Who dares to attack our shared childhood? Who dares attack that game that gave us still-echoing memories of kid Link in the Bottom of the Well, or the agitating vortex room in the Water Temple, or the melodies on the Ocarina? Actually, he’s a fan of the Legend of Zelda, like you and me.

His name is Jon Hochschartner. I don’t quite know who he is, but I recommend you read his article with an open mind. Despite what the Facebook page that linked it to me originally indicated, I’m not sure it’s quite Onion-worthy. I recommend reading it because it’s short, and you’re about to read a response to it. In the interest of charity, read the original. Keep in mind as you read: He’s a fan too. A little off, but still a fan.

Preferably it would also be great if you’d played the game we’re talking about, but if you read his article without playing, you can read mine, too. I won’t object.

Done? Good. Now if you don’t think that’s worth an honest appraisal, you and I may not see eye to eye. Either way, if you’d like to see someone tackle the issues raised from a (hopefully) more Catholic and reasonable way, please read ahead.

First off, let’s talk about that part about enjoying the medium you criticize.I don’t know that I’ve never had my criticism lessen my enjoyment of media, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a piece of media ruined by its problematic aspects, if it was any good to begin with. As a Catholic I’m pretty sure about 90% of everything in media has something problematic about it. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t name a single movie or show in my DVD collection or a single game in my gaming collection, save maybe Tetris Attack, that has nothing problematic in it.

The basic thrust of this piece: Yeah, Zelda does have problems, like any art, but Hochschartner overstates the case.

Let’s talk about class.

This person is so mired in socialism that they can’t see the critique. When we critique avarice we are critiquing a disproportionate desire for wealth. Catholic thought does not oppose private property to legitimate generosity. The teaching isn’t “don’t have more.” The teaching is, much more arguably, “if you have more, give more.” This includes a responsibility to your workers. If the rich man had fed Lazarus even one hot meal a day, it’s possible he would’ve been standing with him at the last judgment, instead of standing in the other place.

Now the central question is this critique of greed vs. a critique of structures. Sinful structures arise from sinful hearts. To a degree, they always will be inevitable. Sorry. The social teaching doesn’t condemn private property and rather, in fact, endorses it. How you use your private property matters. A lot. But the property itself? Not an absolute right, but nearly so.

I’m not sure how a comedic bit about lazy workers really qualifies as classist, either. I think I may have some sway to say that, too. I’m not exactly a manual laborer, and while my current job is amazingly awesome, the job I had to do to get the skills to get there was not what is usually thought of as high-class or even middle-class work. The vast majority of people there were hard workers.

It’s worth noting here that having workers isn’t wrong. Complaining about them when they don’t work isn’t wrong, unless done uncharitably. Treating them badly and paying them jack squat wages would be wrong. But you know what is wrong? Working badly when you could do otherwise. I seem to recall passages of Scripture advising us to do jobs as if for the Lord. I get that the game doesn’t tell the story of all the hard workers, but to be fair, the story of the decent hardworking folk is implied everywhere else.

If you can’t laugh at a joke about a dude who can’t get his own workers to work, or at least not see it as exploitative, you might be further down the Marxist rabbit-hole than I care to ever even look.

Next, let’s talk about the Gerudo.

It was pointed out to me by a friend that the Gerudo aren’t Hylians. I don’t think that matters here. Biologically different species have been paralleling real-world racial differences in fantasy and science fiction media for years, so let’s grant that.

I’ll even grant that the game is somewhat problematic in that the Gerudo are its thieving race. However, there are two major corrections, one of which is more pertinent and the other of which just bugs me: (1) Ganondorf is green, not brown. (2) More pertinently, the Gerudo aren’t evil. If I recall correctly, at worst, they’re misguided. These thieves pretty explicitly have a sense of honor, and you pretty clearly become their friend after all that nasty imprisonment and sneaking around business. And if you’ll recall, one of them becomes one of the Seven Sages. That’s not exactly a low position, for those who know the series.

A side-note to something that was not mentioned in the original article: the Gorons and the Zora. Also different races. Where’s the game’s xenophobia when it comes to them? I don’t seem to recall either of those races being portrayed in a particularly negative light. I seem to recall their royalty being about as equally smart or stupid (perhaps smarter) than Hyrule’s.

Dare I suggest that if we wish to talk about mythic connections between the Ocarina mythos and Christian thought, that it’s worth noting that people of every nation are equally capable of smarts and stupidity, and that people of every ‘nation’ of this Hyrule have a positive role to play in its greatest struggle?

I might just have heard that one before somewhere…

So is Ocarina of Time racist? Not “no” as in “nothing is problematic,” but not as much “yes” as one might think from the initial article.

Let’s talk about the feminist critique.

Caveat: I’m not a feminist. I am sympathetic to some of their critiques of culture, which in many places resonate with my own, but I find the basis of radically feminist worldviews to be pretty incompatible with my own. I wrote about this on another blog once, and I might touch upon it again here some day. But not today. Suffice to say that I still sometimes have a two-headed Catholic/feminist critic in my mind, watching TV with me. Imagine the terror.

I promise I’m almost done.

The game’s ad asking if you would get the girl or play like one is something I’ll just grant as sexist. Some people will disagree with me. That’s fine. But to me it is, or at least it is reflective of the surrounding 90’s culture of the game. Women can play video games, too, and to anyone who’s played the game, asking “Will you get the girl?” doesn’t even make sense in Ocarina’s world. At this point in the Zelda timeline, there’s more romance between Link and Ruto, or even Link and Navi, than between Link and Zelda.

Let’s grant that the damsel in distress trope can be problematic. Let’s grant that we need more stories about damsels who save themselves. Let’s talk about the male characters saved by Link, but I’ll be honest here. There aren’t that many prominent ones, story-wise. But let’s at least acknowledge Darunia and the other more generic Gorons you save and not pretend that the entire game is merely a damsel-rescuing mission.

Let’s talk about two people who are quite important to the discussion: Impa and Zelda.

Impa is a strong female character, physically and writing-wise. She’s mysterious and basically only known to you as the bodyguard of Zelda. Like all the sages, she does need rescuing, and I guess that’s problematic. But she is a strong female character, emotionally and physically, with a definite role to play.

Specifically, has has been pointed out, it’s rather funny if not a little bit sexist that the moment Zelda stops pretending to be a man and becomes Princess Zelda again, she gets kidnapped.

I’d like to point out a small mitigating factor on this one. I don’t think it does away with everything that could be problematic about a damsel in distress trope. But the Zelda-reveal thing in Zelda games isn’t, at least in the stories, about biological sex. It’s about being Princess Zelda. Consider the example of The Wind Waker, where Tetra gets revealed as Zelda. The same thing happens. There might be some similar problems in terms of how we think about sex, and that reveal being from a more tomboyish to more traditionally feminine form.

Of course, for me, the fact that Zelda stays as Sheik for so long, undetected, tells me she has the spirit of a sort of trickster that is common, and even going back to ancient Hebrew traditions talks about another kind of might–the might of the mind, and how even that can conquer. Now it doesn’t, in the end run, conquer, and maybe that’s a fault of the story. Maybe some day Nintendo will publish a feminist rereading of The Ocarina of Time where Zelda, as Sheik or otherwise, uses her wisdom and wit to hide in the shadows for seven years, eventually to thwart Ganondorf on equal if not greater footing than Link. I’d play that game. It would be awesome. But I digress.

If Zelda had been merely a random woman pretending to be a stealthy ninja, and then revealed herself to be a pretty noblewoman, one who did not possess the Triforce of Wisdom and posed no threat to Ganondorf, then she wouldn’t magically become a target. But once revealed, she is definitely a target. Because she’s Princess Zelda.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian once talked about how it is still problematic to have a story excuse to always be rescuing a woman. I do have some agreement with that critique. The truth is that we don’t live in a Catholic utopia where everyone always respects the rights and dignity of everyone else. I personally believe–and I suspect no thinking and moral person really disbelieves–that any man or woman should protect those who need protecting in his or her life. But there won’t always be someone there to do the protecting, so it is probably good to send also the message that a given person ought to know how to take care of themselves, at least to some degree. The need for this is sad, but it’s there, because people do evil.

The game may well reflect a cultural reduction of women to weak rescue-objects, but I think in charity we should note that if so, it is, at the very least, far from anyone’s intention. It’s true that the feminist critique focuses as much on the culture reflected as anything else, but I think it is prudent to guard against ascribing messages to media that its creators wouldn’t necessarily recognize.

In short: Problematic? Yes, because the world simply isn’t that good, and because, no, it’s not as simple as “women are weak and men are strong.” But I guess I don’t see Ocarina, of all Zelda games, treating it quite that simply anyway. Quite possibly the ad for the game was more legitimately sexist than the game itself.

Lastly, animals!

Lastly the author of the article referenced definitely talks some about animal use and how cows like giving you their milk. I believe his misconception is a notion that stewardship means something it’s never meant to Catholic tradition, but I’m going to go ahead and leave that there for now.

In conclusion:

Classist? Hardly, if at all. Racist? Not so much, but not a clean cut. Sexist? Ditto. Patronizing to Animals: I’m not touching this.

Overall: An article that raises some good questions, but overstates it case. Thank you, Mr. Hochschartner, for getting my neurons firing. I mean that.

Originally posted during the old Darganflayer / Embassy XIV blog era.