I am standing at the foot of an enormous mountain, barely clad. Rain lashes me, and in the distance there is lightning and thunder. I am shivering, but I know – at least I think I know – that atop this mountain shelter awaits. The promise of a warming meal and a warmer bed. Perhaps companionship. But first, this mountain. One step at a time. One aching, tired, lonely step at a time.
A few days later, I befriended a dog. It’s not hard - I simply pay him some attention – but as he starts to follow me it occurs to me that I have not spoken to another soul in almost a week. I met and fought countless demons and monsters, but human contact has been absent. I stop to pat the dog at my feet, briefly grateful for the loyalty and companionship. The sun is about to go down and I am alone again.
One of these things happened in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the other happened in my life. The thing is, either could be the other.
It is little secret amongst my closest friends that I have had a challenging 18 months on an emotional level. Depression, something I have managed through various means for nearly 20 years, has become a near constant companion. A series of private and professional disappointments compounded upon each other to rob me of drive and optimism.
I maintained a veneer of course – that, along with Boggle and parallel parking, is something I’m pretty good at – but I could feel it cracking more and more. I tried dietary changes, exercise, immersing myself in creative pursuits, all my usual strategies to keep the black dog at bay but nothing seemed to really work. My thoughts grew darker, my mood more insular.
Of course, I did not start playing Breath of the Wild looking for solace and comfort from my ills. No, I played it because it was shiny and new and Zelda. It was the only game I had on my shiny new Switch and it was another way to fill yet another empty evening. Whilst I firmly believe in the power of video games to explore complex issues and provide emotionally resonant experiences (and thus help us grow and develop as people), it’s not really something I’ve ever gotten, nor expected, from a Zelda game.
I love the series, no question, but familiarity has bred not contempt, exactly, but predictability. I thought I knew what I was getting.
But Breath of the Wild is not your average Zelda game. Heck, it’s not even your average video game.
I am not sure where to go. All of the markers I would normally lay down to guide me have vanished. I feel I am living day to day, meal to meal. The wandering is okay, but I’m wondering when the wandering will end. Everything I see in the distance looks challenging and foreboding, and I’m not sure I have the strength yet for any of it. On the plus side I have bought a house. It is empty, but it is mine, and I can close the door to the world and be safe for a time. Again this could be the game or it could just be my life.
Of late, video games had actually been exacerbating my depression. I love the LEGO games, but The Force Awakens, with its endless mindless fetching, made me start to question the meaning of my existence. I played it and liked it as a game but hated it as a thing I did with my life. The sudden emptiness of the rest of my life magnified the meaninglessness of the game and made me feel slightly sick as I played.
Breath of the Wild is not like that.
It reminds me of my solitude as I sit alone on my couch and play. Yes, it reminds me of my loneliness as Link wanders the vast, inhospitable plains of Hyrule. And yes, it reminds me constantly that life is not necessarily fair as I die more in this game than in all other Zelda games combined.
But somehow it manages to package all that up in something comforting, a warm blanket that smells of a fondly remembered picnic where you lay with your head in her lap and she smiled down at you as the sun gently burnt your face. Link searches for memories to cling to as he finds himself lost in a world both familiar and strange. I do the same. And when we find them, they save little bits of each of us.
I am not advocating Breath of the Wild as therapy; merely that I am surprised how therapeutic I have found it, and surprised by how much I needed therapy. My battle with depression is not over – far from it – and nor will it be when I finally reach the end of this game. That fight is ongoing. But I am grateful, however surprised, to have been able to spend time immersed in a world that seemed to understand, whether deliberately or no, the challenges I currently face.
I look towards the castle, cloaked as it is in angry demons. The Princess is in there, somewhere, fighting the good fight. I am outside, still working up the courage to join her in the fight. Not yet, Princess, I think to myself. Not yet, but hopefully soon.
A final note: don't ignore depression — seek real life help. Visit your GP who can refer you to a local professional, or contact BeyondBlue. For more information about how gaming can help with mental health, we recommend giving Prescription Pixel a visit.