Some video games feel like coming home, some feel like longing for it. For me, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker does both, breezily. Playing it, remembering it, I get a sense of my past and future selves, refracted as they are by fictions and memories, and journeys and stillness. I believe everyone who loves video games has that game that reflects their internal architecture in ways that are immediately recognisable yet ungraspable, be it through the gameplay, the characters, the story, or, as Wind Waker does, for me at least, place.
I grew up and live in Walyalup/Fremantle, Western Australia, a historied port town that’s as eccentric as it is banal, and as picturesque as it is yuck. The coming and going of boats small, big, and enormous is as much a part of my sense of home as the screeching of gulls, the crashing of waves, and the ravings of those locals affectionately dubbed “Fremantle characters.” On its good days, Fremantle has the whiff of Ghibli about it (namely Porco Rosso), on its bad, the stink of the half gentrified decay of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet Tekinkinkreet, but be it a balmy summer stroll down South Terrace when the Freo Doctor (name of our favourite breeze) is blowing or the puke soaked street brawls outside The Sail and Anchor on a Saturday night, Freo undoubtedly has, for better or worse, personality.
To grow up there is to grow up at the intersection of beach, river, and live animal exports. You are a ferry ride from the idyllic Rottnest Island, riddled as it is with Pokemon-like Quokkas and a history as pitch dark as a colonial history gets, and a 2-minute drive from the cliffy banks of the snaking Swan, also riddled with rodent-like creatures (jet skiers) but flowing unceasingly with the deep time mythopia of the Dreaming, carved out as it was by the great Wogyl (the Noongar people’s manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent), who is said to rest in one of its limestone coves on its Northern bank.
With all this myth, mystery, and madness, its no wonder that Fremantle has always seemed somewhat toonified to me, a once blonde-haired, large-eyed, and notably big-headed child who spent hours sitting beneath the South Mole’s lighthouse feeding chips to the local gulls fresh from our (now long-defunct [RIP]) beachfront McDonald’s.
It is no wonder then that I’ve always seen myself in Wind Waker’s Toon Link.
The beauty of Link—be he young, adult, or toon—has always stemmed from his ability to serve as an androgynous(ish) avatar for whoever’s controlling him. How many millions of players have slipped into his little brown boots, white stockings, and green tunic and forgotten that they were anyone other than the Hero of Hyrule as they solve puzzles in a dying sentient tree or sidestep boulders on a spitting volcano or backflip their way around a million vengeful cuckoos.
Playing as Link often feels like awakening a dormant part of oneself, a feeling that I’m sure most games strive for, but few achieve.
For 11-year-old me, sitting in my little white plastic chair in front of my parents then-20-year-old CRTV in 2002, playing Wind Waker felt like an out-of-body experience.
Running around Outset Island as Toon Link, both of us in our jim-jams, was like tearing through the fantastical version of my own coastlines and communities. When I (as Link) sailed into Windfall Island—replete with its little cafe and nutty locals—I felt like I was entering the Fremantle is in my daydreams: the town I shrank down to a size that was more manageable and less (I’ll be generous here) ‘rough’ than the place as it actually was—a Fremantle that was cel-shaded, as opposed to shady.
Wind Waker captured that niggling feeling you get if you grow up in a port town looking at the coming and going of boats all day, the feeling that you should be setting sail, heading out, exploring, because the ocean is vast and infinite and packed with treasure, adventure, and maybe, just maybe, it has a spot carved out just for you—an unmarked square on your map, for you to fill in and make your own.
Wind Waker does reward the player with their own private island—the aptly named ‘Private Oasis.’ It has a little house, a swimming pool, and a cabana with a deck chair for Link to catch rays on. Lots of RPG/adventure games give the player a home but Wind Waker isn’t like Fable, Skyrim or even Breath of the Wild, where you’re rewarded with a ‘home’ that’s customisable but really just serves as a place to store the loot you’ve hoarded on your rambling murder journey. Outside of a simple puzzle, The Private Oasis is functionally useless within the confines of Wind Waker’s story and mechanics.
So, in a game that’s notoriously hurried production saw many elements cut, why include it at all?
Once you get the Private Oasis you’re a fair way into your quest: you’re no longer a wide-eyed kid in their PJs chasing the neighbourhood pigs, you’re Link, the fabled hero, and all that comes with that. You’ve earned a breather! And the game offers you one, in a way that’s as novel as it is knowing.
Zelda games constantly invite Link and the player to indulge in digression: Link is distractible to a fault and loves to fish, race, and chase farm animals in a way that’s as fun for the player as it must be frustrating for the NPCs constantly begging him to save their world etc. But Wind Waker goes a step further by inviting Link, and you, to chill out and do nothing.
The greatest trick Wind Waker pulls as a game is in how it makes doing nothing feel as much an act of progress and reward as solving a puzzle or acquiring new a heart piece does.
For all the neckbearded rage initially directed at Wind Waker’s ‘childish’ aesthetics, it might be the most mature Zelda game there is. Yes, they originally intended Link to age (kid, teen, adult) as the game’s story progressed, but that kind of maturation is not really what Wind Waker is getting at. Instead, it asks us to consider the ways in which personal progression—in an epic quest, and in life—is not so much a matter of what you unlock, but what you accept.
It achieves this through its islands, and the spaces it builds on them. Be it through Dragon Roost island’s sense of purpose (idk if any game has made delivering mail seem as majestic) or Windfall’s sense of community (Killer Bees ain’t nothin’ to fuck with) or the sense of neediness in Beedle’s Shop Ship (THANK YOUUUU!), Wind Waker’s islands and the spaces within them insist that they exist not only to propel you along your journey but to tether you to your history—to your very self.
Nowhere do we see this done as deftly as we do with the game’s first location, Link’s hometown, Outset Island.
In terms of game design, the opening hours spent on Outset Island are masterful instances of worldbuilding and tutorialising. Like Kokiri Forest before and Ordin Village after, Outset Island is there to send the player on their way. It’s there, in effect, to say goodbye to.
But unlike Kokiri or Ordin, it also calls you back. I don’t mean with quests (those other villages do that) but instead with community, specifically, family. Outset Island goes out of its way to feel like your anchor point, and the fact that it makes you want to revisit it as you’re sailing out in the middle of nowhere battling a giant squid or dodging Moblin cannon-fire is an amazing simulation of the genuine pangs of homesickness that few games, if any, manage to summon within the player.
The secret ingredient in this homesickness might be Link’s Grandma and her delicious soup.
Link’s Grandma—who on the adorability scale outshines even Tingle (don’t @ me, team Tingle 4 lyf!) — spends the majority of the game in her rocking chair, sadly nursing herself to sleep as she mourns her missing granddaughter and frets over her adorable child soldier grandson. Eventually, you give her a fairy and she perks up, at which point you’ll be able to request a hot bowl (well, bottle) of her famous ‘Elixir Soup’ whenever it takes your fancy.
The (literally) hearty dish replenishes your hearts AND magic bar AND doubles your attack power, a frankly OP boost in a game that doesn’t require you to be THIS ‘souped’ up. Combat in Wind Waker is rarely, if ever, difficult, and few players would feel the need to sail/teleport home to Outset Island to juice Link like an 80s NBL batter with grannie’s home-brand performance enhancer. Sailing anywhere you don’t ‘need’ to be can be a bit of a pain in the game as the Wind Waker itself, at least in the original release, quickly grows tiresome.
So what was it then that always brought me back to Outset Island, Link’s Grandma, and her soup if not the necessities of gameplay?
Again, it was the game’s insistence on the importance of home, and its eerie evocation of my own.
As a boy, I was incredibly close to my grandma. I’m from a family that’s as big (over 100 cousins) as it is close (weekly lunches, multiple holidays together, unending stream of birthdays, weddings, and funerals etc) as it is fond of food (see previous brackets) and when I was young my grandma was the reigning matriarch and focal point, her little cottage (once a farmhouse) with its wild garden in the heart of Palmyra (10 minutes from Fremantle) acting as the hub, home, and hearth of the family since they bought it in 1940.
My mother and I would visit with her every day, and I spent most of my after-school hours sitting in her little living room watching cartoons while she and my mum discussed the goings-on and gossip. I ate dinner at grandma’s almost every night of my childhood, buckled her seatbelt on every family trip, and kissed her on the head before going home for the night every night until she died in 2001, at the age of 91.
Wind Waker arrived a year after her death when I was still feeling her absence acutely.
I have two vivid memories of the game from that time. The first is my mum asking the clerk at EB Games if they had “Wind WaNKer? The WANKER game? The game for WANKERS?”, the second is of Link’s Grandma, and how I would insist on visiting her whenever I played the game. Once I was done with whatever quest or dungeon had taken up my session, I’d set sail for Outset Island, running past the pigs and up to her little cottage, filling up on the super soup, and then just staying, as Link, in her little house, keeping her company, convincing myself I felt the heat of her virtual stove, the smell of her cooking, and the warmth of her love of her grandson, Link.
When I replayed Wind Waker on the Wii U (might be worth noting that this is when I changed my Nintendo gamer tag to WindWanka [thanks mum?]) 11 years later I found myself, almost reflexively, visiting Link’s Grandma as I had as a small grief-stricken boy, lingering in her house on the little island that the game designer’s seemed to have ripped from my own memories of home, my desires to leave it, and the urge to return.
Wind Waker, for all the movement, exploration, and discovery that evokes, will always be a game about the beauty of staying put for me. It is as much a memory palace as it is a private oasis that I only appreciate more as I grow older and come to accept that life is less a great gale blowing you around the map, but a little ship, circling the islands we keep within ourselves, brought alive by those who swim out to us.