A Renegade History of Hyrule

Jon Hochschartner’s article in Salon on Saturday argues that the classic video game “The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time” is a mess of classist, racist, and sexist tropes. He will get no argument from me on the sexism score — the entire series is focused on rescuing the princess, again and again. But on the classism front, I have a problem with Hochschartner’s argument. He assumes that the only way not to be a classist is to believe that all people can, and implicitly should, adopt Protestant ideals, and that broad historical trends, and not individuals themselves, bear responsibility for their choices.

Fellow C4SS contributor Ryan Calhoun recently published a piece on the libertarian virtues of slack as exemplified in the Tao Te Ching. While it may not be so august an example as that venerable Chinese text, consider the carpenters of Kakariko, the main human village in Ocarina of Time. They don’t want to work. They don’t have a labor dispute, nor are they after better benefits, covered parking or any such niceties. They simply don’t want to be at work. They’d rather run aimlessly around the village, perhaps subtly making the subversive point that anything, anything at all, is better than work. And the game does not have Link round up the workers at Master-Sword-point and drag them off to work. They simply run around endlessly, until presumably such time as they want to do some carpentry.

In their aimless loafing, the Kakariko carpenters resemble none other than the men and women who fought the American revolution, as described here by historian Thaddeus Russell:

In the early American economy, workers, not bosses, decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking, and sleeping were taken for granted. On the eighteenth century worker’s schedule, Sunday was followed by another day of rest known as “Saint Monday” …

These carpenters, whom Hochshartner assumes would in real life be happily living out his Protestant ideals of hard work and thrift, are in fact modeling what students of history and economics have always known is the natural reaction of any psychologically normal human being to working to make someone else rich. Work sucks. They know it, our forefathers knew it, but Hochschartner and his ideological ilk can’t stand it. Hochshartner complains that “’Ocarina’ portrays the apprentices or journeymen as lazy and shiftless, and the boss as the only one willing to work,” but in truth “Ocarina” portrays the journeymen as heroic rebels insisting on providing their labor only on their own terms.

Hochshartner doesn’t fare any better when examining the fate of House Skulltulla. In the game, the Skulltulla family have been transmogrified into golden spiders as punishment for their greedy lust for wealth. Hochshartner faults “Ocarina” for blaming the Skulltulla’s fate on their individual sins when he sees their faults as created by private property, which, he says, “incentivizes and even mandates such behavior.” Further, he says, the meting out of such individual punishment reflects “a belief that society’s economic ills are intractable because of humanity’s flawed nature.”

While it is important to look beyond individual acts to systemic faults, it is equally important not to lose sight of those individual choices. History, whether that of a fantasy world like Hyrule or our very real world today, is made up of those individual choices, and here, as often in fantasies, the choices of one family have led to (sur)real consequences. Considering Hyrule’s apparently feudal system, it is probably safe to assume the Skulltullas did not accumulate their immense wealth through honest labor and trade, and thus their punishment can be seen as an idealized, if bizarrely fantastical, form of retribution towards exploiters. Furthermore, the Skulltulla family is eventually redeemed by the hero, which undercuts Hochshartner’s argument that the tale fosters a belief in an irredeemably corrupt human nature.

“The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time” is a classic video game, iconic for those of us who played it in our youth, and while it may be a game for children, it can, like any work in any medium, reward further inquiry. Here, however, I feel what the critic sees in the game may reveal more about the critic than about the game itself. Despite his anti-capitalist claims, Hochshartner’s implicit damning of “laziness” and desire to spare individual malefactors the blame for their misdeeds points to his fundamental acceptance of the underlying ideological supports of an exploitative, state capitalist economy.

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