Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Zelda Method, Revisited

By Annie Wright

Sometimes, merely finishing an RPG isn't enough. We've all experienced being drawn into the discovery of a world in which we spend hours of our day, or even days of our week. We become our avatar as we play; we form emotional attachments with those who join our party, and sometimes even with random people we meet along the road. We learn moves, expand our fighting repertoire, and develop preferences for weapons. It's not that we're untethered from the real world (well, not in MOST cases... there are always exceptions), but it takes a fairly unimaginative cynic to be totally unaffected when playing. And believe me, I know a thing or two about being cynical. Yet even at my most jaded, when faced with a daunting or unpleasant task, I've often found myself lapsing into a practice that I began when I was just out of high school. Some people have yoga, I have Zelda.

I once had a discussion during my freshman year of college with a fellow classmate (I shall call him "Francis" here in order to protect his identity from the repercussions of some of the more questionable activities I will reveal later in the post) about the concept of applying a "level up" mentality to some of the menial tasks that accompany undergraduate life. We were not that concerned with the academic aspect, as mentioned by Professor Jesse Schell, or the "unlocking" of achievements as we got our core and prerequisite classes out of the way in order to move on to concentrated and specific areas of study. For us, that notion went without saying, even without the formalized "popquiz-as-miniboss" metaphor, as we were already seasoned gamers at this point in our lives.

Francis and I were however, very interested in making certain routine necessary evils a bit more palatable. Among the worst of these labors was the dropping and adding of classes. Our university was one of the last to unify the various I.T. departments on campus, and consequently there was a fairly intricate trek involved in the modification of one's schedule. One day, as I bemoaned the potential loss of an entire afternoon to this process (in order to take Brazilian Jiujitsu, I needed to drop a Medieval History class that centered around the plague epidemic of the 1300s), Francis turned me on to "The Zelda Method".

It was simple enough in concept: For each errand in the agonizingly bureaucratic drop/add procedure (go to the first building to get a form, collect a signature on the form from a different building, present the signature in exchange for the correct stamp held in an office that was hidden in the back of a classroom that was occupied constantly save for a ten minute window which was at a different time each day, etc), I was to imagine myself one step closer to my ultimate goal: admittance to an elite Hyrule dojo. Once enrolled at this dojo, I would be schooled in the skills necessary to face my ultimate destiny, wield any Master Swords I should happen to encounter, and most importantly, avoid an entire semester of learning about how the rat/flea ratio on merchant ships in the 1300s led to the black plague.

I won't lie and say my drop/add experience while using Zelda was fun, or that I did any actual swordfighting, but it was engaging enough that I found myself keeping track of which passers-by I would consider NPCs and which I would take out with the Boomerang. Thus, I survived. When I reported on the success of my quest during a cafeteria de-briefing session, it was decided that Francis and I would try to apply our "Game-coping" strategy to our lives as often as possible.

Another challenge that often presented itself involved over-crowded dorm laundromats.There was only one dryer for every four washing machines, something which I have witnessed many times since then and still fail to understand. Residents frequently displayed a dungeon-crawler mentality, and any clothes left in the dryer for more than a few unsupervised moments would be removed and subsequently picked through by looters. Few were brazen enough to take more distinctive items (like the t-shirt I picked up at a Wu-Tang/Rage Against the Machine/Atari Teenage Riot show, you anonymous bastard! ODB is gone forever now, and you've stolen my only tangible reminder of him) at the risk of being spotted. However, it was fairly difficult to call someone out for stealing, you know, undergarments. Perhaps this does not seem like a big deal to some. After all, run-of-the-mill socks and boxers are not that big of a financial loss. But, as any woman can tell you, this is not the case with girl-dainties. In retrospect, the ladies of my floor should have been on high perv-alert, because our underwear was being stolen. However, we were mostly just pissed that whoever was doing this was taking our most expensive stuff.

It was my father who inspired the particular game Francis and I invented to combat the laundry theft. We were in the habit of going to my parents' house for dinner on the weekends, and as we related our woeful tale, Dad posed the question "Well, why don't you bust his ass?". I like to imagine that anyone witnessing this dinner would have seen two bright, shining light bulbs materialize over our heads (though it is possible that they would have been black lights, as we DID live in a dormitory at the time).

"Bust his ass", indeed! In a deviation from standard Zelda Method Operations, I suppose it could have been classified as a cooperative first-person shooter. Player 1 (we agreed to take this role in shifts) was to hide in the gap between the row of washers and the wall, armed with a loaded Super Soaker. In addition to the traditional tap water ammo, we added an entire bottle of red food coloring with which to mark the thief for all to see, Scarlet Letter-style. Player 2 was to sit at the mildly disgusting folding table and study, while keeping at eye on the laundry. Player 2 was also to deny ownership of the carefully placed "bait laundry" (a hand-picked selection of typically male and female undergarments of the highest quality we could manage, several pairs of striped knee socks, and a few band t-shirts we'd gone to the trouble of "autographing" with paint markers, in case our guy/gal was a hipster). Player 2's final responsibility was to cough loudly when and if a theft occurred, signaling to Player 1 that it was time to take aim and fire.

The only problem with this otherwise brilliant scenario was that over the course of a three-night stakeout, our bra-bandit never appeared . Sadly, we had neither the attention spans nor the discipline to keep at it; we ended up shooting each other with the dye while wearing white shirts, and then claiming we'd worn them to a GWAR show and been personally splattered by Oderus himself. Truthfully, I had not been anywhere near a GWAR show at that point in my life, though now I have seen them 3 times and once was with Francis.

Anti-climactic as all this may seem, it got me through some of the more stressful times of my life: finishing college (more Zelda), moving across the country (MarioKart!), even going to job interviews (I dunno, Donkey Kong?). If I can mentally give myself points for every instance that I smile and make eye contact, or start with a firm handshake, it is a welcome distraction from my tendency to be anxious and shy when meeting a potential employer. It also keeps me from succumbing to my more familiar forms of mental distraction, such as noticing a unibrow on the interviewer, picturing myself riding a unicorn, or worrying about what will happen if Sarah Palin does decide to run for president in the 2012 election.

A brief caveat, though: I can't say that viewing one's life as a game is a good philosophy to apply universally, or that it is appropriate for any difficult situation. Just a few examples of situations in which this will not work are: Weddings (the bride may SEEM like a final boss...), Funerals (FFS, do NOT say "Game over"), and though it may be tempting, while on a date. Using "The Zelda Method" on a stranger with whom you hope to make out later is likely gonna get you ditched faster than you can say "fake emergency call". If your date does seem up for it, at least let him or her in on the game.

Whether it's Versus or Co-op is entirely up to the two of you...


iidebaser said...

real life is like 99.999% level grinding, and the character design is terrible, but the soundtrack and graphics are amazing. gameplay is a bit too sandbox for my taste, honestly; i waste a lot of time on pointless crap. i think i've actually managed to level down in the past few years, but that's probably just a bug. however, if jesse schell's vision comes true, i plan to write the definitive low-level walkthrough.

chr156r33n said...

Treating life like a video game seems novel until you bump into someone wearing a "GTA is not a game" t-shirt! However I've had many amusing moment pretending I was a Sims character...

On a slightly more serious note though, the prospect of gamer points for everyday life events is frightening!

Annie Wright said...

Yeah, I'd think that actively earning points day in and day out would make life more stressful than it already is. Unless there's an additional meter (without which it's impossible to level up) for mana that can only be replenished by being lazy for a few hours here and there, or doing stuff with no practical application...
I guess to that end, if you waste a lot of time on "pointless crap", you must have powerful magic...?

I think honestly think it's kinda dangerous to superimpose this analogy over one's whole existence. You can miss a lot of nuance if you're caught up in crawling the metaphorical dungeon. But it really DOES help if you've got a bunch of stupid busy-work-type shit to do. Helped me through the GRE most recently!