Idiosyncratic Worlds or: What Makes Me Love These Gaming Classics2021/11/25
Finally these past couple of weeks I have played through the game Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, to give it its full title, a cult classic from the PlayStation era until recently never translated but still held in reverence for its long-lasting originality and influence. As an "anti-rpg" the game parodies, subverts and deconstructs the genre as it existed in the 1990s, its unique aesthetic reinforcing its deeper themes of compassion and understanding. The game met and even exceeded my expectations, always humorous and never insincere, profound but never overreaching. It caps off a year in which I also played The Silver Case trilogy, the two visual novel adventures created by Suda51 having finally found their way to an English release on Switch with the 2008 Nintendo DS port of Flower, Sun, and Rain sandwiched between them. Add to that a recent replaying of Link's Awakening through the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, and parallels and comparisons quickly become apparent in how these games appeal to me and create compelling and unusual adventures that have stood the test of time to rank amongst the best in the medium.
For the purpose of this comparison let us consider four games: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, and Flower, Sun and Rain: Murder and Mystery in Paradise. I would note that I almost included the DS game Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, a game that shares much with Moon (especially in its visual design) and bridges Majora's Mask and Moon quite neatly, but that particular reference point is no doubt quite specific to my own experience. The particularly astute may also note developmental links between Flower, Sun, and Rain and Moon - but I digress.
These are idyllic worlds. Flower, Sun, and Rain's Lospass Island explicitly presents itself as a paradise, a luxury hotel at the centre of an escapist resort. The original Japanese subtitle of Link's Awakening translates as "The Dreaming Island", Koholint a place apparently free from waking worries and lived only in the present. These facades imply the existence of a broader reality beneath the surface, establishing an urge to discover their truer nature as a manifest goal in playing the game. The essential mystery at the heart of these worlds is the reality of their existence, their nature be it dream-like, artificial, or as an alternate universe subverting the familiar. The player, invariably a stranger to these worlds, is the only one to whom the illusion is apparent, and as such is naturally the driving force behind their unravelling. As an outsider interfering with the careful balance of an illusory world, the gamification of progress is not jarring but instinctive.
Time plays an important role across these titles, behaving differently to the real world through both necessity and in creating a believably lived-in reality within the limitations of a codified game world. Link's Awakening's Koholint Island, as mentioned, exists only in the present. Characters will express confusion and distress at any suggestion of a past or future differing from the current. Questions of their own origin are uncomfortable for threatening the boundaries of the dream. Meanwhile Majora's Mask and Lospass Island exist in paradoxical time loops, a repeating day or days that the player exists uniquely apart from. A weekly schedule runs through the heart of Moon too, dictating the lives of its inhabitants, all classical parts in the workings of a clock. It is only the player, through their progress through the game, who can move time measurably onward. This isn't a limitation of the medium in these instances, but a desirable and core mechanic.
The player characters being outsiders to these worlds is an important way of collapsing that distance between the player and the medium. As a player insert, or Zelda's literal "link", the alignment of what is unknown and explorable is a vital immersive quality. More than this though these games have an explicitly artificial nature that isn't excused by being a videogame but enhanced by it. The economic impossibility of Mabe village hosting a shop, arcade, library and fishing pond isn't only hand-waved by being a game, but contributes towards a deliberately unrealistic setting. It is not necessary for these worlds to make sense to be immersive, the gamified appearance actually another clue as to the underlying mystery the player seeks to uncover.
To achieve this Link's Awakening has Link and the player both drawn into the dream of the Wind Fish. In Majora's Mask Link follows Skull Kid into an alternate reality, the player following with him. Flower, Sun, and Rain is deliberately more ambiguous in the actual nature of its time loop, but the artificial nature of the island and Sumio Mondo becomes increasingly apparent as the mystery unfolds (or perhaps more accurately compounds).
Moon goes further and provides an early example of Japanese Isekai fiction in a virtual world with three competing realities, or four when including our actual reality as the player. The parody RPG of Fake Moon from the game's introduction sets up and contrasts against the actual existence of Real Moon, but both are framed by the book-ending reality of the game's real world from which the protagonist arrives. Real Moon and the game's real world overlap not just through the boy being transported into Real Moon, but in the ending where characters from Real Moon are seen in real world locations. Lines between fictional realities become blurred, which opens up the player as receptive to the same revelation from the game as the boy does from the game-within-a-game.
The physical boundaries of each game's setting are also important. Link's Awakening, Moon, and Flower, Sun, and Rain all locate themselves quite deliberately on islands. With such a setting that boundary of what is playable and what exists is perfectly aligned. The romantic idea of an island separated from the wider world by an ocean acts as a shorthand in establishing much of the tone and theme of mystery present across the games. An island provides a self-sustaining microcosm of life, unknown to exploration but small enough to be knowable; in its limited size and cast of characters it provides a growing intimacy as it becomes discovered. No part of an island when designed for a game is surplus to needs, all of it essential to the sense of place and identity as the extent of the world is exactly as large as it needs to be.
Those characters we meet, be it the population of Koholint, residents of Clock Town, guests at the Flower, Sun, and Rain Hotel, or the subjects of Love-de-Gard, are at the heart of these games. Small casts of idiosyncratic oddballs breathe life into their worlds, caricatures that are enlivened by their eccentricities and exaggerations. Bit part players become characterful and lovable in their own rights. Through repeated schedules and recurring appearances none of the characters appear static or artificial despite their distinctly artificial surroundings, a trait true especially of the characters in Majora's Mask and Moon who all live lives separate to the activity of the player, yet still ultimately learnable and knowable from their recurring schedules.
These specific parallels only scratch the surface of what makes these games so special, and each game of course has its own mechanics and nature unique to itself. In comparison however I think I can begin to unravel the central mystery all four of the games share - the mystery of what makes them some of the best games I have ever played.