Video Games and the Land of Dreams

The Alone Sword is Zelda after an apocalypse. Everything is familiar and everything is wrong.

I play among the ruins of my nostalgia: the old landmarks still point the way; gradeschool experience still guides me through the maps; but the bushes have bleached with age and clusters of strange plantlife block some old routes. The world is now full of water, and my green elfin avatar has become an awkward squid-creature, dragging a large sword uselessly behind him. The controls are clunky and awkward: to swing that familiar green sword takes all of Squid-Me’s might and propels him off course. I lurch, an alien, through my memories.

This is to say that the game feels like a dream. “Dream,” like “archive” and “memory,” is a word it uses for itself in its narration, but I suspect I would have lurched upon it myself, as I muddle through this space I so deeply recognize, even flooded and bleached, distorted and overgrown.

Stuck with my early modernist brain, I’ve been thinking about this same set of metaphors in Midsummer Night’s Dream: its deep interests in poetry, play, and dream. One thing I find powerful about that play is the transformative uselessness it imagines for artistic creation. The always practical king Theseus concedes Sidney’s observation (in the Defence of Poesy) that poets turn this brazen world into a golden one. He writes:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

In the long arc of Shakespeare reception, this becomes praise of poetry. (Mark Akenside, for instance, revisits it in The Pleasures of the Imagination.) The inspired poet takes in the whole of creation, transcending and inventing as he sees fit. But here, in its locus Shakespearicus, the scene is intended to be ridiculous. Theseus links the poet with “lovers” and “madmen.” He emphasizes the fictionality, the unpracticality of this transformative attention: all are beguiled by “shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” layering impressions and misrecognitions over bare observations. Ultimately, any account of poetry’s value in the play creeps in through another figure of its worthlessness, the “dream.” There is something lovely about this vision of poetry as dreamlike: short-lived and unreal, insignificant and easily forgotten, but in its melting wisdom, inexplicably transformative.

Of course, what is most expressly, repeatedly dreamlike here is the lovers’ sojurn in the Green World. Escaping from the rigid law of Athenian patriarchy, the lovers find a brief, eerie, and unreal space where their own relations can be reconfigured. For years, I’ve thought the play allegorized a proto-literary space in precisely this manner, imagining fiction as a dreamlike escape from the order of things.

But this utopian reading demands a certain wilful blindness: we must remember that the Green World always threatens to become the Green Mall, Green Theme Park, or Green High School Prom containing and limiting experiment and emotion to create docile subjects. In their keynote address at the Queerness and Games conference, Merritt Kopas and Naomi Clark have argued that though recent wriers have imagined games as spaces of exploration, failure, and freedom outside of capitalistic logics of success and productiveness, these moments of failure and freedom find themselves in patterns of play—in plots—that are largely about accumulation, progress, and individual power. So, too, the delicious fantasies of Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It serve largely to produce contented aristocrats.
dickey and steel
The Alone Sword’s concerns with play and dream don’t entirely escape this nexus of problems, but it resists the bifurcation of lawed Athens and Utopian Green World. Its world of play, like the world of dreams, is less escape than distorting mirror, less resistance than strange clunky lurch. Further, it reminds me that the Green World is always a catastrophe. What for the audience is a pleasant space of comic misunderstandings is for the characters a horrifying ordeal. Lovers betray each other; friends are moved to blows; thorns and branches vex and tear. Might we inhabit another view on this disaster than the smiling sarcasm and distance the court audience affects for the rustics’ performance in act five?

One figure for such a reading might be Demetrius, who finds himself with his friends on the glorious morning of the play’s ending. Unlike them, he remains under the influence of the love potion. And so, as they shake off the last night’s events as a dream, he realizes that he cannot quite awake:
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.


The Alone Sword, overworld
The Legend of Zelda, overworld
“Bottom and Titania,” George Cruikshank. Via

Thanks to Maddy Meyers, whose tweets about the game made me start playing it.