We got my son The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch for his birthday. He has never played a Zelda game before, and I had fond memories of playing it on my Game Boy when I was roughly his age.
In fact, I pulled out my Game Boy and played the original Link’s Awakening while he played on the Switch, partly so I could revisit Koholint Island while he saw it with fresh eyes (and in 3D rendered color).
I also wanted to try to get ahead of where he was so that when he had questions about how to proceed, I could be a bit more knowledgeable about what he was dealing with.
But I also believe that a big part of the entire point of playing a Zelda game is to solve the puzzles and overcome the challenges.
Now, my son fancies himself a gamer, but he does not have the same internalized language of games that I grew up on. Specifically, Link’s Awakening very much builds upon the language of the SNES game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. For example, I know that there were some boss battles that mimicked boss battles from the SNES game in that you had to deflect projectiles back at the enemy, but nothing in Link’s Awakening tells you this fact. You just have to try things and figure it out. In fact, that’s probably how the SNES game was, too, and I’m just aware of the clues and norms in hindsight.
So my son struggled on parts of the game because he did not see the opportunities to do Zelda-like things because he didn’t know what Zelda-like things were possible in the first place.
Which is fine. He’s solving puzzles and overcoming challenges.
Except when he wasn’t.
He would ask for help, and I’d try to give him clues or hints without giving away the solution. And most of the time, it worked, and most of the time, I’d hear a report from him that he actually figured out quite a bit of the game on his own.
But multiple times he asked if he could look up the solution to a puzzle on the Internet. And I told him no.
My reasoning: “What’s the point of letting someone else play the game for you?”
I grew up as one of those kids who had Nintendo Power subscription. I knew details about games I didn’t own. I got the free strategy guides they sent out.
But I never liked the idea of playing a game by following a walkthrough or using a strategy guide to tell me how to play a game. Yeah, I could advance faster and have an easier time, but to me, it would feel like cheating.
So I insisted to my son that he play the game and figure it out. I figure he would feel a sense of accomplishment if he did it all by himself that he would never get from doing what he was told by some Internet stranger.
But am I wrong to do so?
Is it wrong for me to insist he plays the game the way I want him to?
I never want to be a gatekeeper and say that Real Gamers ™ play a certain way and everyone else is just pretending. People play games for all sorts of reasons, and who am I to tell them how to enjoy them?
Some people play games for the entertaining story, and I have no problems with them using a walkthrough, strategy guide, or even cheat codes to do so.
In fact, I’ll admit that I got stuck in Link’s Awakening in my replay, and I looked up how to get through a certain dungeon because I’m a grown-up with limited play time and didn’t want to spend the time doing trial and error to figure out which way I was supposed to go. Don’t tell my son I’m a hypocrite.
My intent was for my son to use the game as practice for perseverance. He struggles with challenges, whether in games or not, and often gives up and even says he no longer wants something if he discovers it takes some non-trivial effort to acquire it.
Games are all about learning, and I felt that looking up the answers not only gave him a shortcut in the game but would also make him less self-sufficient when it comes to problems in real life that you can’t take shortcuts to get past.
But we also gave him a game, and then I insisted that he play it differently from how he wanted to. No one did that to me when I was younger.
I suppose I could have told him my reasoning, that I wanted him to want to figure things out on his own for the benefits and practice it gives him, and then let him decide if he wanted those benefits. But based upon previous opportunities to let him decide whether to take the easy route or the more rewarding yet challenging route, I figured he would not care and would simply look up the answers.
So I struggle still. Was I parenting well by preventing my son from what I would consider cheating himself out of the experience and growth? Or was I parenting poorly, forcing him to play a game the way I wanted him to play, taking away his enjoyment and agency?
Maybe it worked out?
As I was writing this post, I asked him about his time with the game, which he has now played through twice. He told me he really liked it. He remembers the game fondly, and he even mentions figuring out how to “get past it” in a positive light. At the very least, it seems he hasn’t been turned off of games, and in fact is now playing his way through Pokemon Sword.
So I hope his experience with the game has prepared him for the future just a bit more. Maybe he’ll be less likely to give up on a math problem that troubles him. Perhaps he’ll stick with a craft project of his own making for longer. It’s possible he’ll be more capable the next time we play Mighty No. 9, a game which provoked so much frustration from him that he quit playing before finishing the first level.
He’s already asked about other Zelda games in my collection. I’m trying to decide if I should introduce the original NES game first, or if I should show him Wind Waker.
I never did finish either game myself. It might be a good challenge for both of us.