Setting Sail to Nowhere
If I’d been alive during the Age of Exploration, I like to think I’d have been a sailor. The sea has always called to me, and feel most comfortable by the ocean. There’s also the simple matter of how cool sailing ships and pirates are. This isn’t to say I necessarily want to rape and plunder, but the golden age of piracy captures the imagination because of what it represents on a deeper level: much like the cowboy of the American west, the pirate’s life is one of unfettered freedom, skirting society’s rules, living on the margins, and wrestling existence into something that you want it to be.
But there’s more to sailing than piracy. The idea of setting out across the great blue for hitherto unknown lands full of new people, flora, and fauna, great cities and civilizations, danger and adventure, is intoxicating.
Of course, being Greek, I’d have been born in Greece under Ottoman occupation, and far from the open ocean, but maybe there’d have been opportunities to sail the Mediterranean, or at least hang out on some of the islands.
Here in the early days of the 21st century, this dream is dead. There is nowhere we can go to avoid adult supervision. Space is the vaunted “final frontier,” but the distances are too astronomical to ever get anywhere in one’s lifetime. Sure, Mars is doable, but anywhere else would have to be a multigenerational trip. No thank you.
The ocean, the Wild West, and outer space: what do these things have in common?
Many things. Here’s one: they’re all closed.
The world is too small. The wonder is gone. What we commonly refer to as “science” explains things to us in such a dry, boring manner that tries to be cool, the proverbial sixty-something wearing a rock band t-shirt and some baggy jeans saying “How do you do, fellow kids?” to those of us who crave a little mystery, a little adventure, in our lives. “Isn’t it awesome that cities from Toronto to Brussels to Johannesburg to San Francisco to Singapore are exactly the same? Isn’t it mindblowing that you can get free WiFi, McDonald’s, and Nikes everywhere on Earth?” “Don’t you feel better knowing that you’re an insignificant spec of stardust adrift in a universe that doesn’t care about you?”
There is nowhere new to sail to, so scratch the ocean off the list. The Wild West, America’s escape valve, died a long time ago. It used to be that if you didn’t quite fit in with the rest of society, you could pack your things and strike westward, but no more. We are tagged and coded since birth with an unpayable and ever-growing debt placed on our head, and tracked via various electronic means. If you want to go off-the-grid, you will be forcibly returned to the fold. Your value is that of an economic widget whose worth is measured in how many tax dollars and productive work hours the system can extract from you.
The Earth feels like an open-air prison. No wonder Elon Musk wants to get his ass to Mars.
So what is left to explore and conquer? What do we do to stop us cannibalizing ourselves?
* * *
There is a vacuum in the hearts and souls of modern man. I am not talking about the ever-present God-shaped hole the forces of globalization and secularism have carved out of each of us. I’m talking about a sense of purpose.
Strangely, this is where stories come in.
Stories have always helped fill this void. Stories inspire, and a key part of this idea is that they inspire you to do.
To do what . . . ah. Now that is where we have to close the open loop we find ourselves staring at.
* * *
My son is almost ten. He is as boyish as boys can be. Among his interests are fighting, fencing, baseball, football, reading, board games, video games, and Pokémon. Not too long ago, while watching an episode of some Pokémon cartoon or other, he wistfully explained to me that the reason he loves Pokémon so much is because it’s about a ten-year-old boy and his ten-year-old friends who get to go out on their own and explore the world.
This stuck me to my core. Even more so than the battles and the characters and the cool Pokémon themselves, it’s the adventure that speaks to him.
I get this. I really do. Because at 40-and-counting, I feel the exact same way.
There is no frontier. There is no true physical freedom. Not being able to do what you want to do can feel like torture.
I don’t know if this is a “guy thing” or not. Maybe little girls do dream of blasting off into space or setting sail for new lands. I don’t know and cannot speak to the female experience. I can imagine it’s similar, though. Even here in the Land of the Free, life feels constrained by omnipresent chains, no less heavy for being invisible. The Panopticon has weight.
With the physical, exterior frontier dead, it’s no wonder that the interior frontiers are becoming more popular. Medication, meditation, psychedelic drugs, and escapist entertainment now provide the sense of adventure that actually going on adventures used to give. These pass-times are generally solitary, insular. Anti-social, even. They had become more popular even before the 2020 lockdowns. Since then, they are firmly entrenched as a way of life. And can become purely solipsistic if we allow them to be.
But this is the new terrain. This is all we’ve got. It’s no wonder that things like Pokemon, which encompass a card game, cartoons, and video games, have taken the place of outward exploration.
When you come down to it, video games are the last bastion of exploration, where this impulse can be satisfied, albeit to an artificial degree. I get why so many adults play them. Where else are you going to get this sense of exploration and discovery, of mastery and achievement? Maybe at your work, but to the same degree?
Is modern work meaningful when what you are creating is for the benefit of someone else? I can see how blacksmiths and cobblers and whatnot in days of yore could take great pride in what they made, because they actually made stuff, even if they made it for sale to other people. The only equivalent jobs I can think of nowadays involve construction and carpentry. The rest of us shuffle paper. Very often, that paper isn’t even real.
So can you blame a guy for wanting to fire up Elden Ring or World of Warcraft or whatever to not only let off some steam but to accomplish something? Men want to feel useful, after all. And in a world where much of our use has been stripped, outsourced, and otherwise denigrated, why not live vicariously through our digital avatars?
I understand the appeal of video games because the original The Legend of Zelda (1986, Japan; 1987 worldwide) spoke to me in the same way. In that game, a top-down, grid-based action-adventure where you take control of young elfin lad Link as he searches the land of Hyrule for the eight hidden pieces of the magical Triforce, you are plopped right into the action with no explanation and no direction.
In perhaps the most famous first screen in video game history—though the beginning of Super Mario Bros. gives it a serious run for its money—the player is presented with a cave and exits to the west, east, and north. Inside the cave Link will find an old man who gives Link one of the most famous messages in video game history—“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”—with “this” being a sword, and then you’re on your own. But here’s the thing: you don’t even have to go into the cave.
That’s right. It’s possible to get all the way to final boss Ganon without a sword. You can’t beat him, but what other game offers this possibility?
Therein lay the joy of The Legend of Zelda. Scouring Hyrule’s forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, deserts, ruins, and graveyards for the dungeons and other secrets never got old. Nearly every screen had a bush to burn, a cave to bomb, and something hidden to find. Even though the game’s nine dungeons provided self-contained navigation and puzzle challenges that are quite satisfying, the overworld was where it’s at.
Further, can do almost the entire game in any order, picking up items both mandatory and optional to aid you in your quest. Levels 1 through 3 can be completed in any order right off the bat. You need the raft from level 3 to reach level 4, the ladder from level 4 to fully explore levels 5 through 9, and the whistle from level 5 to find level 7. But you can still explore parts of levels 5, 6, and even 8 as long as you purchase a candle.
As a little kid, it really made you feel like an explorer. And as a little kid who grew up in the middle of forested mountains, it made me and my brother want to go spend hours poking around our own little Hyrule outside.
This, according to game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, was the intent:
Many people always talk about how inventive your games are, and I have heard that your childhood — the sense of wonder you bring — comes from growing up in Japan. I heard a story about once you stumbled upon a lake when you were a child and that sense of wonder is what you try to bring to all of your games. Is that a true story?
That’s correct. When I was younger, I grew up in the countryside of Japan. And what that meant was I spent a lot of my time playing in the rice paddies and exploring the hillsides and having fun outdoors. When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There’s a place near Kobe where there’s a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there’s a big lake near the top of it. We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game and we were creating this grand outdoor adventure where you go through these narrowed confined spaces and come upon this great lake. And so it was around that time that I really began to start drawing on my experiences as a child and bringing that into game development.
The Legend of Zelda wasn’t the only open-world game of the Nintendo era, but it was certainly the first
and, in some ways, the most powerful. I mean, it made me and my brother get up off the couch and go outside. Can you say the same about the fully immersive games of today?
* * *
Books provide a similar sense of adventure, particularly epic fantasy and planetary science-fiction, but in a different way. Books require the reader to use far more imagination than a video game does. To read is to be transported into someone else’s mind, but you are given directions instead of a picture and you have to create the visuals and the sounds and the sensations yourself. It is a totally internal experience.
Call me Ishamel. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Video games, especially modern ones, give everything to you all at once, mainlined into your senses. In 1987, you still needed some imagination to see that the thing Link was fighting was a four-headed dragon (called Gleeok, in case you were wondering). That led the player to fill in the gaps and create a concurrent narrative in his mind. What did these characters sound like when they talked? Were there conversations between them and their opponents? Did the game world reflect the true reality of that world, or just an abstraction with more people and places than hardware limits allowed?
It was fun, and a lot of those old games still inspire me in my writing. I can’t tell you how many stories I made up in my head while playing old Nintendo games that have made their way into my books.
This is not to dump all over new games. Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series, in particular Morrowind (2002), gave me the thrill of exploration and freedom. The term for these is “sandbox,” based on the idea that you are given a game world and the tools necessary to manipulate it and told to go have fun. Bethesda’s subsequent games like Morrowind follow-ups Oblivion and Skyrim and their Fallout series expanded this, as have many other games by many other publishers.
So think about this: you are a youngish person in the workforce. You hold some sort of desk-jockey job or maybe something in retail or food service. You’re told you have an unwarranted and unfair amount of privilege if you’re white, and even more if you’re male. You see lots of other people getting ahead while you seem to be thwarted at every turn. Where can you go? What can you do?
You can’t set sail for new lands. You can’t simply pack up your things in a sack and head west. And you really can’t get your ass to Mars along with Elon. The future is closed.
You could join the military, but that’s really become a job’s program/enforcement wing for corporate and government interests. I guess the next best thing is to fire up a gaming console and scratch the itch of your wanderlust in a virtual world.
I get this. I truly do. Child to adult, to live in America is to have an ever-increasing amount of shrill voices telling you what you can and can’t do, what you ought and ought not to do, and what it takes to be a truly good person. The HR department is everywhere these days, and the schoolmarms don’t disappear when you finally graduate high school.
So you game. You travel inwards. You slay aliens and orcs and each other. You build grand structures of your own design. You command armies. You rack up fake achievements that mean nothing outside of the game but mean a lot to you. Because you did that. It makes you feel good about yourself. You conquered something, and while it might not be real in the physical sense, it’s all you’ve got. You finish the game, put it on the shelf, and then buy the next one. Because it feels good to feel good.
This isn’t to praise the gaming industry. It’s to damn the society that has created this situation.
I pray, I sincerely do, that games and books and other entertainment can inspire people to go do something else. Even a simple thing like hiking or walking around your city and town, observing things you might have never seen before. Or learning a basic task your father never showed you like how to change your oil or fix a busted window.
Don’t let these games, or any escapist entertainment, become the sole focus of your life. Use them in the sense that J.R.R. Tolkien intended, as a way out of prison. And the most insidious thing about this prison is that we are conditioned to keep ourselves in there, like an insect who doesn’t want to walk across the circle of chalk.
The prison is called “You can’t do that” and our jailers have outsourced the duty of warden to us.
All you have to do is walk outside of the circle.
We do not live in a time where ten-year-old boys can go off on adventures on their own to see the world. I don’t think such a time ever existed. But just because the frontier is closed in a global sense doesn’t mean you’re still not allowed to go out and explore.