In the past decade, the video gaming world has seen a welcome rise in games with psychological depth and emotional nuance in addition to entertainment value. Award-winning indie platformer Celeste, for example, features a depressed, self-loathing girl named Madeline who wrestles with her inner demons while climbing a mountain. All the games from developer thatgamecompany offer poetic visual metaphors for our inner worlds. Even the mainstream, Disney-inflected role-playing game series Kingdom Hearts contains, at its core, a poignant meditation on the balance between light and dark. We’re seeing fewer mindless shoot-em-ups and more contemplative spirit quests.
This rich landscape has fueled a growing field of video game scholarship, in which psychologists and academics study how the fantastical narratives that unfold during Nintendo or Playstation sessions reflect and shape our inner lives. The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series, a new book of essays edited by scholar and psychotherapist Anthony Bean, offers sharp analysis of the existential questions at the heart of one of the world’s most popular video game franchises.
Ever since its debut in 1986, almost every chapter of The Legend of Zelda has featured an elfin hero named Link trying to rescue Princess Zelda and the kingdom of Hyrule from a pig-like demon named Ganon, the embodiment of evil. The ten essays in The Psychology of Zelda, written by various psychologists and theorists, illuminate how Link’s simple, plot-driven quests are actually rife with allusions to Carl Jung’s archetypes, meditations on grief, and patterns of childhood trauma resolutions. Most importantly, The Legend of Zelda is a variation on the theme of the Hero’s Journey, a concept popularized by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
It’s easy to see how The Legend of Zelda falls into the hero’s journey pattern. At the beginning of each chapter, Link is an unassuming child who, in Luke Skywalker fashion, is a slight outcast in his community. Through a series of missions, in which he encounters mentors and allies, he ends up becoming a hero — but not before facing an Ordeal.
“In the Ordeal,” writes Stephen Kuniak in his essay “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone,” “the hero must face a foe that shakes him to the core of his being and challenges him in areas where he is untested.” That can be a powerful foe, or even a shadow self, known in the game as Dark Link.
“To face one’s own shadow is a test that would terrify most people, but it is a necessary step toward achieving true individuation,” writes Louise Grann in “The Nocturne of (Personal) Shadow.” “Jung says the battle with one’s personal shadow is a test of courage on the path toward knowing one’s innermost self: the inner way. Only after Link confronts Dark Link — and, by proxy, the player symbolically confronts their own personal shadow — can he become his truest, integrated self.”
By connecting video games to mythology, contemporary psychology, and philosophy, the book offers justification for spending hours twiddling a joystick in front of a TV screen: games like The Legend of Zelda, the authors suggest, allow us to embark on a vicarious Hero’s Journey with the protagonist.
One of the strongest sections of the book is the character analysis of Princess Zelda, who undergoes a dramatic evolution from the series’ first installment, in 1986, to the latest chapter, Breath of the Wild (2017).
While Princess Zelda has grown stronger and more powerful with each chapter — in the 33 years since her debut, she’s evolved from a damsel in distress into the reincarnation of a powerful deity — contributors Melissa Huntley and Wind Goodfriend posit that she has never been made “whole” in the way the player-character Link has. Zelda wields the purely spiritual power of wisdom, and only engages in combat by using an item called “arrows of light,” which, as the name suggests, invokes an image of purity. She breaks free of princess stereotypes only on the rare occasions when she conceals her actual identity, disguising herself as, say, a pirate girl or an androgynous harpist.
“As the medium of video games and the series itself have begun to reflect the values of a modern society, Zelda has gradually been depicted as having more traditionally ‘masculine’ or agentic traits: she is shown making strategic, analytical choices,” Goodfriend and Huntley write. “At the same time, the character continues to maintain traditionally feminine qualities: Zelda remains physically ‘feminine’ and continues to display a caring nature and concern for the well-being of others.”
In all, The Psychology of Zelda is a delightful read not just for video game fans, but also for anyone interested in the intersection between contemporary psychology and pop culture — as long as you can stomach a bit of academic over-analysis of an animated adventure game that even eight-year-olds can enjoy.
The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series, edited by Anthony M. Bean, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.