Posted on September 18 2017 by Michael Deitz
Video games offer us an escape from real life. We can sprint through the Mushroom Kingdom, find hidden treasure from the days of yore, survive the apocalypse, become a thieving raccoon, and frantically cook with friends all in the span of a single day. The worlds, characters, and experiences offered in video games are unlike any other form of media — video games are interactive.
These high powered conglomerations of pixels and polygons serve many purposes. They offer escape, and stories, and worlds to get lost in, but they are also perfect representations of thoughts and ideas that are hard to face head on in real life. They serve as a commentary on society, a discussion on philosophy, or even a discourse on emotion: games have a message to tell. For example, Bioshock critiques Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness, while Mother 3’s opening exemplifies Marxism in perfect practice.
Messages about philosophy and life exist in almost every franchise and each developer has their own way to voice them; Nintendo is no exception. Throughout its 30 year run, The Legend of Zelda series has not shied away from commenting on the world around us. In fact, the land of Hyrule houses numerous philosophical arguments ranging from accepting death/tragedy, in the vein of Heidegger, to taking hold of one’s life and making it meaningful, a practice preached by Nietzsche and other existentialists. Modern philosophy is not the only one presented though, as Nintendo has never been afraid to touch the classics from Greece and Rome.
Specifically, many of the references pertain to a singular philosopher who just happens to have a similar name to a putty: Plato. Plato’s philosophy is known for presenting one of the first duelist world views, wherein the world is split between what he calls forms. There are two forms: the ideal forms which exist in the higher world and the imperfect copy forms which live in the lower world. While this dual world theory is not uncommon in classical philosophers, Aristotle and Descartes would establish similar notions within their own philosophies; Plato’s philosophy remains the only one to focus on a dual-planed world. Zelda fans may find that concept familiar, as ranging all the way back to 1991 with A Link to the Past on the SNES, the Zelda series has given multiple worlds for the player to experience. Light and dark worlds, present and future, sky and ground, these are all prime examples of dual worlds.
The absolute perfect encapsulation of Plato’s theory lies in the 2006 title Twilight Princess. Twilight Princess is a polarizing title for the Zelda community, but the internal fan debate on whether the first 3 hours of the game ruins it is not the topic for this article. Instead, I am discussing how the worlds of the Twilight Realm and Hyrule exemplify Plato’s Theory of Higher Forms, which he affectionately called eidos.
This will be an in-depth analysis of the story and world of Twilight Princess, along with a my own educated guesses about them to help better explain Plato’s theory. With that said, let’s start the with a look at the two main worlds of the game, Hyrule and the Twilight Realm.
Hyrule is the base world within the game. You traverse around Hyrule Field and do most of the temples in the different regions based in Hyrule itself, with one exception. When Midna urges Link into her home realm, it is the only time Link and the player physically visit the other plane of existence- the Twilight Realm. According to the Theory of Higher Forms, one of these realities must be the ideal of another, meaning one must be the embodiment of the higher form. That higher world can only be the Twilight Realm. This may seem a little backwards, but allow me to explain.
One of the main actions that Zant, King of the Twilight, completes is to control Hyrule by covering the land in Twilight. Zant essentially creates a satellite world for the Twilight Realm, and in doing so, brings the Hylians up to higher realm. The only problem for Hylians being that since their bodies exist in the lower world, they physically cannot exist within the higher plane. The game illustrates this fact by making only characters’ spirits visible when the player is in the Twilight covered areas. Also, Twili are shaded and glob like, there is no way to see their true form because it is incomprehensible to the simple Hylians. Since the Hylian reality is too simple to recognize the true shape of the Twili, and their own bodies don’t exist in the Twilight Realm, they are the lower copy reality.
“But what about the hero?”, you may question, presumably drinking a cup of tea with your pinky out like the intellectual that you are. One whole half of the game and gameplay is that when Link enters a Twilight covered land, he becomes a wolf. Why then, if he is a Hylian like the rest, does he simply not become a spirit? The simple answer is that Nintendo needed to actually make a game and chose Link’s “strong spirit” to become a wolf for story reasons, which yes is true, but there exists a philosophical reason as well: Link’s body and spirit are tied to a realm even above the Twilight Realm. This world, which I affectionately refer to as the Spirit Realm, houses arguably the most perfect form of the hero in the Hero’s Shade.
The frame which Link is based off of, the Hero’s Shade is the Platonic ideal, or perfect form, of the hero and is who every other hero is modeled after. Since Link is tied both spiritually and physically back to him, he is able to exist within the Twilight Realm while the normal Hylians cannot.
With the basics established, I will now examine why Nintendo chose to do this and what purpose Plato’s Theory of Higher Forms serves within the game. First of all, the philosophy is simple to understand and easy to execute. Philosophy does not have to be as complicated as Rand or Marx or Nietzsche to pass knowledge on and obtain a message. Sometimes, simpler is better. All that must exist for Plato are two similar worlds that the protagonist will travel between, and Zelda just takes that idea to the most basic extreme by physically having two worlds in many games.
Secondly, the simpleness and conciseness of Plato’s ideas are vessels for messages that everyone can obtain from the game. Twilight Princess has a heavy focus on heroism and morality, which is to be expected, but also friendship, family, bravery, and despair. The dual worlds of the game cause juxtaposition, a contrast between two things, and that contrast allows for these messages from the creators to be formed and explained to the audience. Nintendo makes games for all ages and cannot rely on tropes that games like The Last of Us or Bioshock do; adult ideas and dystopias are not the only way to make a game philosophical.
Whatever the final product for Nintendo is, it must be easy to comprehend and conveyed in a more direct way so everyone can grasp it, not just a select few who happen to be into philosophy. Maybe you can’t always put a name to how or what you’re learning from a game, but the fact that there is a transfer of knowledge and some new perspectives are possibly gained is vital.
The reason Nintendo chose Plato to explain these ideas and his influence within the game is undeniably large; Plato’s ideas are the driving forces of the games. Plato claims that those of the lower world must push to be as perfect as the higher world–an idea that Zant reflects over the course of the game. Taking charge of the Twilight Realm, Zant believes it is his duty to cover Hyrule in Twilight and essentially help the Hylians reach their higher forms.
The twist that the game presents is that the reason Zant has power is due to Ganondorf, who betrays Zant, and chooses to take over Hyrule for himself, which rejects the idea that the lower realm should reach to be the higher realm.
Ganondorf’s selfishness exemplifies a very different ideology than that of Plato, he is a manipulating and power hungry villain who hopes to kill the hero and take control of the Triforce for his own malicious intent. Zant’s conquest may seem noble and correct to Platonists, but in the end the entire game is about the rebellion of such ideas and a more positive focus is placed on what could Aristotle’s essences or Nietzsche’s existentialism.
Twilight Princess states that there are no higher or lower forms, there is nothing higher to strive for that already exists. Instead, Aonuma and his team want players to carve out their own place in the world and just be the best hero possible without the trap of a ceiling placed on your potential.
Taking from both worlds, the perfect ideal we all strive to be (Link’s Wolf form) and what we are (actual Link), and merging them into one self image that each and every one of us works towards attaining, is the message of the game. We are who we are, we have desires to reach higher, so move forward and just do that.
Nintendo has always pushed for creativity and excellence, they always have the drive and ambition of dedicated employees who make some of the most quality games around. Using Plato’s Theory of Higher Forms, and utterly rejecting it, they allow that same message that they have internally to reach out to the audience they have built over 30 years, well 20 at the time, and take root. That is why philosophy is important, it allows us to glimpse a much deeper meaning from what otherwise may seem cliche and to run wild with it. Maybe you hate Twilight Princess, or you love it, but the message it sends is undeniable, it should inspire us to be the best and work our hardest, to be the best hero that we can and make the most out of what we have and what we want.
Michael Deitz is an Editor here at Zelda Informer. For the occasional tweet, Sonic joke, and random video updates follow him on Twitter.