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Waking the Dreamer: Link’s Awakening, Fantasy Utopias, and the Ethics of Suffering

Patrick Thomas Henry (The University of North Dakota)

“What good is a dream, if not a blueprint for courageous action?” –Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman: The Movie (1966)

I. A thunderstorm, a solitary boat rollicking in the waves, an exhausted sailor struggling to ballast his craft, the frail vessel capsizing under ferocious swells: this is the cameo likeness of the seventeenth-century shipwrecked sailor, his commemoration in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and his centuries-long afterlife in the popular imagination. The figure is a stalwart survivor, bemoaning his wretched fate, as Crusoe does in his journal entry of 30 September 1659: “I poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwreck’d, during a dreadful storm, in the offing, came on Shore on this dismal unfortunate Island, which I call’d the Island of Despair, all the rest of the Ship’s Company being drown’d, and myself almost dead.”1 Crusoe’s narrative—and those of his shipwrecked brethren—becomes a testament to the proto-capitalist temperament: a brutal individualism that exploits natural resources, property, and labor in a fraught battle with precarity. The survivor has one dream: a restoration of his wealth and privilege.

The shipwreck ethos has surged back to the cultural fore, on the tides of an American media landscape saturated with reality television like Survivor (2000-present). Writing in the March 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Francine Prose drubs the surprisingly resilient reality TV franchise as “Defoe’s masterpiece rewritten by Ayn Rand,” “a Darwinian battlefield on which only the fittest survive.”2 But seven years before Survivor and its kin would entrench savage individualism in the American character, an unlikely cultural artifact had deployed the shipwreck narrative as a meditation on a philosophical problem endemic to utilitarian thought: namely, whether the suffering of one creature is a fair trade for the commonweal. The unexpected vessel for this investigation is—coincidentally—a product of Japan, itself a chain of islands with its own history of shipwrecks and enchantment. And the artifact is a video game: 1993’s Link’s Awakening, the fourth installment in Nintendo’s fantasy-epic Legend of Zelda franchise.

When the player first slots the Game Pak into her Game Boy and slides the power switch, she sees a cut scene that alternates between distant shots of a boat in a squall and close-ups of Link, the series’ protagonist, struggling with the mainstays.

Here, the similarities to Robinson Crusoe and other shipwreck narratives end: there are no desperate struggles to build a shelter and goat pens near the shore, no dives into the beached husk of the shipwreck. Instead, the tide carries Link to the shores of Koholint Island, a mysterious and verdant uncharted island, its highest peak crowned with a strange, speckled egg. On the beaches, an islander named Marin discovers Link and carries him back to her house. There, Link regains consciousness in a seeming fulfillment of the game’s subtitle. Here’s the description of this “prologue,” as printed in the game’s included manual:

“You opened your eyes to find Princess Zelda standing over you—or was it?! Actually, it turned out to be a woman named Marin. She explained that you had drifted with the wreckage of your ship to the shores of Koholint Island. This mysterious island was unique for the gigantic egg which crowned its central mountain. It was said that a mythical creature, the Wind Fish, lay asleep inside the egg. You set out in search of your sword and other gear that might have washed up on the beach with you. As you stood in the surf with your recovered sword, a strange owl suddenly appeared and hooted this riddle: “Awaken the Wind Fish and all will be answered.”3

During the in-game dialogue, however, the owl takes on a mythic tone. After Link recovers his sword on Koholint’s Toronbo Shores, the owl soars into Link’s view and warns the adventurer: “

Ho! Brave lad on your quest to wake the dreamer! Much of mystery will you find on this uncharted Koholint Island! I’m afraid you may find it a trifle difficult to leave the island while the Wind Fish naps”.4

The player may assume that she has entered into a contract with the owl: if she awakens the dreamer, then the Wind Fish will provide her with a new ship and safe passage from the idyllic Koholint Island. But here, the English subtitle—which emphasizes Link’s (and therefore the player’s) role—deceptively plays into the traditional shipwreck narrative’s stouthearted individualism. The Japanese subtitle, which translates to “Dream Island,” suggests that we have transgressed the threshold between the Legend of Zelda’s dimension and the twilight realm of dreams. And if the island is a dream, and if the Wind Fish awakens, then all of Koholint Island will vanish like dust from the sleeper’s eyes.

II.

Link’s Awakening is hardly the first fantasy narrative to question utilitarian ethics. Here, the game extends the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In Omelas, a fictional city to which pilgrims flock for the “Festival of Summer,” Le Guin constructs a site that offers its inhabitants (and her readers) a complex modernity that succeeds in detaching comforts from stressors. As a thought experiment, Omelas challenges our “bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid”; Le Guin then abandons the effort of concretely describing Omelas, exhorting readers that “it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion.”5 Not surprisingly, Le Guin opts to leave her readers unchaperoned in a city mediated by utilitarianism:

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however—that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.—they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.6

Omelas itself rises from the page like the half-seen images of a dream: its form and virtues shift to accommodate the reader’s desires. (“I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. […] If so,” Le Guin teases, “please add an orgy.”)7 However, there’s a caveat attached to this pleasure. For her readers who doubt “the festival, the city, the joy,” Le Guin offers one additional detail: a dirt-floored cell, in which a malnourished child suffers the abuse of oglers and imprisoners. “They all know it is there,” Le Guin informs her reader, “all the people of Omelas.”8 An imprisoned child tormented by revelers and utopians; an incubating Wind Fish haunted by nightmares who crave the permanence of peaceful Koholint: they are victims of the same utilitarianism, beckoning to T.S. Eliot and Baudelaire’s “hypocrite lecteur—mon sembamble—mon frère” (hypocrite reader, my fellow, my brother!).

Le Guin calls her Omelas story “Variations on a Theme by William James,” a reference to James’s 1891 lecture to the Yale Philosophical Club, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Le Guin singles out a particular passage from James’s paper, in which he inquires the following:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s Utopias should all be outdone and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?9

In response to this query, Le Guin offers those willing to forsake Omelas and abdicate their fraught happiness. These are the “adolescent girls or boys who go to see the [abused] child” and don’t “go home to weep or rage”; they march ceaselessly toward “a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”10

But these sensitive witnesses are rare, and Le Guin’s prose—which points out their paucity and the “most of us” comprising her readership—anticipates the work of recent affect theorists like Lauren Berlant and Sara Ahmed. Berlant would almost certainly cast Omelas and its utilitarian pleasures as a relationship governed by cruel optimism: we remain attached to the promises of comfort and tranquility, even as our awareness of the victim—be it child or Wind Fish—gnaws inside us like an insatiable pang. And Ahmed, the author of Queer Phenomenology, would certainly point to how the communal space and mythos of the utilitarian homeland—be it Omelas or Koholint Island—orientates readers and gamers to the material comforts of our middle-class modernity.

III.

In Cruel Optimism (2011), Berlant suggests that the crisis of modernity is the present’s status as a “performance of the becoming archaic of the dreamscapes and gratifications of capitalist modernity, and of the fantasies that enabled everyday life to be lived in small doses of leisure that promise to become longer scenes of aged enjoyment.”11 That is, reality crumbles when we begin to suspect that our lived reality is itself something of a waking dream, one that blinds us to the suffering of others.

In Le Guin’s “Omelas,” this discovery instigates an individuated existential crisis. In Link’s Awakening or Zelda: Dream Island—call it whichever you will—the epiphany rushes toward us on the wings of a bird, conveying an apocalyptic and fatal message. The harbinger of this precarity is not Coleridge’s albatross (the doomsayer in yet another shipwreck narrative, Rime of the Ancient Mariner); the dark messenger is the owl who offers Link and the player a deceptive contract and false hope. Curiously, the strategy feature in Nintendo Power volume 50 contains no mention of the owl, let alone Koholint’s other residents.12 The book-length Nintendo Player’s Guide rumors that “[p]erhaps [the owl] knows more about the Wind Fish than it’s telling.”13 Ominously, and perhaps most accurately, the instruction booklet included in the game’s box asks the player, “But is he [i.e., the owl] friend or foe?”14

In fact, the owl is the Wind Fish’s “spirit guide,” a manifestation of the Wind Fish’s psyche and innermost desire to be freed from his enchanted sleep—a fact that eludes the player, until the owl confesses his true role in the game’s closing animation. In earlier interactions with Link, however, the owl feigns ignorance of the Wind Fish’s desire to awaken, thereby deceiving Link and rendering the player an accessory to an apocalyptic act. While acquiring the keys and weapons necessary to enter the game’s sixth dungeon, the Face Shrine, the owl dispatches Link to a southern shrine. There, Link defeats an Armos Knight guardian, who protects an inner sanctum where a bas-relief depicts a prophecy about the Wind Fish. The player reads the prophecy, and then steps outside to receive further instructions from the owl:

[The Relief] To the Finder … the isle of Koholint, is but an illusion … human, monster, sea, sky … a scene on the lid of the sleeper’s eye … . Awake the dreamer, and Koholint will vanish much like a bubble on a needle … . Castaway, you should know the truth!

[The owl] I see you have read the relief …[.] While it does say the island is but a dream of the Wind Fish, no one is really sure. Just as you cannot know if a chest contains treasure until you open it, so you cannot tell if it is a dream until you awaken. The only one who knows for sure is the Wind Fish … 15

Such an action is inherently cataclysmic: it unravels the suffering that produces public prosperity, and instead generates a greater public harm, the destruction of civilization itself. It is here that Link’s Awakening complicates the though experiment offered by William James and Ursula K. Le Guin: what if the hideous action is not the maintenance of one individual’s suffering, but the sudden annihilation of entire peoples, their homeland, and their historical record?

In order to complete Link’s Awakening, the player unknowingly works toward this mass obliteration by performing actions usually coded as “heroic” in the Zelda franchise, such as solving the dungeon’s puzzles and collecting magical instruments to play the song of awakening. Traditionally, the dungeon-crawling and exploration in Zelda games prepare players for an iconic final battle against a boss enemy; the franchise’s most frequent antagonist is the sorcerer and thief Ganondorf, whose rule corrupts the kingdom of Hyrule. In Link’s Awakening, however, the dungeon bosses are nightmares, and the final adversary is a shapeshifting creature of shadows; each desperately seeks the preservation of its world through the Wind Fish’s confinement. When the player/Link vanquishes the final nightmares responsible for the Wind Fish’s imprisonment, the owl appears and instructs Link to ascend a ladder. At the top of the platform, Link sets out the eight magical instruments and plays the song of awakening, which he learned from Marin. The Wind Fish rouses from his slumber and thanks Link for his effort. And then, in fulfillment of the bas-relief’s prophecy and the nightmares’ warnings, images of Koholint and its islanders ripple across the Game Boy’s display, in an erasure of lives as sudden and startling as our own awakening from a dream.16

In the closing animation, the player sees Link “restored” to his own state of castaway precarity. Koholint has vanished, and the Wind Fish, seemingly unperturbed by the devastation caused by his awakening, flies jubilantly in the sky overhead. Link manages to construct a raft from some fragments of his ship, and he then glances up to the strange creature. His mouth hangs agape, his expression somewhere between shock and awe. Whether this is a slack-jawed look of elation or dread is left to the player’s imagination.17 The cut scene situates Link in a moment of psychological and emotional uncertainty; he seems to be floating, slowly, into a paralyzing awareness of the gravity of his actions on Koholint. As such, it is not surprising that The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia—Nintendo’s official history of the Zelda franchise—leaves the ethical quandary squarely on Link’s shoulders, accusing the character of active complicity in the owl’s deceit. After awakening the Wind Fish, this text notes,

The only traces of Koholint Island’s existence now remained in Link’s memories, and the awakened Wind Fish flew off into the sky. Though Link the Hero had once rescued Hyrule, it came to pass that he was also responsible for the annihilation of the dream world. He set sail on another voyage […].18

But Link is not the only party responsible for an eradication that, like the Death Star blasting Alderaan, was felt by every Jedi in the cosmos. The player, too, has taken part, and so must shoulder the guilt for facilitating this calamity. Certainly, texts like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Link’s Awakening depict the fragility of the common welfare and our attachment to it by exposing its foundation on the suffering of others. But Link’s Awakening provides a startlingly stark contrast to Le Guin’s short story, by questioning if the fabric of society could survive the sudden break of our attachment to a good life predicated on the suffering of others.


  1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (New York: Norton, 1994), 52. ↩︎

  2. Francine Prose, “Voting Democracy off the Island: Reality TV and the Republican Ethos,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2004): 60. ↩︎

  3. Instruction Manual, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo of America, 1993), 4. ↩︎

  4. Link’s Awakening and Link’s Awakening DX↩︎

  5. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” In The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (New York: Perennial-HarperCollins, 2004), 278. ↩︎

  6. Le Guin, 278-9. ↩︎

  7. Le Guin, 279. ↩︎

  8. Le Guin, 282. ↩︎

  9. William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” International Journal of Ethics 1, no. 3 (1891): 333, JSTOR. Qtd. in Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, 275. ↩︎

  10. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” 283, 284. ↩︎

  11. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 211 / Location 4131, Kindle. ↩︎

  12. “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” Nintendo Power 50 (July 1993). ↩︎

  13. Gail Tilden, ed., The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening—Player’s Guide (Redmond: Nintendo of America, 1993), 22. ↩︎

  14. Instruction Manual, Link’s Awakening, 39. ↩︎

  15. Link’s Awakening and Link’s Awakening DX↩︎

  16. Link’s Awakening and Link’s Awakening DX↩︎

  17. Link’s Awakening and Link’s Awakening DX↩︎

  18. Patrick Thorpe, ed., The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2013), 103. ↩︎

References: 

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Kindle.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, edited by Michael Shinagel. New York: Norton, 1994.

James, William. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” International Journal of Ethics 1, no. 3 (1891): 330-354. JSTOR.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Nintendo of America, 1993. Game Boy Game Pak.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Instruction Booklet. Nintendo of America, 1993.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Nintendo of America, 1998. Game Boy Color Game Pak.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX:Instruction Booklet. Nintendo of America, 1998.

“The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.” Nintendo Power 50 (July 1993): 56-65.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 275-84. New York: Perennial-HarperCollins, 2004.

Prose, Francine. “Voting Democracy off the Island: Reality TV and the Republican Ethos.” Harper’s Magazine, March 2004.

Thorpe, Patrick, ed. (Eiji Aonuma, ed. of Japanese language ed.) The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2013.

Tilden, Gail, ed. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening—Player’s Guide. Redmond: Nintendo of America, 1993. Nintendo Player’s Guides.

Issue 1 Volume 2

Also in this issue

Fortier, Alcée, trans. "Compair Bouki and Compair Lapin No. 5." Louisiana Folk-Tales in French Dialect and English Translation. Ed. Alcee Fortier. Boston: American Folk-Lore Society, 1895. 113-115. Internet Archive. Web. 13 July 2012.

Heroes of the Louisiana Oral Tradition

Luc Guglielmi
Kennesaw State University

‘[T]hey, Like the Child, Are Not Free’: An Ethical Defense of the Ones Who Remain in Omelas

Paul Firenze
Wentworth Institution of Technology

Revisiting The Exorcist: The Forbidden Pleasures of Resistant Reading

Brian Riley
Anne Arundel Community College
From the Editors November 2017

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