A Link to the Past is 20 years old. I’ve been re-playing it every couple of years since its release. Waking up on a rainy night to rescue Princess Zelda. Collecting scattered heart containers, poking around strange dungeons, and rushing along to the next item which will open up more of the world. The music that fills your head and starts creeping out in a hum when you’re doing busy-work. The lush green and blue of Light World contrasting the browns and greys of Dark World. The game’s memories are almost more important than the actual play experience at this point.
Whenever someone replays A Link to the Past there are two distinct versions of the game in existence. The one inside their head and the one in front of them. The one inside their head is called a model. We make models out of systems constantly. Take something like the economy, a person is simplifying a gigantic social system, cutting out issues irrelevant to them, and boiling things down to the simpler version of the problem. It is how we deal with complexity.
In A Link to the Past, I don’t walk around memorizing the solution to every puzzle. I walk around with a basic model of what things can interact with what. The hammer knocks down posts. The glove lets me pick up rocks. Modeling is a descriptive exercise, we want to get to the gist of what matters with as little information as possible that is still an accurate prediction of the world. Hammer hits pegs. Rocks block the path. Game-playing is a normative exercise, I am applying the model and tweaking it based on the feedback as I play. Can I pick this thing up? No, so what about this? How do I hit these pegs in the right order to open a portal? Should I go get fairies before I enter this dungeon? My health is low, do I drink a potion? By playing, the game is ironing out the discrepancies in my model and adjusting its broad rules to individual situations.
Like the game, the model is a construct of rules. Jeffrey M. Lipshaw points out in his essay Models and Games that games have ‘thingness’ – an independent reality – and models have ‘aboutness’ – they map onto something. A model is me saying I can pick up rocks with my glove. The game is different because it has a reality where that may or may not be true. Is it the rock in Section 4, X.pos 59, Y.pos 123, variable 9? Have you met the glove condition and proximity conditions? Then yes, you can pick it up. There is a definitive answer to the question about picking up THIS particular rock in the game. In the model, there is only the broad concept, the actual answers vary.
A good example of this concept in action is after I bought Zora’s flippers. I knew I could go to a bunch of places that I hadn’t before. I suddenly found myself really annoyed at how few bombs and arrows I could carry. I didn’t consciously know that the Flippers gave me access to the upgrade pool. My model of the game, after years of re-playing, was tuned just enough to know it was time to go deal with my ammo limit. This happened consistently, from suddenly knowing it was time to upgrade my sword to collecting the magic medallions. I didn’t know the actual technical information about where to go and what to do. I just knew I needed to do something.
The purpose behind creating such a distinction in rules is that if there is sufficient complexity, models look just like games, and sometimes games can serve as models. Because models look like games, we may come to believe they are real – that the models have thingness rather than aboutness. What if in A Link to the Past the model in your head is not a generic principle of, “Pick up rocks when you have the glove.” What if your model consists of memorizing every rock that has a secret under it? That approach starts to look like the player has memorized the game itself rather than just a simplified model.
This is the crux of interacting with any system: the personal experiences and observation of the individual as they are used to build the broad, generic model that tells us how to operate. You are always filling in the gaps of your knowledge through active participation, through thingness. The more the system confirms or corroborates my model, the less I have to pay attention. I just know things and react accordingly. The issue is when people start acting this way in real life. And they have a bad habit of doing so when their model is so complex that they think they can start predicting everything.
Lipshaw’s article is about the problem of people acting on models that are gamelike without really being aware of it. They are relying on misguided reactions and assuming they are correct because of the models in their head. These models were built from interacting with problematic legal or economic systems that did not reward the most efficient behavior. Lipshaw is concerned with financial markets and specific areas of business law, but in many ways he’s talking about the same modeling process that goes on in video games. Except, as Lipshaw warns, if a lawyer or banker is using the wrong model they can do a lot of damage. Federal regulations that incentivize goals that are destructive in the long-term or legal systems that assign victory states when nothing has really been resolved are his chief examples.
As I replayed A Link to the Past I was startled by how much my intuitions had been created by the game itself. I’ve played dozens and dozens of games besides this one. Many of them filled with even more secrets and hidden areas. Yet I still knew when it was time to go get major upgrades like clockwork. It was like I was sensing that something intrinsically wasn’t right but not on any conscious level. That instinct did not come from anywhere but the game. There is no natural force in my life that makes my subconscious think I should be wearing a blue tunic when I’m in the Ice Palace. There is nothing that makes me look at a hammer and think about posts outside the world of Hyrule. Yet I have internalized this information with the rest of my subconscious fears and desires. And it has stayed with me my entire life. The model of the game has become more real than the game itself.