Back in the late 1980s, I first learned the name for the concept of where a story takes place: setting. We’d been reading some novel that took place in a school. My third-grade teacher asked the class to speak of other settings they knew of in books, movies, or TV. Kid’s spoke of the Wizard of Oz’s setting, then Alice in Wonderland. Someone said something about Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek having vivid settings. Then I raised my hand and said The Legend of Zelda had an amazing setting. A few other boys in class started to nod their heads. The teacher said, “No! Oh no! A video game doesn’t have a setting.” The boys who’d been shaking their heads in agreement looked down at their desks. The teacher laughed; a few of her honor-roll-lackeys chuckled also. I felt like an idiot. I felt even worse when the teacher acknowledged to another kid that Charles in Charge had a setting too.
All videogames technically have settings. Okay, maybe Pong would be a hard sell. Early arcade games had what most people referred to as screens: space, a construction site, a maze with ghosts. Some early game settings weren’t much more than a background that looped much like the basic electronic music would. I can see how my sixty-year-old teacher might have thought she knew enough about video games to say they didn’t have settings. But she was dead-wrong.
When Nintendo came out in the US, much of the older American audience had previously dismissed video games as a niche or fad that faded after the Atari crash from a few years before. Atari games sure required a lot of imagination to see a setting. What Nintendo games provided over Atari was further detail—the hallmark of a good setting is often in the details. When the NES launched in 1985, a blank slate of US children eagerly awaited their own generation of video games. Many games used a scrolling stage feature, Super Mario Bros for example, where the level progress from left to right. The NES had sports and puzzle games too, but when Zelda came out, it was unlike anything most people had ever played.
Zelda could be played in an arc of progression, or, you didn’t have to progress at all. A player could decide where to go first and what to do next. The world within the game even had a name; it was called Hyrule.
Enemies changed depending on place, and other people were hidden throughout the land, mostly as shop owners or strange old men offering awkwardly worded hints. The game wasn’t just open play, but featured a story to go along with the setting.
So why does all of this matter? Well, I suppose I could point to that Irrelevant word in the MYOPIA acronym, but there is something deeper I want to express here. See, as video games grew more advanced in the 90s and 00s, people naturally accepted complexities like settings and stories in the games. Gamers from the 80s grew up and surely didn’t dismiss to their children how inspirational a videogame could be. And that’s the whole point, Zelda was an inspiration. Exploring Hyrule was the first time I understood the concept of setting. I know I was not alone in my generation, and I doubt any children knew how to truly express the importance of a videogame to the adults of the 80’s era who dismissed our videogames as toys. We faced a foreboding obstacle, knowing in our hearts that the stories within our videogames were important and having no real way to express this to our parents or teachers, or the sort of creepy scout leader who weekly had a bunch of us kids in his basement.
So here I am thirty years later, yes, a little late. Too late. But I now know what I should have said to my third-grade teacher all those years ago. I should have broken the cardinal rule of elementary school and dared to argue with a teacher. I should have stood on my chair and said, “Zelda contains a land of forests and mountains and oceans and deserts. It’s world is full of secrets, and there’s someone in trouble there. I know Zelda has a setting, and my brother and sister know this. My friends know this, and guess what, were going to remember it. Whether you think it’s a setting or not, our generation will remember Hyrule, and over the years to come in our lives, we will love it when we think back to this place that took us somewhere else, this place that took us somewhere amazing in our young lives.”