Cooking in Hyrule
How Breath of the Wild ignited a love of games for a 96 year old woman
Bess sat on my brightly colored couch with a neon pink throw pillow supporting her back as her eyes floated between my to-scale model flame thrower from Far Cry 6 and my seven foot long rainbow Pac-Man wall mural. Intimidated in the way anyone would be when meeting their significant other’s mother for the first time, I smiled anxiously and waited for her to say something. Anything.
Meeting the nervous energy in the room with plenty of her own, my dog jumped up on the couch beside the 96 year old woman and immediately began investigating her wig. I know my dog well enough to know I did not need whatever mischief she was planning but before I could reach her, she plucked Bess’s wig off her head and began tearing around the apartment with it, ending the chase under my bed.
After many whispered curse words aimed at my dog and my partner’s assistance in hefting my king-size mattress, the wig was secure, albeit a bit damp from dog slobber. I made my way back to the living room and handed Bess her hair without making eye contact.
This introduction was off to a disastrous start.
Wig back on Bess’s head and awkwardness beginning to dissipate, she asked me the question I hate answering: What do you do for a living?
How do you describe what a producer does? Especially one in the games industry? I produce things. I herd cats. I check on things, pester people, spend a lot of time in Asana. No matter my choice of words, describing what I do always leads to more questions I can’t answer with greater success.
So I go with the most generic answer I can think of for a woman I am certain knows nothing about video games.
“I make video games,” I tell Bess, waiting for that ok but what do you do for real look I often get.
“Like Duck Hunt? The one with the little dog where you shoot the gun at the TV? I played that with my son in the 80s,” she responds.
My favorite thing to do with people who played video games in the 80s and not since is to show them what progress has been made in the 40 years since they last picked up a controller. The new Legend of Zelda game had just released the day before and I had Zelda on the brain, so I decided I would show Bess Breath of the Wild, the predecessor to Tears of the Kingdom.
I powered it up, started a new game and we watched Link wake from his 100 year slumber. I walked Link to the first chest from which he collects his pants and place him at the side. He kicks it, barefoot, and grabs his foot in pain. I feel Bess chuckle on the couch beside me. Walking to the second chest, Link stands in front and opens it properly to retrieve his shirt and then we head outside to take in the beautiful vista.
“Look at that!” Bess is in awe of the massive game world coming into view on the TV.
I smile, thrilled that she’s experiencing the same sense of wonder so many of us who love games do.
After gathering a few mushrooms and apples, we make our way down the path to greet the stranger by the fire. After talking with the old man I gather some apples from my inventory and bake them over the fire. And that’s when Bess takes over.
I expect to have to do a bit of coaching after explaining that the left stick moves the character and the right stick moves the camera, as I have with friends in the past, but she picks it up naturally.
For me, Breath of the Wild is a reminder to make time to be creative. As a writer with a day job that has nothing to do with writing or creativity, it’s easy to forget that writing is a need I must tend to. But after a full day of work, all I want to do is vegetate and walk my dogs. Turn off my brain so I can do more non-creative work again the next day. Often, part of shutting myself down for the day involves getting lost in a video game.
While many games are linear with a prescribed path one must take, Breath of the Wild offers no such prescription. Once you finish the Great Plateau, you are free to go wherever and do whatever you like, by whatever means you like. Often times doing what I like in this game involves realizing I’m out of my depth and running away to safety. But just as often, it involves creativity in deciding on a plan of action for whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.
Just this morning, I pulled off my multi-step plan to scale and unlock the Ridgeland Tower without having to fight any enemies. First I had to get the full set of Rubber Armor, then I had to upgrade it, and only then did I make my way to the tower to begin my ascent. My plan was to swim to the tower, avoiding the Electric Lizalfos swimming around, then begin my climb while ignoring the Thunder Wizzrobes’ lightning blasts thanks to my Rubber Armor. If my plan failed, I would try another approach.
The entire game is an exercise in planning, logic, and creativity. Being creative in Hyrule always serves to fuel the creativity in the rest of my life when that well has been sucked dry by my 9–5.
In Breath of the Wild, mistakes can sometimes lead to discovery. Bess roared with laughter upon discovering that not only can you cut the grass in Hyrule with your sword, but you can also find things like Restless Crickets and Fairies.
Once Bess had a few crickets and Bokoblin horns in her inventory, I suggested she make her way to the Old Man’s cabin to try her hand at cooking with the pot to brew up some elixirs and make some warm meals.
One of the great things about Breath of the Wild is that despite being quite difficult if you don’t take the time to plan your time in Hyrule, it gives you a wealth of information to facilitate your successful planning. Ingredients in your inventory tell you exactly what they do. Spicy Peppers keep you warm when cooked into a dish. Restless Crickets give their restless energy to you in the form of stamina regeneration when made into an elixir.
Time spent cooking is what got Bess hooked on the game.
After three hours spent collecting ingredients, learning the hands-off rules of the game, and cooking her heart out, Bess and I were off to Target to get her a Nintendo Switch so she could play when she returned home to Missouri later in the week.
In the weeks since Bess’s visit we’ve began nearly every day with a FaceTime chat during which she tells me of her Hyrule adventures from the previous day. She plays every day after her morning aerobics class with “the girls,” unknowingly doing as much for her mind by playing the game and solving its puzzles as she’s doing for her body in her aerobics class.
On the weekends, we play together to get through the parts she’s struggling with. Not that I’m any better at the game — I am nothing if not awful at puzzles — but two brains often prove to be better than one when facing Link’s challenges. I’ve started a new save file so we can be at the same place in the single-player world.
Often, during our time together in Hyrule, Bess shares memories of her life, those she’s maybe pushed out only to be resurfaced by a theme in Breath of the Wild, or memories stirred by exploration. When she guides Link to recovering his first memory after his 100 year slumber, Bess finds she relates to Link. Not in having completely lost her most dear memories like Link has, but in how various things can stir them and make them feel fresh again. The sparkling memory spot on the ground near the hilltop tree in West Necluda, Bess tells me, reminds her of the hilltop spot 20 minutes from her home in Missouri she has marked with small stones to claim the place she celebrated her last birthday with her husband before he was killed in 1961.
Games are essential for people, young and old. They inspire creativity and memories. They create connection for people and foster friendships from opposite sides of the world. They can be used as tools of healing and rehabilitation, as many children's hospitals throughout the US could attest to. But for me, the best thing about video games is perfectly summed up by Bess.
“I’ve been spending more time outside after I play this. Making me notice things I didn’t before, little things I would mostly ignore. I don’t think most folks feel awe at their everyday surroundings. Hell, some folks don’t even like ’em. But I’m playing with Link and he finds all these things in his world that help him keep going. You know, when I cut the grass with his sword, there’s crickets I can use. Look up in the trees and there’s puzzles to give you those little seeds. So, you know, now I’m outside at my house looking at all these same things and wondering. What’s under this tall grass, what’s up at the top of that tree? I mean I’m 96 and ain’t climbing no trees but I can still wonder. I guess I’m liking outside more than I thought I did from this game.”