Joe Baumann is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Where Can I Take You When There’s Nowhere to Go, from BOA Editions, and the novels I Know You’re Out There Somewhere and Lake, Drive. His fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Passages North, Phantom Drift, and many others. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.
DON’T GO ALONE
My first television memory doesn’t involve a movie, or a kid’s cartoon, or sneaking into the living room to find my parents watching television when I was supposed to be sleeping. It doesn’t involve my favorite characters: no Muppets, no Fraggle Rock, no Inspector Gadget. It features, instead, an old man. And a sword.
My father bought our family’s first of many Nintendo Entertainment System products in 1989, when I was four. I remember him opening the box and staring down at the gray brick of a console with its pair of rectangular controllers, its battery pack, the first of many video games—Super Mario Brothers—that I became familiar with over the course of nearly four decades. Because of that game’s precision platforming, and the careful accuracy required of Duck Hunt, its companion in the package deal that included a plastic rifle for aiming at the pixelated birds that flew across the screen of our tube-back television, my father played those while I watch; at least, I have no memory of playing either of those games until I was several years older.
What I do remember is The Legend of Zelda, the cartridge shimmering gold so it stood out against its gray compatriots. When my father slid the game into the console and pushed the power button, I heard music that would transform across the series’ many iterations but remain in my head all these years later: a three-tone symphonic synth, the pixelated rocks and vines and waterfall of the opening screen stoic and solid while the inverted Triforce flashed behind the title. Then the screen went dark briefly, the music striking a sour note, presaging doom and gloom, before the television provided some backstory:
Many years ago, Prince of Darkness Gannon stole the Triforce of Power. Princess Zelda held the Triforce of Wisdom. She divided it into eight pieces to hide it from Gannon before she was captured. Go find the eight pieces, Link, to save her.
Link emerged onto an empty starting screen, home to a single cave—identified by a black square near the top left of the screen—surrounded by green borders meant to be some kind of rock. My father guided Link inside, where he received the first weapon of the game from a nameless old man dressed in a red robe. It’s dangerous to go alone, the man said, the letters appearing on-screen one at a time, accompanied by a noise that sounded vaguely like a chicken’s cluck. Take this! The same tune from the opening, this time more upbeat and in a major chord, thrummed along, as Link was given a sword. With Link armed, my father moved from the starter screen to another, entering a forest where each rounded tree was the same size as our hero’s squat figure. Monsters resembling dogs on two legs, their mouths downturned into angry frowns through which jutted massive teeth, emerged from the edges, some of them shooting arrows in Link’s direction. When my father splattered them with his sword, shooting out beams of glowing sword-light, they exploded into nothing, leaving behind iconic items like rupees and hearts that I would, like so many other things in the series, watch transform over time.
Although The Legend of Zelda tossed you into its world with little direction, the tiny manual that came with the cartridge included a map of a small section of the overworld, meant to guide a player to the first of the game’s nine labyrinths. Various hidden caves and valuable items that could be uncovered by bombing rocks or burning trees were noted, giving some hint as to how to improve Link’s life meter and his wealth. My father followed this short guide until it was no longer useful. When its utility ran out, he decided to make a map of his own.
My father has always been meticulous, a quality that I have grown to find sometimes infuriating. When I asked him and my mother to come over and help me put together a new entertainment center recently, my father insisted we follow the instructions’ suggestion that we spread out all of the pieces and make sure every screw and nut and board was accounted for. Of course, everything was there. When he plays games on his tablet these days, he keeps a notebook on a side table next to his recliner, where he keeps detailed notes. My parents’ basement and office are crammed with folders full of every tax document they’ve received or sent in the last thirty years, as if someone will one day come knocking needing to know what their federal refund was in 1996 or 2002. When my grandmother and grandfather died, my father and his siblings crafted endless lists of the possessions they left behind, so many that there was a list of the lists.
The night he made his map, my dad allowed me to stay up way too late and watch. I sat on our living room floor, darkness having long encroached, the shadows on the walls unfamiliar to me. The front wall of our house was all windows, twenty feet high, and moonlight spread weird shadows up to the vaulted ceiling. Dark arms seemed to crawl up behind the hanging spider plants in the corners. The bright buzz of the television cast weird fluorescent light along the edges of the coffee table and couches.
For the mapmaking, my father excavated a large desk calendar from somewhere, the edges a syrupy burgundy. He connected the months, hand-drawing additional boxes to create a scroll of rectangles. He set out a box of thin felt-tip markers and got to work. I sat, observing but otherwise making no contribution. This was my father’s project.
My father isn’t much of an artist; since making his map, I’ve not ever seen him draw anything besides little napkin sketches at trivia nights. But he filled in each of the little boxes, taking care to get the proportions of how much each screen was filled with water or woods or gravestones right. And then, using various items salvaged from enemies and bought from salesmen, he burned every tree, pushed every boulder, bombed every cave wall, seeking out secrets: hidden caves and hideouts where he could upgrade his swords and shields or claim heart containers to extend his life bar. The first time the smoke from an explosion cleared to reveal an unearthed cave, I felt it in my chest, a little pop of excitement to go along with the tiny boom on the television. My father slayed all of the monsters that appeared on each screen, just to make sure nothing suddenly popped up with their slaughter. As he uncovered caves or hidden staircases he marked them down: caverns were dots of black, stairwells tiny diagonal slashes.
I was spellbound by my father’s deliberate care. Hours lurched by. My mom, taking care of my younger sisters, had long gone to bed. I felt my eyelids droop, my mind bent by the repetition of the game’s overworld theme. My father refused to enter a single dungeon; if he wandered into a labyrinth, he made note of its location and then marched right back out. He bent over the coffee table for minutes at a time as he drew; I imagine his back throbbed from leaning over the table at such an angle. That his hands cramped, working in such careful, fine detail. His eyes: bleary from staring at the television and then focusing on such tiny spaces.
There are one hundred twenty of those screens in the game. When I google the game map these days, I’m in awe at the work my father did. The likelihood is that this project actually took my father more than one night to complete, but in my memory, the map was finished off in one long go that I stuck around for, my body so exhausted that I was allowed to sleep in my parents’ first-floor bedroom rather than mounting the stairs to mine. My father rolled out a heavy sleeping bag and relinquished one of his pillows, setting up a small bed for me on the floor. I’d never slept in this spot before, nestled between their raised mattress and the long dresser that, over thirty years later and following a cross-country move, is still littered with his battered paperback novels and loose change and discarded fast food receipts. It would be the only time I would have such a sleepover.
I don’t remember the next day, whether I woke exhausted or exhilarated, ready to sleep in or rush to the living room to view the map with fresh eyes. In fact, I have no other meaningful memories of that map at all until over fifteen years later when I was in college and wanted to get it framed as a surprise gift for my father’s birthday. We moved halfway across the country when I was eight, from New York to St. Louis, Missouri, and our house was full of stuff. My sisters and I, now teenagers, had abandoned our army of stuffed animals and children’s books, but our parents couldn’t find it in themselves to give any of those things away. My dad isn’t a hoarder; my parents don’t live surrounded by trash and squalor, but they do have a hearty collection of National Geographic magazine issues and several bags full of Beanie Babies. As a result, finding the map was a challenge: where would that rolled-up scroll, by now surely tattered and worn, be hiding? I searched the study, my father’s guitar leaning against a bookshelf full of heavy chemistry textbooks and ancient murder mysteries. A stack of pillows crowded a corner, no map among them. I scoured our basement, which bloomed with Beanie Babies and Barbies and old board games. Multiple times I rifled through a cabinet full of video games, their boxes still in a stack, systems that we’d long stopped using surrounded by coiled controllers. I never found the map. I didn’t mention I’d been looking for it.
Over the years, my father and I have drifted apart; it’s a painful admission to make, that my relationship with my dad reached its peak when I was barely old enough to forge my own identity. He’s a retired chemist; I am a writer and English teacher. But our differences and distance are forged by more than his scientific and my artist’s perspective; throughout the years, he’s grown far more conservative, while I have slid further and further into the liberal-progressive wing of American politics, to the point that when he says something political I don’t speak, and he knows not to bother attempting to engage me in such discussions. They only lead to anger and frustration and sometimes stomping and slamming doors. So we’ve bottled those parts of ourselves away, creating hard buffers between us. I call my mom when I have news to share, or when I have a question, even one better answered by my father.
But a few years ago, my dad asked for a Nintendo Switch and a copy of the newest Zelda iteration, Breath of the Wild, for his birthday. I already owned both, and he’d watched me play from time to time when he and my family came over to my house. Because my father has long been steeped in the mire of Fox News and its worst talking heads, I was relieved by his request, particularly because it meant he started spending far more time with Hyrule on the screen rather than the odious Sean Hannity and his fellow magpies in misinformation. On his birthday, we all sat perched on the living room furniture, but instead of the bray of Tucker Carlson, we were greeted by the title screen for Breath of the Wild. It was a refreshing change.
Breath of the Wild opens with a simple black screen. Instead of a scrolling prologue a la the original, players are greeted by a shimmering golden light followed by a watery voice exhorting the player: “Open your eyes.” The voice grows clearer: “Open your eyes. Open your eyes.” Then Link opens his eyes, and the player takes control. No story, no history: just a single instruction. No one is waiting to hand Link a sword and tell him of the dangers of being alone.
As soon as my father started the game, his meticulous nature took over: he spent a good ten minutes in the room in which Link wakes up, resurrected after being asleep for one hundred years. Though its walls are bare, this cave is far more elaborate than the one that opens the original Legend of Zelda: blue-lit like the deep sea exhibit at an aquarium, a pool of water, a few breakable crates scattered in the corners. There are swords, two, but they are rusty, simply waiting to be taken rather than being offered as help. Near the front is a glowing station where one secures one of the game’s most important items, the Sheikah Slate. It took my dad several minutes to walk over to the orange pedestal with its obviously-significant runic scribbles and really get started.
Over the several months my father first played through Breath of the Wild, he would regularly ask me to help him with tasks involved in various quests, puzzles within shrines that serve as miniature dungeons where players can gather treasure and extra health, and boss fights in the main dungeons where the combat controls were beyond his ability. When I came over before my family went out to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, or drove down to Powell Symphony Hall, he would have the game turned on rather than the ubiquitous grate of Fox, and he would give me some mission to complete on his behalf. I always said yes. When I paused the game to examine his inventory for useful items, I found that he had a massive stockpile of potions and meals and every piece of armor imaginable. In only a few months, he’d accumulated way more stuff than I had when I played through.
“I still have a lot to go,” he said every time, and would then begin rattling off the items on his digital to-do list. Sometimes he would ask me where to find something and I would have to shrug and tell him I hadn’t bothered to go looking for it. He’d say, “Oh,” and seem to be disappointed, as if my lack of a completionist streak was a failing.
As much as we’ve disagreed, my father has never ever told me he was disappointed in me. When I chose English rather than one of the hard sciences, I encountered zero resistance from him. When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t ever made to feel rejected. Though we fight, we make up—in that we don’t talk about our fights, falling back into a mediocre ease in the days afterward—and if there are grudges, they’re invisible.
Over the years, I’ve followed Link and Zelda and their various nemeses through the changing landscape of video games. I was filled with a fluttery thrill when I played Ocarina of Time for the first time on the Nintendo 64, a system that I paid for entirely on my own. My father gave me a copy of Doom 64 for my birthday, but seeing my inability to hide my disappointment, took me to the video game store where he’d made the purchase so I could have a copy of the Zelda game for which I was desperate. In college, my best friend and I played our way through Twilight Princess, one of the series’ darker entries, while perched on the rickety futon that served as my bed, the graphics done no justice by the old television I’d hauled to college with me and dragged from one housing situation to another. The only reason I even bought a Nintendo Switch was to play Breath of the Wild, which was the only game I owned for the system for nearly two years. But I played those games largely on my own, and never with my father; we never sat down again to sketch a map together, to root out a game’s many secrets, to comb through forests or rock faces for the things hidden beneath the surface.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life alone; I had two serious relationships as an undergraduate and a complicated something-or-other when I was working on my PhD. Since then, my life has mostly been writing, teaching, and keeping three cats from killing one another. I’ve bought a house. I mow my own lawn and deal with my dishwasher without calling anyone for help when it goes on the fritz. I need to repaint my bathroom ceilings after a leak in my roof caused some minor mold damage around the vent fan. I’ve mastered a power washer and consulting with my financial adviser and setting up my own dental appointments. All of this I’ve done in a three bedroom house all to myself, though my parents are a fifteen-minute drive away. It feels, sometimes, like they’re a universe away. Every now and then, though, I call up my parents for help, and they’re always quick to assist. They even left new patio chairs on my back porch once, without me asking for them.
I think, sometimes, of the old man’s directive to Link, the first thing another character says to him in any of the many iterations of the games: It is dangerous to go alone. I’m not fighting monsters (though it sometimes feels that way when I’m grading freshman essays or navigating the conservative belt of Missouri as a progressive queer person). Barring me joining some strange religious cult or taking up a job in highway construction, I won’t need to burn trees or bomb cliff walls. I’m hardly heroic. But I’m also not alone.
A few months ago, I told my father about my erstwhile search for his handwritten map, lamenting its disappearance. Instead of sharing in my disappointment, his eyes brightened.
“Oh,” he said. “I know exactly where that is.”
He clarified: he didn’t know where, precisely, the map was, but he knew it could be found in a canister that I would never have thought to look inside. He could find it easily if he took the time to muddle around the various piles and heaps in the basement or office. No wonder I couldn’t find it. I am not that kind of seeker; I had a sense of where I thought it would be, and didn’t think to look any further. To glance under every rock.
“After all,” he said. “We worked hard on that.”
I appreciated my father including me in the hard work; really, I had simply been a spectator. I was struck, then, by how our video gaming roles have reversed, him handing the controller off to me to accomplish things he can’t. He becomes the watcher, I the doer. Twice, now, I’ve had to slay the same boss—Thunderblight Ganon, of the desert—in Breath of the Wild, because my father simply can’t do it. The mechanics are beyond him, no matter how many videos he watches on YouTube or guides he reads. And he’s always grateful. We may not always get along, but in this, at least, he shows his thanks. In these small moments, the kind that we rarely share, I feel like we are truly together. That neither of us is playing through this saga alone.