Hollow Knight

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic of Hollow Knight, and I got the collector’s edition from Fangamer when the game came out on the Nintendo Switch. I absolutely loved the first hour or two of gameplay. The world is gorgeous, the gameplay is a lot of fun, and the writing is lovely.

When I got to the first boss, however, I died. And then I died again, and then I died again. And then I died again. It’s not that this boss is particularly difficult; it’s just that it has a ton of health while you have relatively little. The fight is therefore an endurance test in which you can’t make any mistakes. This is particularly unpleasant because, once the boss starts breaking out new attacks and movement patterns, you’ve already been in the fight for a relatively long time and have probably already lost some health.

When I took to the internet to figure out what was going on, I found a lot of posts saying that Hollow Knight is a brutally punishing game, and that sometimes people can take hours to make it through a boss fight.

I then tried to search for “Hollow Knight easy mode,” and that was a mistake. Oh my, the “real gamer” discourse these children engage in.

I remember really loving Super Metroid as a kid. It was much too difficult for me and my small brain and tiny hands, so I used a Game Genie as something like a set of training wheels until I got good enough to play it on my own. I ended up spending more than a hundred hours playing the game instead of just one or two, and this hurt no one. I had a game, and I played it, and it was fun. I liked exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack; and, if this isn’t “how the developers intended the game to be played,” it didn’t matter, because my parents paid money for the game and I owned it.

This is more or less the same thing I’m interested in when it comes to Hollow Knight – exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack. Because of one boss fight at the beginning of the game, however, there’s no way I can do this. I now own a very pretty $70 game that I could only play for a little more than two hours, and it’s frustrating.

I wonder, would it really hurt the developers to include an easy mode?

Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.

The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.

I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?

Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.

The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.

Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.

Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.

What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.

To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.

Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!

However:

IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.

Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.

In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.

I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.

Tumblr vs. Social Media Algorithms

Listen fam, I know we all like to hate Tumblr, but let me tell you about Twitter.

After Nintendo gave its presentation at E3, I spent some time on Twitter to see what everyone’s reaction was. All I do on Twitter is post, like, and retweet cute video game art, so you’d think Twitter’s algorithms would shove all the sweet Nintendo E3 content right to the top of my feed. I know Nintendo pays Twitter to promote its content, and I know that Twitter knows that video game preorder announcements are irresistible clickbait for me, so it’s like I’m paying Nintendo to pay Twitter to show me Nintendo-related content.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of showing me cute pictures of Zelda and Daisy, my Twitter feed exhibited a constant ratio of five Nintendo-related tweets to one super-upsetting tweet about current events and identity politics, like “three people were attacked and injured at a local pride march” and “it’s racist to say that someone draws in an anime style.” These were generally tweets that someone I follow had liked hours (and sometimes days) in the past, and Twitter’s algorithms were putting them on my feed because that’s just what they do.

The algorithms that control your feed on Twitter and Facebook have calculated that people, on average, are more likely to engage with the platform (or to exit the platform to buy something) if they’re upset. This is why, for example, it can sometimes seem like everyone you know on Facebook is always happy and successful all the time – Facebook’s algorithms know this bothers people. Meanwhile, Twitter’s algorithms know that discussions related to issues such as gender, race, religion, sexuality, disability, body shape, and so on tend to trigger intense emotional responses, even if you’re presented with views and opinions you generally agree with. By “know” I mean that, over the course of billions of data points gathered during the past decade, these algorithms have found patterns that they attempt to replicate by manipulating the content feeds of individual users. (Jaron Lanier has written a great deal about how this works, if you’re interested.) These algorithms make the owners of these supposedly free social media platforms a ton of money, which is why they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

This is why I appreciate Tumblr so much as a platform for online fandom. You can block ads, you can block sponsored content, you can block an unlimited number of tags, and your feed consists of nothing more and nothing less than the posts of people you follow in reverse chronological order. There are algorithmic shenanigans concerning which users and posts are promoted and which posts disappear from tag archives, but this is something that most users will never have to worry about. The important thing is that, if someone brings bad mojo to my Nintendo party, I can just unfollow or block them without constantly having to click on drop-down menus to inform the platform that “this is not relevant.” In other words, I have almost effortless control over my engagement with Tumblr. This level of control is crucial to the experience of people who use fandom as a safe space where they don’t have to worry about things like, for example, whether they’ll be attacked if they go to a pride march.

Tumblr isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. If you live in a country where laws regulating internet access are currently in dispute, I think it’s a platform worth fighting for. Even if you’re unable to take political action, I hope you’ll take care of your fandom communities. The world is awful, but kindness and joy can go a long way.