[Can you construct a cultural history of a fictional video game race? In this in-depth analysis, Daniel Johnson looks at the Goron tribe from the Legend Of Zelda series to discover what makes them tick.]
Video games, as simulations, have the ability to transfer skills to the player through interaction within the game world. Serious games, games designed to educate real-life skills, are a burgeoning industry.
These games often serve to raise awareness on key issues
or teach tangible skills such as operation of machinery
or safety guidelines
. Culture-related skills, such as proficiency in intercultural communication, language acquisition and understanding of cultural beliefs and practices demand interaction and experimentation if they are to be fully acquired. It's the reason why so many second language learners go overseas to study.
This makes a simulated experience such as video games all the more appropriate form of pedagogy for such a field of education. However, attainment of culture skills for practical purposes (communicating in a foreign context, for instance) requires extensive amounts of interaction, over a prolonged period of time in a variety of different circumstances, often to such extent of production that would exceed most serious games.
That's not to say that serious games cannot, and have not achieved such success here before -- particularly when they concentrate on discrete areas of education -- but rather, we can also learn a lot about cultural-based education through non-educational flavoured video games.
This is where the installment-based nature of many entertainment-minded video game franchises step in. Both real-life and manufactured societies inhabit rather extensive franchises including Oddworld
, Metal Gear Solid
, Grand Theft Auto
and The Legend of Zelda
, where the player must engage with or is already an active member of a cultural membership in the game. These games subconsciously familiarize the player with cross-cultural communication, set cultural practices, and various linguistic and cultural norms as a method of play. In fact, acquiring such skills often acts as the necessary means to not just complete but to fully understand the game, its world and narrative.
Team this with extensive gameplay over a series of iterations (think hundreds of hours, in some instances) and the lasting pedagogical effect on the player is enormous. Furthermore, as either series evolves, taking on new situations, from fresh and/or different perspectives, the understanding of the cultures increase and expound, building upon the base knowledge and skill systems.
All this yip-yap means nothing without hard proof, which is why I want to magnify this idea (of how video games transfer ever-changing cultural skills to players over a series of iterations) with some analysis over the next few columns.
Today I begin with The Legend of Zelda series
, looking at the Goron tribe and the way the series instigates issues of cultural membership, hierarchical systems and practices, and how this knowledge base is angled and built upon in successive games.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time
first debuted the Goron tribe into the Zelda
canon. The Gorons were introduced as a group of mountain-dwelling, rock-eating creatures who mined Death Mountain for their food supply. Ocarina of Time
established the core foundations in which players would come to understand this society. Their ability to recklessly roll around, the constant use of the title “brother” to represent kinship, their reliance on the natural earth and the leader-based hierarchical structure are all made apparent in their debut.
Patriarch Leadership System
The Gorons are probably the most prominent non-human culture in the Zelda
franchise and Ocarina of Time
uses them well as a narrative tool to exchange cultural issues and norms. The first example of such normalities is the indigenous social hierarchy which the Goron's adopt through their patriarch Darunia. By interacting with Darunia and the situations he creates, the player gains a conscious understanding of the influence that patriarchs have over their communities, as acquiring the trust of Darunia is pivotal to game progression. If Link doesn't reason with the patriarch, then he is not acting within the best interests of the tribe.
Darunia is the gatekeeper of the Spiritual Stone of Fire which Link is hoping to obtain. The player must query around for possible hints as to how to win over the Goron patriarch who'd previously dismissed the young boy. Once Link pleasures Daurina with music from his ocarina – making way for a spectacular dance scene
, where Darunia busts a move or two – the leader trusts the boy and enlists him to free Dodongo's Cavern of Ganondorf's evil creatures in exchange for the stone. Darunia's influence over the gameplay signifies his role as the leader of a society in which Link must cooperate with. The other Gorons regard Darunia as their leader and although they have the best intentions of the young visitor, they cannot aid him in his quest if their patriarch does not abide.
Later, Link returns to Goron City in the future to learn from Darunia's son that in the time passing, Ganondorf had imprisoned the tribe away in the Fire Temple, and threatened to feed them to the evil fire dragon Volvagia. The Goron speaks of ancient tribal lore where, thrown into a similar situation, a legendary Goron saved the tribe by defeating the menacing Volvagia with the Megaton hammer. Link sets out to save the Gorons, acquiring the megaton hammer in the process and reenacting the legend, immortalizing himself within the Goron society.
Nintendo uses Darunia's son's historical anecdote as a guideline, a sort of hint as to how the player can defeat Volgia and what completing such a task will implicate for the culture. On defeating Volgia, Link becomes a legend in the same vein as the one in the Goron lore. He is seen as an icon among the members of the tribe. Their appreciation flows into their dialogues where Link is considered a “brother” of the Gorons. The mountainous people also hug him too. This sub-plot highlights how folk stories passed down through the generations cultivate a lore which is very dear to the root of the culture. These stories create a cultural base in which other norms are derived from. One might say that in this instance, by fulfilling this prophecy (of sorts), Link has become the new patriarch of the Gorons.
Through the aforementioned events, Ocarina of Time
timelines how Link begins as an outsider of the Goron membership, originally dismissed by the leader, yet through his trials becomes a member of the tribe – a true “brother”. While initially the Gorons are friendly with Link (the contrast isn't as stark as say Twilight Princess
), upon saving the tribe for a second time, he is raised above mere mortal status. Cultural memberships as a thematic aren't so prominent in Ocarina of Time
relative to the other titles, but it's worth mentioning the way he integrates into their society nonetheless.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
's overall angle of the Zelda
universe is much darker than its predecessors. For the Goron race this largely results in the inclusion of some rather macabre character designs which expand from Ocarina of Time
's neutrality. The cast of Gorons also tend to be a little more eccentric while the narrative rather bleak too, in that regard. Otherwise, Majora's Mask
's biggest draw is the ability for Link to become a member of the tribe, allowing him to sit in on as well as be involved with ingroup activities and dramas. It's a much more intimate angle on the culture, touching on themes like parenthood, identity and survival.
portrays much richer focus on memberships as the mask mechanic illustrates. Basically, Link can obtain various masks throughout the game, several of which transform him into the various races inhabiting Termina; the Zoras, Dekus and Gorons. What this mechanic does is allow Link to switch on the fly between ingroup and outgroup membership of the respective cultures, changing his interplay with each. This gives players the opportunity to observe first-hand how it feels to be treated as either one of the races within the game. Termina's residents don't have four sets of speech for the respective races, but rather, the speech is tied to the gameplay and narrative.
For instance, at the beginning of the game, Link is transformed into a Deku scrub and struck in Clock Town. His appearance as a deku scrub causes the towns people to stigmatize him and treat him with contempt; reflected by their speech and reaction to his presence. After Link transfers back into human (Hylian) form, he is treated as a regular young boy. On the flipside, because of his Deku appearance, Link is seen as an ingroup member of the Deku tribe, rather than an foreigner, which in turn gives him certain privileges. This underlying rift between the races runs throughout the game, highlighted by the use of masks. The pedagogy here is obvious, Majora's Mask is a play ground of experimentation with cultural identities.
Narrative Intimacy Via Ingroup Membership
What this iteration does over the previous is allow the player to grow their familiarity with the more intimate themes surrounding the culture. As an ingroup member, the Goron-related parts of the narrative are centred around the ingroup happenings of the Goron tribe. For example, the separation of the disenabled father Goron Elder and his son Baby Goron, which itself is a tragedy for the disheartened elder and a drama for the regular community who have to put up with the baby's incessant crying.
Link obtains his mask through the spirit of Darmani, a legendary Goron hero who embodies the mask. When Link wears the mask he adopts Darmani's appearance and abilities and is treated by the Gorons as a Darmani himself - they believe him to have never passed away. Through your interplay with the characters (who are stunned to see their tribal hero return (nulled somewhat by the snow storm)) Darmani's legacy is made clear to the player.
Movement and Abilities
Playing as the Goron, hurtling around in their rolled up state or using their menacing strength, also allows the player to understand how these attributes character the race differently from the Zoras and Dekus. Furthermore, Majora's Mask
features Goron races which are another cultural practice, specific to the community.
In Majora's Mask
's tale of imminent doom, the Goron tribe reside in the north of Termina, in the Snowhead area. In recent times the Snowhead landscape has been plagued with heavy snow fall (funnily enough), transforming the usually warm landscape into a snowy freezer. This sudden shift in temperature cripples the residing Goron community who cannot bear the icy conditions. These circumstances places a familiar culture in an atypical situation, fleshing out the race's lack of resistance of the cold.
naturally expands the original character design which now encompass more characterized creatures, including the Goron Elder and Baby Goron. Link himself, as Darmani, sports a much more elaborate design including hair, armlets and boots. This paves the way for Twilight Princess
which takes a more substantial leap in this department.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
adopts some of Majora's Mask
's ideals while introducing a handful of its own. Perhaps most significant is that Link –for the first time -- must attack the creatures who are initially hostile towards him. Twilight Princess
also extends on the cross-cultural exchanges of Majora's Mask
where Gorons try to set up shop in Castle Town. One of the groups is very successful with their hot spring water stand, another (a small family) is relegated to an unattractive backstage of the town, while a third raise money to fund another store. Lastly, sumo-wrestling and fist-fighting are introduced as sports which the elders want passed down to the younger generation.
further adds to the Goron's original design, colouring them with tribal markings and a lighter skin tone, layering their backs with white hair and in some instances including more artificial elements such as metal guards and frames. Particularly the four elders: Gorons Gor Coron, Gor Ebizo, Gor Liggs and Gor Amoto all feature erratic variations from the original design. Gor Liggs is the most striking as he's covered almost completely in markings. Gor Ebizo is incredibly frail and withered -- yet barmy -- while Gor Amoto is remarkably short. The greater visual disparity between different members of the race (because let's face it, they were all copy and pasted in Ocarina of Time
) is more telling of their roles within the culture itself. Dangoro, with his large metal frames establishes the ore mining of which Twilight Princess
' Gorons undertake. Gor Ebizo and Gor Amoto are obviously tribal elders (ie. they look old) and Darbus's flattop haircut, menacing size and chiseled arm hair (fur?) showcase him as the tribal patriarch.
Another Take on Memberships
has a much more aggressive take on memberships. Unlike in the other two examples where Gorons are normally friendly creatures, they initially act very hostile towards Link attempting to keep him away from Spectacle Rock; their area of residence, perched above Kakariko Village. Link must first acquire the iron boots and use them in his ascent, combating with Gorons along the way.
Once he reaches the top, he is challenged by Gor Coron in a friendly match of sumo-wrestling, once defeating him he wins the trust of the elder and respect of the tribe. Again, the series explores ingroup/outgroup relations and the tribal leadership structure, but in a slightly different light. The leadership is a little more elaborate this time. Rather than having a single leader, the tribe is governed by four elders and Darbus, the patriarch. The interplay between elders is also expanded, with Link sumo-wrestling with one and meeting the rest in the Goron Mines who each give Link a piece of key. Later a few of the elders integrate into Kakariko Village.
Culture-specific Produce and Trading
Along with sumo-wrestling, Twilight Princess
features hot springs and hot spring water quite prominently. Once the hostility is calmed at Spectacle Rock, Gorons and even Zoras come to the famous hot springs for relaxation. In Castle Town, hot spring water is popular among residents who que into the streets, awaiting a serve. Hot Spring water is a staple of Goron life and exists only in their territory, yet they capture and exchange the resource among the different societies. It's a culture specific product which is merchandized as such.
Through each of the three core iterations we can observe how each title layers our understanding of the Goron culture by continually expanding the norms of the society as well as providing different angles to interface with them. The two traditional titles; Ocarina of Time
and Twilight Princess
generally focus on the outgroup activities (Link is a foreigner after all), with either title providing a different means on entering the ingroup society. Majora's Mask
avoids this and centres its narrative firmly within the ingroup, explicating ingroup affairs. We also see the culture continually be reinvented through evolving visual design, narratives and gameplay scenarios.
[Daniel Johnson spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He studies language and culture, and shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]