In The Legend of Zelda, Hyrule is a land constantly imperiled by maleficent lords of shadow, cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, and an intangible sense of paranormal gloom that sucks the will to live out of every man, Zora, and Goron. Its nations are stratified across the land, and all of them live under the muzzling bounds of an autocratic royal bloodline. (Princess Zelda, Demon King Ganondorf, they’re all fat cats to me.) In other words, the people of Zelda need a free press, and in the newest game of the franchise—called Tears of the Kingdom—Hylians have discovered that occasionally, the pen is mightier than the sword. Those who embark on the adventure will discover ancient vistas, glorious ruins, and, most surprisingly, a proud celebration of the power of journalism. At last, Link is asking the tough questions.
In the Americas, Tears of the Kingdom is already Nintendo’s fastest-selling game ever, moving more than 4 million copies in its first three days. Its map is 198 miles wide, which is nearly twice the size of Massachusetts. Our protagonist—the mute, green-capped cipher Link—can engage in unimaginable human cruelty during his journey, as these mangled Korok sprites can attest. But early on in the narrative, you’ll stumble into a small township called Rito Village, where Link can set aside his bloodlust and join the staff of the upstart Lucky Clover Gazette—which is located in an abandoned horse stable—as a budding freelancer. The two employees, Traysi and Penn, pop up and dole out assignments to Link, usually involving the mysterious, if eminently predictable, disappearance of Princess Zelda. Link completes his task, earns his pay, and bolsters the reporting muscle of Hyrule. The freer the press, the freer the people.
The background characters who populate Tears of the Kingdom all hold a remarkably earnest, almost Pollyanna-ish perspective on both the Lucky Clover Gazette and the Fourth Estate as a whole. No partisanship bifurcates the media of Hyrule; nobody accuses Link of being a clickbait sensationalist or peddling fake news, and his bosses are dogmatic about their J-school fundamentals. (“We can’t put anything to print unless we’re sure it’s true,” instructs Penn during one of the side quest’s interstitial moments.) The more you explore, the more you’ll find folks leafing through a cracked-open copy of the Gazette, issuing vehemently pro–First Amendment pronouncements to anyone within earshot. “Strange to think I can learn about world affairs just by reading the paper,” says one. “Lucky Clover Gazette! What a wonder!” rhapsodizes another. “If they’re understaffed, maybe I should consider becoming a journalist.” Penn—who, it should be said, appears in Tears of the Kingdom as an anthropomorphic pelican—recruits Link with a rousing paean to the life of the newshound. “Hey, want to be a reporter?” he asks, “Shine light on the truth? Expose the evils in our world?” He cheers on our doggedness throughout the game, sounding like an avian Marty Baron: “The more mysteries there are, the brighter a reporter’s spirit burns!”
All of this makes Tears of the Kingdom perhaps the only major video game with a markedly positive attitude about the media, which means that a generation of 8-year-olds who are currently enjoying their first-ever Zelda game are, hopefully, being nudged away from spiraling gamergate paranoia and “enemy of the people” illiberalism and toward a cleansing realization that journalism, as a craft, is mostly about telling the truth and writing fun little stories. Nintendo is reaching them before the toxic comment threads do.
“Journalism has been attacked relentlessly in recent years by people that don’t like the questions they’re asking. I think it’s really important for younger audiences to get messages like this,” Brianna Wu, one of the most prominent anti-Gamergate activists on the internet, and the executive director of the progressive Rebellion Pac, told me. “I also really liked the message of having to go find things out in person. Too often, Reddit-style journalism is about sitting at home and Googling things. It often leads to incorrect conclusions. This gameplay is about good old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism.”
Laura Owen, editor of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, concurs with Wu’s conclusion. “I love any journalism shout-outs in pop culture,” she said, noting that positive references to journalism—even within the confines of a video game side story—can leave a surprisingly deep imprint on a developing mind. “My 6-year-old just learned the concept of pretending you’re reading a newspaper but actually you’re spying on someone from some episode of something or other,” explained Owen.
Of course, Nintendo themselves haven’t always lived up to the Lucky Clover Gazette standard. For instance, Kotaku, a long-running gaming blog, has toiled under a blacklist enforced by the company—shutting off the website staff’s access to review copies and preview events, making their jobs as games journalists much more difficult than they need to be—all apparently because they covered leaks. Link might be an advocate for open airwaves in Hyrule, but his superiors have other ideas. The character has never been more relatable than when he struggles to live ethically among contradictory corporate interests.
Regardless, I hope to see Link continue his media adventure in future chapters of his story, as the Lucky Clover Gazette navigates the increasingly turbulent waters of the newspaper business. Ganondorf might be an existential malignance on the rim of Hyrule, but the Hero of Time now has greater threats to contend with: final bosses like the Pivot-to-Video, the Corporate Restructuring, and, of course, the Institutional Burnout. Congratulations, Link. You’re one of us.