The Systems Within Us

I’m playing The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, just like everyone else in the world.

It’s perfect, because of course it is. But it’s perfect for a lot of reasons, one of which is the fact that those reasons are actually different for each person. For some, Tears of the Kingdom is an extended return to a beloved world. It uses the same map, but expanded both into the air and into the ground. For others, it’s that the world is designed to reward exploration, endlessly open and free and incredibly large. Some are excited about the ability to create machines of whole cloth out of whatever is lying around, which appeals to both tinkerers and always one-upping social algorithms. And, at its base, that’s what The Legend of Zelda’s “Of The” games (the last one was called Breath of the Wild) promote at their core: an anything-goes experience where multiple solutions are possible at once.

May 2023: The Systems Within Us

  • “Drawing Mountains” — The Album Leaf
  • “Dear God 2.0” — Dear God 2.0
  • “Ladies First” — Ladies First
  • “Savage Good Boy” — Japanese Breakfast
  • “LIKED U BETTER” — Jeff Rosenstock
  • “Dark Days” — PUP
  • “Rhymes Like Dimes” — MF Doom (w/ DJ Cucumber Slice)
  • “The Village” — New Order
  • “The Narcissist” — Blur
  • ”Baby Blue Sedan” — Modest Mouse
  • “Yours & Mine” — Lucy Dacus
  • “Year of the Spider” — Shannon & The Clams
  • “The Solution” — Abstract Rude (w/ Slug and Brother Ali)
  • “Press Rewind” — Del the Funky Homosapien
  • “A Common Disaster” — Cowboy Junkies
  • “White Noise Maker” — Frank Black
  • “Master of Sparks” — ZZ Top

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

If it sounds big: it is. You can argue that between the core mechanics and map of Breath of the Wild, which first went into development in 2011, and the new features built upon that base (including this otherworldly fuse system and two complete additional maps), Tears of the Kingdom has been in development for nearly 12 years. To put this in context, in that time there have been five mainline Pokemon games — NINE, if you count each half of the main series.

What do you get after twelve years of development? Functionality that looks deceptively easy. It just works. But those who know .. they know. Developers see what’s happening below the surface — and they’re amazed:

“Last time I saw something this impressive physics/gameplay wise was the rope in The Last of Us Part 2. And the rope only appeared in [a] few very controlled scenarios,” said Rocksteady Games senior gameplay and combat programmer Aadit Doshi on Twitter. “To be able to confidently present the player with a stack of blocks that are linked with chains that move in accurate ways, without clipping, without objects shaking like crazy as it tries to figure out what it needs to do is awe-inspiring.”

So why am I fascinated by this? It’s this paragraph, a bit later in the article.

(Shayna) Moon (a technical producer who’s worked on games like the 2018 God of War reboot and its sequel, God of War: Ragnarök) noted that it’s not exactly that other studios can’t reach this level of technical innovation, but that they don’t prioritize the resources needed to do it. Often, that comes down to supporting the humans who make the games we play. Tears of the Kingdom was seemingly built on top of Breath of the Wild, reportedly with a large portion of the same team working on it.

Systems are complex. They’re made of people. They take time.

We made pizza for a group of friends this past weekend. Whenever we make pizza, I’m still amazed that dough works. That someone centuries ago figured out how to take small organisms and use their waste gas to help expand a mixture of ground-up dried plant matter and clean liquid and use fire to bake it into something amazing. That every piece of the puzzle even really exists, through millennia of trial and error, is some brilliant magic, even though I know it’s just science and progress. It’s all there, just under the surface.

We can sometimes forget that each of us has the same level of complexity within ourselves. We’re all finding our own emotional pizzas, our own mixtures, our own weird machines. We’re putting new things together to see if they work. And while we can look to others for guidance — to stand on the shoulders of those before us who learned that, for example, it’s not in our best interest to play with raw mercury or run through DDT fields — we don’t have the benefit of millennia. We haven’t been able to perfect the science of whatever is inside of each of us because we’ve never really had the time.

I’m seeing this firsthand. I have teens. And as those teens have begun figuring themselves out, it’s become clearer to me that it’s not as easy as documenting progress and training. Yeast is yeast. Fire is fire. Green peppers grow where they grow. Humans, though, are more complex.

No wonder we try and fail and flail and gnash our teeth over happiness and heartbreak: we only get so many chances to develop those systems under the surface, and each mistake feels like we’ve wasted an eon.

Underneath the surface, in our world — the real world, the one with humans and animals and buildings and weather — lies a billion different interactions. The sheer amount of chance and engineering it takes to create every part of this reaction — from the centuries of agricultural discovery it took to domesticate the green pepper, to the sheer complexity of systems within our body — makes every interaction a bit of a miracle. (In a “wonder” sense, that is, not a “magnets” sense.)

And this is all of us. None of us know the layers beneath the surface. We’re all finding new ways to interact. To understand our own physics; our own inconsistencies, and our own emotions. It all takes time.

Systems are made of people, and people are made of systems. There’s a balance in knowing that every complicated physics engine builds upon every previous physics engine and that each of those physics engines is nothing more than the collected creations of thousands of still-buffering emotional machines. We have every right to be amazed, especially when we can see our own emotions and systems make a connection. In the meantime, we hope that we’re treated kindly, building bridges with whatever tools we have, hoping beyond hope the systems behind those tools stay true to themselves.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 31st, 2023