The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom gives players a choice: Would you help or ignore a stranger?
Much like the game’s predecessor, Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom breaks new ground for open-world design, featuring emergent gameplay and flexible objectives. Outside of the main missions, there are mysterious landmarks, surprise encounters, and environmental phenomena that vie for your attention. You’re encouraged to go off the beaten path by design. In Tears of the Kingdom, this means not only following the winds of your own whims, but also tending to the needs of others.
Take, for example, the Koroks, a childlike race of wooden creatures who wear giant leaf masks. They’re playful and wholesome, spread across the world in the hundreds with small, optional games and puzzles prepared for you to enjoy. You’ll also come across plenty of Koroks who shoulder backpacks twice their own size, rendering them immobile in their quests to reach their friends. With valleys and hills between them, you have to figure out what items and abilities will help you bring them together. Well, you don’t have to. You can leave them behind and continue on your way.
Some players have pursued other ideas, such as, for example, crucifixion. To clarify, it’s impossible to hurt friendly non-playable characters (NPCs) in Tears of the Kingdom. Koroks can be shot into the sky, roasted over fires, and thrown off cliffs to no effect. These unnecessary, morbid shenanigans are often done for comedic effect rather than malicious intent, meant to see how far a player can push the game’s rules. Other players have chosen not to harm the Koroks, but create fun for them, while still others, like Emily Jones, have created fan art depicting Link, the game’s protagonist, being affectionate with them.
Another NPC in Tears of the Kingdom is Addison, a quirky man who puts up giant advertising signs for his employer, all across the world. However, he can’t drive these into the ground because he’s stuck holding them upright; no one is ever around to help him. You can build clever contraptions for the signs to keep them in place so he can move on with his day. There’s no initial promise of a reward or a prompt instructing you to help; you can trot on by or stop to assist him. The same goes for other NPCs who are imprisoned, cornered by enemies, and more. As I roamed Tears of the Kingdom’s world, I couldn’t help but think of the Good Samaritan parable.
Would you help or ignore a stranger?
Jesus describes how a Jewish priest and a Levite, or priest’s assistant, separately passed by a man who had been beaten and robbed. Then a Samaritan—who would have been despised for his race by most of the people in Jesus’ audience—saw the man and stopped. Feeling a deep stirring in his soul, the Samaritan treated the stranger’s wounds and let him ride on his donkey to an inn. And he didn’t stop there. He attentively cared for the stranger and implored the innkeeper to do the same, offering the latter whatever was needed to cover all room and board. The Samaritan dropped everything because this was not a moment of irritating inconvenience, but one of divine disruption.
This parable came in response to an “expert in the law” who “wanted to justify himself,” asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. When told to love God and love neighbor, this expert wanted to limit who his neighbor could be. Yet Jesus offered a surprising twist, saying that the most unexpected of people can inherit eternal life and that anyone and everyone is our neighbor—even those who do not love or do good to us.
Video games are fertile ground for exercising altruism. You can choose to free prisoners of war in Ghost of Tsushima; you can leave behind helpful gear for players you’ll never meet in Death Stranding; you can protect players in Elden Ring who are being attacked by other players. Some of these events come with the promise of rewards and some (initially, at least) do not. Even though our actions in these digital worlds are separate from our own, they can emotionally affect players and those who watch them play. In that, there’s a memorable beauty in seeing players do good not for the sake of what’s in it for them, but in order to see a world set a little more right—providing a window into how we might do the same in our own.