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TikTok won’t stop Zelda-splaining

TikTokers encouraged me to play Tears of the Kingdom in the worst way

Link wearing the Hylian Shield on his back with Hyrule Castle in the background in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

At first, they were a perfect pair.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom appeared on my Nintendo Switch on May 12, and in a flash, the game filled my TikTok feed. I couldn’t escape Hyrule — and I loved it. I felt like part of a community.

After I solved a complex problem by just building a really, really long bridge, I was tickled to see how many other people had had the exact same idea. Amateur engineers cobbled together complicated contraptions and war machines that I had no aspirations to make, but I was happy to watch. And speedrunners did what speedrunners do best: They broke the game.

Link, a small figure in the foreground, runs across a huge open green field toward mountains in the distance in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Ever so gradually, the tenor of my feed changed. It was still Zelda all the time, but now, the videos wanted to help me out. At first, I got recommendations: “Need money? Try duplicating diamonds!” Then came the demands: “You have to stop what you’re doing in Tears of the Kingdom and get the best shield in the game RIGHT NOW!”

Unlimited money? The best items? How could I resist! Warned that a patch would wipe the opportunity to dupe diamonds, I spent a couple of hours in the game’s first week jumping off a stairwell, fussing with my inventory, and dropping precious stones on the ground to perform a bit of alchemy. Over and over and over. In exchange, I had no fun and got a bunch of gems that, it turns out, I don’t really need. I also acquired a shield that’s so powerful, I’m afraid to use it.

I must have not been alone, because TikTok immediately offered solutions to problems it had created, showing me where to buy expensive clothes, and how, with a bit of patience, a certain enemy could repair my weapons. For a day or two, I continued following these tips, but it sapped my joy. Playing Tears of the Kingdom had turned into work. TikTok provided assignments and I followed them, zipping around the map like a bike courier rather than a free-wheeling explorer. My TikTok feed had become a to-do list.

The Gutanbac Shrine on the Great Sky Island in the Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

I deleted the app for a week or two, and I also bounced off Tears of the Kingdom. Both had begun to bum me out, and I have a rule that, if a game or a social media platform brings me down, then it has to go. Even if it’s my favorite app or the best game I’ve played in years.

Later on, when I tried reinstalling TikTok, my Zelda-fueled feed had devolved into something even worse. One video told me I needed to make a “bone build” that would deal 800 damage. The very next video chided me for using that shitty 800-damage bone build when I could be using a different bone build that deals 2,000 damage.

One question: What the fuck is a bone build?

How do I describe this particular anxiety? It’s not quite FOMO, but it feeds my most unhealthy gaming habits. In theory, it’s like a game guide, but I appreciation the instruction of guides that I seek out. But this... What is this?

My colleague Mike Mahardy described it to me as “Zelda-splaining,” and I think that’s apt. Historically, video game guides have been used for reference. As you play a game and hit a frustrating obstacle, you open a guide or search online and receive the answer. Then you move forward on your own.

Link on a homemade raft in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

But this strain of short-form video content is the opposite: It’s the unsolicited guide. And because creators need to stand out on TikTok, they promise something provocative or hyperbolic. “The best weapon.” “The easiest cheat.” “The fastest way to finish a game that you were meant to savor over months or even years.”

The end result is a content chimera, where good intentions meet peer pressure: You must do this, because you don’t want to miss out on the very best, do you?

To be exceedingly clear, there’s no malice behind these videos or wrongdoing on the part their creators. This situation is just an unintended side effect of how the content people on TikTok create is shaped by the method of distribution. Or, to put it another way: “The medium is the message.”

When Tears of the Kingdom launched, TikTok creators didn’t know the type of content that would get the most views, so videos looked as varied and joyful as my experience playing the game. But as TikTok’s public display of views revealed the “best” formats, some creators were motivated to make the videos that appeared to do better than most: the unsolicited guide.

And so my feed went from “I made a long bridge because games are hard” to “This bone build will make you a god.” And it did this largely because I couldn’t resist. The TikTok algorithm found my weakness and exploited it. I have no doubt many — if not most — TikTok creators are still producing the Zelda stuff I’d prefer to see. That thousands of chill Zelda videos wait in the Search field. But my feed’s fate is decided.

Link skydives after being knocked off of a floating island in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

I’m playing Tears of the Kingdom again, and I just skip Zelda content on TikTok. The guide videos are good — like, really entertaining! — but I swipe past them in a frenzy. I know they’re bad for me and my particular neuroses. I remind myself that Nintendo’s designers created Tears of the Kingdom to be enjoyed, first and foremost, on its own. And that when I consume adjacent media, it shouldn’t feel like peer pressure. I get most of my Zelda content from written stories or YouTube videos, where I have more control over what I see. And when I see some incredible new thing made by some stranger, I ask myself, “Do I need to do that? Will it make my experience any better? Or can I just enjoy seeing something?”

I’ve come to think of Zelda TikTok like I do pro sports: Here the experts accomplish mind-blowing feats, and though they may want to offer help, their guidance is not needed. I’ll never be like them, and that’s OK. I’ll just be Link, with a modest two dungeons under my belt and a reliance on very, very long bridges.