It’s not a revelation to claim that most modern advertising is pretty in-your-face and graceless. In a limited amount of time, companies are concerned with selling their product as quickly as possible, leaving no room for nuance or, dare I say it, poetry. Video game commercials are especially egregious; as any experienced gamer can tell you, those awful Sega ads from the ’90s (this one is particularly terrible) still haunt many to this day.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to discover a video game ad that isn’t loud for the sake of being loud, crude to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or abstract just for the sake of it. Nintendo’s been gearing up for its biggest release of 2023, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and it’s clear they wanted to make it stand out from the crowd. Mission accomplished, as the latest commercial for the game, a nearly wordless two-minute paean to not just Zelda but also to the power of video games, strikes such a resonant emotional chord that it already ranks as one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
An ordinary life, an extraordinary adventure
The commercial, titled Rediscover your sense of adventure with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, begins with a middle-aged man getting on a crowded bus, presumably after a hard day’s work. He looks briefly out the window at the evening sky, sees nothing that excites him, and sighs. He arrives home in time to get kiss his wife goodnight before sitting on the living room couch. He looks down and sees a copy of Tears of the Kingdom and decides to give it a try.
It’s here when the music changes, going from solemn to playful, as the man assumes Link’s avatar and literally dives into the game, plunging into Hyrule’s golden landscapes. He then battles a woodland creature before stumbling upon a common problem gamers encounter: how do I get from point A to point B? In his case, he needs to get Link to a faraway island. Swimming won’t work, as Link eventually will drown. He builds a simplistic one-log boat with a sail in the middle and gets the same result. Finally, he figures it out: a three-log boat with a sail at the front gets him where he needs to go.
The commercial then cuts to him playing the game on the bus the next morning because, in case you forgot, the Switch is portable and you can just pick up the game you were playing on your TV at home the night before and isn’t that cool? As Zelda, he battles some monsters, yelling out an excited “Yes!” when he finally vanquishes them.
Link is next shown to be gliding through a sky filled with white clouds, which prompts the man to look out of the bus window. As a callback to the earlier shot, he sees a similar blue sky with white clouds, and he sighs again, but this time, with contentment.
Video games as escapist art
The beauty of this ad is that it utilizes a narrative framework that has nothing to do with video games. A white-collar worker living in suburbia is about as far as you can get from Zelda, but it works, because it sets up an interesting contrast between the man’s relatively ordinary life and Link’s fantastical adventures in Hyrule. It emphasizes the allure of escapism inherent in all video games and, most particularly, in this one. It also highlights that the appeal of this game is universal. Tears of the Kingdom isn’t just for video game fans; it’s also for people who haven’t played any of the previous games and can jump into it without the need for a backstory or expertise in the franchise’s lore.
It’s also bold for the commercial to show how hard games can be sometimes. This isn’t a simple easy-to-play Mario game; rather, it’s a game that utilizes a crafting system (called “fusing” by Nintendo) that can be equal parts fun and frustrating. Nintendo understands that this is part of the pleasure of playing Tears of the Kingdom or any modern open-world game for that matter. The man is shown to fail not once, but twice, and that’s okay. That’s part of the fun in a game like this, trying to figure out how to use the abilities you’ve been given to complete the tasks you need to in order to advance.
The final sequence of the man playing as Link gliding in the sky and looking out of the bus window and smiling at the blue sky in front of him is my favorite part and what really elevates this ad to something more meaningful. The man, of course, is Earthbound; there’s no way he can zoom around in the sky. But by playing as Link in Tears of the Kingdom, he can, and for a brief moment, he’s happier than he was before.
It might be hackneyed to say but video games can make us realize our dreams, in small and big ways, and it makes our daily lives just a bit more better. The ad gets that, but doesn’t oversell it; instead, through a beautiful use of music, montage, and cinematic composition, it says more about how great Tears of the Kingdom is, and video games as a legitimate art form, than any amount of dialogue or ad copy ever could.
One of the best movies of the year?
I’m not a Zelda fan; from Link’s Awakening to Breath of the Wild, the games have never been my cup of tea. Yet the ad does what it’s supposed to do — it makes me want to buy the game. That it accomplishes so much more than that is what makes it so unique. I’ve seen a lot of movies already this year, from the strikingly original (Infinity Pool) to the blandly boring (The Super Mario Bros. Movie) and few have stuck with me as this commercial has.
Unlike most movies, the commercial isn’t afraid to be somber and to showcase what could be perceived as unappealing. Life can be difficult sometimes, and sad; what makes it worthwhile is the art we interact with, whether it’s by creating it or engaging with it in some way. Most movies and TV shows have a hard time communicating this yet the ad does so succinctly and without any pretension or fuss. It’s only two minutes, and yes, it’s designed to sell a product to as many people as possible, but the Tears of the Kingdom commercial is one of the best pieces of moviemaking I’ve seen so far in 2023.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will be released on May 12, 2023.