Although René Descartes’ writing can be a little dense, I find him to be a great introductory source for up and coming philosophers to read for one reason: his thoughts on Methodic Doubt. But, since not everyone has the patience to read works so dense, a video game seems like a fine way to give the abridged version.
For the uninitiated, Methodic Doubt refers to Descartes’ notion that before having any real clue of what reality is, we must first know how a belief or thing can be justified; in short, it’s pointless to simply just say “Link’s bomb’s can kill the final boss” or “I don’t need the bow to finish the game” without having any basis to justify said beliefs.
One of the most basic principles of this Methodic Doubt is this: “In order to determine whether there is anything we can know with certainty, we first have to doubt everything we know.” For Link in Link’s Awakening – which ironically was described as the time as Link leaving Hyrule in search of enlightenment – that moment of first doubting the world around him comes in the Southern Face Shrine. In a far off shrine that only he (or someone with his arsenal of weaponry and knowledge to use said tools) can access, he reads this on the wall:
“To the finder, the isle of Koholint is but an illusion… Human, monster, sea, sky… a scene on the lid of a sleeper’s eye… Awake the dreamer, and Koholint will vanish much like a bubble on a needle… Cast-away, you should know the truth!”
This is an immediately troubling statement for two reasons: one, Link has to wake the Wind Fish in order to leave the island, and two, that implies that he has to obliterate the existence of everyone he met on this adventure to save himself.
Most people on the island, with exception to the owl and sort of Marin, don’t believe in the Wind Fish, nor that this world is a dream – much like any rational person would initially think, the immediate response to this is “how can this world be a dream if I see, hear, feel it, and otherwise sense it?” But one of the focal points of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy was that personal experiences often deceive; we see mirages, we hear things that aren’t actually there, and sometimes our basic family values are rooted in a few prejudices. If our experiences have deceived us before, how do we know they aren’t doing it again?
Similarly, Link up until now just assumed the world existed because he experienced it. But to this claim, Descartes has a seemingly absurd yet still somewhat undeniable claim: with the world around us, we can never deny with certainty the possibility that some evil genie just made everything up and tricked us to believe this world existed. While not quite a genie and not quite evil (we assume), the Wind Fish did exactly that. Link not only finds out post game that the world really was the Wind Fish’s dream, but that all the bosses he was sent to beat were actually nightmares plaguing the Wind Fish. Had Link not read the inscription at the shrine and begun to doubt the world’s existence, he wouldn’t have had any clue (that is, until eventually awoken).
But if Link, while still on Koholint Island, were to ask himself: “How do I even know that I exist?” then Descartes would have an answer. The clichéd “I think, therefore I am” came from Descartes, and it describes two basic principles. The first is that the most basic foundation of things we know with absolute certainty begins with the fact that we are able to think – this one cannot be denied because to even doubt it would require thinking. The second principle is that thinking cannot occur without someone doing the thinking – and even if the hypothetical evil genie Inceptions thoughts, the person still doing the actual thinking is the “I.” Therefore, the person doing the thinking must exist.
With this notion, Link can rest and assume he exists, and the player can assume safely that Link, within this world, at the very least exists. Virtually every item gained produces a thought – in particular items Link stole – which will repeatedly reaffirm his own existence.
With everything else, though, we’re on our own, left to sort through the truths and lies in one way and one way only: doubting. If there is any way a belief can be proven wrong, the rationale or merit is not quite there. But there’s a certain positive spin to this; while doubting everything will weaken certain beliefs, the ones that remain will no doubt be stronger. Doubting leads to testing, and we learn all sorts of great things through that; for example, I learned very recently that I actually don’t need the bow to beat Link’s Awakening after all – but I got it anyway because the bomb arrow trick is still cool. Hang on, let me doubt and test that – yup, it’s still cool.
Descrates wasn’t perfect. Much like anyone who writes anything, he had his critics, all of which repeatedly bashed his theories with counterarguments (and if anyone can present a counterargument of Descrates while still using Link’s Awaking as the accessible muse, I’ll be thoroughly delighted). But to doubt Descrates at least affirms two of his claims: that we can’t accept knowledge as truth without first questioning it, for one, and that through thinking, we know we are truly alive.