Such Great Heights: How Zelda helps me overcome pre-flight nerves

I’m not good at flying. I don’t mean that in the sense of having absolute control over gravity, being able to soar for miles using my genetically engineered human wings. No, not that. I mean that I really struggle when I get into those giant metal birds that take us through the skies from location to location. I don’t do well with that.

On my first solo international flight, I bought a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At the time, I thought I’d been sucked in by the duty free salesman, all flashy black suit and tie, all curling smile cut into his cheeks. I remember the track that I played off my phone —Assault of the Silver Dragons, by Nobuo Uematsu’s Black Mages – and how the the noise-cancelling highlighted the scratching of the guitar and the high pitched synthesizer. The salesman did his best to sell me on those benefits, but it wasn’t the quality that concerned me.

I wanted something that would help me forget I was on a plane.

This sounds like an advert for noise-cancelling headphones doesn’t it? It isn’t.

It’s a story about Breath of the Wild.

I’m not good at flying.

There’s a voice in the back of my head (and, admittedly, somewhere in the pit of my stomach) that tickles the back of my throat with every lurch of the plane. It’s a mix of over-thinking and straight up gut-juice. I’m relatively adept at hiding it – I smile courteously at the flight attendants, I thank them when they bring around warm towels or bottles of water – but that feeling is always there, threatening panic.

I couldn’t tell you where it spawned from – it’s probably a combination of catching too many Air Crash Investigation episodes late at night and a hint of misunderstanding. Maybe even watching Final Destination as a 12 year old has something to do with it (it definitely has something to do with it). God damn it, now that I think about it, I can blame LOST too.

I understand flight. I understand how a plane gets into the air, how the differences in pressure over and under the wing create lift. I understand the statistics and the likelihood that I would be involved in any plane crash when so many are in the air, every day. I’m not Captain ‘Play-It-Safe’ and I’m not afraid to fly, but my body tenses up when I sit in the tight, cramped spaces of Aisle 23 or 19 or 4 and clasp that flimsy metal buckle around my waist.

I know it’s basically an irrational fear. I know this. Yes, yes, yes, statistically I’m more likely to end up in a car accident or to get struck by lightning or something but at least I know how to drive and I don’t walk out in the middle of a thunderstorm with a key at the end of a kite. I can control that. I can’t control anything from the Exit Row.

So I worry.

I worry about the guy in the seat next to me, fidgeting and turning and pulling the magazine in and out of the headrest (he’s probably just uncomfortable). I worry about the lady still talking on her phone after the attendants have told us to switch to Flight Mode, (not really necessary in this day and age, from what I can tell). I worry that the people sitting next to me don’t care for the safety demonstration (as if it ever changes!). I worry that I’ve miscounted how far it is to my nearest exit (because in an emergency there is a chance I will remember it and that could save my life, I guess).

I’m just not good at flying.

I haven’t finished Breath of the Wild. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to finish Breath of the Wild. The game is the closest thing I’ve found to an obsession since Shadow of the Colossus.

Since its release, I’ve had to get into a plane 6 times. The cartridge has been as constant a flight companion as The Safety Card In The Back Of Your Seat and the Meal Trolley with 2 kinds of juice, a variety of soft drinks and trusty, ol’ bottled water.

The first time I didn’t notice it.

I’m sure I felt it, the force of the plane gathering speed on the tarmac, suctioning my back to the seat. I’m sure I noticed the grass and the planes breezing by in those square-bread-plate windows, out of the corner of my eye. My noise-cancelling headphones don’t quite counteract the thundering sound of the engines, so I must have heard it. Somewhere in my consciousness, I may have even noticed the guy fidgeting on his phone as the wheels went up.

But I was in Hyrule and I was climbing a mountain.

The headphones helped… and mid-flight, I’ll be honest, they’re mana from heaven. I can slip them on and slip off into sleep on a long-haul and even on short flights they help me to nap. But at take off, my mind wanders back to all the unfortunate scenarios where the plane just doesn’t make it into the air, or makes it into the air before exploding into a ball of metal-and-limb fireworks. Actually, my mind wanders a lot during the flight. I’m often reminded of a dream I had when I got onto a long-haul flight after spending half a day waiting in an airport terminal. I fell asleep almost as soon as I hit the seat.

I began talking to my friends, seated next to me and then the plane dropped, fast and, unbuckled, we hit the roof. The plane tilted downward. It was like looking down an elevator shaft converted into a church – two long drops, with believers in pews at either side. We somehow settled back into the seats and then waited, as gravity pulled the plane towards the earth as if it were all the souls in the river Styx and it wanted to swallow the metal bird whole. Dreams being dreams, the plane careened into the earth, steadied, became horizontal and came to a complete stop. I looked to my two friends. They didn’t move. They just slouched forward at the waist, as if they were broken in half. Marionettes with their wires cut.

I woke up sweaty, my two friends snoring in my ears.

You don’t have to look far to find the ways in which video games can improve mental health. Sharpening your focus and distracting yourself with video games has been shown to help with anxiety. This is where Breath of the Wild has elevated itself above any other open-world game I’ve played. It has an ability to ensnare you in an all-consuming spiral of quests and mountaineering and archery and Oh-My-God-That’s-A-Lynel.

And that’s been a perfect tonic to combat my pre-flight jitters.

I wrote recently that I’m a bit of a Quest Hoarder – and it’s true. But I’ve found that as I inch closer to the endgame, I’ve been focusing all my attention on knocking off each side quest. As the plane takes off, I’m already neck-deep in Bokoblins and Moblins and Bears, oh my! and it’s helped. It’s made those 6 flights totally bearable. Even enjoyable. I’ve relished jumping on the plane because I know I’m about to get at least a couple of hours uninterrupted (but for the snack trolley and rubbish collection) adventuring time.

You might think that just any ol’ game would do the same though… Why haven’t I taken my 3DS or my Vita on flights before? And the answer is that I have and they haven’t come close to alleviating straying thoughts. I freaked out when I was playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with my travelling party before the plane took off – first about the flight mode on the Switch not being switched on and thus potentially causing catastrophic failure and then because even the deep-seeded competitive streak within me couldn’t keep me focused enough to not think about the plane falling into the ocean.

So there’s something to be said about Breath of the Wild and its incredibly expansive, immersive world. There’s something to be said about the Switch too – the ability to play a game of this calibre, on this level, on the go. There’s something to be said about the soothing rhythm of getting lost and getting un-lost in Hyrule. Breath of the Wild is the second game I’ve played that has allowed the outside world to bleed away and keep me focused. On a plane, before take-off, I didn’t realise how powerful that effect could be.

I never thought I would like flying. I’m not very good at it. I get anxious. I get in my own head. I’m like that Kermit the Frog meme, except both of them are shitting themselves and the inner Kermit is probably crying and breathing really unevenly and his eyes are darting left to right and he’s really sweaty. A sweaty puppet is a gross puppet.

But Breath of the Wild changed that. I don’t mind flying all that much any more.

It’s just a shame I could never play Shadow of the Colossus on a plane.

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