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I walked into the living room the other night to find my wife with a Wavebird in her hand, running Link along Outset Island’s sandy shoreline. “Wind Waker ” I said, surprised.

“I’m feeling nostalgic,” she replied, as Link headed inland to collect rupees from cut grass. I sat down beside her on the couch, also feeling nostalgic.

I played through Wind Waker in 2004. It was the first game I finished on my GameCube, which was the first console I’d owned since the Intellivision. Wind Waker was also my first Legend of Zelda game, and the first game I ever played with my daughter. My wife adored it, and soon after I finished it, she also played it to completion.

I know now that for many Zelda fans, Wind Waker didn’t measure up to Ocarina of Time. I’m also well aware of the controversy over its cel-shaded graphics. As a relative newcomer to console gaming, I didn’t have these hangups. I didn’t even mind the lengthy hunt for Triforce shards that drew out the latter third of the game. I was completely enraptured by Wind Waker. It was a watershed event in my gaming experience.

As I watched my wife work her way through Wind Waker‘s introductory scenes last week, I couldn’t help but note how beautiful it still was. With the exception of some subtle aliasing, it hardly looked dated. The cartoonish aesthetic is as charming and unique now as it was then, and the animation easily rivals that of any game I’ve played in the past year.

Is it presumptuous to deem a game “timeless” only six years from its initial release? Probably. But Wind Waker still strikes me as a game whose beauty and depth will be readily apparent decades from now. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Ocarina of Time.

Ocarina of Time is arguably more epic, sophisticated, and polished than Wind Waker. But Ocarina isn’t as visually stunning in today’s graphical climate. Its mushy textures and sharp-edged polygons are hard on the eyes. And for that reason alone, Ocarina‘s better qualities are more difficult to recognize. You have to get past the dated visuals before you can appreciate its genius, and that’s a hurdle I fear gamers will have an increasingly difficult time clearing as the years pass.

Twenty years from now, which games will we still consider beautiful? Which will still grab our attention? Wind Waker might, because it didn’t try to accomplish more than it could with available hardware. Instead of aiming for realism, its creators focused on crafting a unique style, and then applying that style with care and consistency. Wind Waker made full use of the GameCube’s abilities, but its technical proficiency isn’t nearly as relevant now as its artistic accomplishments.

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The rapid advance of gaming tech has ensured that both developers and gamers have been overly focused on replicating reality. Every so often you’ll hear someone proclaim that the current technology is “good enough,” usually right before a new game arrives to reset the standard and provide a new basis for complaints. Doom 3 raised graphical expectations long before its release. So did Crysis, for good reason. Quantic Dream’s photorealistic Heavy Rain is the current frontrunner for the “Best Upcoming Game That Makes All Other Realistic Games Look Bad” award.

How often do we see games that permanently raise the bar in terms of artistic expectations, though? That truly redefine what we hope for from the medium? Not very often, unfortunately. And I’d venture to say that this is due, in part, to a disproportionate focus on visual fidelity.

This may be changing. One need look no further than games like Okami, Team Fortress II, Prince of Persia, or even World of Warcraft to see evidence of style that outshines realism. Not to mention smaller-scale games like Flow and PixelJunk Eden.

It may well be that we’ve arrived at a point where gaming technology is – dare I say it? – “good enough,” and developers no longer feel that their titles must be visually realistic to get gamers’ attention. In addition, I think the medium’s matured to the point that it attracts more visionary talent. There’s a wellspring of creativity out there just dying to be tapped in games.

I’m as impressed and intrigued as anyone by the Heavy Rain content I’ve seen so far, but I hope the scale continues to tip in favor of creative abstraction over realism. I hope games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend won’t always be considered major creative risks because they don’t look like the latest Tom Clancy game. And not just because what looks realistic today will undoubtedly seem dated in a few years. Why do we play games, if not to escape from reality? I want to explore the unfamiliar. I want old scenes rendered in striking new ways. I want more games that, like Wind Waker, are willing to show me something new and different.

Adam LaMosca is a writer, researcher, and gamer in Portland, Oregon.

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