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The Birth of Dark Worlds

a_link_to_the_past_3 A few hours into The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Nintendo’s seminal SNES masterpiece, something surprising happens. After defeating Agahnim, the evil wizard responsible for Hyrule’s dismal state of affairs, Link enters the castle only to find himself transported to a world that seems similar but completely different: The Dark World. This dark version of Hyrule closely resembles its light world counterpart, but there are some noticeable differences. Characters are missing, the color palette is morose and monsters have overrun the world, including the normally peaceful villages.

Since its appearance in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this dark world device has since been employed by a number of different games, including The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the HD remaster of which is set to hit stores next week. The idea is also well represented in other forms of pop culture, including literature, television and film. Historically, the concept has a firm basis in both mythology and science, as well as in the space where the two disciplines intersect: science fiction. For this latest edition of Birth Of, let’s trace the lineage of this reality-hopping phenomenon.

The Mythology of Dark Worlds

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The idea of a dark world has its basis in one of the earliest narrative and mythological concepts: the underworld. Almost every religion and mythology has its own version of the hyperreal realm, from Christianity’s Limbo to the Elysian paradise of Greek myth. These areas tend to represent the realities or spaces people, or their souls, inhabit in the afterlife. Often, these worlds are inseparably divided. That said, Manichaeism — a lost religion from ancient Persia — asserts that humanity exists in the material world of darkness, the counterpart to the spiritual world of light. Throughout human history, light has been slowly ciphered from the material world, back to the world of light where it originated.

One of the first appearances of the dark world concept in literature is found HG Wells’ 1923 novel Men Like Gods. In the book, a journalist is flung into an alternate reality following a car accident. This alternate reality, which the protagonist refers to as “another world”, resembles Earth in most ways, with the same geography and general makeup, but the technology is decidedly more advanced. HG Wells cynically posits that our world is in fact the dark world and that only through determination and perseverance can we move towards the light.

The concept of an alternate reality isn’t all myth and science fiction. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that all possible alternate histories and futures are not only possibly, they are entirely real. Every small decision, every permutation of even the most remote possibility, exists somewhere, in some reality. It’s enough to make your head swirl, really — it flies in the face of the linear understanding of history supposed by philosophers for centuries. If you’re really looking to freak yourself out, you should check out the theory’s Wikipedia page to dive into the nitty-gritty of its physics.

Interactive Dark Worlds

dark world metroid prime 2

In video games, dark worlds have traditionally served a multitude of functions, from the practical to the mechanical to the thematic.

A Link to the Past, as well as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess take advantage of their disparate worlds by crafting puzzles around travelling — and carrying items — between them. By establishing a logic to the way these worlds are connected, designers can get very creative. This approach works especially well for environmental puzzles in adventure games by arming designers with an additional set of triggers and switches.

The device can also be used to establish a game’s underlying themes. Dark worlds can, and often do, drive home a dualism central to a game’s narrative. Like Zelda, many games that center around a dark world, including games in the Shin Megami Tensai and Castlevania series, focus heavily on the timeless conflict between good and evil. They use dark worlds to illustrate the dire consequences of the latter. Other games, like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Bioshock: Infinite, take the science fiction route, suggesting the aforementioned quantum basis to the simultaneous existence of parallel worlds — and demonstrating the ensuing chaos when they are accidentally linked together.

Dark Worlds in Popular Culture

Black Lodge

Dark worlds are also prevalent throughout popular culture, popping up across many media. In television, Twin Peaks memorably features the White and Black Lodges, mirror locations that housed the good and evil spirits of the show’s primary characters. The trope has even been used in comedies: Dan Harmon’s Community features the Darkest Timeline, which shows what would have happened in an alternate reality created by a game of chance. In this interpretation, the study group becomes evil.

Of course, there are examples of the trope throughout literature, notably in fantasy-leaning fiction. Genre harbinger JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings featured the world of the Nazgûl, a shadowy dark world entered by putting on the One Ring. The ring world is depicted as a terrifying rendition of the real world, populated with looming shadow figures. In the movies, these segments are haunting. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is centered entirely on the existence of a parallel reality, called The Other World, which at first attempts to deceive Coraline by posing as an idealized version of the real world — a deception that unravels as the story progresses.

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As for film, A Nightmare on Elm Street represents an early example of the device, its dreamscape idea a variation on the dark world theme: these areas tend to be twisted renditions of settings from the characters’ waking lives. The similarly terrifying Jacob’s Ladder revolves around a character who periodically finds himself trapped in a nightmare version of his reality, a familiar environment brimming with demons and spectres. On a slightly more lighthearted note, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away takes place in an abandoned theme park that transitions into a bathhouse for the spirit world at sundown.

Dark worlds, whether in pop culture or video games, are compelling because they demonstrate just how precarious our day to day realities actually are, that swapping out just a few pivotal aspects can make an otherwise familiar existence feel dreadfully alien. By showing us how fragile life can be, we can find a new appreciation for normalcy. I have a feeling that we will always search for dark worlds, in books, games, and elsewhere, to illuminate the simpler beauties in our day-to-day lives.


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