How Tears of the Kingdom Helped Me Learn to Manage My ADHD

When the clock struck at 9 pm on May 11, 2023, I started rapidly tapping the “launch” button to boot up Tears of the Kingdom. I’ve been playing Zelda games since I was 9 years old, and any launch of a new title from the franchise warrants a couple of days off work and several all-nighters. This launch would be no different, at least in that respect. 

But this would be the first time I would be settling in for a new game since I’d been diagnosed with ADHD. I was just 10 days removed from my diagnosis, adjusting to a new medication routine, and really trying to learn what a “routine” even was. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, Tears of the Kingdom was exactly what I needed as I began to navigate my diagnosis.

ADHD was never on my radar, literally ever. As a kid, I was a model student. Mostly As and Bs, but always well behaved, polite, mostly shy if anything. All of my report cards came home with some iteration of the same comments: “Polite, respectful, performs well on class assignments and projects. But constantly forgets to turn in her homework, prepare for upcoming tests, etc. Needs more at-home reminders.”

Students Stock
The verdict: Good kid, forgets everything.

My parents chalked it up to a typical little girl caught up in socializing at school and forgetting to get her work done. It was a quirk that, through great effort, I was able to overcome, but as I got older and started high school and later college, it merely presented itself in a different way. Forgetting which day it was as I drove to class (and consequently which class I was actually going to), procrastinating on my assignments because I couldn’t summon the energy to get them done, and struggling to articulate my thoughts during class discussions. I felt stunted. My doctor told me it was a likely side effect of depression, which I’d been diagnosed with at 14. It was always just a pat on the shoulder and a reminder to “Take your meds, and force yourself to do the thing.” But anyone who has struggled with ADHD, or really any attention disorder, knows that you might as well be asking them to summit Everest in flip-flops with a refrigerator strapped to their back. 

Getting an ADHD diagnosis at 35 feels equivalent to having spent your entire life being told you’re a hawk and then finding out you’re actually a penguin. All of the habits and behaviors of neurotypical people are exactly that: typical. I spent so much time berating myself for struggling to concentrate on an assignment at work, or conversely, becoming so hyper-fixated on one thing for weeks or months at a time… like a video game. Suddenly, I had to unlearn 35 years of neurotypical habits that never worked for me and cross my fingers that I was adept enough to learn something new, as a millennial dinosaur. 

And then Tears of the Kingdom came out. 

Link, protagonist of Tears of the Kingdom, sits atop his horse, Epona, in an open field with Hyrule castle floating ominously in the background.
Link riding Epona around Hyrule

Hyper-fixation is a common behavior of people with ADHD. I’ll find myself eating the same food for weeks on end, overspending on a sudden new hobby, or playing the same game for months on end, simply for the familiarity and comfort factor. I know myself, and when the game dropped I knew I ran the risk of letting it consume my waking hours, so I immediately set to work on establishing a new routine: 

  1. Wake up, wash your face, brush your teeth
  2. Go to work
  3. Play on a break between meetings (no more than 10 minutes)
  4. Lunch
  5. 30 minutes to play AFTER you eat lunch
  6. Work until 4
  7. Go home
  8. Eat dinner
  9. Shower
  10. Play until midnight. HARD stop at midnight.

It took a lot of discipline, especially since I basically engorged myself on the game for the first 4 days following its release. But lists have become my new saving grace. I live and die by my list. The act of being able to “check off” an object as being finished is at once a relief and a great satisfaction, especially when you’re so used to failing at the simplest of tasks. It was a complicated set of emotions; frustration that I wasn’t completely absorbed in the game at every waking moment, but also liberation knowing that I was paving the way towards my own freedom. Much like Link, I picked away at my quests, inching closer to my goal. I just wasn’t totally sure what that goal was.  

Inventory screen as seen in Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. On the left is a series of consumable items, with the Ice-Breath Lizalfos Horn highlighted. On the right is Link with all his life stats on display.
To say I was often hyper-focused on inventory management would be an understatement. 

With the awakening of every sage, the defeat of every boss, and the restoration of each biome within Hyrule, I inched closer and closer to an understanding and acceptance of my own identity. And there was something to be learned from each quest, each hero I assisted as they worked to restore the natural order of their land and their people. This is a theme that is heavily apparent in nearly every Zelda game, and Tears of the Kingdom is no different. Rito Village is caught in an endless blizzard, the water supply of Zora’s Domain is polluted by a thick iridescent gunk, the Gorons of Death Mountain are addicted to a mysterious rock roast that causes them to forego the responsibilities of protecting their home, and Gerudo Valley is plagued by violent sandstorms. Though the problems are unique to each land within Hyrule, these lands are connected under the same kingdom and thus, the plague of one is a plague to the other. No harmony, no unified front against the Demon King can exist without balance and order restored. I could not hope to restore the balance in my own mind without first finding balance in the order of things in my own life. 

There was also the matter of making sure I stuck to any task that I started. Especially with open-world games, I have a nasty habit of starting a quest or mission, getting distracted by a bright shiny object along the way, and ending up simultaneously trying to complete several different tasks at once. I really need to decode this Zonai text but look at that camp of Bokoblins over there, they must have SO much great loot, oh I bet there’s a Bubbul Gem in that cave. I started forcing myself to finish whatever task I was actively working on, but pausing to mark interesting locations on my map that I could focus on next, and doing those in the order in which I found them. This actually worked wonders in alleviating some of my anxiety and eliminating that feeling of being overwhelmed by the vastness of the game. If I broke everything down into bite-sized, digestible chunks, I could pick away at it instead of blindly running into a wall for hours on end (or a Lynel for that matter). 

I’m not going to try and claim that Tears of the Kingdom in any way solved all of my problems, and suddenly I’m the perfect master at managing my ADHD. I still have a long way to go, both in terms of breaking old habits and forming new ones, as well as unpacking decades of emotional baggage that I’ve been carrying for so long. But something about standing on top of the Dueling Peaks and staring out over the vast expanses of Hyrule as the sun starts to set, and looking down at all the check marks on my list makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, my happy ending is almost within reach.

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