June 13, 2021
Starting a new game is never not a humbling experience. To purposefully enter a completely new world knowing you have no real knowledge of where to go, what to do or how to perform basic movements is daunting. You really have to learn quickly or risk getting stuck.
Most games try to make this process easy for the player by taking them very explicitly by the hand. They’ll tell you: go there, do this, press that. In 2017’s Nintendo Switch game Breath of the Wild however, this helping hand seems to be missing.
You are alone in your predicament with nature itself as your only companion. There is life, but it doesn’t care about you. Unless you poke it. Then it bites back. So go ahead, figure things out.
Experienced gamers will immediately spot places of interest and move towards them. Instinctively knowing that eventually you will encounter something. Hundreds of programmers and designers have already decided upon this. Yet when I took my first steps into the game’s kingdom of Hyrule (having played a good amount of games in my lifetime), I kept feeling unsure. I kept feeling I was on familiar grounds; but my connection to the world was tenuous at best, and sometimes just broken.
It turns out the feeling was mutual. As you awake from your slumber, it turns out you have been asleep for over a hundred years and the world as you knew it has changed. You lost the big battle with evil and now the kingdom has been broken and corrupted for more than a century. Can you muster up the strength to try again?
After an hour or two the game picks up steam and you are free to explore the world in its entirety. And even though evil lurks in many corners, you soon discover that the world is not a desolate place. In the midst of ruins and abandonment, which tell of pain and destruction, there is still the joy of bumping into a person going about their day. And finding these little pockets of life scattered across the map is never not a wonderful jolt of satisfaction.
From the stables to the villages; you soon learn it’s not all death and doom. Hyrule is still full of life, and if you try hard enough, you might even forget there is still an evil to be slain. Much of this can be attributed to the way the video game is structured.
It’s an open world game, which means that as a player you are free to go where you want, and do what you want. There is a main quest, but there are also countless sidequests. In reality this means at one moment you’ll be looking for chickens or lumber, while the next minute you’re on your way to calm down an ancient spirit.
For the Legend of Zelda series this is not new. The games have always been just as much about the world around you, as your quest to save the princess. Breath of the Wild does take this paradigm a step further by almost completely letting go of any guidance about what to do next. In fact, it often feels like it deliberately pushes you to look further than your fate.
Where earlier Zelda games created a feeling of epic and urgency with cut-scenes at just the right moment, Breath of the Wild almost doesn’t bother. The main advantage is that you feel less pressure to rush through the world and get to the ending. But this would be nullified if the game’s world couldn’t keep you curious at any given moment.
Breath of the Wild cleverly uses distraction to its advantage by constantly tricking you into a new seemingly doable quest. Sometimes rather obvious through Hyrules inhabitants and their silly requests, but often more subtly through its ever present curiosity inducing horizon.
No matter where you are, the game always offers you a glimpse of a destination far away. Not so far away you’d think it’s simply an asset that figures as a backdrop, but far away like a distance you’d be confident to travel when you start a hike, but makes you glad it’s done once reached. This curiosity inducing horizon is combined with smart sound design.
Ambient sounds, like the ruffling of leaves, lure you to an area you normally might have skipped. A change of music, or even an entry of music, signals an incoming situation. You can choose to avoid it, essentially running away from the music, or see what the fuss is all about. It might be nothing, but often it takes you from the beaten path and drags you into a new mini adventure. Curiosity keeps rewarding you. This by design makes Breath of the Wild a game that’s best experienced in chunks, rather than in one long sitting.
Heather Alexandra argues in a Kotaku piece that the long trips you often need to take early in the game also serve a different purpose: “the large time committed to traversal […] establishes a clear tone by allowing the player to reflect on what they saw. It is somber and pensive”.
This ties in well with how Breath of the Wild handles music. Because in many ways the games’ soundtrack tells the story more vividly than the dialog. When travelling to destinations, the music often leaves you to yourself, coming and going as it pleases. The sparse notes that are played, as if carried by the wind, never completely find a place to rest. Ensuring there is no rhythm or groove to settle into. No melody to hum while galloping through the world.
It’s a bit of a break from the epic, almost euphoric, melodies we’ve come to love in earlier Zelda games. In fact, those melodies were some of the defining features of what we collectively considered a Zelda game. So initially I too missed the music. So much, that for a time I was a bit confused and disappointed. Here I was full of energy riding a horse, but then there was the game being all solemn.
Only after spending more time with the game did I appreciate this new turn. In fact, I began to love it. How must Link, our silent protagonist, have felt reconnecting with his homeland. Seeing all the places he used to know damaged, but not gone. Finding memories of old which tell of pain and regret. Meeting villagers reminding him of his old friends, but also giving him hope for the future.
The epic adventure to save the kingdom with his friends a hundred years ago has failed. The dream is broken, so the grand melody is broken too. And now there are only remnants left of what was once whole and beautiful.
In a video essay by Game Score Fanfare the idea of the broken melody is further elaborated upon. It strengthened my ideas about how well thought-out the game’s music is.
For example, the fluidness and brokenness of the music in the wild is in stark contrast with the music played in villages. In the safety of a community the music is finally allowed to spread its wings. And it does so majestically. Listen to the music that is played when you enter Rito Village.
The strings come in and elevate you into a comfortable theme that feels both pleasant and comforting. As if it’s telling Link he is safe and can rely on the power of the Rito again. Such musical gestures really drive the point home in the game that your return is not just a story of you making up for your failure. Hyrule is still in much pain, but there is also a new optimistic generation that is ready to throw all their power behind you once more.
And while painful memories, scattered across the kingdom, never fail to remind you of the danger that lies ahead, the soothing trust you gain from the people you meet will make you finally gain the confidence to take up the fight again.
It makes Breath of the Wild a bittersweet return to Hyrule. It also makes it Nintendo’s most contemplative game to date. A game that invites the player to grapple with consequences, regret and failure. A game that embodies exploration generously, that is pensive, subdued and grand. A game that may have awoken itself from a long slumber and found through reflection a courageous, new and yet familiar way forward again.