Zelda: A Breath of Fresh Air

I haven’t had a lot of free time since the start of the new year, but I have been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in some of that free time. I started the game last year after I wound down on Super Mario Odyssey. I have put a lot of hours into it, though I only played a couple hours between the end of Christmas week and this week. Yesterday, I played a lot again. I’d been stuck on one of the Divine Beasts, and the break let me rethink the layout of the dungeon, and suddenly it seemed really easy, and I got the boss fight down pretty quick, and then it was back to wandering and exploring the world, and I felt the urge to complete my map, and to unlock a particular item, and the hours piled up pretty quickly.

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This game is so much fun for me. But I’ve never really liked Zelda games that much? I have started very many Zelda games–the original, and Zelda II, and A Link to the Past, and Twilight Princess, and Wind Waker…I keep trying because my wife’s a Zelda fan, and so we’ve accumulated the games, and since they’re around I’ll attempt them, but they never really capture me. The games often start off with an exciting promise of adventure, but they quickly feel repetitious and incredibly gamey: go to dungeon, solve puzzle, earn item to defeat boss, return to overworld to go to next dungeon, and repeat. The quirky characters, mythic archetypes, and exotic environments aren’t enough to compensate for too-transparent mechanics. I recognize that this is a minority opinion among gamers. I have been assured that I missed out on the Great Zelda Games by not playing Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask along with my age cohort, and maybe so. But I can’t approach those games with nostalgia now, roughly two decades later, and I have to imagine that if the formula felt stale with later games, I’m not going to fall in love with more of the same plus outdated graphics. (Counterpoint: the Zelda game I’d previously played the most of was Wind Waker, which had loads of personality, and its cartoony graphics were of benefit to the game.)

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I doubt that I will ever play a Zelda game to one hundred percent completion. But I actually feel pretty confident that I will at least finish the main quest of Breath of the Wild. This is largely due to the fact that the game provides a wonderful feedback loop that rewards my doing just about anything, and that “anything” often intersects with the main story without a sense of repetitious obligation. So much of the fun of the game has been exploring the sprawling open world, and exploring actually contributes to the larger game. I find towers, which unlock sections of the map. I find shrines, which reward spirit orbs so that I can upgrade stamina and health. I find cool gear scattered about. I wander into side quests and even main quests.

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In fact, I sort of stumbled into the main quest. As soon as you leave the opening plateau of the game, where Link has been resurrected after a colossal defeat a hundred years prior, you are encouraged to go to Kakariko village and ultimately to seek out Impa, Zelda’s old aide. When you first reach Impa, she tells you that you should not agree to help until you are sure that you are willing to risk your life. I decided that no, I was not willing to commit to that yet, so I used the time to wander the world. My wandering led me to the Zora domain, where the over-eager Prince Sidon strong-armed me into assisting him in clearing the danger to his realm. By the end of that quest, Link was stronger and more experienced and had recovered memories of Princess Mipha, his Zora childhood friend who had loved him dearly. My random wandering had skipped ahead a bit in the main quest, but it felt perfectly natural, like it should have been experienced in that order (my only regret is that now the particular incarnation of Ganon fought there will never be captured in my monster appendix, since I hadn’t unlocked the in-game camera yet). Link returned to Impa with new resolve, willing to fight to honor the memory and spirit of Mipha. Learning more about Zelda and the other Champions has provided more motivation.

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The ability to stumble into story is powerful. It’s an interesting type of emergent or dynamic storytelling: the core segments of the main narrative are still scripted and linear, but they can be remixed and recombined based on how the player interacts with them. And that’s on top of the player-driven storytelling that spins out of simply exploring the environment, coming across monster camps or helping people in distress or climbing a tall cliff or hunting for dinner or playing with the mixture of elements to see what happens when you apply blade to tree or fire to grass and snow. Those player-driven story elements in such a big world with so much to do (and so many ways to do it) let me simply wander off to something else if I’m bored or frustrated with the main quest line. Even fast travel is beautifully implemented as part of the game’s narrative, and fast traveling feels like a continuation rather than a disruption from immersion.

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The game also does a great job of presenting a set of tools very early on and letting players use them how they see fit. Fire burns wood and grass and melts ice; water extinguishes fire; magnetic powers can pull on most metals; freezing powers can make columns out of most water; electricity is conducted by metals, whether an obvious metal box or the sword in your inventory. Being able to rely on the game systems consistently allows for a lot of experimentation and sometimes unexpected outcomes. It’s fun and rewarding.

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Obviously, a lot of what I like about this Zelda game is reflected in the other open-world playground games I’ve loved, particularly games like The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto and Fable. The malleability of the environment here is a huge plus. But I also like the main story enough to stay engaged. It’s very anime: certain archetypes (or stereotypes) are present, and there’s plenty of melodrama, and the dialogue is often cornball. But it does an excellent job of characterizing Link’s companions and giving you a reason to care, even while Link remains the (mostly) blank-slate silent protagonist. Truthfully, I don’t believe that I have ever shipped so many relationships in a video game before, let alone a Zelda game. But already I’m pretty strongly Link/Mipha and Urbosa/Zelda (I’m only through two Divine Beasts, so I don’t know the other Champions well enough yet). I wouldn’t have guessed that going in. But of course, there are plenty of quirky, weird, and moronic characters providing a lot of background flavor and humor behind all the big melodrama…

 

Anyway, the game came out almost a year ago, and I’m only (maybe) halfway through, so this isn’t really a review (certainly not a timely one), and it’s not a complete reflection on my experiences. But I just get really excited about this game, and I felt the need to share some of that excitement here.

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