General spoilers for The Legend of Zelda (franchise). Part 3 is in the works.
As the Great COVID-19 Quarantine lumbers slowly on, and we all find ourselves bored to tears by the inside of our own homes, it now seems appropriate and tasteful to discuss a game about unbridled freedom in the untamed outdoors.
As I wrote last time, The Legend of Zelda does not so much build worlds as build a mythos, and each game is a version of, and point in time in, that mythos. Breath of the Wild (BotW) functions not only as a kind of peak in the mythos of the game series, but also in the game series itself: it calls back not only to the places and characters of former games, but also the format of those games on the NES and SNES, which were much less linear and more open to idle exploration than, for example, Ocarina of Time (OoT) or even, arguably, The Wind Waker (TWW). The scope of TWW might have been greater than OoT on one level, but milestones in the story and the order in which items and abilities were acquired ensured that parts of the map only opened up at appropriate moments.
BotW starts with a tutorial section on the Great Plateau. This is where two forms of world-building and story-telling start.
The first kind is clever: all the pieces are arranged in such a way to evoke and suggest parts of the story. The striking presentation of the graphics – of the sweeping vistas filled with strange monsters and giant robo-birds – draws the player into the story immediately. Or, rather, those elements are presented in such a way that the player begins assembling a version of the story himself: What is that thing on the horizon? Should I be afraid? Maybe it has something to do with these weird shrines… And so on.
The second kind is… well, it is not stupid per se, but it certainly grates. It is told in expository segments, chunks of text, and flashbacks. These are devices which are commonly used in games (and often by necessity), but are not always well integrated here. The tales told by Kass work, to an extent, but the amnesiac’s retread of his own life is, at best, an inelegant device. The voice-acting also leaves much to be desired, but that seems to be the law at Nintendo HQ. The clumsy attempt to realize Zelda as a strong character in her own right only underscored the fact that certain facets of the plot had either been poorly conceived or poorly executed, and possibly both.
Then there are places where the two kinds of world-building/plot development overlap, and these are either some of the most crass or the most rewarding, depending upon one’s view.
First, however, let us examine the power of story-telling by suggestion. As I have indicated in previous posts, this can be both a good and a bad thing. In many places in BotW, it is a good thing: the world is arranged to tantalize and to get us thinking about our environment. If Link stumbles across a ruin in his adventure, he might pause to have a look. If the structure is square, made of stone, and tall rather than broad, he might conclude that it is a fortification, a conclusion supported by the rusting weapons he finds inside. But for what purpose? Is it just a guard tower? Or is the fact that we can just about see into Gerudo lands if we perch on the top a hint to its true purpose? This is all fun stuff, even if it is just speculation.
As has been established (by me, an incontrovertible authority), The Legend of Zelda does not rely upon a persistent world so much as a persistent mythos. Players of multiple games learn to spot those references which tie the games together as a story (although they are only really tying the games together as a franchise). In BotW that is done in two ways. Firstly, through the apparatus of the game world itself. An example would be the Ranch Ruins, which are laid out in a way which will be very familiar to anyone who has played OoT: the Ruins are a clear reference to Lon Lon Ranch. This resulted in many fans praising the continuity between the games… despite the fact that in OoT, Lon Lon Ranch lies to the south-west of Hyrule Castle, and in BotW it lies to the south-east. Remember, chaps and chapesses: it is not possible to make all the Zelda games exist in the same universe.
The other way in which these references are introduced is through naming: many geographical features of BotW are named after other things in the Zelda canon, many of which are fairly niche or simply too old to be familiar to most people who have not played the early games. This is a more overt form of fan-service than the reference to Lon Lon Ranch, but it still tries to cling to a veneer of world-building.
It is not all bad, though: the design of the game’s world as a virtual construct (instead of a narrative one) is very clever. When, many years ago, I first strolled out into OoT‘s Hyrule Field, I was amazed by the size of it, shortly before I was amazed, in a different way, by the terrifying, murderous plant that began to fly after me in an attempt to turn me into Kokiri sashimi.
When I revisited OoT in the Gamecube era, no longer a stranger to three-dimensional games, I was surprised by how small and empty Hyrule Field felt, peahat ambush notwithstanding.
BotW, with fewer technical limitations and a wealth of experience, manages to create a world that recreates that feeling of stepping into Hyrule Field for the first time. It is vast, but not so vast that it feels like too much; nor do recurring details feel like drab padding (the sins of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim). TWW struggled to maintain a sense of fun exploration on the Great Sea due to the twin problems of lengthy journeys and too much of the wobbly blue stuff, but BotW ensures that there is always something interesting to do or see just around the next bend in the road.
Not all these suggestions hold up, and sometimes the programmers are forced to use rather cruder devices to keep the game chugging along. The blunt instrument of the game’s impassable gorges breaks the sense of immersion almost as quickly as use breaks Link’s weapons. (This timely observation about a universally panned mechanic was brought to you by Q1 2017.)
Even “dynamic events” disappoint after cursory examination: the sense of awe conjured by encountering the dragons vanishes when it becomes apparent that they exist to be farmed for rare drops, because apparently all the best stories are told through MMORPG mechanics.
Yet I am convinced that the reason that BotW has been so popular is not necessarily to do with the way it both indulges and freshens the LoZ formula.
Paths Less Travelled
For many people, the great outdoors is something that is either kept at arm’s length or is actually difficult to reach. More and more people spend their lives in suffocating, concrete metropoles. It is not that people lack an appreciation for nature, it is that the logistics of escaping from the city are more complex than they appear. For those living somewhere like London, even on the edges, there is a labyrinth of residential areas, industrial estates, and arterial transport networks, which conspires to make trips into unspoiled countryside laborious at best, and even impossible (for those who do not drive) to do so with our ever-shrinking resources of time and energy. The reality of unspoiled countryside, is that it is also often dirty and smelly, or strikes us as more dirty and smelly because of our familiarity with the pollutants of urban life.
With such psychological and logistical barriers keeping us from nature, or an idealized version of it, it is small wonder that so many people choose to escape to the outdoors through their screens. Not only that, but BotW is a tamed version of the “wilds”: this is a natural world without natural disaster, in which the Calamity can be thwarted by a hero’s perseverance and some tasty soup, rather than a tortuous, politicized process which still threatens to doom us all. The accidental genius of BotW is not in the narrative of the game itself, nor in the construction of the game’s universe, but in the story we build for ourselves as we play; of the world we would prefer to inhabit.