Written and uploaded by Drew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Feature image courtesy of Zelda.com
“My god, this game is horrible,” my friend Andrew Huber says, returning to Earth after spending twelve straight hours immersed in Breath of the Wild’s gorgeous rendition of Hyrule. He means “horrible” in the sense that once you start playing this newest installment in Nintendo’s long running Zelda franchise, it’s nearly impossible to stop. The game is, of course, excellent. If you didn’t know that, congratulations! I’m not entirely sure how you managed to avoid all of the critical praise and accolades that the game has been receiving over the past few weeks.
I’m not trying to convince you the game is good; we already know that. My questions revolve around whys. Why does everyone love this game so much? Why do I play for three hours when I turned on the game and meant to play for thirty minutes? Why do I want to keep playing even now I’ve beaten it and there are new games on the horizon?
The short answer is Breath of the Wild is the best designed game I’ve ever played that also happened to make me feel like I earned the title “Hero of Hyrule.” And if you want the long answer, keep reading ‘cause I’ve got a bunch of thoughts.
So what makes the design of Breath of the Wild so utterly captivating? I think I can boil it down to two words- organic empowerment. Everything about Breath of the Wild feels incredibly natural, despite how little of it gets explained or even demonstrated to you. It’s a game that thrives on the principle of “play, don’t show.” The game trusts you enough as a player to let you figure things out for yourself, which is refreshing in this industry of hour long tutorials and flashy set-pieces that exist for no reason other than to demonstrate how cool your character’s powers should be but aren’t, because you suck at the game. Breath of the Wild wastes no time explaining things you’re going to figure out as you go. Even the shrines which introduce your primary puzzle solving powers do so by basically saying, “hey, you’re now Magneto, master of magnet. How does this help you? Play around and see.” In other words, MacGyver a solution from the objects provided.
The shrines represent a significant evolution in Nintendo’s design philosophy, as they enable Breath of the Wild to be the first truly non-linear Zelda game. The world is covered with 120 of these little puzzle rooms, and you’re able to solve every one of them from the moment you complete the tutorial, provided you are skilled enough to devise a solution. Even the dungeons reflect this non-linearity, as the order in which you tackle the four is entirely at your own discretion.
Notice how I always say “a” solution as opposed to “the” solution? That is both deliberate and reflective of the strength of the game’s design. As you tackle more and more difficult shrines, you’ll frequently find yourself using your powers in ways you’re not entirely sure the game designers intend. It’s antithetical to the linear school of puzzle design, where you could be carrying around an axe, a shotgun, and a crowbar but you can’t get past a door until you find the arbitrary “key” that the designers programmed to open it. By contrast, Breath of the Wild always plays by more intuitive rules. If you think something ought to work based on your experiences with the game, it will. The designers never change the rules on the player- they constantly up the complexity by involving more and more of those rules in concert, but the underlying logic of Breath of the Wild remains consistent throughout.
In addition to this logic, the scope of Breath of the Wild is, quite simply, breathtaking. Immediately after you wake up, you walk out into Hyrule for the first time and see this grand, expansive land before you, begging to be explored. And that’s what you’ll do. There’s nothing cosmetic about Breath of the Wild’s environments- if you can see it, you can scale it, and the game will reward you for it. The koroks help marry this organic design to the expansive scope, because as you travel through Hyrule you’ll constantly see things that strike you as just slightly wrong. Like a strange flower, or a lone stone high on a hill. Investigate these oddities and you’ll stumble across one of the 900 koroks that hide around the world, rewarding the exploration the game incentivizes.
These small rewards solve one of the major problems with open world games like this, which is that vast open worlds often feel devoid of content. Through the combination of the koroks, random items, and the shrines, Breath of the Wild constantly finds small ways to reward you for playing in the sandbox. Even when you’re not progressing towards an objective, you never feel like you’re wasting time because there’s always something over the next hill. It’s why it’s so easy to get lost down the ramble hole, repeatedly promising yourself “one more shrine.” There’s always something over the next hill, never on this hill, which means it’s a world that feels big while also feeling small enough to not overwhelm you.
While the story of Breath of the Wild might be playing an old song with a new instrument, the storytelling on display is some of the best in the franchise. Despite being presented as the newest variation on Link vs. the Powers of Darkness, Breath of the Wild feels like your adventure. You choose where to go, what story threads to follow, who you’re going to talk to in an given town, and the game honors your decisions. The design actively encourages you to complete sidequests before you officially receive them, with the quest-giving NPCs serving as guides more often than gatekeepers. Even when you do take a sidequest from one of the denizens of Hyrule, the game forces you to explore the world. When you select your active quest in most open world games, you get a little waypoint telling you exactly where your objective is. Breath of the Wild usually refers you to the NPC who gave you the task, requiring that you infer where to go from dialogue instead of relying on handholding. Nobody walks you through Breath of the Wild’s sidequests- you have to earn your rewards on your own.
While this occasionally frustrates me because the hints can be very obtuse, I recognize that this is another example of Breath of the Wild valuing player choice and intuition above all else. The game wants to empower you, wants to make you feel smart for connecting the clues, wants to give you an experience you can call your own. Holding your hand through waypoints and quest markers actively detracts from your experience because it reduces you, the player, from hero to henchmen.
Following in the footsteps of my favorite Zelda game, Majora’s Mask, Breath of the Wild immerses the player in Hyrule by having Link’s relationship to the world mirror your own. At the beginning of Breath of the Wild, the important NPCs constantly insist you’re the champion of Hyrule, but I guarantee you won’t feel like it. You’ll feel weak, like a shadow of what Link is supposed to be. Walk into the wrong area, and you’ll get your “Champion of Hyrule” teeth kicked in by enemies that are far stronger than you are. The enemies you can fight you’ll fight desperately, constantly switching weapons as your old ones break, earning every victory.
And you’re going to be earning those victories. NPCs who don’t know Link and therefore have no reason to believe in him don’t. They’re openly dismissive of your identity, reflecting how you as a player haven’t proven yourself to them. Beat their temple and solve their problems, and then you earn their respect. But more importantly, you’ll earn your own respect. Once you learn a region and it’s enemies enough to fight them confidently, you’ll start to feel like maybe the important NPCs are onto something by believing in you.
The game expertly conveys this story of Link’s reclaiming his former glory by having you, the player, experience it from beginning to end. It’s another wonderful example of “play, don’t show” because the game never compromises your control of your adventure in service of forcing this narrative on you. In fact, all memories of the past are entirely optional. All you need to beat the game is skill and resourcefulness, with everything else providing context and practice. You can technically stroll into Hyrule castle and fight Ganon in under an hour, though don’t expect to beat him without the skills you’ll accrue by playing the game.
The difficulty curve epitomizes what I mean by this “play, don’t show” mentality, as Breath of the Wild doesn’t actually have one. The game starts brutally hard, and by process of time and failure you’ll eventually come to the point where you feel like you’re breezing through, even though what’s actually happening is you’re living up to your title of champion. It’s like my favorite Adventure Time quote says- “sucking at something is the first step towards being kinda good at something.” And by the end of your thirty plus hour adventure through Hyrule, you’ll have sucked so much you’ll become incredibly good at the game.
If Majora’s Mask’s gameplay tells the story of overcoming crushing, terrifying failure, Breath of the Wild’s tells the story of triumph through self-empowerment. What sticks with me now that I’ve beaten the game are the moments where I managed to overcome seemingly impossible odds—beating enemies despite being grossly underprepared, finding creative solutions to shrines that relied on arrows when I had none, that sort of thing. My experience with Breath of the Wild resonates with me so strongly because I felt like I earned it, not just because it was fun and satisfying.
Also, the game’s simply aesthetically gorgeous. I’m not much of a graphics buff but I definitely appreciate the beauty of this rendition of Hyrule. It’s partially what makes the game so inviting to explore- there’s always something new to see, a new vista to marvel at. I frequently loiter on top of mountains, doing nothing but appreciating the world around me. It’s a vibrant, colorful world, and you’ll want it to go on, despite how much of it wants to kill you.
The music deserves a mention as well, because it’s another change from established formula. While Koji Kondo usually composes for Zelda, Manaka Kataoka scores Breath of the Wild. Even though I personally prefer Kondo, I think Kataoka’s music matches the vibe of the game. The music embraces the legacy of the franchise while simultaneous remixing and reinventing it, just like the design and storytelling. You’ll hear numerous snippets of classic Zelda music embedded in the new tracks, evoking nostalgia while still creating a unique sonic identity. The music is much calmer and more subdued than in previous games, inviting the player to relax and explore the world instead of trying to generate tension and dread.
However, despite all the praise I’ve heaped upon Breath of the Wild, I must confess that it is not a perfect game. While I think it deserves every accolade, I also value contextualizing praise with criticism because even great games get things wrong. Otherwise I’d be ending this review/critical essay with “everybody go home, we’ve solved game design and interactive storytelling.” First and least importantly, the game suffers from some noticeable technical issues, including slowdown and skipping. While some people might scoff at the idea of the Switch’s killer app being imperfectly optimized, I give the game a pass due to the ridiculously expansive scope and massive draw distance. Also, in my experience the technical hiccups occur more frequently the longer you play in one session, normally becoming noticeable around the fifth or so hour of consecutive play. If a game’s good enough to play for five hours consecutively, it’s probably good enough to play despite a few glitches here and there.
Second, the voice acting is pretty mediocre. It’s by no means egregiously bad, but it doesn’t really add anything to the experience. This disappoints me, because the concept of hearing Zelda’s voice after fifteen plus years got me incredibly hyped, only to have the result be acceptable rather than outstanding. I certainly hope Nintendo continues to explore the potential of voice acting in the franchise because I think it could take the storytelling and immersion to the next level.
Thirdly and most importantly, as much as I geek out about the design and ludonarrative, I must admit that the game can be frustrating mechanically. The weapon degradation is cool in theory but incredibly annoying in practice, especially in the early game where good weapons are at a premium. The rain mechanic is also like this, as it encourages alternative methods of exploration to climbing… which the game doesn’t provide. Outside of the one particular area designed for rain, it feels like a means of wasting of your time instead of a genuine challenge.
Finally, there’s nothing at stake in Breath of the Wild beyond the time you invest in the game. This may seem like a weird criticism but I’d be a hypocrite to not bring attention to it after gushing about the dramatic stakes of Majora’s Mask. The one place where Breath of the Wild tells rather than shows concerns Zelda. The NPCs insist she is in danger, that Ganon might overwhelm her at any moment, but none of your adventures through Hyrule substantiates these claims. The English major in me wants to ask them to cite their sources, but that doesn’t seem very heroic.
But all these are all minor blemishes on an otherwise fantastic game. Breath of the Wild proves what I’ve suspected all along- nobody knows how to make games better than Nintendo. While other companies might sell games with better characters, better combat systems, or better puzzles, nobody can touch Nintendo when it comes to interactive narrative experiences. They don’t make movies interrupted by gameplay, they make games that make no apologies for being games. You couldn’t translate Breath of the Wild into any other medium, because Breath of the Wild isn’t Link’s story of learning to be hero of Hyrule at all. It’s your story of becoming hero of Hyrule, as presented through Link.