What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and wildness?
——Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversnaid”
Last year, Nintendo released its latest gaming console, a nimble and versatile product appropriately named the Switch, which transforms from transportable LCD tablet to a standard controller with a simple click. Released alongside the Switch was the highly anticipated game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the 19th installment in the three-decades-old series. Nintendo had promised that Breath of the Wild would be both a radical reinvention and a redemption of the franchise. While the game’s designers retained much of what had defined the high-fantasy series, including the swords and sorcery and the melodramatic clash between good and evil, they also repackaged that content in a new form. Unlike previous installments, Breath of the Wild abandons narrative linearity and formulaic progression for an open-world design, which leaves players to wander and wonder through a vast landscape with few worn paths to guide them.
If this formal difference had only altered the game’s design or mechanics, it would still be a significant moment in the history of video games. More radical yet is how it has shifted the ethos of gameplay toward questions like: Why do we play video games? To what extent can video games be reparative rather than escapist? How can the formal mechanics of video game design, with its essential link between hand and eye, feeling and thinking, change the way we relate to mind, body, and world?
To these questions, Breath of the Wild offers two lessons: first, artful video games need not always reproduce the toxic ideology of puerile hero worship, which lionizes the solitary figure as he (it’s usually a he) who is most capable of saving the world; second, video games can be dynamic vehicles for messages of community and loss, and these messages are worthwhile not only in themselves but also for our present moment of political and ecological crisis.
Breath of the Wind deftly moves beyond the genre as it has come before. Gameplay in the Zelda series—and in the Nintendo universe more broadly—has tended to be conservative (formally, not politically). By hewing to familiar conventions, the games became popular not in spite of but because of how comforting predictable mechanics and linear storytelling can be. The fifth installment, Ocarina of Time (1998), despite revolutionizing the video game industry and setting the model for what 3D games should look like, plays a lot like the original, The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986.
Ocarina shepherds the player along a set path, straight as an arrow, from one dungeon, or playable area, to the next. Players enter a new area, solve a set of puzzles, obtain a tool, defeat a boss, and then use the tool to reach the next location in the game. Solve and repeat. Even those installments that were released on more advanced console systems were limited by this formulaic structure. The Wind Waker (2002), set centuries after Ocarina, cordons off gameplay into a literal archipelago (the game is set on a grid of islands) of isolated areas in which to play. While The Wind Waker adds some flexibility to the strict linearity of Ocarina (and features beautifully stylized, non-photorealistic graphics), both games have a similar effect: openness is tightly controlled and regulated.
How can the formal mechanics of video game design change the way we relate to mind, body, and world?
While it is true that gameplay is often determined by the constraints of the console system, finitude and limitation are also important concepts in the mythology of the Zelda series. Spread across multiple timelines and many generations, the series binds its three main characters—Link, Zelda, and Ganon—in an unceasing cycle of reincarnation. Among the three characters, Link is unique, not simply because he is the character that players always occupy. Whereas Zelda and Ganon have had different roles and different faces within the series, Link’s appearance has gone relatively unchanged (sometimes younger, sometimes older) and he is always silent. He is the literal link between games, and his vacuity makes him the perfect avatar for the player. When players occupy the role of Link, they learn to submit to the mandates of duty, responsibility, and restriction that structure the series.
Breath of the Wild severs that link to the past. By occupying an open world on a massive scale, the game deliberately suspends the ideology of winning—with its emphasis on objectives, goals, progress, and development—that organizes not only the Zelda games but perhaps all video games.1 Open-world design aims to produce the feeling of autonomy and choice in a medium that is fundamentally rule-bound. Openness is typically accomplished either through the abundance of options, including the choice of equipment, playing style, character, or order of quests, or through algorithmic procedural generation, where the game engine creates environments by randomly choosing among a set of predetermined variables.
While choice can never be unlimited, the guiding ideology of open-world games is that the presence of more options corresponds with more freedom for the player. The open-world design of Breath of the Wild effectively delivers an environment alive with the joys of play and invention. Such generosity is particularly striking in a larger media landscape of remakes and sequels typically characterized by predictability, irony, and cynicism.
What is even more unusual is that Breath of the Wild does not embrace freedom as an abstract, denuded concept. Nor does the game offer a utopianism of action without consequence. Too often the heroic figuration of a lone man who saves the world not only justifies but reproduces the toxic puerility, racism, and misogyny of video game culture. Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, presents a paradigm of freedom that is aligned with loss and self-denial. Awakening to the consequences of the world’s finitude and the uneven distribution of freedom is a necessary part of the story.
At the start of gameplay, Link is a cipher. Stripped of his relation to his past, he has lost all of his memories, his orientation to the world, and even his clothes. He awakens and emerges from a cave as a tabula rasa.
Part of gameplay involves reconstructing Link’s lost memories by traveling through the game environment and locating sites that will trigger his remembrance of the past. Through the reconstructed memories, the player learns that, one hundred years prior to his awakening, taciturn Link was preparing for battle with an entity known as Calamity Ganon. In the Zelda series, Ganon is the embodiment of evil—at once godlike and all too human in his capacity for destruction and malice. He is regularly reincarnated, and it is typically Link’s mission to defeat Ganon’s latest form before he destroys the Kingdom of Hyrule.
Fighting alongside Link once were four champions, tasked with piloting war machines known as Divine Beasts. Yet, when Ganon corrupted the war machines to serve his ends, a surprising event that came to be known as the “Great Calamity,” the champions were killed and Link was gravely injured. In order to save Link from death, Princess Zelda had him removed to the Shrine of Resurrection, where he remained unconscious for a century. By locking Calamity Ganon and herself in a magical stasis at Hyrule Castle, Zelda was able to save her kingdom from further destruction in the hopes that Link would one day emerge from the shrine and fulfill his sacred duty by defeating Ganon. However, Zelda’s powers gradually weakened with time, and, when the game opens, Calamity Ganon threatens to escape once more.
When Link first looks out over Hyrule, like Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic wanderer standing over a foggy landscape, he is witness to a land that has been devastated by “calamity.” Calamity is an old word, long used to describe the mass experience of disaster. As he travels, Link discovers survivors who live in small pockets and in villages, often located in extreme environments like mountains, volcanoes, deserts, and magical forests. Almost everyone he meets in his journey has experienced deprivations big and small, and the extreme contrast in the severity of losses can be disorienting.
For some, that loss comes in the form of a lover who has been swept away in a flood or a wife who has been murdered by an assassin. For others, it is a misplaced set of maracas or wandering chickens. The vast differences among the privations encountered in the game suggests that both fragility and resiliency define the experience of living in a precarious world.
After a calamity, those who have survived must learn to navigate a world that has been riven by the unexpected and the chaotic. Suddenly awakened to what was previously thought impossible, survivors must remain alert to the possibility of a future that they cannot foresee. In the wake of the 2016 election, or in the midst of global climate change and ecological collapse, it can be an intoxicating fantasy to believe that vigilance in the past might have led to different outcomes in the present.
It is no surprise that even video games have taken up this fantasy. In recent years, games like The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Fallout, and Journey, for all their differences, force players to occupy the time after calamity, to witness the consequences of civilization’s fall, and maybe even to rise above that folly. Awakening can mean ascending to a new level of consciousness and learning from past mistakes, but it also commonly means the privilege to stand both within and above history.
Awakening is a central motif in the Zelda series—a previous installment is appropriately entitled The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993). This motif brings the relation between gameplay and Link’s destiny into focus. When Link awakens from a dream or a nightmare, he assumes the role of the hero. To awaken often means assuming this role—save the princess, save the world—as if it were a natural, routine activity. While Link loses his sleepy former self, that loss never gets marked by trauma.
In “Breath of the Wild,” awakening to the consequences of the world’s finitude and the uneven distribution of freedom is a necessary part of the story.
Meanwhile, in Breath of the Wild, the motif of awakening is suspended and internalized. Rather than fully awaken and accede to his destiny, Link travels in semi-ignorance of his past and his responsibilities. Occasionally, he recovers a memory that jostles him into a lucid state. Some of these memories introduce his deceased friends, the four champions. Many of the memories are from his time spent with Zelda traveling Hyrule and learning the skills necessary to defeat Calamity Ganon. Together, these memories, which interrupt gameplay with long cut-scenes and dramatic voice acting, punctuate the game and forestall the achievement of Link’s destiny.2
In one such memory, Zelda is documenting flora in a field behind Hyrule Castle when she discovers a rare species of flower known as the “Silent Princess.” The flower’s rarity stems from the difficulty of its cultivation. “All that we can hope,” Zelda says, “is that the species will be strong enough to prosper, on its own.” It’s a startling moment in the game, when one of our protagonists acknowledges the broader ecology of the game world and the precariousness of its resources. Zelda suggests that hope is a powerful sentiment in the game, but her comment is also marked by a sense of futility. One can imagine the day when the Silent Princess, like so many of our own plant species, goes extinct. All of the memories that Link regains are like this one, structured by a melancholic awareness of a past that has been foreclosed and a future loss that is almost certain.
It would be easy to see “openness” in the game as a formal solution to this content of loss, a wilding of play that feels a lot like unbounded freedom. While Breath of the Wild recycles many of the familiar mechanics of open-world games—towers, maps, collecting—its most notable advance is afforded by the physics engine, which dictates how the player interacts with objects and environments in the game. In Breath of the Wild, Link can climb almost any surface. He can set fire to grass and then use the updraft to sail along on his paraglider. He can levitate metal objects, turn water into ice, and temporarily suspend objects in time.
There are countless videos on YouTube of players taking advantage of the game’s flexibility to accomplish unbelievable tasks that seem to reclaim autonomy even within highly coordinated circumstances: skipping to the end of a puzzle, breaking sequences in order to enter areas prematurely, and rigging metal objects to create flying machines that allow the player to soar above the game map and glide from one edge of the world to the other (a feat that takes seven breathtaking minutes in total). The experimentation of players has surprised even the game’s designers, who could not have anticipated the sheer creativity that the game enables.
Yet, for reasons of technical limitations, it is impossible to incorporate infinite openness into video games—or, really, into any art form. Video games, perhaps second only to the novel, can aspire to wholeness. Like the “loose, baggy monsters” of the 19th-century novel, they tend to inundate players with a surplus of objects and characters and narrative digressions. But this excess is not a worthy approximation of reality. In both novels and video games alike, the desire for openness and freedom often spins out into aimlessness: the twisting and labyrinthine sentences of the encyclopedic modernist novel, on the one hand, or the “map game,” with its crippling abundance of things to do, on the other.3
The potency of Breath of the Wild lies in how it does not identify “openness” as a countermovement or formal solution to the challenges presented by calamity. Despite its title, the game is not about the Wild as a space beyond the logics of civilization and its discontents. It is less a suspension of loss and the restraints on freedom than a documentation of how play and invention might be marked by self-renunciation and limitation. This saturation of freedom with loss comes not from the inevitability of the game’s end but from the fact that everywhere you go in the game you encounter blighted landscapes and bereaved villages. And, what’s more, the game insists on the unevenness with which this distress is experienced.
In fact, Link’s autonomy in the game is the looking-glass version of Calamity Ganon’s boundless malice. In other words, it’s necessary to understand Link’s freedom within the game world alongside the calamity that follows the desire to control it. Both positions are structurally related to the status of Link and Ganon as “hero” and “villain,” respectively, which not only elevates them but enables them to do what other characters in the series are not able to do—namely, to assume a position of power relative to the narrative. The only difference is that Calamity Ganon assumes his role as an agent of chaos and annihilation without self-reflection or cause. Link, by contrast, awakens to a Hyrule that has been devastated by Ganon’s myopia. It is in this state—awake, aware, conscious—that Link and the player must learn to navigate not only freedom but also the responsibilities that bind us to this new world.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- Roger Ebert famously used gaming’s emphasis on “winning” and completing objectives to distinguish between art and video games. See “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” Roger Ebert’s Journal, April 16, 2010. ↩
- Cut-scenes are noninteractive sequences that interrupt gameplay (sort of like a short movie), typically to provide plot exposition or background. ↩
- The main feature of gameplay in “map games,” a genre particular to the open-world form, is unlocking and filling in the map. Under the sign of discovery, such games lash the player to an endless hamster wheel of collecting and consuming. See Clayton Purdom, “Fighting Robot Dinosaurs in the Woke-as-Hell Post-apocalypse of Horizon: Zero Dawn,” A. V. Club, February 20, 2017. ↩