4 months in Hyrule but is the world my oyster?
Faint female voice broke the silence. Light faded in. I opened my eyes. Still disoriented, I got dressed and picked my smartphone from a wireless charger. No new mail. No Twitter mentions. No missed calls. All right then… Wait, what? Why is it showing March 2120? Why is my system corrupt? What happened last night? And why did ‘last night’ take 100 years? What happened to that bat virus from China?
I saw a blue light near the door. Smart home terminal recognized my device. Massive anti-theft door opened. Blinded by the sunlight I stepped outside. Where am I? What is this place?
Okay, yeah, that’s not exactly how it all happened.
So I bought this Zelda game
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Released in 2017 as the last Nintendo game on Wii U and one of initial releases on Nintendo Switch. Nineteenth entry to The Legend of Zelda, a franchise that has been present on every single Nintendo console generation since 1986. Critically acclaimed and pompously cited as ‘the greatest game of all time’. Yadda yadda yadda.
In November 2021, as a fresh owner of Nintendo Switch, I got my own copy.
I love open world games and I approached it like another game of the genre. The only detail was that I had it running on a 2017 smartphone with detachable controllers rather than a beefy PC with an ultrawide screen.
With no prior exposure to other Zelda games I had no sentiments towards the whole franchise or strong opinions on what it should look like. I approached it with my usual set of expectations shaped over the years by numerous open world games I played on PC.
Boy, what a ride it was.
Within 150 hours between November 2021 and February 2022, Breath of the Wild managed to question all I ever thought about open worlds and gaming in general. Maybe that was an effect of novelty, maybe the game was really that good, I’m not sure.
Let’s talk about what I learnt about myself while playing Breath of the Wild.
Spoiler non-alert: I mention story and game mechanics, but I don’t delve much into details. This is not a review or a critical piece, just a highly personal collection of thoughts. But why am I even doing this if it’s 2022 and the game has been around since 2017?
I don’t like difficult-by-design games
By a game that is ‘difficult by design’ I understand any game that forces me to die multiple times before I make any progress on the premise that I’d feel satisfied once I overcome the challenge.
That’s not how it works with me. Over the years I’m more likely to say ‘oh, I remember how much of a struggle that was’ than ‘oh, feels so good I managed to complete it’. I associate that kind of learning process with wasting time staring at the loading screen and repeating the same moves over and over again. I believe there’s a middle ground between appeasing super casual players and making games challenging to the point they feel like work.
Call me a dirty casual, but I play games for fun between other activities and I tend to find my own sources of challenge in them. Given the size of my backlog I don’t want to waste time doing unfun things such as struggling with that one particular mini-boss or fighting against a random number generator to find a rare item. Exceptions happen from time to time.
Breath of the Wild isn’t a game that is difficult-by-design, but it is hell of a challenge at first. Unlike other open world games I’ve played, it’s very light on explaining things or giving directions. It expects me to put in a lot of work and doesn’t refrain from putting tough enemies in front of me very early. It kept me starving for easy wins for hours and hours. I didn’t find this fun. I explored Hyrule with a lot of anxiety until I made my character more resilient.
Then, completely seamlessly, Breath of the Wild morphed from a fierce fight for survival into a slow-paced tale of exploration and self-improvement. At that moment I started enjoying it even though I still had that tiny seed of anxiety in my head. Before the finale I turned my character into an overpowered killing machine. Thanks to that I could explore without fear and tackle challenges in creative ways.
I don’t like fantasy games
I’m generally not a fan of fantasy. I find it hard to relate. In most cases it stereotypically presents medieval worlds with supernatural additions, magic or non-human living creatures. I am sorry, I find that boring. I can’t help that.
Science fiction, on the other hand, I find more relatable because it’s set in a future and there’s a tiny bit of possibility our world could indeed look like that within the next hundreds of years. That by itself makes my imagination run wild.
Breath of the Wild does something interesting. Hyrule, the land we explore, looks like another fantasy setting. But I quickly uncovered the sad plot twist: it was in fact a devastated kingdom that used to be a highly technological place, with modern inventions used by rational people to keep evil forces away. It was a world where state-of-the-art engineering was eventually turned into a deadly weapon, rendering lives of whole generations miserable and stagnant.
That’s a theme I didn’t expect to find in a light-hearted game about riding horses, swinging swords, killing monsters and talking to a giant broccoli. I liked it.
I don’t like learning untransferable skills in games
To fully enjoy Breath of the Wild I had to learn combat the hard way. It wasn’t particularly easy given that I’m very new to console gaming. I still struggle with camera control using a thumb stick rather than a mouse. Dying to not-so-overpowered enemies happened a lot.
In addition, I don’t like medieval-style combat, with swords, shields, spears and horses. Apart from the fact I find it boring, it never works the same across different games. Each game brings something unique to the table, such as situational magic skills that have to be learnt and will be forgotten once I finish it.
Learning skills in Breath of the Wild won’t make me any better at Witcher 3 or any other game that relies on medieval-style weaponry or supernatural skills.
Driving on racetracks, shooting, basics of strategy, tactical thinking, T-spin factories in Tetris - those skills are fun to learn because they can be transferred and upgraded between different games of similar genre. They can also make games competitive.
Nothing about Breath of the Wild is transferable to other games. The only way I could make this game competitive is speedrunning.
I love immersive worlds
I perceive open world games as journeys. I live and breathe the atmosphere of each new world I explore. I spend hours roaming around before taking up main story tasks. I look at NPCs. I check each edge of the map. I try to believe the illusion in front of my eyes.
The Mafia franchise was interesting to me because I found it exciting to look at cities as they could look like decades before my birth. Red Dead Redemption 2 was exciting because it put me in the world of stark contrast: urban areas during the industrial revolution versus the glorified American frontier, with outlaws, sheriffs, Indians and relatively simple life close to nature.
The world in Breath of the Wild wasn’t immediately clear to me. It’s way too easy to misunderstand it as a stereotypical fantasy island.
In fact, it’s a journey through a post-apocalyptic world. And it wasn’t the type of post-apocalyptic world I had seen before. The apocalypse took place so long ago that the ruins were getting increasingly hard to recognize. Human settlements were scattered far away from each other, isolated from the source of all evil by natural barriers.
That was something. I believed this world even though it wasn’t grounded in reality at all.
I don’t know how I feel about ‘original’ design in games
Breath of the Wild has an experience system, but it doesn’t work like in typical ARPGs. There’s no leveling, experience, skill points or progress bars. Instead, it’s the world that secretly levels up. I was disoriented by that, but that system eventually turned out to work quite well.
I didn’t like the fact that weapons break in this game, but discussing this in 2022 is totally pointless. I get Nintendo’s reasoning behind it, but in my eyes it added a lot of boring inventory management. I want to have my favorite sword and shield to use in dire situations. There are ways to make this work without making weaponry feel like it was made of paper.
Another thing I felt weird about was the inherent scarcity of everything. Weapons? Well, you have to take them from your enemies. Nobody in the area produces and sells weapons any more. Arrows? Of course you can buy them (as long as you have money, and of course you start with an empty wallet), but sellers won’t sell you more than 20-30 at once. Oh, you got more than 100 arrows? Sellers won’t restock, sorry.
Want to fly, climb or swim? You need stamina. And you’ll always be limited by stamina, even in your late game. And if you want to climb while it’s raining, well, tough luck. Waste more time by time traveling to a day with better weather.
It takes many hours until some of those systems become somewhat less limiting. Out of a sudden the game starts raining weapons, while still imposing significant time costs on expanding inventory space.
I don’t like games that keep me starving for easy wins for too long
Literally everything about Breath of the Wild takes lots of work. At the same time it’s easy to die by accident. Some puzzles are difficult to solve without consulting tutorials on YouTube. In the early phase I found it discouraging to the point I was about to give up on the game altogether.
Two things saved me from doing that.
First, I found a 2017 GDC session called Breaking Conventions with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was a rare case when Nintendo took time to explain their thought process. It tremendously helped me understand how the game works and why it works that way, effectively curing my trust issues and decreasing my fear of failure.
The second thing was watching other people playing it on Twitch. Even long-time Zelda fans struggled with the same things as I did. Everyone was dying from one monster hit too much or making silly mistakes while sneaking into enemy camp.
It wasn’t only me who was struggling. And that was somewhat comforting. The game got easier over time.
I like games with mature storytelling
Story of Breath of the Wild isn’t particularly great. It spills everything we need to know very early and offers no further development beyond it. Additional bits of knowledge are scattered throughout the map but they serve as a retrospective, with no influence to current events.
To add insult to the injury, we’re served another bag of cliché tropes. Once again some enormous faceless evil does evil things for no good reason. Once again there’s some damsel in distress we have to help. Once again the whole world looks at our character as the only lord and savior.
I enjoy games that offer interesting plot twists and moral questions. I like when good guys turn to the dark side. I like when bad guys have clear motivations for their wrongdoing. I like when things suddenly go wrong. I love when games make me feel two contrasting emotions at once or squeeze tears out of my eyes.
Breath of the Wild is like a porn movie. Its story is lightweight and serves as an invitation to get your hands busy. Except it’s rated PEGI 12. With violence.
Oh, and one more thing. The protagonist doesn’t speak. To me that ruins every single emotional moment of the game. I don’t buy any explanation for that and it doesn’t make me feel like it’s me who is taking part in action. Protagonists devoid of personality are the ones I quickly forget.
That was still a fun journey
Yes, Breath of the Wild is an exceptional game. I fully understand why it was such a big deal in 2017. I find it mind-blowing that it was originally designed for Wii U rather than Switch. It’s far from perfect but it has personality.
For me, Breath of the Wild was a game that questioned my assumptions about gaming. It showed me a different school of game design. Rather than holding my hand for most of the time, it offered me unparalleled freedom right off the bat. It was shocking at first, but it proved to be super refreshing.
For those who are still laughing at me for calling a Zelda game ‘difficult’: yes, I know. Also, I started Metroid Dread. I struggle with it even more.