Breath of the Wild is a meditation on childhood
Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto famously said the series was inspired by a childhood exploring forests and caves.
That freedom, seemingly without supervision or shepherd, is arguably the cornerstone of Zelda’s NES success, a game that went on to shift millions of cartridges. It seems no coincidence, then, that Breath of the Wild draws heavily from those origins — and ended up as perhaps one of the most successful open-world games in years.
But why is this formula so successful in Breath of the Wild?
Because it’s about the story you choose to tell, not the story you’re told.
It’s here that Zelda returns to source, crafting an experience that feels not unlike childhood — or, at least, the idealisation of childhood: open and free of expectations, giving you the time to grow into challenges to come. It’s a return to a time when the world was a series of unknowns, with immense pleasure found in their exploration. It’s why Breath of Wild is such a memorably forgettable game — because very little actually happens. Every second of gameplay is the consequence of a decision you made a moment before. Not the result of prescribed events — dungeons, shrines, cut scenes — which are just a tiny fragment of its running time.
Zelda’s latest could be described as the digital equivalent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, a series of anecdotes and ‘had-to-be-there’ moments. Stories with meaning only to those who experienced it first hand, bringing with them that sense of the ethereal — those vague memories, snippets of things that happened, but can’t quite remember. Breath of the Wild, for lack of a better word, simply is.
But that ‘is’ isn’t easy to talk about, because it feels entirely unique to you. It’s a unique product of your particular sandbox — one covered in puzzles, goblins and ancient machines.
You can’t talk about the part where that bridge collapses under enemy duress, or the time that thing fell from the sky. These would put the power of exploration back into the hands of the designer — the parent. That thing falling from the sky is an invasion of their prescribed vision.
But you can talk the time you knocked yourself off the side of a snow-covered mountain with a well-intentioned, poorly-placed bomb, or the time Fido the horse ate laser beam once too many.
Small memories, brief recollections of those fleeting, ethereal moments.
Breath of the Wild is loyal to its namesake, a game that simply lets you be. You’re the writer, director, and actor in an adventure for which Fujibayashi and Aonuma provided the stage and props — and that’s often what childhood felt like at its best. You were your own hero, using everyday items to paint a heroic picture entirely unique to you — and rarely accessible to others.
Breath of the Wild consumed seventy hours of my life. Childhood consumed more than a decade of the rest — little can I say about either. What I can say, though, is exactly how both made me feel: frightened, confused, overwhelmed, thrilled and intrepid, to name just a few.
It’s an approach that almost defies definition. All too often, we judge an experience by what it aspires to be. A horror game that isn’t scary is a failure; a competitive shooter without the respective online infrastructure can’t be deemed truly competitive. Zelda’s open-ended world imbues it with a dreamlike quality, a world where hours pass by in an adventure almost entirely of your own making.
Things feel temporary. Tasks in the world aren’t foisted upon you with dozens upon dozens of map markers. If you can see it, you mark it yourself. You have to discover it. Its weapons, too, are as fleeting and fragile as the memories the game helps you forge. A few hits and your weapon implodes — then back off into the world you go to find another to replace it. To push you out into the open world, Breath of the Wild is forever reluctant to make you feel too comfortable for too long — because that would make setting a defined path a little too easy. Not unlike Miyamoto’s description of his childhood, who had to ‘create his own media to have fun’, with his imagination emboldened by a lack of modern conveniences.
And when you do become comfortable, that straight path eventually emerges: kill Calamity Ganon.
It’s difficult to reprimand Zelda for not living up to a category or a checklist of what it tries to be — because that’s for you to decide. But as many have said, Breath of the Wild’s allure diminishes with time. This is a game littered with magical micro moments, a series of haikus told in quick succession. But with each hour of play, a new moment replaces an old one, leaving you with the existential feeling that, despite saving the world, you haven’t really done all that much. These micro moments quickly become passing memories that are quickly lost to the hours upon hours of open-world meandering.
Again, I can’t quite remember exactly how I saved the world — but I can remember exactly how it made me feel. In the last five games I played, I can remember every enemy placement, every wooden crate and every explosive barrel. But their emotional impact is often secondary to their mechanical and structural composition. Zelda is very much the reverse.
To say Breath of the Wild is the best in its genre is to presume that it tries to reach the height of a well-established standard — that it aims to be the best among many who seek to do the same. Here, though, Zelda has laid a new path through the open, unexplored world of a medium still entrenched in its boyish youth.
Like the series namesake, too, replays of Breath of the Wild feel like a legend passed down, as its open-world pulls you in every and any direction each time you play. Each experience familiar, but not quite how you remember.
And as Miyamoto heads towards his ‘seventieth hour’, it’s impossible — along with those who toiled over Breath of the Wild and games before it — to imagine a world without The Legend of Zelda, a series that continues to grow — still today driven by the memories of its creator, who, in the gaming landscape, is well and truly unforgettable.