The tower seemed manageable as I stood at the base looking up. The moon was out but it was a clear night, allowing me to see the very top and the various ledges that would make the climb tricky but still within my means. My stamina bar was filled and, from what I could see, no monsters were mulling about to screw up my progress. So I took to the task and was instantaneously marked by a red laser light. Recognizing it as the mark of an unseen enemy about to blast me, I climbed farther left out of range only to see another red laser lock on. This happened two more times as I hastily ascended. Two times I moved to the other side and two more enemies set their sights on me. I was surrounded. Instead of climbing down and regrouping, I rushed to the first platform. I could take a hit, I thought. Shouldn’t hurt too much.
Of course, I was blasted out of the sky.
Of course, I fell and died in a burning heap.
Of course, I loved every moment of it.
This became a reoccurring theme throughout my 50+ hours through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game’s open-world gameplay is absolutely stunning, featuring gorgeous environments (like barren deserts and thick forests) and weather patterns with day/night cycles. The game even shows off a great deal of lateral movement as well, up mountain sides and rock outcrops, with Link’s climbing and glider mechanics being highly utilized to survive and explore the blighted world. There’s an amazing amount of detail taken into account for the game and even hours later, I was experiencing things that I had not seen before.
But the greatest aspect of BoTW is, by far, the ability to go wherever you want to go. There is a small area to first conquer as the game teaches you the ins and outs of what will soon become the tools and resources you will need to stay alive. This eventually gives way to an entirely barren map that is so large, it took Arekkz Gaming almost 30 minutes to run across. While there is a story and an ending in BoTW, it’s entirely up to the player to plan out how and when to get there. Do I want to head to the next town or do I want to go hunting? A temple burns red in the distance. Do I continue on the path or do I stray and try to plunder its secrets? (Hint: Plunder. Always plunder). These decisions, which are left entirely up to the player, promises adventure and discovery. Luckily, for all of us, BoTW doesn’t stray away from this formula which is what keeps me, even in my old(er) age, playing video games.
For a while, I retired from gaming. In my younger days, I was a completionist, playing games three or four times to max out my Gamerscore on my Xbox. Shortly after breaking the 100K mark, I started noticing a trend in games. For some reason, they seemed hell bent on reenacting Michael Bay experiences (movies I like to call “explosion conveyor belts starring poorly dressed mannequins”). Campaigns in games, like in the famous Call of Duty series, seemed to be built around set pieces and “times when guns are the only solution.” Even the Grand Theft Auto series has simple mission progression in a sandbox format. The choice is there, sure, but where is the discovery of the unknown? Though not without its own merits, GTA sure doesn’t feel like you’re charting a new path through an untamed world when you’re backing up onto hookers with your stolen cab.
For me, there is a great deal of nostalgia lurking in the BoTW approach. I grew up on “Choose Your Own Adventure” books which were mind blowing for me at the time. Suddenly, I wasn’t just hovering over the story anymore. I wasn’t just in the passenger seat. Those books made me feel like I was in the protagonist’s’ shoes and, as such, was held responsible for every terrible decision I was going to mastermind.
Video games expanded my love for these deeply immersive worlds. Games in the Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls series (and to some extent the TellTale games) gave me the freedom to accept or reject tasks at my whim; fight for ideals or for profit. But what is most satisfying, and what this new Legend of Zelda has in spades, is the ability to play in these fully fleshed out worlds and to experiment in failing and failing horrifically.
In any and every open ended world I play, I look to break the rules. A massive mountain in my way? How can I find a way around? Kind shop owner wants to sell me cheap goods. Would he feel the same if I light this torch and try to set fire to his home? There’s a giant minotaur-looking creature stalking around that field while holding a sword larger than what it is logically possible. Let me go ask it directions. In short, the tower debacle I described earlier was just the tip of the iceberg. Multiply that by the seventy-nine times my hero met his untimely (yet still deeply entertaining) end, and the picture should become a little clearer. In the end, Link– at least the Link I played as– had saved Hyrule but not before being burned, blasted, frozen, crushed, impaled, glided into the bubbling craig of a volcano, drowned in an ice river, kicked off a cliff by a horse, swallowed by a desert, and struck by lightning while holding a bomb. I once carried a chicken for twenty minutes before setting it down on a raft, blowing said raft out to sea, and then firing a flaming arrow at it as if reliving the Norse days of old. In short, dying at the hands of a particular in-game boss can be a frustrating ordeal. But dying because of my own idiocracy always comes punctuated with the phrase, “Well that sucked” as I giddily boot up my fresh new Link from the Continue Screen.
Open world games hold so much promise and an almost infinite pool of possibility for ridiculously outlandish behavior. A friend of mine, who is now into his late forties, responds to people who judge his active love of gaming by saying: “Just be glad I’m doing all of those things in the game and not in real life.” And it’s true. We aren’t built with extra lives or mulligans. Eating random meat that you’ve found on the ground does not restore your health just as consuming mushrooms do not cause gigantism. There is permanence attached to the end of our lives, so our virtual selves should have the ability to run amok and explore. We should all feel inclined to use these digital playgrounds to break any and every rule imaginable from the safety of our own homes.
The first time I stepped out into Hyrule– the world clouded in darkness that I was tasked to save– I was overcome with an unrivalled sense of excitement. The music swelled, the sun grew large in the distance, and a wave of nostalgia hit me for those old “Choose Your Adventure” books I recall so fondly. Sure, I could follow the bright flashing dot on my map that’s showing me where I could progress the story. But in BoTW, that’s not even the most pressing issue. In fact, I finished the main quest in less than a week. The game may task you in defeating Calamity Gannon to save the world, but there’s so much more to do than just vanquishing evil. Of my 50+ hours (really, just a drop in the bucket when it comes to how many hours it will take someone to 100% the entire game), I spent many of them fishing, hunting, snow bowling (or snowling), seal racing, taking pictures of anything and everything I could find, seed harvesting, chopping wood, buying a house, buying items for said house, and cooking. Some may see these game mechanics as trivial subplots with very little payoff. I, on the other hand, appreciate these diversions and nuances as fodder to make my own stories.
More than just being able to experiment, BoTW allowed me to share in the creative process. As a writer, I am constantly looking for ways to infuse narrative in simple practices. It’s refreshing to take a character with a few tools at his disposal, a world just begging to be explored, and just crash them together like the old action figures I played with as a kid. Playing in someone else’s world is a therapeutic exercise, for writers especially. We can make up our own narratives, our own motivations. This is more than what games like Grand Theft Auto present; chaos simulators wrapped in violence for violence sake. This is a fully realized world with its own living/breathing ecosystem.
In many ways, open-world games like BoTW offer a blank canvas for creatives to eat, drink, and be merry in. While they hold similarities to MMO’s (Massive Multiplayer Online games) such as World of Warcraft, the lore and scripts for those games are far more rigid in how a player should progress through the story. It pays to play games like BoTW on the “Pro” setting, which means with very little information cluttering the screen on the HUD display. Taking in the amazing weather effects such as monsoon-like downpours or scorching desert scenery burning in the sun and finding the secrets (and painful deaths) which lurk inside is what this game is all about.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an amazing crowning achievement for Nintendo and plays beautifully both on the WiiU and the newest console iteration, The Nintendo Switch. My days with the game were some of the most memorable I’ve had with any non-book/non-writing related project in a long time. I am grateful, as a writer, to live and die in by my own foolishness. Breath of the Wild, while gaining critical and commercial success, is catnip for creatives. I recommend for everyone who needs some time away from that manuscript, or that future award winning novel that’s only one sentence long, to step into Hyrule. The freedom to fly, to fight, or to throw a cooked apple at the face of elemental dragon solidifies The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one of the best games of the last ten years.