Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a marvelous game, and, unlike so many recent games, it is amazing almost exclusively for its gameplay. There’s no third act swerve, no meta commentary on gaming, and no “we’re secretly all Bokoblins” twist awaiting the player; the magic of Breath of the Wild is simply in everything Link can do, and this amazing world he gets to explore. There are surprises (“Did… did I just tame a bear?”), but it’s not a surprise-based game. In other words, for once, it really is all about the game, and not the plot.
So, naturally, I’m going to talk about the plot.
… What? It’s surprisingly interesting!
Link is indisputably the hero of Breath of the Wild. Link must venture across Hyrule, unearth mystical shrines, free friendly ghosts, and eventually confront (Calamity) Ganon, the dark smoke piggy. Even if the player doesn’t get to name our hero, Link really is a “link” for the player inhabiting Hyrule, and, save a crushing princess or two, Link is almost entirely a blank slate. He doesn’t even have a buddy on this adventure! Kinda. You, player, are Link’s buddy, and you’re the one saying, “hey listen” when you want your elven friend to sneak around an enemy encampment instead of slaughtering the whole lot of ‘em with a stick. It’s Link against the world, and you’re his only reliable ally.
But the story of Breath of the Wild is undeniably the legend of Zelda.
(If you’re worried about spoilers, by the by, you may wish to duck out now.)
“Zelda” has always been a central character in the franchise that is named for her. Give or take a spin-off title or two (and we won’t look too far into the implication that some of the Zelda-less Zeldas are the best in the series), Zelda is always there… though usually as a macguffin. I’d like to say that things have improved since Zelda’s first appearance as “please rescue me”, but I just powered through Twilight Princess again, and that prominently features Princess Please Rescue Me, But I have a Sword Now. Not really much of a step up. Fortunately, there have been a few improvements over the years, like Zelda as rebellious Sheik in Ocarina of Time or Zelda your ghost buddy in Spirit Tracks. And she’s borderline badass in Hyrule Warriors, so points there, too.
However, looking at it from another perspective, Zelda doesn’t need to be a badass. From The Adventure of Link on, the “sacred trinity” of Hyrule has been set in stone: Link represents courage, Ganon is power, and Zelda is the living personification of wisdom. “Wisdom” isn’t the most exciting power for a videogame character, though. I guess it could help out with the odd block puzzle or alike, but, in general, when an army of hungry moblins are bearing down on you, wisdom is about the fourth thing you reach for after your sword, shield, and infinity bombs. However, The Legend of Zelda has found a way for Zelda to help out with her “wisdom” in multiple adventures, starting right there from the beginning when Zelda had the bright idea to separate the triforce into multiple pieces guarded by the occasional unicorn dragon. And, yes, it’s become a cliché, but simply having the wisdom to say “oh yeah, we’re gonna need light arrows for this pig man” is Zelda thinking that has saved Hyrule time and time again. Heck, even when Zelda was an eight year old pirate, she still wound up coming off as the smartest person on the Great Sea (aside from Tingle… that dude is retired in Maui now).
But there’s something… dishonest about Wise Zelda. It makes sense for young Link to be courageous enough to dive into a volcano, because, really, if you were to tell a thirty something it was time to go play with blocks over boiling magma, I’m pretty sure you’d get a pretty hard “no” before you even finished the command. Similarly, Ganondorf is pretty much power-mad, whether we’re talking about political clout or the ability to master a Warlock Punch, and that’s a desire that can afflict a Gerudo of any age. But Zelda is supposed to embody wisdom, and she’s sixteen? Have you ever met a “wise” teenager? Yes, you will occasionally find a prodigy that is “wise beyond her years”, but even that expression usually refers to some level of unprecedented and unexpected skill, and you can likely still find that same “wise” teenager grabbing a hot bowl of mac & cheese and burning her lil’ piggies off. Teenagers are practically known for being dumbasses, so, yeah, I’m having a hard time seeing one as the walking embodiment of wisdom. And this isn’t just because I’ve seen a teenage girl on a cell phone walk square into a tree, either.
So Breath of the Wild actually addresses this sad truth, and presents a Zelda that has, from the time she was six, tried to be wise. Everyone knew Ganon was expected, and, in an effort to get everybody ready, Zelda got her butt in gear and attempted to make herself a living vessel for the goddess. And, despite everyone’s best efforts, she failed. She never felt the call of Hylia, and this whole “bathing in random ponds with statues” thing never really worked out for her. So Zelda, being smart if not wise, decided to research ancient weapons of destruction. She assembled the Mighty Fightin’ Hyrule Rangers, gave ‘em all Zords, and even was genre savvy enough to grab some dork in a tunic to wield the magic blade. Hey, he wasn’t her first choice for a line of defense, but you really can’t argue with proven results. Unfortunately, things went south regardless; Ganon corrupted the invincible robot army and terminated the good people of Hyrule. In the ensuing chaos, Link was mortally injured, but Zelda finally saw the light, and her sudden flash of divine power preserved Link and his magical sword, and restrained Ganon to Hyrule Castle for a century. Also, it apparently stopped Zelda from aging, so, ya know, she’s got excellent hair for a 117 year old.
Now, I want to be clear that, at first, I did not like the implications of this general plot. At a glance, this seems like a pretty basic example of praise for religion while disparaging “naughty” science. Zelda is no good at hearing the gods, so she turns to hard technology, and her lack of faith winds up leading to the death of everybody. Don’t trust robots! And, even more than that, don’t play god. You’ve got a perfectly good goddess, like, right over there. This inadvertent moral is amplified through the gameplay, too. The first friendly “person” Link meets is a ghost, and he is continually granted boons by a goddess that speaks directly to our hero. Meanwhile, Link’s greatest opponents are not Moblins or Lizalfos, but “automated” robots and other scientific monstrosities. Ganon’s physical form is more techno than organic, too. And if you want further proof of this “faith vs. science” thing, look no further than the Divine Beasts, which are raging robotic monstrosities terrorizing their towns until Link frees the mystical spirit of a magical ghost that can make the beast a little more divine.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Religion Rules, Science Drools.
Though, I admit, my initial impression of this plot was shallow at best. After all, “ancient technology” does wind up helping at much as it hurts, if only because link can heist those sweet, glowy weapons and wail on robots all day long. And “science” isn’t completely forsaken for faith, because otherwise, how would Link cook up all those delicious life-restoring fruit cocktails? In fact, with their working elevators and bizarre magnet tablets, the Sheikah seem to be more tech-based than religious. Any sufficiently advanced technology yada yada yada, but yes, tech is a problem in Hyrule, it’s just not the problem.
The problem with Breath of the Wild Hyrule is Zelda.
Zelda is smart, but not wise. She fails in her faith-based training, so she turns to technology immediately. Tech works, and, more importantly, she understands how technology works. Training in some unquantifiable goddess regime with no clear goals or rules is hard, making a robot turn on is easy. It’s on or it’s off. It works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then what do you do to make it work? It works now, that’s perfect, go me. Much as we enjoy creating dungeons with invisible floors or impossible jumps, you can’t test faith. You either have it or you don’t, and Zelda didn’t. So Zelda relied on good ol’ reliable scientific rules, and, unfortunately, it led to the fall of her entire kingdom. Whoops.
And, ultimately, that’s how the entire videogame industry has functioned for years.
When The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was first showcased, it was popularly referred to as a “Skyrim Clone”. Big, open world and lots of sidequests and room to run around? Just like Skyrim. I bet there are dragons, too. And we immediately jumped to this conclusion because, in the six years since the initial release of Skyrim, there have been roughly 60,000 Skyrim clones of varying quality. When something works in the videogame industry, it is aped wholesale, because, when you get right down to it, videogames are just another facet of technology. Videogames are the Dark Souls of technology. You can look at the blueprints, see what makes it work, and then copy exactly what you need to make it work. Unearth the science that worked the last time you had a problem, copy and repurpose it, and you’ve got a winner or all over again. … Or you have a disaster. It might not be an “everybody in the kingdom is dead” disaster, but it might knock the dev team down all the same. Not the best result.
But the moral of Breath of the Wild is where the game excels. This is not a copy of old technology. This is not another Zelda that is a slavish dedication to what came before. And, while this may be similar to other games from the last decade, there is definitely something unique here. Breath of the Wild is a game unlike any other, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve dedicated untold hours to meandering around its countryside. Breath of Wild is an amazing game because it contains something miraculous, something indescribable . Something magic. Breath of the Wild is magic. Breath of the Wild held its faith, and through that faith, created something wholly exceptional.
Zelda misstepped when she simply followed the ancient logs and attempted to succeed exclusively through the glory of the past. Zelda succeeded when she finally allowed herself to embrace the unknown, and learn something new. And, yes, by the end of the story, the end of a century, that power fades, but that’s okay. Sometimes lightning only strikes once, and you’re just happy it happened at all.
I’m very happy Breath of the Wild happened at all.
FGC #263.1 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- System: WiiU and Switch. I assume any and all magical elephant dungeons were made with the WiiU in mind.
- Number of players: Are there two player open world adventure games? Or are they just called MMORPGs? I guess those are more than two players, though…
- Favorite NPC: I have to admit, the appearance of Goggle Rob makes me think that Nintendo is getting my letters.
- We Heroes: I’ve seen a lot of people beg for more story involving the “old” adventure, aka The Adventures of Zelda and her Five Champions. That would be cool and all, but everyone realizes they’re just stock JRPG tropes, right? The vain archer, the caring white mage, the jocular black mage, the jolly tank, and the stalwart knight all band together under a dedicated princess/machinist/Cid. I understand wanting to see more of this cast of kooky characters (I admit, I’d play The Adventures of Mipha), but you’ve basically played through that adventure if you’ve experienced any JRPG ever.
- Head Canon Corner: Lon Lon Ranch decided to franchise and neglected their original location due to high rupee taxes. I don’t care if it’s been 10,000 years since Ocarina of Time, this is the only thing that makes sense.
- Did you know? The reason Zelda’s Divine Beasts plan failed is that, obviously, there are supposed to be five Divine Beasts, and they all morph and come together to form one gigantic, Ganon slaying machine. It’s probably a T-Rex? Yeah, people always forget about the T-Rex.
- Would I play again: I’m never going to stop playing this game.
What’s next? Speaking of which, how about some more Breath of the Wild coverage? This time, we’ll look at that all-important gameplay a lil’ more. Please look forward to it!