A lot of reviews babble complaints about the emptiness presented in Breath of the Wild’s map, but I’d argue the vacant setting is Hyrule’s biggest asset.
There are a finite number of days where I can arise from the comfort of my bed in the morning in a chipper mood.
I can’t always be the sunshine of somebody’s life. I can’t always brew a pot of coffee and be ready to tackle another playthrough of Pokemon Sword. Sometimes watching Hop open his mouth is like witnessing an insurmountable pestilence of smile emojis hovering in a vast sea of rainbows and fairy cheerleaders.
We don’t always want to be spammed with good vibes, and that’s okay.
Introspective behavior spawns our greatest pieces of art. It breathes life into our most insightful ideas. Greek philosophers used to yearn for the feeling of uncertain discontent. They considered it proof of their humanity.
Breath of the Wild was revered for one reason: It didn’t make any attempts at washing these feelings away. Instead, our Legend of Zelda developers wanted to embrace and nurture our difficult emotions.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a beautiful tragedy.
During our trek across Hyrule, a misty air of melancholy hangs over muted fields of grass. The winds of solitude rattle the desert dunes from East to West. Ruins scatter the land, shedding tears of rubble on an empty scape. Ghosts of a regal past faintly flicker shadows of their former glory.
Today’s gaming market churns out blockbuster AAA titles similar to Sony’s multibillion-dollar Uncharted series. An adrenaline rush from start to finish. Brimming with action. Armed to the teeth with dangerous threats. A world that needs saving, protagonists that are often graced with the ability to court whomever they please.
When I’m itching to hop out into the wilderness, I’m not looking to find a trail bustling with people or friendly faces.
Breath of the Wild sacrificed bustling activity to allow the atmosphere to resonate. Each sunrise I found myself traversing the summit of a new mountain, only to be greeted with another desolate expanse lying in wait.
I would slay a mighty Hinox, but there weren’t any citizens nearby to offer their gratitude.
I would fumble across an encampment, only to find it inhabited by a small band of brutish monsters. The searing red eyes of a band of Bokoblin lie in wait in a nearby cave, their mouths glistening with a palpable thirst for my blood.
Everywhere I turned, emptiness loomed. The concept of friendship was long forgotten. The only form of kindness Hyrule could remember was the gift of being left alone.
Link awakens from a deep slumber to find that a hundred years have passed. The roots of our story in Hyrule are simple and brimming with impact.
Time travel is a theme as old as time itself, but it’s seldom conquered with the level of elegance we see in Breath of the Wild.
While Marty McFly reigned as a champion of the ages for three full-length movies, he never had to face the reality of thoughtlessly shifting through eras. Marty McFly always returned home.
But Link’s story?
In Breath of the Wild, the reality that Link cherished was decades passed. There was no hope of return. Little by little, his memories came trickling back to him, but the faces he knew so well were nothing more than fey apparitions to haunt his new reality.
He could only venture onward.
Each passing memory was nothing more than a fluid reminder of more faces Link had lost. Still, he put one foot in front of the other and carried on his lonely journey.
He met Impa, only to face her as a shell of her former self. Seated in the shrine of the valorous warrior Urbosa was an unfamiliar child. Filling the mighty colossal footprints of Daruk was a gullible coward. Instead, we come face to face with a young Goron that Link shouldn’t have lived to lay eyes upon.
Isolation is a different sensation from seclusion. You can always return from short bursts of seclusion. Isolation is forever. Isolation breeds insanity – there is no affirmation that the memories flooding the mind ever took place. There is no proof of anything you touched being concrete or tangible.
Instead of populating this story of time travel with melodramatic dystopian themes or a vibrant sci-fi atmosphere, we have a silent tale brimming with hollow guilt. Music begins to play, but it quickly fades to a timid whisper.
For the first time in his robust 35 year franchise, Link was a failure. When Hyrule needed him most, he fell into a slumber that lasted for five full generations.
The war had already been lost. There was nothing Link could do to remedy that. Instead, he could only make amends to a foreign and unfamiliar Hyrule. Link was an Alien to these Hylian survivors. At the stables, men and women may have sung legends of him, but there wasn’t any proof that such a hero existed.
The Gerudo didn’t welcome Link with open arms. They couldn’t even recognize him.
The only record of Link was a mere Bard’s tale told by a traveling Rito.
Our hero could only summon the courage to defeat the Calamity Ganon by laying eyes on the painful sights of desolate fields, a failure brought upon Hyrule by his own hands. Link sauntered through scattered ruin sites – a constant reminder that Hyrule was once a place with a thriving civilization.
In the cruel and metallic celestial prison that we call time, we share one universal fear. The fear of growing older. Those holding seniority over you may scoff at your lapses of existential crisis. Deep in the echoing chambers of their beating hearts lies the same dread.
I won’t discredit you, lovely reader.
I won’t discredit the budding teenager staring into a mirror and witnessing their first glimpse of an adult form.
I won’t discredit the awestruck woman nearing the end of her twenties, the phrases of “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” grow imperceptible as they’re overtaken with the roaring winds of “You aren’t getting any younger,” each passing day.
I won’t discredit the jaded man clenching his fingertips deep into his steering wheel as he calculates the age he’ll be when his kids are ready to sail off into the world as independent members of society.
I won’t discredit the old couple who lack the energy they knew when they first met. Their senses grow more weary and deceptive with each passing sunset.
We’re all waking up shorter of breath.
Our biggest fear isn’t the looming thought of aging or death. It isn’t even the thought of pain. Humanity’s biggest fear is loneliness, the thought that each lap we make around the sun heightens our threat of losing more precious people we hold close.
When we ask a handful of people about their favorite installment of a series of games, we often get answers that point to the latest entry. We can thank advancements in technology and refinement in features for that…
But when you ask someone about their favorite Zelda title, you’ll get wildly varied responses.
The Legend of Zelda was never about promoting cutting-edge graphics or higher frames. The Legend of Zelda was never the game that featured the most precise buttery-smooth combat or the most engaging puzzles. Nintendo always optimized those things, but the polish was placed elsewhere.
We return to our beloved Zelda games for their reflective tone. Link is a silent protagonist. Thanks to this, he becomes a vessel for our deepest and most sacred vicarious projections.
Loneliness was never a feat lacking in the core Zelda experience, but Breath of the Wild was a nuanced entry that heightened our emotional engagement in an unprecedented way.
It’s perfectly okay to arise from bed feeling like a bag of spilled coffee beans. It’s okay to miss someone.
We shouldn’t feel afraid to embrace our most turbulent facets of human emotion. Fear, regret, loneliness. Born from the salted soil of difficult times are our most prized creations!
I can still remember my first time traversing Death Mountain. I remember the blistering heat of the rigid peaks. I remember the looming odor of sulfur and the beads of sweat rolling down my face. I was there. It was barren. It was treacherous.
I did not relent. I did not set the game aside for a different experience. I craved every moment of this simulation.
The heartbreak, the guilt, the complete and utter solitude. Those were the traits that lent themselves to immersion. It wasn’t high-definition graphics or the depth of reflections in the water. We returned to Hyrule’s challenges for the emotion, and Breath of the Wild did not disappoint.