Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Boy Who Slept – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was published by Nintendo on March 3rd.

I finished the storyline of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in an intensive three-week sprint, during which time I played, watched, and thought about pretty much nothing else, and since the day in late March when I watched the credits roll, the game has had another three weeks to settle into my brain. I was surprised to discover that I needed that remove; I needed time to adjust to the experience and realign my understanding of the global context of things. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I’m now measuring my gaming history in terms of “Pre-BotW” and “Post-BotW.” With this latest iteration of the storied Zelda franchise, Nintendo’s achieved nothing less than a personal best, which means that the rest of the gaming world – and the individual gamers like me within it – will be recovering for some time from the aftershocks of this seismic success.

Breath of the Wild was in development for nearly five years, and represents a near-total reconstruction of the established Zelda formula. Longtime series producer Eiji Aonuma sought to rethink the conventions of the franchise and approach them from scratch, adapting the now-tired elements of the “traditional” Zelda experience into an experience that felt fresh and innovative, while still retaining the heart of the Zelda brand. That philosophy prompts an interesting question, though, especially considering how broadly the brand has been interpreted over its 31-year lifespan: what is the heart of Zelda, exactly?

The most instructive way to answer this question is probably to look at where the series began, with the 1986 NES title The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo guru and lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto famously based his design for the game on his own childhood experiences exploring and mapping the forests, caves, and swamps of his native Kyoto, so the strongest feeling communicated by the game (despite its humble 8-bit presentation) is a sense of childlike adventure. When you turn on the game, Link is dropped into the world of Hyrule with nothing but the clothes on his back. It’s up to you, as the player, to determine where he goes, what he does, and what the experience will be like. This freedom of movement and intention, which encourages players to do whatever they want, places emphasis on exploration, discovery, risk, and challenge. It’s easy to bump into a tough enemy you’re not ready to face, or uncover an inscrutable puzzle you don’t yet have the wisdom to solve. To progress, you had to find the easiest things you could accomplish and follow along the path hinted at by those tasks, but savvy players – like the ones, in those pre-internet days, who passed secrets and tips to one another by word of mouth – could overcome these challenges right from the outset, through pure grit and skill and knowledge. The series has progressively moved away from this design philosophy with each new iteration, to significantly diminishing returns (culminating in 2011 with the tepid, lacklustre Skyward Sword, which contained none of those qualities). 2013’s handheld 3DS title, A Link Between Worlds, heralded Aonuma’s planned transition to the new normal – subtly shepherding fresh design ideas alongside a classic presentation – and was the only indication, for those who were paying attention, that huge changes were just around the corner. The most illuminating (and most complimentary) thing I can say about Breath of the Wild is that the Zelda game it most resembles is the very first one.

This sense of dramatic conclusion, of a true return to form, of a loop finally and satisfyingly closed, is perhaps part of what makes BotW feel so monumental. I understand (and, to a degree, share) the perspective of those who aren’t attached to the series, and who play this one thinking, “Okay, so they finally made a decent Zelda game. Good for them. What’s all the fuss about?” BotW, like all great art, stands on its own merit as a wonderfully engaging adventure game – but understanding the context in which it exists deeply enriches the experience. This is the crucial point that the game’s skeptics are missing. Playing it was a profoundly emotional experience for me, and it’s because I’m so close to the series that I’m able to perceive the infinitesimal triumphs that Aonuma and his team achieved at each minute level of development. It’s a miracle that any game is ever successfully released, but it’s especially miraculous that a company like Nintendo was able to make a game like Breath of the Wild.

I won’t waste space on the specific changes and improvements the game makes to the existing Zelda formula; there are already hundreds of thousands of words on the subject flying around the internet that you can catch hold of simply by raising an open hand in the air. It must be said that it’s hardly a perfect game (though Christ knows what that even means). It retains some archaic elements – like a targeting system that hasn’t improved since the mid-90s, for example – that speak ill of Nintendo’s doggedly cloistered development process, making it so that all the game’s improvements unintentionally shine a spotlight on its more outdated mechanics. But in the larger picture, these quibbles are insubstantial. To me, the most significant improvements that BotW makes are less the tangible ones, and more the philosophical design choices that were somehow preserved through the game development pipeline, translating Aonuma’s dreamy idealism into game mechanics that ring with harmony and singular purpose. Nintendo, as a developer, makes a habit of separating itself from its competition by pretending that its competition doesn’t exist, delivering gaming experiences that are designed as though nobody else in the world except them has ever made a video game before. This can be infuriating, when the outcome feels uninspired – but when it results in a game like Breath of the Wild, it makes for the kind of magic that only comes along a few times in a generation. The last time we saw a game that understood itself this well, that was so laser-focused on nailing its core ethos, was… well, you can guess, can’t you?

At this point, I’ve barely even talked about the game itself. I haven’t touched on its magnificent atmosphere, which conjures the melancholy of a world lost to time, long overgrown by beauty and new life. I haven’t praised its minimalistic score, which eschews melodic structure for ambient piano strains that evoke the scope and grandeur of a living world. I haven’t noted its narrative, which is brilliantly structured to allow you to experience it as much or as little as you like, and which is more strongly and intelligently realized than any other Zelda game. All I’ve really done is spout a great deal of hyperbole without providing any concrete examples of what I’m talking about. But I could fill page after page with those examples, regaling you with my own tales of adventure as I guided Link across this lush, vibrant landscape, and the unique circumstances that the game’s disparate systems created for me. I could tell you about the time that I escaped certain death by snowboarding on my shield across a vast chasm, or the moment that I realized the game’s ancient automatons could be not only countered but killed. The time that I scaled the Dueling Peaks was an adventure in its own right, with a clear narrative arc that grew organically from my own impulse to explore dangerous and uncharted terrain. The first wild horse I tamed, the first gourmet dish I cooked, the first Divine Beast I conquered, the first sword that broke in my hand – all of these were moments that felt monumental to the way the game understood, encouraged, and supported my whims as a player. All of its systems, from the weapon durability to the resource gathering to the dungeon-delving hunt for every Shrine, tie back into its core mechanic: exploration. There are some imposing mountains in this game, but you can climb them. You can climb anything. Anywhere you point to, you can say, “I want to see what’s over there,” and you can get there – and, more likely than not, Aonuma has stashed a little reward for you up there, simply for making the trek (and if that’s not enough, then the vista you get to enjoy from that new vantage will make up for it). As in the original Legend of Zelda, you’re dropped right away into this world with nothing more than some simple clothes on your back and a vast, open world stretching out before you in all directions. The graphics have improved a lot (a lot) since then, but the essence of the experience is the same. The spirit of Link, long dormant and waiting for his chance to emerge again, is strong and intoxicating. This is my adventure, and I can approach it any way I like.

It feels like I was sleeping, too. I haven’t had so much fun with a controller in my hands since I was a kid.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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