Breath of the Wild: the straight-A student, the Link with the think, the blade with the grade – the game with more tens than a Western’s soundtrack.
And like a straight-A student, Nintendo’s latest efforts are so accomplished that otherwise great achievements appear almost mundane against its backdrop of sheer awesomeness. This is a game defined by the story you choose to tell, not by the story you’re told; a game by which I’m inclined to describe its flaws simply by what it does less well – not by what it does badly.
When writing about Breath of the Wild, then, I can’t talk about how it’s picked last in gym or how it doesn’t quite grasp the complexities of those fancy-shmancy quadratic equations. The new Zelda is a bit like Superman – it’s almost impossible to characterise without mention of that one fundamental weakness.
Problem is, I’m not sure it has one.
And that makes Breath of the Wild an absolute pain in the arse to write about. But like a certain pig-faced antagonist, I persist.
So, here’s some words about a game I said I can’t make up some words about.
For a game as expansive as Breath of the Wild, very little actually happens. Zelda’s latest legend is the digital equivalent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Every second of game play is the consequence of a decision you made a moment before. Prescribed events – dungeons, shrines, cut scenes – were but a tiny fraction of my total playtime.
And that, large in part, is what makes Zelda so difficult to quantify. I can’t talk about the scene in which Link bullet times out of the path of a flaming arrow or knocks ten shades of green out of an army of replica Ganons. Instead, I can tell you about the time I knocked myself 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.
Anecdotes. Breath of the Wild is a series of anecdotes. But as with most anecdotes, they’re often ‘had-to-be-there moments’ – stories with meaning only to those who experienced it first hand.
Breath of the Wild is loyal to its namesake, a game that simply lets you be. You can choose where to go and how to get there. You are the writer, director and actor in a personal fantasy epic for which Fujibayashi simply provided the stage and props to envision.
Breath of the Wild consumed seventy hours of my life. Still, I’m not sure where those seventy hours went. I can’t point to the series of protracted boss battles or the Hollywoodesque cut scenes; I can’t boot up the multiplayer replay or refer to an extensive list of time-stamped achievements.
Consequently, the game’s Shake ‘n Bake approach 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 truly be deemed competitive. Zelda’s open-ended open world imbues its game play with an ethereal quality, a dreamlike world where hours pass by in an adventure almost entirely of your own making.
By this standard, then, it’s difficult to reprimand Zelda for not living up to a category or a check-list of what it tries to be – that’s for you to decide. Breath of the Wild lets you set your own objective and the rule set in which you accomplish that objective.
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 memories, memories quickly lost to the hours upon hours of open-world meandering.
So, I can’t quite remember exactly how I saved the world – but I can remember exactly how it made me feel. I can remember every enemy placement, every wooden crate and every explosive barrel in the last five games I played. But in contrast to Breath of the Wild, their emotional impact are secondary to their mechanical and structural composition.
To compare Breath of the Wild to a straight-A student is to perhaps do Nintendo’s latest a disservice, because straight-A students aim to reach the height of a well-established standard – they aim 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.
And so The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t the student at the top of its class – it’s the student helping to build a new class entirely.