Breath of the Wild is, of course, a stunning game. And a surprising one, both in how it departs from Zelda tradition and in how I reacted to those departures. No more progressive unlocking of weapons/tools/areas, no more restricting those areas to your specific skill set / power level (at least after the first two hours of the game), no more mindlessly whacking away at mindless enemies.

Which could have been a problem for me: I like the well-crafted Zelda unlocking experience, and I don’t like scarcity mechanics in games. Also while there are games where I like to focus on skill, most of the time I play games for other reasons, and skill development has certainly never been my focus when playing Zelda games. So even in the opening plateau, I was a little nonplussed by the cold mechanic and its associated scarcity: I didn’t have a lot of hot peppers, the mountain wasn’t small (a least when starting the game; in retrospect, it was tiny!), and the bridge that I assembled to get across a frozen river was a little fiddly, especially given the clock ticking down from my cold resistence: do I really want to feel on edge like that?


Obviously scarcity didn’t turn out to be a problem in practice on the plateau, and I didn’t seriously exect it to be. But the scarcity mechanics continued over the course of the first quarter of the game: you don’t have a lot of weapon slots and weapons are constantly breaking, and you don’t have a lot of hearts either.

I turned out to get along with that surprisingly well, though. Partly because Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game: I had faith in the game’s designers to give me a fair amount of room to play with, instead of creating a game that only the hardcore would love. Partly because, for the two most clearly present scarcity mechanics, it was reasonably clear that scarcity wasn’t going to lead me into a pit that I couldn’t dig out of: I wish I had more weapon slots, but enemies drop weapons as well, so I didn’t see any reason to worry that I’d actually run out of weapons: it was more an issue of not having my favorites at any given time. (Also, I’d started the plateau without any weapons at all, so I had some confidence that I could recover!) And, as to hearts: sure, you might die, but that doesn’t set you back very far, so it didn’t take me too long to accept death as just part of the game.

Digging into dying a bit more: if you’re seriously worried about dying (and there are certainly monsters that you’ll run into that you’re not equipped to handle in the early game), then going around enemies is almost always a viable strategy: the open world means that paths are available, the lack of an experience mechanic means that you don’t get punished for not fighting. Alternatively, if you lean into fighting while low on hearts, then that gives you excuses to work on combat strategies, which one of the plateau shrines teaches you. So if you want a skill-based game, it’s there.


The upshot was that I rather enjoyed that first quarter of the game: I had to sneak around a little more than I would have liked (e.g. during the approach to the Zora domain), but I got into a decent amount of fights, and in general I didn’t feel that I was being prevented from exploring the world. And there were periodic pauses for me to learn more about the world (with two towns in particular as punctuation), and the non-combat shrines are almost entirely level-agnostic.

It took me longer than I expected to solve the puzzles in the Zora divine beast dungeon, but I managed that without walkthroughs, and I learned something concrete in doing so, that I had to be a little more systematic in my thinking about the tools that the plateau had taught me. And, in general, I was learning about the mechanics that the game provides, and the ways that those mechanics combine: one of the really remarkable aspects of Breath of the Wild is the way the game takes a relatively small number of systems, gives a relatively small number of variables within those systems, and combines them in as orthogonal ways as possible. (Leading to the chemistry system that cooking uses, or the way that you can survive cold either by wearing warm clothing, eating something cooked from a warm ingredient, or having a flame sword as your currently equipped weapon.)

I did, of course, feel underpowered when fighting the final boss in that first divine beast, and that’s one fight that you can’t avoid. But I used that as an excuse to work on my combat: in particular, he had some powerful moves that were fairly well telegraphed, so they were a good excuse to work on my dodge jump plus counterattack. It took me quite a few tries to beat him, but I succeeded, and felt proud in doing so.


The game shifted significantly for me after completing that divine beast: getting a heart container for completing the dungeon helps a small but (at that stage in the game) noticeable amount, but much more importantly, you get an ability that causes you to resurrect when you die with slightly more than full health. There’s a cooldown on that resurrection ability of course, but the combination of those effects meant that my health bar effectively almost tripled in length. I certainly won’t say that I stopped dying, but it was much rarer; also, by this point, I had a decent understanding of the basic systems of the game.

The upshot was that the game had changed from one of scarcity to a one where I could relatively confidently wander around. I certainly still wished that I had more weapon slots (heck, even at the end of the game I wished I had more weapon slots!), but I had enough that I didn’t have to worry about weapons breaking, it was just more of a nagging feeling that I wished I had slightly more weapon options, or that I could keep a torch on hand instead of hoping I’d find one when I needed one.

There were still environmental issues that I was more affected by than I’d like (e.g. I didn’t have good armor to protect against cold), but by that point I felt like I understood the systems: I could use food to deal with issues like that in the short term (and I’d cooked lots of food!), and I had faith that, if the game was going to make me spend lots of time in a specific sort of hostile environment, then it would give me better tools for dealing with that environment. (Presumably by letting me purchase armor; on which note, by this time, I was starting to accumulate a decent amount of money, instead of feeling like my purse was always running empty.)


At this point, the game became magical, or at any rate changed the tone of its magic. I understood the range of basic experiences the game had to offer me, and I could now make an informed choice between them: combat isn’t my thing, so I didn’t have to focus on it (though admittedly letting my combat skills rust hurt me when it came to the end of the game), but I really liked exploration, so I could spend resources improving my stamina meter, wear my climbing gear, and climb all over the place.

And: what a place to climb, what a world to explore. The world of Zelda feels organically alive in a way that, in my experience, has almost no parallel; Shadow of the Colossus, perhaps, but I’m not sure what else I’ve played that gave me this feel. Every hill feels like it’s in the right place, every tree feels like of course there should be a tree there, every river, every mountain.

And, like Shadow of the Colossus, every ruin; but, unlike Shadow of the Colossus, of course, there’s quite a lot of life. In the wrong hands, peppering the landscape with activities would feel forced: villages placed because we need a plot hub or a side quest, resources popping up every few steps because we need crafting, and so forth. And, the thing is, Breath of the Wild has all of that, but somehow it works! I have no idea why the resource gathering didn’t anger me the way it did in Dragon Age Inquisition, but it didn’t; I have no idea why the Koroks felt like an exciting magical part of the natural world instead of artifical stimulus designed to mask the designers’ lack of confidence in the inherent interest of the world, but it did.

Hmm, actually, I probably answered that last question as I was in the process of writing it: the fact that the basic geography of the world is so well done means that embellishments don’t come off as covering up flaws, because they aren’t. I’m not going to go all Christopher Alexander here, but I suspect that thinking about the world as a natural geography that gives rise to centers that plants and animals (including intelligent beings) successively embellish makes those embellishments a source of joy, despite their instrumental nature.

The contours of hills, mountains, and water in turn leads to trees (sometimes working together as peers, sometimes standing out on their own as punctuation), grasslands, and yes, even mushrooms that you can use for your cooking. And that not only makes for a natural home for animals, it also means that Koroks fit in not as rewards for the player but as creatures who have a special appreciation for particularly wonderful parts of the geography, or who simply like to play around with the world around them. And, of course, humans and the other species fit in as well: their roads fitting in among the contours of the land, their bridges, their stables, their towns, and the ruins where they’d once had a flourishing society. With Shadow of the Colossus, we saw what would happen if you punctuate a living topographical landscape with a few, high impact centers; with Breath of the Wild, we see what happens if instead we have the centers be much more pervasive, at many more levels of scale.


I’ve never played a game like this; and I’ve certainly never played a Zelda game like this. Though, having said that: Zelda at its best has brought life to its worlds in ways that few other series can match. Ocarina of Time treated its landscape and its locations with love and care as well; Majora’s Mask brought out the living rhythms of a city. Breath of the Wild is remarkable in the scale of the living world that it presents, and in the way it proceeds by combining systems; but of course there’s a lot of authoring in Breath of the Wild, too, we’re not talking Minecraft here.

And, for that matter: there is one aspect of the authoring of Ocarina that I actively miss, namely its music. Every time I passed by a stable in Breath of the Wild, I felt at home, and that’s entirely due to the power of Ocarina’s music still going strong two decades later. I’m not saying that Breath of the Wild made the wrong choice to not emphasize music as much: that’s a natural fit for the less-authored experience that it presents, and its sound design is very good in its own way. It’s just a reminder that, while Breath of the Wild feels to me a lot like a local maximum in the design space, it’s not the only possible local maximum: there are other ways in which games can nourish my soul.

I’m very happy that Nintendo is showing this year that they remain experts at navigating design spaces, in ways that bring delight and sustenance. I’d been worried that the company was in decline, but no longer: now I’m just glad to have the privilege of experiencing their works.

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