Cyborg Living: The Virtuous Cyborg Book Launch

Cyborg Living

How often do you go out without your smartphone? What’s the longest you’ve gone without the internet?
Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we have become cyborgs – human-machine hybrids. Whether it’s Facebook selling our personal data to be ‘weaponised’ by Cambridge Analytica, or Google suggesting answers to questions like “are women evil?” to people who asked for no such thing, our lives are affected by the machines we are living with. Cybernetic networks are all around us – and thinking about ‘neutral tools’ is no longer helpful. You’re already a cyborg… join us to help find out what would make a good cyborg!

Thursday 10th May 2018, 6:30 pm to 9 pm

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NU - order your free tickets here!

Speakers.ihobo

  • 6:30 pm Are You A Good Cyborg?
    Game designer and philosopher Chris Bateman takes us on a journey through the strange world we now live in, asking what the good life might look like for us cyborgs.
  • 7:30 pm Cyborg Living Panel
    Lively debate about our relationship with technology, the internet, robots, and machines.

A special night as part of of Justin Robertson’s “It’s Alive!” Exhibition, and Book Launch Event for Chris Bateman’s new book The Virtuous Cyborg, from Squint Books. Order your free tickets here!


Zelda Facets

Zelda Logo.transparencyZelda Facets was a six part serial that examined The Legend of Zelda franchise in terms of the key elements of the franchise and how these came to be subverted in Breath of the Wild. The serial ran from February 21st to March 28th 2018. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The six parts are as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Link
  3. Hyrule
  4. Weapons
  5. Horses
  6. Zelda

I would like to extend especial thanks to my friend and colleague Richard Boon for a great many illuminating discussions about Zelda’s structure and play aesthetics over several decades, many of which helped form the arguments in this serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!


Zelda Facets (6): Zelda

Last week, the triumph and failures of the greatest horse system in videogames. Now, the final part of the serial, looking at Princess Zelda herself. Contains major narrative spoilers for Breath of the Wild and several other Zelda games.

Princess ZeldaConsidering the franchise is named after her, Princess Zelda took a while to take an active role in the series. Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that she is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, simply because he liked the sound of the name. In the 1986 original, which was called The Hyrule Fantasy: Legend of Zelda in Japan, Zelda serves as a framing device in the grand pattern of the ‘rescue the princess’ trope. This is not wholly surprising, since the game’s working title was ‘Adventure Mario’, and the Mario series has almost universally been framed as a ‘rescue the princess’ story. These stories have a long history, with some of the oldest examples being Andromeda being rescued from the dragon by Perseus in Greek mythology, and the rescue of Sita from the demon king Ravana by Lord Rama in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Even if we have recently become suspicious of the implications of ‘rescue the princess’ stories, the Zelda franchise’s thirty year run helps reveal a gradual change of attitude towards ‘helpless’ Princesses. 

princess_zelda-8bit

In the first game, Zelda provides the backstory by having broken up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts before being imprisoned behind a wall of flame under Death Mountain. After defeating Ganon in this game, Link frees Zelda – whose 8-bit appearance (pictured left) is a triumph of lo-res sprite design. The sequel, The Adventure of Link, has another ‘rescue the princess’ framing story, this time a different Zelda from an earlier time who has been asleep and is awakened by Link at the end of the story. Apparently, Princess Zelda was so unimportant a character at this time that she could be entirely substituted by a replacement Zelda without any impact upon the games at all. Even A Link to the Past only barely improves Zelda’s status as an extra in her own legend since at this point she actually has some speaking lines, admittedly to exhort Link to save her from being sacrificed by the dark wizard Agahnim, who succeeds in so doing, although she is still rescued by Link at the end of the story.

It is Ocarina of Time which finally improves Zelda’s status as a character. Although it seems from the outset that the game will work as a ‘rescue the princess’ story, what we actually see in Link’s dream during the opening sequence (and again in person when these events actually occur later in the story) is young Zelda being spirited away on horseback by her bodyguard, Impa, who had appeared in the backstory of the earlier games as her ‘handmaiden’. When Link has his Tom Hanks moment and fast forwards to being an adult after drawing the Master Sword out of a stone hexagon within the Temple of Time, he is assisted by the mysterious Sheik (pronounced ‘sheek’), whose identity is kept concealed. It is eventually revealed that Sheik is Princess Zelda in disguise – subverting the expectations of a ‘rescue the princess’ story, by letting Zelda assist Link in overthrowing Ganondorf.

Although she does not appear in Majora’s Mask at all, the games that followed continued to give Princess Zelda more of an active role in the story. In Wind Waker, the pirate Tetra turns out to be Zelda in disguise, in something of a revisit to the Ocarina of Time plot. In Twilight Princess, the climax has Zelda wielding the Bow of Light from the back of Epona (whom Link is riding) – allowing Zelda to step up to the role of hero (well, co-hero) in this story for the first time. Skyward Sword, which serves as the prequel to the entire Zelda timeline, has Link pursuing Zelda after a tornado whisks her away from Skyloft, but we do see her being trained by Impa and establish that she is the reborn spirit of the goddess Hylia before she ends up sealed in a crystal and reduced to plot device for the rest of the story.

It is only when we get to Breath of the Wild that the series truly lives up to the promise of being ‘The Legend of Zelda’, since for the first time in the series the majority of the explicit narrative materials are Zelda’s story, albeit in direct relation to Link. It also should not be mistaken for a ‘rescue the princess’ story – despite the occasional character that pleads for Link to ‘save Zelda’. The story has Zelda holding the evil of the Calamity Ganon in check through her own power, and having done so for a century. This is not a case of a powerless princess being used as a pawn by stronger powers. Zelda is the one who has prevented Hyrule from falling to the dark force that threatens it, and Link’s requirement to ‘save’ her seems to reflect more the general lack of faith in Zelda sustaining her power that these various characters have, since as the only one capable of holding Calamity Ganon at bay – and, ultimately, defeating it, after Link manages to undermine its power – this is the story of Zelda saving Hyrule with Link’s help, and not the other way around.

The set up for the new story is the polar opposite to Skyward Sword, which was the earliest episode in the overarching story of The Legend of Zelda. Conversely, Breath of the Wild is set at the far end of what is known as the Downfall timeline. Ever since the publication of Hyrule Historia in 2011, fans of the franchise have had access to the general contents of the narrative ‘Bible’ for the series, which has three branching timelines subsequent to the events of Ocarina of Time. The Downfall timeline concerns what happens after Link fails to defeat Ganondorf in that game, and the new Zelda takes place at the furthest point along this timeline. Although it has never been made explicit, the set up for Breath of the Wild entailing endless recurrence of the great calamity known as Ganon implies the Downfall timeline, as do the parallels with the original Legend of Zelda, which also belongs in this timeline. In a Game Rant interview, the Zelda franchise ‘apprentice’, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, confirms that the new game is set in the ‘far future’ of its fictional world:

It takes place in an age long, long after any of the titles released to date. It is the most recent age. And because of this we believe players will be able to easily immerse themselves in the game. Of course, regardless of the time period, the story does unfold in Hyrule so for those who’ve played other titles in the series there will be a lot of recognizable places to enjoy.

As mentioned previously, the narrative design of the new Zelda is radically far from the conventional GTAIII-style open world formula used throughout contemporary AAA open world franchises. That standard formula uses a conventional linear narrative, often with an Act or Chapter structure, and requires the player to crank the plot by visiting the next location where a story event occurs. This works well… and has thus been worked well into the ground. Breath of the Wild instead disconnects the linearity from its explicit storytelling entirely and makes every cut scene part of backstory exposition rather than an advancing present tense plotline. This is framed in terms of Link having suffered from amnesia as a result of his long century of recuperation (which ends when the game begins), although the basic narrative structure here could be deployed in any game with substantial backstory, and does not require the loss of memory to make it work.

There are eighteen locations throughout Hyrule that have a connection to the backstory between Princess Zelda and Link. The narrative structure entails a first Act upon the Great Plateau, completing the extended tutorial and acquiring the four Runes that almost all game puzzles depend upon. A second (entirely optional) Act concerns Impa – now old and infirm, having waited a century for Link’s return – and the Sheikah Slate that is the in-game representation of the player’s Wii U ‘tea tray’ or Switch in handheld mode. This second Act culminates in the player being shown twelve photographs of locations in Hyrule, and after this there are no further Acts save for the Final Act concerning the showdown with Calamity Ganon. The player has to use their growing knowledge of the landscape (with a touch of blind luck) to locate these twelve locations, each of which reveals a flashback to Link and Zelda’s backstory. These can play in any order – leaving the player to piece the narrative together. This has been done in videogame narrative before via journal entries and the like, but never in an expensive to develop feature like a fully animated cut scene.

In addition to the twelve Captured Memories pictures, which are the main body of the game’s explicit narrative, there are six additional memories. Four of these correspond to the Champions who in the backstory (a century before the game’s events) were to take the Divine Beasts into battle against Calamity Ganon, and are the main additional characters to appear in the memory cut scenes. A further memory concerns the Master Sword, and Princess Zelda placing it into a ceremonial stone triangle to wait for Link’s return (this is the last event in the chronology of the backstory, although the player could uncover this cut scene at any point in the flow of the game). When all of the twelve Captured Memories pictures have been located, Impa also provides a final memory – and this cut scene is thus very likely (but not certain) to be the last piece of the backstory that the player unlocks, allowing it to take upon a special significance.

Zelda’s story for Breath of the Wild is as follows: 10,000 years before the events of the game, the ancient hero – let’s call him Backstory Link – defeats the Calamity Ganon with an army of marvellously technological Guardians and Divine Beasts, and the fiend is sealed away by the power of the ancient Princess (Backstory Zelda). Our Princess Zelda is the latest in the royal line of descendants to Backstory Zelda, while our Link is either a descendent of Backstory Link or his soul reborn in a Royal Guard of Hyrule Castle. At the time of the first Captured Memory, Link has already proved himself possessed with the courage and purity of heart required to possess the Master Sword, which he carries with him in every memory-related cut scene. Zelda is supposed to possess the power to seal the Calamity Ganon into captivity but the death of her mother when she was six years old has given her doubts… she feels unprepared and, worse, she has found herself to be something of a nerd and her father the king consistently undermines her confidence by telling her she must abandon “playing at being a scholar” and focus on her training.

Zelda, however, as the Champion Urbosa confirms, has knocked herself out trying to fulfil her duties and has come to despair about ever manifesting her supposed powers. When her father, the king, assigns Link to guard Princess Zelda as she visits the the Springs of Power, Courage, and finally Wisdom, Zelda reacts badly. Although she protests to Link that she doesn’t need his protection (which is clearly not the case), Zelda finds herself frustrated by Link because he successfully – and perhaps even effortlessly – fulfilled his destiny in being able to wield the Master Sword. As the Champions of Hyrule whisper amongst themselves in what is chronologically the first memory, seeing Link is a constant and painful reminder that Zelda is not able to awaken the power to seal the darkness within herself, despite the extreme efforts she has expended trying to do so.

The situation begins to shift after Link saves Zelda from an attack by the Yiga Clan, a cult that serves Calamity Ganon and forms one of the major sub-plots of Breath of the Wild. From this point onwards, Zelda and Link become close friends. She talks freely to him about all the nerdy things that interest her, he shares advice about horses with her (he doesn’t seem to know much about anything except weapons and horses), and she opens up about her anxieties, even revealing that she would like to run away from her duties (even though she cannot actually consider this doing this in practice). At Hyrule Castle, she is watching with great interest the awakening of the Guardians, the machines that ten thousand years earlier defeated Calamity Ganon, when her father appears and openly scolds her, accusing her of playing a “childish game” and suggesting that the people mock her because she is “heir to a throne of nothing… nothing but failure.”

Undaunted by her father’s disappointment, Zelda proceeds to visit the final Spring, the Spring of Wisdom on Mount Lanayru, on her seventeenth birthday, but she is still unable to awaken her power. Mipha, the Zora Champion, tries to tell her that her own powers were inspired by her love (whether for Link or her brother Sidon, it is never clear) – but Calamity Ganon awakens, ending the conversation. While Urbosa wishes to hide Zelda away, she insists that there must be something she can do to help on the battlefield. However, the great battle is ultimately lost – Calamity Ganon possesses both the Guardians and the Divine Beasts, slays all the Champions and everyone in the Castle – and a devastated Zelda is only saved by Link rushing her away at the last second.

At the climax of the story, Guardians have relentlessly pursued Zelda and Link to Fort Hateno, coming in numbers far beyond anything the player faces during the game. A wounded Link tires and stumbles as a Guardian is about to unleash its beam attack. Zelda places herself between it and Link and finally, her power unlocks. For the first time, she is not trying to awaken her power because it is her duty, but in order to save someone she loves. There is a mighty blast of energy, and the Guardians fall silent. This has especial resonance for most players, because the battleground outside Fort Hateno is something they have seen many times by this point, and now it becomes clear that it is Zelda’s power that is responsible for it.

Link collapses, dying, but Zelda finally comes into her own birthright, both as wielder of the power to seal Calamity Ganon away, and as crown Princess of Hyrule. She is about to fall back into despair when the Master Sword talks to her, mind to mind, and reassures her that all is not lost. Zelda then instructs two Sheikah (Purah and Robbie, both of which the player has met by the time they view this memory) to take Link to the Shrine of Resurrection, where his wounds will heal over the next century – setting up the opening to the game. She then delivers the Master Sword to the Great Deku Tree to wait for Link’s return, and proceeds to seal both Calamity Ganon and herself away for the next century, using the power that she has now successfully claimed.

Even if this is not the most sophisticated piece of storytelling, it is still substantially more nuanced than any plot previously offered by a Zelda game, and really does focus on Princess Zelda – her failures, and ultimately her successes, as she ceases to feel trapped by her duty and instead accepts her fate and goes on to successfully seal away Calamity Ganon forever. In a post credits scene that the player sees only if they have collected all the memories, we see the Princess – now Queen of Hyrule – thinking through what needs to be done to rebuild the kingdom, very much focused upon the aftermath of the fall of the Champions that provides the four Divine Beast side plots (and dungeons) within the game. It is a relatively slight coda, but it works.

I was not, I confess, enormously enamoured with Patricia Summersett as Princess Zelda in the English language version: her performance is fine, but her voice feels wrong for the character, too mousy and whingey. The role needs to convey both resolve and commitment, as well as self-doubt and vulnerability, and the tenor of the performance reverses this emphasis. I can see why this casting decision might have been made, however, especially since it aligns well with the Japanese language performance – but should the English language voice performance match the Japanese? The cultural expectations of those two audiences are radically different.

Throughout the franchise, Princess Zelda has transformed from a ‘rescue the princess’ plot device (the first three games) to someone with an active role in the story but only in secret (Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker), a woman with the power to fight Ganondorf alongside Link (Twilight Princess), and now finally a woman who can save Link’s life, hold evil at bay for a century, and swoop in FTW (‘for the win’) as Queen of Hyrule, admittedly with a bucket load of teenage angst along the way. The Legend of Zelda franchise remains one of the most remarkable achievements in videogame history, both for its relentlessly innovative design and its creative narrative design, which in Breath of the Wild offers an entirely new vision for how open world story telling can be constructed.

A new serial will begin later this year.


Zelda Facets (5): Horses

Last week, the unique experience of fighting with ephemeral weapons. This week, one of the most outstanding features of the Zelda franchise: its horses. Contains a major narrative spoiler for Shadow of the Colossus.

Zelda HorseDuring one of Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table events, near the very beginning of my time as a blogger, I laid my cards upon the table concerning my love of videogame horses. It all began with Ocarina of Time, one of my least favourite Zelda games that was nonetheless entirely redeemed by the presence of the first great videogame horse – Epona. There had been horses in 2D games before this, Mike Fahey mentions the Atari 2600 game Stampede as his first, but polygonal 3D animations give a sense of presence to equine models that hugely transcends anything that sprite animations can achieve, and riding Epona through Hyrule in 1998 was an unforgettable experience.

It is apparent from the moment the N64 game begins that the horse is the star of the show, with the attract sequence focusing on Epona riding across Hyrule to the gentle strains of music by Koji Kondo, who wrote the iconic score for Ocarina of Time and a great many other Nintendo classics. According to an interview with Eiji Aonuma for Nintendo Power celebrating the ten year anniversary of the game, Epona became part of the project largely because Shigeru Miyamoto likes horses. Pegasus Shoes had been considered for travel prior to that point, but Miyamoto-san was keen on having something to interact with. According to a 2011 Iwata Asks, while the motivation came from the original Zelda master himself, it was up to Yoshiaki Koizumi, now Deputy General Manager of EAD, but then 3D System Director, to make the idea work. Apparently, it had first been explored as an idea for Super Mario 64 and had not proved practical at the time, but Koizumi-san persisted in producing a technical demo that cleared the way for the horse to star in Ocarina of Time.

It was Koizuma-san who came up with the name Epona, after the goddess of horses and fertility in Celtic mythology, having apparently been briefly called ‘Ao’, a Japanese word for a blue-green colour with no equivalent word in English, associated with horses because of the exceptionally rare blue roan coloration. An inherent design tension is apparent in the implementation of Epona: on the one hand, Miyamoto-san had dictated that “a Legend of Zelda game doesn’t need any difficult actions”, hence the horse jumps automatically. On the other, the Zelda-creator felt that simply riding the horse wouldn’t be fun without some kind of action, so the horse was given a set of carrots that allowed the player to make the horse go faster, but when none were left it was not possible to jump. It is within this tension – actions that are easy to take but require finesse to use well – that all Zelda games pitch their challenges. 

Epona was a huge success with players – who had almost certainly never wanted a game with a horse before this moment – and she reappears in Majora’s Mask (the direct sequel), although has something of a lesser role because the temporal structure of that game tends to de-emphasise the physical space of the world. With Wind Waker, however, a new ‘mount’ was tried in the form of a beautifully implemented sailing boat, the King of Red Lions, but despite the aesthetic success of this design it was not to appear in the franchise again. Likewise, Skyward Sword features a flying mount called a Loftwing, that is unique to that game and does not appear elsewhere. These experiments in alternative mounts are interesting in their own right (especially the King of Red Lions), but the franchise keeps returning to horses as the mount of preference.

In Twilight Princess, Epona makes another appearance (although the player has the capacity to rename her in this game), with far more advanced implementation. In Ocarina of Time, it was possible to fire the bow from horseback but not fight. For Twilight Princess, mounted combat is a significant part of the game, and the final battle against Ganondorf occurs on horseback with Princess Zelda sat behind Link upon Epona’s back. As with the earlier game, Link has the capacity to call his trusty steed and icons to make her gallop faster, but these are now styled as spurs rather than carrots, an iconography that recurs with Breath of the Wild.

While it is possible to get Epona in the newest Zelda game by using a Link Amiibo to unlock her, Breath of the Wild features a far more expansive horse system. Indeed, the implementation of horses in this new game is the most complex and engaging of any videogame ever made, and one of the great triumphs of the development team’s work in this iteration. This is particularly apparent during the time that players are building up their relationship with a new horse, since the mount behaves quite convincingly like a wild horse that has already been broken in (that is, become comfortable with a rider). Rather than the horse simply following the player’s instructions, it resists according to its own fears and concerns, being reluctant to go down certain routes, cross the most precarious bridges, or to ride too fast in some areas. The experience of riding during this rather brief window with a new horse is deeply rewarding in terms of the play aesthetics, creating a real sense of partnership between horse and rider, comparable to authentic horse riding in many respects. Of course, if the player treats game horses as cars on legs, they will be frustrated or disappointed. But for someone such as myself with a lifelong love of videogame horses, Breath of the Wild raised the bar absurdly high.

Yet despite this remarkable developmental success, horses are entirely undermined within the game by the fast travel system, which allows players to revisit at will any of the 120 Shrines, 15 towers, or 3 special locations simply by selecting them from the map. Unlike any Zelda before, this capacity to travel instantly to just about anywhere the player has already visited is available from very nearly the beginning of the game (strictly, from the moment the first tower is activated). This makes travelling by horseback of extremely limited use: while there are places (such as Kakariko village) that can be reached more easily for the first time by horse, this is offset by the fact that when travelling a route for the first time there is a great deal to find and the player is unlikely to feel comfortable simply riding through, ignoring everything on the way. Indeed, in the case of Kakariko, if the player ride there for the first time (as I did) you miss out on the encounter with Hestu, the Korok character who provides the essential capacity to expand the player’s inventories, and for which there is absolutely no funnelling to ensure the player will locate him afterwards.

A generous interpretation of this situation is that it honours the player’s agency in giving them the choice of whether to ride or not to ride. But a pragmatic analysis of the way the game functions suggests that there is no real choice here: riding is inferior in terms of travel time when revisiting (since the fast travel is instantaneous) and disadvantageous when first exploring, because either nothing is found or the player must stop constantly and dismount. There are a handful of side quests that require horses to complete, but beyond these all the beauty and charm of the mounted systems are essentially wasted in Breath of the Wild, having been undermined by the sheer immediacy of travelling directly to any of the 138 locations on the map that can offer a lazy immediacy of access.

In my own case, my initial joy at exploring the horse system was short lived, but I was bowled over by the impact of the first encounter with wild horses. The game asks the player to capture untamed horses by sneaking up to them and then surviving a ‘bucking bronco’ challenge where success is directly proportional to Link’s current Stamina (or supply of Stamina-restoring meals…). There follows perhaps half an hour of riding time where the horse possesses tremendous personality and identity. After this, the horse behaves much like a horse in any other contemporary AAA game (e.g. Assassin’s Creed: Origins) with the capacity to follow paths on their own but otherwise little identity. Don’t get me wrong, they are still enormous fun to ride – but all the unique aesthetic moments the horse system provides are under-represented or squeezed out of relevance.

However, after completing the game for the first time, I made a personal commitment to the horses and for the next ten hours or so did not use the fast travel system for anything. I wanted to experience what the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild was truly like as a mounted adventure – and was extremely satisfied by this experience, which took me more or less everywhere that it is possible to ride a horse. I was particularly impressed, for instance, that it is possible to reach the elusive Korok settlement in Great Hyrule Forest with a horse, despite the difficult problems posed by crossing the mysterious and spooky maze that is the Lost Woods. These were some of my most enjoyable hours with the game, in part because I was freed from its compulsive grip (having already competed it) and felt empowered to enjoy the world for what it was.

There is, however, one last aspect of the horses that provides a significant advantage and that might cause some players to find keeping up their equestrian practices worthwhile. Upon horseback, jumping rockets the player into the air to a degree equivalent to using a stuntman’s trampette. Since the game allows the player access to ‘bullet time’ when drawing their bow in the air (but never on the ground), horses provide the most reliable access to these time-slowing capacities, which can be especially useful when fighting the dreaded Guardian Stalker enemies, whose beam weapons are fatal in the early game and remain nasty all the way through. This small silver lining provides a reason – beyond the sheer aesthetic pleasure of riding – to traverse the beautiful lands of Hyrule upon the back of a horse.

One final point is worth mentioning. Horses can die. This provided the most shocking moment of any Zelda game I have ever played, when a routine expedition along a coastal path went horribly wrong as I took a narrow path too rapidly and my mount stumbled, fell down the cliff, and died. Even knowing that the developers had provided an option for resurrection via a convenient Horse Goddess, I was hurt and humbled by realising that I had brought this imaginary horse’s life to an end. This was radically more upsetting than the death of Agro in Shadow of the Colossus, since that event happens in a pre-scripted cut scene (and thus not as a result of player action), and was also not much of a surprise to me as an experienced game writer. Losing a horse in Zelda, though – that was a powerful and distressing moment, one that forever changed the way I rode around Hyrule. I was not, and still am not, willing to let another of my beautiful fictitious horses die as a result of my carelessness and this serves as another reminder of the incredible polish evident in the horse system in Breath of the Wild. What a shame that it is also so cruelly undermined by the overall design.  

Next week, the final part: Zelda


Zelda Facets (4): Weapons

Last week, why the newest incarnation of Hyrule is not a traditional open world at all. This week, the changing face of weapons in the Zelda series.

Lynel duelOne thing and only one thing remains consistent across the various armouries of the Zelda series: Link is armed with a sword, a shield, and a bow. There may be other weapons – a boomerang, for instance, or a slingshot – but the certainty that Link’s standard compliment of weapons is a sword and a bow remains unchanged until Breath of the Wild. Similarly, it is not until the latest Zelda that the game features a dynamic inventory capable of holding a variety of items: up until this point, every Zelda game has a static set of items and the only question is whether the player has acquired a specific item or not. This is an element of the Zelda practices that few other games have copied, and the change in the latest game is one of the few cases of Zelda apparently moving towards a more conventional videogame practice and giving up its own unique ways of doing things.

In all the Zelda games prior to Breath of the Wild, there has been a core sequence of blades – typically some kind of starting sword (just called ‘Sword’ in The Legend of Zelda, later Fighter’s Sword, Kokiri Sword, Hero’s Sword, Wooden Sword, or Practice Sword) that later progresses in one or more steps to the Master Sword, which made its first appearance in A Link to the Past. Wind Waker allowed Link the capacity to pick up weapons wielded by enemies for the first time, but it did not permit him to keep them, while Skyward Sword, which is set at the earliest point in the Zelda timeline, is effectively the story of the forging of the Master Sword and thus has a sequence of swords that represent the steps along this path (Goddess Sword, Goddess Longsword, Goddess White Sword, Master Sword, and finally True Master Sword).

In some respects, as already noted, Breath of the Wild moves towards conventional CRPG practices with its grid inventory that holds weapons, shields, and bows for the player to choose between. Yet at the same time, something very unusual happens in the new Zelda in terms of the weapons breaking and disappearing. Weapon durability is hardly a new element in videogames, and even within the franchise it appeared in Ocarina of Time in the form of the Giant’s Knife that breaks after a handful of hits or in Majora’s Mask with the Razor Sword, which returns to the Master Sword after one hundred swings. But the usual way weapon durability is dealt with in videogames involves weapons breaking when durability expires, and then the player taking steps to fix them e.g. weapon repair kits and blacksmiths in The Witcher 3. Controversially, given some players’ highly negative reaction to weapon durability, Breath of the Wild has weapons that break and are gone for good – subverting conventional player practices to such a degree that it creates a play experience almost no player is prepared for.

How powerfully an individual player is affected by this depends on their prior experiences and expectations, but for many of us who would ordinarily avoid a game that would not let us keep our beloved toys, the impact of the weapon system is akin to the five stages of grief. First, anger: they couldn’t possibly have thought this was a good idea, could they? (They did.) Then, denial: these are just the starting weapons, the later weapons won’t break (they do), and surely the Master sword won’t break? (it does, well, it takes long naps at least.) Then, fear: how am I going to keep supplied with weapons, they’re breaking faster than I can find them! (Until you start finding reliable places to get good weapons, which both last a long time and require fewer hits to do the same job.) Then, exhaustion: just how much of my time is going to go into keeping me supplied with weapons? (As much as it takes to get you through thinking of weapons as a fixed resource). Finally, impatience: why aren’t my weapons breaking fast enough to make room for more cool weapons?

Provided you adapt to the player practices the inventory system implies, and don’t fall permanently into one of these disgruntled intermediate states, the result is an experience quite unlike anything else that is out there. Like the best of the previous Zelda combat systems, namely Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the new battle design is simple but still allows the player tremendous mastery when they get to grips with it – and once you do, the experience of fighting in Breath of the Wild transcends anything else in the space of games that are seeking to offer an accessible combat balance (rather than, say, risk-reward challenges e.g. Dark Souls, Monster Hunter). With the core skills under your belt, the weapons cease to matter because you can kill a Keese with a tree branch, overcome a Lizalfos camp starting with a single bow and one Shock arrow, or take down a Lynel with just a couple of half-decent weapons in your inventory. I am not a player with a particular taste for victory in battle, I’m much more of an explorer than a conqueror – but even I became obsessed with mastering each of the foes, and can happily retake a Major Test of Strength over and over again, just to enjoy my own martial prowess. And I doubt, frankly, that I’m really that good at the combat in the game.

It is important to appreciate what the weapon-grind brings to the game that would be impossible without it. If the weapons were all permanent, the player would rapidly exhaust interest in the vast majority of the available blades since the best weapons acquired are the only ones you need. This is a problem I struggle with again and again in the design of my own CRPGs because you want the player to get new weapons, but new weapons invalidate the old ones, which become just things to sell. Not in Breath of the Wild: there’s a role for almost all weapons, as some monsters fall easily to certain types… even the weakest spear is a perfect choice to defend against Keese, a single hit from an Iron Sledgehammer shatters any Pebblit, and a fire weapon instantly slays an ice enemy. You want to keep a balanced armoury so you have the right tool for the right job, but in a pinch a skilled player can make just about any weapon work long enough to get more weapons. You do not hoard weapons like a collector in this game, the weapons flow through Link and you enjoy their passage the moment you get over your certainty that it would be better if they didn’t break.

Instead, all the weapons are interesting, even the terrible weapons up to a point (my son is forever asking me what I can take out with a tree branch), and unlike any CRPG that could be named, the player can rise – and fall – in power as rapidly as they can locate and pick up a powerful blade and then break it. What’s more, this reinforces the open structure which, as discussed last week, is far more open than the conventional open world formula. Thus, the very real possibility of completing the Great Plateau and then immediately making a bee-line for the Calamity Ganon (yes, it’s a silly name – Zelda has always been chock full of silly boss names). The weapons inside Hyrule Castle, where the final boss can be found, are stronger than anywhere else in the game so if you possess the skills to survive there without Hearts to protect you (or, equally possible, you have quickly acquired meals that supply you with a lot of bonus yellow Hearts), it becomes possible to grow in power near-instantaneously and be ready to win the game in just a few hours. Provided, of course, you already spent many times that much time learning where everything in Hyrule is, and mastering anything Link needs to be able to do.

As mentioned, however, the system can be extremely tiring once you have learned reliable places to get good weapons, but lack the confidence that you will be able to make do with the kit that you have brought with you plus whatever you happen to find along the way. The result – as with the collection of cooking ingredients that initially motivates but later risks rendering parts of the exploration rather passé – is an exhaustion with the process of keeping the weapons stocked up. This is rooted less in the design, however, than in the player’s desire to control the inventory as if the weapons do not break. Once the disposability of the weaponry becomes as natural as jumping in a platform game, there is no way to be exhausted by the inventory management because it doesn’t matter. Half decent weapons are everywhere, excellent weapons are not hard to find, and brilliant weapons are not worth obsessing over because hey, they’re going to break too.

If there is a tangible flaw with this arrangement it could be that new players, especially younger players with less videogame experience to draw against, face almost insurmountable problems learning to fight because all of the early weapons do very little damage and break with absurd ease the moment Link touches them. (I guess Link must be holding them wrong, because they never break in the enemy’s hands!) Against this, the only hope of redemption is owning any of the many Hyrule-themed Amiibo, since the daily chest drops from these supply weapons that, while mediocre to an experienced player, are a godsend to starting players, raising them far above the bar required to get the ball rolling. (I found several Zelda Amiibo in a $5 bargain bin in Knoxville, TN, the month Breath of the Wild released, some of which were selling on eBay for close to a hundred dollars at the time – much to my smug satisfaction.)

As this discussion highlights, this audacious piece of design is not for everyone. Players who cannot make their peace with the idea of weapons breaking will be in a perpetual hell of emotional insecurity punctuated with the endless cursing that happens when yet another of your weapons breaks. But remember, you are not some suburban nerd collecting weapons as if they were trading cards: you are Link. Your tenacity is his courage, and your knowledge of Hyrule is the weapon that can never be taken away from you. If you wish for permanence, claim the Master Sword that is your birth right and make sure you carry something in reserve for when it gets tuckered out and needs a nap. The Link of Breath of the Wild is a master of any and all weapons. Accept their impermanence, and you shall be too.

Next week: Horses