Last week, how the player’s tenacity is represented in Link’s courage. This week, how the character of Link is inseparable from the world of Hyrule. Contains minor spoilers for Breath of the Wild.
In John Boorman’s 1981 retelling of the Arthurian mythos, Excalibur, the secret of the grail is that ‘the land and the king are one’. This motto could equally apply to narrative videogames, where the player character and the world is inseparable precisely because the avatar – the player’s capacity to take action in the fictional setting of the game – links the player to the world via a representation of a character (often a visual model, effectively a digital doll). As we saw last week, in the mind of current Zelda franchise master Eiji Aonuma Link’s name is precisely a reference to his role in linking the player to the world of Hyrule.
The elegance of the Zelda franchise’s solution to the problems entailed in facilitating avatars is such that it has many imitators, although it is worth noting that the 1986 Metroid – released by Nintendo in the same year as the original Legend of Zelda – has essentially the same relationship between character and world. It can be described as follows: the character starts with only the capacity to explore and to defend themselves (or, equivalently, to enact violence but without a huge degree of efficacy). Through exploration and survival, the player overcomes challenges that grant them an increase in their power, which can involve making the character tougher, increasing their capacity for violence, or granting them a way to access parts of the world that were previously inaccessible. Once the player has acquired sufficient powers in this way, they have a final showdown that tests their ability to deploy all the powers of their character, after which the game story concludes.
If this reads like a description of any videogame, this is a mirage caused by the extent to which this structure has permeated the player practices of digital entertainment. Note that in a Mario game, there is no gradual acquisition of power, and neither was this the case in arcade games, which were not able to pursue exploration because of the time limitations of the coin-drop economy. Similarly, the classic CRPG structure does not necessitate the relationship between overcoming challenges and gaining power, since experience systems permit players to grind against weaker monsters to increase their power and these games almost never increase the character’s capacity to access new parts of the world that is central to both the Zelda and Metroid structures. It is also worth remembering that while there were earlier save game mechanisms, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid had ratcheted progress that was entirely novel in its day, for all that we take it for granted now. This developed in time into an elegant unified save system, and then in Breath of the Wild to an innovative set of six autosaves that allow the player to restore any time in the last few hours without any requirement for the player to manually manage their save library.
In the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda back in 1986, the increases of power that are central to the formula of the franchise are acquired from within dungeons, which are hidden around the world. Although the player is unaware of it, there is an implied sequence of these dungeons, but this order can be easily subverted – the first few can be done in any order, while the later dungeons require tools acquired in a different dungeon in order to progress. This made progressing in the first Legend of Zelda much more of a puzzle than in either Metroid or any Zelda that followed, and is the reason it is sometimes described (somewhat misleadingly) as an open world. In Aonuma-san’s recent interview with Game Kult, the point was raised that he found the original game too stingy with its clues, while in a Game Informer interview during the promotion of Skyward Sword, he noted that it was the exploration in the third Zelda game, A Link to the Past, that really drew him in – and set his career on its path.
Even under Shigeru Miyamoto’s control, the Zelda franchise was to move away from the obscurity required to complete the original game and into a comfortable formula that addressed this problem. This entailed a fixed sequence of dungeons, each containing a new tool that was required to complete it and that afterwards provided access to new parts of the world, including the next dungeon. Thus bombs that could blow holes in damaged walls, a hookshot that allowed crossing gaps, or a blue tunic that allowed Link to breathe underwater. This concept is already there in the original game, what is new is the strict sequence making it more apparent what is expected of the player, and thus reducing the obscurity of the puzzles – as well as opening up the games to a far wider audience. (I confess, that while I did complete the original The Legend of Zelda this was only in retrospect; my first Zelda game was A Link to the Past and if the puzzles had been more obscure than they were it mighthave ended my interest in the franchise then and there. In Ocarina of Time, the puzzles very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the game entirely.)
With Breath of the Wild, the formula that had sustained the Zelda franchise since the beginning was completely subverted. The tools required to overcome puzzles are not paced out over the length of the game but delivered to the player in the first few hours, within the Great Plateau that serves as the tutorial area for the game. Rather than dungeons being in a strict sequence with each one unlocking a new capacity, the four dungeons in the latest game – the Divine Beasts – each provide the player two extremely useful advantages (one that applies to the entire world, and another that weakens the final boss) but completing these challenges is entirely optional. Indeed, nothing prevents the player from completing the Great Plateau and then proceeding to defeat the boss straight away, something that was on paper possible in some earlier videogames (such as the original Fallout) but which has become exceptionally rare, and certainly was never possible in any previous Zelda, including the 1986 original.
Much discussion around Breath of the Wild has focused upon the claim that it has moved closer to the practices of the open world genre, typified by the structure established by Grand Theft Auto III (as discussed in the introduction to this serial). But this is a mistake: almost nothing that the new Zelda does is in the form that is codified and conserved by the mainstream open world genre. This is most apparent in the narrative design, which in the GTAIII formula is a chain of waypoints some of which require challenges to overcome, and which are often arranged in an act structure with separate terrain allocated to each act. Whether Vice City and San Andreas in 2002 and 2004 or Witcher III in 2015, this structure remains fundamentally unchanged. Yet Breath of the Wild does not use this narrative design at all, and instead invents an entirely new structure with two parallel elements, both of which are entirely optional to completing the game. The first of these are the memories, which we will discuss when we get to the question of Zelda herself. The second are the Shrines, which represent a total subversion of the standard Zelda character advancement structure, and a corresponding new vision for Hyrule itself.
Shrines are equivalent to individual rooms within dungeons in any earlier Zelda game i.e. they present either a puzzle, a combat challenge, or just a straight reward to the player. In the standard Zelda formula, dungeons are intricate puzzle boxes, much admired by fans of such things, such that the elegance of the design often transcends the individual rooms. The Divine Beasts retain this dungeon structure, and are an excellent example of the form, although as already noted – unlike every preceding Zelda – you don’t have to complete any of them. The same is true of the Shrines: the player must complete the four Shrines on the Great Plateau, after which they do not need to complete any Shrines to finish the game. If your interest as a player does not include puzzles, you can just complete the combat shrines (as I did in my second playthrough), and if you don’t like fighting you can just focus on puzzles, but if you simply want to explore the world you can bypass all but the first four Shrines. True, you will face a much tougher challenge in the final fight if you do not complete any Shrines, since the Spirit Orbs you earn from them are tremendously helpful. But all challenges except the first four Shrines and the final boss fight in Breath of the Wild are optional. This is not the standard open world structure at all, but an entirely new and innovative structure, unlike anything we’ve seen before.
This freedom comes with a significant cost. Side quests in Zelda have always held the possibility of getting either a Piece of Heart (a quarter of a health container in every Zelda except Twilight Princess, which unwisely inflated this to five) or an Empty Bottle (that is, a significant inventory expansion). In Breath of the Wild, every side quest is entirely irrelevant from the perspective of powering up the player character since Heart containers and Stamina vessels are earned from Spirit Orbs acquired exclusively in Shrines, and inventory expansion is achieved by finding Koroks, solving a relatively simple puzzle or challenge and then trading the seeds they give you for equipment slots by speaking to the musically-minded Korok giant Hestu. There are side quests that earn Shrines, and a side quest that earns a useful item of clothing, but to a surprisingly great degree, completing side quests has been downgraded in Breath of the Wild to the single least important element of the challenges the player is afforded. For the first time, Link can be played as a total misanthrope... the other people in Hyrule barely matter in terms of the design.
Another aspect of the new structure is the way the game copes with the massive size of Hyrule. In point of fact, Hyrule has always been – from the very beginning – laid out as a patchwork quilt of different encounters. A monster here, a hazard there, a hidden chest here, a Great Fairy Fountain there, someone to talk to here, a town over there, a dungeon over here. The world of Hyrule is a carefully curated distribution of things to find, fight, talk to, or puzzle over. With Breath of the Wild, the sheer enormity of the world makes it far harder to maintain an even distribution of content – even allowing for 120 Shrines to discover and 900 Korok mini-puzzles. Building on the collection element introduced in Skyward Sword, where the player is rewarded for stockpiling ingredients and monster parts that are acquired from various enemies and locations, the new Zelda spaces out monsters, group-fights, secondary bosses, Koroks, and Shrines with areas to forage for cooking ingredients and hunting zones with non-monster animals that provide meat (which is also the most effective way to earn money within the game, excluding a few mini-game exploits). The result is that as long as the player remains interested in the collection, they can set out on any route at all and discover things worth finding.
The downside to this is that as soon as the player ceases to be engaged in the collection, the intrinsic greed that originally kept them searching falls by the wayside and the longer journeys can begin to become tiresome unless the player is able to enjoy the sheer aesthetic beauty of the landscape – and this becomes much tougher when the player is intermittently accosted by enemies. In the early stages of the game, the rewards for searching are substantial since the player’s lack of capabilities makes cooking for meals and elixirs that boost their abilities or restore Hearts or Stamina utterly invaluable. As the player completes Shrines and earns Heart containers – and even more so as they acquire Stamina containers – they gain in power (as the essence of Zelda requires) but consequently lose motivation to engage in gathering. A sense of fatigue therefore sets in at some point during the process of play for almost all players (an experience remarked upon by Jed Pressgrove in his review), one that either encourages them to achieve completion and make a break from the game, or requires them to think differently about their play from then on in.
One last aspect of the new Hyrule is important to discuss: climbing. Aonuna-san, in numerous interviews in connection with Breath of the Wild, stresses the importance of the climbing experience to the game, aligning with the Japanese marketing message of “Climb, live, protect” as the essence of this new title. In the Game Kult interview, he notes:
From the beginning of the adventure, Link is able to climb high enough to allow you, once you reach the summit, to observe the landscape and head for the place that caught your eye using the paraglider. This loop made of climbing, contemplating and gliding is the essence of exploration in this Zelda, and I really wanted to make getting lost in this world a pleasure.
Although climbing has been a part of Zelda since Ocarina of Time, it takes on an entirely new meaning in Breath of the Wild both because this Hyrule has been carefully designed for it (as the above quote attests) and because of the limited Stamina. Thus, in the early stages of the game, climbing functions as a puzzle with players required to identify ledges to rest upon in order to complete difficult ascents (or, alternatively, stockpiling meals or elixirs that restore Stamina, costing the player their time and effort). Great flexibility comes into play here, with each climb offering either an environmental puzzle to solve or a logistical supply issue to address. Then, in keeping with the essence of Link as the character who gains in power as the player persists, acquiring Stamina vessels makes every climb radically more manageable, until the experienced player can effortlessly defeat any mountain in a manner parallel to the way they defeat a strong enemy, through the combination of Link having grown in power, and the player having grown in skill. Some players may object to the restrictions that Stamina applies to climbing in this game – but no-one can justifiably complain that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Zelda as a franchise.
As with Boorman’s King Arthur, Link and Hyrule are one – the capacities the player acquires for Link through their persistent overcoming of challenges and puzzles only make sense in the context of a world that yields to that increase in power. While Breath of the Wild mostly disrupts the standard Zelda model of providing new tools that grant new ways to exert increased agency, the Stamina system provides a unique way of making climbing parallel to combat and exploration, creating a Hyrule that offers more capacity for exploration and mastery than any before. In providing the player choices to apply their skills and the powers they have earned, the new game continues the traditions of the Zelda franchise, while simultaneously carving out an entirely new approach to open worlds.
Next week: Weapons