There are plenty of grand vistas and wild shenanigans that define my time with Breath of the Wild, but there is a moment that disturbs and unsettles me. Once I was traveling through the seaside town of Lurelin. A woman stood near the edge of town, looking out to an island in the distance. I talked to her and she told me this: “You see that island over there? That’s Eventide Island. I came all the way here so that I could go there.” But I had already been to the island. I had discovered a trial designed for me, one that took all my weapons and armor away. It challenged me with defeating the various elements of the island with only my wits and what I can find. It was this game at its scrambling, improvising best. Her ambition was just a marker for me; a way that I could fulfill my destiny. Though her dream is dead, she still looks out onto that island, never to reach it.
This story is a microcosm of Breath of the Wild’s. Several characters dream of traveling or opening one of the game’s hidden shrines or finding some legendary treasure. But because you are chosen, only you get to live out their dreams. Often, the game shines with a brilliance that relies on your own sense of spatial reasoning, your own way of seeing the world. However, underneath this shine is a hollow heart. Breath of the Wild is never truly wild; its world can never free itself from your specter. A world that starts out bold, expansive, and uncaring gradually shrinks to your very own playground.
The game is at its best when it relies on a world external to you. In the early portions of the game, when you just a few hits can kill you and when tools and resources are unfamiliar, the world becomes a breathtaking vision of play and discovery. You experiment because you have to. This mirrors the games’s most astonishing segments: the aforementioned item-eating island, a forest covered in a thick darkness, inconvenient encounters with assassins, spectacular bosses hidden in obscure corners of the world, dragons that float above you. When the world and its mysteries feel truly beyond you, Hyrule becomes a wild and beautiful place.
This extends to the game’s narrative. One of the game’s brilliant moves is to model many of the game’s locations after ones from previous Zelda titles. Places echo that past lives of Zelda games, ones that many of Breath of the Wild’s players have lived through. It feels like revisiting an old home, now changed, and you must come to terms with what happened in your absence. It reflects Link’s own experience, as someone who has awoken after a giant disaster, hundreds of years later, and must attempt to find meaning in that loss. This gives Breath of the Wild’s spaces a ponderous melancholy. It is a world that long existed without you, and although you can now begin to set things right, you cannot reverse all that was lost.
But this melancholy is rarely found in the game’s text. More often than not it re-enforces that you – Link! Hero! Adventurer! – are back. Things will be made right. Some may have suffered, yes, but they will get their chance at revenge. They’ll help along the way. On your epic journey. Communities that long managed without you, are suddenly in grave peril and must be rescued. Only you can do it, though with the help of some amusing and vibrant, if shallow, characters. You are the important key that opens the door of every problem in Hyrule.
Nothing quite personifies this like Zelda herself. She wishes to be Link, to be a fighter, but is trapped in Hyrule Castle by fate, unable to leave until you return. She is trapped by a narrative that is not her own and that she could never choose. In some ways, Link is too, but for him it is empowering. He gets to go on a freeing adventure around the world, but Zelda remains alone. As Tevis Thompson pointed out on Twitter, the game sympathizes with her plight, but ultimately considers it necessary. There is no way out for her, but to push through, confined by the role fate placed her in.
This cloying fate extends to the outside world, dotted with ancient buildings that serve only to help Link. These shines act as tests, with the reward of living longer or running farther at the end. As with so many of the worlds secrets, both those hinted at by its inhabitants and found throughout the world, they are only meant for you. As you play, your map dots up with shrines, that you can teleport to. As your map fills in, a once wild, untamed world because your plaything. You gradually find more powerful weapons, and upgrade your clothes to take any hit or weather condition. It reveals that Hyrule was designed for you, both in its fiction and in the real world.
Underneath Breath of the Wild’s radical exterior is a fundamentally conservative game. It bows to player power. It lets the world become easily traversable, puts every character in your debt, gives you a multitude of weapons to use, and clothes that negate the effects of an initially hostile world. You never really conquer Hyrule, but you do grow to control it. Furthermore, its narrative is the stripped down broad strokes of nearly every Zelda game before it. The central characters must take their places and can never break free from fate. It is too invested in itself, in its legacy, to truly be wild.
Often, while playing, I found myself thinking of the Witcher 3. Its open world is far less effortless to explore and far less playful, but it exists beyond. While your actions have consequences for almost every community you encounter, there are forces that are far beyond your reach. No matter how much you level up, they will remain outside of your ability to control. Geralt, the game’s protagonist, helps save the world in the end. However, poverty, racism, monarchy, and tyranny remain. Witches and wizards are unjustly hunted. There is no place where men and elves can live peacefully together. Geralt can do a lot of good, but so much remains outside of him. The game makes this explicit, when in the climax of the game, Geralt is told that this is not his story. The only way he can protect those he loves is to let go.
I long for moment in Breath of the Wild like this. A moment where the player must trust. Where they are not the center of everything, but rather where they must let go. Some might say that Zelda herself serves this purpose. However, the very structure of the game, the multitude of shrines, the emphasis on combat, and the lite min maxing and stat building, lead to a world that exists for you.
In moments and flickers, another game, one truly wild and beautiful and outside of you appears. The vision of Hyrule that presents itself in the first hour will stick to my brain for a long time. But the way that world shrinks will also stick. Breath of the Wild is guaranteed to inspire countless imitators, but I hope they remember what gradually turns its beautiful, strange, and free world in a hollow vision of power.