“Golden threads of imagination will always be found woven into the fabric of a human life, and it affords one of the sweetest pastimes to old age to sit down and slowly unravel them, recalling the hours when first they were spun.” -James Lendall Basford, 1882
Climb. Live. Protect. Those were the words behind the phenomenal design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As creative director Eiji Aonuma put it, this theme defines the ability to explore by “climbing everywhere, living in harmony with the world around us, and protecting something or someone to accomplish a mission.”
From the outset, Link, an extension of the player, is awakened in a dark chamber by a mysterious voice. As he makes his way to the outside, he is greeted by a ray of light before stumbling upon a beautiful vista of blue skies and green fields. It is here, on this Great Plateau where the journey begins.
The scenery is simply breathtaking. Rolling hills, towering mountain ranges, and white snowy peaks; there is exuberance in every direction. Flora and fauna permeate the expansive world. As you make your way down the hill, you’re greeted by an old man who sets you off on your grand adventure. The beauty of Breath of the Wild lies in its ability to integrate the lush design of the wilderness with the yearning for exploration and discovery. From any vantage point on the map you’re able to survey the land and identify any points of interest.
Littered throughout the land are various forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains whose names are inspired by characters of yore within the Zelda mythos; not to mention a few visual nods to locations and architecture from previous entries in the series. This adds a historical weight to the otherwise all-new new experience.
The richness and complexity of venturing into the wild is interspersed with quieter moments of cooking, relaxing, and nature-gazing. Perhaps that is one of the more alluring aspects of the gaming experience. The ability to traverse the landscape at your own pace and on your own volition gives the player a sense of free exploration while not losing site of the ultimate objective. It also allows the player to reach a level of strategic decision making that is required to navigate the many obstacles and challenges set forth.
The game provides the player with the freedom to approach puzzles and challenges from any direction they please. Rather than hinting at a pre-determined strategy, the design encourages experimentation and developing novel approaches to solving any problem. This freedom enhances the satisfaction associated with completing a difficult shrine or vanquishing an arduous enemy. The inhabitants of this world are also quite dynamic, with various characters and creatures adapting to their environment as it evolves around them.
The defining feature of any Zelda game is the ability to deliver a sense of adventure and a feeling of having completed an actual journey by the end of it; both in game and personally. My first Zelda experience was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I first played nearly 20 years ago. I can sit down and recount the entire journey moment by moment as it unraveled over the few months it took me to master the game. The places I visited, the characters I met and befriended, the difficulties I encountered, and the bosses I defeated. To me, that is the real journey. It lives both in the virtual world and in the player’s heart. Every Legend of Zelda game I've played since then has offered me that same feeling. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took that to the next level and turned, what probably would have been my fantasized version of Ocarina of Time, into a living, breathing experience on screen.
By nature of design, Breath of the Wild lends itself to being quite a lengthy experience. This prolonged investment, however, ultimately offers an inadvertent fulfillment when revisiting parts of Hyrule that you had visited before. It even raises, I dare say, a bit of nostalgia when looking upon a desolated enemy camp or a puzzle you had worked through months earlier. Oddly enough, It is fairly gratifying. The ability to take a few snapshots along the way, greatly enhances that experience as well.
I am reminded of something that many artists and creative folk across the entertainment industry have stated in the past when asked about making their follow-up to a great work of art. The answer is always: Why? Why should I do it again when it's already out there for the public to experience and enjoy. If someone wants to enjoy a pervious entry in the series that is beloved to them, they can certainly do so; or if they wish to enjoy a great film or listen to a classic music album they can do so at any time. Therefore, rather than be restricted by what the artist has already created, true innovation lies in creating a brand-new experience that will become a classic in and of itself in due time.
The virtual world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a unique quality to it that has never been experienced before in the franchise. Running through grasslands, climbing towering mountains, and gliding over the terrain majestically are just some of the elements which make the world a joy to experience. The developers were able to directly tap into that primordial feeling and emotion associated with true exploration. Breath of the Wild offered something completely unexpected, wherein a veteran gamer, like myself, had no idea what might be around the corner or what town or tribe they might encounter next. In retrospect, I suppose every Legend of Zelda game has its own unique flavor, but one thing’s for sure. Nintendo "upended the tea table" this time around, as they like to say, and for that, I'm glad.
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.