The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild

A Breath of Fresh Air

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time isn’t suddenly a garbage game just because Breath of the Wild has come along and reinvented the Zelda franchise. Good, we’ve agreed on that. Moving on.

Breath of the Wild is, as many others have pointed out, a masterpiece of game design. There’s a couple of things in BotW that put it over the top, I think: the immense open world, teeming with wild flora and fauna, the remarkable physics engine that drives most of Link’s special abilities, and the ability to climb literally anything and go literally anywhere on the map at any time. Breath of the Wild is what it is because the player can run in any random direction they choose and always find a living world with nary a barrier thrown down that can not be overcome. It’s a remarkable experience.

It is not, however, the only viable experience that the Zelda franchise can offer its fans going forward.

When people who’ve played Breath of the Wild say, “How can they possibly go back to the way Zelda was before?” my answer is, “Because the way Zelda was before was also pretty damn good.” Just because BotW tells players, “Here’s all of your items up front, now do anything you want in any order you want to do it,” doesn’t mean that every 3D Zelda from now on has to do the same, or even SHOULD do the same. Besides, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. This is the company who saw how much people loved The Legend of Zelda and responded by giving them the complete left turn that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. A great, classic, Ocarina-style item-gate driven 3D Zelda is absolutely still a viable option for the franchise going forward… as well as some other style of game we probably haven’t even thought of because Nintendo hasn’t made it up yet.

That said.

Breath of the Wild changes, adds, and gets rid of a lot of smaller elements of past Zelda games that probably should NOT be walked back to the way they were before. Not core game design. The core Zelda game design has always been great. But there are other things around the fringes of that core design that were sorely in need of the upgrade that Breath of the Wild delivers. Let’s review.

  1. Remastered Z-Targeting – The bread and butter of 3D Zelda is the Z-targeting mechanic, so called because when it first debuted it was triggered by holding down the Z button of the N64 controller claw. Z-targeting is a lock-on system, and it’s what allows Link to freely circle around an individual enemy, rather than spinning and flailing about wildly while trying to score a hit. Breath of the Wild does not lose Z-targeting, but it does offer the first major refinement to the system since Ocarina of Time. In Breath of the Wild, when confronted with a pack of enemies, you can lock onto one but you’ll have to worry about the others coming at you from different directions. In most past 3D Zelda adventures that wasn’t the case; while you dealt with the Z-targeted foe the other enemies would patiently wait their turn to attack… which in hindsight seems pretty ridiculous, actually. Z-targeting also traditionally causes Link to raise his shield, which holds true in Breath of the Wild… the difference being in that this latest adventure, Link’s shield can be worn down and shattered, leaving him defenseless. Also, Z-targeting and defending with a shield adds an extra layer of defense/offense to combat. If perfectly timed, Link can now swing his shield to meet an enemy’s blow and knock them back with a “Perfect Parry”, throwing the world into bullet-time and giving Link an opening to really whale on his foe; he can do the same with a well-timed dodge, which triggers an opportunity to execute a “Flurry Rush” of rapid fire attacks. Prior to BotW, the deepest 3D Zelda combat system was found in Skyward Sword and its micro-focused Z-targeting system, with each individual targeted foe offering a unique motion puzzle that, when solved, would lead to their defeat. Breath of the Wild‘s Z-targeting takes that idea and runs away from it, opening up the system into a macro-focused world of varied incoming enemy attack vectors, breakable equipment, and multiple “solutions” to each combat puzzle.
  2. Collectibles Worth Collecting – This goes two ways. It refers both to what the game DOES ask you to collect, and what it DOESN’T. We’ll start with the latter: no longer does The Legend of Zelda ask you to accept that bottles and bigger quivers, wallets, and bomb bags are exciting items to obtain. In Breath of the Wild you can collect all the bugs and fairies your little heart desires (without a net, either!), you can carry as many rupees and arrows as you want from the word “go”, and bombs are infinite in supply. Breath of the Wild also recognizes that heart container pieces and rupees you’ll never use are lame prizes for solving puzzles and beating side quests, so the heart container upgrade system has been revamped and you actually have a reason to use rupees, spending them in generous amounts on crafting items, special arrows, and armor. Yes, that’s right: armor. Let’s talk weapons and armor, or the things that Breath of the Wild DOES ask you to collect. All of a sudden, The Legend of Zelda has a weapons system as deep and varied as an SNES-era Final Fantasy game. You can collect all sorts of upgradeable and color-customizable outfits and armor for Link to run around in, and swords, spears, axes, bows, boomerangs, magic wands, and shields come in dozens and dozens of sizes and shapes. One of the very rare criticisms of Breath of the Wild has been its breakable weapons system. I love the breakable weapons system, and not because it’s “realistic” or some such nonsense. I love the system because it means every weapon in every treasure chest is suddenly of vital importance, as you can no longer marry yourself to one “favorite” sword and stick with it. In Breath of the Wild, prizes matter again entirely because weapons and shields are breakable. In an adventure game that’s mostly about wandering and discovering, I’ll take that trade-off every day of the week.
  3. Voice Acting – In my recent play-through of the five earlier 3D Zelda games, I have to say it did get a little weird, particularly in the text-heavy Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, to have to read all of the plot exposition that had been disguised as character dialogue. So now that the mainline 3D end of the franchise has gone to fully voice-performed cut scenes, I don’t see how they can walk that back. An overhead Zelda on 2DS? Of course that would be a text-based adventure. The 3D home console franchise, though, can’t go backwards. It would really be off-putting. Two bones of contention: the first is that I’ve seen a lot, and I mean a LOT, of criticism of the actress voicing Princess Zelda in Breath of the Wild, and I tend to be of the mind that a lot, and I mean a LOT, of that criticism comes from the last Breath of the Wild trailer debuting in Japanese with English subtitles. “But the Japanese actress had so much EMOTION!” say British Zelda’s critics. Well, yes. Japanese acting traditions are rooted in melodrama, while much contemporary Western acting is rooted in the more subdued “Method”. Actress Patricia Summersett does a more than adequate job with, let’s admit it, not the greatest batch of dialogue in the world; it doesn’t help that most of her scenes are performed opposite a virtual silent film star. Which brings me to my second bone of contention, and it’s going to be a controversial one: in future Zelda installments, it’s long past time for Link to speak. He can’t be the only one walking around not saying anything in the cut scenes. It’s just weird.
  4. Link is Link – This is the first Zelda game, as far as I can remember, where you don’t get to name the main character. You don’t even start a file in the Switch version of the game; you just save the game under your Switch user ID. Nope, you can’t name your Hero of Legend “Poop” or “Earl” or “Jesus”. He’s Link. That’s it. That’s who he is. You can’t rename Mario and you can’t rename Samus Aran, so I don’t see why players should ever again have the option to pick a new name for Nintendo’s second biggest star.
  5. An Actual Overworld – I absolutely adore striking out across the sea in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. For my money that is still one of the most therapeutically lovely moments in all of gaming history. Still, even I recognize that Wind Waker‘s “vast ocean” was a relatively tiny series of gridded “rooms”, each with one individual island to its credit. Skyward Sword was even worse; the really boring sky led to three claustrophobic outdoor dungeons that in turn led to a series of indoor dungeons. Breath of the Wild‘s ridiculously vast Hyrule blows all of this out of the water, of course. Look: this is a franchise about adventure and exploration. How any future Zelda games lead Link (that’s his name!) through the progression of its story is irrelevant to this point. The story and dungeon progression can be laser-focused and hyper linear. Hyrule itself, though, can never again feature an overworld made of outdoor “rooms” connected through tiny entrances and exits. I’m not saying Link always has to be able to climb everywhere. In Breath of the Wild, he’s freaking Spider-Man, and that doesn’t always need to be the case. What I AM saying is that, from this day forth in the kingdom of Hyrule, if you can see it on the horizon you have to be able to reach it as it appears.

Everything else is up in the air, though, people. Take a breather, Zelda team. You’ve earned it. And when you regroup, do what you do best: dream up some new version of Zelda nobody would ever expect, and make that. Just remember: no bottles.

I really hate bottles.

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Spoilers of the Wild

So there’s a thing you learn when you study narrative writing, and particularly screenwriting and modern playwriting, and that thing is that you should always begin a scene one line after it starts, and always finish a scene one line before it ends. It’s a way of saying it’s in everyone’s best interest for the storyteller to skip to the good stuff and cut back on exposition as much as possible. Get the audience right into the story, don’t weigh them down with details and character histories and such.

Recently IGN.com posted a video interview with Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto and The Legend of Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma. Over the course of the interview, the two men tip-toed around some of the elements and structure that make up the plot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, simultaneously trying to give the audience a sense of what they were doing with the story while remaining cryptic and not giving anything away.

Unfortunately… leaks happen, and now I’ve got a theory. Okay, well, more than a theory… I think I’ve figured out… pretty much the entire plot of Breath of the Wild, and how that plot is going to unfold. It wasn’t difficult, and I’m sure if you poke around you’ll see others on the Internet forming the same conclusions I have. So if you consider theories to be spoilers…

… well. Consider yourself warned.

Before I get back to Miyamoto-san and Aonuma-san, I want to share the screenshot that got out. Avert your eyes if you don’t want to see something key to the presentation of Breath of the Wild (although if you didn’t, why on Earth are you reading an article with “Spoilers” as the first word of its title?) Here we go:

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This is a screenshot from GameReactor.eu of part of the Breath of the Wild in-game Adventure Log. You’ll notice that this portion of the log is reserved for “Memories”. You’ll also remember that a big deal has been made in the trailers and footage for Breath of the Wild that the game opens with Link waking up one hundred years after the Calamity Ganon did something… er… super calamitous to Hyrule. Specifically what, we don’t know; Link has no memory of events that occurred before waking up in the Shrine of Resurrection on the Great Plateau.

So the screen above would indicate that, over the course of Link’s journey, he’ll begin to remember the events of the past and then be able to… uh… watch them on the Sheikah Slate he’s carrying with him? Apparently his slate gets Netflix, which is more than we can say for the Switch. Anyhoo, who cares, I don’t need it, by this time next year I’ll probably be able to watch Netflix on my toaster.

Now I want to turn to the Miyamoto/Aonuma video, from which I’m going to string together a series of screen shots. The two men, naturally, conducted the interview in Japanese that was then translated into English subtitles, which is of course the best way to watch foreign films. So here’s the portions of the interview that are relevant to today’s topic, laid out in sequential panels with only some minor re-organization:

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So Aonuma-san has some secret plot device, some story organization chart, that he has always wanted to use in a video game. Combined with the leaked Adventure Log image, it seems clear that the Breath of the Wild back story is going to be told in flashback, and Miyamoto-san then uses an example from a prior Zelda game to explain why:

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If nothing else, it’s good to see they acknowledge that Skyward Sword, though a great game with probably the best story in the franchise, opens up as slow as molasses (see also: Twilight Princess). This is where the writing rule from up top comes into play. Remember what it was? Always drop your audience into the middle of the action and let them suss out the exposition as they go. It looks like Nintendo is following that rule with Breath of the Wild. They’re going to let you run right out into the wilderness and play survival guy, piecing the story together bit by bit the rest of the way.

There’s more:

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I always allow for something to be lost in Japanese to English translations. It’s only fair. Assume this is an accurate translation, though, or at least accurate enough. Why in the world would it be “mysterious” to meet Gorons and Zoras in a Zelda game? We’ve been doing that since Ocarina of Time, at least. What makes that different now?

Well, what if the Gorons and Zoras we’re meeting are already dead?

BOOM MIND BLOWN!

No, I’m not talking about ghosts (but if you’d like to, I’m all ears; ghost stories are the bomb.) Obviously I’m referring, again, to flashbacks. Look: one thing has been clear since E3, and that is that Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that is in ruins. We know we’re going to see Link’s memories in this game, we know we’re going to learn about the calamitous calamity caused by Calamity Ganon one hundred years before Link wakes up, and we know that this version of Hyrule is a big world with more monsters in it than civilized beings. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the “mysterious” circumstances surrounding your meetings with Gorons and Zoras and the like are that those meetings took place one hundred years in the past?

Also: it’s safe to say, I think, that in the memories Link will collect and tuck into his Adventure Log, we’re going to see the following sequence take place…screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-15-38-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-15-42-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-17-13-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-17-29-am… which is, of course, Hyrule Castle and Castle Town getting all good and blowed up. Something we know happened BEFORE Link awakes at the start of the game, because when he wakes up…

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… Hyrule Castle looks like its already been through the ringer pretty good.

I also feel pretty safe in predicting that shortly after the castle and town go kablooie, we’re going to get a flashback sequence that goes a little something like this:

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Yeah, in my theory this would be where Link and a distraught Zelda try to escape after the destruction of Hyrule Castle, only to get tracked down by Guardians, who kill Zelda and knock Link into a hundred year coma.

(By the way, that battered Master Sword that Link is holding in that last shot… it looks an awful lot like the sleeping Master Sword we saw in the first trailer, don’t you think? Maybe it’s all busted up because Link got himself all busted up.)

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I have one last screenshot I’d like to share, and this is the glue that holds everything together. If you go back and look at that picture of the Memories screen in the Adventure Log, you can see little pieces of film strip that denote each individual clip; presumably you can watch the memories whenever you want to review the tragic story of the fallen kingdom of Hyrule. This is Nintendo, though. Since when has Nintendo ever had us watch something that we could play? With that in mind, take a look at this:

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That shot, quite clearly, is gameplay. It’s not cinematic, it’s a behind-the-back camera angle with Link running with his back to the player, just as he has run in five 3D Zelda games before. I know Breath of the Wild is supposed to feature dynamic weather and such, but I’ll be damned if the setting and lighting and overall atmosphere from that gameplay screen capture look a whole lot like the lighting and setting and atmosphere from the “Link and Zelda gettin’ Guardianed” cinema sequence from above.

Begin your story after it has already begun. Fill in the gaps of exposition as you go. It’s a rule of dramatic structure as old as the art of drama itself. Nintendo, though, isn’t into making movies with a little bit of gameplay. Nintendo makes games with a little bit of story. When you take all of the presented evidence into account, it is my belief that Breath of the Wild unfolds like a mystery in the present day, and at the moments when Link is beginning to remember an event from one hundred years earlier…

… gameplay switches to the past and the player is forced to play out the downfall of Hyrule and the death of Zelda.

I can’t wait for this game.

UPDATE: And then, what if while exploring the ruins of present-day Hyrule, you come across the entrance to what used to be dungeons but are now just collapsed half-shells of what they once were, overrun by nature. And when finding that dungeon, Link is plunged into a memory of what that dungeon once was… and you therefore end up playing through all the dungeons in flashbacks… which would make it far easier to design the game so that the player could tackle the dungeons in any order they choose, as the flashback of each dungeon could begin with Link automatically equipped with whatever series of items he’d need to conquer that dungeon.

OTHER UPDATE: And then what if, once you play through the memory of the dungeon, a path becomes highlighted through the present day, ruined version of the dungeon (because Link now REMEMBERS how he got through the dungeon initially) and you can then follow the highlighted path to whatever other item or secret that the present day version of the dungeon has in store for you.

ANOTHER UPDATE: This would mean that the 100 or so Shrines that have been revealed to be in the game would be the only sort of mini-dungeons in the present day version of Hyrule, and the huge Zelda-style dungeons proper are in the one hundred years past version of Hyrule. (Also, those mini-Shrines act as fast-travel points.)

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: This all would fit in with the thing that Aonuma-san told us way back at E3 that seems to have been forgotten: it is entirely possible to run from the beginning of the game straight to the final battle without doing much of anything in-between. If there are no true item games in the present-day portions of the game (because the item gates, as they were, existed one hundred years in the past, and have since fallen to ruin and can simply be climbed over or walked around) then it stands to reason that you could walk right into Hyrule Castle and confront the Calamity Ganon… although one would assume that would be a near-impossible battle. Given the difficulty level we’ve seen in clips of the game (this looks like it’s going to be a hard and unforgiving game, if the amount of times the Nintendo Treehouse staff have gotten themselves killed in demos is any indication) I see no reason why the Calamity Ganon shouldn’t flat-out pwn torn-shirt Link.

JUST ONE MORE UPDATE: I still can’t wait for this game.