I’ve recently gotten around to playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You know, the one everybody’s been frothing at the mouth over. And it’s indeed a great game, perhaps my new favourite in the series (even if it isn’t exactly the flawless diamond that a lot of people seem to think it is). A good amount of why I like it so much, though, comes from an area of the game which has actually been underrated: its story.
Breath of the Wild is a long, epic game, and a lot of the criticism directed towards its story focuses on how lightweight and sparse it is by comparison. Of the tens of hours you can spend with the game, only a small fraction of that amount is spent on dialogue and cutscenes. But I think that, given the kind of game Breath of the Wild wants to be, and the kind of story it wants to tell, this low-key approach is perfect.
Video games can tell good stories. But all too often we measure how well they do this in rather non…video gamey terms: namely in terms of how well they approximate the storytelling of movies and literature. We talk about how good the cut-scenes and writing are. A lot of games internalize this mentality and take a very bifurcated approach wherein the story and the actual game you’re playing are two separate things: the storytelling comes as a reward for playing the game successfully, but not as something you experience and take part in while you play it. The result is often a story which feels indifferent to its medium, where there’s no reason it couldn’t have been a movie or a novel or a TV show or whathaveyou.
Breath of the Wild’s storytelling, on the other hand, is very video gamey, perhaps even peak video gamey. It uses dialogue and cut-scenes when necessary to convey important plot and character info, but otherwise allows the unfolding game world, and the player’s engagement with that world, to tell a story.
At this point I should probably start describing the game’s actual story before analyzing it (and heads up: here follows some spoilers for the first few hours of the game).
As is typical for a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild takes place in the fantasy kingdom of Hyrule and involves the titular Princess Zelda, the player-controlled hero Link, and the evil bad dude Ganon. But things here are a little different, as in this version of Hyrule, the story of Link and Zelda teaming up to take on Ganon has already happened countless times; these archetypal figures have emerged and duked it out so many times that it’s become a bit predictable. They now know the warning signs for when Ganon is going to re-emerge and know who to contact.
This time, this version of Zelda and Link have decided to prepare in advance for Ganon’s return. This involves the excavation of ancient mechas from an earlier, more technologically advanced version of Hyrule which were used to defeat Ganon a previous time. But Ganon’s also a little more savvy this time around, and when he emerges, he seizes control of the mecha and uses them to destroy Hyrule. In the process, Link gets mortally wounded and is placed in a sort of suspended animation while Zelda uses her powers to keep Ganon at bay.
A century later, Link wakes up, having recovered from his wounds at the expense of his memories. This is where the game itself begins, and it unfolds, first as an attempt to figure out what happened in the past, and then primarily as preparation for an attack against Ganon and the rescuing of Zelda.
I think this is the best take on the amnesiac hero trope that I’ve ever seen in a video game, as it actually succeeds in putting Link and the player on equal footing. By putting most of the plot into the past, it makes the player form their own emotional connection to the world by interacting and learning about it, just as Link has to rediscover anew the reason why he fights. This is ultimately far more satisfying than being spoon-fed a reason to care.
There’s more than meets the eye in the backstory though. The idea of a continual repetition of the Zelda story is, in part, a tacit reference to how, yeah, there have been a lot of games with these characters doing a lot of the same things in broad strokes. It seems to be part of a growing trend in pop culture more generally towards meta and self-awareness. The emergence of social media has made a lot of big franchises that much more aware of what their audience thinks of them, and that awareness has become part of the media they produce. The recent Disney and Star Wars movies are an easy example: they tend to have a strong desire to act as commentary and critique on the legacy that they are a part of, making that knowing wink towards the audience.
This approach has its own dangers. Audiences are fickle, and having a strong fixation on playing ball with them comes with the risk of losing touch with your own vision. But Breath of the Wild is one of the more successful examples of this, by dint of how it becomes wedded to the idea of Hyrule as a bygone kingdom awash with history, and how it asks players to forge their own connection with that history, rather than attempting to predict or telegraph how you should feel about it. Again, it all goes back to that idea of making it the player’s story as much as it is Link’s.
There’s another, perhaps more accidental, dimension to Hyrule’s cyclical history. A lot of us who find ourselves born into the contemporary west are used to thinking about history as a linear thing that has a beginning and is progressing towards some sort of end (though we often disagree on what that end is). But a cursory glance at history, culture and religion tells us that this isn’t a default or neutral view. Myth often tends towards a view of the cosmos as one of endless cycles of creation and destruction. Apocalyptic events like the Ragnarok of Norse mythology tend to be more like reset buttons, and truly ultimate origins are difficult to find. The characters that emerge in myth tend to be archetypal, less important for their historicity and individuality than as a concrete embodiment of universal qualities and attributes. This dynamic exists in The Legend of Zelda: Link, Zelda and Ganon are archetypes which continually rise again and again to repeat the same story in different circumstances.
This view of reality dovetails with a lot of what we experience: the same seasons repeat themselves year after year, each generation is replaced with another that largely repeats the same stories in different circumstances, nations rise and fall and rise again, etc.
The tendency to subordinate the apparently cyclical nature of the cosmos to linearity is ultimately religious in nature, specifically a Judeo-Christian one. In Christianity, history finds its locus and fulfillment in the person and mission of one individual: Jesus Christ. And it is the specificity of this individual that matters—it isn’t the case that Christ is merely an archetype that could conceivably have been anyone. History is thus reinterpreted as the arc of an individual’s action — Christ’s — and the end of history as the definitive completion of that action.
This elevation of the individual suggests that there is something transcendental in the concrete and particular. Hence the story of a saint is always different from the story of a hero; a hero is a paradigm, and thus is separate from the rest of humanity—to be admired, but from a distance. The saint, on the other hand, is a concrete individual in particular circumstances, who embodies certain virtues but is not merely an abstract collection of virtues made flesh. In short, they’re human, like us. This is a dynamic in which even the most seemingly insignificant individual’s life has the capacity for real heroism.
I’ve been speculating for some time now, and getting further adrift from Breath of the Wild as I do. Suffice it to say that mythic cycles and archetypes crop up again and again in pop culture because they do resonate with what we find in our own lives (and also because it’s a more safe monetary investment to bank on familiarity), but I don’t believe they tell the whole story about our destiny; there’s something else always left over.
featured illustration by R-A (reprinted w/permission)