Playing Breath of the Wild taught me something about myself, which is that I’ll happily put off fighting evil until tomorrow if there’s an interesting shrubbery in the distance I can visit today. Breath of the Wild is a game of staggering beauty and hidden depths, but it’s also a procrastinator’s delight. It is, in many ways, my perfect game.
There’s a structure and narrative that previous Zelda games have often followed. Structurally, the player would gain equipment or abilities in one area that allowed them to enter and complete other areas, drawing them inexorably closer to the end. Narratively, the player would play as an ordinary individual from a humble background eventually revealed to have the spirit of a legendary hero. In Wind Waker, Link was a young boy from a remote island, while in Twilight Princess, Link was a teenage farm hand on the edge of the map.
Breath of the Wild is different. Instead of an ordinary farm boy destined to become the legendary hero, you’re already the legendary hero, and when you fought the great evil…you lost. You start the game as a failure who hid in suspended animation for a century, awakening to a world that’s been living with the consequences. Instead of a gradual progression towards the end through unlocking and upgrading, you’re in a world that encourages you to wander, already fully-powered, but without purpose or direction.
It’s hard to put into words just how perfectly and convincingly realised the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is, but I’ve spent at least a hundred hours there and could easily spend a hundred more. A post-apocalyptic world that’s somehow both deserted and yet teeming with life. A world destroyed by calamity yet with something to explore every few steps. Monsters to fight at every turn, or to ignore. Ganon, the great evil that Hyrule faces? Contained indefinitely within Hyrule Castle. The player is free to tackle Ganon whenever they feel like it.
This is what I find most interesting about Breath of the Wild: that it’s practically an anti-narrative. By opening up the world to the player almost from the very start, the game implicitly encourages the player to drift and delay. Nobody in the game world seems overly bothered whether Ganon is fought or not; while Link was sleeping for a hundred years, the people of Hyrule coped with Link’s failure. Wrecked buildings became shelters and campsites, husks of defeated enemies lie buried under grass and mud, and villages have sprung up throughout the land. The villagers all know the folklore about what happened in the past, but it’s a past they’ve come to terms with. There’s no hero’s journey here: nobody is labouring under the yoke of demonic oppression, waiting to be delivered from evil. They’re fishing and hunting and building and living. They may task you with a variety of quests — photograph this, gather that, kill those — but if you weren’t there, they’d probably have managed fine by themselves.
There’s no narrative build up, no crescendo. Instead the player wanders aimlessly across the land, drifting briefly into people’s lives to solve a problem, then drifting away again like David Banner mournfully hitching a ride. The freedom to finish the game at a time of the player’s choosing is also the freedom to never finish. In fact, by fighting Ganon and winning, the game is effectively over.
I’ve never played a game so mournfully indifferent to my presence before, and it’s magnificent. A game where the only way to play is not to win.