The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 11
I told her I wanted to be woken up at 5:00 A.M.
The innkeeper didn't ask any questions and didn't want to know why I planned on getting up at such an early, unorthodox hour. The next day, as the sun crept over the horizon and signs of life began to stir in quiet Hateno Village, I made my way to my trusty steed Eleanor and quietly made my way to my next destination. I'm a hero, but few still live who know it. To everyone else, I'm just a traveler, and that's okay.
The Internet has once again caught "Zelda fever" thanks to the recently released (and superb!) new series installment, Breath of the Wild. Arguably one of the most non-linear action adventure games to date, it offers an expansive world full of heart for the player to explore... Or not. You're more than welcome to head right off to the final boss and forgo everything else, story beats included, if you're feelingly brave or reckless.
Yet you'd be missing out if you did so. Breath of the Wild tells one of the series' strongest and saddest narratives to date; in a departure from the norm, it tells a tale of how Link and Zelda failed to defeat Ganon 100 years prior to the start of the game, resulting in the deaths of some of their dear friends and dooming Hyrule to a century of chaos and despair. As Link emerges from a stasis induced slumber, his wounds from a fatal battle fully healed, he and the player set off into the vast ruins of Hyrule in an attempt to recover Link's memories and find their purpose in a world ravaged by evil.
The main narrative of Breath of the Wild is predominantly told through optional flashbacks; these are triggered by visiting areas of the world crucial to Link's past, and unlocking these cutscenes piece of piece is crucial to understanding the game's full narraive. Yet during the time in between unlocking memories and progressing the narrative, it's up to the player to fuel their own fun by exploring Hyrule and its many sandbox-like mechanics. During these segments it's also likely that an emergent narrative will unfold for many people - a story unique to every player based on how they approach the game and interpret what happens in their playthrough.
Emergent narrative is not a new technique; many games featuring procedurally generated worlds, like Don't Starve, Minecraft, and No Man's Buy Sky rely on it. However, Breath of the Wild, with its large and more concretely made world, silent protagonist and ability to go almost everywhere from the start offers an outstanding opportunity for players to interpret what's going through Link's mind and what adventures he partakes in between major story moments.
Your Link may be a brave adventurer that prioritized climbing all of Hyrule's towers and unlocking the entire map before all else. He may be a reckless buffoon that immediately set out for Hyrule Castle and got obliterated. However, in my playthrough Link...was lonely. Even though Breath of the Wild has a decent number of towns and travelling NPCs to populate its world, my personal adventure though Hyrule was a somber one punctuated by feelings of isolation I just couldn't get rid of. And I loved it for that. Breath of the Wild was an immensely atmospheric and intimate experience for me as a result, and in this blog, I'd like to briefly explore the specific elements of this game that lead to my particular playthrough of the game becoming such a lonely and isolated one.
Breath of the Wild's world is vast, and also quite lonely depending on how you interact with it.
A Boy and His Horse
For the majority of the time I spent with Breath of the Wild I was alone in the wilderness, with my horse as my only real companion. In many respects, this reminded me of previous games I had played. Most people will draw parallesl to Shadow of the Colossus, a game about traversing a vast and mostly empty world on horseback in search of beasts to slay to save someone dear to the protagonist. However, it reminded me far more of one of my all time favorite games, Red Dead Redemption. While a gritty Western shooter seems to be as unlike the colorful sandbox shenanigans of Breath of the Wild as it gets, Link's travels across the barren land of Hyrule reminded me a lot of the struggles of Red Dead's protagonist John Marston, a man who travels the wild and sparsely populated American West to track down his former friends and criminals at the request of the U.S. government, who have kidnapped his family and refused to release them until Marston does so. While the narratives of both games are very different, both feature protagonists who spend a long time away from civilization with a horse and beautiful scenery as their only company.
In both games, there also isn't any music to accompany exploring the large stretches of wilderness, just a few musical riffs and environmental ambiance. In both games, the lack of music accompaniments fostered feelings of loneliness during my playthroughs, but it was especially noticeable in Breath of the Wild. Typically, journeying across a field in a Legend of Zelda game triggers an arousing and inspiring musical piece meant to pump up the player and get them excited to explore new lands in heroic fashion. Breath of the Wild lacks an equivalent track to accompany field exploration, and while some bemoaned this change, it's one I relished in. Not only would such a theme undoubtedly grow old after dozens of hours of exploration, but the musical riffs and organic sound effects did a much better job of making me feel engrossed in Breath of the Wild's world, helping me feel like I was truly alone in its vast wilderness.
Breath of the Wild forgoes an adventurous field exploration game in favor of peaceful piano riffs, placing the focus on the world and the player's connection with it, and creating a feeling of real loneliness in my playthrough.
I'm A Drifter, I Was Born To Walk Alone
It's no secret that prior to the release of Breath of the Wild, the Legend of Zelda series was growing increasingly linear and restrictive to the point it betrayed the joy of exploring and discovery that The Legend of Zelda series was founded on. Skyward Sword was the worst offender of this; while a perfectly fine game, in many respects it felt like the player was being funneled from one location to another on a tour rather than organically paving their own path through the world.
Breath of the Wild on the other hand tosses you into the middle of its expansive wilderness and only gives you vague hints on where civilization can be found and where you should go next. As a result, I felt like a drifter throughout my adventure, particularly in the beginning of the game. While every other 3D Legend of Zelda game (with the exception of Majora's Mask) begins in a vibrant, if quiet town, I went six hours in Breath of the Wild without encountering more than one NPC, and another hour until I made it to my first village.
In Breath of the Wild, the field and space outside of towns and dungeons is no longer filler or connective tissue to more memorable parts of the game. These areas are no longer mostly empty space with the occasional Piece of Heart tucked away. In Breath of the Wild, the player is meant to spend most of their time out in the world rather than in civilization or a dungeon. There's jut so much to discover out in the overworld, from Korok Seeds that can be used to expand the player's inventory, to Shrines, which become fast travel points and contain clever puzzles with tangible rewards. And this encourages you to go out into the world by yourself and find as much of it as you can.
Of course, there are towns and villages in Breath of the Wild, and I did spend quite a bit of time with their colorful and lovable NPCs. But ultimately, these places were just pitstops in my greater journey. I'd stop into town, say hello, sleep in the inn until morning, and head right back out into the world. I was a drifter in Breath of the Wild, never spending too much time in one place or getting attached to any one particular area or character. This was part of the emergent narrative in my playthrough; my Link being a drifter who felt more at home alone in the wild and going wherever he was needed. This cast Link in a lonely light during my time with Breath of the Wild, and I loved the game for that.
Breath of the Wild shifts the focus away from towns and villages and towards its massive overworld. Thus, in my playthrough, I ended up becoming a drifter, spending most of my time travelling and only making brief stops in town, never staying in one place for long.
While Breath of the Wild stripped many of the series' traditions that were weighing it down and hampering the joy of non-linear exploration, one thing is as true as it ever was - you play as a hero named Link, and he's the chosen hero destined to save Hyrule. That being said, unlike other games in the series, there are few people are alive that actually know this about you. As I traveled from town to town and encountered NPCs on the road, I was only just another traveler to them, not a hero or a warrior. Like these roaming NPCs, I was just a drifter travelling the world and trying to find my purpose. In many ways, this reminds me of another favorite Legend of Zelda game of mine, Majora's Mask, in which Link finds himself in a world parallel to Hyrule known as Terminia. In such an unfamiliar world, no one knows of Link or his heroics, and even after he is successful at saving the land from being crushed by a falling moon, there are few people alive that realize that Link was the one to save them, and he leaves the land without being thanked or even recognized for his deeds. Link saved the land not for glory, but because it was the right thing to do, and this mirrored how I interpreted Link's actions in my Breath of the Wild playthrough.
Though he failed to defeat Ganon over a century ago, Link is still a hero in Breath of the Wild. However, almost no one sees him as such because they all remember that their hero fell in battle a hundred years ago. The few people whom Link tries to convince of his status as the resurrected hero simply don't believe him. This only amplified the feeling of loneliness to be had in Breath of the Wild, as I was the one chosen to save the land but very few people knew this, and fewer still acknowledged it. It's a unique thing for a game not to stroke a player's ego for being the chosen one. Link is just a nobody to many of the people in Hyrule. Another traveler in a ruined world already full of them. And if that thought doesn't make you feel lonely, I don't know what will.
Even though Link is the hero of Breath of the Wild, he has few people to share this fact with, and fewer still who would believe him. It makes him feel like more of a loner than previous incarnations of the character.
All of My Friends Are Dead
Prior to the release of Breath of the Wild, the thing I was excited for most was meeting the game's four "Champions" and getting to know them as characters. This is because The Legend of Zelda is a series that consistently delivers strong and charming characters, and the four Champions themselves belong to many of the races the series has featured through the years, including the seldom seen Gerudo and Rito.
The Champions are pilots of massive mechs that have the power to weaken Ganon prior to Link's battle with him, and thus pre-release it was clear they'd be important to the plot. And this is ultimately proved true, albeit with a catch.
They're all dead.
Early on in the game, players learn that 100 years prior to the game when Link nearly fell to Ganon's forces, the Champions were trapped in their respective mechs and killed. Because I hadn't yet met any of these Champions, I wasn't particularly fazed by this revelation at the time.
However, as the story continues and you visit the homes of all of these Champions, Link's memory is jogged and you learn that all four of these characters were close to Link and Zelda. Daruk, per series tradition, is a lovable Goron. Revali is basically Falco from Star Fox, but that's okay, because his arrogance and abrasiveness make him surprisingly endearing. Urbosa is an interesting and strong maternal figure for Zelda. But the Champion who receives the most development is Mipha, a Zora princess and childhood friend of Link who developed romantic feelings for him as they grew older, and even intended to propose to him before her premature death.
Like the amnesiac Link, I knew nothing of these characters when I started the game, but after learning who they were, it only made the world seem lonelier. I grew to like these characters through the flashback scenes with them, so it was a hard revelation to swallow realizing that these endearing characters, friends of Link and Zelda, were all slaughtered a century ago. It's a testament to Breath of the Wild's storytelling that I was made to care about these characters I hadn't even met when they were alive.
However, because she receives the most development of the four Champions, Mipha's death is the one I took the hardest as a player. I found her romance with Link to be endearing, particularly since neither of them seemed to care they were of different races, much to the chagrin of some of the older and more traditional Zoras. While some may find the prospect of a human dating a fish girl weird, this is also a fantasy game where an elf boy can fight a giant evil pig monster is his underwear. Context is important!
As it turns out, the Zora are some of the few people that actually recognize Link as the hero he is; they are confirmed to have long lifespans in Breath of the Wild, so many of the elders remember him. However, none of these elders are eager to greet Link when he returns to their Domain during the events of the game. On the contrary, they are openly hostile to him, and use Link as a scapegoat, blaming him for taking their beloved princess away from them following Mipha's death.
While Link is ultimately successful in winning over the Zora's trust after saving their species from doom, he can't bring people back from the dead and is forced to accept that Mipha is gone. While the world of Breath of the Wild is already quite lonely, after learning of the relationship between Link and Mipha, the loss of that relationship was something I kept in mind for the rest of the game, and knowing this character that Link truly cared about was gone only made Breath of the Wild's expansive and beautiful world even lonelier. It was actually tough to accept that the Champions, Link's friends, wouldn't be there by his side to live happily ever after the credits rolled, and after I did, it only made the world I was exploring feel that much more lonely.
Getting to know the Champions posthumously made the world of Breath of the Wild feel even lonelier than it already was. I felt their absence for the rest of the game.
Ultimately, while Breath of the Wild is one of the more aesthetically colorful and vibrant games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, I actually found it to be the most somber and lonely installment in the series to date. The extensive amount of time I spent alone, away from civilization, without even music to accompany me sold on the scale of the game's world and how little I was in comparison to it. Focusing on making the overworld dense and compelling shifted the focus away from towns and made me feel like a lonely drifter. The fact I was the hero destined to save the land, but had few to share this information left me feeling isolated. And learning that the other Champions, good friends of Link's, died 100 years ago was a depressing revelation that made the world feel even lonelier after realizing these bonds that Link once enjoyed were shattered forever.
The emergent narrative of my time with Breath of the Wild can be summed up by one quote by an NPC. After helping Link's newfound friend, the stoic carpenter Hudson, by building a brand new village called Tarrey Town and even attending his wedding, he told me something profound. He told me to leave. He told me there were more people that needed my help, and that I "don't have the luxury of tarrying here." And he was right.
So as I did countless times before, I left town at the crack of dawn, saddled up Eleanor and drifted back into the lonely wilderness...
What has your experience with Breath of the Wild been like? Has your emergent narrative been as lonely as mine was? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!