I’m taking a Games for Learning class this semester, and one of my assignments was to choose a game I’ve never played before, play it for at least 20 hours, and then write up my game experience. I chose Breath of the Wild, as its a game I’ve been dying to play since it came out. I thought I’d post that write-up on the blog, both for those who have played Zelda and want a good discussion, and those who have yet to play it and have no idea what the hype is about.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an action-adventure video game, published by Nintendo in 2017 for the Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Wii U. In the game, you play as Link, a knight recently awoken from a deep slumber with no memory of his past. Your goal: to find Princess Zelda, defeat Calamity Ganon, and save the kingdom of Hyrule from almost certain destruction. The magical environment you explore, combined with ingenious game mechanics, and an incredible narrative make Breath of the Wild (BOTW) one most enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time.
When you first start up the game, a short cutscene plays. You hear a woman’s desperate voice (“…Link…”) over a black screen. If you ever played a Zelda game before, you can immediately figure out that you are hearing the voice of Zelda, the Princess of Hyrule, who you have helped (and been helped by) time and time again in past titles in the series. You wake up in an old temple with no items, powers, or really any idea of what to do.
A simple prompt on the screen explains movement controls, which are very intuitive to one who has played other action-adventure games on a console. After you figure out the basic movement/combat and pick up Link’s iconic sword and shield, the game gently introduces you to the world of BOTW. The massive stone slabs of the temple doors open, grinding loudly; Link runs out into a sunlit precipice overlooking a beautiful valley; the wind blows over the grass softly as the camera pans over Link’s shoulder with orchestral theme music singing in the background. Hello, world.
For first several hours of the game, I was playing the tutorial (although I did not know it at the time). BOTW starts at a central location on the world map that is completely cut off from the rest of the world. Any attempt to cross the “divide” that separates this area from elsewhere results in certain death (first-hand experience). One of the first game mechanics I discovered was cooking. I saw some goats in the distance, which I proceeded to hunt down and harvest some goat meat. The description of raw meat in the game claims that the meat is edible and will restore life; however, it infers that cooking the meat will result in better effects. I immediately started looking for a fire to cook my meat with. Along the way, I found mushrooms and apples, which I promptly picked up. I found a fire with a pot over it. But at that moment I was stuck. There is no prompt to cook on a fire. There is no button or user interface for recipes, and the game does not give any hints. I was rummaging through my inventory, looking for some help, when I realized that I could literally hold meat in Link’s hand if I pressed “A”. So I did. I already knew the control that allowed me to drop items, so I put two-and-two together, aimed my controller, and dropped the meat into the pot. Immediately the pot started bubbling and smoking, while Link started humming to a nameless tune. A musical note played and a prompt appeared on my screen along with an item: “cooked meat!”
This process of discovering a mechanic through minimal guidance can be frustrating in some games, but somehow BOTW mastered the art of inference and common sense. Looking back on that memory, I realize that it was obvious that you cook food by placing it in a pot. That’s how reality works after all. But I’ve become too accustomed to games that take me by the hand and walk me through the process through menus and interfaces that I don’t first attempt the obvious. I realized that I much rather preferred this method of discovery. It allowed me to feel like I figured it out on my own. Learning that mechanics were discoverable rather than taught was a really important lesson for me to learn, as it changed my mindset in approaching challenges throughout the game. Immediately after cooking my piece of meat, I decided to experiment. I love mushrooms in my food in reality, so I thought “What if I cooked meat and mushrooms together?” After dropping both items into the pot, followed by bubbles and smoke, a prompt appeared for a new food item called “meat and mushroom skewer” with a higher health restoration attribute than cooked meat on its own.
Throughout the rest of my play-through, cooking became a continuous science experiment, where I explored mixing different ingredients to get various effects. Occasionally I got a “dubious food” item, which occurs when mixing incompatible ingredients. Later on I discovered foods that restore endurance, make Link more stealthy, and allow Link to run faster or take more damage before succumbing to darkness. These interactions created a sense of meaning within the game. The feeling of discovery and novelty with almost every action I took made me feel like my exploration had a real affect on the world.
Combat in Breath of the Wild is challenging, yet incredibly satisfying. Pressing the left trigger allows Link to lock on to an opponent, automatically turning both Link and the camera to face it, and raising his shield defensively to block attacks. The first few times I fought monsters, I hacked and slashed my way through them by spamming attacks. But one time I found a physically large opponent called a moblin.
His club was three times as tall as Link, so I assumed blocking such a weapon was out of the question: I would have to evade. Pressing the “X” button makes Link jump, but pressing “X” while locked on to a target makes Link dodge in the direction you are moving. I figured that the most strategic action would be to wait until just before the moblin swung his club before dodging, and then I would attack him off-guard. But as soon as I dodged, the game went into slow-motion. Time slowed down as the moblin made ugly, spittle-ridden faces in my direction, swinging his mighty club. Link jumped over the club and a prompt appeared on my screen, “‘A’ to counterattack!” Naturally, I spammed “A” as fast as I could, and immediately time resumed as Link went into a flurry of rapid, heavy-hitting strikes against the enemy’s torso and head. The moblin never stood a chance. His look of astonishment was comical as his large body fell with a thud to the ground.
This mechanic of a time slow-down counterattack took me by surprise, another hidden discovery! It drastically alters the feel of combat for the rest of the game. Gone are the days of traditional hack-and-slash, and in its place is a dynamic, exciting battle experience. I felt like I was actually fighting for my life. Combat was charged with adrenaline, as it became a race for me to gain the upper hand through positioning and timing, rather than simply knocking down a health bar. In a way, it reminded me of Dark Souls (FromSoftware 2011) in its high risk, high intensity combat. But where Dark Souls prided itself in being borderline sadistic to the player, BOTW maintained the epic feeling of battle while making it more likely for the player to win.
In BOTW, weapons degrade in durability when you use them. Eventually, weapons break if used enough, which means that really cool sword you found might one day be destroyed in combat. As a result of that, I was driven to pick my battles wisely. I did not want to risk my life using cheap equipment to save my more expensive stuff. I also did not want to use my expensive equipment on monsters that would give me poor loot. It then becomes a balance of risk vs reward, and how much treasure I anticipate from a group of enemies. It also forces you to often switch up weapons and battle strategy. If I use the same sword for every battle, it will break. When I fight against large groups, I like to use a one-handed weapon, since it is faster to swing, and I can hold a shield for blocking in my off-hand. But I’ll use a large 2 handed weapon when I’m squaring off against small packs or single enemies because the damage is higher. These choice ties into the emergent game-play of BOTW. On a micro-level, your current weapon choice will affect your battle strategy (fast/slow, heavy hits/light taps, etc). On a macro-stage, you will obtain a balance of skills to fight in almost every situation with any kind of weapon.
You don’t earn experience in BOTW for defeating monsters, unlike RPG games. Character progression is done through the completion of shrines, ancient structures which contain puzzles for you to figure out.
Each vanquished shrine gives Link a spirit orb. Four spirit orbs can be traded at certain locations for more health or endurance. To me, this created a deeper meaningful play experience than if I had been grinding through monsters to level up. If I was not powerful enough to fight a boss, I could choose to purposely search for and beat shrines to gain more power. The shrine mechanic, combined with dynamic combat, creates a strong sense of meaningful action when it comes to character improvement. Often I would find myself avoiding enemies that I could easily wipe out, simply because there was no reward for me doing so. Rather than fighting everything I saw, one of my main goals became the hunt for shrines. Shrines (which often had soft, soothing music in the background) also offered a nice respite from the stress of combat. Within this simple concept of fast and slow, combat and shrine, I found another emergent system. The complexity arises from the sheer number of shrines to explore, the variety monsters to fight and how to engage them, and the order in which you visited these areas. The choice ultimately became yours: “right now, do you want to fight or get stronger?”
To mix up the usual pattern of shrine/fight, sheika towers are located around the world to discover and “unlock”.
The sheika are a technologically-advanced, ancient civilization that vanished from Hyrule long ago. In order to see a map of the region you are in, you must unlock that region’s tower. To do this, you must climb to the very top, usually overcoming some obstacles and traps along the way. From the top of the tower, it is easier to scout out the region and locate the much sought after shrines, along with other cool features. The existence of towers created an exploration pattern within the game:
- Travel to new, unexplored region
- Find, climb, and unlock the tower
- Scout for shrines and other fun features
- Beat shrines, kill monsters, visit features for quests
Each region offered a different environment to explore, sometimes in an entirely different biome. One such example is the tutorial area, which features lush fields and meadows. Soon after, you move into a hilly region of the map, and after that, a snowy mountain range. To the north, I could see a volcanic area with streams of lava, and to the west was a scorching desert. Although each region followed a similar pattern of exploration, the difference in the regions made the experience novel and created the perfect balance of familiarity and uncertainty. I never knew what to expect as I approached the next tower: what kind of monsters would I find here, where would the shrines be, and what kind of challenges lay within them?
There are many different mechanics in BOTW, far too many to list here. Health and endurance play large roles in the game, as well as armor, durability, currency, towers, shrines, spirit orbs, and the list goes on. But the way BOTW is designed hides the complexities of the system from you, so you can focus on the game.
I have not beaten the game as of writing this. I can admit that I’m not even close. The 30 hours I’ve played is definitely too short of a period to fully experience a game like Breath of the Wild. HowLongToBeat.com claims that to truly complete the game, an average of 86 hours is required. (proof) However, I was able to experience a good amount of interaction with non-player characters. One of the first items you obtain in the game is a sheika slate}, a tablet-esque object you carry on Link’s belt. Whenever you approach and talk to a character in game, one of the most common remarks they make is about your slate (i.e. “wow that is so rare!”, “you must be a hero”, “is that sheika technology?!”). These micro-interactions with NPCs gave me a sense of power and respect within the world.
This feeling followed me around from village to village. As I talked to various characters, I was filled with a sense of bittersweet hope: it was clear that the world had changed since before Link had been asleep. A great calamity had destroyed the world, and it was only now beginning to heal. Characters often expressed hope upon seeing Link, as he was the prophesied one who would help keep them safe and rebuild. Main characters who had been alive during the catastrophe that had brought Hyrule to ruin often spoke of the great deeds of Link’s past, and the future battle that was yet to come. I felt like an ancient hero, who had been called upon once again to save the day. I could make a difference in this world, simply because everyone else seemed to think I could.
I don’t often play action-adventure games. I mostly play real-time strategy, MMO’s, or RPGS. However, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is by far one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in years. Everything about it seems to have been designed with the player experience in mind. Simple things like cooking are as enjoyable as combat. The balance of combat, shrines, and towers creates a smooth dynamic. The characters I spoke to made me feel like the hero Link is meant to be. So as soon as I finish writing this, I intend to go back to playing it. Zelda needs my help, and Hyrule is still waiting to be saved.