November 6, 2018
UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: Breath of the Wild has one of the strongest stories in the entire Zelda series. I know, I know – I’ve heard the criticism of the plot. I’ve thrown plenty of criticism at it myself. But when you break it down and examine all the components of Breath of the Wild’s story, it really does tell an amazing tale. Be warned, this Rambling has all kinds of spoilers for BotW.
Breath of the Wild’s story begins with the prophecy that Ganon will one day return to attack Hyrule. The Hylians dig up the Divine Beasts that once protected the land, and Princess Zelda and her protector Link set out to find four Champions to pilot the Divine Beasts. Along the way, Zelda attempts to unlock her innate powers, researches the ancient technology, and struggles with her growing feelings for Link. Link stands stoically beside Zelda through all her frustrations and carries the burden of his task with resolve.
Zelda and Link find their four Champions and make preparations to defend Hyrule from Ganon. However, Calamity strikes! The Champions are killed, and Hyrule is ravaged. Link himself falls in battle, and only when his very life is at stake is Zelda able to tap into her powers and save him. Link is safely hidden away, and Zelda faces Calamity Ganon alone and manages to seal him away in Hyrule Castle.
100 years later, Link is revived and finds Hyrule in ruins. His companions are dead, and Zelda herself is maintaining the seal on Ganon. He sets off to free the Divine Beasts from the blight, save the spirits of his lost companions, and together with Zelda, destroys Calamity Ganon. In his journeys, he gets drawn into a sort of Sheikah Civil War between the Sheikah clan and their dark offshoot, the Yiga. He connects with a new generation of “Champions” who help him in his fight. He learns the secrets of a lost tribe of monks by overcoming their trials. And once Calamity Ganon is defeated, he and Zelda set out to restore Hyrule to its former glory.
Now THAT sounds like a Zelda game I want to play! It has everything you could want: an epic struggle spanning a hundred years, great companions to share the adventure with, a budding romantic relationship between the princess and her knight, a civil war running adjacent to the main story, and the ultimate redemption of Link and Zelda after their initial catastrophic failure. It features a world that changes as the story advances, and a story that is told in several acts, as we’ve come to expect from nearly every Zelda game since A Link to the Past. And all of this is set in an absolutely gorgeous open world, with an excellent engine allowing the player to take an almost limitless variety of approaches to exploration and combat. You pitch this Zelda game to me, and my reaction would be:
Breath of the Wild is that Zelda game, and its story is an amazing legend. There’s just one little itty bitty problem: YOU DON’T ACTUALLY GET TO EXPERIENCE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE STORY!!!
Breath of the Wild doesn’t ACTUALLY start with Link and Zelda setting out on a journey during a time of peace. It starts with Link waking up in a ruined Hyrule with no memory of his past whatsoever, a weird voice in his head, and a creepy old man following him around on a paraglider. We don’t get to travel with Zelda, helping her tap into her powers or supporting her when she gets frustrated. We don’t get to see Zelda’s feelings for Link change throughout the journey. We don’t get to meet the Champions and bond with them, or fight beside them when the Calamity strikes. We don’t get to experience the multiple acts of the story. We don’t get to see the world change as the story advances (unless you count the rain stopping in Zora’s Domain). 95 percent of that amazing story I described above are told to us in a few scattered, short cutscenes. Zelda’s feelings are dumped on us by reading a diary. We are told to care about the Champions, but spend no time with them to develop a reason to care. We only get to experience the great Sheikah/Yiga split through a small handful of side quests. Learning the secrets of the monks involved playing through over a hundred shrines, each one looking exactly the same and with the exact same reward as the last.
With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo crafted a truly legendary tale of failure and redemption, of love and friendship, of duty and responsibility. It spanned generations and changed the shape of the entire land of Hyrule. Next time, though, I hope Nintendo actually decides to let us experience the legend.