THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD is the latest battleground in the ongoing war for the soul of gaming

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The age-old debate about video games has been settled. The only ones who continue to hem and haw about classifying interactive audio-visual experiences as art are those same people who balked at comic books, and rock music, and rap music, ardently refusing to acknowledge the scores of people globally for whom these forms are critical pieces of cultural knowledge and understanding. We’re at a place where one can confidently claim, “video games are art,” with no need to defend the statement. Finally.

The questions now are not ones of classification, but of purpose and nature. What should we do with games, and what is core to the form? What makes a game? These questions are trickier. Some of the more vibrant debates being had continue to revolve around the maligned genre derisively referred to as “walking simulators” – games more or less devoid of active gameplay and defined instead by the player’s ability to freely roam and uncover bits of narrative scattered among a detailed environment that conveys the story of what happened (in better cases, the story of what is still happening) there.

That many of these games – Gone Home being the most famous – also center on issues of identity and representation (Gone Home is ultimately a story about a young teenage girl coming to terms with her identity as a gay woman, and the burgeoning romance she experiences) only obfuscates the artistic debate here. Battles over social justice and the poor treatment of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals in the gaming industry are important, just as they are in the culture at large. But these are broader cultural battles that go well beyond the scope of video games (even as the video game industry has more trouble with these things than most – see 2014’s GamerGate hate movement, and the alt-right individuals it fostered who later became critical members of the Trump machine). These debates are over the soul of society; the debates over the soul of video games are different debates, buried beneath these stronger, more visible (and, admittedly, more important) ones.

Within this walking simulator debate is the key debate, the one that reveals the core tension of contemporary video gaming: that of story versus experience.

There’s a lot of dimension to this debate; one could reasonably make an argument for either side, as well as an argument that they aren’t mutually exclusive, or even that they are complementary terms, or that neither is the actual goal of a game, and so on. To tighten the range of responses, let’s place a helpful constraint on this discussion: this discussion is concerned solely with single-player games (or at least single-player components of games that may or may not feature multiplayer components). Games as competition (the whole realm of eSports) is a valid and worthwhile avenue of discussion, but also one that I feel is hard to argue against: they’re an excellent venue for competition and the design of games in such a way is absolutely artful as well as functional. So for the purposes of this debate, we need not concern ourselves with that dimension of the debate.

Which leaves us with three distinct options: games are primary about story; games are primarily about experience; or games are primarily about both, with the two terms not being mutually exclusive.

Let’s clarify what these terms actually refer to, because as always, there’s a lot of disagreement out there. Story in video games refers to deliberately crafted narrative content – characters, plot, lore – that is presented to the player in pre-determined ways. This is the content that a writer is going to be responsible for generating, and then the artists of the game elsewhere will be responsible to bringing to life. Conversely, experience is narrative content that is not generated, that is not pre-determined. This is the narrative content that is experienced by the player’s interactions with the world as presented to them. There’s a lot of terminology used to describe this sort of interaction; “emergent narrative” is the one I tend to favor: narrative that emerges from the player’s interactions with the game.

These definitions place the terms at diametric poles – crafted versus spontaneous – but they’re both more or less describing the same things: narrative. This would seem to support that third option, that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but rather can work together (and should) to create a greater narrative. I tend to reject this idea on the basis of auteur theory. While it’s hard to identify a particular “auteur” in the gaming space (someone equivalent to a film’s director), given the size of game development teams and the radically different cooperative structure, you can still point to a few industry creators who deserve the term – Tim Schafer, Hideo Kojima, Ken Levine, Tetsuya Nomura, Will Wright, Warren Spector, among others (and it’s important to note that these men often have different titles, from “Game Director” to “Lead Designer” and “Creative Director”) – and it’s a useful comparison to that dominant mode of film criticism. But the helpful point here is that story, by virtue of being deliberately crafted and presented in a predictable way, allows for auteurs such as these to create specific experiences designed to convey particular thematic ideas. Story, then, is a greater tool of personal expression than experience. Experience as the driving factor of the game precludes the meaningful artistic use of story by an auteur to put forward a specific thematic idea, and thus these terms are going to refer to separate, distinct forms of artistry in games.

So with this winnowing of dimension we are left with two options: games about story, and games about experience. As with all art forms, there is tremendous value in a wide variety of approaches, and in games this is no different: either style of game is capable of putting forth meaningful artistic statements. The purpose of this discussion is merely to explore this tension, to look at these two distinct gaming philosophies, not to declare one superior.

This brings us to The Legend of Zelda.

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This image is one of my favorite things in the world.

The newest entry in this franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, has been out for a little over a week, and the response has been effusive. It’s the fourth best reviewed game of all time on Metacritic (behind previous franchise effort, Ocarina of Time, which remains the best reviewed), nearly every major gaming critical outlet gave it full marks, and many of my friends have retreated wholly into its welcoming open world for hours on end. This isn’t terribly uncommon; there’s always a wave of praise and loving attention paid to new Zelda games. Skyward Sword, released back in 2011, had similar early reception before souring within a month or two and becoming a much maligned black sheep of the series, disliked for its motion controls and archplot that left players feeling constrained.

Which makes it all the more bizarre to me that people are talking about Breath of the Wild not in the context of Skyward Sword, but instead in the context of The Legend of Zelda, the 1987 original. To be clear, Breath of the Wild is absolutely inspired by that original game in more ways than one. You’re given a paltry sense of backstory, thrown into the world, and immediately encounter an old man who gives you a vague sense of direction and a weapon. The game’s focus is on traversing this massive (at the time) open world and discovering the many bits of treasure and joy squirreled away into its intimately designed nooks and crannies. It can be punishingly difficult at times, especially for those who wander into areas with more difficult monsters than they’re accustomed to fighting.

It’s been said repeatedly that Breath of the Wild is the 3D Legend of Zelda that never came to be. Ocarina of Time was, charitably, a 3D A Link to the Past, adopting that later game’s focus on story and straightforward, A-to-B progression (not to mention more tangible details like the dual-world concept, expressed as time travel in Ocarina of Time rather than the Dark and Light Worlds of A Link to the Past) rather than the earlier game’s freeform exploration. That’s an apt characterization, and in many ways Breath of the Wild feels altogether more successful than Ocarina of Time in translating the experiences of its inspiration to a new format. In particular, Breath of the Wild takes the 2D sprites of the original game and turns them into a truly breathtaking world that has me constantly abusing the screenshot button on the Switch controllers to capture some gorgeous vista as the sun creeps over the mountaintops. Ocarina of Time, timeless though it has proven to be, can hardly boast a similar visual update over A Link to the Past (a game that has visually aged far better than many of its successors).

This is a useful comparison, but I think that so much of what Breath of the Wild does right comes into sharper focus when viewed through the lens of Skyward Sword. To wit: Breath of the Wild is a reaction to Skyward Sword, and specifically the reception of Skyward Sword. To an extent, every Zelda game to date has been a reaction to the one before it. Twilight Princess was a direct rebuke of The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded, joyful aesthetic, trading in the bright colors of the Great Sea for a washed out, twilight-afflicted Hyrule. Skyward Sword was a reaction to Twilight Princess’ at times oppressive grimness, as well as its failure (debatable) to capitalize on the Wii’s motion controls.

Breath of the Wild, then, is Nintendo’s experiential rebuke of Skyward Sword’s focus on story.

Skyward Sword is an imperfect game whose imperfections are so often confounding that it makes the entire affair somewhat taxing to play. The wonky motion controls often feel as if they are resisting the player’s attempts to control the game, and while it’s easy enough to pull them in line, there’s no shortage of frustrating moments. The near constant instructions being fed the player by Link’s companion, Fi, wear on the patience of players. The widespread integration of puzzle gameplay into the overworld sections makes the whole game feel like a series of hallways that one must walk down in order, solving puzzles as rote machinery rather than exploring and discovering them.

Breath of the Wild, instead, is a conventionally controlled game (minus gyroscope aiming controls, which are generally well received, and a few motion control puzzles, which are probably the most widely criticized aspect of the game) that gives the player minimal guidance (and is instead often content to leave Link, and the player, alone) and cordons off the puzzles to separate shrines littered across the game world, leaving it wide open to be explored in any order with no gating. Nearly every criticism of Skyward Sword has been directly reversed in Breath of the Wild, and the result is a game that has captured the awe of seeming all of video gaming. Hell, Skyward Sword is a game all about empowering a single sword to legendary status; Breath of the Wild breaks every single sword you pick up. It’s almost spiteful, at times.

But there’s also the larger, more macro contrast between the two. I mentioned it earlier: Breath of the Wild is all about experience, whereas Skyward Sword wanted to tell you a story.

Listen to people talk about their experience playing Breath of the Wild, and what it comes down to is the things they’ve done within the game. I’ll be happy to talk to you about the time I got kicked off a mountain by a particularly fast horse I was attempting to tame, or about the time I threw my metal sword at an enemy right before lightning struck me, only to be too close to the enemy and get caught in the blast as well. Several friends have told me about their getting lost in one of the (weirdly numerous) maze areas in the game, and the weird things they’ve found in far corners of the game.

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Somebody will be telling their friends how they blew up everything inside this skull rock.

These stories, these moments that are making up the bulk of the conversation about these games, are all emergent narratives. Because that’s what Breath of the Wild excels at: providing players this sandbox (the developers have likened it to a “chemistry set”) within which they can play with virtually no guiding hand, and just have this grand adventure. It is the quintessential experience game, more than almost any sandbox game before it.

This is, paradoxically, in sharp contrast to the general movement of open world experiences in contemporary gaming. Open world games have long been the purview of Western developers rather than their Japanese counterparts, but there’s been an interesting convergence of the styles happening over the past five years or so. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Final Fantasy XV have tried to have their cake and eat it, too, providing wide open worlds to explore and play in (Grand Theft Auto admittedly is more flexible in its gameplay options), while cordoning off a firmly written and directed story into a mission structure. In the case of Final Fantasy XV, this results in a somewhat anemic open world experience that isn’t terribly conducive to the emergent narrative philosophy. Grand Theft Auto V, meanwhile, dilutes its own satirical ambitions by allowing players to engage in wonton destruction and ribaldry outside of its written narrative; it’s hard to satirize modern American culture when you are the living, breathing embodiment of the demons you’re criticizing out the other side of your mouth.

Meanwhile, games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have taken the formerly experiential nature of open world games and converted them wholesale into engines of story, stuffing this massive, explorable world to the brim with detailed sidequests, written and voice acted with the same level of attention to detail as the game’s main story. Bethesda, the Western developer behind mega open world RPG series Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, have even veered slightly in that direction in recent years, with Fallout 4’s fully voiced protagonist character. Breath of the Wild, in returning to a fully experiential design, has bucked the trend in a major way, and seemingly satisfied the bulk of the gaming populace in the process.

Skyward Sword, meanwhile, is one of the most story concerned games in the Zelda franchise. Overwritten to a fault (far too much gametime is spent reading text dialogue), the game places its central story about the creation of the Master Sword – one of the most recognizable and iconic bits of the series’ history – at the forefront of the experience. It takes time to set up major characters beyond the series’ perennial duo of Link and Zelda; Groose, Ghirahim, even series veteran Impa all receive hefty doses of character work. It’s not an unwelcome change: I’ve written a lot about this series and its stories, and while I defend a lot of its attributes, character development has never been something I could really commend the series for. Some of what it does in Skyward Sword is very admirable on this front.

But the widespread reaction to this game was relatively negative. A lot of players frowned upon the highly linear, focused nature of the game. Animator and Game Grumps co-host Arin Hanson (also known as Egoraptor) harshly criticized the game for this, while also acknowledging that this had long been a deficit of the series at large, in a massive 30 minute video essay on the series (it’s well worth your time, but very NSFW). He wasn’t alone in these criticisms. The rallying cry was clear: make Zelda less linear again!

In response, Nintendo gave us Breath of the Wild. And the general vibe seems to be that this game solved the issues people had with Skyward Sword (Hanson declared the game to be the best Zelda title since A Link to the Past). This is great! People enjoying a game is always a good thing.

…but what if everybody is wrong? What if Breath of the Wild hasn’t actually fixed the problem with Skyward Sword? This isn’t just a rhetorical question: I propose that it is the situation we find ourselves in. Breath of the Wild has rebuked nearly all the major criticisms of Skyward Sword, but there’s one major detail it hasn’t shaken.

What is Breath of the Wild actually about?

I ask this question of my students relatively frequently after screening a film in class, and always put a little inflection on “about,” because what I’m asking isn’t for a description of the plot, characters, and setting of the work, but rather asking what ideas the work is putting forth, what thematic and emotional concepts its exploring. With that in mind, what exactly is Breath of the Wild about? What is Skyward Sword about?

I’ve not heard an answer to these questions that feels correct, and I think it’s because at their core, these games aren’t really about anything. Skyward Sword, by virtue of being a heavily story-focused game, sort of stumbles and falls flat on its face as a result. Everything that happens in its story feels perfunctory, obligatory. There’s a story because it’s a game and story needs to happen to justify the gameplay. Nintendo has long prided itself on being a company that puts gameplay first, and develops story to fit that gameplay. But in this case, it created a game with a story that isn’t saying anything. It’s just a sequence of fantastic events.

In the case of Breath of the Wild, an experience-focused game, the game isn’t about anything because it doesn’t give the player anything to really latch onto. This is a game about the experiences you create roaming Hyrule, not a game about any themes or emotional conflicts. The character development that is present is cordoned off into a series of memory cutscenes that are ultimately optional; it’s possible to play this game for hours without ever encountering them.

This will inevitably raise a new question: does it matter if they’re about anything? And that’s a trickier question. One level, no, it absolutely doesn’t matter. I love playing Breath of the Wild, and have taken breaks in writing this piece just to go and explore Hyrule for a half an hour, because I can’t stay away. It’s a powerful experience that creates a profound emotional response, and while that response isn’t necessarily a deep one that brings me to some new understanding of things, there’s absolutely a lot of value in sheer joy and excitement. But, if what separates art from a particularly great toy is that sense of new truth and understanding being gained from it, then is Breath of the Wild somehow less than for its lack of that?

I’m not the arbiter of that. Ultimately, I think this is the key point in the debate between story games and experience games. Do the thematic ideas that story games can imbue within their experience matter in the face of the powerful emotional pull of experience games?

I’ve been thinking about my favorite games lately. A lot of people have jumped to claim Breath of the Wild as a new favorite, as a best in the series and so on. I certainly have been considering it – it’s a uniquely gripping experience. But I keep hesitating at a certain point, and it is, as fate would have it, another Zelda game that is causing that hesitation: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

Majora’s Mask, a side-story game developed in a single year and released in 2000, not long after Ocarina of Time, is a story game, not an experience one. Nobody talks about the chance events that happened as they play the game, because for the most part, this game is predictable and orderly. It isn’t a massive sandbox world that invites emergent narrative. It’s instead a game driven by a simple concept: a world with three days left until it is annihilated in an apocalyptic collision between the world’s moon and its surface. Link must adventure around this world with only three days left, and attempt to stop this apocalypse. Of course, three days isn’t enough, so Link is forced to constantly rewind time and start the three days over again, bringing only a few things back with him every time.

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Oh, it’s also really terrifying.

The game is about the experience of dread, the feeling of an impending doom, and the futile efforts of trying to save individuals. Unlike Skyward Sword, and unlike Breath of the Wild, everything in this game is designed to push those concepts. Talking to characters all over the world will almost always produce conversation about the impending apocalypse. People comment on the moon and the other apocalyptic signs (the intense blizzard in the mountains, the poison in the swamp, the murky waters at sea, and the rise of ghosts and supernatural creatures in the canyon) with regularity. As the three days progress and the moon gets closer, people get more somber and downcast, with people openly contemplating their demise toward the end of the third day. It’s an at time brutal experience to see the joy drained from this world.

But you’re the hero! You can save people! The game wants you to save people, and it wants you to save people beyond just cancelling the apocalypse. In its opening hour, the game hands you an item called the Bomber’s Notebook, a notebook devoted to keeping track of all the people you help over the course of the game. For each person you help, your book gets a sticker, as well as a timeline of all the things you did over the course of three days to help them. It’s an unexpectedly nice thing in a game that is filled with dread and fear in most other corners.

But even this notebook eventually reveals its dark twist: it is impossible to help everyone. I distinctly remember, as a child playing this game for the first time, being frustrated at constantly running out of time as I tried to do as many sidequests – to help as many people – as possible in a single three day cycle. When you rewind time, all the people that you helped get rewound as well. So to help all of them, truly, you’d need to do it all within a single cycle. This is a futile effort: it is impossible to help every single person in need in this game in a single cycle. Certain events overlap in a way that forces you to choose.

There’s a long sidequest in this game between two young lovers, an engaged couple: Anju and Kafei. Kafei has been cursed, and despite being a young adult, has taken on the appearance of a child. He has gone into hiding as a result, and neither Anju nor Kafei’s mother know where he is. The player can get involved on a quest to find Kafei, and the sidequest spins out from there, eventually culminating in an attempt to retrieve a ceremonial engagement mask that was stolen from Kafei. There are so many secondary and tertiary characters involved in this sidequest on top of these main two, and helping them as well as the central couple is a herculean task.

But while you’re completing that, and reuniting a pair of young lovers, you’re also allowing a young girl at the ranch to get abducted by aliens. You’re allowing an old woman who runs the bomb shop to be assaulted by a thief attempting to steal the new merchandise she’s carrying. You’re allowing a sick Zora to die at sea, a sorrowful Goron ghost to remain trapped in this world, unable to move on, a Deku butler to fear for the son he doesn’t know is dead. But to go and help any of those people is to ignore Anju and Kafei, and in turn create that additional misery in the world.

It is impossible to help them all, and the game’s story is specifically written and designed to drill that point home in heartbreaking fashion. To make matters worse, each time you help somebody, you receive some form of mask as reward. These masks carry with you each cycle, so you are gaining physical mementos of the people you’ve helped – and then unhelped by rewinding the cycle. By the end of the game, you’ve got 24 masks that you acquired by helping people. But all of them are once again imperiled, as you’ve reset the cycle once again. There’s a sort of dark selfishness at the core of this that the game explicitly acknowledges in its final moments, point blank asking Link (and thus the player) if they think they are a good person.

This is heavy. This is a difficult game, thematically, and I have come to love it more than almost any other game over the course of my life. And it is this game that gives me pause in labeling Breath of the Wild one of my favorites.

It’s clear what Majora’s Mask is about: man’s inability to save everyone, the cruelty of limited time (remember when I said they made this game in a year? I wonder if these themes have anything to do with that rushed development schedule…), and the experience of existential dread. What is Breath of the Wild about? That is much less clear, if it is indeed about anything.

There are absolutely some affecting stories within Breath of the Wild. In Kakariko Village, there’s a child who is keenly aware that her mother has died, a fact that her father is hiding from his children. Over subsequent visits to Kakariko, you can find this child attempting to cook her younger sister’s favorite dishes, trying to cheer her sibling up in their mother’s “absence.” It’s a really sweet story that I have greatly enjoyed playing through.

But this is isolated. There’s no similar throughline that carries throughout the game. It’s a small moment in a game made of small moments, and it points to the different ambitions of each game.

Breath of the Wild is about the experience of adventuring through Hyrule, of interacting with its people and exploring its geography. It’s not about any strong thematic or emotional concepts. Majora’s Mask is. And that game, more than any other I’ve played, has stuck with me.

I love Breath of the Wild. But I have been unable to shake the feeling that something, however small, is missing from it. Is that something this thematic coherence, this sense of the game being “about” something? I don’t know! I honestly don’t. But I think it might be. I think I’m in search of art that is going to challenge me and make me deal with difficult and unfamiliar ideas and emotions, and while Breath of the Wild, through its experiential design, is certainly transporting me to a new world, I don’t think it’s making me grow as a person. Majora’s Mask did, and does.

This is, in my view, the core tension of video gaming in 2017. The impulse for games as toys of gameplay, experiences that afford us a seemingly infinite toolbox with which to create our own narratives, is strong. But should we instead be creating and consuming games as stories, games that can challenge us and demand us to grow and change as people?

The world, for sure, is wide enough for both. But the debate rages on.

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