On Video Game Narratives and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

One hundred forty two hours and forty one minutes. That’s how much time I’ve spent playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild since its March 3rd release. It’s by far the most time I’ve ever spent on a single play through of a Zelda game, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of saving Hyrule from the clutches of evil. All good things must come to an end though. I’ve only played the game once in the last week, and I don’t feel the itch to turn it on as soon as I get home anymore. It was inevitable that I would move on, but I’m surprised that I’m not thinking about reliving the adventure. There’s something missing from Breath of the Wild: a reason to return to it someday.

Obvious spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Video games are now a narrative-driven form of entertainment. Even sports games like NBA 2K17 feature a narrative-driven mode, where players can create a digital version of themselves and live out entire NBA seasons. Big budget, triple-A titles which lack narrative modes (such as Street Fighter V and Star Wars Battlefront) are criticized by professional reviewers and consumers alike for leaving out what many consider to be a core feature of modern gaming. Meanwhile, prestigious awards are often reserved for games with particularly strong narratives — think The Last of Us, Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto and similar titles.

Why do fans and consumers demand a narrative structure?

I’ve often felt torn about the necessity of narrative* in video games. Video games have given me some of my favorite characters and been home to some of the best writing there is. Yet the medium is accurately named video games, not video narratives. There has been no truly successful fusion of gameplay and narrative in triple-A titles thus far. Narrative progression is usually discreetly separated from actual gameplay in cut scenes, and while we’ve seen an increase in “walk and talk” scenes in recent games, the most important narrative moments still require little more from players than to press a button to advance dialogue. In those scenes, games become movies, and the player is constantly switching between the two settings. Games still can’t deliver narrative as games.

*For the purposes of this article, I’m drawing a distinction between “story” and “narrative.” Almost all games have a story. 1984’s Super Mario Bros. story is that the princess was kidnapped prior to the start of the game, which explains why Mario is traveling across the world to save her. Super Mario Bros. lacks a narrative, a chronological telling of the story, in game, that drives the action of the game forward. Super Mario RPG has a narrative, a changing set of plot points and characters which move Mario.

If it’s impossible for a game to truly integrate narrative (that is, for a game to simultaneously advance its narrative and allow the player to play), then why do developers include narrative in games at all? Why do fans and consumers demand a narrative structure? I think that Breath of the Wild answers this question with its major shortcoming: narrative, even imperfectly implemented, is as important as gameplay.

Breath of the Wild leaves behind several of the series’ well-established gameplay conventions. As important, it also sheds the driving narrative structure which has been a key element of the franchise since Ocarina of Time in 1998. Before OoT, there was only the flimsiest backstory to set Link off on his quest to defeat Ganon and save Princess Zelda. OoT introduced a narrative to the series, and characters that the player cared about and interacted with as more than single-phrase-spouting NPCs. We began to understand the ruthless and ambitious Ganondorf; Zelda was a mischievous child and an adult full of regrets; Hyrule was populated with personalities that would reveal their importance to the narrative, such as Darunia, Saria, and Nabooru. Destiny pushed the characters forward, culminating in the epic battle between the Hero of Time and the Great King of Evil Ganon.

Subsequent Zelda games built on this narrative foundation, creating a more complicated lore. Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker served as direct sequels, the former following the adventures of the Hero of Time to a new land, and the latter exploring the consequences of the Hero’s absence in Hyrule.

Subsequent Zelda games built on this narrative foundation, creating a more complicated lore.

Twilight Princess, while not a direct sequel, borrowed heavily from OoT in terms of themes and narrative beats. Minish Cap gave us the origins of Link’s cap, and Skyward Sword explained the beginnings of the Master Sword and Hyrule.

Narrative became increasingly important to the Zelda franchise, in some cases to the detriment of the actual gameplay experience. The introductory segments of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword were panned for their plodding narrative and hand-holding. Fi, the partner character in SS, became infamous as the pinnacle of poor narrative and game design in 3D Zelda games. These games were placing gameplay second to narrative. Players were interrupted constantly with cut scenes, unnecessary dialogue, and character interactions that slowed the game’s pacing to a crawl at times, preventing the player from actually playing the game.

Breath of the Wild undid all of these sins by swinging hard in the opposite direction. Gameplay is essentially the only focus…

BotW undid all of these sins by swinging hard in the opposite direction. Gameplay is essentially the only focus. There is no narrative introduction, no partner character to get to know, and very little happening in Hyrule in the present tense of the game. Everything is back story, delivered quickly by two characters in the opening hours of the game. The rest of Breath of the Wild’s story is told through a handful of semi-mandatory cut scenes and twelve hidden scenes.

I call these “semi-mandatory” because even most of these can be avoided by skipping large parts of the map. If the player completes the entire story of BotW, they will see under two hours of cut scenes. To put that number in perspective, The Last of Us, a much shorter game, has over three hours of narrative scenes.

Even after uncovering the entire story, Calamity Ganon has no personal history or even spoken dialogue. Zelda is physically incognito in the game’s present tense until the literal end of the game. Many of the game’s characters, while sporting big personalities and expressive animation, revert back to the one-line NPC model from earlier games. Link can’t interact with the most interesting characters in the game — Daruk, Mipha, Revali and Urbosa — because they’re dead.

Urbosa is one of best new characters in Breath of the Wild, yet the player spends almost no time with her in the game.

Urbosa is one of best new characters in Breath of the Wild, yet the player spends almost no time with her in the game.

So while BotW has a story, there is no driving narrative to speak of. There are no characters, plot points, settings or conflicts which move the game forward. Link is given his main quest at the beginning of the game: Destroy Ganon. Whenever you’re ready to do that, you can. Whether you take forty-one minutes to save Hyrule from the Calamity or over fifty hours to explore every nook and cranny is up to the player.

Nintendo’s decision to give the player complete freedom in exploring the game was partially the result of complaints players had about Skyward Sword, which oftentimes felt like a guided tour of Hyrule instead of a full-fledged adventure. Nintendo’s developers have also stated that they develop gameplay ideas for Zelda first, and then build a story around those gameplay elements.

Gameplay-wise, Breath of the Wild is incredible.

Gameplay-wise, Breath of the Wild is incredible. Hyrule is full of secrets, from the small pleasure you feel when finding a new abandoned village to the genuine awe you experience when watching Farosh emerge from his waterfall home the first time. Despite the breathless reviews the game received, it’s not perfect (more on that later), but the developers at Nintendo certainly perfected the novelty of exploration. The map encourages you to fill it in, and rewards you with surprises around each corner.

And this is the great weakness of Breath of the Wild — it’s a game that is built on the sense of wonder you get when you find something new, but that wears off eventually…

And this is the great weakness of Breath of the Wild — it’s a game that is built on the sense of wonder you get when you find something new, but that wears off eventually. You can’t recreate the feeling of seeing Farosh for the first time again. All of the abandoned villages start to look the same. The hapless NPCs you rescue over and over say the same things. Don’t get me wrong. I got one hundred and forty three hours of enjoyment out of this game, and that’s worth well more than the price of admission. Yet I still feel somewhat empty, because I know I’ll never play this game from start to finish again.

I’ve played Ocarina of Time more times than I can count to see Ganondorf burst from the rubble of Hyrule Castle. Majora’s Mask is my favorite game of all time, and there’s nothing in BotW that comes close to eliciting the same level of emotion I felt watching Anju and Kafei profess their love for each other as the world ended around them. As deeply flawed as Skyward Sword was, Zelda and Groose were likeable characters that I enjoyed spending time with. In BotW though, it’s Link and his wits. That was a design choice of course, but perhaps it’s a design that’s a bit outdated.

Moments like this have brought me back to Majora’s Mask many times.

Moments like this have brought me back to Majora’s Mask many times.

The tension between narrative and story may never truly be resolved (barring some incredible advances in VR technology), but that tension is still necessary for games to create moments. They are the highlight of any narrative-driven game, the events, plot twists, reveals and scenes that stay with you long after the game ends. Perhaps the most famous example of these moments was the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. A narrative was necessary to create that moment. Time and energy getting to know Aeris were required for us to feel something when Sephiroth plunged his sword into her.

Those moments are what we return to when we replay a game. Where are the moments in BotW? The game puts no resources into its narrative, and therefore we have none of those moments to return to. The relationship between Link and Zelda is merely hinted at, not fully explored. When she asks Link tenderly at the end of the game, “Do you remember me?” I’m not sure why his answer should be yes. The extra scene after the credits, a reward for finding all of the hidden memories, feels unearned and unemotional. The drive to explore beyond Hyrule Castle is not created through narrative progression, but a reliance on the player’s curiosity and desire for completion. Those traits are compelling for a first playthrough of BotW, but not nearly enough to return to a world where all the secrets have been uncovered.

The drive to explore beyond Hyrule Castle is not created through narrative progression, but a reliance on the player’s curiosity and desire for completion.

The last six months have seen Neir: Automata, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, Mass Effect Andromeda, Persona 5, Breath of the Wild and other games. Maybe no one has the time to replay a game anymore. As someone who enjoys narrative though, the true mark of a masterpiece is not the feeling a work of art gives me the first time, but the feeling it gives me the second time I experience it. After the surprise and novelty wear off, do I want to return to a narrative I’m familiar with? I’ll never be able to recreate the feeling I had the first time, but that’s not my goal. My second playthrough should feel different than the first, yet it needs to feel just as good in its own way.

That crucial quality is what made Crash the worst movie to win a Best Picture Oscar — it’s contrivances blow you away the first time you watch it, then become obvious and trite the second time. It’s why I can watch reruns of Star Trek every day, but I have yet to rewatch Battlestar Galactica — enjoyment of the latter is too contingent upon the constant surprises the show throws at you, which are no longer surprises the second time. And it’s why Breath of the Wild is an amazing, wonderful title that I loved playing, but will almost certainly be traded in by the end of the summer.

If you enjoyed this guest post, please check out more of writer Jamil Ragland’s blog The Nutmegger Daily or on Twitter

Photo Credit: Chion Wolf

Photo Credit: Chion Wolf

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