I am not a fan of massive open-world games. If a game is going to have an open world, I need it to tell me where to go. I do not respond well to NPCs saying I should go west until I see a bridge and then follow the path until I find the mountain that looks like a dog. Just put a waypoint on my map and tell me to go there. I need a goal or I will never finish the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does not give you waypoints. The game gives you a blank map and wishes you good luck, yet I have never been so driven to finish a game’s story before. I powered through Breath of the Wild in four days. It is true that the game never explicitly told me where to go and what to do throughout the 40+ hour campaign, but Nintendo ensured I would have the drive to push forward. As I forced myself to stay awake to clear the game’s many shrines and journey across the map in search of Hyrule’s seven races, only one thing coursed through my mind: guilt.
It has been a very long time since I last visited Hyrule. My last adventure ended when I was 12. I tearfully watched as Midna flirtatiously said goodbye to Link and broke the mirror that allowed her world to connect to his. Over ten years have passed since that day. I did not take up the call to arms when Link’s adventure soared above the clouds in Skyward Sword nor descend into Lorule in A Link Between Worlds.
I cannot say why I skipped both games. Maybe I felt like I had grown up and was too old to play a franchise my teenage angst viewed as childish. Perhaps I was still reeling from the emotional fallout of Twilight Princess. Perhaps I fooled myself into thinking I was just too busy and skipped both games because their opening hours did not impress me. Regardless, I pushed The Legend of Zelda franchise to the wayside and forgot all about Hyrule. I never thought I would go back. Then came Breath of the Wild.
I bought Breath of the Wild just to have justification for the Nintendo Switch. I wanted Nintendo’s newest toy to experience the first fully portable console and judge its value for myself. Breath of the Wild just seemed like the best of the lot when I looked at the launch game line-up.
I started Breath of the Wild and watched Link awaken in a land both of us should have known. However, in the ten years that had passed for me, and the 100 for Link, we had forgotten a place we once thought of as home. Just like me, Link had lost all memories of Hyrule. Ancient ruins stirred forgotten memories in both of us but we each stared at the broken kingdom with silent passivity.
We had both grown up in Hyrule but neither of us could fully remember where everything was, who lived where, and why we were even supposed to care. Everything felt like a forgotten dream. The more I tried to remember, the less I could. So when the voice of a young woman, a woman I could only surmise was Zelda, began whispering on the wind and pleading for me to help her, I did not. I turned from Hyrule Castle and ventured east. I had no destination in mind. I just wanted to explore. Zelda would be fine without me. The game was not going to cut off suddenly and tell me I took too long to save the princess. This was a children’s game after all.
It took me a few hours to run into anyone. I eventually met with a few fellow travelers at a stable and they taught me how to cook, instructed me in how to catch and ride a horse, and pointed me in the direction of my first town. It caught me totally off guard. For years now, I have been playing games like Mass Effect, Dark Souls, Assassin’s Creed, and Dead Space where pretty much everyone I met was either trying to kill me, trick me, or discriminate against me. No one was mean to me in my first few hours in Hyrule. Certain it was all a fluke, I decided to stock up on cooked meat, say my goodbyes, and journey off towards Hateno Village.
Ten hours later, as I am helping Prince Sidon and the Zora people, I run into my first mean person, which shocks me at first. I had just started getting used to people being kind and remembering that Hyrule is full of nice people. It was certainly making my journey across the beautiful landscape a charming one. I could not figure out why this one character had such a problem with me. Then I learn he does not like me because his favorite student died protecting me.
I am ashamed. Link does not remember this girl and neither do I. This is the first time either of us is even hearing her name since waking in Hyrule at the start of the game. She was one of the four Champions who lost their lives in a battle Link was supposed to help fight. Then the real bomb drops: she loved Link. She hoped to marry him one day and neither he nor I have any recollection of who she is. Link suddenly regains a memory that proves what we are told. I decide to help save the Zora race right then and there to make amends for forgetting one of their own. When I confront Water Blight Ganon, the one responsible for killing her, I show no mercy. The beast lies dead by my hand within the minute. I vow to free the spirits of the other Champions as well.
Twenty hours later, I am beyond frustrated. Thunder Blight Ganon has killed me for the 19th time and I am about ready to throw my Switch into the TV. He is significantly harder than the other Blight Ganons I have already killed. His unrelenting speed is too much for me to handle and I have foolishly invested all my Spirit Orbs into stamina so I do not have enough Heart Containers to survive even one of his lightning-infused slash attacks.
I pause and stare at my controller for a good minute. Why am I doing this? Thunder Blight Ganon moves with a ferocity reminiscent of Dark Souls III’s Dancer of the Boreal Valley. If I think he is too difficult, I should turn around and continue exploring. I do not have to fight this boss. I could just walk away. Breath of the Wild is nothing like the Legend of Zelda I played growing up where I was tasked to go from Point A to Point B to Point C. Except for sealing Calamity Ganon, everything is optional. Why do I feel obligated to lose sleep over slaying a monster that killed a Gerudo who teased Link all the time?
There in lies the true brilliance of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Any player, regardless of how much time they have spent with The Legend of Zelda franchise, will inevitably feel guilty as they journey through Hyrule. A player might spend 10 hours before beginning to tackle actual story missions. Maybe only an hour. Maybe just 30 minutes. I have yet to hear of someone just skipping the early exploration stage of this game entirely. Inevitably, the player will encounter someone on Link’s journey who is now suffering because a minion of Calamity Ganon has destroyed something they love.
What has Link been doing? Sleeping for a hundred years. What has the player controlling him been doing? Whistling a jolly tune as they run across a field and gaze at mountains. We could have done something. We should have done something. Everyone has been fighting for his or her life every day for a century and we have been lost in a sea of ignorant bliss for hours.
Had Breath of the Wild opened up with Link knowing his friends died for him, that his loved ones had suffered without him, and that the people had struggled for 100 years praying for his return, we might have acted sooner. However, I would wager that ultimately the player would have grown bored with the main quest and started exploring halfway through the story. Instead, Nintendo has built Breath of the Wild to ensure that players are blown away by the game’s beauty and want to explore first. When they do finally learn about all the people they have been letting down, they are shocked into a guilt that drives them towards completing their quest as quickly as possible to make up for lost time.
I admit my reaction to how Breath of the Wild’s story guilt-trips the player was probably more severe than most. My absence from Hyrule has been much longer than the typical The Legend of Zelda fan. I jumped into Breath of the Wild just as confused and desperate to remember as Link. Nonetheless, the game’s story is designed to make the player feel guilty regardless of which direction they travel first from the game’s starting location. Link, and thus the player, was supposed to stop Calamity Ganon upon waking up but chose not to. Everyone now suffers because of it.
Link has always been there to stop Ganon and save Hyrule as the two reincarnate across the ages. The player’s lackadaisical nature in the opening hours of Breath of the Wild is a slap in the face to all the characters that hoped Link’s return would spell Ganon’s doom. The time for child-like fun and adventure has long since passed. It is time to go save Princess Zelda. She has been waiting long enough.