I have a confession to make: I have never been a massive Zelda fan. I’ve played a fair few of them, from Link’s Awakening DX on the Game Boy all the way to Skyward Sword on the Wii. Hell, I even named The Minish Cap as one of my favorite games ever. With all that being said though, there is something that keeps me at arm’s length to the Zelda franchise. Perhaps it is in the way the story is framed that puts me off. After all, there is nothing quite so disingenuous as being told you are the hero of a story, without any indication as to why other than manifest destiny, then being plonked in your hero’s sandbox and told to save the world.
When I field these concerns to anyone that is a blue-blooded Zelda fan, they will steer me towards one of two games: A Link To The Past, which doesn’t really plead their case as it kickstarted most of the tropes that make every Zelda game play the same way, and The Wind Waker. The Gamecube entrant to the Zelda canon had always eluded me, seeing as I owned the two consoles in between, and was able to coast through the sixth console generation with my trusty PlayStation 2, but with Breath of the Wild coming out in just shy of a week and my cut-price Wii U gathering dust, I picked up a copy of the HD remake and gave it a whirl.
From the start, it didn’t feel particularly different to any other Zelda game I had in the past, but it immediately separated me from my distaste of railroading because of one very simple and clever thing it did. Not once, at any point in my introduction, was my Link mentioned to be anything special. On the contrary, the King of Red Lions made it a point to say that my Link has absolutely nothing to do with the previous incarnations of Link, or any hero in the Zelda series up until that point. For all intents and purposes, he is just some guy in a green shirt trying to save his sister. It may seem dull to not be the hero, but in a world as vibrant and large as Wind Waker, having the freedom to explore without feeling compelled to be the savior is something that has largely been unseen in the Zelda universe.
This freedom can be seen in the way the plot is presented to you as a player; you are encouraged by the King of Red Lions to go through the heroic motions, but never forced or nagged. My favorite experience thus far has been the stretch of time between recharging the Master Sword and finding the Triforce pieces. I haven’t dared look at the map that shows me where they all are yet, but rather sailing around the world and seeing what trouble I can get myself into. That is a very clear distinction from other Zelda games, because in every other scenario, you are simply told that you are a hero and asked to save the world, because that is what heroes do. Not so in Wind Waker: the frame is notably different, focusing on the adventure to become a hero rather than simply starting as one.
This delightfully segues me into the upcoming Breath of the Wild, which has peaked significant interest because it is the first truly open world addition to the franchise, discounting the original 1986 Legend Of Zelda, A Link Between Worlds, and the aforementioned sea-faring exploration in Wind Waker. I am fast becoming tired of games adding open-world for the sake of feeling bigger. I much prefer a narrower focus, honing one particular aspect to a fine point instead of making more of everything else. I find myself squinting at Breath of the Wild not because it is doing the same thing – even though it is, sort of – but because of why it has become open-world.
The reason that Breath of the Wild claims to be open-world is to offer your incarnation of Link the freedom to explore and find out his past. The questions of your past and future are out there in the big wide world, just waiting to be discovered. To hammer this point home, the developers have broken away from the item restrictions that have plagued previous games, like the infamous Hookshot requirement to get into the Forest Temple from Ocarina of Time. Now Link can hop, skip and jump across every mountain, tree and gully, and explore his past and future to be the hero he was before, and will undoubtedly be again. This freedom is liberating, and is luxury to behold in first-hand playthroughs on the Switch. Yet even as the world unfolds out in front of me and captures my attention on an aesthetic level, my old wary feelings for the franchise begin to re-emerge on a ludological one.
In my mind, Nintendo have done to the concept of freedom and exploration what they have done with every aspect of their franchise: tied it into being framed as a hero in their story. Sure, you can go straight to the final boss and try to kill it, but you wouldn’t have their story or the items that the story provides you. Granting a huge world to explore and telling you to find your story is not the same as having freedom of exploration. The best open world games have their open world framed in the overarching reason of why you are there, while still maintaining a feeling of ambiance and presence when the game needs to focus on its narrative. As a result, these open worlds reward your exploration with something that you would not find if you stayed on the main path. The most recent example of this is in The Witcher 3, which uses its open world as a breeding ground for mini-narratives, and while your story is one of mystery and intrigue, you are free to roam the countryside and discover a vibrant series of narratives, creatively mundane and fascinating in contrast to your own. Wind Waker succeeds because, at its very core, its open world exploration is tied to the motif of history: both of forging your own, discovering fragments of what came before, and letting go of past mistakes.
When all is said and done, tying an open world to the very idea that you need to explore it only diminishes the joy in finding out what lies ahead. Breath of the Wild have added an open world because the creators believe that the search for why you are a hero and the tools to facilitate that heroic idea will translate into the joy of exploration, which somewhat misses the point. One does not explore for the sake of an end goal, they explore for the joy of exploring. Exploring has the possibility of finding nothing, of failure, of something scary or funny or indescribable, but in Breath of the Wild, that possibility is not the why, but the what. Wind Waker‘s high seas gave me joy because I wanted to see what I could find, not because I was asked to find the Triforce pieces, and what I found is not particularly important, because the joy was in the journey and not what I found at the end.
A good open world does not need to reward the player for exploring, because the reward is already in the exploration of a beautiful world. Shigeru Miyamoto said that he based the very first title of the franchise off of the memories of exploring his home in Kyoto when he was a boy. For him, his fond memories of exploration was all that he needed to begin a multi-million dollar video game franchise. My love of Wind Waker is in this colorful wandering, and what I could find in Breath of the Wild may just be enough to entice me to explore. At the end of the day, no open world needs to be complicated, and no one will have to ask you to explore a well crafted one. If you build it, they will come. If they want to explore, they most certainly will, and become a hero of the world you have built without ever having to being asked.
Image credits go to JR Renders and WallpaperCraze for the banner, and ExpertReviews, ZeldaDungeon and kathrynplays for the in-text images.