December 5, 2020

Breath of the Wild is the best videogame about traveling that I’ve ever played.

If there’s one commonality threading through my taste in media, and videogames in particular, it’s a yearning for adventure. There’s always been some deep-rooted desire for a chance to just drift away from daily life for a chance to wander across an unfamiliar territory, on beaten paths or otherwise, to stumble across new and foreign experiences. Vidoegames and most of the other speculative fiction I interact with do satisfy that desire to an extent, along with throwing in a lot of larger-than-life-challenges to overcome for good measure, but despite that—still pretty young age (22) and current state of the world aside—I don’t think I’ve ever been able to truly feel a sense of adventure before.

AAA open world action-role-playing games (wow, that’s a mouthful) aren’t a kind of game I’m that experienced with, but based off the couple I’ve played/noodled around with, Final Fantasy XV and Horizon Zero Dawn, respectively, a lot of the promises they make seem to fall flat. The worlds are lushly detailed and enormous in scale and free to travel at my leisure (eventually) and populated by a myriad of people and creatures and all that other marketing speak, sure, but there’s always something getting in the way of making things feel like an adventure. As majestic as those worlds are, I’ve never felt compelled to just slow down and breathe them in, to look them over with an eye that isn’t preoccupied with where my next objective is. From what I remember, Final Fantasy XV suffers from this a lot—as much as the fantasy setting that’s progressed to a modern age aesthetic remains one of my favorite world designs, basing the bulk of your travel around what’s basically an autopiloting car that can’t even traverse most of its world takes a lot of attention away from giving anything more than a passing glance.

Breath of the Wild though, whoo boy. This game understands what makes an adventure. It understands that the journey is just as, if not more important than the destination and/or big evil darkness about to destroy the world. It takes all the minutiae of what goes into a journey, the parts most vidoegame stories would seem to cut out or abstract, and smoothly integrates them into the experience.

This game understands that on a journey, the act of traveling isn’t something done effortlessly. Breath of the Wild’s world is just as enormously charted and stuffed with secrets like any other open world game—but, instead of placing limits on the world or spoonfeeding the progression of your movement toolkit, it hands out tiny amounts of everything to you from the get-go and lets you, well, go wild. Starting out with a tiny pool of stamina makes getting around anywhere a challenge, but instead of asking “how do I get to the next waypoint as conveniently as possible?” you’re simply asking “how do I get there?”—and the difference is like taking off a blindfold. Taking a closer look at things isn’t something only done by someone who finds the world resonant enough to pique their curiosity; it is an outright requirement, cultivating so much more respect for its structures and its people and things happening in it.

Of course, when you’re plopped down on your own without a clue of what to do, the only way to know where to go is to ask the people in it. Breath of the Wild understands that the lifeblood of any locale is the people inhabiting it, and so almost everyone has something interesting to say; whether about the lay of the land, a recipe to try, another town miles away, a method of getting a specific item, or just about what’s going on in their life. And just as you’re reacting to the changing times and weather, its people react in the moment as well; wandering or remaining posted on clear days and retreating indoors come night or foul weather. Some characters do lose some of their shine with the same phrases after you’ve mingled around an area for a while—no videogame can account for the limitless depth of mood a person can convey, after all—but there’s enough verisimilitude to make it’s spaces feel lived in.

Also, something I personally love to see in adventure-ish games: while Link is considered his own character in Breath of the Wild; it understands that you, the player, in all your usually-unexplained-but-actually-explained-in-this-one-silent-snooping-around-and-picking-up-things-and-doing-dumb-things-on-a-whim nonsense, are an absolute weirdo. You may be a force for good, but you’re still an anomaly, and the game sees fit to let you know when you get videogamey around people.

(Silent protagonists are something I’ve been fixated on for a while due to a very specific and probably needlessly convoluted reason. It’s really hard to explain now, but I’m definitely gonna talk about ‘em again in other posts.)

Breath of the Wild understands the simple pleasures that go into traveling. It understands the shared experience of meeting others on their own journeys—meet a traveler in town or at a stable, and after you wander around the area long enough you’ll always be pleasantly surprised to run into them again on the other side of the region. In particular, Kass, a wandering avian bard, twanged a heartfelt chord in me with how often you see him around, plying a reverence for the songs passed down by his master. It understands that good food is essential on a journey, whether it be scrounging around for things to haphazardly toss together or cooking up full-blown local specialties—and even Link agrees! Look at this happy boy!

This game also understands that sometimes, shit just happens. On some days, the weather wants to be force against you, raining on whatever climbing expedition you were just on. It knows that even the most well-made weapons wear down and break eventually—and when it happens in the middle of a scrap, you gotta make do with what you got, be that the next weapon in the list or some stray skeleton arm lying around. And on those occasions where everything falls apart at once? Well, you can just bask in the glory of your spectacular failure, because when Link inevitably flails down into even more trouble, you can’t help just sitting back and laugh as it plays out.

The journey isn’t the only part of Breath of the Wild, though. There’s a wholly revamped Zelda game in there with a shiny new physics system that, based on what scattered clips I’d seen around the internet, would’ve been where I’d gotten most of my enjoyment from. It’s story is no slouch either, surveying people eking out their lives amidst a land recovering from decay (while dumb big mechs controlling the forces of nature are going crazy, I guess); and in what was a very pleasant surprise, making the titular princess herself the most engaging character by far.

But, if there’s one thing from this game that’s going to stick with me, it’s the countless hours wandering the wilds, finally able to grasp what goes into a journey.