The tease of a richer tale.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one such game that I’ve always been meaning to go back to, and now due to a certain global pandemic which has allowed me more free time, I have. One task I’ve wanted to scratch off of my to-do list with Breath of the Wild is the DLC quests, and upon completing The Champions’ Ballard I’m immediately brought back to why this game frustrates me so. Because Breath of the Wild gives us glimpses of a greater experience, one that surfaces on rare occasion before being engulfed by glacial climbing and the dreaded fun killer known as rain.
I’m sure you’ve heard these complaints all before, but what I really want to talk about is the characters and story of Breath of the Wild. This might come as a surprise since the Zelda series is hardly known for its supporting cast or plot, but that doesn’t stop it from having its moments. The unexpectedly earnest speech Ganondorf gives in Wind Waker, Midna’s cold indifference melting to reveal a caring side in Twilight Princess, and the struggle to reunite Kafei and Anju in Majora’s Mask are all standout examples. And it drives me mad that Breath of the Wild shows the same promise, but never fully reaches it.
The most interesting parts of the narrative take place a 100 years ago, conveyed in fancy cutscenes complete with voice acting, well, fancy for Zelda standards. The scenes are brief, and yes, they aren’t going to blow your mind, but it was nice to see some humanity in the hours of wandering very pretty scenery. These scenes also make Link’s eternal muteness more apparent, as someone yaks away and he stares vacantly into the distance.
Not every game needs a voiced protagonist, Limbo wouldn’t be improved if the boy screamed, “Oh my god, a gigantic spider!” when the gigantic spider attacks for example. However, the further Nintendo push towards a more cinematic style, the more Link’s silence is going to stick out like a sore thumb. And I know that the voice acting in Breath of the Wild is far from stellar, but I actually thought it added some extra charm to characters like Zelda. I would even go as far to say that Breath of the Wild is my favourite version of Zelda, with her childish enthusiasm contrasting with her royal position. It makes a change from her spending most of the game trapped in a tower, or in a basement, or in some bullshit magical crystal.
We are reaching the point where Link is becoming an established character, his name is even spoken out loud for the first time in a mainline Zelda game – no, the CD-i games don't count. But Nintendo has settled on this bizarre middle ground, where people talk to Link like he’s a person, but he barely emotes to anything they say. I just wish the development team would commit, because if Link is going to be a part of this story, then give him a stronger relationship to the people around him. I want to see him react to Revali’s insufferable cockiness, or try to console Zelda who’s worried about her future role as Hyrule’s leader.
You get the sense that all the important events have happened already, out of view, and you’re just there to piddle around in a field for hours, looking for tree people so you can acquire their turds – you know what I’m talking about. The one time where I truly felt like I had agency was during the recapture of Hyrule Castle, an exceptional moment that acted not just as the culmination of the game, but the entire franchise. And this could have been made even better if you were allowed to travel through Hyrule Castle and its town in its prime, just to show how truly devastating Calamity Ganon is. But most of Hyrule’s glory is gone, with ruins providing the only reminder of the once mighty city.
Nintendo could have done so much more, because they have shown they can make interesting and memorable characters. Hell, the best part of Skyward Sword is the lovable dolt Groose, mainly because most of the game wasn't exactly great, but that’s besides the point. Instead, with Breath of the Wild, we have a game that spreads everything so thinly. Dungeons are shredded into tiny pieces and sprinkled around the land as shrines, stables are copied and pasted so Link has ample chance to get a horse for speedier traversal, and the story is hidden away in fragmented pieces. All in service of a land that is too big for its own good.
What really drove this all home was a picture of Link, Zelda, Daruk, Mipha, Revali and Urbosa, tightly huddled together during a photograph. It was a warming display of camaraderie, that for a brief moment almost tricked me into thinking that these were companions I had spent hours with. But in reality you don’t, you don’t get to really know any of these characters, and most died a long time before you even start the game. And just to rub salt in the wound, you don’t even get to view the photograph close up again – unless you frame it in Link's house. But what better way to summarise my feelings, a photograph of a better game that you only catch a peek of before it is tucked away deep into your inventory, to be forgotten about amongst all the sticks and roasted acorns.