My initial reaction to the E3 2016 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild was to jump and down ecstatically until I had a stomach ache. Just from the trailer, there was so much see, so many ways in which this game was the ultimate fulfillment of all my hopes for the franchise. Needless to say, I am very excited for this game.
First of all, let’s just establish what the purpose of games is for me. Games are story generating engines. A good game is one where the player experiments with the game’s mechanics and stories shake out. Great games are ones that prompt the player to try hard to get the coolest stories, and rewards the player for their effort. To be clear, by “stories” I’m not referring to scripted in events that are placed into the game by a writer, but instead to the emergent narratives that are the aggregation of player actions and their results. This distinction is very important; a game that depends on having a script written into it for narrative has more in common with film than a “game” (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that).
Prime examples of these “story generators” are games like Minecraft, Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and even chess. Let’s look specifically at Minecraft. It creates a huge story space by giving the player a simple set of things they can do: move, collect blocks, place blocks, and fight monsters. There are obviously other things on top of that, but even with these four simple concepts, you get the core of Minecraft’s gameplay. The player has a space to discover a myriad of stories involving the collection of resources, and turning them into whatever the player may value. For me, this usually means delving into deep caves to find building materials in order to build opulent, walled castles. Because the narratives are mechanically driven, Minecraft has a very large (practically infinite) number of permutations on the specifics of how a particular narrative may go.
At its core, the Zelda franchise is also designed to work in this way. This is easiest to see with the first game in the franchise, with its non-linear progression and utter lack of scripting to direct the player (and no, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” does not count as direction). This openness allowed for players to simply go whichever way they wanted, and create narratives out of the events that unfurled. Shigeru Miyamoto has always said that the central theme of the Zelda franchise is discovery, and it was one of the first games to show us that this discovery really meant the discovery of interesting stories that are enabled by the mechanics.
(That’s not to say that a lack of scripting is necessary for players to discover the narratives enabled by the mechanics in a game, per se, but it does make it easier. It’s much easier to explore and discover when you don’t have a fairy ringing in your ear, constantly reminding you that Zora’s Domain seems freakishly cold or whatever.)
While the handheld installments of the franchise always seemed to tack true to the original theme, on home consoles from Ocarina of Time onwards (excluding Majora’s Mask), this discovery of narratives took a back seat to stories that were scripted into the games. Development was more concerned with creating catered experiences rather than opening up a world of possibilities and allowing the players to find the enjoyment for themselves. This has been the biggest blunder that the developers of Zelda have ever made. The franchise that helped to invent the concept of emergent narrative had abandoned it, and it has felt stale and groundless because of it.
Luckily, it seems like Eiji Aonuma has always understood this premise at some level. The first game he directed was Majora’s Mask which had an (overly) ambitious system that was supposed to allow players to play and replay the game over and over to discover and rediscover many stories and their nuances. Unfortunately, that intention was not well signaled to the player, and scripted narrative RPGs like Final Fantasy were getting a lot of attention, so the genius of system was not well received by many players. After that, the narrative structures of the next three major console releases were basically clones of Ocarina with some tweaks this way or that to bring some game specific flair (admittedly, I loved the story of Skyward Sword. I wish it were a movie).
It seems that those days are behind us, however, as Breath of the Wild returned to the core theme of Zelda to breathe life back into the franchise. Everything that has been shown and said about this game reinforces that its purpose is for the player to discover all the different sequences of events that are allowed by the game’s systems.
The first thing I noticed is that this game invites you to go EVERYWHERE. The first thing you see after leaving the area designed to make sure you know how console controllers work is a skyline that is practically a dessert menu of points of interest, just begging you to go and explore them. Next you learn that you can climb on most surfaces (and pretty much all outdoor surfaces) in the game. So there aren’t really any walls in the outside world, either, at least, none that can’t be overcome with some perseverance and a complete disregard for Link’s knees. This game doesn’t have a script it needs you to follow, you’re invited to find the stories that are inherently in it.
They’ve introduced myriad new mechanics including (but not limited to): Link’s new stealth abilities, his various powers that allow him to manipulate landscapes, a fully functional physics engine, reactive AI for NPCs, and a revamped character simulation that allows the environment to affect Link in ways it never has before. The interactions between these many systems create a HUGE narrative space in which to discover fun and exciting stories.
I could go on to talk about how these specific mechanics work to enable this huge narrative space, but I’m going to conclude for now by just saying that Breath of the Wild is the breath of fresh air that the Zelda franchise has been needing for a long time now.