Storytelling with Systems: Breath of the Wild’s Open World

The open world game mechanic is a system I’ve talked about before on this blog, though in that instance it was about how Skyrim uses its world to weave a mythic tale. I’ve also talked about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – specifically about its weapons and how they reflect the broken state of Hyrule. This article will be combining those two ideas to discuss how Breath of the Wild uses its open world to tell its story.

What’s unique about Breath of the Wild‘s open world is that, like Skyrim, the vast freedom afforded by the system doesn’t break the game’s narrative. No matter how you play the game, it will never feel as though you’re making Link avoid his responsibilities to the kingdom by having him hunt down Koroks or help someone find love. This is truly remarkable in a game that is simply bursting with optional objectives and quests, so let’s dive into just how this open world avoids the narrative traps that accompany the mechanic and just what sort of story is being told.

The Castle in the Distance

First, let’s talk about how Breath of the Wild avoids narrative trap that so often plagues open world games – the feeling that you’re delaying the very important main quest in order to complete pointless side objectives. No matter where you travel in Hyrule, your primary goal will always be present in some way because you’ll almost always be able to see the great structure in the center of the map – Hyrule Castle. This large fortress is positioned such that the rest of the open world radiates out from it. That plus the constant swarm of malice energy surrounding it make it clear that this is your final goal, the location of your ultimate showdown with Calamity Ganon.

In this way, the game ensures that Link’s purpose in the story is never far from your mind. It’s hard to ignore a great big castle in the middle of an open field, which means that you’ll always have that reminder somewhere in the back of your mind that you need to stop Ganon at some point. Since Link’s character can be pretty easily interpreted as a stand in for the player, we can also say that the castle is always present in his mind as well.

Preparing for the Fight

Breath of the Wild doesn’t just expect players to remember Hyrule Castle due to its distinctive design (although that is certainly part of it). The game also sears the location into your mind with the sharp difficulty spike in enemies and areas that you encounter when approaching it. Multiple Guardians, turrets, Moblins, and a Lynel will ensure that any players attempting to enter the castle early on will be in for a violent surprise.

Difficulty is an excellent way of making players remember areas – it encourages you to return later once you’ve powered up your character and are better equipped to handle the challenges. In this way, the game recontextualizes pretty much every side quest in the game. What would be pointless busy work in another title, existing only to pad playtime, is instead a part of Link’s journey as he regains his strength. You can’t delay working on the game’s primary goal of defeating Calamity Ganon because literally everything you do contributes in some way, whether it means learning a new recipe to buff Link’s combat skills or gaining a new heart container from completing shrines. No matter how seemingly inconsequential, it’s all a part of the game’s larger story.

The Fall of Hyrule

Speaking of the larger story, let’s talk about just that! Breath of the Wild takes place 100 years after Calamity Ganon wreaked devastation across Hyrule. Princess Zelda and her knight, Link, were supposed to keep him at bay with the aid of the Champions and the Divine Beasts, but Ganon took control of the Divine Beasts, Link was badly injured, and Zelda’s power didn’t awaken until too late. Zelda chose to use her power to keep Ganon contained while Link recuperated in the Shrine of Resurrection, a process which stripped him of all memories and brings us to the start of the game.

Link awakes to a Hyrule in ruins as Calamity Ganon prepares to overpower Zelda and escape, freeing him to reign chaos upon the world once again. He has no knowledge of this vast, strange world he finds himself in – and, depending on how you play the game, he may remain relatively ignorant of the world. You’re advised to free the Divine Beasts but you don’t need to do so. In fact, the only thing that the game requires you to do in order to complete it is fight and defeat Calamity Ganon. Whether you do that having explored every corner of Hyrule and recalled all your memories or having just made a beeline to the castle after leaving the Great Plateau is entirely up to you.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

This unique story structure wouldn’t be possible without Breath of the Wild‘s open world. The absolute freedom provided by the land of Hyrule allows for Link’s journey to be distinct for each player. Some versions of Link will find the Master Sword, complete every shrine, finish each Divine Beast, and collect every memory before beating Ganon. Others may only finish as many shrines as they need to in order to not die, or focus on expanding their inventory with Korok seeds, or even miss a Divine Beast or two. The story rolls with it and the ending of the game makes sense no matter what path you’ve chosen.

The story told by the open world here is ultimately one about heroism and courage. By giving players endless opportunities to grow stronger and reveal more about the world and characters around them, the world allows for infinite possible versions of Link to exist. No matter what path you take, though, Link’s journey still takes him to Hyrule Castle and he still overcomes Calamity Ganon. It doesn’t matter how you get there, the open world tells us – just that you do, and that you never give up no matter how many setbacks you face.

Further Reading

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

Hopeful Legacies: An Analysis of Breath of the Wild

Despite its colorful style and vivacious characters, the latest game in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, is a surprisingly morose and somber title. It takes place in a ruined Hyrule where Link and Zelda lost their last fight against Ganon and monsters roam the world freely. Everywhere you look shows ruined homes and desolate wastes, all while melancholy music scores your adventure.

This is the post-apocalypse, Zelda style. Hope isn’t lost here, though, and the game is ultimately about the perseverance of that hope. You as Link have another chance to save the day and defeat Ganon once more.

Setting the Scene

Breath of the Wild’s story begins a hundred years in the past, when the Champions Mipha, Urbosa, Darruk, and Revali, alongside Link and Zelda, were tasked with defeating Ganon upon his imminent return. Things went very badly, as Ganon killed the four Champions, took control of their Divine Beasts and the kingdoms Guardian automatons, and defeated Link. Zelda was unable to tap into her own magical powers until the last moment, whereupon she saved Link, sent him to the Shrine of Resurrection to heal, and then went to hold Ganon at bay for as long as she could.

Zelda held Ganon for a hundred years, until in the present, Link awakes with no memory of his past. He travels the ruined land of Hyrule, searching for answers and for a way to defeat Ganon. Along the way, he frees the Divine Beasts and the spirits of their Champions from Ganon’s control, with the help of each the Champions’ successors: Mipha’s brother Sidon; Urbosa’s heir, Riku; Darruk’s descendant, Yunobo; and Revali’s successor, Teba.

Memory of a Memory

The game is very interested in the past, as shown by one of the major side quests where Link seeks out his forgotten memories of Zelda and the Champions. Everything you do is colored by the past in some way, be it retrieving an ancient helm for the Gerudo or speaking with the long-lived Zora who still remember your failure from a hundred years ago.

While hearkening back to this lost age is central to the game’s story, that’s not what it’s ultimately about. You can see this in the different roles held by the Champions and their successors. The Champions are just spirits now, having died to Ganon during the Calamity. All they can do is guide you through their Divine Beast before passing on their unique power after you defeat the piece of Ganon that killed them. Their successors, on the other hand, take an active role in aiding Link as they physically transport you, protect you, or fling themselves at the Divine Beasts for you.

The Future Builds on the Past

The successors are not clones of the Champions. Teba lacks Revali’s arrogance, Riju lacks Urbosa’s boldness, Yunobo lacks Darruk’s bravado, and Sidon is leagues more enthusiastic than the reserved Mipha. In some ways, they’ve learned from those who came before and in others they’ve elected to put their own spin on things. The Champions, for their part, recognize that their moment has long since passed that once they do what they can to help defeat Ganon, it will be time to move on.

This marks a significant departure from the attitudes held a hundred years ago. At that time, the kingdom’s plan was to use the Divine Beasts and the Guardians to defeat Ganon, with the Champions, Link, and Zelda being central figures but never in any real danger. This failed, as it was the exact same strategy used to contain Ganon a thousand years prior and he was now ready for it. Because Hyrule did not build on the past and instead tried to simply repeat it, failure was inevitable.

Second Chances

This is not the case in the present day. Having learned from the mistakes made during the Calamity, the Champions and Link are more capable than before and perfectly able to defeat Ganon. Zelda, too, is more competent as her sealing power is fully unlocked and she proves instrumental in stopping Ganon.

Breath of the Wild proves to be a game about these sorts of second chances. We don’t always get to save the world, and if we do it isn’t always in the way we imagine. All we can do is leave a legacy for those who come after us and hope that they’ll be willing to rise to the challenge.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild‘s Weapons | Overthinking Games

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild’s Weapons

There’s a lot to love about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, from its expansive open world to its unique characters, full of personality. It’s one of the best games released in recent memory and stands as quite possibly the best Zelda game of all time (Ocarina of Time notwithstanding). One element of the game that received significantly less love than others, however, was the weapon durability mechanic by which nearly every sword, axe, and magic wand you picked up in the game would eventually break down.

This design decision was controversial when the game first released. After all, no other game in the series featured weapons that wore out. There are several reasons behind the weapon durability feature, though, not least of which because it leads to more interesting gameplay experiences. When you’re forced to switch from your favorite sword to an awkward boomerang in the middle of a tense fight against swarms of Moblins and Lizalfos, it creates a uniquely exhilarating experience that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. There are also narrative implications created by this mechanic, which is what we’ll be focusing on here. The weapon durability system – and indeed, the weapons in general – reflect the state of Hyrule and Link’s journey throughout this fallen kingdom.

Journey Through a Ruined Kingdom

The most obvious parallel between Hyrule and the weapons is that both of them are falling apart – quite literally in the weapons’ cases. This Zelda game in unlike any other, as Link is faced not with a bustling, thriving kingdom, but with a ruined world where people are just barely surviving, all with the threat of Calamity Ganon hanging over them. Hyrule is in decay, as we see from the numerous ruined structures that dot the landscape. It only makes sense, then, that the weapons you find in this land are equally as decayed and broken down. Nothing lasts forever in this world, be it the tools in your arsenal or the very kingdom itself.

The weapons in the game can also be used to track Link’s own journey through the world of Hyrule. When you start your quest, Link is freshly awoken from the Shrine of Resurrection, weakened and adrift in a strange land. Fittingly, most players’ early weapons will consist of tree branches, rusty swords, and wooden clubs. Link is still weak, and so are his weapons. As you progress through the game and Link grows stronger, you’ll find better tools to help you combat your foes. By the time you’ve freed all four Divine Beasts and are ready to take on Ganon, you’ll be kitted out with Great Flameblades, Royal Broadswords, and all manner of other powerful weapons that reflect your empowered status.

Divine Weaponry

Speaking of the Divine Beasts, there are several weapons you receive as rewards for freeing them: the Lightscale Trident, the Scimitar of the Seven, the Boulder Breaker, and the Great Eagle Bow. Each of these weapons can be broken, but they can also be reforged if you possess the appropriate materials. Additionally, they are each connected to one of the Champions who faced Ganon alongside Zelda and Link a hundred years ago. Obtaining these weapons mark major points in the game’s story after the spirits of those Champions and their Divine Beasts have been released from Ganon’s influence. In this way, the weapons mirror their original bearers as even though they may be broken and defeated, they can be reclaimed and return just as strong as they were before.

Finally, there is the Master Sword, a unique blade filled with divine energy and hands down the best weapon in the game. It holds this status for several reasons, as it is the only sword you can find that won’t break – instead, it simply enters a recharge period, after which you can use it again. It also adds its own slot to your inventory when you obtain it, meaning that it doesn’t prevent you from picking up other weapons. On top of this, it’s also just a very good sword, and its damage is doubled when in the presence of anything that’s been corrupted by Calamity Ganon (Guardians, Divine Beasts, and Hyrule Castle).

In order to obtain the Master Sword, Link must have a total of 13 hearts, or else the effort from attempting to pull the blade from its sheath in the ground will kill him. This ensures that players won’t find the best weapon in the game too early and then just breeze past the rest of the Shrines and Divine Beasts, but it also fits narratively, as the Sword wants to make sure that Link is strong enough to take on Ganon. Additionally, while Link can use the blade against any foe he encounters, this will make it run out of charge very quickly. The Master Sword is most powerful when facing Ganon and it gains increased durability in addition to its enhanced damage when in the presence of anything that the Calamity has touched.

Broken Swords for a Broken World

The weapons of Hyrule are varied and complex, their many facets showcasing different pieces of game design and subtle storytelling techniques. They reflect so many aspects of Breath of the Wild, whether it’s their parallels to the world’s decay or the way they tell the story of the Champions’ resurgence. A good game mechanic is one that accomplishes several things at once, and it’s safe to say that the weapons in this game do just that.

Further Reading

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit