Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation on Nintendo’s acclaimed 2017 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, curated by Autumn Wright. Autumn is an essayist doing criticism on games and other media. Follow their work at @TheAutumnWright.
In the long three years since its release, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW) has undoubtedly entered video game canon. The title stands out among other Critical Compilations both in its youth and singularity. Few individual games have inspired a body of critical work in such a short time.
BotW entered the critical consciousness as the monolithic presence of Nintendo had fallen into question. Of the consoles it released on, the Switch was a gimmicky bet and the Wii U officially retired. What’s more, the past three years of discourse have coincided with the radicalization of writers and critics in response to fascism in the US and Europe.
We may soon forget the challenge of besting our first bokoblin, the eureka moment of learning to cook, and how precious each new, fragile weapon felt, but within the texts below, critics have poured themselves into poetry and prose that, I think, can tell us something of what play felt like. In these many texts, Breath of the Wild demonstrates how the personal can become the critical.
For Want of a Word
Austin Walker describes how the open world of BotW “is really leveraged to produce a variety of feelings and experiences.” It is large in scope, not scale (well, that too). Each encounter, each quest, each vista, is not only a destination, but its own departure. The stories — the exploration — never end. BotW is designed to “emphasize making player expressivity joyful even (especially?) when things are going poorly.” He searches for a word to describe this affect, the culmination of art design, the chemistry engine, geography, and lighting, one he cannot grasp. Walker writes, “There is an air about Breath of the Wild that is hard to capture in words—and I suspect critics and fans will spend the better part of the next month trying to pin this down.” In the countless words since (some tens of thousands of which are linked below), critics have sought to articulate BotW’s affect.
Taylor Hidalgo offer one answer to Walker’s comments with his essay “Wanderlust.” Taylor’s prose offers readers an embodied experience of play and emergent storytelling, recounting his exploration as Link:
The next few moments are lost to memory, discarded in favor of an experience. Lancing an axe through the grass just to see its length sliced apart. The bare texture of the ground beneath looks alien compared to the jutting blades all around it. Hacking apart more grass leads to new bare patches looking awkward next to their overgrown peers. Does carving a path make the lack of overgrowth appear less unnatural? No, not really. Perhaps cutting along the curve of this hill? Mm, somewhat. What about leaving a patch there? Yes, that looks about right. That’ll do.
Hidalgo demonstrates that personal writing can offer us a sense of what play felt like, these affective experiences becoming more important to record the further we move away from its context.
On YouTube, Skill Up’s review (autocaptions) offers the metaphor of “inhalation,” suggesting that players are encouraged to sit with and absorb Hyrule, while Writing on Games says (manual captions) BotW, “on a purely geographical level, realizes the importance of dynamics.” Razbuten (manual captions) follows a similar line of reasoning and identifies this experience as a series of tiny “questions” through the whole journey.
And while a single word itself is not invoked, Carolyn Petit’s “the pilgrimage” connects place and memory in Hyrule and her own world. “I had to imagine that what Link was really looking for was to be reminded,” she writes, “through memories of the people he loved and the places they’d shared, of who he was, what he was fighting for, what he was living for.” Similarly, Elizabeth Henges uses BotW as a fulcrum of memories. She shares how her late mother introduced her to video games, leading her to meditate on her relationship to the medium in “In Memoriam.”
Memory and place are central to other affective experiences Petit shares. The ruined Temple of Time has, in this Hyrule, aged since her first playthrough of Ocarina of Time 20 years prior. They symbolize all the ways that BotW departs from the tradition of the series, something only those who adventured before would see. She reaches a sober conclusion in recognizing the mortality of games, buildings, and people; many players now and in the future won’t feel the same way as her, they won’t have such a long relationship to draw upon emotionally. “In time,” she writes, “just what makes it so remarkable will be lost, along with our memories. But it won’t change the fact that we were here, and that we lived.”
Gender and Gerudo Town
Even before the game’s release, gender was elevated to the level of discourse. An early trailer that glanced Link’s redesign ignited hope and hype as players began speculating that maybe Link will be a (canonical) girl. Director Aonuma later backtracked on his ambiguous comments to reassert the Triforce hangs in the balance of the gender binary, as well as claiming that Zelda could not be a playable character. This of course stopped no one from critiquing and uncovering variously gendered experiences in BotW.
Sarah Stang’s article “(Re-)Balancing the Triforce: Gender representation and androgynous masculinity in the Legend of Zelda series” provides a comprehensive analysis of gender in the series and situates it within fan and critical discourse. She contextualizes Link’s Japanese character design for a Western audience, revealing the conservative norms behind what Western players think is a progressive androgyny: “though featuring an androgynous protagonist can be viewed as progressive in a Western context, Link’s design fits in with Japanese cultural preferences and was therefore not an overly risky choice for Nintendo.”
But just days before release, screenshots of Link dressed in feminine (Gerudo) clothing ignited a fervor for the elfish twink. As Jennifer Unkle remarks on her joy and hopes upon seeing the femme Link: “even if Link was simply crossdressing for one short scene, his shy acceptance recalls the moment when I first strode out into the world empowered by an outfit that once felt forbidden.” However, playing the game left her disappointed to say the least. The now infamous dialogue with the transgender NPC, Vilia, deploys a transmisogynistic reveal right out of 90s television. “Like other trans women, Vilia was comfortable with her chosen presentation,” Jennifer writes, “yet the rest of the world saw her as ‘the man,’ the conniving genius that put together her disguise to enter a women-only village as an impostor.” Her reading of Link entering the women’s-only city is colored by this interaction:
As Link strolled into Gerudo Town without a second glance, the outfit I had previously coveted now felt wrong to wear. The clothes Vilia used to blend in with other Gerudo women were now being worn by a brat looking to circumvent his way into an exclusive society. By making our hero grimace at the sight of a trans woman’s face in a consequence-free scenario, Nintendo makes it clear that they find my identity both illegitimate and humorous.
After release, Gerudo Town remained the locus of crit on gender in BotW. Hussain Almahr details the ways in which BotW’s Gerudo Town borrows from Arabic architecture and design while reversing traditional gender roles of the region. He finds that in simply borrowing these images, the game fails to understand, let alone comment on, their implications: “The game has a unique opportunity here, to connect with those real-life moments of culture shock. But instead, Link was just a passive observer.” Of play, Almahr writes:
The secret club quest conveyed a familiar sense of secrecy and illegality. Including quests around details like this could have provided depth to the game’s portrayal of Arabic culture. People don’t always accept parts of their culture, but question it and try to subvert it. The game avoided portraying that conflict—between the old and new forms of culture. I wanted to take part in breaking taboos, to have in-depth dialogue with the people who are subverting tradition and to feel like my actions, completing quests and talking to NPCs, actually affected and transformed the town in any way.
But, as trans critics have written, Gerudo Town is a site of gender conformity. Unkle was not the only trans player that felt uncomfortable, and critics of all genders have contributed their perspectives.
Ronny Ford claims that while The Legend of Zelda has drawn discussion of gender and presentation before, BotW turns that attention to Link. Ford questions the morality of Link entering the Gerudo city, possibly violating what he sees as the Gerudo women’s safe space. “Simply examining Link’s canonical gender,” a limited perspective, “is not enough to build a complete understanding.” This is a question he explores through his own embodied experience as a trans man:
Although Link meets people and finds villages on the way, most of the game for me was spent alone. I reveled in this loneliness, as it felt like it was the first time I got to be alone with my true self. Breath of the Wild was instrumental in me discovering my identity as a transgender man. I found myself being pulled back to the game over and over, wanting so desperately to feel the way I did the first time I played it. I was drawn to this iteration of Link because he was androgynous and mysterious; I thought we almost looked similar. What I found, though, in my deep desire to play and replay this game endlessly, was the extreme desire to avoid the Gerudo quest and region altogether.
But he does go, every time, because it is necessary. It is “both odd and slightly unnerving,” he writes, “that [the developers] would go to such lengths to establish a culture with strict gender related customs just to have the player break said customs.” But from an embodied perspective this may (as other writers here demonstrate) have a different effect on players with other identities. Further, they find evidence of transness in the secret men’s clothing shop Almahr detailed, one of many unintentional allusions to a queerer game.
Other trans players still found respite in this experience. Terrence Abrahams offers poetic reflections on his journey through Hyrule as a trans person in the collection Open Field, and I have offered my own trans reading of the game.
The Legends of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda’s aeonic archetypes signal thematic changes across each entry. James Bigley details the evolution of Zelda’s character across the series, from classic damsel in distress to an agential character pinned down by convention, speculating on the potential of the teased sequel. Citing Jennifer deWinter, Emma Vossen, and Sarah Stang’s analyses (via writing and interviews), he provides a positive reading of the early games’ gender politics. Bigley’s own analysis of BotW’s cutscenes proposes that this Zelda is divided by her various, gendered, roles: “that of an intelligent academically-minded woman; that of a princess and figurehead of the royal family; and that of a divine, spiritual being bestowed with unimaginable power.” Having fulfilled her miko narrative in BotW, he suggests a sequel could offer us a Zelda unrestricted from the convention’s limits. (and that maybe she should be playable).
Don Everhart puts forward his own proposal for a playable Zelda by examining the characters motivations. He suggests that Zelda is perhaps motivated by an archaeological and anthropological fascination with Hyrule. Whereas Link is the only person able to open the shrines Kass sings about, Zelda may be more interested in exploring the oral history of the Rito. This necessitates a critique of Link as the heroic player character, since “those stories reinforce that the game is about his past and his journey, rather than the cultural history of Hyrule.”
Grace Benfell argues further that this Zelda wishes to be Link: “She is trapped by a narrative that is not her own and that she could never choose.” The characterization signals other critiques she lays against BotW. Fiction and reality that center the players agency as the destined hero, cartographer, and quester denies the world of a liveliness that lives up to its name:
Underneath Breath of the Wild’s radical exterior is a fundamentally conservative game. It bows to player power. It lets the world become easily traversable, puts every character in your debt, gives you a multitude of weapons to use, and clothes that negate the effects of an initially hostile world. You never really conquer Hyrule, but you do grow to control it.
“Breath of the Wild is never truly wild,” Benfell writes, “its world can never free itself from your specter.”
But What is Zelda? Or: The YouTube Section
BotW’s release, and reviewing the game, was met with the question “what is a Zelda game?” in the discourse community of YouTube games crit.
YouTube channel Arlo begins one video (autocaptions) by asking: is BotW a Zelda game? They claim that, whereas previous titles introduced something iterative, BotW is a step back that reexamines the use and function of all the additive pieces. They conclude that drawing on contemporary open worlds makes BotW a better game than if it continued progressing down the path Skyward Sword was the endpoint of. And yes, they do say it is a Zelda game.
In a notably extensive critique of the game, Joseph Anderson calls BotW “Not Enough Zelda.” (autocaptions) He emphasizes the success of open world design in juxtaposition to his disdain for shrines, combat, and “depth.” (He also accuses critics of ignoring the games flaws, suggesting they haven’t resolved their grievances with the title, which is something this critic finds unproductive). Anderson finds BotW’s climbing mechanic charming because it extends to almost every surface in the game, fulfilling a long-spoken promise in games by embracing player agency. David Houghton expands on the climbing mechanic, calling it the secret ingredient that finally adds real adventure to open-world gaming. Like Walker, Anderson recounts several of the small stories that emerged from play, and much of their cons reflect Mark Brown’s on shrines and aesthetics (manual captions): the puzzles don’t build on each other, they dungeons aren’t very dungeon-y, and they all look the same. Brown’s other critique (manual captions) notes the contemporary inspirations while detailing BotW’s unique approaches to open world design.
(Danielle Riendeau even blogged about her enjoyment of Anderson’s video.)
Returning to Arlo and Anderson’s question, Skill Up finds BotW lacking(autocaptions) in Zelda-ness. They also detail how the game succeeds in the wake of several recent AAA open world games and claim that BotW is about Hyrule rather than any character. They also highlight the music and sound design, describing it as “turning the volume down” and augmenting your exploration, which Scruffy (autocaptions), 8-Bit Music Theory (autocaptions), and Brown (manual captions) each explore in greater detail.
Sleepless in Hyrule
Mikey Newman, for FilmJoy¸ distinguishes BotW from the darkness of past titles (manual captions) with its emphasis on loneliness. Haunted by the voice of the aeonic figure of Link, he describes the game as an act of accepting one’s loneliness (echoing Ford above). This Hyrule is the most lonesome of all, its survival elements psychological as much as mechanical, which happens to make it remarkably relevant at the time of the global pandemic Newman was living in.
Liam Conlon connected BotW to other hyper objects in his analysis of the series’ horror. His prose artfully captures the dread:
Breath of the Wild’s vision of horror was already striking in fashioning the Calamity Ganon as a world-corrupting force rather than a single person or entity. No matter where you wandered in Hyrule, you were only so far away from the encroaching evil emanating from Hyrule Castle. You could head right to its front doorstep after completing the intro and face down the final boss, circumstance and formality be damned. Wisps of lore and scattered ruins hinted at the exact capabilities of the existential threat, but at the end of all things, you felt like nothing could fully encompass its magnitude.
The presumed corpse of Ganon in the sequel’s teaser “displays a material consequence of violence seldom felt in Zelda.” Calamity Ganon’s wondrous tapestry of darkness polluting the land and its creatures elevates this incarnation of the boss, evoking the particular horrors of climate change and fascism.
Beyond Ghibli’s Joe O’Connell meditates in the world unbuilding of the post, post-apocalyptic setting (manual captions) the series is familiar with. He identifies how BotW serves as an homage to many of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, from the surface level resemblance to Princess Mononoke to themes that entwine the two works: moral greyness, nature vs industry, and maturity (relative to their series). Newman drew some of these connections, but claimed that the game is, rather, an homage to Japan’s Jomon period (which Jake Kleinman and 8-Bit Music Theory [autocaptions] discuss more).
Writing On Games (manual captions) provides a useful critique of space in the game and in Hyrule. Space, he argues, creates a sense of awe and mystery in BotW. The game, “on a purely geographical level, realizes the importance of dynamics” The nothings make the somethings important. UI, tutorials, and music must each evoke space, becoming bare to achieve this effect. Newman similarly see an artistic statement in what was “edited out,” the game identifying and developing only what is essential to the experience (which Arlo details more in the above).
Combat (but like, Discourse)
Sam Desatoff argues that the implementation of weapon durability in BotW is “an immense pain in the ass that makes the game needlessly frustrating.” They point to the lacking accompaniment of a crafting system that usually pairs with durability mechanics. BotW instead opts for a looting system that, together, incentivizes “hoarding weapons for fear of losing them.” For Desatoff, this detracts from the sense of immersion the game systems otherwise provoke. Though the mechanics influence on combat and pacing seems to have varied wildly, I couldn’t find any critics that praised weapon durability in publications. (I will stake a claim on this scholarly ground that the weapon durability is Good, Actually, because it encourages improvisatory tactics during combat.)
David Shimomura argues that BotW demands a familiarity with games at large to understand its mechanics and appreciate its gameplay. This is ultimately a matter of onboarding; The otherwise lauded tutorialization of the Great Plateau is taken down as he discusses specific logics that rest on an existing knowledge of games like BotW. However, Razbuten argues (manual captions) the game is very accessible to non-gamers. Numerous solutions to puzzles, combat, and navigating the world make it easier to find a way forward.
This final section shares stories that writers have created with BotW, highlighting the many possibilities of play within the game. I’ve used BotW for photography myself, Abrahams for poetry, Ford for introspection, and still more below.
Noah Poole examines the cooking/baking mechanic, bringing their experiences as a vegan into the world of Hyrule. Their play began to resemble parts of their life as they began to eat vegan, and the experience pushed them towards emergent moments of play based around an in-game morality. While Poole never used potions or completed quests that required Link to cook meat, they found that there was a rich landscape of vegan foods in each settlement that I’ve not seen brought up elsewhere.
Alyssa Wejebe fills in the gap left by Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (in a pre-New Horizon’s world) with BotW. The many bugs, rocks, weapons, and monster parts offer her the collectathon Animal Crossing is known for. For better and worse, it doesn’t come with the commerce baggage, and it’s surprisingly easier for her to ignore Ganon than capitalism Nook. The ability to progress past combat sections with stealth is crucial to this experience, but players can also manipulate systems like fast travel: “While the fast travel option could be seen as overpowered, it can serve as an interesting reminder that this is a game, and players can relish in manipulating this artificial mechanic.” Further, Wejebe began to view the territorial monsters of Hyrule as more neutral parties which encouraged her to avoid them altogether. They felt more like neighbors to her than the animals behind transactional relationships in Pocket Camp.
Finally, Gingy Gibson shares the hilarious and tragic personal narrative of losing her stead that emerged from (her failure to) play. She moves from mourning her horse to criticizing the sense of danger in Hyrule, since no one really dies while you play:
Death has already come and noticeably cast its shadow on so very much of this world, again and again and again. And yet in the present, as you fight off monsters and reclaim Divine Beasts and try to find that last damn Korok on the West Hebra Summit, what impact does dying really have?
Well, no one but her horse. RIP Risotto.
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Disclosure: Taylor Hidalgo has previously contributed to Critical Distance.
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