Nostalgia and Childhood Adventures in Breath of the Wild
A few years ago Shigeru Miyamoto sat down with an interviewer and discussed the origins of his most prolific games. Miyamoto is the creative mind behind characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong and of course Link, the protagonist from 31-year-old series The Legend of Zelda;
"When I was younger, I grew up in the countryside of Japan. And what that meant was I spent a lot of my time playing in the rice paddies and exploring the hillsides and having fun outdoors. When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There's a place near Kobe where there's a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there's a big lake near the top of it. We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game and we were creating this grand outdoor adventure where you go through these narrowed confined spaces and come upon this great lake. And so it was around that time that I really began to start drawing on my experiences as a child and bringing that into game development."
Never has this sense of childhood exploration felt so alive in a video game as in the new instalment in the series, Breath of the Wild, which has quickly become one of my favourite games, period. The game changes up the frankly stale Zelda formulae (get this weapon, go to this dungeon, rinse, repeat) and gives you the freedom to pretty much do whatever you want.
Everything you need to complete every puzzle in the game is obtained within the first hour of play in the shape of runes, tools such as remote bombs, stasis and magnesis. On acquiring these runes, you are tasked with a daunting quest; “Defeat Ganon”, a feat which can theoretically be done in under an hour. This task stays in your quest log the entire game and sums up how Nintendo have let go of the player’s hand and embraced a free open world. You could explore this wonderfully diverse and interesting place they have created for you, build up skills and find helpful companions. Or you could run in, bows blazing, and try to defeat the great evil. It’s up to you.
This type of freedom is seen throughout the game especially in the combat. You are presented with a camp of monsters. You can either run in and attack them with your sword, as you would have done in all previous Zelda games. Or you could throw a bomb, watch it roll down a hill and explode the entire camp. You could wait until dusk, drink a sneak potion and assassinate them all whilst they sleep. Or you could steal their weapons. “Aha, not so tough now, Mr. Monster, with no club” you say until he picks up his buddy and hurls him at you!
Things like this happen all the time in BOTW. I found myself propelled forward, not by the story, but by the compulsion to find more events like this. The game is not just a pile of modern gaming systems. The way in which they interact and the sense of freeform adventure you can discover through them is what is so special.
Discovery is the most important part of the game but not in the sense of collecting things. Sure, you could get all 900 Korok seeds (wtf that is so many btw, I currently have under 100), but what is more enjoyable is to to deliberately not search for them. The game never tells you where they are on the map and this makes it feel like they are infinite, like there is always something else to discover, always another rock to turn over.
The feeling of being a child again and adventuring through a giant and seemingly unending world is what all this discovery and freedom creates. Finding treasure chests, playing hide and seek with forest people, venturing onto a deep lake with a wooden raft, climbing trees and mountains: all these activities are what we all played when we were young, games that perhaps we would still play if we were not all wrapped up in responsibilities of being an adult. BOTW allows us to break social conventions and be a kid again.
However, some have criticised Nintendo for appealing to the player’s sense of nostalgia for the series, as if it is some cheap trick to sell products. To some extent I agree. I think that Nintendo is clearly playing on a type of infantile nostalgia but it is this very thing which makes BOTW so special.
Modern media has been heavily criticised over the last few years for drawing on nostalgia in an unhealthy way in order to make money. We saw it in the Star Wars films (The Force Awakens), we have seen it in politics (Donald Trump: “remember the good old days?”), and we have seen it in the video games industry. How many remakes, reboots and unnecessary sequels can you name? Cough Mass Effect: Andromeda Cough.
Nintendo is not exactly immune to this either. Just look at how many Mario games there have been. BOTW continues this tradition of sequels but in a very different way to most franchises. Sure, you play as the same protagonist, saving the same princess, fighting the same evil; but it doesn’t really matter that they are Link or Zelda.
The way in which you play has also completely changed, so much so that the success BOTW is sure to encourage other developers to follow suit. I am not sure whether there can be another Assassin’s Creed or Division game in the same vein as their predecessors as it will seem inadequate when placed next to BOTW.
It is true that Nintendo are no strangers to using nostalgia to sell products, but if those products are of the quality of BOTW and push the boundaries of video gaming excellence, then I am not complaining. As far as I am concerned BOTW could be about any child-hero destined to save a princess and save the world and it would still be just as phenomenal. The fact that it has Zelda written on the box should not diminish the game’s achievement.
BOTW is the first time that it feels worthwhile to climb every mountainside, even if it’s just to experience the view. So climb that mountain, light a fire, bake some apples, sit back and enjoy a break in your adventuring, knowing that around the next corner there will be something beyond the next hill crest or deep in that far off, misty wood. Get Adventuring.