A way too late analysis of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo /
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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2
Nintendo /

The World

There are plenty of interesting characters in Breath of the Wild, almost all of them with interesting or mysterious backstories and personalities. Urbosa, Mipha, Daruk, Impa, Riju, The Sheikah, Link, Zelda. So many characters help breath life into the game and its story, but the single most important and interesting character is unquestionably the land of Hyrule itself.

Hyrule is just as living as every other character in the game, with a backstory, a personality, and a way of communicating with the player. In some ways, Hyrule is more of the main character then Link is, taking center stage more often then Link or Zelda does in the central conflict and being the force that communicates most of that story.

Hyrule is one of the largest game maps in modern gaming, spanning 74.9 KM^2, which is larger than any of the maps from the Fallout or Elder Scrolls series (technically, the Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is larger space-wise at 161,600 KM^2, But 98.3% of that map is randomly generated thus does not count). It is only the second-largest map in Nintendo’s history, however, with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 at 399 KM^2 (23.6% of that map is inaccessible to players), being designed and created by the legendary Monolith Soft Inc.

Monolith Soft has been helping develop games for and with Nintendo since Namco sold off the rest of their shares in the company to Nintendo. Having spent time working on Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds, it is no surprise that Nintendo turned to their friends in Kyoto to once again build the world of Hyrule. With Aonuma’s trust and vision for the game in mind, Monolith Soft’s version of Hyrule had to be revolutionary.

Hyrule had been innovated many times before this, going from the fantastical/dungeons and dragons-esque worlds of the first two entries to the more puzzling and dungeon-centric worlds of the SNES and GBA titles to the vast and diverse worlds of the N64 titles. Hyrule had been flooded in Wind Waker, edgy and steampunk in Twilight Princess, floating in Skyward Sword; the world of Hyrule was no stranger to drastic changes. Taking Hyrule somewhere it had never been before is a tall task in and of itself, but Monolith Soft knew early on exactly what it wanted to do with gaming’s most iconic and storied setting.

Destroy it.

The temple of time, destroyed and occupied by some goblin squatters. The wacky and expansive towns of the past are nothing more than gray, indistinguishable ruins. Everything divine and holy in the world is destroyed, vandalized, and desecrated. Players can find only ruins in vaguely familiar layouts of the sites they have grown to love in the previous titles like Lon Lon Ranch or Clock Town.

More than 100 years ago, this was a thriving civilization, with impressive architecture and technology not unlike that of Earth’s. There was culture, art, thriving communities, a vibrant economy. All of the races that could be found on Hyrule coexisted in peace, prospering and building on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

All of that has been long gone, destroyed 100 years before players take their first steps out of the Shrine of Resurrection. What had taken the people of Hyrule 10,000 years to build was destroyed in a matter of moments, and after 100 years, all that remains are a few collapsed homes, some rubble, and reminders of the pain and destruction that the people had to endure.

The thing about death, however, is that it and life are eternally intertwined.

Where there is life, there must always eventually be death, or else there is no reason for life. Wherever death takes away and creates an emptiness, life must always fill the void with new life, or there would no longer be a reason for death, as there would be nothing. Much like light and dark, happiness and sadness, morality and evil, one can not exist without the other, and it is these paradoxical relationships that make up everything in existence.

Where 100 years ago, there was destruction, sadness, and death, there is now only nature, peace, and life. Nature has reclaimed what rightfully belongs to it, breaking down and overgrowing the creations of man with the beauty of the natural world. The once busy streets are now overgrown with weeds, and where the stone was laid for the feet of the people of Hyrule, it now only serves the feet of various animals.

The world is beautiful, intricate, and swarming with life, oftentimes almost operating as one single, massive living being. Breathing in through the trees, breathing out through the wind, supplying nutrients throughout the body in the movement of the animals, changing its mood with the weather. Everything works together in a way that makes Hyrule feel real and just as complex as an ecosystem in the real world.

This world thrives, despite being infected with a deadly disease. A disease that has gone uncured for 100 years, and is being barely contained by Zelda. A disease name Calamity Ganon.

Hyrule Castle lies at the center of Hyrule, serving as the heart of the land, and sealed away in that heart is the demon king himself, Ganon. His physical form is long gone and what remains is a physical representation of his hatred and anger, a swirling and swarming mess of darkness and evil. He can be seen from almost any place on the map, from the seaside cliffs to the southeast, to the Mount Doom to the northeast, to the snowy plains in the northwest, or the desert to the southwest.

Despite Zelda’s best effort, the virus could only be contained so much, giving Ganon the ability to continue wreaking havoc on the land of Hyrule. The guardians, fused with his anger, scurry the fields, destroying anything living in their path. The divine beasts have long been overtaken by Ganon’s hatred and only serve to torment the lives of the last living people of Hyrule. The bokoblins serve Ganon, and thanks to his clearing out of the Hyrulians, they now roam the world like it is their own. Even where Calamity Ganon is unable to infuse itself with something else, it still finds a way to infect the world as toxic and dangerous malice.

That struggle between the peace and beauty of Hyrule and the darkness and chaos of Calamity Ganon serves to add complexity and more depth to the world. Where the great plains are beautiful to look at and explore, they are also completely overrun with guardians. Where the few survivors of Ganon’s first attack have built happy lives in quiet hamlets across the map, they live in constant fear of when Ganon will inevitably break loose. Where Hyrule lives and breathes as one organism, it is also being torn apart by the parts of itself that are infected.

This story is deeply inspired and motivated by the beautiful and moving story of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” The forest spirit is the living embodiment of the cycle of life and death, and the movie’s central nature vs. man conflict is thematically referenced multiple times throughout Breath of the Wild. Even BOTW‘s announcement trailer is heavily inspired by Mononoke, with the chase sequence between Link and the guardian being essential a recreation of Ashitaka’s battle with the boar infected with hate.

The way Mononoke’s plot and story is told and portrayed to the audience is heavily influential to BOTW as well. The story of Ashitaka’s infection, or San’s deep hatred of humans, or the warlords of Iron Town’s hatred for nature all serve only as instruments through which the real story is told: the story of the forest spirit, the physical embodiment of the cycle of life and death, and the inevitability of nature taking back everything that humanity has claimed.

The world of Hyrule tells a story deeper than anything that the actual story of the game even comes close to telling: a story of the inevitable battle with death, despair, loss, but ultimately the circle of life, rejuvenation, and peace. The story of not just Hyrule, but also of humanity’s past civilizations, and maybe one day, our own as well. This leads the way for players to question their place in both history and civilization.

What will become our world when we leave it? How will the storytellers of the distant future remember and tell the stories of our present? What is the actual value of the material things in our life if one day they will just be buried underneath grass and dirt? Are we facing down an inevitable enemy and are we prepared if we are?