Player Agency – How “Breath of The Wild” Evokes Being a Kid Again

Our protagonist on horseback as he’s pursued by a Bokoblin.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the experience of being a kid better than anything I’ve ever seen. No video game, or any piece of art for that matter, captures that very specific feeling of childlike wonder so well. The game is wildly popular and most aspects of it have already been talked about ad nauseam, so there’s lots of brilliant items of design I will be skipping over so as not to be redundant. That being said, if you would like a more general overview of all the game’s innovations then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s video on it, which you can find here. His game design series “Gamemaker’s Toolkit” is one of my favorites. Not to get off track though, let’s dive in to why exactly this game is so special.

Let me explain what I mean when I say “childlike wonder”. I’m talking about that feeling as a kid when you had a more active imagination and it seemed like anything was possible. As you get older it becomes harder to surprise, as you’re more aware of how the world works. As a kid it’s a lot easier to impress, your imagination would fill in the gaps where things had flaws or missing pieces. The older, more linear Zelda games felt like true adventures when you were young. The secrets you found felt like they were tailored for you, like no one else had discovered them. You were the adventurer and only you. Growing up you start to see the limitations of these games. They’re made up of rigid systems that have very strict rules, and are all incredibly authored experiences. Their limits are very obvious, which is understandable considering the series is over 30 years old. Breath of the Wild manages to recapture those feelings of adventure however. Naturally it still has rules and logic, but the systems it uses are so open and free it can feel like magic, even to an adult.

A screenshot from the first 3D Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. It remains a fan favorite today.

If you’re familiar with the history of Zelda you’ll know that the desire to deliver that childlike experience is baked into its DNA. In 1986, Japanese game developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka released a game called The Legend of Zelda on the Famicom, and the next year overseas on the NES. Miyamoto has since stated that he was inspired to make the game by the feelings he got when exploring the forests and caves around his house as a kid. Like a lot of the games in the franchise, the original doesn’t hold up incredibly well if you’re playing it for the first time today. The game was still widely influential in its time though and is not to be discredited, and lot of the great things Breath of the Wild does are modern twists on the aspirations of the original game. The desire to explore and navigate an uncharted world has been a focus of this series since the beginning, it’s just BotW that does it best. And a lot of what makes this adventure so magical can be summed up by a single mechanic: Climbing.

Climbing is one of the most fun ways to explore as you struggle to find footholds and retain your stamina.

“You can climb anything in the game”. It’s hard to sell the novelty of this idea without actually playing it, but if you go back and play almost any adventure game you’re going to notice places the developers didn’t want you to go. And you’ll always find some excuse that an area was out of your reach: “You can’t jump high enough”, or “that area is too dangerous to travel to”, etc. Something along those lines. There’s no such thing in BotW. Everything you see in the game is reachable, at any point in the game. If you can figure out how to go there, you can go there. This extends even to events that in other games would be ordered chronologically. There is no such thing as “doing the game out of order”. You can finish the quests for the game in whatever order you want, or not at all. The final boss is even open to fight from the very opening moments, you just probably won’t be prepared for it at the start. But if you want to fight it, you can. This stuff extends throughout the whole game. If you see any cliff, it can be climbed. There’s no arbitrary “you must be at least level 10 to enter” at any point in the game. There are areas that are filled with dangerous creatures that will most likely destroy you if you enter, but nothing is stopping you from getting your ass kicked right out of the gate. If you want to take them on you can, the only thing stopping you is your own cleverness.

One of the many fearsome creatures you’ll stumble upon during your time in the game.

These ideas are probably only novel to someone who is aware of how this genre typically works. Before Breath of the Wild, so many of these roadblocks were considered standards, and were thought necessary for the game to function. It seemed an impossible task to make a game without all those arbitrary requirements that would still work and be fun to play. If you’re not familiar with these kinds of games or maybe even games in general then these things might sound obvious. If you do play games then you’ve probably had the moment where someone who didn’t would look over your shoulder while you were playing and ask you why you couldn’t do something. “You just can’t”, you would tell them; that’s just how the game works. That’s the harsh reality creeping in, when the immersion is lost and you realize that this is indeed a video game that like all other things has to follow a strict set of rules. The fact then that you can describe Breath of the Wild to a layman and have it make perfect sense is an incredible feat, and perhaps the kind of goal all games of it’s kind should try to reach.

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The player attempts to roll a boulder onto a camp of unsuspecting enemies.

The physics system is another area where the game delivers on the “you can do anything” philosophy. Its the kind of thing that makes Zelda comparable to the “Immersive Sim” genre, a title touted by games such as Deus Ex and System Shock. When you break it down the goal of these games is also player choice and emergent gameplay, but Zelda outshines all of them by nature of being much more modern in both technology and design choices. In the original Deus Ex you could strap sticky bombs to walls and jump on them, an unintended part of the design that ended up lending it’s hand to the game’s feel. It made players feel creative by realizing there were multiple solutions to every problem. A similar example in Breath of the Wild is when you’re solving a puzzle that involves directing electricity. Some players will realize that their metal weapons conduct electricity and instead of using the tools the puzzle provided, they use their own. They “cheat” with this and end up solving the puzzle their way. Unlike Deus Ex though, this was an intended consequence of the games engine. The fact that weapons made of metal conduct electricity like they would in real life isn’t just a fun little factoid, it’s a part of the game. Everything in the game can interact. Another commonly cited example is that while a carrying a metal sword in a thunderstorm you could get struck by lightning. Fires create updrafts that you can ride on, rain makes cliffs slippery, boulders will roll down hills, and so on. The developers made sure that there were no inconsistencies in the games logic, that every part of the world felt alive. Under the hood there are still rules, but the game feels like a playground for you to explore and discover how things work.

Breath of the Wild bucks an insane number of video game conventions, all in order to  give the player a sense of freedom. It knows that standards for video games are higher than they were in 1986, and it knows that older people just have higher standards anyway so you need to work harder to get them immersed. It eschews linearity to create a truly open world. You feel free to let your imagination take hold, the sky’s the limit. There are no boundaries, you can do whatever you want.  Everywhere you go, there’s a discovery to be made. One of the most exciting parts of the game was simply seeing something in the distance and making my way there on foot, knowing I could do it and that nothing would stop me. It makes you forget you’re even playing a game, it makes you feel like a little kid experiencing childlike wonder and fun, it makes you believe anything is possible again. You feel like a little kid before the harshness of the real world became obvious to you. And for the hundred hours I played the game, I discovered what it was like to be a kid again, and all I wanted to do was explore it’s magical world. And that is a wonderful feeling for a video game to offer.

Link approaches a Hinox, not yet being spotted by it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is perhaps my favorite game of all time, and that’s a pretty common opinion to have. Its legacy will be felt for years to come, and it’s one of the few games that feels so monumental that anything made before it is now null. When the original game came out, people had similar feelings. It felt like an evolution of the medium of games as a whole, and a testament to what you could do with them. Since then the industry has continued to be creative and to innovate until we reached where we are today. This probably means that though many hold the opinion that BotW is an untouchable masterpiece, one day it too might be considered dated and clunky. And that’s a good thing, nothing lasts forever and if people stopped being creative because they thought the original Zelda was just untouchable then we never would have gotten here. That being said, Breath of the Wild is still an incredible game and it’s going to be pretty hard to top. It’s a game that can only be surpassed by something that takes everything the game did, and doing it ten times better. So basically, it can only be surpassed by the next Legend of Zelda game.

Thank you for reading my first post. And thanks to the BotW community for providing the screenshots I used. I’ll be back two weeks from now with another post.

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