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Small Worlds, Big Stories} ?> It’s a good time to be a Zelda fan.
I’m elated to finally know something real about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After years of teasing, we can finally see what a Zelda game will be like in the style of Skyrim, Fallout, and Metal Gear Solid V.
I recognize that I might be tying myself to the tracks of the hype train by saying this, but I was secretly hoping Breath of the Wild wouldn’t be open-world.
I’m not trying to trash the glorious reputation of open-world games. Rather, the reverse. Everyone knows how good these games are. They’re everywhere. Their quality is self-evident. Instead, I want to prove that linear games are great too. Not better, just different. Like, a better sort of different.
Here’s why: I’ve found that a story is a finite thing. If you want to stretch it very wide, you must accept that it can’t go deep.
Breath of the Wild’s long development process and release on two consoles parallels my experience as a teenager waiting for Twilight Princess to come out. When that finally arrived, I cried watching Link ride across the sunset-washed title screen for the first time, in spectacular 480i. (That was a big deal ten years ago, wasn’t it?)
Twilight Princess was massive. But outside of the vast main quest, there was not much to do. Back then, I was disappointed—I thought there was potential to fill the game with so much more. In retrospect, I think I was missing the forest for the trees.
The things that make me truly, truly feel like a part of the game, are when the story sinks its teeth in, when the characters burst with life, when I get blindsided by a twist that takes the world from me, and when I rise courageously from defeat to save the day. Twilight Princess did that very well, as Zelda games regularly do. It’s not the micro-detail and open structure that immerses me, but those moments when the narrative comes unilaterally alive. For all the freedom an open-world provides, it’s often in exchange for the story. And I like to believe that stories are the things we are made of.
2011 was an interesting time for me. The next console Zelda title, Skyward Sword, sat on my bookshelf collecting dust for three months while I gallivanted along in Skyrim. There was an open-world game where I had the freedom to do anything I wanted, in any order. I gallivanted around a fantasy land finding loot, maxing skills, and devouring adventure. I didn’t think I could ever go back.
Roughly 160 hours later, I began to feel like something big was missing from the biggest game I’d ever played. Skyrim’s main quest was truly epic, except it was over in a few short hours. Out of thousands of characters, the only thing I can vividly recall is that stupid arrow-to-the-knee quote. And the status quo! Nothing could break it, because everything depended on it. Never once did I feel like I was in any real danger. Once, perhaps, during a Nightingale quest, I nearly felt threatened. But I was the Dragonborn. No drama could pierce my invincible plot armour.
That sudden sinking feeling I got when Link was cursed by Zant in Twilight Princess—there was nothing like that in Skyrim. I was hungry to go deep, but open worlds only go wide. A story is a finite thing.
Skyrim is the sort of game that makes me feel like an NPC in real life. Maybe someone like Donald Trump has the power and resources to experience main-character freedom, but I copy-paste templates into emails as a day job. I’m just the guard who used to be an adventurer. Or maybe J’Zargo, if I’m lucky (that guy was awesome).
The Legend of Zelda always made me feel different. I felt like the strength I had playing as Link was my own. Link was not free to choose which way his stories went, and he was often at their mercy. His battles were not won with resources, but with ingenuity and courage. He made me believe I could be a hero, not an NPC.
I know I will enjoy Breath of the Wild, and I am so excited to play it (don’t get me wrong). I hope it will still display Link’s courage and his story. I hope it will still make me believe that I can be a hero.
We don’t always write our own stories. We can’t always choose what happens to us, and we rarely get to be or do exactly what we want. Real life isn’t made of open-world freedom, and that can be scary. We don’t like being unable to choose, even though we rarely can.
As Link, I didn’t seem to worry about that. As a character, I wasn’t free. What the story demands, I must do. This wasn’t a problem, because the story was great. There would be no story without characters. They are a part of it, as much as it is of them.
Sometimes it’s okay that I don’t have all the choices I want in life, because my story is good. I’m a part of it, as much as it’s a part of me.
It wouldn’t be a very good story if there wasn’t conflict, if the stakes weren’t high. I’m okay with that—in fact, in the face of tragedy, that’s the only way I can be okay. It means that suffering isn’t meaningless. It’s part of the story, even as I am.
If I were free to choose, I’d still choose that.