The Narrative Experience of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I don’t exactly keep up with current video games, as demonstrated by my only recently finishing the main story of this game from 2017. Spoilers if you haven’t finished it yet yourself.

Should a game have a story? Can a game be a story? It’s difficult for a video game to present more than a scripted series of scenes. The player moves through them, in a fixed order, until reaching a predetermined ending. It is an experience much like watching a movie with narrative scenes interspersed by gameplay. You observe a story, without much agency in how it unfolds.

Many games today move beyond linear play structure by offering a “sandbox” or “open world.” The player travels about the game world, exploring and experiencing it as a place of adventure, battles, and puzzles. There are goals, missions, and quests to take on, or one can just play and discover all the interactions that the game designers have built into it, as if it were a big toybox. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (abbreviated as BotW from here on) is an open world game in that style. So what does that design concept mean for a game’s potential as a story?

All the gameplay in BotW, which includes not only fighting monsters, but collecting mushrooms and butterflies, cooking recipes, riding horses, and many other activities, takes place on the background of a rich storyworld. BotW uses a classic heroic fantasy premise: an ancient evil, long imprisoned, has awoken to threaten the world. A hero must arise to defeat it. J.R.R. Tolkien set up this template in Lord of The Rings and it has been used countless times since in fiction and video games. In BotW, after 10,000 years of imprisonment, the great evil, Calamity Ganon, begins to spread its destruction, corruption, and chaos. You, the playable hero Link (I’m going to be saying “you” often for Link, since the game puts you in his narrative perspective), starts game play in a healing chamber, with no memory of your past. The large scale structure of the game is built on your need to remember that past and prepare yourself for the coming battle to save the world.

One of the first things to learn is that this apocalypse actually started a century ago. A group of heroes — the Princess Zelda, yourself, and Champions from each of the different folk of the land — conceived a complex plan to attack, weaken, and ultimately destroy Ganon. The plan was put into motion — and went very, very badly. You, Link, were severely wounded, and needed 100 years of healing sleep to recover. The fate of Zelda and the Champions is uncertain.

Over the course of the game, where your adventures have the goal of recovering your strength, special skills, and weapons, in order to try once again to defeat Ganon, you learn more and more about what happened 100 years ago. You talk to people who know it from legends. You find records and hear ballads and songs. You even meet people who are old enough to have been there when the past events took place. You begin to fill in the details of what happened and, in what is narratively important, of your past, personal relationships with each of the Champions. And what existed between you and Zelda. The complexities of that are presented through a set of twelve memories of significant moments that passed between the two of you. You recall these incidents by visiting the locations where they took place, 100 years ago. Find the right location and a short flashback scene plays.

The storytelling in each of these short movies has three different narrative functions. First, they tell a chapter of the preparations for the expected awakening of Ganon. You also learn the tragedy of Zelda’s life as someone caught between having been told she was born to wield a sacred power, and a growing inner doubt about herself, as she repeatedly fails to meet everyone’s expectations, those of her father most of all. Finally, each scene depicts an important interaction between Link and Zelda. Rather than a simple romance, their relationship is one that developed, changed, and matured over time. Link, in all the Zelda games through the years, is classically taciturn. We don’t ever actually hear his voice. Much of the complexities of his inner life are hidden from us. To understand him, we are left to consider why these particular twelve incidents are the ones that linger in his broken memory. Some appear trivial, innocuous, such as being with Zelda as she researches the botanical properties of rare flowers. Yet they are the ones that hold particular significance to Link. They are the embodiments of what Zelda meant to Link.

All of the game’s sources of information and history are encountered by choosing to go to particular locations or perform particular actions. Most significantly, the order in which you hunt down the memory triggering locations is left up to you. Some deliberate game design choices do influence this, for example some of the most important memories are triggered in locations that are challenging to reach, so you are most likely to achieve them latter in the game. Nothing forces that on you. You could seek out the challenging memories first, though successfully reaching them requires more skill at the game.

You learn of events, see personal encounters, and uncover secret dreams and fears in whatever order you come across them. You might first remember scenes of Link and Zelda as close companions, and only later find out that when they first met, Zelda resented and was jealous of Link. Then there’s a heart-breaking scene of a desperate escape through the pouring rain and Zelda, battered and blood stained, sobbing in anguish at the disaster and the deaths of the Champions, all of which she blamed on herself and her own failings. And only after that you might recover glimpses of Zelda struggling with the burden of her “destiny” in the coming battle with Ganon, a destiny she fears she will never be worthy of.

It makes for a very different experience than just passively sitting through a movie, or the linear scripted sequences in the story mode of most games. You as a viewer are having to do some work to assemble the pieces and see the larger structure and emotional framework. I felt in my play-through that my ultimate goal wasn’t so much to “save the princess from the monster,” but to help Zelda realize that this all wasn’t her fault. The events of that story might be as scripted as a movie, but the emotional experience is shaped by the circumstances of the play experience, as the player makes choices and interacts with the world of that story. For me, this involvement, this participation in the construction of narrative, makes me feel more involved in the events, more a part of them, rather than just being a passive recipient.

The narrative intent of the game’s creators does appear after you have recalled all twelve memories: a thirteenth memory becomes available. Recovering that unlocks a scene that explains and resolves a multitude of plot lines and emotional arcs. Clearly the creators wanted this scene to be a climax that rewards all the gameplay effort it took to achieve it.

Breath of the Wild, as a game, is about exploration and discovery. There are plenty of other typical video game activities, such as fighting monsters and dexterity challenges, but the mastering of those tasks themselves come from things you discover and learn about how the world works. Experiencing the narrative of BotW, rather than just being passive viewing between periods of game play, also arises from exploration and discovery. Game and story are constructed out of the same core activity. And just as the gameplay provides choice about where you go and what you do, the narrative as well can be engaged with to the degree that a player personally finds interesting. Some gamers have little interest in, or patience for the “story” parts of games, and skip past the narrative scenes when possible. YouTube is full of videos of players attempting challenges such as immediately going straight to the final bossfight with Calamity Ganon.

A video game can be a powerful story experience. Some of the most memorable games I’ve played, such as 1990’s Phantasy Star II or 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, I recall as stories I’ve experienced as much as games I’ve played. As game technology improves (and as movies allow more and more fantastic visuals), using games as a ways to tell stories is most successful when the creators try innovative approaches to narrative, rather than imitate how movies do it. See my series on what Pokémon Sword & Shield attempts. The plot of BotW’s story is still linear, with a fixed beginning and one ultimate outcome. It is the experiencing of that story which interacts with the game, and the emotional effect is shaped by your choices. The interweaving of free exploration and discovery into both the gameplay and the narrative is one of its great achievements.






The Many Worlds of Amazon’s The Tick

General spoilers for the version of The Tick, streaming on Amazon.

The costumed superhero story is a very strange genre. It is full of narrative conventions, tropes, unstated assumptions, and fundamental absurdities. It often has a veneer of science-fiction, but is more a mixture of fairytale, urban fantasy, and magical-realism. It still surprises me to see superheroes everywhere these days on movies and TV. With all its outlandish qualities, a superhero comedy ought to be easy. There’s so much to make fun of. But it isn’t. Comedy only makes finding the right tone, the right balance between fantasy and reality, even harder. An example of this challenge, and an example of failing to find such a balance, is the live-action adaption of The Tick, produced by Amazon.

The Tick, as a character, started out as a comic book store mascot, had a series of comics of his own in the 80’s, and then starred in an animated Saturday morning cartoon from 1994-1997. In 2001, a live-action Tick appeared on Fox TV, but his series only ran for nine episodes. In 2016, Amazon started streaming a new live-action version.

The Tick himself is a costumed superhero of great strength, “nigh-invulnerability,” an absolute devotion to being a Hero, and no memory of who he actually is or how he gained his superpowers. His best friend and sidekick is the hapless Arthur, an accountant who stumbles on a moth-themed super-suit that allows him to fly. Even other superheroes don’t quite know what to make of the Tick. His inexplicable origins and powers, his childlike enthusiasm, and proclamations about the call of Heroic Destiny, are all things more appropriate to an earlier, more innocent era of superhero stories. In the Golden Age of Comics —the 30’s through the mid 50’s — many superheroes stories gave little thought to their characters’ “origins,” who they were when they took off their costume, or about any nuances about the battle between Good and Bad. The Tick would have fit in their worlds much better.

When the 2001 series debuted, a live-action superhero show was still a rare thing. Superhero movies were failing at the box office more often than succeeding. We were seven years before The Dark Knight and Iron Man. A funny superhero show was even a more perplexing thing to try to market.

By 2016, the cultural position of the costumed superhero was very different. Superheroes practically dominated popular entertainment. The narrative concept of a realistic looking world, just one with superheroes in it, had become well-established through movies featuring Batman, Spider-Man, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warners had successes with Arrow, The Flash, and other television series featuring their DC Comics characters. Amazon’s The Tick, puts us into the middle of another of these “Superhero Universes.”

All the previous versions of The Tick have been comedies — poking fun at and parodying the conventions of superhero stories. The Amazon series, after a typically bombastic fourth wall breaking narration by the Tick himself, drops the audience into the life of an anxious and traumatized Arthur, a lonely man obsessed with the supervillain the Terror, who killed Arthur’s father before his eyes when he was a child. So we are rapidly spun from what we might expect from a Tick story, into a quite different world.

The perspective we are given on this world is that of the ordinary common people who have to try to live, day by day, with these “super” events going on around them. And superheroes are not just background activity in their lives. In the animated Tick, the supervillains were committing crimes, robbing, destroying, writing their names on the moon, etc., but nobody was really that evil; nobody ever really got hurt. In this Tick, supervillains indiscriminately kill and maim, and their evil plots to get deadly revenge on heroes sometimes work. The original comic could get a bit dark, but not on this level.

So this is a superhero world, but one with a grim, violent edge to it, the kind of thing that started to become more common in comics in the late 80’s, and what is now presented as making superhero stories seem mature and relevant to the modern TV audience, as series such as The Boys and Invincible demonstrate. The angst, shock, and bloody violence of Amazon’s Tick is still intended to be comedy though — just dark comedy. Into this enters the Tick himself, with his unshakable beliefs in Goodness and Heroism (and the same amnesia). He stands out from the rest of the hero world more than ever.

This aura of operating on a different level than the rest of the world, of confounding the people who are used to whatever is passing as normal, is shared with Season One’s archvillain, the Terror. As the Tick hears the voice of Destiny, the Terror seems to listen to the Music of Evil. He torments traumatized children, murders the loved ones of his adversaries, and engages in, or what appears to be, complex schemes that take years to unfold — though it gets revealed in the last few episodes of the first season that the intricate plots of the Terror have no true goal or even structure. He is simply doing whatever he thinks is the most evil at anytime. Both the Tick and the Terror are operating In their own worlds. They are not part of the real world, or even part of today’s violent superhero “realism. ” They act as if they live in a more archetypical world of comic book adventures.

Both the Terror and the Tick have sidekicks who represent the show’s reality. Their more grounded attitudes contrast their mentors’ worldviews. The Tick is always trying to encourage Arthur to leave the mundane world behind and awaken to his heroic Destiny. The Terror has his own protégé in Miss Lint. She, despite having superhuman powers, is more a part of the ordinary world. Like Arthur, she’s trying to live in this world, has an apartment, bills to pay, and so on. Just as the Tick seeks to guide Arthur, The Terror chides Lint for remaining a street crime thug, rather than rising to epic villainy, to glory in death and destruction. The dramatic arc of the characters are dark mirrors of each other. As Arthur becomes more of a Hero, Lint becomes more of a Villain.

I began by stating that this version of The Tick was an example of an unsuccessful attempt at a comedy superhero show. The first season of the Amazon series is certainly funny, but shifting tones of anxiety humor, slapstick, bloody violence, hero satire, and real danger can leave a viewer uncertain about how to react to what happens. The contrasting worlds that different characters live in — the normal world, the world plus superheroes, the iconic, almost mythic world of the Tick and the Terror — can make it hard to understand the narrative rules of any of them. The first season of Amazon’s The Tick challenges its audience to think about about superheroes and what stories about them say about us and our lives.

What it is not is the witty, outlandish, superhero satire that one would come expecting to see, given previous incarnations of the character. That’s fine of course: a character and a narrative concept can and should advance over time. But was this an appropriate direction for this character? And did viewers feel that using the Tick for this story was something of a bait-and-switch?

The Amazon series makes Arthur the main dramatic character. He is the one with issues to deal with and choices to make. Over the course of the first season, the Tick successfully pushes Arthur to accept being a Hero and encourages his goal of defeating the Terror. Consequently, Arthur increasingly becomes the more active and directing member in the partnership, effectively making the Tick his sidekick. This version of the Tick has more doubts and uncertainties about himself than any other, which only make him more and more reliant and dependent on Arthur. That sets the stage for what the future adventures of the duo would be like.

By the time of the second season of the Amazon series it is 2019 and there are more and more superhero shows than ever. The Tick seemed to get caught up in it all. In the show itself there are more and more heroes. I have so far only mentioned the Tick, Arthur, the Terror, and Miss Lint. The series also includes many other characters, such as the Superman-like Superian. There’s the bloodthirsty rogue hero Overkill and Arthur’s sister Dot. These characters and their stories become more and more prominent, to the point of having plots largely independent of Tick and Arthur. In the era where Marvel, DC Comics, and others are successfully expanding media franchises, The Tick gives into the siren call of building one’s own superhero universe, weaving multiple plots into an ongoing mosaic of stories. Arthur and Tick are just one group of characters among many.

Given the challenges I’ve been describing, building such a superhero universe is an easier route than making a polished, satirical superhero comedy. The Amazon Tick in the end abandoned what has defined previous versions: the core energy of the Tick as the driving force of the narrative. What makes a Tick story are his Heroic antics and his indefatigable outlook on his purpose crashing against a contrasting world. In trying to be like so many other superhero shows, it ended up becoming… just another superhero show. Becoming the thing you originally set out to parody is not a great Destiny, but it is also not an uncommon one.