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.






Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 13: Heroes, Villains, and other Friends

Wrapping up my playthrough of Pokémon Sword & Shield. My focus is on the narrative experience of the game, more than the mechanics of play, though I will include some introduction to what the world of Pokémon is all about.

Pokemon 101

As you’d expect in a collecting game, some pokémon are easier to find than others. Common pokémon are abundant. They are pretty much just things like squirrels or birds or insects (though they may involve into more powerful forms). Less common types get to be more like beasts — bears, lions, eagles, and the like. Eventually there are pokémon that are real monsters, fearsome and dangerous to anybody who is not a trainer. Each game also introduces some special pokémon, classified as “Legendary,” that are unique, singular entities. They tend to come in small sets — the three Legendary Birds of Red & Blue, the four Tapus in Sun & Moon. Locating, tracking, and capturing these Legendaries makes up a small side-quest to the main adventure.

And then each new generation of games has a pair of even rarer pokémon who acts as mascots and symbols of that game. Each version of a game has its own exclusive member of that pair. For instance Pokemon Shield has Zamazenta, while Pokemon Shield has Zacian. Since you can only get one or the other from each game, you have to either buy both games, or find someone to trade with to get all of that generation’s pokémon. The pokémon is also at the center of each game’s story, as they are world shaping, or world destroying forces. So you start off catching mice and caterpillars and end up with a god at your beck and call. Arceus, a pokémon in Diamond & Pearl, is literally described as predating the world and as “the pokémon that shaped the universe with its 1,000 arms.” Yet you can carry it around with you in a pokéball along with Pikachu…

As mentioned back at the beginning of this series, this is my second time playing through Pokémon Shield. The first time I was unprepared for the game’s narrative structure: encountering all the smaller, individual stories of my fellow citizens of Galar. Bede and Opal. Marnie, Team Yell, and Piers. Raihan. Kabu. These were all characters with their own lives, their own stories. Even in the encounter with Oleana, the dramatic focus was on the revelations about who she was as a person and her motivations as Rose’s loyal assistant. All these small stories were the knots around which the larger story elements, my journey through the Pokémon Challenge, Hop’s ambition to surpass his brother, Sonia’s investigation of the Darkness Day, were woven. The scale and complexity of the story can be zoomed in or out, revealing smaller details, or larger themes, depending on where you chose to look.

After hearing Rose’s ominous words, I need to get back to the hotel and rest of up for tomorrow’s battles. In previous games, a player would go up against the “Elite Four,” a group of powerful Pokémon Masters. They’d be a mixture of Gym Leaders you’d faced earlier, along with an occasional new character. Here in Sword & Shield that is replaced by a bracket of trainers, made up of myself and the other Galar Gym leaders, all of whom want the chance to face the champion Leon.

The proceedings are disrupted when Bede shows up and demands a chance to battle with me. He’s been working with Opal, but wants one more chance to go up against me and make his own choice in life, after being manipulated by others for so long. If he looses, he promises to retire from training. Of course he does loose (he has to for the game to continue) but the cheering crowds convince him to accept his role of becoming the new Fairy Type Gym Leader. I then move through the various brackets, going up against Gym Leaders I’ve beaten before. All roads lead to Leon and the chance to defeat the undefeated. Except…

Rose interrupts the match before it starts. It seems his mad plan to trigger the Darkest Day as a solution to Galar’s energy needs has worked a little too well. It’s up to Leon to try and save the day. Sonia, Hop, and I know from Sonia’s research that the Sword and Shield pokémon of legend may hold the answers to controlling this disaster. So we head back to the mysterious foggy woods near our home town, where we once saw a vision of one of these mythical creatures. We don’t find it, but do come across an ancient shrine protecting a rusty old sword and a shield in similar condition. Hop grabs the sword and I take the shield (if I was playing Pokémon Sword rather than Shield, these would naturally be reversed).

Back in Hammerlocke, the situation hasn’t improved. Oleana pleads with me to help, choosing to try and save Rose himself, rather than support his plans. That’s a big breakthrough for Oleana’s self-awareness. While Leon is still, in theory, taking care of things, I am, in the end, drifting into the role of “kid who has to save the world.” As I’ve mentioned, that’s the usual for Pokémon narratives, but this game has avoided it so far. I wonder if at any point in the development of this story they seriously considered not falling back on that trope.

The deal, as it turns out, is that Rose had been feeding Wishing Stars to a sleeping pokémon called Eternatus that is the source of Dynamax energy. When it finally awoke it could not be controlled, and Rose was counting on Leon, the undefeated Champion, to capture and tame it. Hop and I arrive just as Leon is throwing a pokéball at this demonic dragon skeleton thing — and fails to catch it. That’s a nice touch, seeing another pokémon trainer going up against the Boss Monster in a traditional battle, and having the pokémon break free, as happens sometimes in gameplay. Everything is kept within the rules and mechanics of the Pokémon world.

Leon and his own pokémon are too exhausted to try again and so it looks like it is up to Hop and me — or at first just me. I battle against Eternatus and while it’s a tough fight, I prevail. Except that Eternatus pulls out the oldest trick in the video game bad guy book: its defeat only triggers a transformation into a new, even more powerful form: Eternamax. That’s pretty standard for video game Boss Monsters, their needing to be defeated multiple times before you can actually “win” the game.

It gets worse when our pokémon can’t act due to the energy the transformed Eternamax radiates. That is, until Hop recalls the rusty sword and shield we carry and suggests using them to summon their respective pokémon. Yes, it is Hop that comes up with the idea that ultimately saves the day. While after Zacian and Zamazenta arrive and we have a four-against-one battle, it comes down to me to throw the pokéball to make the capture, the final putting together of the puzzle was Hop’s action. In a video game, particularly a game that is intended to be playable by children, you can end up stuck in a narrative dead end if it is left up to a player to make a specific action. A fighting game such as Mortal Kombat might insist you flail away trying again and again and again to beat a final Boss. Pokémon games, particularly this Pokémon game, try to make the play experience less frustrating. As player it could have been up to me to go into my inventory of items and pull out the rusty shield and activate it. But I might not have thought of it or remembered it. And the game would be stuck. The final battle did have some nice back and forth of hopes and fears, though it was a familiar situation in the world of adventure video games.

Crisis solved, and Rose facing the consequences of his actions, it is now finally down to the battle against Leon. This isn’t a post about the details of the battle, so I’ll just say it’s the hardest in the game and possibly the hardest in any Pokémon game. Leon takes it seriously, promising me, and the cheering audience, to grind me into the dirt. Leon uses his team effectively against mine, using well chosen tactics against my strengths and weaknesses. In my first play through of the game it took several tries to defeat him (the narrative doesn’t really care about you loosing; if Leon beats you, it just ignores it and gives you another chance).

When he is eventually defeated, Leon, like his younger brother, has to struggle with his emotions. As proud as he is, strong battles from anyone are what he values most. And with fireworks and celebrations, the main story of the game ends, followed by, as in every game from the first, scrolling credits and a final “The End.”

Only it’s not really the end. If you start the game up again you are back home talking with your Mum. Pokémon games you see, don’t really “end.” You can continue to travel around the world catching and training pokémon, completing mini-games you might not have finished (I have not yet said a word about the whole curry mini-game in Sword & Shield, where you search for ingredients to make different curry recipes) and fighting in various competitions with the game or online with other players. There is also the strange phenomenon of the “post-game,” that is, an additional short story adventure that unlocks at this point. You don’t have to play it, but you can. And in this game it is how you finally get the opportunity to capture Zamazenta (or Zacian, if you are playing Sword). I’m not going to cover that in this series. Nor do I plan on talking about a new feature to this generation of Pokémon games: downloadable content, more adventures, more areas to explore, and more pokémon which you can add to the game as a separate purchase. Such additions are common in video games these days but this is the first Pokémon game to try it out, with two new adventures available now and who knows what to come.

Pokémon games are built from a mixture of the familiar and the new. Much that is fundamental in Sword & Shield are game elements and play activities essentially unchanged over twenty years. Each new game generation adds to them, both in new pokémon, but also new ways of being in the world of Pokémon. The narrative of this game, as I’ve tried to describe in this series of posts, was, in it’s subtle way, the most radical change to the franchise. The region of Galar has not been just the background for this story. The narrative of this game has been the exploration of this world and people in it. That has been the main point, more than a mechanical progression of plot and defeated enemies.

Looking at this different way of structuring the story explains some of its unexpected and even puzzling elements. For example, the revelation of Rose’s plan and the battle with Eternatus happen rather abruptly, though we’ve known something has been up for awhile. Some reviewers have complained about the suddenness of how this plot pops up and gets resolved, even claiming that it was a rushed, incomplete resolution forced on the game by the deadline of getting it out for sale on schedule. I don’t know any specifics about that (though I do know from experience about the scramble to get a game done and out the door on time). I feel that the climax of the Rose/Dynamax/Eternatus story fits in with how the entire game has handled its narrative.

Rose’s plans, and the disasters they cause, are not the work of the usual supervillain whose nefarious schemes serve as the primary narrative arc that I, as the game’s “hero,” fight against for the whole story. Rose is the last of the inhabitants of Galar whose story crosses our own. His episode is grader in scale and consequence that the others, and serves as a climactic encounter to end my journey. In the end though, it is just another of many stories I have discovered. If you try to think of this game as “the player character vs Chairman Rose,” in the way that others games are, say, “Link vs Ganon” or “Cloud vs Sephiroth,” you miss the point of this narrative. It’s easy to fall into that way of thinking, since so many games use that core of “hero vs villain.”

The ambitious industrialist is a common bad guy in genre fiction, so our eyes were on him all the time. He didn’t end up being the expected greedy villain, out to destroy for his own benefit, or for some strange belief system (as several previous Pokémon bad guys been). He seems to really care about the well being of Galar. If you watch the “Twilight Wings” series of animated shorts, Rose appears to be a really nice guy. That he is thinking about the future is also, on the surface, an admirable trait. Climate change is not explicitly mentioned in this game, but it’s lurking in the background. The most blatant environmental statement in the game is the Galar form of the pokémon Corsola. It is a coral pokémon, and in most games it is a Water/Rock type and is a cute pink. In Galar though, it is bleached white and is a Ghost type. There’s an energy problem in Galar and Rose does not want to ignore it, even though it will be generations before it’s a real problem.

What is missing from his story is why he has become so obsessed with immediate action, why he couldn’t not wait just one more day. We can only speculate and come up with out own theories. For instance, maybe Rose knew Eternatus was going to wake up soon, and that they did not have a thousands years to prepare. You could concoct a dozen theories like that. Those are just details, really. Rose is another character we see on our journey and he, like everyone else in Galar, has his story. The more we travel, as a pokémon trainer, on an endless journey, the more people and the more stories we experience.