BOTW has incredible power in its most mundane moments.
A bead of sweat drips down your forehead and falls onto the parched rock below, staining it a deep brown and foreshadowing what you can tell is coming, judging from the darkening sky and pregnant clouds overhead. You quicken your pace, despite the fatigue that you feel in your straining arms and legs, knowing that you might slip from the rock’s face should the rain begin while you still climb. With your last bit of energy, you pull yourself onto the nearest ledge and pause to catch your breath, only to have it taken away from you once more by the beauty and splendor of the vast plains that now lie below you. Is this the idyllic Yellowstone National Park, or some other unharmed wilderness? No; this is Hyrule. These are the kinds of moments that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows you to experience and appreciate, but never forces upon you.
As I slowly explore Link’s world of guardians, divine beasts, and cuccos, I am struck time and time again by the great contrast that the game creates between the grand, sweeping, fantastic moments and the moments that are more ordinary, occurrences that could conceivably transpire in your life, or in mine. But despite this contrast, the game never seems to be separated into sections of what might resemble a degree of realism and sections of fantasy and adventure; rather, BOTW integrates its peaceful moments and well-developed mundanities of life into the hero’s quest, allowing the player to watch a beautiful sunset just before launching into combat against a camp of bokoblins. In these instances, BOTW is evocative in simple ways, ways that resemble the feeling of life to an incredible degree. The feelings are not all positive, either; walking along a path in a seemingly endless rainstorm, a cold, grey pall cast over the surroundings, makes me want nothing more than to follow the lead of the NPCs and run for cover.
Other open world games make attempts at a similar effect, and even accomplish it in some regards, but BOTW strikes the balance between the extravagant and the unremarkable unlike any other popular open world titles. Grand Theft Auto V is an interesting example of one of these such games; because of GTA’s proximity to and simulation of many elements of life that modern people experience every day, one might think that the game would do a good job of providing moments that feel real or at least evoke feelings of reality, especially when playing the game without going on violent rampages. GTA does succeed in this regard in some ways (it was praised in the time following its release for the various mundane activities that the player is able to engage in, such as showering, exercising, and the like), and is an impressive game for a number of reasons, but the game is still a satire of human life, and the way it depicts day-to-day life is so extreme that it falls short of relatability. Even if one avoids the violence that is an ever-present possibility in Los Santos, GTA struggles in this way- for instance, I love to drive, but speeding around the streets of fictional California does not give me any of the same feeling either experientially or emotionally that driving in the real world does. Conversely, strolling through a thick forest in BOTW, the combination of effective lighting and soundwork in a well-crafted setting makes me feel like I could have taken this same walk in the Appalachians, appreciating nature’s beauty in a similar way.
Providing another open-world example, The Witcher 3 is a game marked by a fantastic story, good interactions with NPCs, stunning landscapes, and numerous other characteristics that speak to the game’s quality. However, The Witcher’s strength does not come from the same simple joys that I attribute to BOTW. The game is certainly evocative, and the witty dialogue goes a long way in providing the player with conversations that feel natural, even with Geralt’s stony demeanor. But it is the game’s grittiness and dark realism all in a rich fantasy landscape that causes me to struggle to find simple, human moments.
Touching on a few specifics in BOTW that help it to evoke so successfully, I would be remiss if I did not mention how the game’s mechanics facilitate this process. Particularly in the game’s early stages, the way in which the stamina meter limits Link is effective in forcing the player to set small goals and checkpoints. The anecdote I provided at the beginning of this piece would not have been nearly as compelling if Link was able to climb unendingly; the threat of falling from the rock face is very real, and gives climbing a subtle importance, in the same way that swimming against the current or sprinting in the sand encourages the player to manage Link’s energy and becomes more than just an idle activity. That said, BOTW does not turn every trip across a river into some type of minigame. The player is free to view these types of moments as they wish, and despite the added difficulty of stamina management, it is never an obstacle for a player that might simply want to speed from shrine to shrine, experiencing the game in a more linear and contained fashion. To add one more note on the human moments of BOTW, the dialogue with NPCs is almost always a refreshing experience. The game’s writing is effective in a way that helps to even brighten interactions with characters providing quests, conversations that can often come across as transactional, even in games like The Witcher.
Despite my enjoyment of BOTW and how strongly I feel that the game does a wonderful job of providing the small moments of real life, this is not a love letter to Nintendo, and there are qualifications to my argument that I see as important. Primarily, there is the undeniable fantastical quality of the world of Hyrule. I understand how this aspect of the game, whether it be the nature of Link’s quest and existence, the presence of fictional creatures, or even the game’s graphical style which captures this tone, might take away from a player’s ability to experience the moments I have described as human or realistic in any regard. Further, I have only compared BOTW to other open world games, and only two at that; there are quite possibly other games, open world or not, that provide similar feelings. Yet even with these concessions, Breath of the Wild gives me an experience that is both an escape from the toil of modern life and an emphasis of some of the most simple and peaceful moments of being human.