The latest installment in the beloved 'Legend of Zelda' series has already been given rightful praise as not only one of the best games in the series, but possibly one of the greatest gaming worlds ever created. The game takes inspiration from its past whilst updating and re-imagining the franchise in an ambitious and brilliant way. But an often overlooked part of this world design is how it allows for non-linear storytelling and subtle annui that slowly unfurls itself over your many hours of exploring Hyrule. 'Breath Of The Wild' deals with themes of regret, the fading of youth and acceptance of loss, but does so through mechanics and world building rather than through dialog-heavy cutscenes, creating one of the richest and most engaging open worlds in the process.
On a purely aesthetic level 'BOTW' crams as much character and imagination in to every fibre of the game world as possible, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. The way in which Link reacts to the changes in climate is a perfect example of this. Rather than a message popping up in the corner of the screen telling the player the repercussions of this status change, there is a physical manifestation of the effects. From Link shivering in the cold, going light-headed in the desert heat, attracting lightning in a storm or seeing his attire dramatically bursting into flames while ascending Death Mountain. The player is given immediate visceral feedback by the weather effects. It helps create an extra emotional bridge between the player and Link as you panic when you see your fine wooden weaponry catch fire on your back just as Link would. After a few hours with the game you don't even need the text to appear for you to realise you need to change clothes or drink a potion as you have become so in-tune with the visual stimuli the game presents. Even simple things such as fast-travel are made to look visually interesting. Rather than simply throwing the player into a loading screen and spitting them back out at the other side off the map, Link breaks off into blue light before rematerialising at your destination. It's these small details which add more character and immersion into the world than lifelike visuals can ever do.
'BOTW' manages to circumnavigate some of the classic video game tropes which disconnect you from the world. Over the past decade of game design the increasing 'Ubisoft-ification' of open-worlds has increasingly demanded that the map should be filled to the brim with icons denoting 'stuff' for the player to do. You can barely move for new markers or quests popping up. It means that you are not actually invested in the world, you're simply following where the icons are telling you to go. 'BOTW' has just as much 'stuff' to do as those games, it just doesn't tell you. This means you are exploring to satisfy your own curiosity rather than following an in-game checklist. The omission of trophies or achievements also works to this end. Happening across something in the world feels like an unexpected treat, like you've made a genuine discovery off your own back. You are not just playing a video game, you are going on an adventure.
So how does it create a sense of melancholy?
Perhaps the most obvious way the game strums on the sadness gland is through the 'Captured Memories' quest. This requires you to hunt down the scene where 12 pictures were taken to help regain Link's memory. These pictures unlock fragments of memory displayed through short cutscenes of Link and Zelda and their plight shortly before Calamity Ganon's victory. The story of the downfall of Hyrule is revealed to you from these 2 characters perspective, showing the increasing panic Zelda feels at not being able to meet the requirements of her destiny, struggling with her faith and being fearful of her inability to defeat Ganon. These cutscenes are fairly short, not brilliantly written and feature some pretty hammy voice acting. But they still leave quite a mark.
Part of the reason for this is because the player's experience of the gameplay is mirroring Link's emotional arc of confronting his past. The player is hunting down fragments of information to help spell out a full picture of what happened to this world. Just as Link is. The effect these snippets of story have on the player is given added weight by the peace and quiet that bookends them. After these sections I always found myself strolling around the world with no particular purpose in mind, letting the cogs in my mind deconstruct them and pair them with my broader experiences of the game. Wandering aimlessly alone through a vast and hostile world not only allows time for the themes of the game to bleed into your subconscious, but also allows for quiet reflection to draw your own conclusions. It doesn't throw you straight back into a jarring fast-paced action section as many games would. Of course you can jump over to the other side of the map and fight a Hinox if you want to, but personally I found these quiet moments vital to the overall tone and sense of wonderment. Returning to the sprawling wilderness with the quiet ambience of surrounding flora and fauna punctuated by the occasional brush of piano seemed to fit the reflective mood. It's a master in subtly and allowing you time to breath in the world and its morose underbelly.
This version of Hyrule is completely unique to the Zelda series. The climbing and gliding mechanics work in tandem to help to gain perspective on your travels. It helps you prioritise and set your own goals whilst whetting your appetite for exploration with the promise of secrets glimmering in the distance. While it borrows certain series staples such as Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain and Zora's Domain, they are all completely re-imagined. This ties it to the theme of restoring memory at the core of games plot. You recognise these places but they have changed. Or at least they don't look the way you remember them. It recalls that strange feeling of coming back to your hometown after a while away. It's reminiscent of the feeling I got from playing 'Gone Home', a game which subverts your expectations and makes your own home feel alien to you. Everything is the same but feels so different due to your new outlook on the world.
This is perfectly captured by the minimalist music that drifts through on your travels. Rather than being big orchestral themes with obvious melodies, they take the form of sparse piano pieces that glide in occasionally as if it is being carried on the wind. It mostly forgoes the classic Zelda tunes except for the occasional tips of the hat working their way into new compositions like clouded recollections. One such example being the Dragon Roost Island theme from 'Wind Waker' being slipped into the middle of the music in Rito Village. It gives you a brief hint of nostalgia without hitting you over the head with obvious throwbacks. It means the game stands on its own feet while also giving you that warm, melancholic pang that nostalgia can do.
'Breath of the Wild' uses its exemplary open-world to get under your skin and exercise emotions in the player that few games even to attempt to. It lets your brain do the work and subtly plays with emotions by addressing very real human feelings of failure, forgotten youth and dealing with nostalgia in unique and non-exploitative way. The detail and thought that has gone it to every small detail in the world makes the whole package feel cohesive and immerses you in this world, allowing for the themes hit home. The marriage of story, world-design and artistic flourishes to the characters conjures a very real image of the human condition inside this incredibly fun and addictive game.