For the past few weeks, most of my friends have been alive with a frenzy few recent games have rivaled. They’ve regaled each other with tales of hidden challenges, unbreakable weapons, and countless discoveries in Nintendo’s most recent iteration of the beloved Zelda franchise. Perfect reviews for Breath of the Wild abounded on every mainstream gaming website, and for awhile it seemed like all the internet could talk about. Even Rolling Stone had an article published on the game, possibly hoping to grab some of the traffic as the game gripped trending spots around cyberspace. For several weeks, I halfheartedly joined in on the conversation, having bought a Switch on release day to avoid the horrors of console shortages, but my heart was elsewhere. By day I played Zelda, and by (late) night, I hosted trashtalking sessions in nearly empty TeamSpeak channels about why Breath Of The Wild was just not meeting my expectations.
Why would I want to play a game where my weapons break with the force of a gentle spring breeze, navigating through awkward, clunky menus, and being told that anywhere in the world is ‘safe’, only to die to mobs that are head and shoulders beyond my current progression? I cursed the lack of familiar music as I scrambled for new weapons every few minutes, then further cursed the game as I realized just how limited my inventory space was.
I tried to piece together the logic behind the frenzied 5 star and 10/10 reviews (seriously, who really gives these?), as the internet fell over itself talking about Zelda, while I was stuck dying to every fight, falling off cliffs to my death, and generally making a fool of myself in the supposedly familiar world of Hyrule. In typical Hipster fashion, I turned my nose up at the open world frenzy, ascribing BOTW’s success to people’s recent and very vocal demand for walking simulators in a gaming world that’s grown tired of hand holding.
“They just like it because it’s open world,” I assured my friend over TeamSpeak one night, simultaneously trying to convince myself that I was in the right, and all these crazy people on the internet were just fanboys, or trend-hoppers. I considered myself above the masses, not one to succumb to the empty allures of open world gaming. I want my games to have substance, after all.
But my initial hatred for BOTW goes much further than its betrayal of Zelda’s time honored formula. For a person like me (read: OCD), open world games are a special kind of torture, reserved for the most horrific of occasions. Normal people see no directions as a positive thing, while I try to quell panic at an enormous map with no indicator of where to go. They see flexibility in what they can do early in the game, while I see every frustrating death my character will die as I repeatedly get into situations over my own head. I’m a bit of a slow learner, and suffer from learning a lot of things the hard way, which is an awful combination when faced with the prospect of a game with no real rules.
I was one of those kids who asked the teacher EXACTLY what she wanted on an assignment, because to be asked to redo it or rewrite it was not an option. I was the master of memorizing demands and spitting back out exactly what they wanted, and I felt a great sense of relief if I knew what the rules were. For me, open world games represent everything my school aged self feared: no structure and constant uncertainty.
Add in things like 900 different leaf people to find, over 100 dungeons, and my incessant and somewhat OCD need to complete every inch of the content, and games like this tend to eat my life up. So my reaction to open world gaming is usually one of fear, dread, and avoidance. My initial experience with BOTW was greatly inspired by what I imagine my (much) older self will be like. I.e., “Back in MY day, we had temples, not shrines, and we had to walk ALL THE WAY UP Death Mountain…with no shield!”
So it surprised me one day when I realized that I was in love. As a gentle sunset went down over Hyrule, and a Korok spun on his little propeller, I realized that this game has changed how I play video games. I have no roadmap, no plan, and no how-to. In years past, this wasn’t completely unheard of, with many games throwing players mercilessly into challenges without much guidance. We grew up playing games where one wrong move was death, but now we have the dedicated genre of ‘rogue’ to denote a game’s tendency to laugh at its playerbase while they die over and over again.
In recent years, we’ve gotten away from that in some ways, with games like Pokemon offering more and more guidance, almost to the point of annoyance. This trend crosses the line between AAA titles and indie games, but I can’t say it’s a good one. Maybe it helps the younger audience, but at what cost? As gamers, we’ve forgotten how to explore, and we’ve forgotten how to struggle. We’ve forgotten how to fall, and get back up, much like life will require us to do, over and over again.
As I sit down to play Breath of the Wild every night now, I no longer fear the unknown. Occasionally I get a bit upset about the idea that there’s still so much I haven’t seen, and that I have no real plan to see it all. But as I map out my own plan, I realize that Nintendo has done something incredible with this title– they’ve put the power of the game back in the players’ hands. Sure, there’s still a Hyrule to save. Sure, there’s still a story, and a bad guy who wants to ruin the world for reasons unknown. But how we solve every puzzle, and how we ultimately save the world is up to us. And isn’t that why we play?