“You should pick up this guide book; its hardbound, collectable and shows you everything you need to be successful!” said the clerk at the game store, holding the shrink-wrapped tome up to his head as if he were selling this in a highly successful infomercial.
“It really does help; it tells you where all the shrines and Koroks are as well as how to beat the bosses!” says the game store clerks cohort, an echoing hype-man with a graying ponytail that has propagated his up sale technique for a very long time. They already sold me on re-upping an ancient membership simply because it benefited the trade credit I’d be getting, but the push to buy more on top of that is more preordained than heartfelt.
I broke their spirit when I informed them that I’d be playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild blindly; I was going to go where the proverbial wind would take me and it would be a better experience for it. I couldn’t tell if they were dismayed because they honestly believed their own bullshit that a completely guided experience was the way to go or if it just meant they lost a sale that was never theirs to begin with, but it didn’t matter: I’m taking back those preconceived notions of how I was going to play games from here on out and strike out on my own. Even if that Bible-sized book was 25% off, today only.
I love videogames, but I needed a clean break from my overly nostalgic tendencies and seemingly OCD leanings about how I was going to tackle them. Trying to move forward while constantly looking back meant I wasn’t making any progress. I don’t mean progress in that odd, checklist type of way where you need to keep up with the culture that surrounds you (colloquially known as FOMO, fear of missing out), but progress in that mindful way where you just enjoy the experience you’re having…for the sake of enjoying the experience that you’re having.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels new because it hearkens back to those roots it had forgotten; circling around and being that open, explorative experience it was back in the late eighties without any qualms. It takes back those engaging moments from scripted events and hands it back to the player in subtle and personal ways. Stories go from “have you made it to X yet?” to “I completely stumbled into X and this is what happened.” It’s an important distinction to make; the experience isn’t always necessarily shared anymore. It’s wholly unique to everyone’s circumstance at that moment. We may have found our way to the same enemy encampment, but we’ll tackle it in vastly different ways.
It’s something that shouldn’t, and quite frankly can’t, be spoiled for you.
You could very well trod off without seeing the old man and collecting your sword in The Legend of Zelda, but the likelihood of you doing so are slim. It’s meant to help players recognize that gathering tools is an important task, one that will help you travel further along in the process. It teaches you to be resourceful, to learn how to navigate in a dangerous world that shoots to subdue you every step of the way.
Breath of the Wild takes that concept and pushes it a step further. The cave Link awakens in hands you your first tool in the form of the Sheikah Slate, a literal and figurative tablet, but doesn’t tell you what it does or how to use it. It doesn’t thrust a weapon in your hands from the outset, a nod to the fact that there’s a lot more to this version of Hyrule than slaying beasts, collecting McGuffins and completing a prophecy. It tasks you with discovering everything the game has to offer on your own terms.
There is absolutely a prescribed route to your final confrontation with Ganon. The big difference is nobody makes you take it.
You don’t need me to tell you that Breath of the Wild is all about that sense of discovery and the titillation that comes from stumbling upon something that feels discreet and personal. You also don’t need me to tell you that in turn that means conversations have blown up over social media about those discovery and subsequent “no shit?” replies that just make you want to jump back into the game to find out for yourself.
What I am going to tell you is that these things have bled into someplace it hasn’t been seen in some time – my home.
I’m of a generation where videogames where whispered about in playgrounds, school buses and often times across my own bedroom. You’d go into a video store and rent something solely on non-determining box art and promises given on bullet points. There were magazines at the time, but most of us got our information from each other. Games weren’t instant successes; they built over time via word of mouth.
In a ploy to make yourself look cooler than your peers, you’d often divulge secrets or recount hairy situations in what amounted to 8-year-old watercooler chitchat. I didn’t realize that thirty years after the fact, I’m still having these conversations. With an 8-year-old. Who also happens to also be my son.
I love recounting the moments I’ve had with Breath of the Wild not with my peers or internet fraternity, but with my children. The excitement in their eyes in infectious; even if you’ve made the same discovery they had, it takes on a different meaning when seen through new eyes. While they hope that I’ll just give them direct answers, I prefer to be facetious and maybe point them in the right direction but never give them an out. Sort of like the old man that guides Link on the Great Plateau, if you want to get analogous about it.
The beauty of this newfound connection isn’t just that my children seek guidance from me, but that I learn new things through them. They play games in a different way than I do. They’re more open to experimentation, to poking a bear to see what happens. Rather than feeling set back and in turn getting furious about it, they go back to the roadblock and look for a different way around it. I’ve been playing videogames for so long that it’s almost become a job, such is my focus. But I realized, after watching and playing with my kids, that these experiences are meant to be fun on a different level than I’ve been enjoying them. It’s been a refreshing reminder to myself that I should approach them like I was an 8-year-old.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t just a reinvention for the series; it’s been reinventing the way I approach videogames as a whole. In an age where everything about an experience can be exposed before most even have an opportunity to have it ourselves, it’s refreshing to go in wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I think a lot of people feel that same way; everybody talks about the game in broad strokes, never promulgating anything but the most surface things. It’s something that you don’t want spoiled for yourself, so in turn you choose not to spoil it for others. So sorry game store clerk and pitchman friend, I’ll probably never buy your strategy guides ever again, even at a one day discount.
Everyone should play Breath of the Wild with new eyes, and you should too.