Zelda: Breath of the Wild — In Search of a Pure Video Game

Intro

As many others who have played Breath of the Wild, I find it nothing short of excellent. The gameplay is clever: simple and intuitive, with every mechanic linked to another. The world design is immaculate; its sparseness and beauty as much incentive as one needs for exploration. It is with design choices like these that Breath of the Wild comes closer than any game I have enjoyed to date to an ideal I hold of the “pure” video game.

A Pure Work of Art

What do I mean by “pure”? Here I am interested in the aspects of the medium that are necessary and/or unique to it. To extrapolate upon this point I think it is necessary that I compare video games to another medium. In this instance I would like to compare games to film as this is a medium I am familiar with.

Let it be noted that as we move forward I am speaking here only about story-driven films and games. Though story is neither necessary nor unique to either medium, it has been important to both, as it has to human communication generally.

At its basis, film is composed of image, and time. It is the pairing of these two elements which distinguishes it from other mediums. It is not like photography, because its images move through the dimension of time. It is not like literature because its visual language in addition to being textual is also sensory. Film does share the same temporal linearity as music. However, it is unlike music in that music is purely auditory. Thus, if we were to abstract film to only its unique and necessary elements, one might say that the pure film should be silent, or if it has sounds that those sounds should be diegetic, and that it should be composed of moving images broken only by edits. In film school this idea is drilled into new students. First, the philosophy goes, one should learn to tell a story using only the tools which are unique or necessary to cinema, then one can add back in the textual and auditory elements which are not unique to the medium.

Another important feature of the pure film is that it should not break the 4th wall. Any break to this barrier necessarily entails a textual reading that is not unique or necessary to film: the film becomes about film as a medium.

The unique tools afforded to, and limitations to be worked around, are actually much the same for the game designer as for the filmmaker. The moving images and linear passage of time are there in games, yet the edit is omitted and a new tool is added: interactivity. This is an important distinction for two reasons.

  1. Part of the reason it is important to learn to tell a story on film or video without the use of text and non-diegetic auditory elements is because these elements allow for the filmmaker to easily patch holes in his or her visual/temporal narrative. This lessens the purity of the work: the student has not learned to make a film, but to make pieces of a film patched together using devices from other mediums. The fact that games make use of interactivity means that anything that breaks this interactivity has the effect of lessening the purity of a game in its game-yness. Thus, we should stay away from cutscenes and edits: these are the kinds of manipulations we see in films; they are not necessary to a video game. We should also stay away from any gameplay that is not in its essence interactive. For example, tutorials presented via non-diegetic text or language, mini-games that require little more of the player than singular, intermittent pushes of a button (these are reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation), and anything that otherwise breaks interactivity.
  2. The fact that a game is interactive necessitates that a pure and story-driven game be open-world. Any other kind of game will necessarily break interactivity with intermittent cut-scenes, inescapable menus and title screens, and limitation of player movement.

Here, there is a problem. For the visual storyteller, the difficulty is to guide the viewer through the inner lives of characters making use only of visuals. For this purpose, visuals are imprecise as compared to written language. Written language is useful for detailing thought processes with exactness. The novelist faces no barriers in detailing the inner lives of his/her characters, whereas the filmmaker does. The filmmaker does not, however, have to worry that his or her story will not progress: he or she controls the unfolding of events, instead of the audience. For the game developer however both of these things are concerns; he or she must tell a story making use only of visual devices, and incentivize the player to cause that story to unfold. The only saving grace for the game developer is interactivity.

How can a developer allow for boundless interactivity, yet still incentivize the player to complete a narrative? I am not sure this is even possible; it might be that a game cannot be both pure and narrative-driven at the same time. However, if the developer is clever enough, many of the incongruencies between narrative and interactivity can be hidden. This is what the developers of Breath of the Wild did so well.

How to Design a Narrative Game that is Truly Interactive

“What I wanted to accomplish with this new Zelda, was to create a game where the user can truly experience freedom (…) and through this playfield I wanted the user to be able to experience a new sense of adventure (…) A game where the user can think, and decide on their own where they want to go and what they want to do (6:30, GDC).”

For Breath of the Wild, game designer Hidemaro Fujibayashi emphasizes freedom of interaction. Through this, he wants the player to experience an adventure. Here we see that the story goals of the designer are already congruent with those things which are necessary and unique to games. That is to say, adventure naturally entails interaction.

As we move forward, we will see that much of the game design in Breath of the Wild is geared toward upholding congruency between narrative and gameplay elements.

Multiplicative Gameplay

For Breath of the Wild, Fujibayashi made use of a game design concept which he terms “Action x Field. With “Action x Field” each player action can have a multitude of different consequences in the game world, or field (15:15, GDC). This means that goals can be set for the player whilst allowing creativity in achieving these; there is almost always more than one way to solve a problem.

For inspiration in implementing this concept, Technical Director Takuhiro Dohta looked to science (25:00, GDC). If you pick up your torch, and put it to the grasses, they come alight as you would naturally expect. The fire then causes an updraft, which you can ride with your glider. You take flight, and can thereby reach places before unreachable, or perform unique powerful attacks on enemies.

This sets the basis for unbroken interactivity. However, more is needed: especially since we are trying to create a narrative game. How can a game designer incentivize a particular path of action if the player is given total freedom in interacting with the world?

Scenario

A true story-driven game will have a goal. By this definition, a video game like Minecraft is not so much a game as it is, say, a simulation. Even though it represents that same “Action x Field” concept in its gameplay, it is not directed enough to compel a truly engaging narrative experience.

It is necessary to set a scenario for there to be a story to tell. In Breath of the Wild, Hyrule is a fallen kingdom, which you, as Link, must restore. Thus, the player is given his or her goal. We will see later how certain game design choices in Breath of the Wild force the player to play the game a certain way towards the accomplishment of that set objective, thus breaking the game’s purity. For now, let’s focus on the positives.

The scenario in its implementation allows for a great deal of subtle storytelling. The scars of past battles remain scattered across the land. Human settlements are few and far between, and the great expanse, dotted with countless dangers spans most of the map. This allows for theme to be delivered to the player via interaction. The player explores locales and uncovers the backstory to the game’s narrative. Thereby, the player is being incentivized but not forced to interact with the story.

A Silent Protagonist Who Knows Nothing

If the player is entering a new world it makes sense that the avatar through which they play should be having that same experience. In such an instance, the player’s knowledge of the world (or lack thereof) is congruent with the avatar’s. This way there need not be breaks in interactivity, or diegesis which may otherwise be needed as to explain to the player the character of the avatar.

If the avatar has its own distinct personality, naturally there occurs a ripple in the 4th wall, as the player may realize they are puppeteering an entity which is meant to have its own identity, personality, and will. This necessarily entails a textual commentary on video games and that should be avoided if we are trying to make a pure game. Though this problem can never truly be avoided, it is a lot less obvious to the player if he or she is playing a character that possesses little in the way of discernible character traits. When we are first introduced to Link he too knows little about the world he is entering, having woken from a long slumber with no memory.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned problems do still occur in Breath of the Wild. The player is treated to cut scenes that are meant as flashbacks. Though these are motivated, they remind the player that he or she is not Link, thereby suggesting that 4th wall.

The developers did find a way for the player and Link to experience his memories without the prior mentioned incongruence. As the story unfolds, you are made to find locations that Link’s good friend Princess Zelda had in the past photographed. Through these locations we connect with Zelda, and learn of her internal life the same way the avatar does. It is disappointing then when retaking those photos as Link triggers those flashbacks in film form.

Use of Space

There is a lot of empty space in Breath of the Wild. More than just alluding to the game’s title, these vast expanses are a feature of the gameplay itself. The emptiness eggs the player on, encouraging the exploration which will lead him or her to those interactions that inform the game’s themes.

The map design of Hyrule only subtly informs the player of his or her purpose; the world is shrouded in mystery, and adventure beckons. Purpose is merely a suggestion: something for the player to find in that vast expanse.

As YouTube user Writing on Games explains, “..part of the reason I think the joy has been sucked out of many open world games is that there’s no mystery to them. You know exactly where you are, why you’re there, where you need to get to, and what awaits you there (1:45).” For Writing on Games, the dynamics of the space in Breath of the Wild take up the role of assigned tasks in other games. That is to say, you are compelled to explore the vast, calm wilderness so as to find those sparse pockets of excitement. The world itself incentivizes interaction by way of its design.

Environmental Cues

Tasks and objectives are suggested by way of subtle environmental queues. The Koroks, for example represent an ongoing side-quest that isn’t so much assigned as it is discovered. When one finds a Korok, one knows. Those vast empty spaces previously discussed mean that with a simple abnormality in the environment the game designers can suggest an objective. The way in which these abnormalities are designed will encourage specific interactions from the player.

A little wind spinner is placed by a tree stump, and the player might feel the urge to blow on it with a Korok leaf, or perhaps there are two stone blocks protruding from a cliff face, and the player sees that nearby there is a third made of metal, and remembering his magnet tool, feels compelled to place the metal one in between the two others. For solving these simple puzzles, the player is rewarded Korok seeds, which s/he can use to expand Link’s inventory space.

In these instances, the player is encouraged to engage with the objectives and themes of the story without being directly told or made to do so. The world comes alive, and the player is made to feel that he or she is living the story rather than being shown it. Theme and story come alive through incentivized interactions; this is pure gameplay.

Natural Progression

All this together makes for a (sometimes) natural progression through the narrative. When stuck atop the great plateau at the beginning of the game, it is obvious what one might do when given a glider. Consequently, jumping off the great plateau opens up the rest of the campaign to the player.

At the beginning of the game, having completed a short list of objectives assigned by King Rhoam, the player is sent to explore the Kingdom of Hyrule, and find Kakariko village. On my first playthrough, I did not bother with this primary objective. Curiously enough, I found myself at Kakariko village anyway. I do not think this is as much of a happy accident as it may seem.

I jumped off the Great Plateau where most players likely would: that part of the cliff nearest to where King Rhoam gives you his glider. After this, I mainly followed the roads: not out of any conscious will to do so, but simply because they offered the path of least resistance. I also stayed out of the way of Ganon, because it felt my avatar with only a ragged shirt for armour, and little to no stamina or health would stand little chance against that towering mass of evil. Along the way I also met and talked to travelers who were themselves interested in Kakariko village, and thus spoke of it and its whereabouts to me in great detail. Thereby, through clever, subtle design, and without breaking interactivity, the developers led me to my objective despite the fact I had little intention of finding it.

Through this sort of clever game design I was encouraged to reach my next destination at my own whims. Again, the developers do not so much require progression as they incentivize it.

A Pure Game is an Active One

Fujibayashi talks about these design choices in terms of passive vs active gameplay (12:48, GDC). As opposed to older Zelda games, the action takes place not within boundaries predetermined by the game designers. Instead, freedom is prioritized, and the experience of the game is determined as much by the designer as it is by the player.

This is necessary for a pure narrative video game, as it is the only way by which a developer can incentivize a player to complete an experience (something that is necessary for narrative) whilst avoiding breaking interactivity (something that is necessary for pure gameplay).

It should also be noted that if this is done perfectly, there should be no incongruencies in the player’s experience. All should be in perfect congruence: the player with the avatar, and the avatar with the game world. The player cannot simply refuse the game’s rules, as the game does not have any, except those embedded within its world.

Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not a Pure Video Game

It is a shame that this smart game design is not applied to the quests for the main narrative. Here the player is forced into linear missions. Agency is taken away, and progression forced. Perhaps the most glaring issue is that there is little incentive to start these missions at all. To me, at least, the sandbox gameplay is a lot more engaging.

You do not ever have to fight Ganon. He looms in the distance not really doing anything. Thus, engagement with the main narrative is not compelled in any way. If the player likes, Breath of the Wild can be played in much the same way as Minecraft. The narrative is inconsequential.

Of course, for a pure game we do not want to force the player to finish the final quest, as this means necessarily taking away agency (as is done if one chooses to play the main quests in Breath of the Wild), thus breaking interactivity. How then can one make a pure narrative-driven game?

Imagining a Truly Pure Narrative Game

Perhaps if Ganon were to begin destroying Hyrule if the player did nothing, this would compel a choice from the player. The player could choose to allow Hyrule to be overrun with evil, or become the hero and fulfill his/her destiny to save the realm. The key would be to make the game a truly open-ended one: an accomplishment which I suspect has thus far been unattainable on the grounds of technological limitations.

The pure narrative game lies somewhere between simulations like Minecraft and linear masterpieces like The Last of Us. It would present the player a world that is truly alive and limitless, yet compel him or her to make decisions which inform a theme. In its sandbox elements, Breath of the Wild inhabits this space nicely. It comes closer to that happy medium than perhaps any other game: some of the side-quests indeed do represent what, to me, pure narrative gameplay looks like.

Herein we see the ways in which theme can operate differently in a medium which necessitates interaction. The story can be a negotiation between designer and player. Theme can be fluid rather than fixed as it is in film, literature, or song. When the pure narrative game finally comes along, it will make for a truly revolutionary piece of art.

Sources

“Breaking Conventions with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” YouTube, uploaded by GDC, 10 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyMsF31NdNc&t=1467s

“Why Breath of the Wild’s Empty Space is so Important.” YouTube, uploaded by Writing on Games, 6 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHnsqXWqaHI&t=1s

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