17 June 2016

The news have dropped: the next Zelda is going to be subtitled Breath of the Wild, which is one word away from a Diablo 2 runeword. Before that reveal, all we knew was that it was going to be a Zelda game, for both the Wii U and the NX, and that it was going to be released in 2017.

And then they released the trailer, and also streamed people playing the game for hours. And all of that managed to restart my little hype muscle, which up to this point had been all dried out. And why, do you ask? Well, let me ramble a bit.

First off, the trailer itself was quite a refreshing change of pace from the usual tediums of game marketing. Game trailers usually are heavily edited bombastic hypefests, and that’s when they’re not simply cutscenes outsourced to an external animation studio that bear little to no resemblance to the final experience. Breath of the Wild’s advertisement was simply a slow, methodical, and quite enjoyingly calm little vertical slice. And that music, that pacing, all the ingredients are there. Here’s the game. Here’s what it looks like and what you can do in it. This year the only other trailer I really enjoyed watching was the Titanfall 2 one, and that’s mostly because of the twist that titans have personalities now.

Secondly, the game, which I find exciting for the same reason I think Majora’s Mask is the best Zelda. For you see, back in 1991, A Link to the Past codified the entire subgenre that the franchise would fit in. ALttP split the game world in two major areas: the overworld, where most of the story happens, and the dungeons, which are self-contained puzzle boxes containing various challenges all built around a common theme. Each dungeon contains an important item that is essential to complete it, and usually also useful throughout the game. Progress is gated both by story events and by item or ability requirements, and the player can also engage in optional side quests in the overworld to obtain various upgrades and powerups. While those side quests can be completed at any time and in any order, the main quest itself is pretty linear, with sequence breaking becoming increasingly rarer as the series advanced forward.

Ocarina of Time followed up with a bigger focus on the narrative, using the newfangled 3D to use common cinematographic techniques to tell a larger and more complex story without using more words. But the basic formula had remained mostly the same, and since then, every Zelda game uses the same structure. In a way, you could argue every Zelda is an enhanced remake of A Link to the Past, with a few twists thrown in, and although that would be overly reductive, it still says a lot about how design decisions for a game from 1991 can still influence us decades afterwards.

But it wasn’t always this way. The very first Legend of Zelda was actually what by today’s standards we would call an open world game. It was created as a reaction to Super Mario Bros.’s linear nature, which some people found restrictive. In LoZ, you’re dropped in a large, for the time at least, world with little explanation or backstory. It is up to you to piece together the history of the world, complete the dungeons in any order you wish, defeat the vilain and save the princess. It’s quite an obvious riff on European myths and stories, designed specifically to conquer the Western market.

For its sequel, Adventure of Link, they went for a different approach, turning the game into a side-scrolling action platformer. It wasn’t too well received, so for the sequel they just rebooted the whole thing, making everything more linear and more focused. And the rest is history.

So it’s great to see a radical change for Breath of the Wild. The game ostensibly takes place into an open world teeming with vegetation, wildlife and monsters. Looking at it, I couldn’t help but think of Far Cry 3, with its enemy camps, mix of stealth and combat, and hunting and gathering of resources in the overworld. What has been made explicitly clear is the open nature of the whole thing, with shrines, dungeons and other elements being completable in any order. Hell, it was even mentionned that you could finish the game without uncovering the whole story, and the mysteries it contains.

But really what I like the most is that it’s different. To go back to my Majora’s Mask comparison earlier, it shows that a developer can, and should, always try new things, even in a very well established franchise. Experimenting is at the core of any creative work.

So, I’ll by buying this, of course, probably even on day one! Every single game in the Zelda franchise has been at best superb and at worst highly deserving of your time, so it’s not like I’m taking a large risk in doing this. Considering it’s still gonna take a year until release, I have plenty of time to get my hands on a capture card, and so I’ll probably even stream it, or at least the first few hours.

Oh, I also got hyped about the next Paper Mario. More on that in a later article.