Two years ago, I ran a review with the post calvin of a videogame called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I wrote it in the early days of the game’s release, back when critics were still justifiably losing their minds over it. With the game’s intricately detailed overworld and refreshingly shruggy approach to linearity, Breath of the Wild was a stunning achievement. Not only did it top many of 2017’s best-of lists; it was, as reviewers liked to say, a breath of fresh air for the Zelda franchise—the best Zelda title ever.
My own review, short on respiratory puns but brimming with enthusiasm, based its endorsement on my first five hours of gameplay. I went on to play far more than that. By the time I finally retired the game a year ago, I had logged 200 hours on it—200 hours spent roaming its mountain slopes, gaping at its sun-sparked coasts, and plumbing its dungeon-depths.
And then, abruptly, nothing.
Since then, in fits of nostalgia, I’ve told friends how much I’d like to revisit Breath of the Wild—how much I’d like to see, as though with fresh eyes, the game’s opening shot of the overworld, of Hyrule Kingdom, laid out lush and sprawling and still charged with possibility.
In other words, after 200 hours of gameplay, I wish Hyrule could still feel enchanted. Less lived-in, perhaps. Less known.
The first time I saw a dragon in Breath of the Wild, Link, the player avatar, was on the bank of a giant lake. I don’t recall what I was doing by that lake, but I do remember slamming to a halt when, without warning, the game’s soundtrack changed. The chirping of crickets gave way to the chiming of a piano. Then began the soft-sad slide of an erhu. Finally, from the belly of the lake came a great frothing, and the horned head of a gleaming, green dragon split the surface and started climbing, the whole sinuous length of it, toward the sky.
That moment sticks in my head the way that scenes from my favorite novels and scraps of poetry do. It’s a real memory of an unreal thing, and whatever else that might imply, it’s an invitation to rethink what we dignify as “reality” and dismiss as “fiction.”
In any case, Breath of the Wild is full of such moments, moments where your first reaction, if you’re paying attention, should be wonder. Should be to stop and stare.
Quote: “Be critical of the media you love.” (Feminist Frequency)
Revision: “Be critical of how you engage the media you love.”
OK, but here’s the thing, Mr. Wonder: you can only witness so long. Like a workplace or a supermarket, videogames reward familiarity, not marveling. It’s well and good, sure, to have a moment of awe—to gawp a little at all the colorful things on the shelves, or to stare at the bustle of bodies moving and conferencing. But gawp too long, and you won’t buy the stuff you need. Stare too much, and the manager will want a word with you.
As in work, so in play. You must learn to use the game’s environment, not just be in it. You must learn to think in terms your manager would appreciate: about how you need to “maximize” your damage output, promote gear-weapon “synergy,” and “optimize” your playtime.
And, of course, to play this game well, you must learn other things, too. After a while, you might even learn a thing or two about those dragons, like where they appear, and when. And you might learn that dragons are good for more than just window-dressing—that if you shoot them with your bow, if you hit them just right, you can chip off a bit of scale, or claw, or horn that you can use. You can add it to an elixir, if you like. Or craft it into better gear. Or say you don’t want to do either of those things. Not a problem: you can always sell it to a merchant.
Because let’s face it, friend—let’s be realistic—wonder is fine. But at the end of the day, what’s wonder actually worth?
In fairness, the premise of our resident realist is correct. Big, beautiful, and complex though it is, Breath of the Wild does what most videogames do. It exists to be mastered. It exists to cater to that part of us that likes being in control. True, games can be difficult, which makes it hard to sustain the illusion of control. But difficulty lasts only so long. After all, a game is meant to be beaten, so given time, patience, and practice, our desires will have their way. We discover patterns and manipulate them. We master one challenge and move on to the next.
So what happens, then, when this desire for mastery, reinforced by habit and nourished by the stories we tell and the media we consume, begins to look elsewhere for fulfillment? What happens when the world starts to look like one more Hyrule Kingdom, one more object to contain, delimit, and administrate?
Quote: “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” (Donna Haraway)
Stories that made worlds:
- Christopher Columbus, 1493: “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.”
- Andrew Jackson, 1830: “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”
- Genesis, circa 6th century BC: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Worlds that are making stories:
- Possible extinction of 40% of all insect species in the next decades
- Climate migrants and the projected displacement 143 million people by 2050
- The so-called “Maria Generation” in Puerto Rico
Quote: “In Breath of the Wild, plundering Hyrule’s natural resources and participating in the wanton destruction of Moblin- and Lizalfos-life has been elevated to a veritable art form.” (Ben DeVries, review)
I lied earlier when I said I hadn’t touched Breath of the Wild since last year. This past week, I picked up the game again. My hope was that time away from it, as well as the addition of a few self-imposed rules aimed at curbing my worst impulses, would restore some of the world’s richness and surprise.
I’m already an hour in. I’ve yet to see a dragon, but that opening shot of Hyrule sent a shiver down my spine.
So far so good.
So far so good, but be advised: you can never really go back.
There is no such thing as a fresh pair of eyes, any more than there is a wayback machine that can shuttle you back to the nostalgic world of yesteryear. When God booted Adam and Eve from Eden, God slammed the door shut with cherubim and flaming swords. And surely the sadness of that moment, of our newly homeless forebears, was in the remembering—was in the fact that they couldn’t help remembering, couldn’t trick themselves into forgetting the good that had been, but wasn’t now.
After all, moving forward doesn’t mean getting past. And sometimes synonyms for noble goals like biblical stewardship, Creation-care, and social justice aren’t just being-present and caring-for, but grieving-with.
The ghosts we’ve made don’t stop haunting just because we want them to. Down at the bottom of Lake Hylia, the dragon is still smarting from its wounds.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.