Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman. All responses are welcome.
It’s been more than two years since I wrote my review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, more than a year since you concluded a six-part series of articles called Zelda Facets (partly in response to my review), and a few months since I last told you that I would respond to your series. I can’t help but reflect on the time that has passed. You might be surprised to hear that I have not played Breath of the Wild to any meaningful degree during this period. I am not interested in playing it anymore, this game I wrote multiple articles about in 2017.
The truth, for me, remains the same. Breath of the Wild is too much of a buffet-style meal to be groundbreaking. As I argued in an essay on open world ideology, Breath of the Wild is not unique but rather part of a movement that prizes quantity (and our consumption of quantity) over all else.
Having said that, I respect your six-part series and am honored and flattered that my review helped inspire it. Your series focuses on fascinating topics, such as the definition of “avatar” and the evolution of horses in Breath of the Wild, that I haven’t addressed and couldn’t address as well as you. Because I like Zelda Facets a great deal, I have no interest in rejecting it on the whole or responding to all of its well-stated points, but I do want to share a few thoughts that you have sparked.
First, during the part of the series titled “Introduction,” you imply that Breath of the Wild uses an open world in “near complete ignorance” of Grand Theft Auto III’s legacy of play. We must agree to disagree. The fact that Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma claims to play few games is not enough for me to change my mind (on a side note, I do not rely on creators’ words because they, in many cases, either contradict what’s in the games or slyly discredit the notion of a player having their own interpretation of a given game). And while I concede to you that the Zelda series doesn’t have to follow trends in order to survive, I can’t ignore the isomorphic towers, animals, items, shrines, and so on in Breath of the Wild. In other words, theoretically you have a case, but the evidence I observed in the game doesn’t allow me to accept the claim that Breath of the Wild is not influenced by trends and that overarching force of open world ideology. (Your remark about Breath of the Wild’s in-game camera is fair. Wind Waker indeed featured such a camera first. Yet despite this chronological fact, it seems Nintendo leans hard into the precious trends of modern gaming with Breath of the Wild’s camera, with the possibility of multiple posed selfies from Link, for example. I don’t recall this form of nauseating patronization, which was not invented or popularized by the Zelda series, in Twilight Princess at the very least.)
My second observation ties into the line of thought above: I don’t believe the stamina variable in Breath of the Wild would have been included if not for the variable’s recent appearances in pop games. One reason I can’t see it another way is Nintendo’s blatantly unoriginal usage of stamina. It would be different if Breath of the Wild, like Nioh, had reimagined what stamina means in an action context. But it doesn’t. It’s there to annoy the player, and part of the reason it’s annoying is that it appears tossed in. Even if you are right, that Breath of the Wild was not significantly shaped by market influences, I expect more than a mechanic that seems utterly devoid of creative thought and purpose. I have always felt this way about stamina-related rules that add nothing to a game. In Spirit Tracks, I remember Link would get dizzy after performing multiple spin attacks. That was silly, too. Far less notable than how Dark Souls’ stamina variable would logically deplete after almost any action you perform—as opposed to the case in these unfortunate Zelda games—so as to heighten the sense of toil that typifies a world of ruin and exhaustion. Stamina in Dark Souls keeps you on your toes and reminds you of where you are. Stamina in Breath of the Wild merely irritates you within a world that is constructed for mass consumption. Aonuma can’t have it both ways. He can’t suggest to us that he is oblivious to the larger gaming market while clumsily juggling popular ideas. (Or maybe his juggling of these popular ideas is clumsy because of his overall obliviousness? I’m afraid this could become a dreadful rabbit hole.)
Third, the segment of your series titled “Hyrule” is exceptional. My only complaint is that the first two Fallout titles deserved more attention. I think those games were more “unlike anything we’ve seen before”—or seen since. Their structures were ridiculously open, exposing the Great Plateau as an inferior, less concise invitation to the wild.
My final point relates to Fallout 1 and 2 again. The last part of your series, titled “Zelda,” is an arresting analysis of how the princess character is utilized throughout the Zelda games. But even if I completely accept your interpretation of the story, I’m still left wondering how Breath of the Wild amounts to innovative storytelling in the grand scheme of things. You mention storytelling differences between Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild, but in either game, no matter how I play, I feel like I’m part of a preset story in one way or another. In Fallout 1 and 2, the storytelling possibilities are more provocative, unpredictable, and unstable. It’s because those games are more artistically committed to the idea of the open world, whereas Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild are too busy peddling criminality and good over evil, respectively.
As far as Zelda games go, I see Majora’s Mask as a more innovative and sophisticated story than Breath of the Wild. Has any other Zelda game so daringly asked us to understand the humanity of our enemy like Majora’s Mask? Has any other Zelda game captured a sense of world-weariness like Majora’s Mask? As I played Majora’s Mask, I could not forget about that moon and the dread it represented. As I played Breath of the Wild, I rarely thought about Zelda (outside of the times the game rammed her name down my throat) and what she represents. I thought more about the smorgasbord of content before me and the growing ineptitude of big-name games.