The latest entry to the The Legend of Zelda series features a few ingenious methods to evoke juvenile exploration; here’s how.
Zelda constitutes one of the archetypes, perhaps, for the videogame medium. Its music and imagery are etched in the minds of generations of players, not to mention those of their parents, who watched as their kids played.
Zelda is a childish series, which it wears on its sleeve. Sometimes it’s cartoony and colorful like the aesthetics of a seven-year old, sometimes it’s dark and broody like those of a teenager—but its joys are always simple, much like the original story behind it. All gamers know it: Shigeru Miyamoto, as a kid, liked exploring the forests and caves in the Kyoto countryside. Zelda was made to capture this sense of youthful exploration, awe and excitement. And it did: the wonder one felt when playing the 1986 original derived completely from the lack of a clear story, the abstraction and eidetic reduction of exploration in game form. There’s very little in terms of backstory, motive, or directionality; the player, much like the playing child, is left to their own imaginative devices.
Games have since become less of an abstraction or reduction, and more of a simulation; the forms of travel they represent have become more lifelike and complex. How, then, could they still instill these feelings?
Breath of the Wild pulls this off, first, through an ingenious thickening of space. The game space feels massive, even in the age of sandbox-style games (think GTA, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, etc.). Yet, if we’d count the square kilometers of the game’s full map, we’d count around 61 square kilometers. That’s roughly the size of a mid-sized town. But in Zelda, that space is filled with vastly different landscapes, mountains, lakes and meadows—all of them large enough to feel massive, but small enough to traverse without becoming dull. The game’s entire expression of exploration consists of this contrast between spatial simulation and abstracted expression of magnitude.
What is perhaps most impressive about this game, though, are the different ways in which this metonymic relation is underscored—sometimes literally. I was steering Link around on the first horse he’d found when a few stray piano notes starting dancing in the background. It was a curious sound, as the game is so silent: Breath favors ambient sound effects of wind, rain, and fire over the sprawling soundtracks that previously defined the series. Naturally, I felt the music had to signify something contextual, some secret I missed. I jumped off and started exploring my surroundings, but couldn’t find a thing. The music had stopped.
The process kept repeating across Hyrule, and it wasn’t until I went for a long ride across the seaside that the mystery solved itself. Those few notes, appearing and disappearing, stabilized as I rode on; suddenly the violin dropped in and I found myself listening to the game’s classic theme song, which the game had completely withheld for the ten hours I had spent playing it. The game’s theme song, one of its most prized, renowned and iconic feats, is only effectuated while doing that very thing the series is about at its roots: wide-eyed and childish exploration.
Miyamoto repeated in press interviews prior to the game’s release that they should see the game’s narrative not primarily in terms of the story, but rather as something emergent, in terms of what the player experiences. It sounded a bit cheap, of course: that way, the developer doesn’t need to write a proper story at all. The player just walks through the sandbox and fashions a story out of whatever order he experiences things in. But the horseback song suggests that Miyamoto’s team engaged in something different than some laissez-faire meaning-making: in its minute procedural systems, they created a space to be inhabited childishly, in which one starts humming a soundtrack to oneself when walking down the street.