I had a long trek up a snow covered mountain ahead of me.
When looking up from the base of the mountain the peak was obscured by clouds. This wouldn’t be easy, and I might never make it if I couldn’t find an optimal route. It was going to take a healthy dose of planning.
The first thing I needed to do was to scope out my angle of attack. If one side of the mountain had more level terrain for me to stop and rest, that would be where I would start. From where I stood I couldn’t see the summit – I needed a better vantage point, so I spent the rest of the day climbing a much smaller adjacent mountain to get a better view of my surroundings. I pulled out my scope and marked a few places that seemed like a good place to start. With that, I returned to town to begin my preparations.
It was sure to be cold as I came close to the peak so I purchased warmer clothing, though my new garb came with a drawback: significantly less defense against enemy sword swings. If I was caught off guard by whatever creatures lived up there I’d be in a pickle. I cooked up some spicy food to keep my insides warm as well. To cap it off, I whipped up a few potions that would restore my stamina if it began to fail mid-climb. I rested until the next morning, said goodbye to the townspeople, and set out on my voyage.
The climb began simply enough. The topography of the mountain was such that it began in a series of plateaus, but what stood ahead of me seemed to be a straight vertical climb. I crossed my fingers and began. After a few minutes I could see a small outcropping at which I could rest, but I couldn’t tell if my stamina would hold out that far, so I quaffed one of my elixirs for the rest of the haul. That was one less resource I would have as I continued my ascent, but I made it to the small bit of sanctuary that the mountain provided. I stood, relieved, catching my breath.
Then it started to rain.
There would be no way for me to find the handholds necessary to continue, I would just slip indefinitely. I had no choice but to wait it out. I stood there as the clouds rolled over and the rain intensified into a downpour. I looked out over the horizon and saw the town I had come from, it’s buildings in miniature. I thought about all the places I had been before. All of the creatures I’d fought, the people I’d met, and their stories. In the distance I saw bizarre architecture that I was sure to stumble upon later. I remembered then, that I chose to climb this mountain. Nobody asked it of me. I saw it in the distance and said “I want to climb that.” There might be something unique and fascinating to see up there, but perhaps not.
Eventually the clouds broke and I resumed my expedition.
That’s a pretty typical play session in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The brilliance of the game lies in that it trusts you. It respects that you are capable of doing great, fascinating, weird, and most importantly, self-driven things. It looks at a generation of gamers that built staggeringly complex machinery in Minecraft and says “Well, if a ten year old can do that, they can climb a damn mountain.” Breath of the Wild shares some DNA with modern survival games. It allows you to make your own fun. The fundamental difference between BotW and the typical Twitch-oriented survival games is that BotW is made by a team of people that have lovingly crafted some of the greatest masterpieces in video games.
Every inch of BotW is entirely bespoke. There are secrets to find around every corner and on (almost) every mountain peak. The result is that it’s the first game I’ve played where the world feels real. It makes games that have tried so hard to be a facsimile of our reality, the Grand Theft Autos and Watch_Dogs, utilizing photo realism and multi-million dollar mo-capping, feel like model train dioramas. BotW, despite its impressionist rendering and art style, performs handily by making every find and encounter truly unique, just as every alleyway and tree in your real life is unique if you look at them enough.
Every so often we get “That Game.” The one that reminds us why we play games.
Games like this channel the part of the human psyche that lusts for change and adventure–the part that desperately wants to roll open the sunroof during a storm and laugh and scream at the fact that we are all going to die. It sounds hyperbolic, but video games, like every other form of art, are capable of reminding us of the beauty and tragedy of sentience and the human condition. To wit, Breath of the Wild is gaming’s Mona Lisa, its Iliad and Odyssey. As long as video games exist, Breath of the Wild will stand as a crowning achievement of human creativity and our instinct to “make.” This game isn’t just a video game, it is video games.
When I reached the top of the mountain I could see past the desert, to the ocean. I could see the smoking tops of volcanoes, and something strange floating at a great distance. I could see the history of land masses moving and shaping themselves over millennia, and what that meant for the tiny little people inhabiting them. Moreover, I could see my own future, of where I could go next, of wherever my heart and mind takes me.