I’ve spent far too long now extolling Breath of the Wild as the best that open-world game design has to offer, but open-world games pose a huge narrative challenge for developers trying to tell a coherent story. Because the game’s events can be played out in any order, it’s quite difficult to build a satisfying, well-plotted narrative, especially one that makes temporal sense. As a result, a lot of open-world games that go the traditional route—that try to shoehorn a linear plotline into a sandbox world—end up feeling half-baked at best and nonsensical at worst.
But as Breath of the Wild proves, there is a way to make open-world storytelling coherent and resonant: by discarding linearity in the present and sequestering the most important parts of the narrative—the game’s real emotional weight—in the past. In a way, Breath of the Wild tells twin storylines: the preparation for an apocalypse (and its eventual failure), and the post-apocalypse, where you wake up in a world retaken by nature, brush off the dust of a hundred years, and get to work.
In other words, Breath of the Wild is a stellar example of non-linear storytelling; as you adventure through post-apocalyptic Hyrule, you come across spots that reawaken Link’s lost memories—memories that, piece by piece, reconstruct the narrative of the kingdom’s undoing. You meet the Champions who had fallen in that apocalypse, witness their relationships with Link, and slowly understand how the present world came to be. Most importantly, you meet Zelda herself, who had sealed Link away to heal in the Shrine of Resurrection and had remained locked in combat with Ganon for the following century.
While Zelda has often been an underdeveloped character (the main exceptions being Wind Waker, Spirit Tracks, and Ocarina of Time), Breath of the Wild’s incanation of the heroine is easily its most compelling character; as you find each of Link’s memories—which can be recovered in any order, effortlessly retelling a linear storyline in non-linear fashion—her personality as a young scholar struggling with the expectations of her destiny begins to take form. Not only is her coming-of-age—and the trials that accompany it—a resonant take on an archetypal story (not to mention her slow development into a true Leia-esque badass), but she’s perhaps the first character in the entire series who is actually relatable: someone most of Breath of the Wild’s audience can recognize or identify with. In truth, by the end, Breath of the Wild felt like not Link’s story, but hers.
Which then makes this the first time in nineteen games where Nintendo actually paid attention to the name of their own series. But hey, better late than never I suppose.
That’s not to say Link is uncharacterized—in fact, compared to his blank-slate, silent protagonist heroism in the rest of the series, this Link actually has a canonical explanation for his silence. It’s direct and uncomplicated and might feel like a mild cop-out depending on how hard you work to find it, but I found it satisfying. As always, Link is the “link” between player and character (which, yes, was Nintendo’s original methdology for his name), and here he both fulfills that role and acquires a depth of his own. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that like every other Breath of the Wild makes look downright easy.
Of course, not all of that storytelling comes through the forgotten memories—Breath of the Wild also indulges in some of what I like to call Pokémon Mansion-ing: leaving journals and diaries around in abandoned rooms and houses as a reward for exploration. As Breath’s equivalent to the ever-popular audio log, such finds tend to flesh out the world of Hyrule pre-calamity and offer insights about their respective writers—be they random travelers, survivors, descendants, or even (in the endgame), Zelda and King Rhoam themselves. And occasionally you’ll run into an NPC who serves the same function—who tells you about the memories passed down from earlier generations, and to whom you and your tale have literally become the stuff of legend. Together, all of these different sources slowly rebuild the tale of Hyrule’s past and devolution, telling an engaging linear narrative in a non-linear way. And as a result, that storytelling becomes a part of the very world around you, allowing you to engage with the narrative at whatever level you please.
But beyond the method of Breath of the Wild’s storytelling and its surprisingly compelling characters—like Urbosa, the Gerudo version of Wonder Woman and Zelda’s kickass mentor-slash-protector, and Prince Sidon, the happy-go-lucky Zora warrior whose relationship with Link is matched in cuteness only by his super cheesy smile cutscene—the game’s plotline and narrative carry a lot of thematic heft. That is to say, while the steampunk and the post-apocalyptic are extremely well-trodden ground for videogames (from Fallout, Half-Life 2, and Deus Ex to Overwatch), Breath of the Wild configures their tropes and themes in ways that seem not only fresh but perfectly in-line with the game’s mechanics.
In short, Breath of the Wild invokes the common post-apocalyptic trope of the remains of an ancient, highly advanced society—a society that, in this case, created robotic sentinels (called Guardians) and massive, piloted mechs (called Divine Beasts) for their cyclical fight with Ganon. (Sidenote: in terms of the Zelda timeline, Breath seems to take place long, long, long after the rest of the series—at the point where the heroes from Ocarina of Time have become no more than myths and legends). But that society existed in the distant past, and their technology went undiscovered for almost 10,000 years—until no one alive had any idea of its use or its true power. In essence, Breath flips the narrative script—instead of a primitive ancient past and a technological future, its medieval future rests on a technological past.
So in the lead-up to Breath of the Wild’s instigating apocalypse, various characters (mainly Zelda herself) research this technology, determine its uses, and figure out how to make it work. And now, 100 years after that apocalypse, Ganon has taken over those Guardians and Divine Beasts, leaving Link with only the Sheikah Slate to take Hyrule back.
The Sheikah Slate is a beautiful combination of game design and implicit storytelling. From its physics-altering “runes” to its mapping abiliy to its teleportation mechanic, it takes the traditional Zelda mysticism and rebrands it as technology—in effect, invoking Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It even takes pictures—a function that might seem hokey but is, like every other theoretically-questionable part of Breath of the Wild, perfectly executed—and stores the images Link has to use to retrieve his forgotten memories.
The result is something that would—on paper—clash with Breath of the Wild’s vast, ruined, wild aesthetic, but in reality feels completely natural. This Zelda is a physics puzzler, and each rune (one that controls magnetism, one that “stops time” for a given object, and one that builds ice platforms water) opens up seemingly infinite possibilities for manipulating the natural world. With the Sheikah Towers and Shrines as markers of that technological past bursting from among the overgrown world of Hyrule, the Slate feels like another marker of that first apocalypse: not the apocalypse of Link and Zelda and Ganon, but the apocalypse that first robbed Hyrule of its technological heritage, that made these abilities more magic than science.
In other words, Breath of the Wild is an entry in a rare subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction: a post-post-apocalypse so removed from that original loss that its technology feels like magic and its magic feels synonymous with the natural world. It is, in the same sense, a meditation on the series’ devotion to magic—an epic adventure through a world retaken and almost consumed by nature, where the puzzles don’t depend on spells but physics.
In fact, this is one of the few Zeldas where music, a series mainstay, plays no mechanical role. Instead, the puzzles that one depended on the right songs at the right times now depend on environmental manipulation—on an understanding of the world around you, and how each part of works. (In some ways, it even felt like Portal: where every objective can be reached, if only you know the way.) And that level of interaction makes the game’s world feel wildly real.
So in the end, Breath of the Wild not only revolutionizes open-world game design and creates an addictively exploratory landscape, but it combines that with some of the series’ best-realized characters and an aesthetic divided between a lost, technological past and a future retaken by wilderness. All of that makes its incarnation of Hyrule feel reactive, alive, and constantly growing into something new. It tells a linear story through non-linear flashbacks that you have to work to recover, that feel like objectives rather than shortcuts. And it does much of this through gameplay, generating the kind of innate, intuitive narrative unique to games like Half-Life or (a personal favorite) Hyper Light Drifter.
Or, in other words, in terms of narrative design, Breath of the Wild is still, unquestionably, a masterpiece.