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The Beautiful Nihilism of Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a tremendous achievement.

Not just in its ability to effortlessly blend its systems and design choices in ways that feel like they should have been obvious to developers for years, but in its incredible storytelling which relies more on the density and variety of Hyrule and its people than it does on overproduced cutscenes and dialogue.

The story of Courage and Wisdom’s never-ending struggle with Power has always been the centrepiece of Zelda’s narrative; a hero’s journey worthy of Joseph Campbell’s ridiculous cult of the monomyth. Breath of the Wild doesn’t do much to tamper with this formula – although it offers some compelling alterations that make Princess Zelda the most formidable and self-reliant she has ever been and placed Ganon at the peak of his menace. Rather, it expands upon established mythos by an insight into Hyrule and its people, the downtrodden populace of a world constantly beset upon by the literal embodiment of calamity. Hyrule should be a world of constant sorrow and depression and yet there is so much hope.

The thing that struck me most about the world that Breath of the Wild takes place in is that all of its citizens seem to be aware of the cross-dimensional struggle between the three aspects of the Triforce throughout time and space. They know there has always been a Ganon, that a hero of time will always rise to oppose him, and that victory for the hero is never assured. One day the hero will fail, calamity Ganon will win, and the world will be destroyed. It is inevitable.

Breath of the Wild’s vast, beautiful wilderness filled with signs and wonders is an allegory for the nihilistic futility present in all that is temporal, only its monsters and heroic trials have no tendency towards the symbolic. Hyrule is a place that constantly threatens an untimely death at the hands of some grotesque horror or natural wonder that you are ill-equipped to manage. You could fall to your death or freeze solid in some far-flung tundra, cross the path of a savage Lynel or overextend a trip to the border of Death Mountain; and above it all the threat of Calamity Ganon looms large, ready to swallow the light in yawning darkness should your feet make their carriage too slow.

But then this has all happened before. In another time, another place, the light of courage and wisdom was snuffed out by overwhelming power and yet the hero has returned, reborn each once again.

And that’s what I love about Breath of the Wild’s lovely cast of background talent. Think about the world they live in. They’re meagre pawns born into the humdrum sideline of a battle between the fates; a battle which was almost lost a century before; a battle with consequences that have already begun to manifest in the blight of their flora and the corruption of their fauna. These stalwart pedants have lived in the shadow of encroaching oblivion for one hundred years as monsters and titans have roamed their lands, threatening their children for at least a generation. Yet they persist. Even as their princess has levelled ceaseless single combat against the object of their disillusionment they have gone about their day to day, not with somber resignation but, in many cases, with cheerful enthusiasm that borders on child-like ignorance.

Because what else can they do? What can any of us do?

We are born to die. The world that breathes life into our stardust bones will one day take its gift away and leave us in the ground without a thought. The citizens of Hyrule know this better than we because they’ve lived with Damocles’ sword perched high atop their capital for one hundred years. But they still love, they still seek out their life’s great purpose, and arrow girl still just wants to get nocked so, so bad.

We could all learn a thing or two from them. Keep calm. Carry on. Every ending informs the next. Play the game, man. Play the game.

Wesley is a writer and actor living in Chicago in a tiny studio apartment who spends his days gaming, reading comic books, watching TV and occasionally going to his day job. He's been playing games since the Atari 2600, has owned every major Nintendo system, and thinks Chrono Trigger is the greatest game ever made. He plays everything he can get his hands on except for sports titles, racing simulators and RTS games.