Two things happened on this day one year ago: 1) I attended the midnight launch – my first ever – for the Nintendo Switch, picking up a copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW) as I did. 2) I didn’t have much time to spend playing it as I went to Cornwall the following day.
The trip to Cornwall was organised by my family. Work was taking its toll. I was stressed and needed a breather. Not the kind of breather you would get from taking a week off work to sit around the house. No, this was flight or fight and the stress I was feeling took me to the other side of the country, to Padstow, of all places, known for Rick Stein and its harbour.
This holiday would be the ideal testing ground for the portability of the Nintendo Switch. I would be able to play in handheld mode between whatever holiday activities we had planned. It was ideal.
There is an oft-told story about Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for the Legend of Zelda franchise stemming from his childhood. He grew up in the countryside and lived nearby a cave which, as a boy, both fascinated and frightened him. Eventually, he picked up a lantern, gathered his courage and explored the cave. It was that sense of the unknown that influenced what is most appealing about the Legend of Zelda franchise: Exploration.
BOTW begins with an amnesiac Link waking in a cave. He is unclothed and unarmed. As Link, you stumble and climb your way upwards until you see sunlight. In that way that has become iconic with open world games, you exit the cave and into the light which opens up on a whole new world. The immediate attention-grabber off in the distance is a ruinous castle – Hyrule Castle – with an ominous black and purple entity swirling around it, whom you soon learn is Calamity Ganon, longtime series antagonist. It is clear that is where you are meant to go, yet, the path there, whilst literally straight ahead, is long and arduous with no one, singular way to approach the end-goal of fighting Ganon.
The Legend of Zelda: BOTW is a game that thrives on enticing wonder and the willingness to explore from its players. It actively encourages you to find your own waypoints and set off in whatever direction you choose. Early on in the game, the map populates with Assassin’s Creed style towers, which you must climb to unlock that portion of the map. What distinguishes BOTW from its Ubisoft counterparts is once the fog is lifted from the map, you must use your view-finder to find those destinations, spot shrines – mini-dungeons dotted across the map – or other points of interest, how interesting they are is defined by you.
While out exploring Cornwall, a part of the country whose countryside somewhat resembles Hyrule, I found myself walking off the defined pathways, exploring dense woodlands and empty, windswept beaches. What I noticed is that the mindset I had adopted when playing Legend of Zelda: BOTW had transferred into my time spent wandering around Cornwall. ‘What is that there? How do I get there? and What is in there?’ The sort of questions that drive a player to explore an open world game were the same ones that pushed me towards further exploring my own surroundings.
It was a unique feeling to get from a videogame. Usually, I associate videogames with escapism and time spent wanting to shut myself away from the world. BOTW, however, piqued my curiosity and need to interact further with my surroundings. This is not because some games are more fun to play than BOTW. Far from it. BOTW is a game that I put over 70 hours into. It is just that Nintendo have managed to craft such an awe-inspiring setting which feels isolated and serene, yet lived in. Birds sing and the wind whistles. Horses gallop in fields and you cross other travellers on your path. Villages and towns are nestled in valleys and atop hills. While BOTW is a fantasy title, it feels grounded and its locations resemble places you could go if you took the time to find them.
The story about Miyamoto and the cave is one that is told over and over, but we never hear about what happened once he got into the cave. Chances are, he found nothing. A few rocks, perhaps, but that’s not really the point. What resonates so strongly about this story is that the feeling of wanting to explore and discover is an innate human desire. It is what has prompted the human-race to colonise a planet, crossing oceans and setting up camp on foreign shores. Maybe the young Miyamoto was slightly disappointed with what he did or didn’t find, but the preluding excitement and wonderment is what it is all about.
One of my favourite things about BOTW is that that excitement and wonder has been transferred to me. Of course, there are always going to be times when I just want to lock myself away and dwelve into a videogame for hours, but I also spend more time outside than I ever did, visiting places that never previously interested me. It’s a curious thing, feeling this way because of a videogame but if it takes a videogame to make me see the world the way I do now, they can’t all be bad.