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Commentary Gaming

Two years on, I'm still recovering from Breath of the Wild

Commentary: There was nothing like it upon release and there's been nothing like it since.

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Nintendo

It's been two long years since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rewired the connections inside my brain.

It messed me up. In some ways you might say it ruined video games. Other video games.

Sure, in the time since its release I've played other games, I might have even enjoyed some of those games. But every single one of them have been filtered through the earth-shattering prism that is Nintendo's Breath of the Wild. And trust me, it's not a flattering light.

It's no one's fault, really.

It's not God of War's fault it's not Breath of the Wild. It's not Spider-Man's fault it's not Breath of the Wild. I spent a good 10 hours playing Red Dead Redemption 2, hoping it was Breath of the Wild, then eventually gave up. No one's fault.

Sorry Red Dead Redemption 2. You tried, but you weren't Breath of the Wild.

During the past two years, I've been trying my best to recover from Breath of the Wild. Trying to reframe my expectations. Trying my level best to remember that other games aren't Breath of the Wild. That in this world they often can't be Breath of the Wild. That, in a few rare cases, they shouldn't be Breath of the Wild.

I'm not going to lie. It's been a tough couple of years.

Breath of the Wild is just different.

Breath of the Wild feels like it arrived fully formed from another dimension.

A dimension where video games evolved differently on an alternate timeline. Where RPGs aren't dependent on mission markers and laundry list fetch quests. Where open worlds aren't celebrated for their size and instead focus on in-the-moment experiences that spiral into spontaneous, weird emergent stories that are yours and yours alone.

A universe where exploration is a means to its own end, where meaningful encounters occur effortlessly, where there is a story around every corner.

A timeline where systems interplay in ways that encourage chaos. Or stillness. A world where you're accidentally riding a reluctant bear into a spontaneous wildfire one minute, then scrambling solo towards gorgeous vistas the next. A place where these transitions feel seamless.

Breath of the Wild was a game that felt traditional, but in the ways it wasn't it felt revolutionary. Breath of the Wild unravelled decades of open-world bullshit and began afresh like none of it existed. It was the most obvious thing you can imagine: an open-world game that focused almost exclusively on its open world. An intricate space designed, not to be catalogued or conquered, but explored and savoured, complete with a cohesive set of intertwining game concepts that could be tinkered with but, unlike others, was somehow resistant to the breaks in logic that subvert regular video game experiences.

It is, almost certainly, one of the best video games ever made. It's certainly my own personal favourite.

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I can't even look at this screenshot without wanting to start the game all over again.

Nintendo

Compared with Breath of the Wild, other video games feel like islands loosely connected by discrete systems that rarely mesh.

Now you are "crafting". Building gear and weapons. Now you are "levelling up". In the process of developing a "skill tree". You are en route to accepting your "mission" at the "mission marker". You are accumulating "experience points".

You are locked inside a universe intent on showing you every intricate facet of its work. Bolted inside a living, breathing poker machine where numbers appear over the heads of enemies you fire bullets into.

And it's not just one game, it's all of them. It's Destiny, Spider-Man, God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2. Over the last week I've been playing Trials Rising, a perfectly balanced game about motorbikes now inexplicably burdened with a levelling system and loot boxes.  

In some ways it feels like video games have spent the last two years desperately trying to forget that Breath of the Wild existed. Pushing along the same predetermined path built before it arrived fully formed from that alternate universe. Other games seem determined to homogenise, to merge towards the one grand video game. The AAA "experience". Climb the tower, unlock the missions, craft the weapons, open the lootboxes, customise your character. Level up. Always be levelling up.

In some sense, I recognise I'm being unfair.

Is it fair to judge games made in a completely different paradigm, to one monolithic game made by one very specific company, with a distinct culture, and a unique approach to video game design (and publishing).

Because Breath of the Wild is absolutely a game that could only have been made by Nintendo. You could hardly expect a game like Breath of the Wild to be made by Rockstar or Ubisoft or any of Sony's first party studios. I just can't imagine. Breath of the Wild is different because Nintendo is different. It always has been. 

As a company that operates almost exclusively in its own sphere, Nintendo has always taken pride in doing the precise opposite of what its competition is doing. Often it's taken pride in flat out ignoring the competition.

That hasn't always been to its benefit. In the mid-90s, Nintendo stuck with cartridges as the world moved to CD-ROM and it almost ruined them. More recently, Nintendo's complete lack of understanding when it comes to online implementation has held back the otherwise soaring Nintendo Switch.

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Nintendo's stubborn need to march to the beat of its own drum has absolutely been the reason for some baffling decisions in the past, but it has also resulted in a level of quality control and innovation no other video game publisher on the planet can hope to touch. You could argue that only Nintendo has the ability to fund, develop and release a game like Breath of the Wild. You could also argue only Nintendo has the built-in audience ready to purchase and consume a game like Breath of the Wild.

I understand it's unfair to hold other video games to the same standard. To expect developers to work in a vacuum like Nintendo, to create a game as experimental and strange as Breath of the Wild. No one should reasonably ask a studio to take the risks Nintendo took, but that's where I'm at: Breath of the Wild exists and I can't make it "unexist".

Here's what I can do: I can play other video games, I can enjoy other video games, but I can also criticise them and wish they were more like the other video game that I've put on a weird pedestal. I can recover.

That's what I've been doing for the past 24 months: recovering.

Recovering from my own experiences of Breath of the Wild. Recalibrating my brain from exposure to the video game that lived outside the paradigm, but somehow didn't change it.

I still have hope I won't have to recalibrate at all.

Two years is a long time in video games, but in terms of development it's no time at all. Major titles have come and gone but there's a chance we've not yet truly felt the impact Breath of the Wild had on the game developers that played back in 2017. The games influenced by Breath of the Wild could be in the process of being created right now. One can only hope. 

But for now, we recover. And we wait.