As we wait for E3 to hit, and hopefully bring a few science-fiction game announcements with it, I figured I would finally address a topic that's been on my mind for months: Is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of a Wild a science-fiction video game? This may sound like a crazy question to ask, especially given the genre has been steeped in hard fantasy since its inception, but I truly believe Link's latest adventure brings a significant tonal shift, moving it to the realm of science fiction. Rather than just giving my two cents on the topic, I grabbed Game Informer's Kyle Hilliard to lend his expert opinion on the subject. Kyle has played more Zelda than anyone I know, especially Breath of the Wild.
Reiner: Link may look similar to past incarnations we've seen in Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past, but the world around him has changed significantly, and it isn't just the size of it. Hyrule is now home to strange technologies like the Sheikah Slate, a remote trigger for bombs, and some of his foes are clearly robots. Factoring in all of these things, would you call Breath of the Wild a science-fiction experience?
Kyle: Yeah, I think so. You can find a lightsaber now. I think Nintendo would stick to its guns (wands?) and call it all magic, but there is a distinct science-fiction edge to Breath of the Wild. It really feels like a post-apocalypse story with characters trying to figure out what to do with this old uncovered technology. It actually started with Skyward Sword with the ancient robots in Lanayru, which was one of the coolest parts of the game, but with Breath of the Wild the series really is walking the fantasy sci-fi line. Supposedly, the original ideas for Zelda actually had players controlling Link inside a computer rescuing Zelda, so it’s interesting, more than 30 years later, to see the game finally embrace some of that sci-fi stuff.
Reiner: Nintendo will likely never give us answers as to why the world is this way. Eiji Aonuma said he wanted to add layers of technology to the exploratory process, but the sci-fi infusion goes well beyond that. Something bad obviously happened to this kingdom. I’d like to pick your brain for theories, since you’ve played the game more than any tester probably has.
Let’s start with the shrines, since they are everywhere. Were these strange looking places always hubs for powerful technologies, or do you think those elements were added later, such as a company like Comcast hooking up Sheikah terminals to each one?
Kyle: My understanding, and I think this is hinted at in the game, is that they were put in place specifically to test the hero that keeps reappearing. So, I think the Sheikah people crafted the robots and placed all these installations everywhere around the same time. In fact, the Guardians may have been used like construction gear to help build them and dig them out. I don’t think they contracted a third-party company, like Hyrule Comcast, to install Sheikah terminals in every one. They really seem like a, “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself,” type of community. Unless, of course, it comes to defeating Ganon. They leave that up to someone else.
Reiner: British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously created three adages, one of which states “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Could the items in this game like the lightsaber be advanced forms of magic rather than sci-fi technology? The Sheikah Slate is a tough one to say is “just magic” when it has a view screen and data on it.
Kyle: I don’t know if this is the answer you are looking for, but I don’t want it to be magic. I like the idea that there is no magic in Breath of the Wild! That even Zelda’s abilities are the result of some like, microchips or something. But, my real answer is that in Breath of the Wild specifically, I think there is a mix. I think Link mostly uses technology, and one of the reasons Zelda struggles with finding her magic (so to speak) is that it has weakened over the centuries as people have become more reliant on technology.
Reiner: Outside of Link having a Wii U gamepad attached to his belt, Nintendo did a nice job of disguising the technology – sometimes making an object look like it could either be sci fi or fantasy. When a guardian charges up a laser, the tribal-like markings on its body glow, and it almost looks like a spell is being summoned. I love that it reads both ways. The same line of thinking can be associated to the pod Link wakes up in at the outset of play. What is your take on that?
Kyle: That thing feels like a piece of technology, to me. Even in our cover story, when I had even less understanding of what the pod was than I do now, I said it felt more electronic than magical. It has words all over the sides that seem to be offering status updates, and then when you pick up the Sheikah slate and use it in the nearby shrines, words seem to fall into it like a data transfer. But it’s still strange enough that it feels magical at the same time. I love the design of that interaction – watching the words fall into the Sheikah slate and imbuing it with new abilities. It’s so weird, and cool, and science-fictiony. It’s like Superman using the crystals in his Fortress of Solitude, which feels similarly magical and technical.
Reiner: Here’s a crazy question relating to the pod he wakes up in: Is Link's body composed of that technology? Yes, I'm asking if you think he's a machine.
Kyle: Hmm, are you suggesting that Link is a puppet and we as the players are controlling him remotely? That he used to be a real person, but once he went into that thing, he awakened as an android puppet machine, and it’s up to the players to control him through this adventure!?
No, I don’t think that’s the case.
Reiner: I wouldn't dismiss the android angle so quickly. Giving scientific meaning to his ability to reawaken or even teleport fits with this world. In the past, we just chalked those moments up to Hyrulian magic. This is different.
Let’s transition to Arms, another Nintendo game based on strange technologies that are not described. You recently interviewed Arms’ director Masaaki Ishikawa, and asked specific questions about the game’s lore. He wouldn’t give specifics, but did say something disturbing: “It’s possible that some characters have had [Arms] since birth, and it’s also possible that, for some characters, it just suddenly…one day, they woke and were different.”
Is he implying people were taken in their sleep, had their arms removed, and were turned into android-like combatants?
Kyle: I think the implication is that it it just happens? Which I don’t know if that’s scarier? Maybe it’s like puberty in this weird horrifying alien world. Like, imagine if the kids in high school who had full beards by sophomore year were rounded up and force to fight each other in huge public tournaments. I assume that’s what it’s like, but Ishikawa insists that it’s a good thing and that people want to be part of these tournaments. It could be a real Hunger Games situation, for all we know. It’s a technologically advanced future society, but they have these Arms tournaments in place to distract the masses from the truth: If the Arms ever people ever revolted, it would be devastating to the upper class, which is a very familiar science-fiction story, especially today.
Reiner: It could be something like a gene awakening in X-Men. You go to bed thinking you’re going to a dentist and wake up with springy rocket arms and have to rethink your entire life. Traumatizing but exciting, I would imagine. There’s also a possibility it could be a nanotechnology at play, altering the DNA of people within seconds. No matter what, Nintendo has to provide some answers eventually, right? This universe seems like it has a chance to move to comics or even an animated series.
What life do you think these people live outside of the fighting tournaments?
Kyle: It’s interesting that you bring up DNA because one of the characters in the game, Helix, is apparently genetically modified and has DNA strands for arms, which leads me to believe that something nefarious is happening. In terms of leading normal lives, I asked Ishikawa about that and he said that the Arms characters could coil up their arms. I guess at that point, they would basically be like Mr. Fantastic, looking like a normal person, but would have the ability to reach high shelves whenever necessary. It’s also worth noting that outside of waking up with springy arms, there appears to be no magic in the world of Arms.
That's going to do it for this week's column. If E3 goes well, we should have plenty of game news to dive into in the next column. As always, I'd love to hear your take on the topics at hand. Is Breath of the Wild a sci-fi game? Do you think there's a dark lore behind Arms' characters?