The world has unraveled.
That should be the sentence to the opening of a fantasy novel about a broken world. It’s not. Instead, those four words are often swirling around in my head when I wake up in the morning before I’ve had my sacred cup of coffee and taken a look at the headlines. For the past year, it’s become an almost ritualistic form of bracing myself – the sip, the sigh, the glance at the news coming down my Twitter feed or across banners on the top of CNN and NPR.
Crumbling international relationships and government systems. People murdered on public transit for standing up to racists. My idols are dead and my enemies are in power, as the saying goes.
After taking in the daily news I spend much of my day trying to ignore it, for better or worse, sitting at my desk and writing words about video games. Then I go home and often find myself playing more games because, well, they’re great for distraction. They’re objects of escapism. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s embraced in nearly every section of the industry. The last Game Awards show spent much of its time showering praise upon video games as something that steals us away from the horrors of the world.
In recent years, I’ve become uncomfortable with this notion. Yes, of course, games are a form of entertainment but they can be more, I’ve always argued. Can’t they exist as deep, difficult works that challenge us intellectually and emotionally, encouraging us to develop as people? The divide between those two has always been uneasy, not because great entertainment can’t exist as meaningful, poignant art, but because in games it seems so uncommon.
For example, Titanfall 2 is one of the tightest, most well-designed games I’ve ever played and I am constantly in awe of how it’s put together, but I would not say that it’s an emotionally satisfying or philosophically profound game. And that’s fine. That doesn’t make it a lesser game. It doesn’t offer gripping commentary on war or the duality of Man. However, I think the hardest thing for a game to pull off is being a fantastic, entertaining time while also being an experience that, inadvertently or purposely, addresses the anxieties of the era in which it was produced. This is the sort of game that comes along so rarely that between them I often forget it’s possible for them to exist.
Luckily, The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild is such a game.
Breath of the Wild starts on a mysterious note. Link awakens from a futuristic looking tomb and emerges onto a cliff looking over the kingdom of Hyrule. The Legend of Zelda has almost always embraced several core concepts. Link, the knight, is there to serve and save Zelda, the princess, as well as Hyrule by venturing into dungeons and collecting various powers to stop the evil Ganon. In the end, all of these elements carry across nearly every single game in the series. To riff off another popular game series: there’s always a Link, there’s always a Zelda, there’s always a Ganon.
In that respect, Breath of the Wild is no different. Link is still here to save both Zelda and Hyrule from Ganon, but the particulars of these familiar elements have been remixed in compelling ways. The most notable one out of the gate being that when the game starts Link and Zelda have already failed. Ganon has won and Hyrule lay in ruins. It’s a bleak world and we’re playing a would-be hero trying to redeem himself for that failure.
Ganon is also different this time. While other Zelda entries have attempted to make the character into an animal or person, this time the villain is more of an evil, cancerous force more than a character – a purple smog that corrupts everything in sight. This makes this particular incarnation more frightening than he’s ever been before. Man? Creature? You can kill those. But how do you stop a force of nature as ancient as greed and hatred, destined to live forever in one form or another?
Breath of the Wild feels overwhelming but not in the typical open-world way. It isn’t constantly buzzing with distractions or trying to drown you in hashtag content side missions. Instead, there’s a sense of responsibility that shines through Breath of the Wild. Where games like Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition have failed to get me to care about saving the world, I felt obligated and impassioned at every turn to save Hyrule. Why?
The truth is that I don’t really know. Maybe it’s about trying to capture that feeling again when I was eight years old and playing Ocarina of Time, and fully believing I had the power to singlehandedly shape the world. More likely it’s about escaping the here and now in a way that still feels resonant to the reality I inhabit.
The fantasy of Breath of the Wild, for me, is effecting change in a world brought to ruin. I wake up every day trying to stomach dread and anxiety as I read another news report about someone’s rights being trampled or the continued bleakhouse circus that is our government falling to pieces and just feel powerless. I can scream on the internet, go to gatherings, and donate money to however many causes I want, but there’s still a sense of hopelessness at the heart of it all.
I’ve never been a particularly religious person. God and what not have never been my bag, despite repeated attempts to find some belief there. But I’ve found some measure of solace and reward in placing faith in people. In the days following the infamous and thickheaded visa ban for Muslims, I, as many others, found some measure of strength in watching people gather around the world to protest such vile, officially-sanctioned and racist malice. It’s not a victory, per se, but it’s an occasion of countless people uniting against seemingly overwhelming evil. It’s a shred of hope in a world that needs every scrap it can get.
And I think that need for faith is why Breath of the Wild speaks to me. It’s the right game at the right time. There’s a level of spirituality in its focus on the perseverance of the individual trying their best to make things better. And again, it’s pure fantasy. Link is a knight in the most Arthurian sense possible. And Breath of the Wild is most certainly an escapist fantasy that has nothing explicit to say about providing healthcare for everyone, educational reform, or the war on terror. However, hope is eternal and universal, and the game is 100 percent about finding hope in bleak circumstances.
Hyrule is so beautiful. I love climbing the mountains and peeking out over the horizon to see ruins and oceans and deserts. I adore walking through villages and seeing children gather around cooking pots, or strolling through the woods and seeing deer and foxes dart between the trees. The world doesn’t try to sell itself to me with exposition. This world, like my own, feels quietly necessary and worth saving.
I find myself at a place in my life where I’m tiring of pure escapism in general. Part of that is there are so many forms to choose from with varying amounts of investment. I’ve fallen off the Persona 5 bandwagon for now just because the amount of commitment there (I know, I know, I’ll get back on it soon, I promise). Sometimes I spend 30 minutes looking at all the shows on Netflix and then don’t click a single one because there’s just so much there that some absurd form of content anxiety creeps into the picture. But ultimately, in the world we live in now, it’s becoming strange for me to escape. I often don’t want to.
I want to live in the here and now as an informed citizen, contributing meaningfully day-in, day-out, and fighting the good fight against intolerance wherever it rears its head. But escapism is necessary to a degree, to purge your system of anxieties and fears, to recalibrate yourself. So I often find myself attracted to art that confronts the here and now in one way or another, like the rebellious story of Wolfenstein: The New Order or the hope-driven journey of Soma.
Despite the (frankly ludicrous) amount of high-quality games that have released this year, it’s hard for me to imagine a game that will take up more of my time or respect than the latest Legend of Zelda. Not because it’s polished to sheen from top to bottom, because of its intricate systems, or because of some deep love for the series itself. Instead, I’ll remember Breath of the Wild the most because it’s the game that let the light in.