The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s latest installment in their long-running fantasy series, achieves a sort of quiet despair that I haven’t really seen in other games. (Mild story spoilers follow.)
Most of the main storyline of Breath of the Wild occurs 100 years before the game begins. The Kingdom of Hyrule was devastated by Calamity Ganon, a pure manifestation of evil. Link—the player’s avatar—served as a knight and the royal bodyguard of Princess Zelda, and though he and the other appointed protectors of the kingdom were prepared to battle, the fight ended in failure. Somehow, though all hope seemed lost, Link was sequestered away in a Shrine of Resurrection, left to heal and ultimately forgotten by everyone—including himself—for a century.
When the player assumes control of Link, we’re in the distant future and we don’t know any of this. Link wakes up in the shrine, naked and unarmed, and must slowly piece together his memories and his mission. By this time, Hyrule is mostly a wasteland—a sort of fantasy post-apocalypse—with obscure pockets of life in about a dozen villages that managed to rebuild. For every modest town, there are several sites of tremendous ruin, great stone buildings long past “crumbling” and well into “buried,” often home to squatting monsters that survive by foraging for scraps.
Wandering around amid these obsolete secrets, I find myself deep in a sad nostalgia. I never saw most of these places when they existed, many generations ago, and somehow that makes it even sadder. There are infinite stories in these empty, overgrown fields that no one will ever hear again.
There is one story that barely survives, and that’s the story of Link’s life just before he was sealed away. He doesn’t remember it when he wakes up, but a (very) elder in a small village has been keeping a photo album safe for these 100 years, trusting that Link would return. With the photos in hand, it’s the player’s job to locate where each one was taken, which jogs Link’s memory, and we are rewarded with a few seconds of reverie: an important discussion about the strategy for the impending battle, or a tender moment with Princess Zelda, or a ride on horseback through the lush fields of a peaceful Hyrule.
There are no map markers or waypoints or other “game” clues to help locate these sites; occasionally someone we’ll show someone a photo and they’ll have some insight as to, roughly, whih direction it might be. Really, all we have are the photos themselves and, over time, a familiarity with the world around us. Eventually we start to recognize landmarks, or notice that this mountain and that tree, from this spot, line up just so, in a way that’s only familiar because we’ve scrutinized these photos. It’s an utterly realistic experience, and one that constantly reminds us of what used to be here, and how little is left. The memories themselves all tend to be full of fear and anguish—at times we remember the impending destruction of the Kingdom; at times we remember Princess Zelda’s enervating struggle to communicate with a goddess that refuses to acknowledge her, thereby painting her as a failure in the eyes of her father and her subjects.
Tonight I found another of those places. Link remembers a time when he was following Zelda though a field near Hyrule castle and she teaches him about the local flora. She spots a Silent Princess—a rare breed of flower—and explains that this beautiful specimen can only grow in the wild. No one has found a way to domesticate the Princess.
I continued hunting for memories after I found this one and knew my next goal was somewhere in the remains of Hyrule Castle. The Castle was taken over by Calamity Ganon in the aftermath of that fateful battle, and he still lurks somewhere in the wreckage. The structure is filled with enormous beasts, and the grouns are crawling with mechanical monsters that I am utterly unequipped to face, and the risk seems ridiculous, considering that I’m just trying to line up a photo. Still, I came all this way, and I’m going to find it.
Sneaking around the castle’s exterior, I discover Princess Zelda’s bedroom. The hallway that would have lead here is blocked by rubble, but one of the outside walls has fallen. I creep inside and am faced with a monster four or five times my height. Luckily, this thing I can handle, and I destroy it with ease. The Princess’s quarters have been ravaged by time more than anything else, but I can still see traces of her life under the layers of debris. It’s here that I find another memory: one of the few times that I come face to face with the King, as he scolds Zelda for not working harder to fulfill her destiny. My job is to protect her, but sometimes I can’t do my job.
The Princess’s bedroom is connected to her study by a footbridge, but the footbridge is outside, and it’s covered quite prodigiously by deadly sentinels. I wait, and watch, and time my moves carefully to race over the bridge and get back inside, to relative obscurity. In the study is her diary, which I feel guilty reading, as well as the remains of her old research. Amid all the commotion and wreckage, I nearly miss one thing: a flower springing from the cracks in the cobblestones. The Silent Princess is growing in the castle.
I remember—moments ago, a hundred years ago—the longing in Zelda’s voice as she told me about this flower. She wanted to keep it with her in captivity, and she wanted to escape to be with it away from these walls, all at once. Now Princess Zelda is just a voice in my head, and The Silent Princess still only grows in the wild.