I didn’t grow up with The Legend of Zelda. Sure, I knew what it was; this kid in green named Link runs around fighting monsters and saving the princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. I knew that the games were adventures, that they had to do with masks and ocarinas and something called the Master Sword. I knew it took place in Hyrule, and the big source of power was the Triforce.
But I didn’t know what any of that meant. To me, it was just another game that I was bad at.
And then Breath of the Wild came out. My boyfriend had the game, and I played the first hour or so of it when I went to visit him a couple of years ago. I was instantly hooked.
The game was insanely gorgeous. Huge, soaring vistas spread out as far as you could see, each sight a real place you could actually go to in the game. There was actual weather; I got stuck under a tree in a storm just so poor Link wouldn’t get struck by lightning. Snow fell in the mountains and the sunlight reflected off of the water that splashed as you ran through it. Blood moons, where the night sky grew red and purple streaks of Malice rose from the ground, were absolutely terrifying.
But what really got me was the story of it all. Link wakes up knowing as little about the world as you do. Less, even, if you have the basic understanding that I had of the game’s history. He runs into a kindly old man who explains that something terrible happened a long time ago and teaches you how to be safe.
Then he proceeds to explore this isolated plateau and find…ruins. Nothingness. There are no other people; there are just monsters and horrifying machines that can kill you on sight. Even these machines are decrepit, though, overgrown with moss and unable to move. Link finds a ruined Temple of Time, which, according to veteran Zelda fans, was jarring. Even not knowing what it was, I thought finding a huge statue of a goddess in the ruins of what once must have been the religious center of the country was unsettling.
At the end of this first section, you learn what happened. Hyrule has been destroyed by Calamity Ganon. The old man is the ghost of the king, and there’s almost no one left from that war 100 years ago.
This is what happens when Link loses.
Since having gotten the game for myself, I’ve completed most of the major quests. I got all of Link’s memories back. I’ve reclaimed the Divine Beasts for each of the four peoples of Hyrule: the Rito, the Zora, the Gorons, and the Gerudo. I’ve met with the Sheikah and their leader, Impa (a name I’d heard before, but who was now an old woman rather than the young sprite I associated her with). I earned back the Master Sword.
I’ve killed thousands of monsters and snuck past just as many. I’ve combed through the ruins of what used to be towns and camps and homes. I’ve read every book and stone tablet I’ve come across. I’ve spent more than 100 hours running around the entire country, trying to find as much information as I possibly can about who Link was, where he came from, and what went wrong.
Just recently, I managed to get into Hyrule Castle itself. It’s a dangerous place — the lair of Calamity Ganon himself and the prison of Princess Zelda. It’s imposing, to say the least; purple-coated spires lined with deadly Guardians at every turn hide a ruined fortress crawling with the worst of the worst.
But what struck me the most was how real it all felt.
In my first foray into the castle, I snuck my way into Zelda’s study to find the final memory for Link. I dropped through a window into a cluttered, round room at the very top of a high tower. It was higher than it was wide, making it feel narrow and small. There were worn paintings and hand-drawn sketches scattered about, as well as various tools and bottles and unidentifiable research equipment. Golden sunlight poured through the wood-shuttered arch windows over a very old wooden work desk and plain, high-backed chair. A little book, her research journal, was still open.
I loved it from the moment I set eyes on it. This is exactly the kind of study I’d dreamed of having all my life, and it told me more about the princess than any glimpse of memory could. She loved to learn and learned so fast that her environment couldn’t keep up with her mind, ending up crowded and full of the products of her work. Zelda was a person who kept a clean appearance, but in her private living space, was more focused on doing things than organizing them. She worked hard, studied things in minute detail until she understood exactly how they functioned and what they could do.
Zelda’s room was a century old, but as undisturbed as it could possibly be. It was a time capsule. It represented everything that had been lost, and everything there was to save.
The more rooms I explored in the castle, the more I felt this way. I cleared Lizalfos out of the library, looked at the soaring vaulted ceilings, and could clearly imagine Link and Zelda spending hours in there with Impa, Purah, and Robbie as they studied the Guardians. I killed some Moblins in the dining hall and imagined the tense dinners between the king and his daughter. I fought a Stalnox in the lower dungeon to get the Hylian shield and read a stone pillar that said this was a training exercise for the guards; had Link done this before?
I ran through the ruins of Castle Town, finding the foundations of family houses and merchants, and stared at the defunct fountain in the square with a sense that this was someone’s favorite spot to stand once. What must they have felt, seeing a monster tear through it?
The story of what happened to Hyrule is given to you slowly over the course of the game. The most broken and terrifying parts of the country tell you about the best of the best who gave everything trying to save it, and I think that’s amazing. To put so much work into the environments of a game that lets you go anywhere, at any time, is a testament to how much the developers must have loved their story. There’s not a spot on the map that you can go that doesn’t have some kind of history built into it, not a person you can talk to who doesn’t feel like they have a life they’re living regardless of what you choose to do.
Seeing these things made me want to fight for them in a way that no amount of talking ever would have. I wanted Link to be able to avenge the people he had failed so long ago. I wanted to bring hope to the people he’d just gotten to meet, who’d lived in fear and isolation all their lives. I wanted to take down the horrible thing that had ruined his life, killed his friends, and relegated him to the life of a warrior when all he’d wanted was to live up to the expectations people had placed on him.
I wanted safety for the one person who understood what Link been through and had fought for so long in the hope that he’d come back for her.
I wanted to save the world, all for the girl with the cluttered study.
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