Emotion is a hard thing to cause in the player of a video game. There are many types of emotion that we can feel while playing. There is the type of overt, hefty emotions that I imagine something like The Last of Us causes. (I’m by no means criticising this, rather just saying that its emotive intent is clear: it wants to cause specific emotions strongly). Then there are other games that cause other emotions, like joy in Mario, anger in Call of Duty, relaxation in Flower, and so on.
When I first played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in my small flat in Southwark in April 2017, I felt emotions. I felt a lot of emotions. My full understanding of this video game’s emotional potency, however, was not yet present. This came later when I was on a train from Bucharest to Sofia in August that same year. This journey is around 5 hours by car and should have been similar by train. Unfortunately, on this sweltering 35°C (95°F) day this near-windowless train was heavily delayed, and the whole journey took almost 10 hours.
I had a pack of sliced cheese that melted into one large block. I had a 2-litre plastic bottle of Ciucaş beer that was flat and warm. I also had my Nintendo Switch and a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This 10-hour train journey was inherently emotional, but playing this game in that situation heaped a truckload of extra feelings that are forever tied to that ridiculous experience. The feeling of freedom, the expansive vistas both inside the screen and outside the train carriage, and the awful smell of that cheese. This had become a game so important to me, emotionally, that I will never forget it.
To get to Romania, I had travelled from Warsaw through Kraków, Brno, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. One place that was especially interesting to me was KunstHausWien, a museum in the Landstraße district of Vienna, designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The building itself was a reflection of the artist’s beliefs, with an indignant lack of straight lines, uneven floors and staircases, pleasantly curved walls, as well as a central pillar adorned with a quote by Hundertwasser from April 1991:
“The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines — not human beings. […] An uneven and animated floor is the recovery of man’s mental equilibrium, of the dignity of man which has been violated in our levelling, unnatural and hostile urban grid system. […] The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man. […] It is good to walk on uneven floors and regain our human balance.”
The bitter irony was not lost on me, that in taking this train journey, I was partaking in the cold, mechanical urbanisation of unevenness that I had so fervently disliked when reading Hundertwasser’s pillar-quote…
The flat floor does not exist in the outside world of Breath of the Wild. These ‘architects’ that invented it only influence the shrines and buildings dotted throughout it. This verticality and imbalance is alluring because we don’t often experience it in the real world. Within this game, we are allowed to experience these feelings that are absent from our everyday lives. Other games attempt this and sometimes succeed, but visceral feeling is rare when a minimap and a litany of endless icons on-screen become a pseudo-sat-nav for you to follow — the ups and downs just become a banal obstacle, not a game in and of themselves.
We can also think about the visibility of the horizon line. An essay by Hito Steyerl called In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective is useful. In short, the essay highlights a shift from linear perspective to vertical perspective. As Steyerl says:
“Our sense of spatial and temporal orientation has changed dramatically in recent years, prompted by new technologies […] One of the symptoms [being] the growing importance of aerial views: overviews, Google Map views, satellite views.” — Steyerl, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective
This is vertical perspective. She continues and concludes that “Linear perspective has been supplemented by other types of vision to the point where we may have to conclude that its status as the dominant visual paradigm is changing.”
So, put simply, as we haven’t utilised the horizon line for navigation for so long, perhaps linear perspective no longer reigns, but vertical perspective — one that utilises maps and satellites — has succeeded. We have therefore lost long-standing forms of movement and navigation through our world, ones that involve uneven floors and the clearly visible horizon line, to the opposite of that. The flat floor and the vertical perspective is our day to day. Even if we occasionally walk the dogs over a hill or something.
I consider Breath of the Wild to be the only game to have ever done this. Breath of the Wild 2 — or Part II, or Chapter 2, or Vol. 2, or whatever it will be — will be the second game to have done this, I am certain. But what about the issues you had with Breath of the Wild 1.0? Well, I suspect Breath of Two Wild will be the perfect game because its predecessor was that also. What I mean is that there are no issues in Breath of the Wild. Let me explain.
Firstly, we don’t need dungeons. The whole world of Hyrule is one big dungeon, but it’s actually interesting. It has various different challenges interlinked to guide you to greater challenge and greater reward, it’s just subtle. The issue with dungeons that I’ve always had is that they are never actually difficult. If you can’t find something, there are four clear corners that enclose anything you need, so just search out every room fully. Discovery is not fun when you can just exhaust all the options. Secondly, weapon durability isn’t bad; just trust me.
So, by saying that the original Breath of the Wild is perfect, I have concluded that its sequel will be, too. I know what you’re going to say: “That’s not how it works!” Yes, you’re right, but even so, I think you know I’m probably more right, if you know what I mean…