Arts & CultureVideo Games

Will ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ change video game storytelling?

When Nintendo announced the latest entry in its renowned “Legend of Zelda” series in 2013, expectations quickly skyrocketed. The anticipation was unavoidable. Collectively, the series has been consistently stellar — even middling entries like “Spirit Tracks” garnered decent acclaim. It is among Nintendo’s flagship franchises, second only to “Super Mario.” In other words, the hype was deafening and completely expected.

Nintendo’s vision for “Breath of the Wild” added to the expectations. The “Zelda” series began as a 1987 NES title that expanded the possibility of video games. Players took the role of Link, a pixelated adventurer dropped into the middle of an unmapped world. Link could walk anywhere the player wanted and accomplish the game’s goals in any order. At the time, the sense of discovery and possibility was completely unheard of and went on to influence countless other video games.

To read about our impressions of an earlier ‘Zelda’ title, click here.

“Zelda” later transitioned to a behind-the-back, three-dimensional perspective with 1998’s “Ocarina of Time,” a move that helped launch the modern era of video games and led many to call that entry one of the best games ever released. But despite that game’s technical achievements, the original game’s sense of discovery was muted. Every entry following ”Ocarina” was linear and story-driven, sacrificing freedom for narrative heft. The tradeoff was understandable. But after nearly two decades without a fully explorable world in the series, some wondered if it was time for a change.

Nintendo delivered on its fans desires by taking a different approach to “Breath of the Wild’s” development. Instead of sticking to its guns, the famed developer went back to its roots, making an open, explorable world the trademark of its new title.

The result is a video game that not only blows the rest of the series out of the water but suggests new frontiers for video games in general. “Breath of the Wild” received universal acclaim at launch, with almost all of the praise directed at the dynamic nature of the game’s world. Weather changes at random. Enemies and animals naturally patrol the map. And most importantly, exploration has no limits. Players can run, climb, or fly wherever they want.

Click here to see hear our podcast about the Nintendo Switch.

Open-world games are not new; other series like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Fallout” were built upon player freedom. But it’s interesting to see “The Legend of Zelda” adapt its story to a genre that too often puts narrative aside in favor of environmental polish. In the past, Link couldn’t travel to certain areas until the story reached an appropriate chapter. “Breath of the Wild” throws that out the window. A majority of the plot and dialogue is completely avoidable.

So what does this mean for video games going forward? Nintendo has a history of influencing the industry with each major hardware and software release. The original “Zelda” was one of the first open-world games; “Skyrim” might not exist without it. With the success of the latest entry, it’s reasonable to assume that stories, while still important, may take a back seat to freedom for the players.

It remains to be seen what kinds of changes “Breath of the Wild” will inspire for game developers. But if the game remains popular, it will be interesting to examine how the industry adapts. Giving people limitless choices to make seems like a natural part of a medium based on interaction. Time will tell if more games evolve in that direction.

Below, listen to an Emerald podcast discussion about “Breath of the Wild.”

Follow Dana on Twitter: @AlstonDalston

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]