Breath of the Wild did something no Zelda game had ever really done before. It changed.
While the world setting and art style had shifted in the past (most notably in Ocarina of Time’s successful move to 3D), the fundamental nature of game flow in Zelda remained unaltered for more than 30 years. The narrative setup (often lengthy), overworld, underworld, a growing suite of tools earned by completing dungeons in a fixed order: You’ll see the same elements in A Link to the Past, Minish Cap or Wind Waker, although they look and feel nothing alike.
And then you boot up Breath of the Wild. Compared to other games in the series, this one tosses you into the current console generation’s version of Hyrule without a lengthy narrative sequence. It opens up the world to you generously, instead of doling it out in bite-size chunks. You can’t have your lava dungeon until you’ve eaten all your ice dungeon!
The weapons are no longer rare artifacts, unchanging for all time. They wheeze and crack and break like the ancient gearbox of a ’94 Honda Civic.
The underground experiences are plentiful yet minute. The world lollygags on for miles in all directions. At first you stick to the roads, but almost without knowing it, you find you’re in the high grass, and then you’re in the woods, and then you’re riding some walrus through the desert in a desperate retreat from a giant burrowing fish.
The pace is meandering, the next step not always entirely clear. You begin to believe the purpose of the whole endeavor is not to complete anything. It’s to get lost. To forget about what you’re supposed to be doing and for a few sweet hours do what you want.
Breath of the Wild mixes timeless Zelda systems and combat with Zen-like wanderlust. It combines 30-year-old design tropes with a state-of-the-art simulation engine. It creates a world of physics where heat generates lift and chickens can fly. The consistent yet robust physical rules of the world allow you to solve the game’s puzzles and fights as you see fit, not as some game designer insisted you do it.
It changed Zelda in a way I’m not certain they can change it back.
I’ve never been lucky enough to meet Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo or any of their other Zelda design colleagues. But I imagine that, when making this game, they (and Eiji Aonuma) not only gave a group of amazingly talented developers the keys to the toy box they created 30 years ago, but they also encouraged them to break some of those toys.
I’ve never read the history of the making of The Legend of Zelda, but if it’s game development in 1985, it’s probably a few young people in some office park, hungry to make something cool and having no idea how insanely hard the whole thing would be to make work.
A year ago, a bunch of you were in a room, kicking ideas around about a little elf and his bow and, boom, 365 days later, you’ve made fucking Zelda.
Now imagine watching Zelda grow and evolve into arguably the most beloved game franchise of all time. And then imagine when somebody says, “Hey, let’s light huge chunks of that 30-year-old venerated design on fire!”
I don’t have kids. I have the games I’ve worked on — these weird love children created by the intellectual merger of a specific group of people at a particular place and time. Looking Glass in 1997. Irrational Games in 2007. Ghost Story in 2017. Some people remember first steps, first words, first Communion. I remember beta milestones, recording sessions, bug reviews.
Nobody’s fully comfortable with seeing their children taken by new hands, shaped and altered into ways we maybe never intended. Why do they need to be changed, anyway? Aren’t they perfect the way they are?!
The urge to return to old successes is powerful. But the things we make can become the tombs we bury ourselves in.
How do you overcome the fear that changing a masterpiece can curdle its magic? And the worse fear, deeper down: What if the new people find ways to make it better?
That’s the fear of obsolescence. And that fear makes us rigid. And rigidity is the enemy of invention. While there is a world where they changed Zelda and eliminated or added something that upset the alchemical balance of the series, I’m happy to report we don’t live in it.
I feel compelled to applaud the people on the Breath of the Wild team not just for their vision, but the courage they had to mess with a time-honored formula. It’s easy to change for the sake of change. It’s really hard to do it right.
The victory of Breath of the Wild is multifaceted. You can see it in its nuanced art direction. You can hear it in the meticulous sound design. You can feel it in its tightly tuned systems. But what makes it a masterpiece is that it’s a link to our past, but not a repeat of it.
Ken Levine is the creative director and co-founder of Ghost Story Games. He was the creative director of BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and the lead designer of System Shock 2. He is on Twitter @levine.