The Artistic Adventure That is "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild"
In the virtually boundless world of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), Link awakens from his 100-year slumber and embarks on an epic quest to defeat Calamity Ganon, rescue Princess Zelda, and save the Kingdom of Hyrule. The fantastical action-adventure is made that much more engaging by its incredible new features, beautiful music, and spectacular high definition visuals — the inspiration for which may come as a surprise.
Introduced in 1986, The Legend of Zelda became one of the main games to popularize the controlled world formula, with its "large, open map that funneled into standalone dungeons that had to be completed in a specific order with predetermined solutions." Although the land of Hyrule evolved a lot since its debut, designers of Breath of the Wild "intentionally stripped [the] barriers between the player and the world, limiting their narrative, but encouraging players to create their own."
Aiming to reinvent the series and provide a whole new gaming experience, it took the developers five long years to perfect the astounding amount of details that make Breath of the Wild so very remarkable. But the effort was well worth it. The game's sprawling landscapes, attention-grabbing structures, ancient technologies and weapons that actually wear down with use, as well as reimagined characters — including intelligent enemies — make it a truly interactive work of art.
In a 2016 interview for Time, writer Matt Peckham inquires about the game's "painterly gouache and en plein air art direction" from its producer and franchise luminary, Eiji Aonuma. "We realized that creating this animation style was the best way to go about identifying the elements we wanted users to look for and find," explains Aonuma. "So when we created this large, vast world, we knew that a style like that was going to be necessary to show users what they needed to see."
“The Jōmon period in Japanese history was the inspiration for the Sheikah Slate, shrines, and all of the other ancient objects and structures in the game,” reveals Art Director Satoru Takizawa in a clip about the making of the game. “We ended up taking that aesthetic and using it as a base to expand upon for the game’s ancient civilizations. The reason for this was because the Jōmon period is relatively unknown to much of the world. It has the nuance of mystery and wonder that we found really appealing.”
Jōmon, which means cord pattern, refers to the style of pottery made by the earliest major culture of prehistoric Japan that emerged around 10,500 BCE. It "was shaped from unrefined low-fired clay [and] because the potter’s wheel was unknown, manual methods were utilized, particularly the coiling method — that is, preparing the clay in the shape of a rope and coiling it spirally upward." Laura Allen, Curator of Japanese Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, observes that "the elements in the game resemble upside down Jōmon pottery," which features intricate, flame-like designs.
"For this game, the background music revolves around piano. Compositions that really accentuate the ambient sound," elaborates Sound Director Hajime Wakai. It was a practical decision. The score, composed by Wakai as well as Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata, is intended to underscore the serenity of the scenery and complement the depiction of nature — not to create excitement. And even though piano was never the main instrument in any of the scores previously featured in the series, it is in the Breath of the Wild, where nearly one in four tracks is a recycled melody from a past Zelda game.
Wanting to provide an extra “wow” factor, the developers added a free software update to make The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild compatible with the Toy-Con VR Goggles. “The idea for this started when the Nintendo Labo development team gave us a demonstration of the VR Goggles for the first time," reveals Technical Director, Takuhiro Dohta. The team members entertained a number of options, but — in the end — they concluded that "rather than change the game, [they] should let you play it as it is, and instead just make it so that you can use the VR Goggles to see whatever parts you want.”
As video games continue to validate their place within the modern art world, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild serves as a truly impressive example of the creativity and ingenuity that goes into making them. Although Nintendo announced that the next installment of one of the greatest video games of all time is currently in development, we're going to take a second to appreciate the fact that an un-official prequel to the game was actually released exactly one month ago, on November 20th.
"The Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity demo plays like a game that inherited more from its Zelda: Breath of the Wild parent than its hack-and-slash parent Hyrule Warriors," writes Ash Parrish for Kotaku. "Developer Koei Tecmo repurposed major elements of Breath of the Wild’s gameplay.. and integrated them into Warriors’ musou-style battle system. What results is a demo that has Warriors in the title but is a natural prequel for Breath of the Wild." And we are very, very excited to play them all.
Note* The author shares research credit with Abby Wojcik. The article was updated on November 22nd, 2020. | Cover art for The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild for Nintendo Switch, copyright Nintendo.