It’s not often that you go into a videogame and come out having had a meditative experience, but then it’s probably fair to say that Breath of the Wild isn’t really your usual sort of game. It’s not totally unique in lending itself to a more mindful approach to gameplay (after all, Dark Souls is basically videogame yoga) but it does encourage players to do something that all too few modern videogames do: live in the present.
If you’ve never meditated before, you probably imagine that it’s all about clearing your mind of thoughts – essentially trying to think nothing at all. To an extent that’s true, but meditation is often also about bringing one’s awareness into the present, setting aside worries about the past or future to focus instead on the sounds, sensations, and experiences of right now. And so is the new Zelda.
The main quests don’t matter
OK, sure, technically you’re in Hyrule to storm the castle and kill Ganon. That’s pretty much Link’s whole deal. But that’s not what Breath of the Wild is really about. Even in the game’s opening hours – the closest it ever gets to handholding and steering you down a quest line – the average player is likely to spend most of their time exploring the Plateau, experimenting with novel ways to hurl boulders at Bokoblins, foraging for food, and every now and then just straight-up chasing butterflies for a while.
“Breath of the Wild encourages us to be less one-track.”
This is only heightened when you leave the Plateau and head out into the wider world. Even if you follow the game’s instructions and head east towards Kakariko Village, it’ll probably be at least a couple of hours before you get there and trigger the next step in the plot. That’s two hours where all the game asks you to do is meander towards a goal, seeing what happens along the way.
All of a sudden, your gameplay is no longer driven by objectives and quests, by a checklist of things to do (sure, the game has a literal quest check list, but it’s more for reference than to tell you what to do). No Zelda game has had so few main quest elements – or placed such little emphasis on them – and instead players are free to explore, dropping in and out of the story as and when it suits them.
Compare that to day-to-day life. Most of what you do is probably driven by overarching goals like having a successful career, fulfilling relationships, or a Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool of money. And as motivating as those big goals are, they’re just as limiting, holding us back from trying new things, even making us feel guilty for ‘wasting our time’ when we’re not actively pursuing them. By contrast, Breath of the Wild encourages us to be less one-track, and reminds us how much more is out there to do.
Everything is impermanent
Nothing you own will last forever, and that goes doubly true for that amazing Great Flamesword you just collected in a Shrine treasure chest. Zelda has embraced the Buddhist notion of impermanence wholeheartedly by forcing players to adapt to the fact that everything they find – with the exception of clothing – will eventually break apart and be rendered useless. Swapping weapons in and out becomes a regular feature of play sessions, encouraging you to pick the right gear for the right fight every time.
But the aggressive gear breakdown rate also teaches you to make the most of the weapons you do find. Instead of racking up an inventory bustling with items you never use, you’ll likely make the most of just about every sword, shield, and bow you collect – especially with the restrictive inventory capacity of the early game. You’ll learn to appreciate the pros and cons of every loot drop – even the mop – as you test their limits.
“Breath of the Wild doesn’t need a reward system because it’s so confident in its own gameplay as the reward.”
But more than that, the shift to impermanent gear – together with the lack of an XP system – fundamentally alters the reward system of the game. Most modern games teach you to do things in exchange for rewards, essentially asking you to exchange playtime and effort for new loot. While Zelda essentially does the same – with treasure chests, Rupees, and loot frequently handed out after puzzles or quests – the impermanence of them all means they rarely serve as much motivation, and never last long enough to act as a reminder of your past.
Every time I throw myself at a tough Shrine puzzle to try and reach that last chest, it’s rarely for the sake of the contents – probably a weapon I can’t carry right now anyway – but for the act of solving the puzzle itself. I complete side quests because I enjoy doing them, not for the paltry gift at the end. I fight through tough mobs not for a treasure chest or loot but the sheer satisfaction of fighting, struggling, and winning. Breath of the Wild doesn’t need a reward system because it’s so confident in its own gameplay as the reward.
Almost everything we do in life, being it going to work, hitting the gym, or learning a language, is geared towards some sort of goal or outcome. It’s partly because of those goals that it’s so difficult to stop planning for the future and just focus on what’s happening to us right now. Mindfulness tries to teach us to simply act, to engage with what we’re doing on its own terms. So does Zelda.
You’re never going to level up
Not having an XP or levelling system isn’t novel in a Zelda game, but it is novel in a major open-world title. It’s hard to imagine Ubisoft building a Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed that didn’t gate certain abilities or items behind just how many bad guys you’d eviscerated or towers you’d climbed. From their humble origins in roleplaying games, experience points have infiltrated just about every genre, and no matter what you’re playing, gameplay is driven by the steady tick of numbers, slowly building to eventually allow you to do new things and visit new places. As a player, you’re left constantly thinking about what’s next: the next level, the next unlock, the next power.
“When there’s more to unlock, what you have right now will never feel like enough.”
Breath of the Wildgoes the other way. Within a few hours, players have every main ability in the game at their disposal. There are no levels, no experience points, no grind. You’re never left waiting for your next power, because you have them all right now. You might worry that you lose that anticipation and enjoyment, but instead it frees you to enjoy the tools already at your disposal: to use them, experiment with them, to actually, literally play with them.
When the game does reveal a few upgrades, they’re a welcome surprise rather than an overdue reward. By the time you know about the upgrades you’ll probably be close to claiming them already, and even once you have them they don’t give you radical new powers – just a few new combinations to explore, new ways to use the same tools.
When there’s more to unlock, what you have right now will never feel like enough. In Breath of the Wild though, it always feels like more than you need. There’s nothing to look forward to, nothing to make you feel inadequate as you are now. You can do everything, right now, so you can just get on with enjoying doing it.
It ditches the percentage
Here’s another open world staple eschewed by Zelda: the completion tracker, usually measured in some sort of overall percentage score. Games these days are rarely content to just let us play until we’re done – they want to tell us exactly how much we’ve accomplished, and how much is left to do, encouraging the sort of compulsive behavior that drives people towards 100% completion. Everything you do ticks you slightly closer to that elusive hundred, so that even the game’s biggest, best, and most fulfilling moments can be handily reduced to a nice, clean number.
While Breath of the Wild does give you some sense of your progress (though only hidden away on the loading screen), it pointedly doesn’t tell you how much is left. You can know how many Shrines you’ve completed, but not how many there are over all. How many Koroks you’ve found, but never how many are left. Your progress is your own, and you can finish the game and head for Ganon whenever you’d like, without the game ever offering a passive-aggressive reminder of all the corners of the map you’ve left unexplored, the secrets you were never devoted enough to find.
It’s a small change, but it’s one more way in which the game removes that impulse to grind, to complete everything even when you don’t want to any more. You can simply play as you want to, achieve what you want to, and finish when you’re done – not when the game says you are.
It wants you to stop and stare
One of the highest compliments I can pay Breath of the Wild is that it gives me the same specific joy I got from Firewatch – but has managed to do so again and again for 60 hours and counting.
Hyrule is the sort of needy game world that simply demands you pay attention to it. I’ve tried – really, really tried – to follow main quests, but it’s just impossible to do so without getting side-tracked by Shrines to solve, enemies to fight, and really cool rocks to just stop and look at for a bit. It helps that as vast as it is, this is clearly a meticulously crafted world. Go climb just about any mountain – go ahead, I’ll wait – and take a look around from the peak. I can all but guarantee that not only will you enjoy a stunning view, but you’ll almost certainly see something – a Shrine, a Korok, some other secret – that would be almost impossible to see from anywhere else.
“Go climb just about any mountain – go ahead, I’ll wait.”
In my time with Zelda, I’ve spent hours exploring coastlines, diving up and down mountains, chasing deer, collecting butterflies, and more. Sometimes I’ll be rewarded with a Shrine or some loot, sometimes not. But it doesn’t really matter. Hyrule begs to be explored, and along the way it’ll stop you in your tracks with a golden sunset, a lightning storm in the distance, a dragon rolling along the horizon, or something else I probably haven’t even found yet.
It’s not just the big picture stuff either. It’s there in the crunch of Link’s boots in the snow, the scurry of squirrels up trees, the gentle sway of the grass in the breeze. There’s a perception that meditation should be conducted in silence, but that’s not quite right. A core meditative technique is appreciating the sounds and smells around us, engaging with our senses right now in a way that we rarely do in day-to-day life. In Hyrule, Nintendo has finally delivered a virtual world that rewards us for doing exactly that.
So go ahead. Turn off the mini-map, forget about the quests, and stop worrying about gear. Just head out into the great unknown, see what you find, and stop and smell the roses along the way.