The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched on March 3rd, 2017 to high critical acclaim for both the Wii U and Nintendo Switch.
The latest installment in the Zelda series goes completely open-world, ditching many of the conventions that players got used to in previous games while introducing new ones in a very elegant way.
Breath of the Wild is a game about discovery and exploration and its plot is on the background serving these two major pillars. While many open-world games allow for a deep sense of exploration, when it comes to telling the main story things tend to be streamlined to a more linear progression to ensure that the story is told in a cohesive way. Breath of the Wild, however, manages to not only tell its story in such a way, but it does so never ditching its pillars of discovery and exploration, creating a non-linear approach that serves the game design. Here I want to go a little bit deeper into what I think works and what doesn’t in how Nintendo approached non-linear storytelling in this game.
Given that Breath of the Wild is a massive game and it applies a variety of storytelling techniques in its world, it would not be feasible to analyze every single aspect of storytelling in the game in a short amount of time. For the sake of this analysis, I’ll stick to the approach taken for open-world narrative in the light of the main quests.
Also, a fair warning: There WILL be SPOILERS about the plot of the game.
That said, let’s jump right into it!
The way Breath of the Wild structures its story is through the 15 Main quests in the game. The initial cutscene introduces our hero, Link, waking up at the Shrine of Resurrection after a 100 years sleep. He has no recollection of the events that transpired prior to that point. That in itself is a very common way of establishing a connection between the player and the main character, because both will be technically discovering the world together. This helps avoid the situation where the player’s avatar knows more about something than the players themselves.
After that, the game introduces you to the Sheikah Slate, a key artefact that has major gameplay implications as well as story ones, as it is through it that the majority of the plot unfolds.
As far as the Narrative goes, the game starts pretty straightforward. You have a relatively limited space to explore and the story is presented in a linear fashion. The first 3 Main Quests take players from plot point A to B, then C, introducing both gameplay and story elements slowly and ensuring the beginning of the adventure is clearly delivered to the player. But, as the game’s play space opens, so does the story. This progression isn’t new by any means, but it helps to slowly immerse players in the world instead of potentially overwhelming them with choice and risk them not knowing how the story begins. It is when you reach the Main Quest Captured Memories that the game takes a major shift in how it is presenting the story and allows for its two pillars of discovery and exploration to shine.
As you start your adventure, the game makes something very clear: The story they want to tell you is a reward for you exploring the world and discovering its secrets. Right from the start, the game shows an old man (that serves as a Mentor), hoping that players will go to him in search of answers about what is happening and where they are. But that’s about it. The game never makes you go talk to the old man at this point. Sure, later you end up needing to talk to him (for a different conversation), but I believe it’s important that the first possible story interaction is an optional one.
The Great Plateau, the area where you start the game is a fantastic piece of tutorial to prepare the player for the massiveness of the world around them. It serves as a smaller and concise version of the world where players are taught one of the most important lessons: You create your own path in this world. The order you decide to tackle the challenges the game present is totally up to you. And this also extends to the Narrative, as we are going to see shortly.
After you are done with the Plateau, the reward for the The Isolated Plateau main quest is a cinematic where the King of Hyrule, a major figure in the game, explains a little bit of the events that happened 100 years prior to the game’s starting point and players witness first hand the destruction that the antagonist, Calamity Ganon, caused to the kingdom. As the story becomes ready to move on, the game gives players two new Main Quests: Destroy Ganon followed by Seek Out Impa.
This is important because the designers want to constantly remind you that this is your journey. Even though if one follows the path of all Main Quests, it is going to take a good while to wrap up the Destroy Ganon quest, it is important to show players that if they wanted to try right now, they could. However, the King’s last words point the players towards Kakariko Village, where they can find a woman named Impa that may assist them in their journey. What is interesting here, is that the king says that while your final goal is to destroy Ganon, he thinks it’s unwise to go unprepared and suggests you go find Impa instead. This reinforces the tone you see during the entire game. Every path and objective are suggestions that the player can take or not during their journey and this directly impacts how they experience the story. To put things into perspective, here’s what a flowchart of the main quests looks like for Breath of the Wild versus how each quest presents relevant events to the main plot:
As you can see, the designers needed to spread the story beats in a way that, regardless of the time you decide to tackle the final challenge, you will still have a somewhat complete experience. They make use of the linear section in the first quests to tell the player the most relevant events in a basic version so that if they decide to confront the last boss immediately they will be able to understand what happened. Of course, the impact of the story is severely hindered by doing so, as players would be avoiding the story beats that develop both Link and Zelda as characters and much more.
The only exception to this is the Captured Memories Main Quest, which we’ll talk about now.
A Story Out There in the Wild
Reaching Kakariko Village and talking to Impa accomplishes a couple things for the story: It reinforces the player’s goal of assisting Zelda against Ganon in the final battle, it offers a detailed version of the prophecy mentioned by the King of Hyrule (which Link is part of) and finally, it explains more about the capabilities of the device that Link is carrying: The Sheikah Slate.
With this development, players are tasked with repairing the device and doing so unlocks 12 pictures that represent Link’s memories with Princess Zelda and serve as beats for the Captured Memories Main Quest.
Here is where the Narrative approach taken in Breath of the Wild shows both its best qualities and its worst flaws. The memories are the main way Breath of the Wild chooses to show its story to players. In order to get a full grasp of the narrative behind the game, players must complete the Captured Memories, the Free the Divine Beasts and The Hero’s Sword main quests, and those intertwine. The reason for this is that there are actually 18 Memories in the game. The first mentioned quest awards 13 memories (an extra memory is unlocked when players find the other 12), the second gives 4 more and the last one comes from The Hero’s Sword quest.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the analysis, the two major pillars of the game are discovery and exploration. In order to respect those, the designers used a non-linear approach to tell its story. All these memories can be approached in any order. It is not that this approach is new in and on itself, but it is usually used for side story content, where it doesn’t offer any risk to the understanding of the main plot. In this game, however, this approach is taken to depict the main story and it does so in an interesting way.
Interestingly enough, the order in which the pictures are displayed in the Sheikah Slate is not the chronological order in which the events in each scene take place. This image serves to show just how much space players would need to cover if they wanted to experience the memories in the correct order. It is clear that this is very unlikely to happen, but I believe it was done on purpose given how the memories are ordered in the Sheikah Slate.
To allow for the story to be told that way, the designers had to come up with a story structure that allowed players the narrative to progress, regardless of the order players witness the events. A couple things come into play here:
1. First, they mostly limited themselves to cutscenes when it comes to story exposition. This, while being the method with least amount of player agency allowed them to be more certain that the story would be delivered accordingly, even though the beats can be really far apart in terms of play time.
2. Each memory acts as a self-sustained moment and they are independent from each other. Yet, by watching all of them, players start to see how they all fit together to form the bigger picture.
3. Lastly, the majority of the game’s story actually takes place in the past. This is key, because designing the story this way allows the developers to play with the memories idea and makes the story unfold in a less linear fashion, as if someone is remembering past events, not necessarily in their chronological order.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that this last point helps to eliminate one of the biggest problems open-world games suffer: Sense of Urgency. More often than not, when you design a game with a world full of side activities and wonders to explore, having players reach a time-sensitive point in the story such as “Take this to our army or they won’t be able to stand against the enemy much longer” can easily fall flat if players decide to save all the chickens of the world instead. Of course, there are many solutions for this, such as developers temporarily locking side events or placing players in a linear progression section to ensure derivability and emotional impact, but the best approach is ensuring the story you want to tell supports this type of gameplay instead of pitting it against the open-world nature of your game.
It is definitely a tricky process and in the case of Breath of the Wild, not perfect. The content of these memories must be strongly relevant to whatever is happening in the present time. Also, while you can visit these memories in any order, depending on which ones you find first, it may hinder your first impression, leaving players more confused than intrigued. I believe that the game mitigates these problems with the points I mentioned above, but it is still a possibility.
These memories are also how we see the most development in one of the best additions to the story in this game: Zelda’s character arc. I honestly believe this is by far the best Zelda we had in the series in terms of character development and her entire arc is showed through these memories, with the ending of the game serving as the closure for her new-found resolution.
Breath of the Wild is a game about an adventure. It’s about discovery and exploration, and the story is there to support that, not the other way around. The narrative approach taken here makes it so if players want to get the most out of it, they need to do what the designers want them to do the most: Explore.
While exploring you have main quests that are lined up in a way that, regardless of when players decide to face their last battle, they will be armed with enough knowledge to at least make sense out of it.
The danger of offering this much choice is that you can severely hinder the player’s enjoyment of the story by having absolutely no control as to when players are hitting the next story beat, since the entire game is open to them since the beginning. At the end of the day, the approach that the designers took here works for the story they are trying to tell mostly because that story exists to complement the game.
The methods used here to tell the game’s story are far from perfect, but I feel they are a step in the right direction when it comes to properly showing a game’s narrative in an open-world environment without creating too much compromises either in the story or in the gameplay itself.
Thank you for reading!