I’ve spent 70 hours on Breath of the Wild.
This isn’t something I do often. There are a few games I know and love that will eat up my time: Dragon Age, any kind of open-ended game, like Overwatch or Civilization. But for the most part, I have to be selective with the games I choose to play. Once I’ve spent too long on one game, I’ll simply forget that I’m playing it as I try to balance all my other interests on top of this one.
But there’s something special about Breath of the Wild, as anybody who has played it can tell you. I keep coming back to it, despite the fact that I don’t have any intention of finishing the story. I’m drawn back in by those lush landscapes, those little bits of emergent storytelling, where the combination of me and the game’s systems work together to form narratives not intended by the designers. I’m done, but I won’t quit; the game welcomes me back like an old friend every time I pick it up.
Breath of the Wild’s vision of Hyrule is built on a crumbling empire. Collapsed towers, dilapidated ruins, and ancient Guardians half-sunk into the earth litter the landscape. But despite the reign of Calamity Ganon and the constant threats throughout Hyrule, there are still beautiful moments of quiet to be found all throughout the world of Breath of the Wild. And in those moments of quiet, I found the pieces of the game I love the most.
Great Plateau Tower
There isn’t much to hear atop the Great Plateau Tower, but there is plenty to see. It’s no surprise, given that it’s the first one you’re meant to climb in the game; you can see the Temple of Time, now crumbling and decayed, the great road extending from it until that, too, falls into ruin. You can see mountains, big snowy peaks, high plateaus, great forests, the Divine Beasts circling or standing or climbing in the distance. The remnants of a great wall likely meant to keep evil out, now all collapsed and useless. There’s heavy sadness here, a sense that things have irreparably changed, and yet it’s where you begin. The world is full of promise, but also an eroding of what you, the player, and you, Link, know. Everything is different and tragic, but also exciting and adventurous. And it works, because you can look at it all on a micro and macro scale. Hyrule is each part individually as much as it is the whole; the moments of beauty, the moments of tragedy, the moments of fear.
I have chosen an unwise place to stand. From my perch on top of a bokoblin hideout, I can hear the constant grunts of the enemies below. If one spots me, the whole idleness thing is over; I have no arrows, only a bunch of half-broken weapons and no desire to fight anything. As a snowstorm dies down, I’m reminded of how much of this world there is yet to explore, despite having the entire map unlocked; impassable cliffs all around, but little nooks and valleys hidden between mountain peaks. A Divine Beast flies overhead, drowning me in shadow, as night falls and the wind picks up again. Link, a flaming sword strapped to his back, does not shiver despite the cold.
I’m about as far north as you can go. The moon—I think it’s the moon—looks more like an asteroid, pockmarked with dents and shadows. It’s nighttime, which means there’s the potential for enemies to show up at any moment, and in fact, two wolves do just that. They howl and circle before pushing me off a cliff. In the place I fall to, snow streams by in the heavy wind. The sun begins to rise—it’s only 3:30 AM, but I’m so far up here I get the impression I’m the first being to see it—and tints the sky behind Death Mountain yellow. Link dozes off, shaking himself awake as the wind picks up and the clouds begin to darken in a blizzard, hiding the sunrise from view.
If you climb the Great Deku Tree high and far enough, you get lost in the woods. Because of this, I come to rest beneath a few of its great roots, ankle-deep in water dancing with lantern light. Everything is filtered through pink blossoms, the light gauzy and foggy. It’s only here, where the temperature is warm, that I realize the cold makes Link’s cheeks flush pink. Throughout the day, the sounds change; burbling fades away, the buzzing of insects comes and go. This swamp, despite its magical stillness, feels alive.
There’s a problem with Eldin, and it’s that I’m on fire.
My time in Breath of the Wild has not been spent accruing vast amounts of wealth. I have already used all three of the free fire resistance potions given to you on your way up to Death Mountain, and therefore I spend my first minutes in Eldin scrambling around, shoving food into my face and hoping I can buy just one piece of equipment to keep me alive in this flaming hellscape. After unloading some gems on the Goron shopkeeper, I acquire Flamebreaker Armor, and can at last stop running around for a moment.
One of the most striking things about Death Mountain is how ugly it is. Everything is brown rock and molten lava, and the air swims with heat haze. Sparks dance through the air, sometimes changing direction with the wind. Unlike other areas of Hyrule, there are no sounds beyond the breeze and the thin strains of bouncy music from Goron City. A cheerful marimba solo wafts up from the town below, but no insects, no animals, nothing but the wind and the clinking of Link’s armor as he drifts off before shaking himself awake. He’s not an adventurer accustomed to waiting, not even after nearly being roasted alive.
The sun rises just as the rain begins to fall. That’s been my experience with Akkala so far, where I’ve spent more time standing around, waiting for the rain to end, than almost anywhere else in the game. But the ambiance is nice—a howling wind, the soothing pitter-pat of raindrops, even if it paints the world gray with a sort of sickly yellow tone. There’s not much to look at; instead, you have to listen. This is the kind of white noise you have to pay for. No loops, no irritating background noise, just the auditory sensation that you’re truly standing out amidst all this weather. When the rain clears from where I’m standing atop a cliff, it moves on and leaves a rainbow. The rain exists even when you’re not standing in it (or can at least convincingly fake that it does), and that, I think, is just one reason why this game is so special.
As if to confirm my thinking, there’s a thunderstorm off in the distance. Lightning crackles from cloud to cloud, occasionally forking down to the ground. On Tabantha tower, it’s peaceful. There’s a strong wind, but no rain; just a bit of light piano to keep me company as the haze clears over the scene and I can see all the way to Death Mountain at the complete opposite end of the map. There’s not much detail this far up; everything is shades of gray and brown and green, the tops of other towers, the slow churn of three windmills. It’s not my favorite landscape, but to see each crag of the mountains from this far off, you get a sense of place unlike few others. The sky and distant features look layered and real, not painted on. The Divine Beast circles overhead, and I hear its clockwork gears.
I venture inside of the storm. It’s clearly scripted to be there, but feels no less real for it. Water rushes over everything, mist rolling over the top of the tree I’m standing on as it does through the mountains I drive through every day on my way to work. Flashes of lightning light Link up as they strike nearby trees, but rarely produce thunder. From inside the storm, it seems to be everywhere, covering the whole of Hyrule as far as I can see. I’m not sure if it’s an illusion or whether there truly is a storm outside this zone; only that night has fallen and there’s no longer much to see except that which the lightning illuminates.
From where I’m standing, I can see at least four Guardians. I hate Central Hyrule for this reason. I refuse to move from atop my tower, where none of the Guardians can see me. But from here you can see so much of the world’s major features—to my left, a dark miasma of corruption swirls around Hyrule Castle, and further back, I can see the stark glow of Death Mountain against the starlit sky. The sun paints the world an egg yolk yellow, and, high enough up, you forget about the Guardians and other threats looming below. Everything looks softer, warmer, perhaps how things looked before Calamity Ganon arrived.
The problem with the wetlands is that Lizalfo are everywhere, and they all want to kill me. This is admittedly more of a problem for them; I’ve at least gotten far enough that their measly 50 HP no longer presents much of a threat. But it is beautiful here, and they keep running in to swipe at me and interrupt the soothing music, the gentle lapping of the water at the shore. What’s most impressive about idleness in this game is not what happens, but how much of it you don’t experience when you’re moving around. A V-shaped flock of birds flying overhead, just in front of the sun. The way the water splashes even when you’re not interacting with it. The chirp of crickets, the buzz of flies, the subtle shift in color when the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. Link, ever stoic, seems not to mind, but soon all I can see is the vibrant green leaves of the trees and the far-off glow of Death Mountain.
The appeal of Breath of the Wild is, in part, that you can go anywhere. But it is also content to let you go nowhere; as I stand atop the cliff near Divine Beast Ruta, the mist continues to rise up off of the lake surrounding Zora’s domain. Birds chirp; I can’t imagine where from, but, looking around, I find them; they’re not just ambient noise, they’re there. The sky grows dark and I expect rain, but it’s just passing clouds. You can watch them roll in and out as the day progresses, wind making them pick up their pace as it pushes them out to sea.
Sunset makes the whole world look as though it’s on fire. You get the sense that Hyrule is a disk, and the sun rotates underneath it, lighting the edges up with fire before it disappears and leaves night in its wake. I have killed the giants that lived here, and now the world is strangely devoid of life—I hear the crickets and frogs but don’t see them, and nothing else moves except the mist and the gently swaying flags of whatever civilization used to live here. It looks gravelike, still and lifeless, a monument to whatever came before.
I was going to pick somewhere more scenic than a tower to park Link, but the first thing I hear when I teleport in is weird squelching noises. They’re coming from two Lizalfo who appear to be bickering over something. They stomp and wave their arms, chattering at one another over a few sparkling objects. They don’t seem inclined to do anything else as I watch, nor do I expect them to; but I watch them squabble as if there’s something more than scripting there, as if they’ll ever come to a conclusion. Though it betrays the spirit of Idle Animations, I investigate—it turns out they were fighting over three Hearty Durian.
East Gerudo Ruins
Despite the ever-present sandstorm, the desert is remarkably clear. I can see an eagle swirling off in the distance, though my arrows could never reach that far. The world is orange with sunset, and all I can hear is the twangy music, the wind, and the thumping of the Divine Beast as it makes its way back and forth across the sand. It’s clear that where I’m standing—the top of one of seven giant statues—is a puzzle of some kind, but all I can think about is where these statues came from, who made them, and why they, unlike so much of Hyrule, have endured. Logically, the sand would probably erode them over time. But in this game, they stand, huge and imposing, offering mysteries that tempt me to move. So I do.
Read the rest of the Idle Animations series.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.