Recently many gaming sites and fans have released their Top Games of the Year lists. Most people use them as a conversation starter, goading others with, “Yeah, I put [game A] ahead of [game B]. Hear me out.” And, while putting a lot of weight on any one entity’s list invites strained debate and a potentially embarrassing fervor, one could say that, at the very least, these lists serve as a measurement of the values of gamers. These lists say, “Here is how we prioritize games. This is what we value the most. This is what we want more of.” Given that these lists mostly contain the same games,1 it could be inferred that the values of gamers are normalized.2
So, with this normalization and the eagerness of the gaming community to publicly rank their objects of affection, we have something that allows us to ask and answer the question: What do we value as gamers?
Well, Zelda: Breath of the Wild seems to be on- or at-the-top of these lists, and no one3 is refuting its declaration as a masterpiece, which means this is obviously a game valued by critics, hardcore gamers, and casual gamers alike. By putting this on top of your ranked list you’re saying that you like a familiar series, you like open-world exploration, you like a customizable character, you like puzzles, you like gameplay that doesn’t have just one “answer,” and so on. In some regard you are saying that this game is the best composition of elements you liked in the year 2017.
If this is the case then there are some disconcerting implications about the values of gamers, especially when you start to compare Breath of the Wild to some of the “inferior” games.
Comparing any two games is either difficult or pointless. It’s like comparing two genres of music and attempting to prove one’s superiority; take for instance metal and country: there’s probably very little overlap between those two crowds and they listen to music for different reasons, and these reasons are probably dictated by preferences, which (I think most of us would agree) are intrinsically anti-numeric and -hierarchical. You run into the same problems when comparing a sports game to a JRPG, a platformer to a strategy game. I’m not sure how one puts any of these games on the same list, ranking them as if their goals were related.4
Despite the problems of comparing games, let’s, for the sake of argument, compare Breath of the Wild to Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s quite uncanny how similar these games are. They’re both open-world RPGs set in the ruins of a civilization that was destroyed by technology. The environments emphasize exploration and planning for combat. There’s an ancient enemy on the verge of returning to full power. Our bow-wielding protagonists begin from lowly positions of resource poverty, slowing acquiring an ammunition supply to take down an army.5
But these games have differences as well, and it is in those differences where we can start to see why one game has gained more praise than the other. In terms of gameplay, a few subtleties change the dynamics of surviving. Both protagonists prep themselves for combat with different attire (defense) and weapons (offense). While Aloy (the protagonist of Horizon) can customize her weapons to enhance their effects, Link (the protagonist of Breath of the Wild6) has to sort through an array of degradable weapons that can change the flow of battle for him. Enemies in Horizon are more complex than most enemies in Breath of the Wild, but the enemy encounters in Breath of the Wild allow for more creative and whacky approaches.
It’s the exploration aspect that separates the games when it comes to gameplay. Aloy is somewhat limited in how she can venture out, riding machines and only able to grasp certain surfaces to climb. Meanwhile, Link can climb anything. A tree? Sure. A brick wall? Why not? A mountain? Well, only if it’s not raining. And once he climbs to the top he can float vast distances with his paraglider to other climbable objects. There is nowhere he can’t go (besides the outermost boundaries of the game), and that’s one of the main draws. The design allows you to reach your goal however you want, and once you get there it’s puzzle time. The self-contained puzzles work the brain in the most curious ways, and with determination and ingenuity any number of people can solve them.
Breath of the Wild’s environment is more dynamic than Horizon’s, which has probably given it the edge in most people’s opinions. I can see how they would find it more fun. There are many more scenarios in Breath of the Wild that allow for raucous laughter because you could not predict how they’d happen.
But what about the stories? That’s the other half of the game, right? It’s nice that our games are fun, but we want them to say something too, right?
Horizon told a complex tale of a girl growing up in destroyed world, trying to find her place in it, slowly uncovering the truth behind a lost civilization, discovering the origin of the hostile machines surrounding the settlements of her lands. She had to learn how to forage, how to take down machines significantly stronger than her, how to interact with foreigners, how to be a foreigner. She met people who betrayed her, people who were being manipulated to support causes they didn’t believe in, people who dismissed her at first and would later call her a friend. She matured, honing herself against an unforgiving life and fulfilling a duty she did not ask for, a duty integral to the preservation of human race.
In Breath of the Wild, Link woke up, and, honestly, I cannot say he did anything in respect to development as a character. Some people will argue that Link was not the one meant to be developed but that it was instead you who was supposed to develop as the story progressed. Link is merely a representative. He doesn’t speak because he is your voice. He has that quiet, assured demeanor that we all expect of our heroes. He is your avatar.
And that’s a little insulting because Link is no one. It’s not that he doesn’t speak—he doesn’t have a voice. Everything he ever did in the game was solved with either action or violence. When he is not sycophantically running errands he is solving problems with his sword and sometimes he is moving piece A to node B to solve a puzzle. He is a being without perspective on the world he lives in. He is incapable of making an impact unless it involves something physical or a binary choice of responses.7 As a representative he is mute, barbaric, and resembles no one of any real8 historical importance.
The rest of his civilized world isn’t much better. If you’re lucky you get to be one of the Champions, someone capable of speech, although you will have to be a cookie-cutter pop-anime9 character falling into the categories of: moderately overweight and boastful man who slaps his friends on the back too hard, mild-mannered girl overly concerned with coming across as impolite or forward, arrogant overachiever who gets on peoples’ nerves but who will eventually be forgiven for his arrogance because he is actually quite dependable, or sculpted and sultry female who intimidates others but really deep deep down inside they (the others) like it.10 If you are unlucky then you can make grunting/laughing/other-trademark-sounds to accompany your text boxes if the hero should chose to speak with you. Once you’re done you will have to return to your rote walking paths and you should probably never venture outside your village.11
While Breath of the Wild is overflowing with gameplay it is not a game with an ever-present story. If one focuses on exploration they can go for hours on end where the story doesn’t progress at all. Besides the four Divine Beast quest-lines (which takes up a relatively small portion of the game’s playability) and the twelve memories (which run maybe two minutes each) there’s not much narrative. The most time you spend with any character (besides Zelda) is about ten minutes; not enough time to develop any kind of relationship with them, to see them as a composition of virtues and faults, to see them as intelligent people struggling with indecision and going through life changes. Maybe there will be enough time for a moment of doubt, for a single monologue,12 but there will never be an interaction long enough to unveil a complex character with array of emotions: the components you need to make any story memorable.
It’s within reason to see why people would say Breath of the Wild has more enjoyable and engaging gameplay than Horizon;13 but the difference in content outside of puzzle solving, character management, and combat is so astoundingly vast that it makes one wonder about the maturity of gamers at all ages when they hail Breath of the Wild as the paragon of 2017.
Let me explain why I’m using the word “maturity” here.
I think most peoples’ response to what I’ve said about Breath of the Wild’s characters and story would be something along the lines of: “You just don’t get it. That’s what the Zelda series is about. It’s always been that way and to deviate from it would destroy the stylistic continuity. Giving Link a voice would do all the same harm that Metroid: Other M did for Samus. The simplicity is charming and not trying to do so much. That’s the whole point.” And to that I’ll ask you if you ever watched cartoons when you were young. Did you watch Tom and Jerry? Did it entertain you when you were young? At some point in your life either a parent or friend must’ve introduced you to something like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or The Sopranos. If not these TV shows then replace them with some drama show of remarkability from the last two decades or so. And if not some drama show from the last two decades then replace it with a movie or a book or whatever. One of these shows or movies or books or whatever had to engage you with its characters, someone you could either relate to or show empathy for, whose tragic or triumphant story stayed with you for years. Now, this TV show or movie or book or whatever you’re thinking of, compare it with a cartoon you enjoyed when you were young. Which one do you respect more? Which one contributed more to you as a person?
And that’s why I use the word “maturity.” We’ve all had to abandon art forms, learning tools, and toys at some point because we’ve matured, gradually surrounding ourselves with media of a higher sophistication because they engage us more. If you encountered a 30 year old man who still watched Tom and Jerry every day you might question his maturity. You might ask why such base humor keeps him entertained. You might question if this person is equipped for the real world.
So when I see people unanimously championing a game that dedicates little effort to story and character development when there was another game released that did contain themes relevant to the world we live in, a game with characters I could believe in, I worry about the possibility of the gaming community—critics, reporters, and casuals alike—being too infatuated with escapism.
Let’s think about that word for a moment. Escapism is a term we throw around from time to time but I’m not sure if we ever really take a close look at it. Most of us use it to define a mentality where we just want to turn off the world for a little while and get lost in something else. If you look at the root of “escapism,” however, the word “escape” means to flee from restraints or something else that’s unpleasant. This is fairly accurate in describing someone playing Breath of the Wild, or any other video game for that matter. Many of us play because we don’t want to think about the stresses of work, a fight we had with our partner, or how we’re going to pay the rent. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with participating in an activity that makes you forget about your problems for a little while; if fears were all-enveloping then life would hardly be worth living, and sometimes the activity, if shared with friends or family, can remind us of the world outside our own world, which makes the Impending Doom we’re trying to escape a little smaller and more manageable. With the way games have grown in scope, though, escapism takes on a somewhat new meaning and suddenly a quick retreat from anxiety becomes days without significant contact with the outside world. It seems as if life is the restraint we’re trying to flee.
That sort of behavior has two negative consequences to it. Firstly, it damages the image of the gaming community. I’ve seen numerous articles addressing the Games as Art issue, and, after years of prevalence, video games are still trying to prove themselves as a worthy medium to be compared to movies, books, paintings, etc.14 While games like The Last of Us and Mass Effect have done tremendous work in proving video games to be fertile ground for new methods of storytelling, the community sets itself back every year by decorating a game like Breath of the Wild as the best the industry has to offer, a game that is heavy on combative and puzzle-solving elements while ignoring any sort of moral exploration, which advertises gamers as people only interested in battle and brainteasers. If you look at historically recognized movies, even the ones that have a decent amount of violence in them, there’s some semblance of a theme addressing what would have been a modern problem. There’s usually an actor who gets recognized for their delivery of the script and their ability to evoke emotions out of the audience. There’s some apparent relation between this work of art and its real-world inspiration.
Which brings us to the second negative consequence of the gaming community aligning itself with escapism: the games that are promoted and lauded fail to give back to the human race in any way besides entertainment. Much of the praise surrounding Breath of the Wild deals with the design of the Divine Beasts, the survival aspects,15 and the freedom for different play styles. Many articles posted about the game deal with absurd circumstances involving enemies and bosses. Other articles glorify the vistas and aesthetics. All these topics are nice and it feels gratifying to give them attention, but they can only be addressed within the community, and even if you talk about these things with someone in the community who plays games but has not played Breath of the Wild they will probably just listen and smile in a way people do when they don’t happen to experience the same joy that you’re currently experiencing while you’re recounting your play through, but they (the listener) are in close enough proximity to feed off your enthusiasm so they can muster up just enough warmth to politely nod and glow in an artificial mirror-attempt so as not to offend you in your endeavor to Share. The experience of Breath of the Wild or any other escapist game is contained and incommunicable to those who are not In.
This where Breath of the Wild stumbles and Horizon succeeds. One of the lessons I took from Horizon involved a wariness and respect for the technology we use, a realization of its potential as a salvific or damning tool. I learned what it was like to be an outcast within Mother’s Embrace and then become part of the community that previously shunned me, only for me to venture out and find myself a foreigner anew once in the midst of other cultures. I learned that my initial perceptions of characters could be wrong and that my desire to exact revenge and kill them could wane given enough time had passed. I learned that it’s difficult to find you place in any one culture, and as soon as you move out and try to find your place in other cultures you discover that it is now impossible to fit into any of these cultures because you’ve gained knowledge and had experiences that alienates you from any of these insular cultures and endows upon you a unique culture of your own and a perspective that no one else will know.
I can’t do anything with the feeling of taking down my first fire bellowback after a drawn-out battle besides getting nostalgic about it, but I can use the isolation both Aloy and I felt as an inspiration to understand cultures that are not my own, seeking out not only their inconsistencies but their virtuous traits as a way to improve myself and my understanding of the complex world I live in. Horizon, even as a game with some unrealistic aspects to it, reflected the world I live in and the people it consists of. While not being “real” the game showed a relation to reality.
Breath of the Wild can’t say the same thing. Link can climb almost anything, go almost anywhere. Hyrule is filled with one dimensional characters who somehow never go through social unrest. There is only one undisputable super-evil named Ganon. None of this is reflective of the world we live in and so it offers nothing in return.
And not only does no one seem to notice this, they’re revering the game as if epitomizes the values of gamers everywhere.
Horizon is not without its shortcomings, and I’m not trying to elevate it to a plane above all other games,16 but it is well-rounded and offers more than just taking down bosses and solving puzzles. It has captivating gameplay and good storytelling that gives purpose to Aloy. Seeing it consistently play second fiddle to Breath of the Wild makes me question if the gaming community cares about stories or moral exploration or the world outside itself, and this is really upsetting when we live in a time where the technology of gaming allows for immersion in worlds and situations we’d never interact with,17 creating potential for new perspectives and compassion.
To some extent the values of the gaming community make sense. In this age of information it’s hard to feel good about what’s happening in the world. Our awareness of what could go wrong and what is going wrong has never been stronger. And it doesn’t matter which side you’re on in the many binary arguments we find ourselves a part of.18 A natural reaction is to flee from something traumatic. But there might be a way to fix the problem of a world that engenders a reality so intimidating you just want to run away from it. If I might suggest—and this suggestion goes to developers and consumers, both of whom are in control of what is made, what is purchased, and what is celebrated—maybe instead of our art supplying us with something that so heavily deviates from reality—something that cannot contribute to our lives outside of the departure—our art should supply us with ideas or concepts that we can apply to our reality, to make it better, to make us better. Maybe then we wouldn’t need to “escape” reality. Maybe?
1. Across the major gaming sites, I should say (IGN, Kotaku, Polygon, etc). Although these games appear in, mostly, different rankings, the variance on position from list to list isn’t that high. Just because something is number eight on one list and number three on another isn’t exactly a big statement; in both cases this is seen as a game of high regard, which is more of big statement given how many games are released in the course of a year.
2. Or maybe this is just a normalization of critics, which would kind of undo their whole purpose since they’re supposed to offer many perspectives that praise, evaluate, or find fault with the game in question. Perhaps this whole article is moot because these critics are unable to differentiate themselves and are not representative of the gaming community as a whole. I have no evidence to support this, as it would likely require composite data from reddit or some other source where gamers who are not critics can voice themselves, and gathering and filtering that data would be taxing or impossible.
3. I don’t mean this literally. You know what I mean. It’s probably closer to “mostly no one.” Having said that, on numerical lists, I have yet to see anything rank higher than Breath of the Wild. Admission: my research is not comprehensive.
4. Really, there are probably two goals associated with any gaming venture. The first is for the gaming company to make money, and we don’t really use this to determine the quality of a game, do we? It’s certainly an indicator of quality but not a determinant. But that’s beside the point. Anyway, the second goal is for the player to enjoy the game. “Enjoy” could not be a more anomalous term. Go back to the country music and metal example; the listeners both “enjoy” their music, but they’re not at all experiencing it the same way. The goals of the two media are separate and the way people enjoy them must be separate too. So why measure them as if they were meant for the same ends?
5. It’s perplexing how these games were both released at the same time, practically mirror images of each other, especially when one considers the lengthy development cycles. But this might have to do with the formulaic approach developers take with respect to their games. The older I get the more it seems like these story-writers/designers systematically function under this line of questioning: “Now how am I going to tweak my Chosen One protagonist to differentiate them from the rest of the market? How am I going to get them from being an outcast to the King? How can I say their mission has impossible odds as many times as possible? How can I mesh technology with religious symbolism in a semi-taboo and evocative way? How can I make the enemy so beyond salvation that our protagonist just has no choice but to kill him?”
6. Yes, I did just explicitly say that Link is the protagonist of Breath of the Wild, as if anyone reading this article might actually be a noob guilty of not knowing since the second they were born that Link has been and will always be the protagonist of Zelda games. There are two reasons for this. The first is for the sake of fairness; I want to treat these games equally, regardless of renown. The second reason is that I want this article to be readable to someone outside the gaming community because the thesis can be applied to other media.
7. And one of those choices is usually “Maybe later.”
8. Real as in the world we actually live in.
9. I’m not sure what the technical term for this is, but I’m referring to the highly serialized anime meant for mainstream consumption. I guess if I had to say there were two main forms of anime they would be pop-anime and niche-anime (which gets seriously multiform with even a cursory glance). I’m probably sounding like noob using this terminology and will likely get chewed out by some anime fanatic for my reductive treatment of the art form. I’m a casual watcher and I do enjoy anime. It just seems to me, like any art form, it can be broken down into pop form and niche form.
10. Please note that these are all predominate archetypes for “respectable” or “desirable” people in Japanese culture. These character builds have been around for ages and it appears that they aren’t going anywhere.
11. Admittedly, I’m being a bit harsh here on the NPCs. If anyone doesn’t have a chance in this world it’s the NPCs, and maybe I should leave them alone. I guess my problem is less with Zelda stylistic choices and more with video game developers populating their worlds with meaningless NPCs as a way to imitate the real world. I think it sends the wrong message about people you don’t know. But I’m probably thinking about it too much.
12. Subtext: there is no dialogue in this game. Don’t mean to be so on the nose about that, but it is major issue when we live in an era of isolation and people have trouble connecting with anyone.
13. Or vice versa.
14. Anime has a similar problem, for similar reasons that’ll become clear if you keep reading the main text and draw comparisons between the two media.
15. Meaning the durability of the weapons, the foraging and cooking of food, and the environmental impact on Link’s health.
16. There are likely other games doing an excellent job of balancing gameplay and storytelling, expansive and original in their ideas. But, for me, I just do not have the time to get around to all the games and explore them to the depth required to fully appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. Someone could very easily point out another game that surpasses Horizon in what it offers the player, maybe even a game predating it. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize this game. I’m ignorant and limited when it comes to this subject matter. I’m just doing the best I can.
17. Someone could note—but probably won’t because I don’t have the celebrity for anyone to notice—that I wrote an article last year called “The Current Juncture For Gamers” where I said, “I didn’t see myself saying this 8 years ago, but my preference now is for the simple, guileless atmosphere of a game like Mario 64 over the detailed worlds and fleshed out characters that want nothing more than to please me.” And this statement seems to contradict some of the points I’m making in this article. At the time I think was a bit annoyed with the wasted potential of games that had diverse casts who spent too much time celebrating my character. My reaction to this was something like, Screw all these damn immersive games that are trying to trick me into thinking I’m something special when I’m really not because I’m just some guy moving his thumbs around, one of many millions who bought this same game and accomplished the same things as everyone else, which totally contradicts the meaning of “special.” What I didn’t realize then is that the real culprit for my vexation was indulgence. These games were blatantly indulging me with compliments and trophies and whatever else, so I focused on the immersion, calling it out as a trick used to feed me comfort food and get me to ignore the outside world. It took this past year and spending some time with these “simple, guileless” games to recognize that they too are harmful to empathetic development because of their rejection of the outside world. Just because I wasn’t getting “lost” in them did not mean that they weren’t trying to indulge me. So, while what was being promoted in “The Current Juncture For Gamers” could be construed to contradict the contents of this article, I think if you look at them both as warnings about the dangers of indulgence they actually work together towards a greater meaning rather than conflict each other. If it’s not clear, the underlying thesis to a lot of things I say is that indulgence is probably the biggest assailant to the gaming community—and most first world communities for that matter.
18. My suspicion is that humanity is largely marginalized, but this is impossible to prove.