Send a Machine to Do a Goddess’s Job

I’m not sure how exactly to write this spoiler warning, because I’m not entirely convinced it’s a spoiler. Is it a spoiler to say that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that isn’t particularly story-focused, sets itself up with deep and complex themes, and never follows through on them? What does it spoil to say that they didn’t talk about what they thematically prepare you for?

I’ll certainly mention the content of cutscenes, and there will be people that consider that to be spoilers. But even then, Breath of the Wild is a game where you already know the story. The cutscenes describe the events up to the present day, but it’s not as though it’s hard to imagine. An attempt was made to fight Ganon using ancient technology called the Guardians, and it backfired. That is the premise of the game. And there are no shocking reveals about that: sometimes a book is exactly what it says on the cover. I don’t think anything I’m about to discuss will spoil the enjoyment of Zelda one iota, but if this sounds like a shadow about to be cast on your experience, by all means consider this your Spoiler Warning and tap out. But we’re going deep now.

The game quickly explains quickly the problem that led to disaster one hundred years ago: in preparing for Ganon, the people of Hyrule unearthed ancient war machines called the Guardians, and readied them for use against the Calamity himself. When the moment came, however, Princess Zelda was unable to call upon the sealing power of the Goddess, and Ganon corrupted the Guardians, turning the unmanned weapons against the forces of good. It was a massacre, and it left Link at death’s door. In the end, Zelda figured out how to use her power, and now she and Ganon have been sealed inside the castle, awaiting Link’s revival. Now, Link awakens and aims to meet up with Zelda and seal Ganon away properly: he may optionally also take the time to free the four most powerful Guardians, the Divine Beasts, from Ganon’s influence. Stuff happens along the way, but there are no curveballs or twists- Link’s just there to seal Ganon away, and the game will conclude when he does.

The story that you uncover through triggering Link’s lost memories (oh yeah, his hundred year coma left him with amnesia) reveals some of the how and why of those events. The focus is mostly on Zelda: it is her legend, after all. We watch as her rocky relationship with Link comes to a mutual respect and affection, and as her efforts to both understand the Guardians and obtain the divine power that is hers by birthright end in failure. The analogy of the disaster is clear: the Guardians are a representation of man’s efforts to solve problems through technology and science, whereas the power of the Goddess is a manifestation of the divine- the power of faith and things bigger than men. It is a classic struggle between the knowable and unknowable, and Zelda splitting her efforts between the two leads to disaster. The question, then, is what her mistake was- should she have spent more time trying to understand the Guardians so they couldn’t be turned on her and her people, or was it a mistake to tread on the domain of gods with mortal power in the first place? Was it hubris to think that these machines could do what the divine has done for generations?

The game offers precedent for both solutions. Obviously, the entire history of the Zelda series is a history of divine power sealing Ganon away: we know that one works. But the game is very clear that these ancient war machines exist because they were used against Ganon in a previous cycle, ten thousand years ago. At that time, they were not merely successful at stopping his resurrection, it was possibly the most positive outcome ever depicted. Ganon’s schemes never got off the ground– with the hero, the princess, and an army of Guardians to protect both, they put Ganon down as quickly as he rose. Clearly, it’s possible to put Ganon down by combining robots and religion, but faith alone can put him away too. So we circle back to the question: where did Zelda go wrong?

At first, the evidence points towards her insufficient understanding of the Guardians. Link’s memories illustrate that her research into the Guardians is hindered and eventually prohibited by her father the King. The machines must have turned on Zelda before she could summon the sealing power, thus sabotaging the entire operation. But further exploration of Link’s memory reveals otherwise: there was, definitively, a moment that Zelda had the chance to seal Ganon away before it all went to hell, and when she called for the power of the Goddess, there was no reply. When this was revealed, I found myself frowning in uncertainty- where were they going with this? What point were they trying to make?

If uncertainty was my reaction after seeing twelve of the thirteen memories, the thirteenth only irritated me. The previous memories can be accessed in any order, but this last memory can only be viewed when you’ve seen all the others, and acts as a capper to the story: Link is fighting off a horde of Guardians as they close in on him and Zelda, and all seems to be lost. In the very last moment, Zelda steps in front of him to take a blast that would certainly kill the silent protagonist, and in that moment awakens the power of the Goddess, annihilating the Guardians. She is taken aback by the sudden realization of power, but has no time to revel- Link is about to die from his wounds. She has him sent to the Shrine of Resurrection to be healed from his wounds over the course of the next hundred years, and heads alone to Hyrule Castle to hold off Ganon with her new power until Link’s return. This same power, which wouldn’t answer when her friends and family were being butchered, but deigns to reveal itself mere hours later.

The kicker there is how little time passes between it all going bad, and this last stand. There hasn’t been enough time for Zelda to learn to use her powers, and indeed she seems incredibly baffled that it has finally shown itself. The only conclusion one can draw is that the Goddess deemed Zelda unworthy until that moment. The power failing to manifest when it was needed was a punishment for some unknown slight. It would have made sense previous to this game- Zelda’s powers in past games have primarily come when things were at their darkest, and it would have been fair to assume that the Goddess’s power could only be called upon once tragedy had already struck. But again, Breath of the Wild makes it very clear: ten thousand years ago, with the combined efforts of the Guardians and the power of the Goddess, Ganon was locked away no muss no fuss. No disaster was needed that time- the Goddess can grant power when things are going as planned. And throughout series history, the Goddess’s power has always been limited, but she’s never been portrayed as fickle or unreliable- she isn’t the sort to pull her support for no clear reason.

So what did Zelda do wrong? What is she, and through her, Hyrule, being punished for? If you haven’t finished the game, I can imagine your excitement for answers to that question. It’s a very powerful shape to give a classic question about knowledge and faith. But let me give you an un-spoiler: Breath of the Wild has exactly zero things to say about the question, besides asking it. Neither in mechanics nor story will you see the slightest hint of an opinion on the matter.

When you finally best Ganon and seal him away, there’s no grand reveal about why it didn’t work the first time. None of the extra plot beats you get from completing the four Divine Beast dungeons offer any thoughts on the problem whatsoever. Even in its gameplay, Breath of the WIld offers you tools of every sort- magical, mechanical, divine, and pedestrian- and none of them are l unreliable, supremely powerful, or distinctly quirky in a way that might indicate an opinion on science vs. religion. For all its setup of a world that fell apart at a moment when poor planning ruined the day, there’s zero follow-up.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an absolutely incredible game. It’s my favorite Zelda in years, and the best open world game I’ve ever played. It’s no exaggeration to call it a turning point in the way we think about game design. Given how long it’s been since I truly loved a Zelda, I got my hopes up that it would be the total package: top of its class in gameplay, level design, art design, story, and themes alike. In so many of these areas, it was everything I wanted it to be, but I have to confess that in story and themes, it fell well short. The possibility to reach for more was there, but they decided they could be content with just doing Zelda. For all my love of this game, I can’t help but be disappointed.

Watching the credits roll on Breath of the Wild was deeply frustrating, because it was able to instill such passion in me, and then didn’t return that investment. Perhaps it was naive of me to think that a first party Nintendo game would examine questions of faith and the hubris of man, but I dared to dream. Zelda, too, dared to dream: it dreamed up a Hyrule full of incredible possibilities, from ancient spires to flowing green fields, forests to volcanoes. I’ll always love it for that, even if it couldn’t go all the way. Perhaps they would have mishandled the topic badly, but it’s always a bummer to see a batter that doesn’t try to swing at the pitch.