A masterpiece is beautiful because of its ability to change. It will always be what it is, but as you grow, your relationship with it changes. Through this transmogrification, the masterpiece is truly such because it its ability to endure change and reveal more of itself through the varied lenses by which it is studied. It shifts its shape into something else because of our own growth and our own shapeshifting.
How then, does something achieve this status? What must it take for a piece of work to become so extraordinary? The answers to these questions are subjective, of course, but each answered throughout the body of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is both a celebration and transformation of the franchise. In its expansiveness, it is able to reimagine the fundamentals of The Legend of Zelda while still retaining its legacy. Further, it is able to let go of the elements that restricted previous games in the series. It introduces new features that challenge the player in a way that a game in this series has not in almost thirty years.
It’s arguable that Nintendo has produced the same game every few years since A Link to the Past was first introduced on the Super Nintendo in 1991. Ocarina of Time takes the most apparent influence from the 16-bit entry in the series, and most 3D games in the franchise since 1998 have been replicants in some way of what Ocarina of Time had established. Scenarios changed, art and technology changed, characters changed; but the key ideas and progression through the game were homogenous. It’s important to note that Breath of the Wild isn’t a masterpiece because it upends those traditions, but because of what it chooses to do instead.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild advances the series, and is as integral to the progression of the franchise as Ocarina of Time had been in 1997. Breath of the Wild unshackles itself from the obscured linearity of previous games and in its place gives the player the trust and the encouragement to discover.
The game opens as Link awakens inside of a chamber. At the start, a voice calls out to command Link. Within the first few steps from slumber, Link is introduced to the Sheikah Slate, this game’s guide for Link and the player. It might seem that the game is beginning like most others, but its within minutes that Link is returned to the land of Hyrule with the guidance that he is “the light- our light- that must shine upon Hyrule once again.”
At this point, the game has an idea for where it wants you to go. Before you can truly get to the open world that awaits you, Link must acquire four runes that act as the game’s primary tools. Yet, there is no fairy pointing you toward an answer to a question you haven’t asked. There is no alert that appears to suggest a heading. It’s just you, Link, and an old man.
It’s this objection of the series’ reliance on player guidance from the start that becomes intriguing to the longtime player. It showed the developer’s confidence in the game’s ability to adapt and react to any situation and in the player’s ability to make decisions and endure the responsibility for the outcome.
After obtaining the essential tools to complete the game, the world opens up and really lets you lose yourself in what lies ahead within Hyrule. For tens of hours, Hyrule is soaking with hidden surprises poised to attack you if you are willing enough to find them. I found myself often headed in the direction of a goal and noticing something off to the side that pulled me away from wherever I was headed.
These moments of exploration and discovery are what makes Breath of the Wild so special. The first time I found myself caught in a lightning storm and tried to glide to safety left me hundreds of feet below- dead. The first time I swung a sword at a tree and watched it fall across a gap that was otherwise too far to cross. The first time I threw a bunch of food and some sugar into a cooking pot and made a cake. It’s a really incredible art form, the level of exploration that Breath of the Wild allows for. It reminded me of drawing or playing music, where an accident can lead to something beautiful.
I think it’s here, in the ability to create unique experiences for every player that Breath of the Wild is at its best. I was suddenly returned to the playground days of childhood where we were all swapping secrets and discoveries from different games. Every day at work was a gathering of people eager to blurt out the weird new thing they found. People who would otherwise never interact were suddenly best friends because of a shared series of moments that encouraged them to share an experience with someone else.
Yet, for as detailed as we became with our recollection of adventure, we each carried a similar level of trepidation when explaining anything that might ruin a surprise for another player. The modern age has been rife with the desire to avoid spoiling the surprise before it happens but Breath of the Wild seems to have transcended the mentality into a mutual respect. It became so integral to the experience that we preserve discovery for another and for ourselves that I was driven to avoid any and all guidance from the start of the game. I played from beginning to end, over 65 hours when I first beat the game, without looking up an answer to a puzzle, a location of an item, or an idea of what to do next.
For me, this is the true reason for Breath of the Wild’s status as masterpiece. The game is designed so well and balanced so well against your actions that you feel okay losing yourself in it. You feel fine with being lost for a while because the reward of finding yourself is so much greater. The question of “What happens if I…?” is answered not by some headline or chapter in a guide, but by you and your experience creating something for yourself.
I truly don’t remember the last time, prior to Breath of the Wild, where I didn’t at least once look something up. Our modern desires of immediacy have rippled into areas of our lives that I was never conscious of until playing Breath of the Wild. The convenience of the click of a button encourages the loss of our sense of discovery that we had during the playground era. Within the opening hours of the game, I felt a return to the mindset of a younger self and I felt confident in myself again.
It’s contagious. Since playing Breath of the Wild, I’ve taken the same approach to everything I’ve played. I feel better about the games that I’m playing and I’m appreciating them on a level I don’t know that I would have otherwise had it not been for Breath of the Wild. I feel better about myself too, as I feel more confident in my own mind and its ability to think critically and solve problems on my own. There’s a renewed energy within me that woke something in me that had been sleeping for too long.
As a video game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the finest, but as a culture it creates and encourages a new way of thinking. In the end, a masterpiece is something that is so because it changes you. On the other side of it, a masterpiece leaves you a different person and imbues with you the confidence and encouragement to be something more than you were before. It leaves its confines as a body of work and becomes a part of you that gets carried into how you interact with others and how you define yourself.