My favorite Zelda moments usually don’t have much to do with Zelda. These aren’t moments of heroism or even action, to be honest. Rather, they tend toward the opposite: a small change in the world that happens out of the blue, an accidental glimpse of something from the right angle in a quiet moment when I think I’m busy doing something else.
I’m talking about moments like Link to the Past where you’re climbing the mountain and the beautiful, plump, rounded trees of Hyrule you’ve spent so much time with up close are suddenly seen from afar, way below you. Still plump, still rounded, but coming together to form something larger than themselves – a forest!
There’s another moment, from Wind-Waker, which I love just as much. It’s Dragon Roost Island, an early part of the game, and I guess I’m climbing towards a boss. Outside, hopping on the wind-swept rock, I play with the scope and see a distant part of the same island, the same cliff, where one of those Kargaroc birds sits in its straw nest. Both clumsy and rather regal, it’s a creature I’ve yet to see up close, so it’s a glorious serendipitous glimpse of what’s to come.
Looking back now, it’s kind of weird that those two moments – which, really, are there for me, above finding the sword in the quiet glade, above the horseman leaping from the oil paintings – both moments take place on mountains. Zelda isn’t a series about the mountains, but it’s a series where the mountains seem to get the most out of it. The mountains play a funny role here. For me, this is where the game moves away from its rituals and rhythms and starts to feel real.
I say all of this because I returned to Breath of the Wild this week, a game I love and kinda hate, a game that alternately excites me and completely bores me. Oddly enough, it’s the parts that I hate, the parts that annoy me, that also make me think it’s a true masterpiece. Breath of the Wild throws off the clockwork so much that it allows me to wander through Zeldas in a warm, almost hypnotized state of joy. In his sprawling Hyrule, I suddenly run out of road, or find myself utterly lost with nothing I really want to do. The game is hand-crafted and beautifully crafted, but of all Zeldas, it’s one where its world feels too big to care too much about the player all the time. He wants the best from you, and until you figure out how to give him the best, well, you’re going to have to get bored and upset.
This week, like every week, I tried to make a few scattered shrines but couldn’t find any. I thought about taking on the next big beast, but I also thought about the difficulty and involvement I found for the last one. So I did what I always do in Breath of the Wild. Faced with so many things I had to do, I chose something I wanted to do instead. I chose a mountain and decided to try to climb it. Two mountains in this case. Dueling Peaks, the dramatic landmass that always makes me feel like I’m at the center of the map, but it’s not. The mountains that are split in two and catch my eye far more than the brighter, more showy Mount Doom.
The mountains in Breath of the Wild are quite special. Compared to those of other Zeldas, they feel really expansive. Of course, unlike the most ramshackle mountains in the world, even the highest peaks in Breath of the Wild can be scaled in minutes. But the game does a lot to make those minutes feel a lot longer.
How does he do this? I never fully understood it. Animation helps, with its sense of fatigued exertion, of a body adapting to different inclines as it goes. And the rock itself also helps, the warping of the wall you’re standing on gently shifts from side to side over time, altering the surrounding views around you. It’s a smart thing. As I climbed Dueling Peaks this week, I realized that the little rock aprons that form regular ledges and paths as you climb higher, not only allow you to regain stamina, but also exist to obscure the summit in stages, so that as you pass each one you get a new idea of how far, even now, you still have to go. The mountain is a huge thing, but the designers have found a way to reveal it to you in stages. It’s almost a form of editing.
These aprons – in Dueling Peaks I honestly believe they are almost everything. I love, for example, how the scattered animal finds you sometimes come across on these aprons of grass and stone always bring a kind of sadness the higher you climb. Here, they tell you, is a game that’s ready to create things you might or might not see – or rather, a game that’s ready to give you the freedom to visit places at the wrong time. And even good times are so fleeting, aren’t they? Here are some birds you’ve encountered, but the moment you spawn, they fly away. Here is a fox, bright red against a mass of gray and green, but it moves away as soon as you approach it. What place ! It’s a world that calls out again and again, reminding the player that they can’t be possessed, only – briefly – experienced.
Aprons are also tied to traversal, which is still a puzzle with Breath of the Wild’s climb anywhere system, but a different puzzle from the puzzle the ancient Zeldas used to stage . It is no longer a question of asking: how to cross these insurmountable barriers? Instead, you ask: how can I use my energy reserve to get to a place where I can pause and refuel? How do I get from apron to apron? To me, this process feels like writing, like the exasperating, rewarding, tricky, hesitant process of trying to make a single sentence do what you want it to do. It reminds me of times when you go on with a sentence way beyond the point where you lacked enthusiasm for the approach you took.
Finally this week I made it to the top and as often happens found a shrine I had already completed which meant it was a mountain I had climbed before , a victory savored and then completely forgotten. I tried to imagine what I was doing in that particular play session, where I was from, where I might have planned to go next. But I didn’t remember anything, of course. Too much time has passed. Too much rock and dirt and sky.
And ultimately, it’s that scale above all else that makes the mountains special in this particular Zelda, I think. For all the Hyrules we’ve explored before, I would always say Zelda’s designers are miniaturists at heart: they like to get close to the rich detail, with the precision puzzles that feel like they’ve been put together from scratch. through a jeweller’s loupe. , with those carvings and drooping ivy that sit perfectly on the walls of a dungeon chamber and make you feel like this place is ancient but also filled with ancient meaning. Wealth in the little things!
But here the mountains are huge, and so they seem strange and almost alien, because you look at these huge spaces and try to spy on the miniaturists at work, and for once they try to hide from you, to create perfect playgrounds of dead stone and magical memories of one-time chance, all while pretending they were never there.
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