Warning: This article may contain minor spoilers for those who have yet to play Breath of the Wild.
Let’s be honest: 2020 has been a difficult year. If that seems like it’s a gross understatement, that could be because it is. For the past few months of this pandemic, much of the world has been balanced precariously between strict, self-imposed isolation and carefree (or careless) behavior that may be putting countless lives at risk. With many struggling to find work, struggling to stay safe, and struggling to stay afloat, leisure time can sometimes feel like a luxury we can’t afford.
Video games in particular are often singled out by some sources and media outlets as allegedly associated with a variety of harmful effects. It’s not at all uncommon to see claims about how video game addiction contributes to depression, alongside statistics on the number of gamers that suffer from depression. Meanwhile, few of these sources and few of gaming’s critics put such issues into context by either offering a robust definition of gaming addiction or by seriously considering the very relevant limitations on what such studies suggest about causal links between depression and gaming.
The psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith studied children and adults at play and came to the intriguing conclusion that the opposite of play is not work, as many of us tend to think. Rather, it’s depression. As Jane McGonigal writes in an article for Slate, Sutton-Smith found that “most people tend to experience stronger self-confidence, increased physical energy, and powerful positive emotions, like curiosity and excitement, during play.” And video games do two things for our brains: they stimulate our reward pathways and our hippocampus by giving us goals and motivations and engaging our learning and memory. Examples like Project EVO and SPARX provide even more direct evidence for how gaming can be useful in treating anxiety and depression.
Of course, this is not to say that gaming is the best or even one of the best ways of self-medicating. Just like other types of entertainment, there are benefits and there are downsides. We should never mistake playing a video game for an adequate substitute for serious, reliable mental health care, certainly not replacing therapy or medication. Perhaps what it can be, though, depending on how we play, is one useful and enjoyable supplement.
For those that are unfamiliar, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a 2017 game for the Nintendo Switch. Although it’s the latest installment in a series that has been going since the 1980s, there’s no need to have played previous installments in order to follow the story. Breath of the Wild takes place at the end of the Zelda timeline and has received widespread critical acclaim due in part to its creative reinvention of the series.
Like many young gamers of the ’90s, I grew up with the Zelda franchise. The original Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, and Ocarina of Time are virtually untouchable classics, as far as I’m concerned. All three of these tell the same basic tale of the heroic knight Link fighting off the evil Ganon to save the kingdom of Hyrule and rescue Princess Zelda from his clutches. There have been deviations from this story before, notably in Majora’s Mask and Link’s Awakening, but even these and other exceptions usually still involve Link defeating whatever evil threat exists and saving the day in the nick of time.
In Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, you awaken one hundred years into the future as Link. By this point, Hyrule has been destroyed and the world itself is at risk of being destroyed by Ganon, now in the form of Calamity Ganon. All the while, Zelda has been actively trying to keep Ganon contained to prevent the world from ending. With the aid of four gigantic machines known as Divine Beasts, Link and Zelda work to seal Ganon away again.
Post-apocalyptic landscapes are nothing new in video games, but the one you venture into in Breath of the Wild just might be one of the most beautiful. To be sure, there are crumbling ruins, harsh climates, desolate locales, and plenty of monsters. However, there are also gorgeous sunsets, green fields, lively wildlife, awe-inspiring structures, and small settlements peopled by survivors and their descendants. One thing I’ve kept hearing from fans of the game is that the world the developers have created is such a rewarding one to explore.
There’s something really striking about playing through a world like this, too — ravaged by a beast that has “calamity” in its own name and often appears as an impersonal dark mass — during a time when we’re living through a global calamity of our own. The inhabitants you encounter react in familiar ways, some expressing fear, some fighting to survive, some acting as if the worst is over now, and many just getting on with life. There’s a sadness to this big, open world that’s tempered with colorful characters and an uncertain hope.
A major theme in Breath of the Wild is facing defeat and accepting loss. Not many games seem to touch on this, since it’s a bit of a tough one to manage when the goal of most is specifically to win and avoid losing. Yet here you start off already having lost, so the plot reveals, and the incentive to face Ganon again is not as straight forward as it usually is. Zelda harbors doubts about her own power, too. With Hyrule in ruins, buried by a century of dust and dirt, what is Link’s motivation now? What is Zelda’s motivation for fighting to seal Ganon away after all the destruction that’s already done?
One of the biggest reservations I had while playing through the game was how the ending would go. If stopping Calamity Ganon’s reign of terror magically undid the past hundred years of history and returned everything to normal, it would have felt like a cheap victory. Fortunately, this is not the note the game ends on. This makes Breath of the Wild one of the few games that has been able to meaningfully ask, “What’s worth fighting for after it seems like you’ve lost it all?”
The game’s answer to this, as I see it, has so much to do with why it’s been the success that it has. In their review, Game Informer called it an achievement in the design of a “living world.” Daniel Howley, writing for Yahoo Finance, notes that the land in the game is “teeming with life.” And in a blog post at The Inner Gamer, Austin Morales writes that the world “is alive at every turn.” It isn’t to rescue a princess that you persevere in Breath of the Wild, nor is it to save a kingdom, obtain the Triforce, or any reward so typical. It is to save the world, but what this means in the context of the game is not that everything gets better or that things even stay idyllic. The world of Breath of the Wild is not the idyllic world of other Zelda games. As best I can tell, the answer the game suggests for persevering after great loss is a simple life-affirming one.
This is interesting, too, in light of how often the game looks back in time. We learn Calamity Ganon first appeared 10,000 years ago, when he was sealed away by the hero and princess. Hyruleans discover strange technology used by their ancestors that they use in the fight against Ganon. When Link awakens at the start of the game, he’s forgotten much of what transpired and has to recover his memories. What’s interesting about all of this is that the focus on the past is somewhat misleading. It serves to unfold the plot and remind us of what went wrong, so we learn from those mistakes. But in the end, what has to come next is rebuilding, as Zelda hints in one final cutscene.
Now, I say all of this about the story because I did genuinely find it interesting and unique. However, in a lot of ways Breath of the Wild is more of an amazing game in spite of the story than because of it. You aren’t forced to complete objectives in any order or pushed towards a goal. The game barely gives direction at all, instead granting you an impressive amount of freedom in how you choose to approach things. So if you feel you’re invested in the plot enough to do that, you can do that. If you’d rather spend your time wandering about, gliding through the air, riding horseback, cooking new things, or collecting the largest assortment of Hylian shrooms ever, you can do that, too.
That the game allows you to progress at your own pace and gives you so much you can spend your time on is a huge part of what makes it endearing. It also means there isn’t much that will make you feel rushed or hurried when you play. Breath of the Wild doesn’t just drop a story in your lap that explains how nice and valuable life can be, it provides the world and the tools to show it to you. I often found myself eager to revisit the land of Hyrule, happily getting lost in it, with no particular aim other than to enjoy and experience what’s there.
Most of us would probably identify with the feeling that we’re living at a crossroads or a turning point in history lately. I can’t speak to how people in other countries have been thinking, but here in North America I doubt I’m alone in saying that I worry about how we come out of this pandemic, how our economy recovers, who winds up in power for the immediate future, and so forth and so on. Especially when it’s looking like we have a Fall ahead of us that’s either going to be made up of lots more isolation or lots more death. Quite possibly a mix of both. It’s easy to find yourself wishing for better days.
Playing a video game won’t change that by any means. What it could do is help someone cope with anxiety and stress, provide a momentary escape, a reminder of the things we enjoy in life while we’re feeling restricted and confined, or it could just be plain old fun. If we’re lucky, maybe we find some things we take away from the art and entertainment we consume that gives us an idea on how and why we persevere even when things seem grim.
There is a lot to love about Breath of the Wild, whether it’s the freedom the player is given, the combat systems, the openness to exploration, the music, or anything else. But in my view, so many of these reasons come back to what I think is its greatest success, and what will make it especially memorable to play or replay during quarantine. Shigeru Miyamoto has said before that the inspiration for the first Legend of Zelda title came from his fondness for exploring the fields, woods, and caves around Kyoto when he was a boy. Breath of the Wild captures this spirit for a new generation, reminding us of the truth of those observations that have told us that life and art at times are known to reflect one another.
Whether you’re playing it to tune out the real world for a little while or taking away something more from it, it may just be one of the best decisions to make in the tedium and stress of quarantine time, if not also one of the best games you’ll ever play.