Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was deservingly the video game darling of 2017. On the one hand, it was one of the best console launch titles since maybe Super Mario World. It features beautiful landscapes and revisits creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s fascination with exploration. It also turns the Zelda-formula on its head with new systems, an eschewing of dungeons, and gets rid of single-serving tools and mechanisms in favor of mastering skills granted early on in the game.
What’s more amazing is that, despite being so loved by video game critics, Breath of the Wild is ultimately a game about failure and desolation. In fact, it’s the theme of failure that makes the game all the more powerful. In an industry that heavily relies on the power fantasy, the game is overwhelmingly about not having enough power, and ultimately being utterly powerless.
I’ve recently dealt with some personal traumas, and reflecting on Breath of the Wild’s themes of failure has helped me get through a lot of this.
The game begins with Link waking up in the dark after a century-long sleep, naked and vulnerable in a cave. He gets his bearings and ventures outside. The first things that you see is a big beautiful landscape, but it’s empty. There aren’t any other living beings to be seen, save for maybe some wild horses in the distance. All the lush green pastures are interrupted by the crumbled ruins of what looked like a great society. Further out in the horizon is a large, black, mystical mass surrounding a castle—it’s a symbol of Link and Zelda’s failure to protect the world from a great evil from destroying the kingdom.
You, as Link, literally wake up in the shadows of your failure. Link wakes up with amnesia, and you spend the game trying to regain your memories. I like to think that the amnesia reflects how failure can take away the feeling that you truly know yourself. Regaining your memories takes a bit of work and investigation, much in the same way that restoring your sense of self after a failure can take some reflection and introspection.
As the story goes on, you realize that you literally did everything you could to stave off these dark forces from taking over Hyrule. You gathered your mightiest warriors, constructed large mechanical beasts to power through the fight, but all of those warriors are now ghosts. The former citizens of Hyrule and all other living beings live in secluded parts of the world, away from the scavenging monsters that live in the wake of these ruins.
Link, who was tasked with looking after warrior princess Zelda, is not as powerful as he once was. His stamina is reduced to its minimum, meant to be built back up so he can run and climb through the mountains and forests that shadow over these ruins. His health needs to be rebuilt. He even needs to learn how to cook again. This once legendary warrior is but a shell of who he used to be.
Princess Zelda has spent the last century in a never-ending battle with the evil Ganon, holding him at bay in the castle now shrouded some dark evil substance. Despite waking up from stasis in a cave, you must return to your duty to be Zelda’s right hand man and assist her in this somewhat-eternal battle against evil. Zelda can only hold off this evil for so long.
In short, you don’t have time to lick your wounds and reflect on this failure. You must traverse through the remnants of the destroyed kingdom of Hyrule, with reminders of what once was lurking around every corner of the world, and continue the fight.
Link and Zelda both ultimately failed to protect Hyrule, but failure wasn’t the end of the story. In fact, failure is only the beginning. Failure is an opportunity to rebuild. It’s not an end-state, but a time to reflect, fight back, and journey back toward victory—or at least get a better idea of what victory looks like.
Life is similar. Granted, most of us won’t be afforded the luxury of a 100-year sleep in stasis, but at some point, despite what failures we may experience in spite of doing our damned best at whatever it is we’re doing, some form of failure may surface. Sometimes, the rug just gets pulled out from under us. Maybe you lose a job, or you end up to be at fault for an argument with a loved one, or you simply make a mistake that blows up in your face. Whatever failures that you face don’t need to be the end-all-be-all of the experience. Those failures are just a beginning, an opportunity to do better.
Whatever shame, sorrow, embarrassment that you might feel because of your failures are justified, but you will have to wade through those emotional ruins to overcome it all.
At the end of the game, after Ganon is subdued, Link and Zelda are still left with a world in ruin. But that world is rebuilding, and the pair is left with something more powerful than failure: hope.