The Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is a lonely, ruined world, its wide expanses inhabited by just-out-of-reach memories, ghosts, moss-covered ruins, monsters and trepidatious travelers. Settlements are scattered, their residents more focused on rebuilding than forging new connections with strangers. And there is beauty in the solitude this creates.
The openness of the gameplay is rife with opportunities for watching sunsets on remote mountain peaks, walks across rolling hills in the rain, and taking scenic hang-gliding trips. It is, after all, called Breath of the Wild. These moments of stillness are some of the best parts of the game. Throughout all the climbing, jumping, hunting, running, solving puzzles, and filling in maps, the landscape and ambient soundtrack emphasize the quiet aloneness of your adventure.
Making a Connection
This loneliness adds to the game’s stakes, especially in terms of making sidequests more appealing and gratifying. Something as simple as helping a child collect ingredients for dinner feels more important when you feel a bond with a character who is also living in this lonely world. These points of connection aren’t essential to the main quest, but are hugely important to the overall feeling and the world of the game. Whether it’s a buffoon worried sick about his precious cuccos or a Gerudo woman wondering if she’ll ever find love, many of Hyrule’s people are characterized by some form of loneliness or longing.
Link, who wakes up in a cave with amnesia and is sent on his way by a ghost, is one of the most alone people in this world. He has no home, no hometown, no family, and no history beyond being the legendary hero. While the character provides no indication that he feels lonely, it was difficult not to project my own feelings onto him over the course of the dozens of hours we spent together. So my Link spent most of Breath of the Wild feeling wistful and alienated — oh, and determined to ride as many horses as possible. (Real life me is allergic.)
I played through the game’s challenges in the order that seems the most common, my first Divine Beast being Vah Ruta of the Zora. By this time, Breath of the Wild’s breakout shark hunk Prince Sidon was hardly news. Every video game website had long since reported on how excited fans were about the tall fish man hottie. But none of that conversation prepared me for the warmth and enthusiasm with which Sidon met Link.
A Prince Among Fish
Throughout the quest that follows, Sidon encourages Link and accompanies him through his preparations to confront Vah Ruta. He believes in Link, which I know because he frequently makes a point of saying he does. Even though Link has to face the interior of the Divine Beast alone, Sidon swimming him over on his own back and launching Link into its streams of water made it feel like we were attacking the problem together. And more than that, the physical contact between the two characters is the first non-hostile touch between Link and another character.
When I had finished taming Vah Ruta and freed Mipha’s ghost, I felt more than the usual flood of dopamine that overcoming an obstacle in a game gives me. I had met Sidon’s expectations, and what’s more, now we could move on from this problem and get to know each other. Yes, I still had to face the rest of my challenges, but what threat could Ganon pose that Sidon and I couldn’t overcome together? But as Link’s story steered me away from Zora’s Domain, the possibilities of a future with Sidon diminished, his dialogue growing more limited and less enthusiastic.
I tried again and again to talk to him, hoping his responses would change — but his warm invitation to come back and stay felt less and less genuine with each offer. Couldn’t he see that I was there to do just that? The weirder of the two dialogue options was his apology for showing emotional vulnerability about his dead sister. Why would someone so warm and forthright, who claimed we were best friends, not be able to open up to me about his feelings? Couldn’t we process this together? What happened to the intimacy we had so recently shared?
As much as I, the real human adult playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, understand the difference between fiction and real life, the limits of gameplay, the priorities of the story, and that if Sidon was rejecting anyone, it was Link and not me, that rejection stung. Fellow travelers, subsequent allies, and even the horses I was so excited about riding proved poor substitutes for the charming, sincere Sidon.
I visited the Great Fairy Shrines more for the contact and affection than for equipment upgrades. I flirted with Bozai more to just feel liked and wanted than to get his two pairs of boots. I found myself putting on the Bokoblin and Lizalfo disguises more and more often, just so I could feel like I belonged, no matter how false and fleeting it was.
According to my Switch, I’ve clocked over 145 hours playing Breath of the Wild. That’s a lot of time to spend alone simulating loneliness. As I played, I watched birds and wild horses, packs of wolves, schools of fish, and camps of monsters with envy, knowing Link and I would never experience such a sense of belonging.
Happily Ever After (Emphasis on the “After”)
The intended emotional core of the game is collecting Link’s memories and patching together his history with Princess Zelda and the four champions who fought with him against Ganon one hundred years prior. It’s a lot of looking backwards. And while Zelda’s emotional journey isn’t particularly fulfilling for me, learning about and freeing the champion ghosts is.
With each Divine Beast, Link resolves another relationship arc, forging bond after bond with characters who have no futures. Just like the expository NPCs standing in ruined Hyrule Field tell Link about what used to be there, the story progresses to make me long for things I can’t get back. Link doesn’t have very much to look forward to. He has no life he’s lived that hasn’t been to serve this one purpose.
But Sidon is still alive. Sidon wants Link around, and not just out of gratitude or to fix his problems. Sidon liked Link immediately, and what’s more important, I liked Sidon. The only way I could make myself care enough about Hyrule to make my way into the very goopy and very stressful castle was the knowledge that Sidon would still be there. I mean, it was clear to me once I’d stopped being dramatic about it that his invitation to return was obviously supposed to be after finishing my quest.
Once that happens, the returned Princess Zelda tells Link that there’s more work to be done. Her first planned stop is Zora’s Domain. And even if I won’t be there for it, Link will — and I can put my game down content that I’ve left him with something to look forward to.