Sometimes, in The Legend of Zelda, the world ends. Forces that are simultaneously beyond our understanding and all too human align and everything falls apart and then, the game starts. There’s a lot of work about life after the end of the world and there’s a lot of work about the medieval period, but The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is unique in that it collapses the space between the post-apocalypse and the medieval. The apocalyptic medieval is not just an aesthetic performance but instead an active meditation on the potential at the end of everything. By focusing on the relationships Link builds with the people of Hyrule throughout the game, Breath of the Wild refocuses our understanding of the end of the world as not only a potential site of loss but a potential site of radical, reinventive connection.
The Last and the First
A lesser-used synonym for “medieval” is the “dark ages”, referring to a perceived lack of development in social and physical sciences between the fall of Rome and roughly the mid-sixteenth century. There is as much time from the fall of Rome and the mid-fifteenth century as there is between now and 859 AD. The medieval period is, conservatively, one thousand one hundred and sixty years. When we talk about the Roman empire, we think of it as being wildly global, connecting West Asia straight through to the British Isles under one contiguous government. When we think of this collapse, and what it did to the people after, we think of nothing short of an apocalypse.
It’s fitting to call it an apocalypse — the root of the word is from the first piece of literature we have that grapples distinctly with what the collapse of Rome might be. “Apocalypse,” or ἀποκάλυψις, is the first word of the Revelation of John, and despite the fact that it just means “revelation” in Greek, in English it signifies a disaster that irrevocably alters the status quo. The medieval is as bound in the fall of Rome as it is in apocalypse, as it is the only apocalypse to have actually happened.
It’s not as much that the medieval is very old, it’s that it is very big. It is easily the largest Western cultural epoch, and we make so much of our culture inside of its flexible boundaries. We speak very loudly about ourselves when we’re talking about the medieval, and most of what we say is needlessly cruel. Most works of medievalism assert that it was a time that allowed almost boundless cruelty toward the socially vulnerable, much like how we imagine other apocalypses. Fundamentally, these portrayals are built on the assumption that the law is the only thing that prevents us from hurting each other. Breath of the Wild is built on the assumption that even without kings and sheriffs and borders and laws, people do not want to hurt each other. Even here, at the end of the world, we are good.
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Silence in Heaven
Breath of the Wild’s map is dotted with consistent reminders of what was once there, a hundred years ago. Paved roads being slowly overtaken by overgrown forests; the shells of houses with no roofs and no windows but a claymore planted in the floor. The map cannot be traversed without encountering what was there — the remains of the kingdom welling up through the cracks. Breath of the Wild has a distinct sense of time and loss, making it a rare work of medievalist fantasy that grapples not with a living kingdom but with the collapse of one; the dark ages swept in by the crumbling of Rome. The few kings we do see rule over little more than small cities or ruins. By contrast, damn near every Elder Scrolls game opens on escaping the carceral state and the first choice you make in character creation in World of Warcraft is alliance to an army. There are no allegiances in Breath of the Wild because there are no states. Hyrule is not wild, it is ruins; content to be silent and to be discovered in that silence.
Hyrule’s emptiness invites a pleasurable aimlessness. With roads and forts long abandoned, settlements are few and far between and traveling is dangerous. Wandering is extraordinary in Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, and wandering is the character action that best defines Link. Wandering itself is not a unique game feature. Every big, open-world game features drifting through the map and encountering people and creatures. But Breath of the Wild deploys wandering as a way of emeshing Link even more thoroughly into the community and world around him. Instead of utilizing wandering as a way of impressing upon the player their singularity, the game uses it to draw Link ever deeper into the lives of others.
Trissa is a tiny old lady in Kakariko Village. After you sell her something and close out of the sale, she tells you, “I don’t get to leave this place too often… that said, I really appreciate you showing me your exotic wares.” In the same village, you can help a little girl make a series of recipes to remember her family. To do this, you need ingredients you can only get beyond the village. Wandering does not serve to sever you from these people; it is one of many gifts you can offer them. In the absence of a king and in the absence of law and borders, Link doesn’t maraud through vulnerable villages. He sells weird stuff from his travels to nice old ladies and cooks for little girls. Wandering does not render Link instantly a barbarian any more than the collapse of Hyrule following the ascendancy of Calamity Ganon.
Make All Things New
Your capacity to wander connects you to communities and it also explicitly builds them. My favorite quest in the game is the assembly of Tarrey Town, a hamlet you help a carpenter named Hudson build. Once Hudson strikes out on his own from Hateno Village, you meet him again in the Akkala Region, nearly two full regions away from where he started. Hudson is breaking rocks in the rain, and comments that what he really needs is someone strong who can help him — a Goron.
Not just any Goron, though. He needs a Goron whose last name ends in the suffix -son, as a way of holding with his construction company’s tradition. After you find an appropriate Goron, you have to find a Gerudo to help make clothes, and a Rito to run a general store. Eventually, you have to bring a Zora priest to marry Hudson and Rhondson, the Gerudo you brought over from the Kara Kara Bazaar. Your grasp of the whole world and the people who live there becomes a way to bring them together, to build a bright little town where before there was an island in the middle of a lake.
Wandering makes Tarrey Town possible, and it is wandering that builds the relationships there. Everyone in Tarrey Town is from somewhere else, literally scattered across the map. Tarrey Town is not united initially by kinship ties or allegiance to governments or leaders. It is a community intentionally constructed on its own terms, and it’s a place made possible by the absence of a formal state. The thing that keeps them together is their choice.
The Kingdom Yet to Come
Breath of the Wild is a medieval game, which means it is a game about the collapse of political systems and political ways of life. I think, endlessly, about the end of the world. Every seventy degree Christmas and urgent press release from a scientific team sits heavy on my heart. It’s difficult that the terms people discuss this ending in are automatically so adversarial. We don’t imagine apocalypses as opportunities to reinvent our sense of connection to each other; instead we imagine the elision of the barriers between us as a reason for violence. “Realism” within fiction, particularly medieval fantasy, is usually gauged by its prediliction for violence (particuarly violence against women). The world is ending, and we all have so much to lose.
I keep coming back to Breath of the Wild because the worst has already happened. Rome has fallen and life as we know it has ended. Our king is dead and our borders are gone and there are no guards to station at the gates of our towns. Who do we get to be now? What will we become, without armies to swear allegiance to and only each other to lean on? What families, communities will we build without governments to stand in our way and the world open to drift through?