1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Chris Tapsell: Choose a single part of Breath of the Wild – like the way weapons break, or the way climbing works – and run it through Google. Each mechanism and element of design is so brilliantly crafted that I’d wager any one of them has given rise to a dozen think-pieces and deep-dives on how it works, why it works like it does, why it is great. To really butcher a metaphor, Breath of the Wild is our medium’s Helen of Troy – the game that launched a thousand video essays.
In the age of hyper-specialists, reverse-engineers and mechanics who are capable of reducing games, films and other creations to their barest intricacies with such incredible precision, it’s very easy, and natural, to think of Breath of the Wild as a game about those specifics – about experimenting with the brilliant physics, or the endless puzzles made of basic traversal, or the planning required of you by its degrading weapons and sandbox combat.
But in this game, each of those specifics is barely a single stroke of the brush. Breath of the Wild is transcendental: it isn’t about the science of design – as much as it is built upon the incredible, deliberate decisions of its designers – it’s about how that design is experienced by you, about learning the principles of a world from scratch, thinking and existing and interacting with a world as a human being would. It’s a game that, in order to really have its desired effect, relies on you to recall your own early experience of the world, how you learned about your own consciousness and your own ability to affect things around you. As much of the world, and our small corner of it in video games, shifts towards the mechanical and the technical, Breath of the Wild is fundamentally about what it is to be human.
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell: I’m going to risk all of next year’s Eurogamer commissions by saying that I’m cool on Breath of the Wild. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s a game in which every last functional detail manages to stick in the memory – the way Link twangs his bowstring comically when you try to shoot with an empty quiver, for instance, or those jewel-like encounters with fellow travellers on the road. While it’s an open world with towers, sidequests and whatnot, the Ubidrudgery is kept to a minimum, and Nintendo is happy to let you find things rather than covering the map with waypoints. And yet somehow I’m not compelled. Mostly, I miss the extended themed dungeons of the older Zeldas – the Shrines are too piecemeal and visually repetitive, and while you could argue that the combat sandbox makes up for it, I’ll take another Shadow Temple over Fun Times With Bomb Physics any day of the week. In a great piece earlier this year, Chris Thursten called it the immersive simulation’s Paul McCartney, a straight-edge artist for the broader audience. I couldn’t listen to Paul McCartney for 100 hours straight. Can the next one be the immersive sim’s Buckethead, please?
Martin Robinson: It was alright, but it was no Arms. Also Edwin, have you never heard Wings’ Arrow Through Me? I’d listen to that for 100 hours straight any day.
Oli Welsh: Funny, I remember Martin playing this avidly for many weeks, raving about it and even buying one of those awful knock-off amiibo cards for a rare figure so he could unlock the Ocarina Link outfit, then furtively passing it around the office. Anyway.
I miss the dungeons too, but they are the most notable cost of an astonishingly brave decision at Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma told the team of designers making Breath of the Wild to rip up everything about Zelda and start again from scratch. Can you imagine any other company doing that with such a treasured series? Especially one as intricately bound up in notions of tradition and repetition as Zelda? And can you imagine it going so triumphantly right? We’d be lucky indeed if just a few more of gaming’s big names were prepared to take these kinds of risks with their properties in the name of moving things forward.
Breath of the Wild is magnificent in scope and detail. It’s remorseless in the way interrogates, breaks down and rebuilds afresh all the building blocks of several genres of game, including open-word adventures, role-playing games, survival games and sims. It’s unprecedented in the solidity and craftsmanship with which it fits all these moving parts back together into a whole that offers tremendous freedom, but never breaks down or breaks its own rules. Yes, it owes a lot to Bethesda and Rockstar and Valve and Bungie and the rest, but it also schools them on their own turf.
But like Chris said, you can spend too long academically revering Breath of the Wild for its achievements in game design, when they all work so well and smoothly to a single purpose: stripping this kind of gaming of all its drudgery, of all the rote behaviours that had been ingrained in both developers and players, and bringing one of these so-called open worlds to teeming, gorgeous, mysterious life. What is the most magical and meaningful action you can undertake in a video game? For me, it’s exploration. And this is nothing less than the best exploration game ever made. Go be in it.