For the past 31 years, the setting of the Legend of Zelda games has mostly stayed the same—until now. The latest game in the series, Breath of the Wild, has transformed the traditional kingdom of Hyrule into something fundamentally different to its predecessors: a world which, now more than ever, is there to be lost in.
Welcome to Worlds We Love, a new io9 series discussing the settings of the series we love—from fantastical kingdoms to entire futuristic galaxies—and why they’re so important to the stories they tell.
For many years—pretty much as long as I’ve been alive—The Legend of Zelda has been the video game equivalent of a bedtime story to me. Even though the entire franchise has culminated in this wild, far-reaching timeline of different generations and branches, each Zelda game is fundamentally the same fairy tale: one day, a dark evil named Ganon came to the land and threatened the peace and its Princess, Zelda, and a young boy named Link has to rise up to stop him and save her. The structure was, by and large, also the same: you’d go through four or so dungeons in a specific order to get specific tools Link could use in his fight against Ganon, and then you’d go fight him, saving Hyrule once and for all (or at least until the next game came along).
This fairy tale structure pertained as much to the actual world you played the Zelda games in as much as it did the story. While degrees of player freedom have always existed in the games, the structure of the narrative has always made the land of Hyrule still feel like a mostly linear experience for players. It’s a hub world that different “levels” spin off from, and you go to them in a specific order and rarely ever go back over the course of a game. Even though there are a few shake-ups—sometimes the world is a medieval kingdom, sometimes it’s islands dotted across a great sea, sometimes it’s not even Hyrule, in the case of games like Majora’s Mask or Link’s Awakening—the world Zelda lived in has mostly been constrained by that sense of tradition. There was a comfort to the order and structure of how Hyrule existed that was almost as endearing as the staples of the wider series itself. It might not have felt like a particularly cohesive world, but it was a setting with a sense of familiarity and charm.
How I felt about Hyrule, however, drastically changed with the arrival of the latest game in the series: Breath of the Wild, which has been devouring all of my time for the past few weekends. Gone is much of the orderly narrative structure of past games, and with it, a Hyrule that feels like a loosely connected set of “levels”—giving way to an open, vast world that is presented to the player as an opportunity to get lost in rather than a specific journey to follow. Instead of being a fairy tale book, a world that’s doled out page by page on a specific story, from practically the get-go Breath of the Wild’s take on Hyrule is laid bare to its audience with a single invitation: go out there and do whatever you want.
So I have. I’ve climbed mountains, just to see the view at the top. Swam rivers, just to see where they’ll take me. Trotted through forests in the dead of night, picking mushrooms and other oddities to see what food I could conjure up the next time I came across a campfire. You still fight monsters, still clear puzzling dungeons, and the story is still the same as it ever is—Link still has to save Zelda from Ganon’s clutches, as he always has—but the world that story is laid upon is vastly different, as is the invitation to largely ignore it and go off and your own path, and it changes everything for me.
Instead of the traditional, comforting fantasy we’ve seen throughout Zelda’s history, Breath of the Wild’s setting is a fantasy about mundanity. That might sound weird at first—fighting goblins and monsters with magic swords to save a Princess isn’t exactly “mundane” after all, but it’s Hyrule itself that makes that the case. Despite its fantastical trappings, it’s perhaps the most grounded rendition of Hyrule Zelda has ever attempted, even if it’s still filled with bizarre quirks and strange races. It’s packed with little details, and normal people just living their lives without much of a care to what you’re doing as the fabled hero of the story. And the freedom of exploration granted by turning Hyrule into a vast, open setting means the greatest stories Breath of the Wild tells aren’t the actual ones of Link rescuing Zelda, but that time a thunderstorm broke out mid-exhausting climbing expedition and sent you scurrying for safety, or the time a wild mountain goat punted you off a cliff face to your untimely demise. Sometimes, it’s a story about something as simple as climbing trees.
With Breath of the Wild, Hyrule has stopped being a storybook and started being an actual world, one that sparks a sense of romantic wanderlust in me in the way it never could before. It’s a realm where, instead of the story being told to you, you make your own as you go along. In a time when the real world can be immensely depressing to deal with, Breath of the Wild’s take on Hyrule doesn’t offer you a specific, comforting tale to enjoy, but instead a whole world to explore and discover. Right now, it’s a place I’m more than happy to lose my way in.