Soaring through Hyrule

Image: Nintendo, from Polygon

I’ve spent every spare second for a few weeks playing Tears of the Kingdom, the latest instalment in an impressive effort in interactive storytelling. Few gaming franchises have cultivated and inspired such a passionate following as The Legend of Zelda, yet TOTK goes far beyond anything I’ve seen before more generally in open-world gaming. I tried playing Breath of the Wild and, even though I can’t quite say I gave it the hardest effort, found its first few hours too ‘mid’ to sustain the time-sink that my inexperienced gaming approach would require to make any significant progress. TOTK has been everything different and more! I’m mostly trying to get all my thoughts about it out of my head so I can maybe hope to think about something else for a little bit. Ok ok about this game!

I think the reason I was able to get over the huge hill that is all of the first few hours – you have 4 hearts, no weather-resistant clothing or food(heat and cold draining hearts becomes a problem just minutes in), no weapons, or elixirs or earrings and whatever else my dude Link now has in his inventory – was that TOTK did a much better job at teaching the player how the game worked. A big moment I still remember was after getting the Ascend ability (basically lets you teleport upwards through solid things): as Link leaves the shrine he’s just found it in (getting there was a different tall snowy first-time Zelda gamer challenge) you can spot a conspicuously shaped tree with a platform that looks like it might just be useful for the thing you’d learned to do. The reward is then these pants that solve the snow and cold problem that was the very obstacle to getting to said shrine! It was a nice little package of quests and by the time I was through a couple, I thought I’d run through the rest of the game in a flash. I was wrong, but eighty hours later I’m still loving the rush of figuring things out just the same. 

Some other fun things about the game:

TOTK is all about the big-picture, and I appreciated the forceful impulse to zoom out even though I was otherwise zooming into the game. There are lots of examples: players are sometimes tasked with finding Korok seeds across the landscape hidden in puzzles that require an eye for, well sometimes, an eye! There was this rock formation somewhere on top of some mountain in the shape of an eye, but the rock in the middle that imitated the pupil looked kinda out of center? Picking up the rock would reveal a rather jolly Korok who’d bless you with a single Korok seed, and even though I had no clue what these would be useful for, the game did enough just to keep me collecting the little trinkets till they ended up becoming one of the most useful items in the game. When they eventually did, it was a gentle reminder that sometimes you had to look at the big picture to find the next step, as in the puzzles, but also that one could have the hope that maybe, just maybe, it would matter that you’d found it. In the (even) bigger picture, that was a comforting and encouraging thing.

There is also the example of the challenge of deciphering shrine puzzles to expand hearts and stamina: it’s absolutely necessary for any reasonably challenging significant gameplay. The puzzles aren’t simple, one-step processes; rather, they require you to step back, assess the broader environment, and think about how various elements interact. There’s usually a clue to the solution as the Shrine’s name flashes by the screen on entry, there’s sometimes a clue from a quest you did, or a clue to a quest you would do. Sometimes you’d get an important ability or a lesson in some specialized game control: backflips to avoid attacks, parrying using your shield; sometimes you’d get a homage to Pinball or Jenga. Deciding one’s approach to solving these puzzles forced one to examine surroundings for resources or clues, and sometimes one could complete it in a way I’m not sure even the game itself expected (the gaming engine is wildly good), but one always had to zoom out and build some general approach with it. Great vibes there. 

A point in contrast: somehow too, the game emphasizes the importance of sweating the small stuff. One of the most perfect examples of this is in the very menial task of reuniting lost Koroks with their friends. It’s most times an involved process that, on the surface, may seem to yield little reward: one, maybe two Korok seeds and a cheer from the pair when they’re back together again.It also always seems to want to pull you away from the big picture of whatever quest or task you’re pursuing – the Korok you want to get to somehow never seems to be in a convenient place along your route, always in the other direction. Yet, as explained earlier, these small golden seeds accumulate in your inventory over time and you finally meet some dude named Hestu, and you all at once realize their cumulative impact (inventory expansion which is BIG). You get to enjoy the benefits only if you’ve been good about this very unfun task. So I guess sweating is good too.

And the amount of deliberate attention needed! I thought playing a game would be a great mindless bout of relaxation, but it was that in a more intellectually involved effort than I thought I’d have to commit to if I wanted to make progress in the game. Characters often hinted, rather than explicitly told you, what was needed next. This approach did pique my curiosity and pushed me to make inferences based on available information, but there were subtler notes I sometimes missed that reminded me how there was important detail hidden in characters’ communication that aided general problem-solving, in a way I thought was useful both in and out of the game. Players had the liberty to choose their adventure, but these choices also significantly affected gameplay. So when I would give in to rushing in the earlier hours and skip through dialogue, I would miss an important suggestion that hinted at an alternative route that would have made the game easier. For the initiated, I chose to start with the Lightning Temple: a terrible pacing decision that led to multiple trips back and forth from the dungeon around Hyrule seeking upgrades to make the boss fight easier. This early choice eventually left me dreading going to the remaining temples in a way that would hamper my progress. I would only realize later, and sometimes too much later, that it might have been helpful to complete some quest when it was first suggested. I chose to explore my own way though, and that was some consolation.

So then too there’s a hefty lesson in resilience and stubbornness. TOTK is and can be challenging, even brutal, especially during the early stages. As you navigate through Hyrule, you may find yourself facing the Game Over screen quite often. Yet, it’s the stubborn determination to try again, learn from the game as you progress through, and continue to choose to give more time to it that truly enriches the gameplay. At points, it seems to me to mirror the challenge of some things that you are worse and better at them at the points you need them least. What good is a strong finish when, in a game like this I think quite literally, the point is the route?

And of course such a joyful game came at a steep price, I thought at times. Like most enjoyable things, it is still best in moderation. I played too much of the game for too many hours stringed together for too many days at too many times. I had some groggy mornings and some strongly failed attempts at multitasking. I am now playing too much of it, and I will likely do this until I chase down every single quest the game serves up. It’ll take months for the whole thing, a few more weeks for the main quest maybe, but I want to and will do it. The unpredictability of delightful discoveries – stumbling upon side adventures, stables, whole new worlds in wells and other holes in the ground – these unexpected encounters expand the game’s scope in such awe-inspiring ways that it really feels like infinite immersion in adventure.

I think this funny little game pushes one to grow, think, and explore, a lesson just as useful in life too. It’s a beautiful commitment to doing fun, and doing it in really fun ways. So, whether you’re a seasoned Zelda fan or new to the series, I’d highly recommend taking this walk across Hyrule. Who knows what lessons you might learn along the way?

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