I think I might have a new favorite video game

September 12, 2017

So I was planning on spending some time today talking about PAX. If you are not aware, PAX is a more video game-centric convention that is on a scale more grand than anything in the board game world. I went to PAX a week or so ago and had a great time. I sort of went on a whim with my wife after a fan invited me to go. The exhibit halls were overwhelming, but we eventually found our bearings and navigated ourselves to some games that suited our interests. The most monumental moment, however, happened outside the main hall. My wife and I wanted to get away from the ridiculous crowd of people and decided to check out the console free play area. You have to go check out specific titles from the library and then are given some amount of time to play on a designated console. So we're looking through the list of available games, and, way down at the bottom, I see Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I haven't bought a console in over 10 years, so I hadn't experienced this new Zelda game at all. I've played through every previous major Zelda title, though, and I'd heard great things, so it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out. I only got to play for about half an hour - enough time to mess around and marvel at some of the more prevalent innovations of the game. But after I played, I just couldn't stop thinking about it. This strong idea formed in my head: I needed to buy a Nintendo Switch and play this game more. A lot more. It's a recurring theme around here that I am a cheapskate. I don't buy new things, which is why this idea in my head was so weird. I'm going to spend close to $400 just so I can play more of this single game? That doesn't make much sense. But, in the end, I did. Against all reason, I bought this thing. That's how strong the pull was. And I don't regret it in the slightest. Breath of the Wild is a truly sublime experience. First, I feel we should talk about scale. When you start out the game, you are confined to an area that feels pretty large. Like, the size of a modest retro Zelda game - think the original or Link to the Past. There's a huge mountain, a river, multiple forests and ruins, and plenty of secrets to keep you busy for hours. Then you complete some objectives, the barriers to the rest of the world open, you zoom out of the map and realize, "Holy crap, that area I was in that felt pretty big was only about 1/100 of the entire world now available to me. That's not an exaggeration. 100 times bigger. It's like the size of the entire World of Warcraft base game. It's like the size of Wind Waker, except instead of covered in nondescript sea, it is covered in a majestic landscape full of interesting geographical features, vibrant life, and more secrets and other interesting stuff than you could ever hope to find. The scope of the game blows my mind every time I think about it. And it's really all that stuff inside this massive world that makes the game so wonderful. It is not an empty landscape. There are so many things, it is more-or-less impossible to go from point A to point B without getting distracted by a surprising amount of fun stuff you see on the horizon. I think about a game like Skyrim, where traversing the landscape to get from one point of interest to another was almost a chore - something you had to do to get to the good parts of the game. In Breath of the Wild, no trip feels like a chore. Moving through the world is a joy every step of the way. Part of the joy comes from the beautiful, varied environments of the game. Every corner of the world feels alive with detail and interesting features. And there is such a sense of freedom unlike any other game I've played. In most games, a huge mountain range represents a barrier - a limit of the world. In Breath of the Wild, you can go anywhere. That mountain is a challenge, and so you climb the damn thing. Enhancing this are my favorite part of the game - the Koroks. These are little woodland creatures that can be found everywhere, if you take the time to look. Anything that looks out strange or out of place - a weird flower, a circle of stones, a pinwheel spinning in the breeze - there's a strong chance a Korok is hiding somewhere nearby. There become so many different ways to interact with the world to get these stupid little leaf dudes to pop up and give you a treasure, it makes the world come alive even more. I love exploring the unknown, and Breath of the Wild gives you a massive, massive world that is just begging for you to explore every nook and cranny, all the while you are learning new ways to use your powers and upgrading your equipment to expand your influence over the land. So much in the game is not explicitly explained to you, but you just have to discover through experimentation. There were so many times when I encountered something that I didn't think I could do. I thought I would have to unlock some new ability and come back (I've been trained to think this way by countless other Zelda games). But, inevitably, all I lacked was the knowledge, not some special item. I remember encountering these overgrown treasure chests half-buried in the ground that I couldn't open. I thought, "Well, maybe I'll need a shovel or something. I'll come back." And then I realized I could use my magnetic power to just rip the chests out of the ground. It was very satisfying. I do have complaints, though. I think the cooking system is a little boring. There are so many different ingredients you can find while exploring the world, which makes traveling all the more exciting. But eventually you realize that, despite all the varied things, all cooking just boils down to the same handful of temporary bonuses you can give yourself. Nothing truly special can be accomplished through cooking, which drains a lot of the excitement of finding new things. And I was a little disappointed in the game's version of a proper "dungeon." Dungeons have typically been the best part of any Zelda game, and Breath of the Wild has four main ones, but they are a little small and lackluster. I get what the game is going for. The excitement comes from the gigantic world, and the lead-up to these dungeons is truly interesting and satisfying, but still, when every other aspect of a typical Zelda game has been improved upon, actually going through these truncated dungeons can feel a little anti-climactic. This game is absolutely marvelous, though. I still have a long, long way to go before I finish it, so I can't say for sure whether it is my favorite game I have ever played. But the hours I have put into it so far have exceeded my highest expectations. I am just so impressed with what Nintendo pulled off with this game. It's almost depressing. Like, nothing I ever create will ever be as great as this game I am experiencing right now. It is a pinnacle, and you should try it out if you get the chance.

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