Zelda Breath of Time: Preparing for a Critique of Tears of the Kingdom

While replaying the Great Plateau, I remembered how novel and exciting The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) is as a video game. I enjoyed the game more this second time around.

Patrick Klepek at Vice recently wrote how playing Breath of the Wild…again in 2023 is a reminder of what a strange experiment Nintendo pulled off. A video game about friction and boredom… and it still feels remarkable.” This six-year-old game is still so vibrant; a living digital world with quirks that make it endearing. Even the game’s biggest problem, the obtuse button layout, is not an issue anymore as a previous update to the Nintendo Switch operating system now allows players to reprogram button layouts.

Breath of the Wild is a virtual playground. It has structures, and thus rules, which set limitations on what a player can do in the game world. However, these limitations are not obstructions to the principles of fun. As Huizinga famously stated, play necessitates and demands the creation of order “absolute and supreme”. The order in Breath of the Wild structures a play space so vast and brimming with opportunity that players are still constantly discovering new things. This is miraculous for a game that has sold 29 million copies on the Switch alone as of December 2022 (the game was also released on the Wii U), was released in 2017, and was last updated that same year.

So much fun to be had with Link, boom ball, stone buddy, & shrooms in this beautiful wilderness. (Source: images.igdb.com) © Nintendo 2017

The passage of time is part of the aesthetic beauty of Breath of the Wild. Bolstered by its sound design, spares score, and visual presentation, I was immersed in the world of Hyrule. My time in the Great Plateau conjured similar feelings to the time I spent as a child exploring vast wildernesses and, what I thought at the time were, the coolest playgrounds. The variety of environments and locations, from tundras to deserts to green fields to high-tech underground shrines comprised a world one wants to witness. Breath of the Wild’s scale adds to the game’s ability to elicit wonder. There is always some distance to trek, monuments, or fauna and flora to see even when fast traveling. Monotony is part of the experience. Breath of the Wild remains a great game because it isn’t scared of being “boring”.

As the release of the game’s sequel Tears of the Kingdom (2023) is shortly upon us, I’m increasingly intrigued at the prospect of critiquing the game through a radical lens. I will style and inform my critique on three foundational texts: Henry Jenkins’ essay “Complete Freedom of Moment: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces” (2006), Bonnie Ruberg’s chapter “No Fun: Queer Affect and the Disruptive Potential of Video Games that Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt” from their book Video Games Have Always Been Queer (2019), and The Undercommons (2013) by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. These texts will serve as the blueprint for how I will play and contextualize Tears of the Kingdom.

May the Goddess be with me on this new adventure.(Source: images.igdb.com) © Nintendo 2023

For the first of these texts, Jenkins’ “Complete Freedom of Moment: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces”, I hope to interrogate the argument of video games as supplanting the playground and wide vacant spaces where children (specifically boys) learned to play and socialize. I will not be focusing on the gender role component of Jenkins’ argument for my critique of Tears of the Kingdom. Strictly speaking, my point of interest with “Complete Freedom of Moment” is explicit to the wider question: how do people play in open spaces? In this case, the world of Hyrule was created by Nintendo. I will take Jenkin’s title and try to apply it literally to Tears of the Kingdom.

My avoidance of Jenkins’ discussion of video games as gendered play spaces is not an exercise of erasure or narrowing of scope. Simply, it is my opinion that Jenkins’ discussion is not very well made in his article. Instead, I will opt to refer to Ruberg’s “No Fun: Queer Affect and the Disruptive Potential of Video Games that Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt” as the guiding text on gendered forms of play for my critique. I will play Tears of the Kingdom following Ruberg’s principle of no fun. Ruberg posits that fun “…has long enjoyed a central, even monolithic position in the way that designers, players, and even scholars of a certain ilk talk about how video games should make players feel.” Breath of the Wild is an emblematic example of a player-driven gameplay experience in games. How players feel while playing is at the core of the game’s design. However, the gameplay space in Breath of the Wild is, as previously stated, so vast as to allow for alternative methods of play even outside of the developers’ initial intentions.

Again, Ruberg:

“Playing no fun is simultaneously a political practice as well as a personal one. In mainstream games culture, much of the reactionary discourse that is being used to resist the diversification of video games hinges on the notion that games should be ‘just for fun.’ Speaking out against fun also means speaking out for the right to make meaning from gameplay.”

On this note expect my review of Tears of the Kingdom for PopMatters to be weird.

Lastly, the critical concepts that will bind both Jenkin’s play space in “Complete Freedom of Movement” and Ruberg’s “No Fun” shenanigans will be the intellectual calisthenics of The Undercommons by Harney and Moten. A work of deep beauty, whose theory and practice remain a rallying cry for praxis. I will follow The Undercommons‘ radical tradition in my critique. Great poets, like Moton, reconstruct the world from the vagueness of memory. In a world where everything is measurable, “knowable”, and quantifiable, there is little room for poetics, which seeks to encapsulate the sight and feeling of raindrops as they fall gently on one’s nose. If Breath of the Wild is any indication Tears of the Kingdom will provide much inspiration for poetics.

Spoiler to my review: do not expect a consumer product report of Tears of the Kingdom.

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