Breath of the Wild begins in a tomb. Link, the protagonist, wakes up from a hundred years of darkness to a world that has long moved past him. Before he sets foot outside, he’s surrounded by the reality that the world he knew, in the wear of the rock and the growth of the vines, is gone.
The game doesn’t tell you that Link died. Not outright. But players see him die in the princess Zelda’s arms; the moment that his eyes close, and the moment she begins to mourn him. When the sword in his hand faintly glows, she says “so he… can still be saved?” as if she didn’t believe it possible. If this isn’t clear enough, the place he’s taken, the place that players begin, is called the Shrine of Resurrection. You don’t need a hundred years to heal a wound. Link was dead. Now, brought back to life, he’s been made a ghost.
As Link traverses a world at once familiar and alien, everything he knew now faded memory, he finds himself having more meaningful interactions with ghosts than the living. The player is tasked with collecting these memories, building up the world that once was. Link unlocks a memory by solving each of his dungeons, the divine beasts, and with these memories come the only characters who really know Link, speaking to him from beyond death. Speaking to him from the place he should be. Each of the divine beasts exists in monument to his dead friends, who only remain tethered to Hyrule out of a sense of duty. Link knows that the moment they complete their mission—the mission he’s been brought back for—he’ll lose the only connections to them he still has. He’s a hero in a game where the point is to save as many people as possible, unable to save the people who mattered to him. It’s already too late. It’s been too late for a hundred years. Remembering things in this game doesn’t come with the usual sense of achievement that video games give to fulfilling objectives; the more that Link remembers of his old life, the more that he has to mourn in his new one. The player hasn’t really gained anything but a sense of loss.
There are few characters still alive that remember who he is. His entire existence has passed into the realm of folklore: he has been erased from the narrative by time. Most of the interactions with NPCs involve some level of confusion as to what this strange young man wants or is doing. Multiple characters don’t believe that he really is the hero of legend even if he presents them with proof. Those who do remember him treat his presence as a haunting—an unpleasant reminder of the deaths they’ve faced. The game is constantly othering Link: the mechanics that make him “inhuman” in order for the action-based gameplay to work are pointed out in-world. Link is not a part of the fabric of the world he finds himself in even when he’s helpful. The worst has already happened, and the goal is to prevent further harm to the recovery efforts that have been made. Link cannot bring anyone back to life, he can’t fix his world, and he can’t relive the life he’s lost. There’s been new lives brought into existence, the world has fixed itself atop the ruins, and no one remembers the hero who was promised to save their ancestors but didn’t manage to do so. The justice that the player now deals in defeating the evil that already won is in apology to this alternative future.
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The setting itself chafes against the player; the world is a post-apocalyptic one, littered with graveyards of broken down war machines. In the course of adventuring Link finds abandoned houses, the foundations of old cities, and the truth that the only thing left of the place he lived is evidence it once existed. Japanese anime critic and writer Ryusuke Hikawa has discussed the impact of atomic bombings and nuclear testing rippling out from the inception of these events to the generations afterwards that inherited the fear of being witness to such annihilation. In the course of this discussion, he talks about how this history created an awareness of the inescapable nature of misfortune and calamity, which has become a repeating theme across anime. Similarly, Breath of the Wild, featuring a protagonist who was present for the end of the world, who is now awake again for its rebirth, carries the hopes and fears of the culture it was created by.
Breath of the Wild is not the first Legend of Zelda game about death. Majora’s Mask is notable among games in the franchise for the outright somber tone it strikes, dealing with the deaths of multiple characters. Ocarina of Time also features a post-apocalyptic landscape that the protagonist, very literally forced to grow-up, has to navigate during the course of the game. This iteration of the franchise is very aware of its history; the center of what makes Link’s story a tragedy is how little say he has in following it. He’s chosen, he’s thrust into the role of hero, and not even death can save him from that. Viewers, when paying to see Romeo and Juliet for the hundredth time, might hope for a better turnout, but there isn’t going to be one. Everything is already written. Everything has been written for over a hundred years. Link isn’t going to break his cycle this time. Not even when he fails.
The honor of being a hero, the duty and responsibility of your life (and even your death) not being your own, these things are not the exciting gifts that they might seem at face value. Before he starts living, Link is already dead. He’s died a hundred times over. Even the lack of a real ending supports this. Despite the cutscene, the game places the player permanently before the final battle if they want to keep playing the game. The player cannot exist outside of the threat that Link must deal with. There is no more playing the game if Link wins because there is no Link without the cycle that he’s tethered to. The game is mourning the role of hero. The player, desperately trying this time around to grant him a happy ending, is mourning Link.