Have It Your Way
Dan Schindel on Tears of the Kingdom

The developers of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom recounted feeling “déjà vu” when working on the game. They started with the map used in the previous title in the Legend of Zelda series, 2017’s Breath of the Wild. Contemporary open-world games are intended to not merely be played but essentially inhabited by a player for upwards of 100 hours—“forever games,” as Sam Bodrojan calls them. Breath of the Wild was acclaimed and remains beloved for the beauty and breadth of its world. A game that takes the exact same landscape and stacks on new elements sounds more like downloadable content than a full-fledged sequel. Yet what Tears of the Kingdom addsits novel methods of traversal, creation, and problem-solving—dramatically recontextualizes not just the reused parts of the previous game but also the entire way the player explores.

Several years after the events of Breath of the Wild, player character Link and series namesake Zelda investigate a magical miasma that’s sickening the citizens of Hyrule. They discover its source underground: the mummified yet still-living Ganondorf, perennial antagonist of the many incarnations of these characters across the games. He awakens and unleashes “The Upheaval.” Monsters emerge across Hyrule, floating islands appear in the sky, and chasms open to reveal an expansive system of caves beneath the ground. Zelda disappears and Link is seriously wounded. He’s nursed back to health and then given new abilities by the robotic custodians inhabiting the floating islands.

Breath of the Wild upended paradigms of both its series and sandbox games in general by offering players unprecedented freedom. From the start, one could go anywhere they chose on that vast map, uninhibited by narrative restrictions, experience caps, or arbitrary obstacles. It was the distillation of the forever game experience, with its endless combination of choices offered in the form of a detailed world filled with incident. The open world as a concept is often defined by such horizontal freedom. Each new release in the major series of the genre—The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Far Cry—highlights its ever-expanding world, promising players ever more to do. Tears of the Kingdom has an even larger world than Breath of the Wild and plenty of quests to embark upon, but more crucial is how it expands not just what one can do but how they can do it. It adds “vertical” freedom—both literally via the new maps above and below Hyrule, and in its play experience by encouraging players to rethink its geography and their methods of interaction with the world.

For instance, the new Ascend power lets Link travel upward through any overhanging structure, so long as the ceiling in question is close enough and there’s a clear space on top of it from which to emerge. This radically reconfigures how the player approaches everything from dungeons to catwalks to platforms to cliff faces. One much-vaunted aspect of Breath of the Wild was Link’s ability to climb almost anything; that returns, but added is the possibility to instantly bypass vertical obstacles. Ascend enriches the challenge and fun of climbing rather than replace it, facilitating a mix of different techniques to conquer each mountain or tower. In Breath of the Wild, climbing was a matter of strategically picking the smartest paths upward; now you can target a walkway or crag that sticks out just far enough for you to Ascend through it and surmount climbs that might not otherwise be doable. Sometimes it can simply alleviate common gameplay frustrations. After scavenging all the items that you want in a cave, you can return to the surface immediately rather than backtrack to the entrance. Sometimes puzzles are deliberately designed with this ability in mind, while other times you feel like you’re cleverly cheating the developers by finding a route they didn’t intend. (Or perhaps they only made the route look unintended and are the ones cleverly tricking you.) Similarly, another new power, Recall, allows you to target objects in motion and make them “rewind,” retracing their steps à la the “inversions” of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. A chunk of an island falling out of the sky can be turned into an impromptu elevator, or a flung boulder can be sent back at your antagonist. The very laws of physics are playthings.

Then there’s the Ultrahand ability, with which you can pick up a wide array of materials and stick them together. It can be as simple as attaching four wheels to a board to make a rudimentary cart, or as complex as putting a steering wheel and fans on a glider to make a plane. With the myriad objects at Link’s disposal, the possibilities rapidly become daunting. In Breath of the Wild, you could sail across Hyrule on a paraglider or ride horses over its plains. Now you can fly over it in a hot air balloon, or tear up the roads in a monster truck, or sail its rivers in your own boat, or strap a rocket onto the flimsiest pretext of a vehicle and see how far you can ride before it falls apart.

When I first saw a Tears of the Kingdom trailer demonstrating the Ultrahand, I was immediately more curious to see what other people would make with it rather than what I could do myself. I trust my own creativity, but it’s nothing compared to what a collective pool of millions of minds can dream up. With social media, sharing has become its own dimension of gameplay narrative. Online communities have expanded open-world games from individual bespoke experiences to communal hubs. Sites like Twitter, Twitch, and Reddit have aided the transformation of the sandbox game into the forever game. The games can now be too big for one person to experience everything they offer. Each player can easily look up what someone else found that they missed. It is this vast exchange of ideas, possibilities, and unique encounters that lets forever games exist not merely as interactive works but as lifestyles.

I was not disappointed by my hopes for the Ultrahand. Almost immediately after launch, my social feeds filled with bizarre and fanciful contraptions that other players had fashioned. There were recreations of the Trojan Horse and the 1908 Blackstone oil engine. There were siege engines, tanks, predator drones, working walking mechs. There were elaborate Looney Tunes–style traps set for enemies. There were so, so many humanoid figures with penises that spewed flame, waved about, exploded, or all three. This is a continuation of a trend set by Minecraft (2011) and perpetuated by other creation-based games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020). I believe there is as much of interest in the broader community around the game as there is in the game itself—and others seem to agree, judging by the millions of views that even brief videos from these games accrue on YouTube, Twitter, or TikTok. The Tears of the Kingdom developers are well aware of this; in interviews, they’ve said they knew Breath of the Wild was a success not because of its sales figures, but because they saw the novel ways people were finding to play being shared online.

The experience is not without its hiccups. Ultrahand is impressive but frequently janky. The promise is unlimited combinations of materials, but it’s not really feasible for literally any piece of one thing to stick to any piece of another. And so there are specific sticking parts on each object. This means that on your way to building a car, you may have to remove and reattach different parts multiple times before they fit into just the right spots. Nintendo, perpetually at the back of the pack when offering accessibility options, continues to insist upon byzantine and sometimes counterintuitive button commands and interfaces. The fact that many mechanical devices are activated by being struck, or that the only way to detach objects melded with Ultrahand is to shake them, often breeds frustration.

Tears of the Kingdom also suffers some of the problems that seem endemic to its genre. There are endless things to do in Hyrule, but sometimes they are just variations on the same thing. This is understandable; it may be impossible to fill every niche of a forever game with unique enemies, encounters, puzzles, and quests. There is simply so much, and these developers already often operate under inhuman pressures and schedule crunches. So, having dedicated more ingenuity to geographies and gameplay and important quests, they take shortcuts in other areas—reuse a boss here, put a fetch quest identical to one you’ve already done there. It only becomes a game-breaking annoyance if you are so fixated on experiencing everything that you insist on going to every corner and running every errand. If a player instead prioritizes their own fun and simply goes as the spirit of exploration leads them, they may only encounter one or two of the same bosses or quests.

But there’s a paradox here, because the gameplay loop pushes players toward the completionist model rather than the relaxed one. With innumerable collectibles offered as rewards for combat or exploration (collectibles that are all necessary to fulfill one quest requirement or item upgrade or another), players are incentivized to be obsessive. Yet that can be an ultimately hollow experience. If these games are lifestyles, then these are the parts of that life that feel like a job. That push and pull between adventure and repetition is a tricky balance that no open-world game has yet mastered. The title that has come closest may be Death Stranding, and it did so by explicitly emphasizing the minutiae of work and navigation, even having in-depth walking mechanics. (Like many games by Hideo Kojima, it almost seems like it’s doing so as a joke at times.)

This is an issue that plagues Tears of the Kingdom more than Breath of the Wild because of its reuse of the Hyrule map. If a player gets stuck in a rut of busywork, that feeling will be intensified by the fact that they may be doing it against a backdrop they’re already deeply familiar with, diminishing any sense of discovery or novelty. This problem may be intractable, inevitable from the moment Nintendo decided to start from the old world rather than begin anew. This is not the first time a Zelda game has been enmeshed so thoroughly with its predecessor. Majoras Mask (2000), developed on an abridged schedule directly after Ocarina of Time, reused and remixed many of its assets, including the cast of characters (explained and justified by its parallel universe setting). And multiple installments in the series, like Ocarina of Time itself and Twilight Princess, have already “reused” Hyrule. Familiar regions—Death Mountain, the Gerudo Desert, Lake Hylia—have been present in different games for decades now. Tears of the Kingdom represents the most extreme and direct version of this reuse.

The story is perhaps the least important aspect for the Zelda games, which tend to forego complex narratives in favor of conjuring an immersive atmosphere of adventure. Within that framework, whatever the player decides to do becomes the true story. In this way Zelda prefigured many conventions of open-world games that would not become standard until the genre fully cohered more than a decade after the release of the original Legend of Zelda in 1986. When designing that game, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to invoke his own childhood memories of exploring the Kyoto area where he grew up. Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom foreground player experience as story even more than previous installments; cutscenes and required quests are minimal, and both relegate much of the relevant plot developments to optional flashback-based side quests.

Nintendo bowed out of the technological arms race within the so-called “console wars” nearly 20 years ago, when the company opted to try novel gameplay gimmicks with the Wii rather than push graphical hardware to its next limit the way Sony did with the PlayStation series or Microsoft did with the Xbox. Tears of the Kingdom’s visuals may be far less intricate (though they are often still beautiful, hearkening back to the painted look of The Wind Waker) than those of its contemporaries within the genre, but it still stands as a technical achievement. Link can leap from a sky island, pilot a craft down to the service, and then dive into a chasm to the Depths, all without a single loading screen. That this has been pulled off seamlessly on the Switch, a system that uses cartridges rather than discs, is remarkable. Such is the game’s emphasis on its illusion of continuity and a connected world, forging the kind of immersion that could nearly replace one’s own imagination. Of course, it remains an illusion—one reason for the vast distances and the daunting size of the chasms leading to the Depths is to disguise the game loading each area. The new play mechanics undergird this feeling, turning stretches between landmarks that would otherwise be empty into playgrounds for experimentation (you can’t go far without stumbling upon a pallet full of building materials).

If Breath of the Wild found new possibilities for player choice in exploration, Tears of the Kingdom offers enticing glimpses of what’s to come as game designers rise to meet the challenge of endlessly creative audiences. The game’s imagination of three-dimensional freedom still plays it too safe in certain respects and is at points clumsily deployed, but it still allowed me a playing experience that felt wholly my own in a way few games have. In one dungeon, I reached a seemingly inaccessible room through a harrowing combination of climbing and Ascend. I still have no idea how I was “supposed” to get there, but the fact that I made it anyway fills me with a terrific sense of accomplishment. There are lessons here even for more traditional games, and for experiences meant to be much shorter than this. Video games have awakened to their true potential as art as they have embraced the possibilities of dynamic response rather than forcing players on guided experiences. The overarching ongoing project of the Zelda series continues to chase Miyamoto’s dreams of the fields and forests of Kyoto, staging a monomyth to which we can all contribute tall tales.