On March 3rd, 2017, the Nintendo Switch was released to the public. With it, the world saw the release of the long-awaited open world adventure game, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In the year following its release, Breath of the Wild would receive great acclaim, with 10/10 ratings from the likes of Polygon and IGN, several awards, and high praise from publisher and gamer alike. For many returning fans of the series, Breath of the Wild was a new adventure in the world they’ve grown fond of. For first-time players, it was a colorful, immersive, and enjoyable introduction to a well-loved story and cast.
And for some people, that’s where the game’s story ends. After the latest DLCs were added, one might be content to say simply that the game was a huge success, and say no more.
Upon closer inspection, however, one might notice a stirring in the game’s fanbase. Over one year later, the hype of the game hasn’t died. Why? Yes, the game is chock-full of content, both in its original form and with the addition of downloadables, but surely someone would have uncovered every secret, completed every shrine, fought every enemy, completed the Hyrule Compendium… So what is there left to do?
Since the early days of the internet, fan-generated content for media of all kinds has been a powerful force, for better or worse, and much of it has stood the test of time until the modern day. Better-studied writers have written essay upon essay about the goings-on of the loose conglomerate known as “fandom,” and going into that topic as a whole is better left for a different publication. However, to understand this phenomenon, one must understand a core tenet of “fandom”: The idea that the work, and the interpretation thereof, is mutable.
In the case of many types of media, this philosophy can’t be employed directly. In most cases, a fan of a television show couldn’t write an entire screenplay, then send it to the studio to be produced. Many fanworks are published in small communities online, unknown to anyone who isn’t somehow “in the know.”
Games, however, are different. Many games empower the player to make choices, whether those choices are what gear is worn, what is said, what is done, etc, and even within the mere illusion of choice, there is a sense of thrill that comes with that ability. It draws the player in, and it makes them feel as if the story they are telling is truly their story, and they helped to create it. The type of attachment formed by this lasts much longer, and as a result, many players distinctly remember the stories they made from even small choices. If you ask most people, they can tell you the name of their first Pokémon, and they’ll probably have a story to go with it.
For as long as games have been around, players have found a way to use and even exploit their limited choices for extra fun. The time-honored tradition of “speedrunning” arose in such a way, and so have things like the infamous “0.5x A Presses” run of Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild takes this choice-based play to a new level. Everyone plays as Link, the hero of the story, but the way Link dresses, the way he fights, what he uses to fight, the horse he rides, the places he goes and by which path are all up to the player. In the sprawling map of open-world Hyrule, players can climb mountains, swim across rivers, glide through the air from impossible heights, or just run, and all of these modes of moving feel good to use. The only limitations for many of these actions are the “stamina wheel,” which players can also customize. Players that want to maximize their combos and run for much longer can have up to 3 wheels of stamina. Players who want to be sturdier and take a couple more hits can have up to 30 hearts if they’re willing to put in the work to get them.
Recently, players have found new ways to employ these enhanced choices. Speedrun records are being broken daily, but that’s barely scraping the surface. Players impose challenges on themselves that go above and beyond what the game asks of them, such as restricting themselves to “naked runs,” or allowing only the use of tree branches for weapons. Instead of restricting, some players have chosen to make their gameplay even more complex. Using the powers of the Sheikah Slate and some very specific items, they’ve created elaborate traps, which are expertly timed to trigger the moment an enemy is within range. They might challenge themselves to face dangerous enemies with a sick motorcycle trick. The more adventurous spirits might develop a makeshift “elevator” out of a tree and a bomb, getting them to the top of a tall tower in record time. They share their tricks and accomplishments online, continuing to raise the bar for what can be achieved through the means provided to the average player, and astonishing those around them.
And the craziest part of it all is that this is the kind of content players are flocking to. Yes, Breath of the Wild is an incredible game all on its own, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Some players might like following the paths, doing things in order and clearing level after level, and that’s fine. Games like that should be applauded too, without a doubt, because they are also incredible. But the important takeaway here is that for many players, the interactive art form we call gaming when combined with the freedom to create one’s own experience, can set the stage for experiences that will make a massive impact. Some players don’t want to be told what to do, and exactly how to do it. Some players want restrictions that challenge them and allow them to blossom, instead of grinding them down under the weight of an iron fist. As the industry moves forward, it’s important to remember that games aren’t a stationary work, kept on a shelf and admired from behind a red rope and a museum guard. They’re an experience, experiences players help create, and those experiences can last much longer than the lifetime of any single game or console.