As its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom glides into view, it’s interesting to reflect on the seismic impact The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has had on gaming since its launch in 2017. It has become the flagship open-world experience, and its compulsive, horizon-chasing gameplay loop made it an incredible advert for the Switch’s TV-to-handheld unique selling point. Breath of the Wild rekindled my love for open-world adventure games, and the Nintendo Switch reshaped how I played games entirely. Certain games or consoles can become era-defining, not only for the medium, but for us as individual gamers, too.
Replaying games that have such strong associations with specific moments in your life can feel transportive–even more so than games usually are–as though you’re time-traveling. However, while there are plenty of games that evoke a fond nostalgia in me when I play them, this association can be a double-edged sword. I consider Breath of the Wild one of my favorite games of all time, and yet, because of the events in my life when I played it, I’m not sure it’s a game I’ll ever finish–let alone want to play again.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild Full Story Recap
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In the spring of 2017 I got a phone call from my parents while I was at work. At a certain point in your life, you develop a kind of telepathy around strangely timed calls from family, and so that morning, as my phone buzzed on my desk, I knew what the news was before I’d even answered. “It’s your grandmother. Come home.”
Grief, as it turns out, sharpens the memory like little else, and so many of my memories of Breath of the Wild, a game I’d bought alongside a Switch only weeks earlier, are particularly vivid. I remember telling my boss I had to leave work early, calling my wife, and walking to the station, but I also remember spending that afternoon gliding serenely through a canyon in Gerudo Desert, scouring the wasteland for shrines. I remember the train back to my parents the next day, a journey I’d made dozens of times before, only this time I was also standing atop a hill, marveling at the grand, spiraling Rist Peninsula before me.
I’ve played games for 25 years, and particular games or consoles are tied inextricably to specific points in my life: the pandemic-blighted launch of the PS5; bonding over split-screen Modern Warfare multiplayer at university; playing RollerCoaster Tycoon on our first family computer one Christmas Day. At heart, I’ve always seen myself as a Nintendo kid, and that feeling traces back to playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time at a particularly tough, formative point in my childhood, finding the open fields of Hyrule utterly compelling.
In a similar way, Breath of the Wild was a welcome distraction over the weeks that followed. It became a constant companion on journeys to visit relatives, something to play in snatched moments between helping with funeral arrangements, and a tool to while away the hours on sleepless nights. Just like when I was a child, I felt myself vanish into Hyrule. Its unexpectedly quiet world and hands-off direction made it feel like a genuine adventure, where exploration was propelled by curiosity rather than the taxing icon-driven busywork of other open-world games. I lost myself in the stillness of a game that encouraged you to go out into the world and get lost. I would leave no stone unturned, no peak unclimbed.
I think lots of us who love games and gaming look back on our lives in this way, remembering what you played, who you played it with, and why you played it. It’s that strong, intangible pull that keeps you coming back to games, that keeps you chasing that feeling you get when you realize you’re playing a game that will stay with you forever.
With Breath of the Wild, having that game on that console at that point in my life felt like a blessing: The portability of the Switch meant I could take it anywhere; the near-instant resume function made it easy to play for a few brief minutes at a time; and the home console scale of Hyrule seemed endless.
But it wasn’t endless. Soon enough, I’d enlisted the help of all four Divine Beasts, retrieved the Master Sword, scaled every tower, and rebuilt Tarrey Town. All that remained was to take down Calamity Ganon once and for all. And that’s when I stopped playing Breath of the Wild entirely. Perhaps I was distracted by another release, or maybe I simply didn’t want the adventure to finish so soon, but my journey across Hyrule came to an abrupt end with Ganon undefeated and Princess Zelda still in peril.
Grief, as it turns out, sharpens the memory like little else, and so many of my memories of Breath of the Wild, a game I’d bought alongside a Switch only weeks earlier, are particularly vivid
I always intended to go back. The game is still there, installed and ready to play. Link is still waiting for his climactic battle at the gates of Hyrule Castle, but I still have no desire to finish the game, even as the release of Tears of the Kingdom approaches. Playing Breath of the Wild and the weeks after my grandmother’s death have become completely intertwined in my mind, and now the game serves as both a window back to a difficult time in my life, and a time capsule of the virtual adventure that helped to get me through it. The Hero’s Path feature, which traces Link’s adventure across the world map, has a particularly melancholic air: It is a painful kind of nostalgia to be reminded of the precise route I took across the game world in those bleak days and nights playing the game.
This isn’t a pile of shame article; I don’t feel guilty for never having finished Breath of the Wild, and I won’t feel bad when I start up Tears of the Kingdom for the first time. I’m grateful for the distraction the game gave me at a time I needed it most, but it’s become indelibly marked by the time of my life during which I played it. If you play games your whole life, chances are you’ll be playing one when something bad happens, and Breath of the Wild, in all its beautiful, adventurous, rapturous glory, is one of those games for me.
I said above that playing games from a different point in your life can feel transportive, like time travel. That can be painful, leaving you pining for another era of your life that’s long since passed. But that’s the beautiful thing about games too–the best ones are timeless. I may never want to finish Breath of the Wild, but if I ever change my mind, my Link will still be there waiting outside the castle, none the worse for the years that have passed since I last saw him.
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