I’m someone who loves a good dystopian setting as much as anyone else. While I would never want to live in one, they’re fun to play in for a little while for the thrill of it, just like many other settings in media. They also have the benefit of drawing you more into the world. It was the dystopian feel of the first Dishonored game that had me scouring the city of Dunwall for every note and book that I could find so I could get myself more immersed in the lore of the world that the developers had crafted for me to explore.
A Breathtaking Landscape
Using the word dystopia might be a little strong when talking about the world that was crafted for Breath of the Wild. Typically, we use that word to talk about a much darker setting, be that in the landscape or in the political climate of a game. You’re more likely to see the word associated with something like the Fallout series than Legend of Zelda. Games that have a dystopian setting tend to like to focus on it, remind you of how dire things are. Breath of the Wild doesn’t revel in that same kind of darkness, though, placing us in lush vistas and charming little towns. The game makes me think more of the landscape shots in the Lord of the Rings films than anything else, each moment seeming ready to be screenshot and made into my laptop background or hung on the wall.
It’s beautiful at a glance, but there is a sadness to it if you look closely.
All that Remains
Early parts of the game are keen to remind you that 100 years prior you completely failed to fulfill your purpose in saving the world. Flashbacks tell us a story that is near apocalyptic in nature until the moment that Princess Zelda steps forward and locks Ganon up with her. While most of the world is open, wide, and full of beauty, the scars of that moment remain and remind you that this is a post-apocalyptic Hyrule.
It does not take much looking around to find the remains of crumbled buildings, their frequency increasing when you enter areas closer to the looming figure of the castle or places where the guardian enemies linger. It’s easy to forget that this wall and a half sticking out of the ground might have been a home at one time or a military outpost. Finding the flooded out ruins of a village made me pause the first time that I saw it. These sorts of places are scattered so it is no wonder that they become nothing but a footnote compared to the other wide expanses of the world, but if you have played the game, there’s no doubt that you encountered a place like this.
Some longtime fans of the series were quick to point out that the ruined remains of a ranch that can be found in the game bore a resemblance to Lon Lon Ranch of Ocarina of Time. While everything crafted in a game world is by design deliberate, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a deliberate callback to an older game that would be recognized by a nostalgic player. Some would see it as nothing more than a fun easter egg, but at the same time, those who were fond of the location in Ocarina of Time have the potential to have an emotional response to seeing the place in ruins and destroyed. It’s not a far leap of logic to assume that this Link may have been to this place before everything went down the drain and have the same sort of emotional response, though as a player stand in he doesn’t emote much at the location.
Reminders of the Past
This Hyrule has it’s scars. The world is big and vast, but outside the relatively few living settlements, there are not many living creatures that are not monsters, koroks, or hunt-able animals. The intelligent species of Hyrule seem to prefer the safety of their settlements rather than the risk of the wild as a result of the monsters and guardians that roam the land. The only exception to this are stables which always fall on a well-trod path between locations. There is a storytelling in the crafting of the world layout that tells us why these cities remain while others fell. Nearly every one of the towns or villages is protected in some way by the landscape of the world, natural walls and ridges formed by the mountains, or even a single path allowing visitors to draw near. Even when a new settlement is being built up through a series of sidequests, it is in a highly defensible position, a plateau in the middle of water that can only be walked to by a single land bridge.
This natural-seeming approach to the world is why there is so much open and wide space to explore. It’s a big, beautiful, wild, untamed world that plays into the whole idea of, well, the Breath of the Wild. One of the design aspects that is clear in the themes and concepts of the game as a whole is the idea that nature has reclaimed the world in many aspects. This is visible in the way that the weathering of the elements has, with time, reclaimed many buildings and settlements, perhaps doing more to change the landscape than even the guardians have. The strongest statement on the way that the wilds have reclaimed the land is visible in the guardians themselves.
There are several places where players can stumble across the remains of one century old battle or another, where guardians lay dormant and deactivated. Each of them has been weathered by the elements and the wold is starting reclaim these as well, moss creeping over their remains in strong contrast to the roaming guardians that do nothing but destroy you if you get too close. It tells the player that should the guardians that still roam collapse in the same way as these, the wild will retake them too, the process already seeming to start with the handful of active, yet stationary guardians that dot the map like defensive turrets. In many ways, the state of the guardians in Breath of the Wild remind me, more than anything else, of the Laputian robots in the film Castle in the Sky (known as Laputa in some regions), which Breath of the Wild may have taken inspiration from.
Call of the Wild
Breath of the Wild takes place in a dystopian Hyrule, but a it’s a gorgeous dystopia that I would actually be willing to live in. One that draws me back to it over and over, and urges me just over the next hill or around the next bend. With Ganon defeated and Zelda freed, it will be interesting to see the way the world changes for the sequel and if the characters will choose to try and restore Hyrule Castle and the surrounding area, or let the wild take its course. The trailer seems to imply that something is happening under the castle so we’ll likely see when the game comes to pass.