I’m not an especially active or outdoorsy type… but I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere of being out in nature. You know, so long as it isn’t trying to bite, sting, cut, burn, poison crush or otherwise bring me to harm in one way or another.
Some of my fondest memories are from childhood, when I had the good fortune to be able to go camping with both my class at school and my Cub Scout pack. My most longstanding, happiest recollections of those trips do not involve the many activities we participated in — but rather simple things, such as gradually drifting off to sleep to the soothing sound of rain on canvas (occasionally punctuated by class clown Christopher Smith farting) or feeling a quiet sense of awe at the almost complete silence around us, save for the leaves on the forest’s trees rustling in the wind.
Breath of the Wild is making me extremely nostalgic for all this sort of thing. And, best of all, I don’t have to go out in the blazing hot British summer sunshine and/or torrential British rain to enjoy it.
It’s clear that atmosphere was always intended to be a key part of the Breath of the Wild experience, and the way this is handled is one of the main ways in which the game differs from its predecessors in the rest of the Legend of Zelda series. Past Zeldas have experimented with their exact approach to atmosphere — Wind Waker’s cartoony aesthetic produces a very different feel to Twilight Princess’ muted colour palette, for example — but they all have one thing in common: for a significant part of the game, they provide an almost tangible sense of pride and heroism.
This has been a thing right from the early days of Zelda, when the original Famicom/NES version of The Legend of Zelda introduced us to the now-iconic theme tune, composed by Koji Kondo. Legend has it that Kondo’s original intention was simply to accompany the game’s action with an arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero, as it was common practice for many games of the day to feature chiptune adaptations of classical compositions rather than original tunes. Unfortunately, at the twilight hour, Kondo discovered that Bolero was still protected by copyright — copyright that didn’t expire until 2016 — and thus ended up pulling an all-nighter, eventually resulting in one of the most well-known pieces of music in all of gaming. I call that an ultimately positive outcome.
Anyway, the point is, Kondo’s score was triumphant, bold and heroic; it started from the moment you stepped into Hyrule. While you were on the overworld, you felt like you were invincible; you were the legendary hero Link, after all, and you could do anything! Save the princess? Sure. Gather the Triforce? Absolutely! Run out of bombs just when you really need some? Most definitely!
The only time the music changed in the original Legend of Zelda was when there was a noticeable shift in the balance of power — such as when you stepped into a dungeon. Now you were on the enemy’s turf, and you’d have to take care; you were no longer in a world in which you felt dominant, but there was still hope.
Subsequent Zelda games built on this formula somewhat, but all maintained that triumphant, heroic feeling when out on the overworld; Link is here, the music seemed to say, and he’s going to save everyone.
Breath of the Wild is different. The game begins with Link waking up in a mysterious cave with no recollection of who he is, a mysterious voice ringing in his ears and an overly affable old man seemingly watching his every move. It’s a peculiar situation, for sure, and could easily be incredibly frightening — particularly once you learn a little more about what that creepy dark shadow off in the distance is — but instead, there’s an odd feeling of peace about the whole thing.
As you explore, you’ll see the blades of grass blowing in the wind and blossom floating on the breeze. You’ll hear the rustling of leaves and the babbling of bodies of water. A distant bird calls for its mate; an insect buzzes in the undergrowth. This is a Hyrule that has been through a lot and, for the most part, come out of the other side of it all; there are vast tracts of landscape that have been all but completely reclaimed by nature, with only the slightest hint that there was once civilisation present there.
This is not a world in which it’s easy to feel like a triumphant hero, in other words. This is a world in which you, at times, feel very much like an intruder disturbing the peace. This is a world in which you can never be truly alone; in which there is never truly “silence”. This is a world that will respect you if you respect it back — but in which if you start trying to assert your dominance, you’ll soon come to realise your own limitations when compared to the awesome, never-ending power of nature.
Now and then, though, there’ll be a glimmer of hope. A delicate twinkle on the piano marking the dawning of a new day; the mournful yet soothing song of a stable in the near vicinity; the distinctive theme of a more populous area.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Breath of the Wild is actually making use of music in quite a similar fashion to that very first Zelda game, albeit via a slightly different interpretation and implementation: it’s still marking transitions between areas where the balance of power changes, only this time rather than a hard divide between the triumphant exploration of the overworld and the danger of a dungeon, it’s marking the distinction between the isolation felt in the wild and the comfort felt among peers.
To be more specific, music in Breath of the Wild typically means civilisation; safety; company. Walk away from the music and you walk away from your people to once again be an intruder in nature’s realm; stay near it and you’re safe. Usually.
While the style of the music may be a significant departure from past Zelda games, there’s little denying the fact that Breath of the Wild’s excellent use of sound plays a significant role of making its setting incredibly memorable and a pleasure to explore.
And this isn’t even getting into what happens when you descend beneath the surface…
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