Games for Writers – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Is a Great Fantasy World Simulator

Two weeks ago was my birthday.

I got Super Mario 3D All-Stars and Breath of the Wild, both from my mom who, in my adult life, has become my go-to dealer for my Switch habit. Seriously, my Switch and all of my games have been gifts from her.

So, A) thanks, mom, and B) to 10 year old me, dude, can you believe this shit? I am living your dream.

To be clear though, I already owned and beat Breath of the Wild on my Wii U; like a lot of people, I absolutely destroyed that game over the course of a few months and then put it down like I was entering the Odinsleep.

However . . . I recently saw a speedrun of it and the only let’s players I actually like, The Super Beard Bros., are currently playing it, so . . . “Is it time?” I thought. “Have I forgotten enough of that game? Can I play it again?”

And, yes; if nothing else, this post is to tell you that it’s time to wake from that Odinsleep.

But also, if you’re a Fantasy writer, then I just want to make you aware that your second playthrough . . . can play more like a beautiful, Fantasy simulation.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can be the most fun (although admittedly super loose) Fantasy world research anyone has ever done.

And if you’re a Fantasy writer like me who just played it as a video game the first time around (or if you’re a writer who hasn’t played it at all), I just want to state my case for why BotW works as a Fantasy simulator.

Simulation of the Wild

The physics and logic in BotW are so variable that I’m still learning new things I can do in it, three years later:

There are so many weird interactions and dynamics among the elements of the game that it’s just easier to assume an idea you have will work.

And that’s not an exaggeration. Are you in a dark room and see the outline of a standing lantern in the distance but don’t feel safe walking to it? Well, you can throw your torch at it. Or, if you don’t want to lose your torch, you can shoot a fire arrow at it. Or, if you don’t want to put your torch away, losing the flame, so you can take out your bow, you can drop your lit torch on the floor, light a normal arrow, and shoot that. Or drop your lit torch, take out a wooden weapon, light that on fire, and throw it across the room.

You get the picture. That scenario alone dips into an almost D&D level of simulation, where you’re invited to solve problems in ways that utilize real physics and logic . . . but with the added bonus that you have special magical abilities that affect that physics and logic. It is the epitome of a magical world working with internal, inherently understood logic, and it works so well that I could write an entire post about the Runes of Link’s Shiekah Slate as a great magic system (but I won’t . . . maybe).

What I want to focus on here is the fact that a lot of us took a while to understand the depth of BotW’s internal logic on our first playthrough. In fact, most of us still hear about some shit someone else did in BotW that we never did, and we’re like, “Wait wait wait. You can throw rusty weapons at those Octoroks on Dead Mountain and they’ll clean them!?”

What this really means is a lot of us never really understood the freedom we had.

Which means a lot of us didn’t just experience it.

And, when it comes to being a game for writers, I think that’s the strength of Breath of the Wild: the freedom it gives you to exist in a Fantasy world to the extent that you can even influence its physics. The game’s ability to make you feel like you really are ducked behind a rock on a beautiful, summer’s day, waiting for a monster to turn around so you can sneak up and steal its weapon.

And, unlike other similar games, there’s minimal bullshit, which I’d argue makes it significantly better.

Abridged Sim of the Wild

Yes, there is a story. Yes, there are cutscenes and, of course, there’s a game inside the game, first and foremost.

But there are no complicated dialogue trees that make your character super specific. There are no factions you have to join with motivations, outfits, and plotlines you have to adhere to. Link is a blank slate who doesn’t talk, and Breath of the Wild is the world you experience through him. A game where you get to be whoever you want and do whatever you want.

And that decrease in dialogue/cutscene distractions is complimented by BotW giving you shit like the temperature.

While running around in what seems like balmy weather, you can always hit “-” . . .
. . . and check on the bottom left of the map screen. Huh. 63°. Colder than I expected.

So, yeah, the temperature.

And, yeah, it changes with fluctuations in weather.

The above shots were taken on a sunny day in Akkala, the region of the game stuck in perpetual Fall. However, on another occasion, when I checked the weather at random, I saw it was way colder than 63 and thought, “Wait. Why?”

And then a storm hit.

Being totally honest here, these smaller, environmental systems aren’t crazy robust . . .

but holy shit. I can check the wind direction by lighting a torch, and I can use that information to my benefit.

It’s immersive in ways Fantasy video games usually aren’t.

And there are things you can do to make it feel even more ridiculously immersive.

Going Full-Sim

For example, you can turn the HUD to “Pro.” I’m sure you’ve heard about this if you were in the thick of gaming media when BotW came out, but not having a mini-map–needing to talk to people, ask directions, and survey your surroundings–makes it so much more immersive.

But you can also take it a step further by adding other caveats that make the experience feel less video gamey.

I, for example, only have the one horse, Cowhorse, whose location I keep persistent in-game; if I board Cowhorse in the Woodland Stable, I have to go back to Woodland Stable if I want to take her out again.

Also, apples are her favorite. I have probably fed this virtual horse over a hundred apples I could’ve used for healing. In my defense . . . look at that face. ^3^

Obviously, you can take all of this as far as you want. For example, I don’t eat on a normal, human schedule because that would just remind me how fast the day/night cycle is, and make me feel the gameyness of the experience again.

However, I am playing a different head canon Link; for this playthrough, he’s more of a Raph: a stubborn, headstrong guy . . . who’s slowly learning that he has to do better, (which, in the beginning, meant that he went directly to Hyrule Castle with three hearts, almost got killed by Ganon, and is now following through on the rest of the quest as he learns to prepare for fights). Playing that Link has been extremely fun and su-u-u-u-uper rough; I died trying to get to Ganon, like, thirty seven times.

But, look, no matter what you do in this new playthrough, I suggest you also . . .

Talk to More NPC’s

Talking to NPC’s in Breath of the Wild doesn’t feel especially realistic. In fact, a lot of NPC’s will flat out be like, “Press B to place your amiibo on the thing for Nintendobucks!” or whatever. So many of them that you won’t really be able to avoid the gameyness of their instruction manual-speak.

But the rest of the NPC’s usually have really weird, human quirks, which is both quintessential to the Zelda experience and, at the very least, interesting as extremely subtle microcosms of worldbuilding. Tiny, fleeting, sub-sub-subplots that I completely missed my first time around.

For example: Leekah.

Leekah is a Hylian woman who I keep running into out in the dangerous Hyrule Fields. And, every time, she complains about how she just wants to go for one walk without getting attacked by monsters. Every time, she sighs a very 2020 sigh, runs off toward shelter, and that short interaction is so much simpler and more charming than the umpteenth character in Skyrim talking to me about another cave of bandits nearby. And really, even if it doesn’t feel realistic, “simple and charming” feels like a way better NPC model for a writer to experience than “complicated and generic.”

And, hey, I’m sure you can argue for the opposite; I know there are benefits to having long, linear quests with wordier NPC’s in other games. In fact, I’m sure I would’ve argued for that complexity 10 years ago.

But, as I am now, I will argue to the death for 4 NPC’s in a stable instead of 324 NPC’s in a fort town. Not because I think the latter is wrong and stupid, but because . . . dude, I’ve got shit to do today. I have to make dinner and there’s laundry, and I have to write my story.

And this is “Games for Writers,” not “Games for People Who Have Tons of Time, So Whatever, Dude! Fuck It!”

Okay–I Gotta Stop

The urge to just keep adding to this post is so strong, but I just don’t want it to become a monster, so I’m going to stop here.

If you are like me, a Fantasy writer who loves Zelda and is just getting more and more freaked out by November 3rd on an hourly basis, then you owe it to yourself to just have this experience.

Just put down your phone, your WIP, and your existential dread for a few hours and literally get lost in Hyrule. With, like, a wet horse who’s still moody even though you fed her your last apple, and something weird and beautiful is always just around the bend.

~~~

I honestly never thought I’d write a “Games for Writers” for BotW, because it never felt like it was actually rewarding for a Fantasy writer, but now, seeing it like a simulator has made me so much more excited for the sequel. And for 2024, when I’ve forgotten enough of this game to play it again on Master Mode.

If you enjoyed this post, you can follow me to the left (on PC) or the upper right menu (on mobile).

Regardless, as always, take care, and stop checkin’ the news!

Games for Writers: No Man’s Sky

Wow. It has been forever since I’ve written one of these.

And, of all games, I picked No Man’s Sky, hands down the least disappointing game of 2016. Why, I remember no one being upset about this one.

. . .

So, disclaimer first: I know. I know that No Man’s Sky was a huge, flaming disappointment. And, with this post, I’m not trying to say that you should run out and buy it. The only reason why I didn’t trade it in, in fact, was that I forgot it was on my shelf. The only reason why I still haven’t traded it in, is that the Foundation Update was pleasant. Maybe Hello Games’ll suddenly stop supporting this game in a few months, but, as I’d only get a few bucks for trading it in now anyway, I’m holding out for future updates, hoping I at least get my money’s worth that way.

Regardless though, none of that is why I’m writing about this game today.

Today, I’m writing about No Man’s Sky to give it props in one regard. Because there is one way in which it helped improve my writing.

The name game.

I’m a big believer in the power of video games. I don’t think they’re the ultimate form of entertainment, but I think they have an innate ability to provide experiences you would never have otherwise. On a most basic level, they have the power to make you feel that you’re, say, a pilot navigating his way through a space battle.

But, at this point, an idea like that is oddly quaint when it comes to gaming. Video games are far more specific and varied. They’re able to deliver more unique tones and feelings.

And No Man’s Sky delivers a feeling and experience that I have never encountered in any other video game. Ever.

And that feeling just so happens to be important for worldbuilding.

In this video game, in which you have to gather elements from plants, rocks, animals, and planetary bases, all to power and mod your ship so that you can fly to the heart of the universe, the sandbox that you’re in is planet-sized. There’s no one around to talk to you and, often, there isn’t much to interact with.

All there is to do, is walk around, explore, and name the creatures, plants, and locations that you find. And it’s that naming–of these tiny parts of a frighteningly massive universe–that is invaluable when it comes to worldbuilding.

No Man’s Sky is a Game for Writers because the experience of being on unfamiliar territory, and not being able to go back–of having to walk around a bizarre landscape and, especially, naming things as you go–will improve your naming game tenfold.

Because now, you are the settler who founded Manhattan.

You’re the guy who’s standing there, on the spot, trying to decide what to call a place you’ve never been to.

You’re the person who’s all, “Uh . . . Fuck it. Louis Town. Wait, no, Louisville . . . : I This is exactly why there’s a Long Island in every state, isn’t it?”

No Man's Sky_20160812141756
Because sometimes, you’ll just name ’em the first thing that comes to mind.

But you’re also the person who reaches a base at the top of a mountain, and, after hours of naming different locations, looks around and sees that there are two caves nearby that look like eyes. So you name the base “Rockmire’s Gaze” and then spiral into thinking of why the mountain is named “Rockmire” and what the people of this planet would think of the fact that it has eyes (if there were people–No Man’s Sky is beautiful but it’s still a pretty vacant resource collecting game).

My point is, after playing this game, I got a lot more heavily invested in naming trends, and I think all fantasy writers can stand to do that. And not just naming trends of landmarks or animals, but of everything; I’m finding that plant names are particularly interesting to me (“Why ‘foxglove’? And, wait, ‘ladyfinger’?. . . That’s just weird.”).

But, being put in a place to name things in quick succession also highlights your own naming trends and helps you slip away from them. In my case, I realized I love ending planets names with “-ulus” or “-os,” and as you can see from the picture above, “Prime.”

No Man's Sky_20170217182318
Although I found I also go with single words, like “Amethyst,” for planets and other locations. It’s a bad habit in my writing that I know I have to break now.

With animals, I fall back on real suffixes mixed with appropriate sounds–“byparn” being a favorite example for a cow-like alien with two horns. I also go for direct descriptors with dashes though, particularly for plants; “bat-winged borp” and “arrow-leaf tree” for examples.

Again, I wouldn’t recommend buying No Man’s Sky; it’s still a little too sparse on the gameplay side for me to recommend it to anyone.

But, if you’re a writer, and if you already own it, or if you have a friend who owns it, maybe check it out for that one day–that one batch of hours–where you’re genuinely a pilgrim, naming a land you know nothing about.

~~~

Thanks for reading. I hope this was an interesting return to the Games for Writers series. You can check out these previous installments on Metroid Prime, Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One, and Dark Souls, but please be advised that they’re mostly terrible (I wrote the Silent Hill one nearly seven years ago; I was a much different writer back then). I also wrote a post about making sure your writing is free of completely unrealistic video game tropes, a pitfall that I called the CR Trap.

Regardless though, that’s all for this week. Thank you for dropping by, and, as always, write well.