Game Design

why i’m playing zelda: breath of the wild during the covid-19 pandemic

I’ve wanted to write about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for a long time, because of the profound impact it had on my life and the lightbulbs it lit up in my game design brain.  In fact, I have a half-written draft that has been sitting here for ages, mocking me.  With any luck I’ll finally get around to it and it’ll serve as a lovely follow-up to this post.  We’ll see.

To wit: this is not the post I thought I’d write about Zelda, the one I’ve told myself repeatedly over the past 3 years that I should get around to writing.  But this is a post for what’s happening now.

Games in the time of COVID-19

With the coronavirus pandemic seizing control of our lives, I too am sheltering at home, trying to be productive and doing my best to feel connected to the outside world.  I realise I am fortunate in my circumstances, and I am glad to have technology and be able to work and write from home.

In the current climate, video games are more important than ever.  Kids who can’t go to the playground or to school are logging on to Minecraft to play together.  I’ve had more than one group of friends start up virtual D&D campaigns, meet in an online game or play board games over Tabletop Simulator.  Social connection through games is becoming a reality out of necessity.

But there’s only one game I want to play.  It’s single player.  There’s no voice chat.  It’s a lone action-adventure game made for explorers.

It’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The allure of the outdoors

I’ve always enjoyed going outdoors, primarily because of the scenery.  Looking out at the ocean or watching a sunset means a great deal to me, but I’ve never really analysed it until now.  Many people take pleasure in a wonderful view, but the psychological reasons why we enjoy this are fuzzy – in my extensive Google search, I was only able to find a handful of sources with answers1,2.

Some key points from my research about why we enjoy views so much:

  1. Views have a calming effect by not requiring much of our focus or attention and allowing us to let go and be in the moment
  2. From an evolutionary perspective, views from a vantage point helped us spot predators and find food, and it’s possible that sense of safety is hard-wired in us
  3. Seeing cityscapes gives us a sense of social engagement, as well as pride or awe at the accomplishments of us humans

It seems that experiencing (and enjoying) a view is a deeply emotional thing, engaging some very basic human feelings.  And being cooped up in my house right now, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is satisfying my craving for being outdoors, in the open, and looking out on the world.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game with a view

I’ve had many, many moments out in the real world over the past few years when I’ve stopped in the middle of a hike, looked at the view, and thought (or said aloud), “this looks just like Breath of the Wild.”  I felt that way at Lake Tahoe, watching a sunset in LA, at the botanical gardens, and countless other places since I started playing BotW.

What’s interesting is that more often than not, the real-world environments reminded me strongly of this game’s virtual ones, instead of the other way around.

The game just does views so well.  And while incredible art, atmospheric animations and relaxing music are all part of it, there are many game design choices that set BotW apart, especially in the present time of COVID-19 quarantine.

Revisiting the above points in the context of Zelda and our current situation:

1. Views have a calming effect by not requiring much of our focus or attention and allowing us to let go and be in the moment

  • This is exactly what we need right now, to turn off from the news and from our worries about having to go grocery shopping.
  • In BotW, the calming effect comes from many environmental cues, including the way the wind and rain causes the animals and the grass to behave a certain way.
  • BotW also has a very peaceful and minimalistic musical score composed of piano trills that play as you explore the world.


2. From an evolutionary perspective, views from a vantage point helped us spot predators and find food, and it’s possible that sense of safety is hard-wired in us

  • If this is an intrinsic part of our human nature, Zelda delivers by not only providing countless vantage points, but by allowing us to spot monsters and find our own objectives from them, fulfilling this evolutionary urge, when we are not able to do so in our lives.
  • While other games use mountains, walls and tall structures to keep players out, or to signify the edge of the game world, BotW uses these features along with the climbing ability to encourage players to explore, to search further above or beyond the thing that appears to be in the way.  By doing so, players find new vantage points from high places.
  • An example of this vertical design is the tower system, where overcoming challenges and obstacles to climb up each of the fifteen towers in the game rewards the player with a map unlock.  From here, the player has a breathtaking 360-view of the surroundings from up above, which is super useful for looking for an interesting location to glide down to and continue Link’s journey.

3. Seeing cityscapes gives us a sense of social engagement, as well as pride or awe at the accomplishments of us humans

  • Most of all, we are looking for social connection in this time of self-isolation.
  • In BotW, there are moments when you look out over the world and catch a glimpse of lights from a nearby town, or smoke rising from a campfire by a stable.  There’s the sound of hooves or footsteps as travellers make their way along the roads.  There’s the rustle of the overgrowth when animals or monsters move nearby.  There’s an overwhelming sense that the world around you is alive and that there are other people and creatures living in it, which is a nice reprieve from the scenes of empty streets and closed shops nowadays.

Integrating beautiful vistas into video game design

Not all games get views right, however.  The beauty in a view is getting to discover it, by choosing the perfect spot from which you can see the world.

Guild Wars 2‘s vista system makes a faux-pas here.  A vista in Guild Wars 2 is an object players can find in the world (marked by a map floating over a column of light), at which point the game would switch into cinematic mode, panning the camera around the player to show the amazing view at that location.

Image from: IGN.

This takes away meaning by making finding a view into an achievement rather than allowing the player to discover it and appreciate it for what it is, and also by taking away the player’s agency with a forced cinematic.

Views in Breath of the Wild have little or no reward except for the player enjoying what it is, or being able to see something new about the world from that point of view, much like how it works in real life.  While the world is packed with tiny things you can find (like Shrines, Koroks and chests), it doesn’t use those as a reason for players to find vantage points.  The moments of wonder at vistas happen naturally as the player travels around Hyrule, and not forcing them allows them to retain their magic.


Video games can satisfy our inner wanderers as we shelter in place during the pandemic

If you’re feeling stir-crazy, I’d recommend playing a video game like Breath of the Wild to quench your thirst for the outdoors.  Sure, documentaries and travel vlogs provide just as incredible vistas, but games are the only medium where you get to visually explore in first-person without having to leave your house.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from being stuck inside, it’s that experiencing a view is an emotional experience, perhaps even linked to our primal urge to wander.  Games can help with that; in fact, they may be the best medium for it.  Trust me, it’ll do wonders for your outdoors-and-socially-deprived brain.

Whether it’s the tumbling desert plains of Journey, the glittering futuristic cityscape of Coruscant in Star Wars: The Old Republic, or anywhere in between, I hope you are finding horizons to look out upon and ways to keep exploring, even through this difficult time as we shelter at home.

References Cited

  1. Davies, Rosalind and Michael Forster. “Why do people enjoy views?.” Answers to Science Questions. The Naked Scientists, 3 November 2015. Web. 24 March 2020.
  2. Bartz, Andrea. “Why Do We Love the View From High Above?.” The Wandering Mind. Psychology Today, 9 September 2017. Web. 24 March 2020.