Rachael Hutchinson

Rachael Hutchinson is Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Delaware, where she teaches Japanese and Game Studies, with research focusing on representation and identity in Japanese narrative texts. Her work on videogames appears in the journals Games and Culture, Japanese Studies, Replaying Japan, and NMEDIAC: Journal of New Media and Culture, as well as the books Gaming Representation: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Video Games, (ed. Malkowski and Russworm), Introduction to Japanese Pop Culture (ed. Freedman and Slade) and Transnational Contexts of Culture, Gender, Class, and Colonialism in Play (ed. Pulos and Lee). Her book Japanese Culture Through Videogames (Routledge 2019) was featured on the podcasts ‘Meiji at 150’ and ‘Japan Station.’ She is currently co-editing a book on the Japanese role-playing game genre with Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon, forthcoming from Lexington Books.

Contact information:
rhutch at udel.edu

Observant Play: Colonial Ideology in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

by Rachael Hutchinson

Abstract

This essay examines the charge of colonial rhetoric in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017), taking into account the Japanese origin of the game and what “colonialism” means in the Japanese context. I investigate the game’s ideology in terms of how it is conveyed to players, not only on the representational plane of narrative, theme and character design, but also in the manipulation of the implied player in the context of an open-world environment. I test the hypothesis that the ideology of the game is clearest in its architecture -- the structure of rules and script that serves as a shell to player-driven exploration -- and is accessible through observant play. “Observant play” is defined as paying close attention to direct instructions, limiting possibilities of action in the open world, and negotiating meaning-making according the player’s own values, prior knowledge and experience. As such, the observant player is defined as a specific subset of the implied player. The essay incorporates an experimental playthrough to perform a close reading of in-game instructions and their significance. While environmental cues and narrative development are seen to complement one another, the balance between observing external, scripted instructions and following one’s own interests and predilections of play is seen to reach a tipping point, leading to an individual, specific interpretation of the game’s rhetoric. From my own observations, I argue that the designers encourage non-violent action and an anti-colonialist worldview. In the open world, “observant play” becomes as much a self-directed interpretive practice as an exercise in following instructions.

Keywords: colonialism, Nintendo, ideology, player agency, open world, Legend of Zelda

 

Introduction

Nintendo’s latest offering in The Legend of Zelda series is Breath of the Wild, released on the Switch console in 2017. Selling more than 24 million copies to date, the game was an instant success, praised for its vast and complex open world, the ambient music suffusing the environment, and beautiful graphics inspired by visual conventions of Studio Ghibli. The game retells the story of the young hero Link, the beautiful Princess Zelda of Hyrule and the evil villain Ganon, as does every title in the series. Basic gameplay elements have much in common with previous 3D installments, including dungeons, puzzles, fearsome boss battles and the need to save a world in danger. The open world gives a similar sense of thrilling exploration found in the first Zelda game from 1986, “rediscovering the essence” of the series in allowing players to go in any direction and do whatever actions they like, while gradually becoming accustomed to the map (Webster, 2017). Director Fujibayashi Hidemaro presented a panel at the 2017 Game Developers’ Conference with art director Takizawa Satoru and technical director Dohta Takuhiro, addressing change and consistency in Breath of the Wild in the context of the series [1]. A major point was the emphasis on player choice in a more open-world game, where puzzles and dungeons could be completed out of order or not attempted at all. Producer Aonuma Eiji suggested that speedrunners could go straight to the final battle if they wished:

Users may not actually get the full story depending on how they play this game and how they strategize and solve puzzles….Users are able to go to the very end goal without revealing why Link woke up the way he did and where he did. Whether you want to reveal the storyline and find out why Link woke up, or you want to just go straight to the goal, that’s an option totally up to the user. (Kollar, 2016)

The tension between open-world exploration and a more story-based game is thus clear in the development process, at the heart of which lies the question of design -- how is the player to be directed toward story events, dungeons, puzzles and rewards, or do they need direction at all? How do designers convey the story, the ideology, the “message” of the game if players are free to play however they like? By ideology, I mean the consciously constructed representations, mechanics and narrative aspects which demonstrate the designers’ worldview and ideas, as well as their unconscious ideas and attitudes. I follow Christopher Paul (2012), Ken McAllister (2012) and my own previous work (Hutchinson, 2019) in treating the videogame as a text, part of discourse and a speech act, in which ideology is conveyed by rhetorical strategies [2]. In the linear structures of the Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG), players often follow a clear scripted path by which the designer’s message can become apparent, on a spectrum of direct critique to indirect allegory. Players in the open world, in contrast, may only sometimes come into contact with scripted scenarios or story events. The rhetoric of the open world must therefore depend on the constructed shell of what every player must encounter -- rules, instructions, loading screens and cover art, as well as the actions of non-player characters (NPCs) and the surrounding environment. This essay explores the directions and instructions given to the player in Breath of the Wild to determine how ideological content is built into the game and how the player encounters it, by rules and other means.

In reader-response theory, any game text is open to a multiplicity of readings by any number of individual players [3]. If this is true for tightly scripted narrative games, the open-world text holds even more potential for a vast array of different interpretations. Accordingly, Breath of the Wild has been analyzed by scholars using a range of disciplinary approaches. I will begin by describing the main ideological readings of the game to date, particularly the colonial reading, which draws heavily on conventions in the fantasy genre. I then consider specific configurations of the “implied player” in relation to the open world context. Next, I relate a first-hand experimental playthrough to perform a close reading of in-game instructions and their significance, placing the game in its broader discursive context. The conclusion revisits the question of ideology and rhetoric in the open world, suggesting how “observant play” may help impose useful interpretive frameworks on a vast and overwhelming text [4].

Ideological Readings of Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is approached in the scholarly literature from several angles. Gerald Farca, Alexander Lehner and Víctor Navarro-Remesal (2020) interrogate the emotional and bodily impact, or “affect” engendered by the game environment, arguing that regenerative play is best found in “ecogames or green gaming.” In gender studies, Sarah Stang (2019) analyzes androgynous masculinity in the Legend of Zelda series and fan reception of Link’s latest iteration [5]. Fan discussion expressed disappointment with the lack of a playable female character, although some found Link’s physical body relatable in its refusal to occupy a site of stereotypical male or female traits, an evocative jumping-off point for new creative works (Stang, 2019; Hemmann, 2018). Many have found the gender dynamics of the game series rich in ideological meaning, praising and criticizing Nintendo by turns for either challenging or reinforcing perceived gender binaries [6]. Others have examined the game as a Japanese artistic work: Kathryn Hemmann (2019) analyzes Buddhist and apocalyptic themes in Breath of the Wild, while Laurence Herfs (2020) examines the game’s “cultural aesthetics” in terms of Japaneseness and a “self-reflexive Japonisme.”

In this context, the charge of colonialist rhetoric has also been brought against Breath of the Wild, articulately formulated by Ricardo Quintana Vallejo:

BoTW is a metaphor of European Colonialism. The main character, a white, blue-eyed young man is destined to save the world. […] Link has the burden to visit the most exotic and wild places of the planet because the inhabitants need him to save them. Like Columbus or Magallanes, he has to “discover” the world, “draw” maps and help underdeveloped peoples to find their way. Link is the European “I” that faces the “other.” (Quintana Vallejo, 2017)

Quintana Vallejo thus reads the game in terms of the brave young European male hero, mapping new lands and helping the exotic native inhabitants. These exotic “Others” are the central Sheikah people and the four tribes inhabiting the four quadrants of the map -- the bird-like Rito warriors, the all-female Gerudo, the aquatic Zora and the boulder-like Goron. Each tribe is represented by their Champion, a highly respected warrior who has failed to defeat Ganon in the past. The player-character Link must help these warriors to reclaim and reactivate their ancient weapons of war, called “Divine Beasts,” and use them to defeat Calamity Ganon.

Quintana Vallejo compares the cover art of the game to the famous painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, showing an enlightened European man looking over a world of wilderness [7]. Herfs (2020) also draws on art history to analyze the visual representation of the Gerudo and Sheikah tribes in particular, as evidence of Japanese appropriations of Western Orientalist rhetoric [8]. Both scholars draw on postcolonial thought as well as Lacanian structures of Self and Other, their analyses placing Breath of the Wild squarely in the fantasy genre that Young (2016) argues is dominated by race-based thinking and habits of European colonial discourse. Where the visual representations of varying tribes in the gameworld can be mapped onto real-world geopolitical relations, however, I would suggest a more significant marker of difference is found in the fundamental binary structure of “civilized” versus “uncivilized,” or settler tribes versus monsters, in the game environment.

Where Quintana Vallejo and Herfs describe the Zora, Gerudo, Rito and Goron as “Others” in the game text, it would be more appropriate to call them “civilized Others.” Each tribe has a highly developed society with their own architecture, food culture, forms of government and tactical fighting styles, but all worship the same Goddess Hylia in a common religion. Statues of the Goddess may be found in every major settlement in the gameworld, although they differ in decoration -- for example, the Rito Village statue is decorated with flowers, while the Zora statue stands in a basin of water. The statues show the culture of their builders: in central Hyrule, a large Temple of Time looks like a European Gothic cathedral, with a tall, imposing statue, while Kakariko Village hosts a statue with red bib-like decoration, similar to jizō statues in Japan [9]. This design choice echoes the European-style nature of Hyrule and its inhabitants, nearly all of whom look Caucasian and wear medieval garb, while Kakariko Village has traditional Japanese architecture and inhabitants, with the Sheikah warriors dressed like samurai (Herfs 2020). It is Link’s job to resolve old enmities between Hylians and Sheikah, and to bring together the four tribes of “civilized Others” to defeat Ganon.

In addition to these “civilized Others” there is another group of non-playable entities in the game who have not been analyzed in the scholarly literature -- the various monsters inhabiting the wild, who may be described as “uncivilized Others.” The first monster encountered is the Bokoblin, much like a Japanese oni or demon, with a single horn, loincloth and wooden club. Red Bokoblins inhabit the first areas that Link explores in the environment, with low hit points and easily broken weapons. Second is the Mokoblin, encountered on the plains, a toweringly tall creature with bull-like face, lumbering gait and hooves; equipped with stronger weapons studded with dragon bones. Finally, we meet the Lizalfos as we travel further into the map, lizard-like creatures with the camouflage capabilities of a chameleon. Lizalfos move erratically and more swiftly than Bokoblins or Moblins. They carry metal-bladed throwing weapons and can use elemental attacks such as electric shocks. All these creatures seem to live out in the open, building rough encampments at which they sleep or rest. They do not speak to the player, and are often seen chasing hapless travelers. From the beginning of the game, the player-character is encouraged to fight monsters and collect dropped rewards such as food, weapons and gems.

Assessing the merits of the colonial reading, Breath of the Wild does follow a conventional story of settler-colonialism: helping “good” or civilized Others, killing “bad” or uncivilized Others, to finally achieve the victory. The game has a Western surface appearance for broad appeal to the global audience, and does not put itself forward as a particularly “Japanese” text (unlike Ōkami from Clover Studios, for example, steeped in Japanese mythology and Shinto tradition) [10]. This is consistent with other games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, where obvious Japanese elements are largely absent [11]. In Breath of the Wild, Kakariko Village is constructed in terms of Japanese culture, but outside this area Hyrule seems like any other environment in the Tolkien-inspired fantasy genre [12]. In the context of the open-world environment, the sheer thrill of exploring the map and defending oneself against hordes of threatening monsters add to the colonial feel, a “boys’ own adventure” with the young man set against the world around him. Taking these elements together, it seems that Breath of the Wild is certainly open to the colonial reading.

On the other hand, how obvious is this kind of reading? Looking at the open-world environment in practical terms, the colonial ideology could easily get lost in the vastness of the player experience. Teaching Breath of the Wild in class, as one option for a seven-week game blog assignment, I noticed that students play the game very differently depending on their own interests, personalities, level of game literacy and familiarity with the Zelda series. Some players stay in the initial area -- the Isolated Plateau -- for seven weeks, exploring every nook and cranny of the forest, cooking up interesting recipes and elixirs, some talking to the Old Man and some ignoring him. Once off the Isolated Plateau, some students make a beeline straight for Kakariko Village, while others travel in different directions. Some complete the entire quest, visiting all four tribes and reactivating their ancient technologies, even defeating Ganon at the end of the game [13]. In all this variety of gameplay, I found myself revisiting the question of how ideology is experienced by the player -- what it means to pay attention in videogames and how observant the player would have to be in order to pick up on a colonial reading in Breath of the Wild, or indeed any kind of ideological subtext in a game text. Some videogames are obvious and direct in their messaging, like Kojima Hideo’s Metal Gear Solid series, well known for its critique of nuclear weapons. In the JRPG genre, Persona 5 has also been noted as a direct critique of Japan’s social, political and educational systems. Other series like Final Fantasy tend to be more indirect, with allusive imagery and thinly veiled dialogue [14]. In the vast majority of videogames, the ideological subtext or commentary is more subtle. Understatement has its advantages -- it promotes wide sales, the artist avoids censorship, and the idea of a “hidden message” is attractive for enthusiastic fans, or for those players who are paying close attention. But the question remains, how closely does the player have to pay attention in order to “get” the ideology of the game? How observant, in other words, do we need to be?

Observant Play in the Open World

Scholars have long attempted to describe the delicate balance between the “architecture of play” put in place by the designers (Sicart, 2014) and the varieties of play enjoyed by different players. Janet Murray examined the relationship between the designer’s authorship of the game and the player’s creative interpretation of it, describing the “derivative authorship” of the player in terms of agency (1997, p.153). This player agency has been conflated with freedom, the ability to act freely without restraint, to the extent that Espen Aarseth speaks of the game’s “tyranny” and the “prison-house of regulated play” (2007, p. 132, 133). But player agency -- being the agent of one’s own experience, the subject of the game’s actions -- also includes the ability to limit oneself. As Sicart (2011) suggests, “Play is appropriation, creation, expression, and to a certain extent submission to the rules of a game,” players deriving meaning through negotiation of the rules and environment. It is generally recognized that players have different objectives in their game experiences, and that these are also open to change. Gerald Farca thus argues that the “implied player” of a game must therefore be seen as both multi-faceted and complex, especially in an open-world structure [15]. Designers must account for a wide variety of play, building incentives for both broad exploration and more scripted adventures. The latter play style may be understood as “observant play,” with the observant player forming a subset of the imagined “implied player” in the open world.

In Breath of the Wild, players in the open-world environment will necessarily follow rules that impact how they are able to act, what they are able to do and where they are able to go, according to their own objectives and desires [16]. A more “observant player” will pay closer attention to instructions given by the game in the form on on-screen prompts, character conversations and hints in the environment, following a predetermined adventure. In the open world, this necessitates limits, paring down the possibilities of the play experience, submitting to a scripted pathway which may or may not accord with the player’s inclinations. “Observant play” thus holds a double meaning, as the player may also be observant of their own ethical choices (as in the sense of religious observance). Observant play is thus similar to Farca’s “attentive play” and Sicart’s “ethical play,” but more directly observant of in-game instructions. As Shunsuke Mukae notes in his study of Japanese survival horror, the original meaning of the verb “observe” was “to conform one’s action, to comply with,” indicating more submission than spectatorship [17]. However, the observant player still exercises choice in their negotiation of the rules, assessing how the rules fit with their own inclinations and coming to a deeper understanding of the ideology of the game text through their individual experience. In this sense, “observant play” becomes a self-limiting tactic for gameplay in open worlds.

Placing Breath of the Wild in the context of its genre, many Japanese roleplaying games tend to follow a linear story structure [18]. Earlier games in the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series have tight A-B structures in the narrative and exploration, with obvious signposts in conversations and the environment on where to go next. The turn-based battles so typical of the genre place strict limitations on characters in terms of when and how they can fight. The player “follows the script” and experiences the story as the designer wrote it. In these games, “observant play” is neither necessary nor possible. Later iterations of the JRPG expanded story possibilities to offer different endings dependent on player choices -- a good example is Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995), which popularized the notion of collecting different endings to gain a more complete understanding of the gameworld as a whole. Players could also skip around between time periods and follow their own pathway through multiple scenarios. However, each scenario in itself had a clearly delineated path, each with an exploratory phase, minor battles, story revelation and boss fight. In open worlds like Breath of the Wild, the scripted pathways and limitations on the player are less obvious. Watching my students explore Hyrule, I started to wonder, what happens if we only follow instructions? What kind of ideology are we exposed to if we severely restrict ourselves in this open world, and go only where the game explicitly tells us?

To answer these questions, I decided to follow a strict playthrough of Breath of the Wild, to go only where directed, and observe closely what I saw in the game environment in tandem with narrative developments. By doing this, I hoped to discover what the game was telling the attentive player, and how ideology was conveyed. Whether or not the colonialist reading would hold up to scrutiny was also on my list of research questions. I took three months to complete the playthrough, helping the tribal Champions reactivate their weapons, acquiring the Master Sword and defeating Calamity Ganon. This playthrough took place after I had already finished the game twice in a casual, exploratory fashion. The experience of “observant play” was very different, and revealed many ideas in the game that I did not notice the first time around. The section below describes my experience following instructions and observing events. This close reading aims to highlight the significance of in-game instructions and their results, bringing attention to the architecture put in place by Fujibayashi and his colleagues. I hope to further illuminate how the player is able to decode ideological content, through narrative, rules and the auditory and visual clues given by the game environment.

Instructions and Outcomes in Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild gives instruction to the player in several ways. Cover art and initial loading images show Link climbing steep cliffs, shooting arrows and riding a horse, suggesting a grand adventure game. More directly, the loading screen gives specific tips and tutorials for gameplay, including the correct buttons to press in order to carry out certain actions. Tips tell how to attack and kill monsters, how to avoid lightning strikes, how to cook food or brew elixirs and so forth. NPCs in the early stages give the player information and suggestions: the Old Man / King Rhoam tells Link to go to the Shrines on the Isolated Plateau and then to Kakariko Village, while we hear Zelda’s voice telling us to wake up, be careful of monsters and so on. Additionally, Link is equipped with a “Sheikah slate” from the beginning of the game, a piece of technology displaying information like Adventure log reminders (where to go next), photographs of places which will jog his memory about the past and the Hyrule compendium (photographs of objects seen in the kingdom). Finally, various wooden sign boards dot the environment, with cautions, information about roads and place information.

In my playthrough, I woke to Zelda’s voice, emerged onto the Plateau and saw an old man by a fire. Approaching him, I began the basic tutorial -- collect apples, avoid monsters, use the fire to cook, etc. Encountering the Old Man a few times as I explored the plain, I followed his instructions to open four shrines on the Plateau and listened to the backstory of Hyrule. As he instructed, I next followed the path to Kakariko Village. There, I was given directions to four kingdoms through dots activated on the map. Although these could be visited in any order, the closest was the Zora kingdom, spatially suggesting I should go there first. In Kakariko Village the Sheikah slate is also activated. Memory photographs appear in the slate, and we discover from the travelling artist Pikango that the closest memory location is in the southeast, towards Faron. At the same time, the Hyrule Compendium lists two items that can be set as target objects for the slate as a homing device, the first being Mighty Bananas in Faron. In sum, the sequence in Kakariko Village gives the player two main instructions: to go north to the Zora kingdom, and southeast to the Faron jungle. Although the two places are in opposite directions, the map activated first, so I started by going north.

North of Kakariko Village, a man directs Link to a “strange tower” with a man shouting at the top. The shouting NPC introduces us to the Zora Prince, Sidon, who guides us to his kingdom along a path guarded by Bokoblins, Moblins and Lizalfos. Arriving in the Zora kingdom, Link encounters hostility from Zora elders, who blame Hylians for the current calamity. A character named Muzu looks Link up and down, saying “Hmph. You came all the way here, but it was in vain. I have no desire to speak with you.” Muzu is hostile, refusing to speak to Link and then complaining to Prince Sidon that “We cannot trust these lowly Hylians!” suggesting a bias which Farca, Lehner and Navarro-Remesal (2020, p. 214) describe as racism. Nevertheless, Link is able to follow Prince Sidon and help him reactivate the ancient weapon of the Zora people, after which Muzu comes to accept him.

Travelling southeast from Kakariko Village, on the other hand, Link arrives in Faron. Following Pikango’s suggestion, I followed a road to the Lanaryu Promenade, battling various monsters along the way, until I reached a large stone gate matching the memory photograph in the Sheikah slate. After a cut-scene showing Zelda and the four Champions in their previous fight against Ganon, I passed through the gate into the area of Faron, a jungle full of Mighty Bananas. The Sheikah slate starts beeping when Mighty Bananas are near, so Link is led further into the jungle. This environment is full of fearsome Lizalfos, moving quickly and attacking on sight. Wondering what to do next, I noticed another large Sheikah Tower, glowing bright orange against the greenery. Activating the tower and gazing out over the jungle, I heard the sounds of Lizalfos. Investigating by looking around, I saw two Lizalfos leaping about on an outcrop of rock. Unlike other Lizalfos I had seen so far, these two had no weapons, and were seemingly dancing around some Durian fruit laid on the ground. Their behaviour was like that of the Bokoblins up on the plain, who had danced about their campfire before eating their roast meat. But these Lizalfos did not pick up the fruit or eat it, merely continuing to dance around.

It was at this point that my carefully laid plans of merely observing and following instructions broke down. Intrigued by these two Lizalfos, I decided to watch them. I was not directly instructed to do this, but their odd behaviour prompted me to investigate. In my game, the two creatures never stopped dancing, regardless of whether it was day or night. After three day-night cycles they had not stopped to rest. This was different to all the other monsters in the game -- Bokoblins and Moblins sleep at night, and the Lizalfos I had encountered so far took quick rests by lying down and blending into the background. The only time these two Lizalfos stopped dancing was when I paraglided down to the area. Directly approaching them, they ran to get their weapons and attacked. Running away, I noticed that the Lizalfos returned to the Durian fruit, put down their weapons and resumed dancing. Nearby were two massive stone statues, depicting a bird-headed creature with beak and claws. These statues had offering platters at the base, much like the offering platters in front of smaller statues in Kakariko Village [19]. Where the Kakariko platters had held apples, one of these held a Durian fruit. In Kakariko Village, adding an apple to the empty platter made a Korok spirit appear -- a friendly green creature who bestows Korok seeds on the player. Remembering this now, I picked a Durian fruit and added it to the platter at the statue’s feet. A Korok immediately appeared to say hello and give me a Korok seed. I felt rewarded for noticing the environmental oddity of the dancing Lizalfos, and for investigating their behaviour.

This amount of gameplay took around five hours, and may be considered the beginning of the game. What had I learned from following instructions? In terms of the narrative, these opening adventures had revealed a deep feeling of enmity between Zora and Hylians. The reason for this, Muzu explains later, is the Hylian abuse of technology in the past, unearthing ancient Sheikah machinery and allowing it to be appropriated by Ganon. The Zora maintain that the Hylians brought about civil war and the Calamity itself. This narrative injects an element of self-doubt into our hero’s journey. If Link is working with the Hylians and using Sheikah technology, then is that a bad thing? Suddenly we are not so sure we should be reactivating ancient weapons, which throws the entire mission of the game into doubt. At the same time, the environment in Faron tells us that the Lizalfos are not only sentient, but they practice religion, complete with statues and ritual offerings. This realization challenges the whole system of instruction that the game has emphasized up to this point. The “monsters” which we have been instructed to attack and kill, by King Rhoam, Prince Sidon and Princess Zelda (not to mention the loading screen), are revealed as civilized beings. This realization brings more self-doubt to the player. Overall, narrative and environment work together to challenge the player’s assumptions, on the positioning of the “hero” vis-à-vis creatures in the gameworld, and the binary system of civilized/uncivilized in which that positioning takes place.

Observant Play and the Pacifist Run

My experiment with observant play in Breath of the Wild led to two main realizations on the overall narrative and themes of the game. My encounter with the Zora showed that Hylians might not be “good,” producing a distrust of Sheikah and technology, a feeling of complicity and a sharp increase in narrative tension. My observations in Faron further showed that monsters might not be “bad,” producing feelings of guilt (due to all the monsters I had killed to that point), and giving more weight to the idea of the complicit hero. Reflecting on the instructions I had been given, I felt that King Rhoam, Princess Zelda and the loading screen of the game itself were all joined together in a conspiracy of Hylian anti-monster violence. I felt that the main message of the game was in fact one of non-violence, suggesting the idea of a “pacifist run,” a playthrough without killing any monsters in the environment. From this point, my gameplay changed. I actively avoided killing or injuring monsters, and took it one step further (to see if it was possible), performing a “vegan run” and avoiding killing any living creature [20].

Bath and Cockcroft (2019) argue that designers of open worlds often include alternate means to various ends, to increase player interest and encourage self-imposed difficulty challenges. My pacifist run had many advantages, primarily speed and ease of travel. Monsters were easily avoidable, especially on horseback, or running at top speed with a full double stamina wheel. Some side missions could not be completed without killing, but were unnecessary to progress the story. For example, the forest spirit Hestu is encountered outside Kakariko Village, and his maracas have been stolen by Bokoblins. Recovering the maracas involves opening a treasure chest, which is only unlocked when the Bokoblins are dead. If Hestu regains his maracas, he performs a ritual dance to expand Link’s inventory for weapons and shields. Link must pay Hestu in Korok seeds for this service. Without the maracas Hestu cannot expand Link’s inventory, and there is no other use for the Korok seeds that I can determine. However, Link can purchase a home in Hateno Village, and pay for upgrades such as weapons display cases, where spare weapons may be stored. This is just one example of an alternative method to gain the same advantage, usually gained by killing monsters, by non-violent means (Table 1).

 

Benefits from killing monsters

Alternatives

Hestu’s maracas give inventory upgrades

Inventory expansion through house building

Locked treasure boxes open: gems, arrows, weapons/armor

Same items found in unlocked treasure boxes in environment; can mine for gems and buy weapons/armor in shops

Monster parts sell for mon currency

Mon obtained by selling ancient materials

Monster parts make elixirs for health and stat boosts

Same health and stat boosts from cooking vegetables

Monster parts needed for some armor upgrades

Obtain monster parts from skeletons (of monsters killed by environment)

Table 1. Monster-killing and alternatives.

 

In short, it is not necessary to kill monsters to get the benefits of weapons upgrades, health effects, or anything else. The player is not told these alternative methods by the loading screen, which keeps advocating “battle tips” and “cooking tips” such as using presumably sentient fairies in recipes for special effects. The player who discovers these alternatives thus gains a sense of pride in hacking the system, going against the advice of the loading screen and playing their own way. Paradoxically, observant play in this case leads to a sense of transgression, against both the loading screen and the dominant Hylian ideology.

In my playthrough of the main story, there were three cases where killing was necessary to progress. First, the “blight” which affects the ancient weaponry must be eradicated. This blight is first encountered inside the Zora Divine Beast, taking the form of sludge covering the equipment, and also a vaguely humanoid shape, “Waterblight Ganon.” But the blight is not human or alive in the same way that animals and monsters are alive, taking the form of blue lines similar to those created when Link teleports between places. I concluded that the “blight” was an aspect of Sheikah technology, akin to a computer virus or other malfunction. This rationalization allowed me to progress through the story without “killing,” even being acutely aware of the rationalization. The story’s end also requires the death of Calamity Ganon, to restore peace to Hyrule. One may rationalize this also, since killing the main villain does not affect the other living creatures of the gameworld. But one point in the story requires the killing of a clearly live creature. On the road to the Goron Divine Beast, Link must follow and aid the young Goron Yunobo. Two Moblins capture Yunobo, who hides himself in a forcefield and refuses to come out until they are dispatched. This poses an interesting puzzle to the pacifist player. I enjoyed testing many varied ways of dispatching the Moblins that would not lead to their death, but Link was unable to draw them off. Much like Hestu’s maraca situation, Yunobo’s shell problem could not be resolved without killing. Leaving the Moblins alone, I defeated Ganon with only three of the Divine Beast weapons aimed at Hyrule Castle. The aid of the Gorons was not needed, making this quarter of the main quest effectively optional.

Ideology in Context: Japanese Discourse in Breath of the Wild

The result of my own observant play in Breath of the Wild was thus a pacifist run, in response to what I understood as non-violent, anti-colonial rhetoric in the gameworld. In this section, I will expand on how I reached this interpretation, based on prior knowledge and experience with Japanese narrative texts. Placing the game text in its discursive context not only illuminates binary structures of Self and Other, civilized and uncivilized, but also shows a more deep-seated unease with aggression and violence in contemporary Japanese society [21].

Since its inception, The Legend of Zelda series has typically offered little social commentary or critique. But with the Zora narrative, Breath of the Wild joins a broader Japanese critique of the abuse of technology, seen in artworks about nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, bioethics and bioengineering, generally concluding that humans are irresponsible. We see this in works like Black Rain, I live in Fear, Godzilla, Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid. As Japan remains the only nation hit with atomic bombs in wartime, it occupies an artistic high ground with a unique voice to warn the rest of humanity against the reckless use of technology, particularly nuclear weapons [22]. At the same time, the environment of Breath of the Wild comments on a very old binary discourse of “civilized versus barbarian” found in the Japanese arts, particularly from the Meiji period (1868-1912) onwards. This discourse attempts to locate and define Japanese identity by contrasting the Self against the Other, seeing Japan as civilized (like the West) and setting Japan up against Asia and the rest of the uncivilized “Orient ”[23]. Where Quintana Vallejo (2017) reads Breath of the Wild uncritically as a reflection of European colonial discourse, Herfs (2020) points out this is more complex when applied to the Japanese case. Interestingly, both scholars concentrate on the “civilized Others” of the game’s racial structure, but not the monsters or “uncivilized Others.” My own playthrough of Breath of the Wild drew my attention to the monsters in new ways, most notably recognizing the Lizalfos engrossed in religious ritual. This moment of recognition disrupted the balance of civilized/uncivilized established by the game instructions, thrusting Link (and the player) into an uncomfortable position. I believe this sense of imbalance echoes a deep sense of discomfort in contemporary Japanese culture regarding the colonial past.

Much public discourse and artistic output in postwar Japan has sought to reconcile Japanese wartime aggression in the twentieth century. The question still affects Japanese society, from court battles over the representation of the Asia-Pacific War in high school history textbooks to the representation of kamikaze pilots as heroes (in films such as Eternal Zero, (Yamazaki, 2013)), victims (Wings of Defeat, (Morimoto, 2007)), or something in-between (as in Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises, (2013)). War memory, and the identity of Japan as colonizer/colonized, continue to be contested sites of intellectual discourse in contemporary Japan. Playing Breath of the Wild from this perspective, I see it as a coming-of-age for Nintendo, a decision to engage with the broader colonial discourse, effected through the ambivalent relationship of Link and the monsters -- the “uncivilized” hordes who challenge the notion of civilization, problematizing violence and posing an ethical question to the player. Scholars who point to the “colonial rhetoric” of Breath of the Wild are right to question the power dynamics of race in the game, and decidedly correct in exposing the Western Orientalism at the heart of that rhetoric. But when we take the monsters and mechanics of the game into account, we find a deeper unease with Japan’s colonial past and its accompanying violence.

One reason why players and critics may have found the idea of a European worldview in The Legend of Zelda so compelling is that the surface appearance of the fantasy roleplaying genre can blind us to the Japan-specific ideology underneath. Although the visuals of the JRPG are loaded with dragons and castles, and populated with blond-haired, blue-eyed royalty, the underlying themes of the genre deal with specific sociopolitical issues, from absentee parents to nuclear anxiety (Hutchinson, 2019). It may be that in order to grasp the deeper significance of colonial rhetoric in Breath of the Wild, the “attentive” or “observant” player needs a deeper understanding of Japanese history and society than is often the case. But Farca’s (2018) theory of the “emancipated player” stresses the intersubjectivity of player and game text -- a give and take, based on the player’s experience and reflection in terms of their own meaning-making process. Designing the open world for many different play styles, it may be that Fujibayashi and colleagues also accounted for an increasingly sophisticated audience, aware of both culture-specific meanings and their own ability to uncover these meanings through research [24].

Conclusions

From my three-month playthrough of Breath of the Wild, I found that strictly following instructions in the open world environment was quite difficult, as my natural inclination was to stray from the path, climb the cliff, jump in the water and “see what happens.” The player’s own will to observe becomes important -- when their interest is piqued by something in the environment, their attention shifts. “Observant play” then becomes not so much “observing the stated rules” but “observing visual cues” (following interesting aspects of the environment) or “observing certain behaviours” (following self-imposed rules, based on ethics or self-challenge). What players find interesting, ethical, or a challenge is subjective, and will vary greatly. For me, the point where “observing external game rules” shifted to “observing internal ethical rules” was triggered by the dancing Lizalfos. At this point, observing the game instructions shifted to my own system of observance, based on prior knowledge of Japanese discourses on technology, colonialism and the civilized/uncivilized binary. In terms of ideological readings of a game text, this shift could be seen as either “distracting” from the main pathway (privileging one reading over others), or as “deepening” one’s understanding of the gameworld (allowing for many individual readings).

Open-world play cannot be entirely scripted, as designers must account for differing styles of individual play. But the architecture of the game, its rules, regulations, environment and narrative, is scripted and pre-designed. The ideology of such a game cannot lie entirely in the scripted shell, as the player brings their own interpretive structure with them. Perhaps the value of the open world is not to discern the scripted path -- what we think the designers consciously included as an ideological message -- but to discern our own interpretation and the limits we wish to impose on our own play, if any. “Observant play” allows us to move from one interpretive framework to another, from the observance of external to internal rules. In the open world, ideology lies also in the epistemological framework by which we comprehend and make sense of the infinite potentialities of the game environment. In this sense, observant play and self-limitation help us to impose an interpretive framework on an otherwise overwhelming world.

 

Endnotes

[1] GDC Vault (2017). I use Japanese name order (family name then given name) to foreground the Japanese origin of the game text.

[2] These approaches to the videogame medium follow post-structural thinking on the text. While Marxist theory typically argues that a text’s ideology is most persuasive when naturalized and concealed, the post-structuralist approach allows for the designers’ ability to convey ideas through overt as well as covert means, intentionally or not. Bogost’s (2007) arguments on ideology in games as “procedural rhetoric” focus primarily on rules, while Sicart proposes a more inclusive theory of a game’s “architecture” (2014, pp. 83-91). Both approaches are useful in applications to the open world, as are Frasca’s (2003) formulations of games as both representation and simulation.

[3] A good overview of reader-response theory applied to game texts is found in Blom (2020).

[4] Doyle-Myerscough (2019) discusses the game in terms of intimacy and “overwhelmedness.”

[5] Pugh (2018) analyzed earlier games in the series through a queer perspective.

[6] See Pugh (2018), Stang (2019), Hemmann (2018).

[7] The two artworks are indeed quite similar in perspective, colour palette and composition.

[8] Herfs (2020) reads the representation in terms of Japanese artistic and cultural history, teasing out the complex relations of Asia, Japan and the West in both Western Japonisme and Japanese self-Orientalism.

[9] The jizō is a common sight in Japan, often found at crossroads. A small human-shaped statue, the jizō represents the Boddhisattva Ksitigarbha, who protects the souls of deceased children. Jizō are often seen with a red bib or other hand-sewn clothing, and toys or snacks brought as devotional offerings. Sheikah statues in Breath of the Wild are a more abstract frog-like shape, but red markings and offering platters show their religious nature. Like jizō, these smaller statues hint at folk religion rather than the grander statues commemorating the Goddess in Hyrule.

[10] Iwabuchi (2002) theorizes this marketing strategy as mukokuseki (culturally odorless) aesthetics. On the “Japaneseness” of Ōkami see Consalvo (2016, pp. 29-33); Hutchinson (2019, pp. 47-69).

[11] An exception is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006), featuring a sumo mini-game as part of the main mission.

[12] Young (2016) discusses the racialized thinking in Tolkien’s works, and its effect on the fantasy genre (including videogames).

[13] Based on observations made by University of Delaware undergraduate students: 10 from a class of 50 in Spring 2019, and 5 from a class of 32 in Fall 2019.

[14] On Metal Gear Solid see Noon and Dyer-Witheford (2010), Hutchinson (2019, pp. 160-167, 207-232); on Persona 5 see Herfs (2021); on nuclear and bioethics anxiety in Final Fantasy see Hutchinson (2017, 2019, pp. 129-160).

[15] Farca (2019, pp. 195-198). Farca develops a theory of the “emancipated player,” whose relationship with the game is seen as “intersubjectivity” in a give-and-take of thoughtful experience and reflection, to find significance in gameplay.

[16] This can lead to “transgressive play,” creative experimentation that bends the rules in interesting ways (Aarseth 2007). Feng Zhu (2015) cautions that transgressive play has been overemphasized in the literature, minimizing the importance of normative play.

[17] Mukae (2019) cites Jonathan Crary (1992, pp. 5-6), to compare film against videogames.

[18] Barton (2008, pp. 209-212, 394-398) discusses whether Legend of Zelda games belong to the RPG genre. In Japan, Legend of Zelda is considered an ARPG or “action roleplaying game,” and is listed as such on Japanese Wikipedia.

[19] The statues in Faron are on the same scale as those of the Goddess in the Temple of Time, indicating a well-established religion that perhaps predates or coexists with the Goddess faith. On religion in Legend of Zelda see Hemmann (2019).

[20] See Westerlaken’s (2017) experience of a pacifist run in Breath of the Wild; also Bath & Cockcroft (2019) on pacifism and self-imposed difficulty challenges in online worlds.

[21] On the merits of placing a game text in its cultural, social and historical context see Penix-Tadsen (2016), Murray (2017), Martin (2018) and Hutchinson (2019).

[22] On Japan’s nuclear discourse and videogames, see Hutchinson (2017; 2019, pp. 130-148), Scheiding (2019).

[23] This Meiji period discourse is seen in literature (Hutchinson, 2011), and in videogames such as fighting games and sports games today (Hutchinson, 2016, 2019).

[24] Consalvo (2016, pp. 33-37) describes players of Japanese videogames incentivized to learn Japanese language and culture.

 

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