The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Structural analysis, Part I
Due to its nonlinear gameplay, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild features a narrative made up of vignettes, or ‘memories’, that can be viewed in any order. It’s possible to place them in chronological order, however, at which point the narrative forms a traditional hero’s journey based around Princess Zelda. While Zelda’s story can theoretically be broken down using the seventeen stages of literature professor Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the limited number of scenes better lend themselves to a simplified version of the monomyth. Screenwriter Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, with its eight condensed steps, provides a solid framework for the analysis of Zelda’s journey, starting with the earliest flashback and ending with the game’s climactic battle.
According to Dan Harmon, the key to starting a story is putting the audience in the position of one of the characters. However, there are sometimes multiple characters shown in a story’s opening scene, as is the case with Breath of the Wild’s first flashback, ‘Subdued Ceremony.’ This scene features both Link and Zelda, along with all four of Zelda’s chosen champions. Fortunately, it’s possible to determine which character is meant to be the audience surrogate using Harmon’s rules. “If there are [multiple characters],” says Harmon, “the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity.…When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them.”1
‘Subdued Ceremony’ opens with Princess Zelda standing over a kneeling Link. As Zelda recites a list of blessings for Link and his sword, her four champions look on with varying degrees of discomfort. The Goron, Daruk, finds Zelda’s lack of enthusiasm off-putting, while the Rito, Revali, claims to have even less faith in Link than the princess does. Urbosa, leader of the Gerudo, chastises them both as she gazes at Zelda. “Give it a rest,” she says. “That boy is a living reminder of her own failures. Well, at least that’s how the princess sees him.” Failure and self-doubt are universally relatable concepts, both of which inspire sympathetic sorrow in observers. By invoking pity for Princess Zelda, the story makes her relatable to the player, thus placing her at the center of the narrative. Even before the specifics of her failures are spelled out, the audience is on her side because they know how it feels to fail.
In Harmon’s story circle, the ‘Need’ step is the point at which the audience learns about the disruption in the hero’s world. “This is where we demonstrate that something is off balance in the universe,” he says, “no matter how large or small that universe is… We’re being presented with the idea that things aren’t perfect. They could be better.“2 As Breath of the Wild’s flashbacks are meant to be viewed in any order, there are several dedicated to introducing the disruption in Zelda’s world: her inability to access her sacred sealing power.
According to Hylian legends, Calamity Ganon can only be driven back by the divine power carried through Zelda’s bloodline, but Zelda has never been able to access this power. While some flashbacks are devoted to detailing her earlier efforts—most notably ‘Urbosa’s Hand’—others focus on her mental state as she wrestles with her own inadequacies. Both ‘Resolve and Grief’ and ‘Zelda’s Resentment’ show how her failure to access her power has driven her to fixate on the Guardians and the Divine Beasts, two types of ancient weapons that have the potential to defeat Calamity Ganon on their own. Later in the chronology, the memory ‘Shelter from the Storm’ offers a glimpse into Zelda’s own feelings about her destiny. Together, these four memories form the core problem in Zelda’s world, one she will have to overcome in order to realize her full potential as the hero.
The third step in Harmon’s story circle, ‘Go,’ can be compared to the Inciting Incident in a three-act structure. This is the moment that forces the hero out of their ordinary life and into something extraordinary. In Harmon’s words, “If [the story] about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she’s gonna start.”3 As Zelda’s story is about her problem activating sealing power, the ‘Go’ moment is where she is no longer allowed to run from that problem.
Zelda’s ‘Go’ moment occurs in the flashback entitled ‘Father and Daughter’, which takes place on the parapets of Hyrule Castle. She’s observing the continued experimentation with the Guardians, the ancient war machines that were recently unearthed around the castle. As she stares over the courtyard, her father emerges from the castle and chastises her for wasting her time. When Zelda tries to tell him that the Guardians are their best chance of defeating Ganon, he cuts her off, saying: “…As the princess, you have a crucial unfulfilled responsibility to your kingdom.” She argues that she’s just returned from the Spring of Courage, but to her father, the fact that she is taking a break now is the entire problem, as “[She] must be single-minded in unlocking the power that will seal Calamity Ganon away.”
He forbids her from having any further involvement with the Guardians and, to drive the point home, tells her that the people of Hyrule think she is: “…the heir to a throne of nothing…nothing but failure.” With a final command to prove them wrong, he leaves her to contemplate how she intends to move forward. There isn’t much to contemplate, though. Without access to the Guardians, her only recourse is to resume her search for her sealing power. In other words, it’s time for her to walk the road of trials.
The fourth step in the story circle focuses on the main obstacles in the hero’s path. This is the part of a story where the hero begins ridding themselves of preconceived notions, both about themselves and the world around them. In Harmon’s words: “The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim…The purpose here has become refreshingly – and frighteningly – simple.“4 For Zelda, the ‘Search’ step straddles two memories: ‘Spring of Power’ and ‘To Mount Lanayru.’ Although both focus on offering prayers at Hyrule’s sacred fountains, they present Zelda’s differing emotional states as her options dwindle with her hopes.
The ‘Spring of Power’ flashback occurs shortly after Zelda’s father forbids her from further study of the Guardians. Under the light of the full moon, Zelda stands waist-deep in the spring’s waters and offers her prayers to a statue of the goddess. She asks the statue for help, then laments that she’s never heard the divine voices that her mother and her grandmother both promised would come. Her father has told her to ‘quit playing at being a scholar,’ but she insists she’s dedicated every day of her life to prayer. With nothing to show for it, she hugs herself in the freezing water and asks: “What is it… What’s wrong with me?!”
The next flashback, ‘To Mount Lanayru,’ depicts Zelda and Link riding their horses together along a sunset promenade. After making some small talk about the horses, Zelda mentions that she will soon be visiting the Spring of Wisdom on Mount Lanayru. It’s the only spring she has yet to visit, as entry is forbidden to those under the age of seventeen. As tomorrow is Zelda’s seventeenth birthday, she will be finally be allowed to ascend the peaks. She’s not particularly optimistic about this final spring, but she wants to believe that her luck can change. As she says to Link: “… There’s always the chance the next moment will change everything.“
1, 2, 3, 4 Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel101, 2009.
* Reference Footage: Gamespot. All 18 Memories In Order – Zelda Breath Of The Wild **SPOILERS**. YouTube, 2017.
** Additional Reference Footage: Funderburk, Joey. All 18 Memories In Order – Zelda: Breath Of The Wild (No Subtitles). YouTube, 2017.