Ken Levine has been responsible for some truly incredible video games over the years; BioShock remains a modern classic and his earlier work at Looking Glass Technologies – where he contributed to Thief and System Shock 2 – is equally beloved.
Levine is currently working on an unannounced project at Ghost Story Games, but has taken the time to ruminate over the impact of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a title he describes as a “masterpiece” which is “a link to our past, but not a repeat of it.”
In a “2017 in review” editorial for Polygon, Levine expresses his surprise that Nintendo was brave enough to ignore the history of the series and do something totally different:
While the world setting and art style had shifted in the past (most notably in Ocarina of Time’s successful move to 3D), the fundamental nature of game flow in Zelda remained unaltered for more than 30 years. The narrative setup (often lengthy), overworld, underworld, a growing suite of tools earned by completing dungeons in a fixed order: You’ll see the same elements in A Link to the Past, Minish Cap or Wind Waker, although they look and feel nothing alike.
And then you boot up Breath of the Wild. Compared to other games in the series, this one tosses you into the current console generation’s version of Hyrule without a lengthy narrative sequence. It opens up the world to you generously, instead of doling it out in bite-size chunks. You can’t have your lava dungeon until you’ve eaten all your ice dungeon!
The weapons are no longer rare artifacts, unchanging for all time. They wheeze and crack and break like the ancient gearbox of a ’94 Honda Civic.
He then voices the opinion that Zelda might not be able to return to its classic roots after this incredible shift – and warns against relying on old formulas too much:
I’ve never been lucky enough to meet Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo or any of their other Zelda design colleagues. But I imagine that, when making this game, they (and Eiji Aonuma) not only gave a group of amazingly talented developers the keys to the toy box they created 30 years ago, but they also encouraged them to break some of those toys.
I’ve never read the history of the making of The Legend of Zelda, but if it’s game development in 1985, it’s probably a few young people in some office park, hungry to make something cool and having no idea how insanely hard the whole thing would be to make work.
A year ago, a bunch of you were in a room, kicking ideas around about a little elf and his bow and, boom, 365 days later, you’ve made f*****g Zelda.
Now imagine watching Zelda grow and evolve into arguably the most beloved game franchise of all time. And then imagine when somebody says, “Hey, let’s light huge chunks of that 30-year-old venerated design on fire!”
The urge to return to old successes is powerful. But the things we make can become the tombs we bury ourselves in.
Levine ends his piece by saying how happy he is that Nintendo took the risk, and compliments the game for its sheer quality:
I feel compelled to applaud the people on the Breath of the Wild team not just for their vision, but the courage they had to mess with a time-honored formula. It’s easy to change for the sake of change. It’s really hard to do it right.
The victory of Breath of the Wild is multifaceted. You can see it in its nuanced art direction. You can hear it in the meticulous sound design. You can feel it in its tightly tuned systems. But what makes it a masterpiece is that it’s a link to our past, but not a repeat of it.
We’re pretty sure everyone will agree with Levine’s sentiments, but do you think Zelda can ever return to its classic roots now? Levine’s argument is pretty compelling, but let us know what you think with a comment.
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