It’s a few hours before midnight, and I’m in a small town. I haven’t been here before: a few people are milling about, huddled near a lodge in the center of the village. I approach a man standing apart from the others, a short distance away, and he points to some cliffs in the distance. Says he saw something odd there, something he couldn’t identify — something he couldn’t name. He asks if I’d be willing to go look; I agree.
I make my way to the cliffs. The sky’s clear; the plains are empty, still. About halfway through my journey, a falling star cuts a beautiful, crisp arc across the sky, almost directly above me. It’s stunning to watch, and it leaves a beacon of light where it lands: at the top of the cliffs, not far from the point I’m aiming for.
I head toward the star. I climb the cliffs as quickly as I can, but it’s not quick enough: as I get halfway up the mountain, I realize the sunlight’s beginning to rise behind and above me. The sky lightens, and I can see the daybreak begin to slide down the rock face I’m scaling.
I run faster. I run past monsters that scurry after me in the dark, I vault over rocks and brush, I run past wolves, I run. My feet scrabble for purchase as the walls get steeper, my eyes fixed on the starlight as I climb steadily upwards. Just as I climb the last ledge, dawn’s properly, finally here, and the starlight winks out.
I turn around, the valley below me.
I’ve played more than my fair share of video games since the end of last year, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild overtook a good part of my spring. I won’t say much about the game — it’s hard to browse the web without tripping over gushing reviews of it — but I’ve been thinking about just how the dominant emotion I feel during this game is one of loneliness. Not in a debilitating or negative way, mind. Instead, it feels like it was designed as an isolation simulator, at least in part.
A silent but significant character in Breath of the Wild is the map itself, and the frankly massive world it represents. For much of the game, you’re left to fend for yourself in a vast, beautiful, empty world, rarely encountering people outside small, remote settlements. It’s a game that luxuriates in aimlessness, that encourages you to wander away from your destination, to get lost in a random forest, to summit a hill you hadn’t seen before.
But throughout the game, you’re wandering alone.
(Minor spoilers follow.)
In fact, the events of the game occur after your character wakes from a coma, a sleep that lasted an entire century. And for a game that feels so empty and quiet, that’s one hell of a framing device. The significant speaking characters you encounter are, by and large, the ghosts of long-dead friends. As you walk through a town or a village, everything in the foreground is incredibly bright and colorful; but as soon as you wander out, into the world, you’re passing by the ruins of everything you once knew.
Here’s one example: quite frequently, you come across these small stone statues. They’re dedicated to a deity, “a goddess” whose name nobody mentions or remembers. The statues are everywhere — she was presumably quite important once, before you slept — but they’re faded, forgotten. At times, they almost feel tucked away, partially obscured by buildings, by farm stands, by people that’ve forgotten about them.
But if you know where to look for them, they’re still there. As are you.