Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Musical Rebellion
The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that sells adventures. From charging into battle on horseback, scaling massive mountains, avoiding traps and solving puzzles in ruined temples, Zelda has you play through epic stories. The series’ recent entry, Breath of the Wild does this, but in a way that was so bold it has permanently changed the Zelda series.
Breath of the Wild goes slow. Very slow.
It is a game about taking your time, exploring tiny out-of-the-way places in its massive world. While the maps of other Zelda games were filled with towns and monsters, playing Breath of the Wild (BotW) means spending a lot of time in empty fields. Crossing the map may take hours, a timeline which gets longer when you consider the “stop to smell the roses” mentality the game presents. Small collectibles hidden in the environment give you motivation to watch your surroundings. Most of the games’ puzzles are hidden in shrines, and when your shrine-radar lets you know one is nearby you will start wandering around to find it. The game designpreys on your curiosity, because exploration is what is fun about the game.
Of course, players are not forced to do this. The game just makes it tempting. BotW infamously allows players to fight the final boss after only a short 15 minute tutorial. But the design leads players to explore the world, using tricks such as having few roads which run directly between objectives, spacing out towns to create empty pockets of nature between them, or having breakable weapons so that you have to search for replacements. Yet perhaps the most intriguing, and the most subtle, element of the game that makes you explore is the soundtrack.
In 2011, a Zelda game called Skyward Sword was released, and a large part of its marketing was that it was the first Zelda game which used a full live orchestra for its soundtrack. Skyward Sword pulled you into its story with emotionally moving music, using the full range of its orchestration to get your blood pumping at the right moment for a boss fight, or conjuring tears when your companion says a final goodbye. This was all part of the design philosophy of Skyward Sword. It was a game about embarking on an epic adventure, full of cinematic moments. Which is why the orchestra worked: it felt cinematic, like the soundtrack could have been ripped from a film. Skyward Sword also had a rather linear story, prescribing a plot arc for the player to take alongside the protagonist, and using the music to steer them along.
BotW would rather the player found their own story as they explore the world. Just when the auditory ambition of the Zelda series was peaking with soundtracks packed full of many instruments as could fit in an orchestra, BotW said “No.” The soundtrack went from a concert hall to a lone musician sitting at a piano soaked in a spotlight.
It is surprisingly, and refreshingly, challenging to find songs on BotW’s soundtrack which use more than one instrument. Most of the game’s musical design means you hear a tinkling piano drifting to you on the wind, and nothing else.
Clearly this is an unconventional soundtrack, but the actual theory is even odder. Looking at the sheet music, songs are made of fragments of notes. For instance, in the song Hyrule Field, fermatas dot the page. While the song still progresses in order, the length between fragments is variable. And while composer Manaka Kataoka never uses more notes than are absolutely necessary, what he does use is enough to set the song up. The first two notes establish the song’s key (E♭ Major) by playing the root tone (E♭) and its fifth (B♭), a core interval which defines the key. The root shows up occasionally to ground the song, but never frequently enough to give the resolution other Zelda music has. Previous games wanted a heroic piece which made the player feel comfortable. BotW wants players looking ahead at the next thing to explore, to foster a curiosity. Thus the strange use of the root, in which the song briefly resolves a melodic fragment before almost always proceeding to a different note to end that fragment on. The song keeps taking one more step than it should, leaving the player off-balance, but eager to take the second step, kickstarting their wandering with the song pushing them along.
Most songs rely on organized musical phrases to define verses and choruses, and with clear tonal resolutions to demarcate the end of each. BotW manages to string the player along a series of fragmented phrases. The lack of resolution keeps the song’s momentum going, so fragments chain together into something which is still not a melody, but a cohesive song all the same. For example, later sections of Hyrule Field include randomized elements where fragments can swap places upon repetition, but the song is composed such that they can interchange seamlessly, creating the same tonal effect in either place while disrupting the repetition for the player.
But this is not even the boldest part of the sound design. When was the last time you heard silence? Real, heavy silence. It is rare, especially in our urban world. One would have to wander out into the middle of nature to get real silence. Which is precisely where BotW is set.
The majority of the time you spend exploring BotW’s world will be accompanied by no music whatsoever. The fragments of piano are only occasionally heard. Of course, you are exploring the wild. Nature is never silent. So when the piano is quiet, the world around you is roaring with natural sounds. Birds trill, wind hisses, water gurgles, rocks creak, animals grunt, rain chimes, monsters cry, everything has a sound. When the piano pipes up it melts right into the natural soundtrack. It is immersive, in a way something like Skyward Sword’s orchestra could never be.
How does this affect the experience of playing? For one, you never feel like an intruder in the world. The protagonist is a piece of nature, and so as you explore nature you feel that you are doing so from within. The piano fragments appear when you round a corner or cross a bridge, so they are always tied to your actions. Thus the piano becomes a musical motif for the protagonist, your part of the soundtrack. Even though you know it is not, it feels diegetic. And you feel integrated in the world.
As the game asks you to interact with its world in the exploration-driven gameplay, the music connects the player to that world. However, these also overlap. It is because the soundtrack is not a booming, adventurous riding song that you can hear an owl’s hoot. And the second the player turns the camera to try to spot that owl, they have turned their eyes away from the road and the objective they were heading toward, lured into watching the world and inevitably spotting a secret to uncover. To give another example of the music mixing with the world, the song On Horse, played while on horseback, has no percussion instruments, and no steady repeated beat to compensate for that lack. Instead, the hoofbeats of your horse synchronize with the song to fill the percussive role. It is a simple thing, but a very confident piece of game design. BotW understands its players very well and knows that at its core, an adventure is an exploration. Exploring a world is more than just moving in a three-dimensional space; auditory sensations are an integral part of a world’s specific flavour, and makes it feel genuine. Sheer silence would be uncanny, but silence broken up by natural white noise makes sense.
It was a risk. But BotW took it, and it paid off. Zelda abruptly evolved from sweeping symphonic soundtracks to a few small scattered smatterings of piano parts. While there are no vocal parts, the music is complemented by the nature’s voice, adding its own sounds. And while some players hate it, and some love it, the soundtrack has hit hard enough that what people call the sound of a Zelda game, the sound of an adventure, has changed forever.
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