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The Disconnect Between Breath of the Wild‘s Story & Backstory

Breath of the Wild‘s tells a captivating story about the need for freedom in its backstory only to crumble under the weight of too much where it matters most.



Breath of the Wild’s backstory is like a traditional Zelda plot with a tinge of tragedy to it. Link’s memories are where the bulk of the action happens: where we get to know Zelda, watch the stakes gradually rise to Ganon’s return, and eventually see how Link originally died. The memories thread an underlying message about the importance of freedom, highlighting how both Link and Zelda suffer under the weight of their responsibilities. Zelda through her scientific passion that gets suppressed by her father, and Link by juxtaposing his overt stoicism in the past with amnesiac bliss and emotional openness in the present. This penchant for freedom is even expressed on a structural level as Link’s 12 main memories can be recalled in any order, giving each playthrough a unique narrative flow that matches the gameplay loop. Breath of the Wild‘s backstory is one of the strongest in the series, but there’s not much to the main plot.

Zelda with her Champions - image courtesy of Zelda Fandom
Image: Nintendo

Good stories evolve and let the status quo change with time. Good video games stories weave that into their gameplay and make you feel those changes first hand. Nothing changes in Breath of the Wild once you leave the Great Plateau, mechanically, narratively, or tonally. What you see is what you get. What little story there is during the Divine Beast quest lines often feels half-baked. The Champions, new and old alike, are disappointedly one-dimensional. Daruk is strong, Urbosa is motherly, Mipha is kind, and Revali is a dick. The dead can’t grow, so they don’t. While they appear in the background of some memories, each Champion only gets one personalized memory to Zelda’s dozen. They effectively get an introductory cutscene and nothing else until Link frees their Divine Beast. Revali comes the closest to having an arc since his relationship with Link actually changes between time periods, but everyone else is completely static. 

It would be one thing if there were more memories to flesh out Link’s relationship with the other Champions ala Zelda, but as is, it’s like meeting each Sage in Ocarina of Time once as a child and not seeing them again until you beat their respective dungeon as an adult. It makes sense to prioritize Zelda’s character development, but the Champions are given just too much focus with too little depth where it’s jarring how empty their personalities are compared to Zelda. The issues with Breath of the Wild’s story go far beyond simple characters, though. It’s a matter of storytelling structure, or lack thereof. 

Since you can fight Ganon anytime, the story can’t actually build up to the final confrontation in the same way other Zelda games have. Link’s Awakening gets a little darker with each dungeon. The Wind Waker uses the Triforce Hunt as breathing room before a fast-paced finale. Breath of the Wild doesn’t end so much as it stops once you feel done, eliminating rising action towards the climax. Just as damning, Breath of the Wild lacks a narrative shake-up that raises the stakes and keeps the story from plateauing after the Great Plateau. The game has no twist.

Ocarina of Time Link Pulling Master Sword - image courtesy of Zelda Fandom
Image: Nintendo

All the best Zelda games flip the script in some capacity. A Link to the Past thrusts you into the Dark World shortly after Agahnim sacrifices Princess Zelda. Link’s Awakening waits to reveal that Koholint is a dream world until you’ve formed an attachment with Marin. Ocarina of Time features a time-skip that cleanly divides the plot between “before” and “after.” The games without big twists still sport their own status quo changes. The Temple of the Ocean King is recontextualized every time you revisit it in Phantom Hourglass. Twilight Princess tasks you with liberating Hyrule’s regions from twilight until the whole world has been methodically opened. Majora’s Mask’s three day system means the status quo is constantly changing on an hourly basis, only resetting when you’ve run out of time. 

Breath of the Wild’s narrative is more in line with the NES games. Gameplay is the story for the most part: what you do and how you do it. But even Zelda I and II build towards something. Even without cutscenes, each dungeon you complete gradually pushes you closer to the climax and unlocks more of the world, creating an arc for your playthrough. The only significant change for completing all four Divine Beasts is that the final fight is made easier. In that sense, Breath of the Wild’s story actually takes away from the finale’s weight. What should be the most climactic moment in the game ends up underwhelming if you actually care about the plot. 

The main storyline never goes anywhere or explores its themes with the thoughtfulness Link’s memories do. Champions and their arcs feel like they exist in a vacuum, each one just an independent side story that often says less than a single Zelda-centric memory. Majora’s Mask takes a similar approach on a surface level, but each region in Termina explores loss, death, or grief in a way that enriches the game’s overarching themes and gets you thinking about your own life. As simple and non-present as they are, characters like Darmani and Mikau have a human quality that BotW’s supporting cast lack and that’s largely because their arcs don’t exist in service of anything greater. The game doesn’t even dive into each Champion’s pre-established relationship with Link or Zelda, instead just barely touching the surface of what their dynamics were like. Revali resents Link, Urbosa cares for Zelda, Mipha loves Link, and Daruk is just there. 

Breath of the Wild’s main storyline is unsatisfying when all is said and done. Nothing particularly interesting happens. Each region has the same conflict: Divine Beasts are making life hard (but not impossible). Every Champion has the same arc: the old regret that they died and the new try to live up to their predecessors. All the most compelling bits, like world building and Link’s personality, are relegated to side content. Link barely emotes in cutscenes, which makes sense for his memories, but leaves a lot to be desired in the narrative proper. His memory isn’t fully back yet, but the fact he barely reacts to his dead companions is bizarre.

Breath of the Wild Link cooking - image courtesy of Tenor

Compare this to Link from The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword whose body language and facial expressions add a layer of emotion to the gameplay and cutscenes. Even the Hero of Time emoted more: stoic, but he actually responded to what was happening on-screen. It’s not that BotW’s Link doesn’t emote or express himself – he shows plenty of personality through gameplay alone – but none of that detail extends to the actual story. It’s a disconnect that works for the memories, but falls flat when transposed to the plot’s modern-day happenings. It indicates that Link is still weighed down by a lack of freedom when everything else suggests that is very much not the case. The Hero of the Wild is simultaneously the most and least expressive Link yet. 

It’s not a matter of wanting more story, but better story from Breath of the Wild. Less is more in games like Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, which use their few cutscenes to succinctly flesh out themes, develop characters, or move the plot along in exciting ways. Link’s date with Marin and every Sheik cutscene are memorable moments that define their titles just as much as the actual gameplay. The Legend of Zelda has historically used story to set a tone or recontexualize how you play the game. Breath of the Wild is a clear step back in this regard. A backstory you’re not an active participant can still be compelling, but it misses a crucial element of how the best Zelda titles approach storytelling. Interactivity matters and makes a big difference. Gaming’s strength as a storytelling medium is blurring the line between audience and avatar to make you a genuine part of the story. Your character’s’ struggles become your own, their motivations yours. 

Link and Zelda BotW (image courtesy Pinterest)

Breath of the Wild’s memories show us all the major beats in Link and Zelda’s relationship, but we experience none of it ourselves. The Divine Beasts offer you a chance to be a hero, but their plots are so underwritten and copy-paste that they never match the highs of previous games in either narrative quality or creating a deep sense of immersion through interactivity. Rescuing every Goron in Ocarina of Time makes you feel like a real hero who’s saving an entire race from genocide. Rescuing Yunobo and escorting him up a mountain might as well be a side quest. The stakes aren’t high enough. Even with Divine Beasts running amok, it never feels like the world is in actual danger. Each region is dealing with an inconvenience at best. There’s no sense of urgency, but there can’t be when the story is effectively over the moment you finish the tutorial. 

Breath of the Wild’s backstory and main story are at odds with each other. The former is compelling, but lacks interactivity in any form. The latter is entirely player-driven, but lacks intrigue and growth. They’re two halves of greater a whole missing the necessary connective tissue that brings them together. The story told in Link’s memories is dynamic. Zelda overcomes her contempt for Link as the two grow to become wholly devoted to one another. They explore massive chunks of Hyrule together, fighting monsters and the Yiga Clan, working together with the Champions to prepare for Calamity Ganon. Breath of the Wild is only as endlessly playable as it is because it pushes the story to the sidelines, but it’s hard to watch Link’s memories and not think, “I’d rather be playing this game.”

The backstory is where all the intrigue is, where Breath of the Wild actually fleshes out its theme and shows its heart. Where the status quo changes and characters actually grow. The main story has the depth of an old school manual, and that’s honestly being generous considering older Zelda manuals are both fun to read and offer important narrative context. The Wind Waker also has an extremely interesting backstory, but it exists in service of the main plot and acts as a jumping off point for the story to explore the concept of tradition and letting go of the past. Breath of the Wild’s backstory explains why the modern-day is what it is and gives Zelda a great arc, but it doesn’t exactly enrich the setting. Part of the problem is that Breath of the Wild’s inciting incident is the backstory, and that it takes place 100 years prior to the story. By the time the game starts, almost everyone who knew the Champions is dead and society has more or less coped with living in a Calamity-filled Hyrule. All the consequences have already been dealt with. 

Wind Waker Ganondorf Feature Image
Image: Nintendo

This is not the case with The Wind Waker. The Great Flood is the inciting incident for the Great Sea ala BotW’s Calamity and it fundamentally reshaped the world, culture, and society. More importantly, it’s not the inciting incident that kicks off The Hero of Winds’ adventure: that would be Aryll’s kidnapping. Comparatively, the Hero of Wild’s inciting incident is waking up and being told that Zelda is waiting for him. Breath of the Wild expects its backstory to be enough of a narrative motivator, but the more time you spend in the world, the less it feels like Hyrule needs saving. There’s not enough of a difference between Hyrule as seen in the memories and the supposedly post-apocalyptic kingdom in the present. The only real motivator left is saving Zelda, but you don’t get to know her properly until you’ve seen all the memories, which can take hours. 

Games like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess get you to care early on so that you feel Link’s motivations as your own. The Boy without a Fairy is cast out of his home to save the world. The Hero of Time has his agency taken away from him as he’s turned into a Deku Scrub. The Hero of Winds loses his sister to a bird and the Hero of Twilight has his whole life uprooted. The Hero of the Wild wakes up and plays with some sticks. The original Zelda offered more context in its manual alone: Link rescues Impa from Ganon’s minions and, “burning with a sense of justice,” resolves to save Zelda despite never having met her before. 

Breath of the Wild Link Concept Art - image courtesy of zelda wiki

It’s no secret that Breath of the Wild caters towards an intrinsically-driven audience, but A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds are proof a game can be player-driven and still tell an engaging story with real twists and stakes. The novelty of fighting the final boss whenever you want is charming in its own right, but it’s at the cost of narrative progression that gets players to care about what they’re experiencing on a human level. Even A Link Between Worlds balanced near-total freedom with act breaks and a coherent story with rising action. The tragedy is that Breath of the Wild tells a compelling story about the need for freedom in its memories only to crumble under the weight of too much where it matters most.

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.