As delvers of worlds beyond their own, gamers can sometimes find themselves sacrificing their endearment for the great outdoors. Be in assembling a team to stop the Collectors or following a blood trail through haunted ruins in the veiled passes of Skellige, nature, in all its inherent beauty, finds itself vying for attention against the entrapment of our digital snares. Some games encourage an appreciation of nature, but none as ferociously as “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” This game, in all its grandeur and scale, comports itself so harmoniously with the greater concept of nature that it displays a great many similarities with “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and can, in fact, serve as an interactive tutorial on transcendentalism, a school of philosophy that says divinity pervades both nature and humanity.
It might be hard to imagine a renowned philosopher like Emerson taming sand seals across the Gerudo Desert or shredding the gnar with a knight’s shield down by the Dueling Peaks, but arguments have been made before to promote video games as a medium capable of expressing thoughts on pertinent issues and moral quandaries. Irony aside, Emerson divided nature into four uses, each of which can be identified within both the mechanics and the narrative of “Breath of the Wild.” Those uses are: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline.
Commodity might seem like a no-brainer in a game that requires you to craft your own food and potions, but Emerson’s concept strikes a deeper chord that dispels the formulaic endeavors of the nomadic lifestyle. He argues that nature is not simply the material, but also the process and result, an element in “Breath of the Wild” that is only as good as the player’s imagination allows.
If you’re paragliding and losing altitude, you can quickly equip your bow to shoot a fire arrow into a patch of grass, below. The heat from that fire will create an updraft to give you more altitude. If there’s an unattainable height mocking your vertical handicap, you can place a bomb beneath a felled tree, then use the stasis ability to give that tree all the kinetic energy it needs before detonating the bomb to set its course skyward. After boarding the tree, the makeshift trebuchet will give you the capacity to paraglide to your destination, showing how “the useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man,” as Emerson says. By our own volition, we “realize the fable of Aeolus’s Bag.” Much like that bag of wind given to Odysseus to navigate the Mediterranean, players dismiss the hindrances of natural obstacles by means of their own ingenuity, which has since prompted solutions to both shrines and other puzzles that even the game’s developers hadn’t anticipated.
Although Emerson discusses the rejuvenative properties of nature’s aesthetic beauty and that certainly holds true against the sweeping vistas within “Breath of the Wild,” he reaches higher by declaring that all heroic acts sculpt the beauty of nature, effectively becoming one in the same. He mentions Leonidas of Sparta and Arnold Winkelried of the Old Swiss Confederacy as examples, both righteous warriors who died upon the field of battle. Such heroic displays of sacrifice give meaning to their surroundings the same way gathering memories in “Breath of the Wild” contextualizes a location. What once appeared to be a series of dilapidated stone pillars may then embody a virtuous aura, immortalized by the grave council given to Zelda by her stoic companions as they consider the weight of their task against their own mortality. The memorials in both Auschwitz and New York’s Ground Zero are prime examples of this, for few who have walked within those spaces can say they weren’t awestruck by the bravery of those that fought back against greater evils.
While roaming those memorable locations in Hyrule, players may have noticed how the Hylian language is fully translatable and has been throughout many other titles in the series, but no written symbol has yet to dethrone the iconic Triforce. “As we go back in history,” Emerson says, “language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols.” While most people today won’t bite into an apple and think upon its symbolic nature towards knowledge, immortality, and temptation, it still demonstrates how biblical allegories defined human traits with something as simple as a fruit. Hyrule said no to apples and instead chose three golden triangles, each representing power, wisdom, and courage. It is the ancient symbol of the goddess Hylia, whose physical incarnation exists through princess Zelda, and was originally used as the symbol of the Hojo Clan in 12th and 13th century Japan. Its interwoven relationship with Hylian royalty has made it a forlorn symbol with “Breath of the Wild.” After the Great Calamity initiated by Ganon, Hyrule was thrust into a state of decay that lasted over 100 years, enough for the divine symbol to fade into obscurity. That obscurity arguably makes its discovery throughout the broken world more profound, as it frequently suggests the revival of better times.
How do these better times come about if not through discipline? Emerson describes discipline as a collection of the three preceding uses of nature, a culmination of reason, matter, and mind; Emerson’s very own Triforce. As players will quickly realize within their first moments of “Breath of the Wild,” there is a steep learning curve that punishes the ignorant unforgivably. There are relationships between the dynamics of its world that create interchangeable outcomes, condemning any and all “approved” methods. This is a world that forces the player to think for themselves and to adapt as best they can to Hyrule’s more unforgiving regions. It is this that gifts players their own established wisdom within the game world, a veteran status that gives potential to both unique stories and personal approaches to dire situations. The same way an explorer of our own wilderness learns from their mistakes, so too do Hylian enthusiasts develop in their quest to defeat Ganon.
Fans of the series may discover themselves as different people since their first venture into Hyrule, mirroring the series’ own themes of growth. But in that maturity lies no loss of links to the past. “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood,” says Emerson, an accurate reflection for veterans of the Zelda series who claim to have regained that sense of wonderment through “Breath of the Wild,” recalling the importance of that which was once lost.