Breath of the Wild can easily be summed up in a single word. Like all the Zelda games before it, it is an adventure: a journey that takes you to the farthest reaches of your imagination and, in this case, your ability to overcome it. It’s a familiar theme, one that is colored by the memorable characters we meet and remember. One of those characters stands above the rest thanks to her impact and her guiding voice. But like so many other conventions Breath of the Wild has broken, this incarnation of Princess Zelda has a bit more to offer us than a direction and a goal. A moment’s reflection shows us how much Zelda’s story reflects our own, both in the game and out of it.
Unsettling memories and hidden pain
The first thing you perceive as you start the game is a voice: A young woman calling out to you to open your eyes and awaken. The voice is warm and almost ethereal as you are introduced to your setting and the Sheikah Slate. Most, if not all of us, assumed the voice belonged to Princess Zelda, and our first glimpse of Calamity Ganon all but confirmed it. The kindness in her opening statements and the urgency in her warnings atop the tower holds strong similarities to the many Zeldas we had seen throughout the series. At that moment, it was clear that amidst the many unique features of Breath of the Wild, the series’ namesake would remain constant.
As the many quests began to open up to me during my first playthrough, I was immediately enamored by the prospect of unlocking memories of the past. Shortly after leaving Impa’s home I spoke with Pikango and learned the location of my first memory: the eastern gate of Lanayru Promenade. After many near deaths (and several actual deaths), I reached the designated spot and was treated with a bit of a surprise. The mood is depressing, and Zelda’s countenance is nowhere near the grace and energy I had come to expect from her over the years. The memory is dominated by the arrival of Calamity Ganon, but in the terror of seeing the demon’s arrival, I failed to appreciate the first half of this memory: Zelda and Link’s return from Mount Lanayru after a failed attempt to find something – a sealing power.
My next memory turned out to be the chronological first (as I recklessly dodged Guardians in an attempt to find the fountain near Hyrule Castle Town) and this one seemed uncharacteristically… grim. Despite the familiar image of a knight kneeling in front of his princess – a picture that reflects several poignant moments in Skyward Sword – there is nothing momentous or grand about any of it. Something is not right, and it all seems centered around the princess. She is a princess who seems tired and resigned and is showing a noticeable level of contempt for the one who supposed to not just be Hyrule’s savior, but her personal guardian. What struck me most, was Urbosa’s observation: “That boy is a living reminder of her own failures. At least, that’s how the princess sees him.”
It’s the harshest, and arguably most “human,” we’ve ever seen an incarnation of Zelda. Her diary documents her disgust at Link being appointed her bodyguard, and she takes every opportunity to ditch him. Even more scathing are the questions and doubts she throws in Link’s face (when she isn’t just yelling at him). It’s only after a great deal of persistence and a timely rescue from Link that Zelda is finally willing to open up to her guardian.
It is then that we start to see the princess’ frustration and pain, her questions and confusion. Urbosa may have been the one to first explain it, but only Zelda can show how much the burden of failure is constantly crushing her. Despite constant training, all her attempts to access the power that is supposed to be her birthright are met with nothing but disappointment.
Urbosa may have been the one to first explain it, but only Zelda can show how much the burden of failure is constantly crushing her.
In yet another first for the series, the royal family knew that Ganon was making a return. Not only that, they had excavated the tools and followed the strategy that had beaten the demon before. It was like getting the strategy guide and cheat codes at the start of the game. All they had to do was find champions to pilot the Divine Beasts, train one hero to wield the Master Sword, and have the princess unlock the goddesses’ sealing power.
To that end, Zelda was pushed from an incredibly young age to play her part. Without a teacher or any kind of direction, she struggled alone to understand what this sealing power was and how to access it. With her daily meditations and repeated trips to shrines and similar locations (nearly dying at least once), her dedication cannot be questioned. Yet, for some unexplained reason, the power lay beyond her reach. Her mother held that power, so Zelda knew it was possible, However, her constant “failures,” as she saw them, did nothing but frustrate her to the point of tears. Her only solace was her passion for archaeology. When that was taken away, there was nothing to hold back her depression. Then, when Ganon finally came, the entire plan fell apart, driving everything to destruction.
Perseverance in the face of failure
Anyone who has struggled to succeed at something understands the pain Zelda experienced. Failures and trials are a part of any learning process. The greater the struggle, the greater the success. But when the struggle begins to overwhelm you, the choice to keep going is much harder to make.
As gamers picked up Breath of the Wild, they eagerly looked forward to another adventure. What awaited exactly, we did not know, but we were sure that once again, we were the ones chosen to save Hyrule. Well, we were indeed chosen, but few, if any, were prepared for the onslaught that awaited us. Nearly everything that we had come to expect from the Zelda series was turned on its head, and the difficulty was almost immediately amped up to a level that hadn’t been seen since the original NES. It was all too easy to lose track of the death count, and it took a great deal of time, effort, and patience to truly measure up. But progress and skill did come, and, before we knew it, Blights, Hinoxes, and Lynels were falling at our feet.
Zelda’s struggles in our memories directlry reflect our struggles in Breath of the Wild.
Zelda, however, had been trying for years to master her quest. To make it worse, not only had she not succeeded, there wasn’t even a hint of progress. To her, it was like flailing her fists at a brick wall: the more she tried, the worse off she seemed to be. But then, in a moment of concern and panic, she cast aside all her doubts, and the divine power sprang forth.
There’s a reflection in this narrative. In a few remote locations in Hyrule — places of divine significance — a beautiful flower grows known as the Silent Princess. In yet another memory, Zelda and Link come upon one, and the Princess recounts some of its unique properties: “Despite our efforts, we cannot get them to grow domestically yet. The [Silent Princess] can only thrive out here, in the wild. All that we can hope, is that the species will be strong enough to prosper on its own.”
A Silent Princess for the Princess of Hyrule. All incarnations of the Goddess Hylia have come into their own in one way or another, but none of them reached it by forcing the issue. Whether driven by love, duty, or simple innocence and spirit, the power came naturally without any compulsory means. No doubt hard work and dedication was part of the equation, but reaching that point has never been a formulaic process. Instead, it works according to each princess’ circumstances, offering guidance, protection, and ultimately the power to seal evil away.
The learning curve can be steep, the consequences of failure severe, but when pressure and anxiety begin to dominate your efforts, you can’t see the small yet significant steps you’re making. Sure, we can stand at journey’s end in triumph. But reflecting on our struggles and constant deaths throughout this game, it’s impossible to point to one moment where we were suddenly everything Hyrule needed us to be. Instead, small and simple moments of courage, perseverance, and success — built upon each other piece by piece — until all those moments finally came together to create what we were meant to be.
Zelda, frustrated with her supposed lack of divine power, couldn’t see the growth she was making herself. Despite constant lack of success, she pressed on, gaining the will and patience she would need to hold back Calamity Ganon for over a century. As she learned to listen to others and care for the people around her, she slowly developed the kindness and grace that is the hallmark of her name and legacy. Then finally, when the moment of truth arrived, she did not hold back and found herself an equal to all the Zeldas who came before her.
This point is never explained, but it doesn’t have to be. For by the end, Zelda has come to realize it herself. The echoing voice of the Master Sword may have faded from her ears, but her gifts, her passions, and her newfound peace have stayed with her. At last, she can smile again, blooming brightly under the Breath of the Wild.