Not on purpose, I mean. More like a last-minute switcheroo.
2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shows that a series can reinvent itself by going back to its roots. As a game, it's a modern masterpiece. As a narrative experience... It's fine, but a little disappointing.
Of course, Breath of the Wild's focus is not really on written narrative. The stories that players carve out for themselves as they explore the world are what really matter. Wandering aimlessly is the main point of the game, after all.
And yet, Breath of the Wild's narrative doesn't really celebrate aimless wandering as its own reward. Instead, the two main characters, Link and Zelda, are prisoners of fate, constrained by their obligation to save the world. When they do get around to defeating Ganon and bringing the story to its resolution, the game ends. At the moment our heroes win the freedom to be themselves, we can't play with them anymore.
Then, there's Princess Zelda, an original damsel in distress if there ever was one. Breath of the Wild's take on the character shakes things up a little, but the story doesn't really do her character justice. In 2017, many players wanted to see more agency from a character so often reduced to tropes - or at least for her to be a playable character.
Finally, there's the ending, which didn't seem to align with the themes of loss and tragedy established throughout the game. It also didn't make much sense.
All this in mind, it seems that Breath of the Wild could have benefited from a different ending - one that empowers Zelda, celebrates the freedom to roam, and conveys bittersweet tragedy in line with its underlying themes.
Basically, I think Zelda should have killed Link at the end of the game and replaced him as the playable character.
I don't mean murder, per se, more like a noble sacrifice on Link's part that gives both Link and Zelda a satisfying character arc.
Same Song, Whole New World
It's a big world.
Breath of the Wild's story is essentially the same as it has been in every Zelda game since the beginning of time: Link is the hero, Princess Zelda is the damsel in distress, and Gannon is the force of evil. Link must defeat Ganon in order to save Zelda, and the rest of the world while he's at it. The lyrics may change, but... Well, you know the rest.
But Breath of the Wild's approach to the environment definitely breaks the mold. The Kingdom of Hyrule, having peaked 10,000 years earlier, has seen better days. Shrines and ruins outnumber the simple medieval towns that still contain people. Monsters and ancient machines roam the landscape, and Ganon's curse has locked Hyrule into perpetual stasis and decay.
Turns out, our heroes lost their battle between good and evil a century earlier.
Link first awakens in an ancient shrine with no memories of his past. He, Princess Zelda, and other heroes called the four Champions of the Divine Beasts, have already tried, and failed, to defeat Ganon. Link was wounded in the battle and brought to the shrine to sleep it off for a century. The four Champions were killed, their spirits trapped in the Divine Beasts they were piloting. Princess Zelda is still in the castle somehow, keeping Ganon's power at bay before he can destroy everything.
As the player discovers overgrown ruins, ancient shrines, medieval villages, and wilderness, the atmosphere is permeated with a sense of loss, of a past that can never be reclaimed. This elevates the lonely wanderings of Breath of the Wild to something that more affecting than they have any right to be.
But does Link actually enjoy any of this? I don't know! I kind of like the idea that he hates wandering around, and just wants to defeat Ganon. Since Link is a silent protagonist, who can tell?
Under guidance of Zelda's spirit, Link travels all over Hyrule, awakening the four Divine Beasts, retrieving the Master Sword, helping the local populace, and generally having a great time. Meanwhile, Princess Zelda just keeps on holding Ganon at bay up at the castle, I guess.
Or, Link makes a bee-line straight to Hyrule Castle. The player has options. Explore and get stronger, or bring the story it its resolution. You can't have both. After entering Hyrule Castle and defeating Ganon, credits roll and the game is over. That's kind of a shame. It feels out of sync with the primary purpose of the Breath of the Wild - the joy of exploration!
The Princess Is In This Castle
Zelda: "I'll just be here in the castle preventing the apocalypse so you can keep wandering around."
According to the story, every moment of Breath of the Wild is framed as preparation for the final battle. The narrative drive to explore is reinforced as a means to an end, get strong enough to enter the castle and save Zelda, but not an end unto itself. This puts the narrative into conflict with the game's primary focus on exploration. The drive to resolve the story becomes a drive not to resolve it, keeping the narrative in suspended animation for most of the game.
If the player has simmering questions about what happened to Princess Zelda and what lies in the castle, they'll have to simmer for a long time if they want to explore the entirety of the game's sprawling map. Fragments of memories, journal entries, conversations fill in the backstory of Zelda's character and those of the other Champions, but the story cannot really progress until the player defeats Ganon, which will end the game.
Link and Zelda spend the game trapped by their roles in the narrative, and the world is suffering for it. No great cities have been rebuilt even after a century, and the monsters who roam the wild will be reborn every Red Moon. No matter how many mountains Link climbs, lakes he crosses, or caves he explores, Zelda is still in the castle. Link is not truly free, and neither is the world.
But to free the world is to end the game. Even the DLC takes place before the defeat of Ganon. While plopping the player back into the landscape a minute after finishing the last mission can feel anticlimactic in a lot of open world games, Breath of the Wild could have embraced this instead. Continuing to explore the wilds after Ganon's defeat would only reinforce the value of exploration as its own reward. It's not like there aren't more shrines to explore!
Also, tromping around Hyrule while Zelda is stuck in the castle feels like a dick move on Link's part.
Zelda deserves more than cutscenes.
Breath of the Wild fleshes out an interesting character in Princess Zelda, but the story ultimately fails to do her justice. At worst, Breath of the Wild's treatment of Zelda can feel a little retrograde. She is the guide, the sorceress, and the damsel. All familiar tropes.
Most of all, Zelda is the frustrated, or at least that's what the memories Link collects want us to know.
As Link finds more memory fragments, we get a picture of Princess Zelda at various points in her life before Ganon cursed the world. She's intelligent and capable, but weighed down by duty and prophecy. As the Princess of Hyrule, she is supposed to wield the power to seal Ganon. Unfortunately, she has no idea how to do that.
Apparently, no one else does either. While Link was able to fulfill his destiny when the Master Sword "spoke" to him (off screen), Zelda hasn't a clue how to unlock her latent power. Her mother and grandmother had the same ability, but they seem to have died without imparting any helpful information. Zelda's father, King Rhoam, forces her to pray for hours at a time at shrines throughout the world, but this never seems to accomplish anything.
Zelda spends most of these memories frustrated at her own "failure" to live up to what's expected of her, but what does Zelda actually want? Her true interests seem to lie in research and scholarship. She's fascinated by the properties of plants and animals, and spearheads an initiative to excavate and refurbish machines from Hyrule's distant past.
Zelda feels like she wants nothing more than to be able to travel the world, learning as much as she can, and applying that knowledge to help her people. But she's scared to do so, and is forbidden to by her father. Zelda sees herself in the flower called Silent Princess, one that can only grow in the wild. But can it flourish on its own, unprotected? She has her doubts, and her father's constant gaslighting isn't helping. I get the feeling that a five-minute pep talk from her mom would have sorted the whole thing out.
Despite everything, Princess Zelda does her best. She leads the team of Champions, and helps each one master their Divine Beasts. It's clear that Link and the others wouldn't get very far without her.
It's only after Ganon attacks that Zelda learns the secret of her abilities. By tapping into her desire to protect the people she cares about, Zelda unlocks her power. After this, it doesn't take her very long to come up with a play for Link to save the world as she keeps Ganon at bay - for 100 years.
Living the Princess's Dream
Zelda is actually into this stuff. Is Link?
It doesn't feel like an accident that exploring the world and learning through experience is exactly what Link and the player do throughout the game. It's as if Link is living Zelda's long-held dream while she's stuck in the castle. Again, we don't know if Link enjoys any of this himself. Perhaps he hates every minute of his lonely wanderings. How can you know?
While the contrasts between Link and Zelda's character can feel a little unfair, that's nothing compared to how players felt when they learned that they couldn't play as her directly. Link, a light-skinned male, is the only playable option. In 2017, this was a disappointment to millions of players who wanted to brave the wilds as literally anything else.
What could have been a beautiful synchrony between the player and the player character is lost here to anyone who couldn't find a comfortable seat in Link. Link, with his amnesia, and the player, being new to the world, have the same level of information. Together, they learn how to survive. This is an example of the player as the agent of gameplay and the actor in the role of protagonist working together in harmony, but this only works if the player enjoys playing as Link.
Not having any playable options other than Link is frustrating enough, but building up Princess Zelda as a someone who loves exploration and discovery, in a game where the primary focus is exploration and dsicovery, and then never actually making her character playable to experience this exploration and discovery first-hand, feels kind of like a slap in the face.
So How Should It have Ended?
Is she a ghost or what?
Breath of the Wild has two possible endings. In either one, Ganon is defeated, and Princess Zelda emerges from the castle after 100 years, looking totally fine. This was a surprise to me, as I was expecting something more tragic.
Seeing as how this is a world full of ghosts, I wasn't sure if Zelda's voice, the one that guided Link all over Hyrule, was attached to anyone living. King Rhoam is clearly a spirit, barely able to take the form of Old man before discorporating. The four Champions too, are deceased, although their spirits live on in the Divine Beasts. All this in mind, and considering the general sense of melancholy that permeates the game, I was kind of expecting Princess Zelda to be dead at the end.
Imagine the irony of Link being resurrected after a century, traveling the world, and completing all sorts of feats in order to gain the strength to rescue the princess, only to find that she passed away long ago. Perhaps her spirit remained long enough to guide Link and keep Ganon in check. With Ganon defeated, she would be free to pass on to the next world, and Link would be left alone, again. With no choice but to return to the wilds, Link would do his best to honor Zelda's legacy by living her dream of endless exploration and discovery.
That would have been a haunting way to end Breath of the Wild. It would have matched the tragic themes that run throughout the game, and celebrated exploration as its own reward. That said, it would have been even more unfair to Princess Zelda's character than the game already is. Killing Zelda off at the end might have been a bittersweet send-off that completes Link's character arc, but it would have been further insult to Zelda's own agency within the narrative.
I like that the game ends with her as a living human again, but Breath of the Wild doesn't explain this part very well. Was Zelda existing as spiritual energy for 100 years, preventing her from aging? Who knows? It all seems too easy.
Left Wanting More Right at the End
Zelda and Link prepare to go on an awesome journey without you.
Rather than ending in tragedy, Breath of the Wild ends on a high note, albeit one that leaves the player wanting more.
In Breath of the Wild's secret, "good" ending, Princess Zelda returns to life, finally free to explore the world and help rebuild Hyrule on her own terms. Her powers have faded, and now she's just an average Princess again. Zelda quickly plots out their next move, and she and Link are soon off on another journey, finally free to live their own lives. Zelda gets to go on her journey of discovery, and Link gets to follow Zelda around again. I assume that this is all that Link really wants. Who could tell?
Narratively, this a nice place for Princess Zelda's character arc to land. But since the game itself ends immediately after, it's not as satisfying as actually getting to play as Zelda directly. It feels like the story is only getting started, with the best yet to come.
Patricia Hernandez and Gita Jackson of Kotaku and the Fave This podcast discuss Zelda's role in Breath of the Wild's narrative in one of their episodes. Both were let down by the ending.
"Where the game ends, that's the game that I want to play. Because I want to see what happens afterward, when [Zelda]'s not being tied down by prophecy or expectation. or Link even... I want to know what her story is now. I want to know who she is when she gets to write her own story."
- Gita Jackson, Fave This
"This is an origin story for a really interesting character. Once you're free of the trappings of a very bare bones fantasy story, there's so much possibility where you can take that character. Literally, [Zelda is] the only full character in the game, and the game's just over."
- Patricia Hernandez, Fave This
A more fitting way to end Breath of the wild would have been to allow the player to keep playing even after the defeat of Ganon, as Princess Zelda. But what would have happened to Link? Well...
Last Minute Switcheroo
Zelda is so ready for some "me" time.
As mentioned earlier, Breath of the Wild's most important characters are essentially ghosts, spirits who's bodies died a century ago in the battle against Ganon. Zelda is the exception, but how she managed to live without aging for 100 years, all the while keeping Ganon at bay through "prayer" is never really explained.
So, what about a different ending? One where Zelda's body didn't survive, but her spirit did? The end could play largely as it already does. Link and Zelda's spirit defeat Ganon once and for all, and Zelda's spirit is ready to pass on just like the spirits of the four Champions and King Rhoam himself.
But at the last moment, what if Link was able to make the ultimate sacrifice? Using the power of the Master Sword, or the Triforce, or something, what if he were able to offer his body to Zelda's spirit? There could even have been an optional side quest where Link gains this ability through some special challenge.
After defeating Ganon, Link could have sacrificed himself to give Zelda his body to possess. Her spirit would then enter it and transform it into her image. Link might die in the process, or maybe his spirit "merges" with Zelda's. He'd stay silent either way, so wouldn't make much of a difference.
From there, Princess Zelda could have taken over as the player character. With all the equipment and abilities they had before defeating Ganon, the player would have a whole new lease on life. Instead of exploring the world as a means to gain strength, the player and player character would explore the wilds simply for the pure joy of experimentation and discovery. This would match the underlying focus of Breath of the Wild's design beautifully.
Both Link and Zelda would have a satisfying character arc as well. Zelda would gain the freedom she's always wanted, and Link would fulfill his duty to Zelda in a way he couldn't in life - he'd make her happy. Link's story would end with martyrdom, which isn't out of the question for 'great mythic hero' types, but Zelda would remain to remember him. Link's death would add a layer of tragedy to the ending, a better match for Breath of the Wild's melancholy feel than the upbeat ending as it currently exists.
Such an ending might also unlock interesting choices for players. As is, players are encouraged to delay finishing the game and its story for as long as possible. But if Link had the choice to switch with Zelda after defeating Ganon, some players might want to rush to Hyrule Castle as quickly as possible. This would reinforce the theme of 'getting strong enough to enter castle' and the narrative drive to bring the story to a conclusion without compromising the pure pleasure of exploration. That would come after, with the player as Zelda, the one who actually enjoys that sort of thing.
So yeah, I think I Zelda should have killed Link at the end. Not on purpose, I mean. Just a last-minute switcheroo. If it's good enough for Red Dead Redemption, why not Breath of the Wild?