Cooking Up Something Special in The Legend of Zelda

By

This is but one of the legends of which the people speak…

It had been four years since the last real Zelda game (A Link Between Worlds) and six years since the last full console Zelda game (Skyward Sword). I was eager to return to Hyrule. My body was ready.

And Nintendo knew what they were doing—they whetted my appetite for four years, releasing preview images and extensive gameplay videos. Sprawling and open-world, this was going to be something new, unlike any Zelda game before. I devoured it all, preparing for something exciting and different—and finally, Breath of the Wild arrived!

And then I cooked virtual food.

There are a thousand things to do in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but this one is so simple that it doesn’t even qualify as a mini-game. Here’s how it works: when Link is near a campfire, open your inventory and pick your ingredients. The peppers you picked from that bush, for example, or the poultry you purchased from that trader. Or maybe the Hyrule Bass from when you grabbed that fish right out of the water like a boss.

Cook them over the fire and see what new dish or elixir is now in your inventory, and what health and abilities it supplies when you eat it.

I don’t know why such a simple game mechanic is so satisfying to me, but collecting ingredients and preparing these culinary power-ups takes up a good bit of my gameplay.

I’m going somewhere with this.

Hutchmoot 2016 included a great session about originality and “stealing like an artist.” Chris Yokel summed up his part of the session here.

Here’s my brief, paraphrased recap: instead of trying to develop a unique artistic voice, immerse yourself in the art that you love. Over time, your voice will develop as a fresh but familiar creation informed by, expanding on, and remixing those influences.

But Link’s adventure is helping me see how that idea holds true not only for creators but for individual stories as well. Because as different as this game is, there’s something astonishingly… familiar about it.

The Legend of Zelda has always embraced the remix concept. Every Zelda game includes a version of the classic “hero’s journey” (itself a remix concept), with the young but determined Link and the noble Princess Zelda in a battle against evil (often in the form of Gannon). Along the way, Link rides his steed, Epona, to Kakariko Village and the Great Fairy Fountain. He trades with Beedle and discovers the Triforce.

All of these elements would be familiar enough, but they are mixed with gameplay and storytelling that explores the earliest Nintendo games and the most recent console and PC games. This is a series getting back to its roots, and the original Legend of Zelda game (1986) was a wilder, less structured animal. Trying to emulate that early format in a new generation brings Zelda into the territory of recent open-world games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3, and I’ve heard comparisons to Minecraft as well. Plus, this is by far the Zelda game that feels most influenced by Japanese culture… and is this just me, or do the shrines feel a little like lightweight Portal levels?

This is a game with a lot of texture.

Storytelling experts often instruct me to hone in on the heart of what my stories are about. Marketing experts have taught me to find concise pitch-lines to describe my stories. They’re not wrong, but I have sometimes limited myself by being shortsighted in my pursuit of those things.

Breath of the Wild is not about one thing. It’s a dish. You can call a dish by it’s name—Spicy Meat and Seafood Fry—but to get there, you need all the ingredients, like meat and peppers. And the great thing about a dish—or a video game—is that the combination makes it more than the sum of its parts.

In my own storytelling, I’m taking the time to collect a lot of ingredients and test some recipes, because I want my next story to be as textured and complex and delicious as Breath of the Wild.

I also want to hear what you think. Are there dangers to complexity? How do your favorite stories combine their ingredients in unique ways? And what are your favorite parts of Breath of the Wild, or of the Zelda series in general?

Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Jonny Jimison is a talented cartoonist and graphic novelist. In addition to a long history of web-based cartoons, he's the author of Dragon Lord Saga series of graphic novels, including Martin & Marco and The River Fox. Jonny lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.


24 Comments

  1. Daniel Sellers

    @daniel-sellers

    Yes! Great article. I love all the Zelda games, but this one really blows them away and does something special. I like your thought about how the cooking aspect is a simple “ingredient” that makes the dish taste all the sweeter. I’m reminded by just how much detail Tolkien poured into Middle Earth. There’s so much material, so many little touches that weren’t really necessary, but they make his world come to life. Same story with Breath of the Wild. The cooking mechanic was not necessary; they could have just used hearts that you find in the grass like past Zeldas, but it’s all the little touches like this that really make it special!

    (Side note: I get logged out of my account every time I try to view an individual blog post. I’m logged in on the homepage though. Weird!)

  2. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    This game looks amazing… we’ve seriously discussed buying a Wii U or Switch only for the chance to play this game.

    (@daniel-sellers, this happens to me a lot too. I login on the home page, click on the blog post, then refresh the browser to stay logged in. No clue why, but it works!)

  3. Matt Crotts

    I think you’re really on to something here, Jonny! I wonder if you could go so far as to say that storytelling is recipe writing. Kind of reminds me of Brian Mcdonald’s quote about how storytelling is a series of events leading to a conclusion.

    It’s got me particularly thinking about one aspect of storytelling (that I really try and spend my time getting better at) – having a strong and intentional scaffolding/architecture to the story, but withholding that story’s architecture from view of the reader.

    So maybe with the recipe metaphor, we could say that storytelling is all about getting the reader to follow a trail, picking up tasty food items that you casually place in their path along the way (and subtly suggest that they combine them in certain ways as they walk along).

    And at the very end, suddenly they realize there’s a cake in front of them and they’re eating it! lol and then, after putting down the book and possibly reflecting on the story some more, they may realize that you as the author actually got them to follow a recipe without them knowing it. And that you kept that fact hidden from them until the moment the cake was done and on the end of their fork.

    Just my thoughts. Love the metaphor, and love what I see of the new Zelda so far. Now I’m hungry!

    – M

  4. Jonny

    @daniel-sellers That‘s a great point – what Tolkien did with lore and backstory, this game does with game mechanics, mixing them in complex layers. To take it a step further into something I didn’t get into in the article, mixing those ingredients takes calculation and effort. If you mix the wrong ingredients in Breath of the Wild you get “Dubious Food” (which has a suitably hilarious visual). You can’t just throw any junk together. You can tell Nintendo put a ton of thought, trial and error into the mix of gameplay, themes and environments. And of course Tolkien took forever getting his stories just right!

  5. Jonny

    @pete I KNOW. I haven’t been playing as much as I’d like because comics, and it takes sooooo many hours to beat this game, much less explore it. I might still be playing this years from now – it’ll be like the old guy at the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey, except I’ll be staring up at a sheikah slate.

  6. Jonny

    Great thoughts, Matt Crotts! #FourWordPoems

    You took the metaphor in a different direction than I was thinking, with producing some good food for thought (pun absolutely intended, no regrets). I really like that you pulled out the idea of the reader of a story being an active part of assembling it. That’s one of the most perfect things about Breath of the Wild – it leads you through a story but gives the reins to you. You never feel pressured to follow a specific path or mission, but you never feel aimless or overwhelmed by choices either. It’s a perfect partnership between the player and developer, and now you’ve got me wondering what that partnership might look like in, say, comics.

  7. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Jonny Jimison: Cartoonist / Life Coach 😂

    And adding to what Matt said… I think that’s how the best video games (and yep, stories) work, for sure. There’s a predetermined story guiding you to a conclusion, but still giving some room to make decisions and help you get there. That’s what makes story driven games so fascinating to me. Alas, if only I more time to play games…

  8. Mike T

    Pete, et al:

    I have the game. It is indeed stellar. As to your question: no, you don’t have the time! It is an engrossing beast that beckons you in and lets you go only very reluctantly. I don’t have the time, really (but who *needs* sleep).

    (Quick warning: I started this post as a musing and it degenerated into an analysis. You have my apologies.)

    Lately I’ve been wondering if, by virtue of its place in the storied Zelda universe and its totally enveloping world, BoTW begins to crack the Faerie threshold. Sure, it’s a big leap and I’m not entirely convinced myself, but stick with me. The scale and wonder of the game strikes me as an *unredeemed* example of sub-creation. It is a whole world into which we can step and, for some, return to our own world the better for the experience. Hyrule beckons your participation – not necessarily by playing the game or completing the various quests, but actually participating in the world as it is.

    I’ve been rereading Travis Prinzi’s piece in the first Molehill, “Jesus and the Dragon Quest,” so that’s prodding my thought process here a bit. I can certainly see a hint of positive Escape beyond mindless entertainment. Quoting Travis, who is quoting Tolkien, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

    Discounting the clearly dualistic and pagan notion of good and evil of the Hyrulian universe, BoTW may actually offer a sort of moving canvas through which we are able to explore and enact a few of our souls’ deepest desires. Hyrule itself displays a broken kingdom, wracked by evil and loss. This is plainly not uncommon to our human condition and experience. As Link, we are able to engage in “our desire to no longer be subject to the curse and to catch a glimpse of the final defeat of evil and the triumph of good.” What I think a video game such as this provides in a way narrative cannot is that we get to be more of an active participant. As a sword-wielding, monster-bashing knight, it can definitely be a bit cathartic. (Cooking is super fun, too. My baby daughter cheers each time she hears the cooking tune.)

    What I think BoTW lacks, perhaps as a trade-off for it’s wide-open world, is a compelling foray into a substantial Story (and here I don’t mean “plot”) – for me one of the most critical elements of humanness. Sure, as a participant you are, in some senses, making the story as you move through the setting. But I don’t think this completely captures what I am thinking. It’s possible the video game medium is so new, at least in relative terms, that they are still finding their voice here. There’s a slew of games out there with decent and even compelling story-lines, but these are typically formulaic and Hollywood-y. I don’t know that there are many out there that could have been written by Lief Enger or some such, where the story goes beyond the plot or setting.

    I was privileged recently to drop in on Dr. Ralph Wood recently and discuss the nexus of story, art, and theology. If memory serves me, he said the strength of writers such as Tolkien or Flannery O’Connor (about whom he quipped, “There are only two types of people in the world: Those who have read Flannery O’Connor and those who will.”) is that their art were original works in and of themselves, but were nonetheless informed by a deep, rich worldview. The art was not a vehicle for the ideas, but rather an organic expression of it.

    My experience of video games thus far, BoTW included, don’t yet rise to the point of that sort of artistic expression. They are surely complex and artistic (you simply can’t behold some of the landscapes in this game without saying “Wow!”). But in terms of true Faerie Stories, complete with a fuller opportunity for Consolation or Recovery. I’m unsure if I’ve seen one.

    But, like I said, BoTW comes pretty close.

  9. BenjiKunz

    Oh man. I was wondering if people in the Rabbit Room were into Zelda. I’m not a video game man, but I have been obsessed with this series since Ocarina of Time came out when I was 5. I’m a geography nerd and the huge, colorful landscapes have always been so gripping to me. Also, Majora’s Mask has one of the most complex and emotional storylines I’ve seen in any game. I tell friends that playing a Zelda game feels a lot like reading a book. I can’t wait to see what happens on the next page and what discoveries are up ahead.

    Now, I’ve been cursed with the low Nintendo Switch stock so I have the game in my possession but no console to play it on. It’s probably just as well because my life has been taken over by Greek homework, but man. I can’t wait to experience this entirely new brand of Zelda and get lost again. Great, great article Jonny!

  10. Jonny

    Mike T – I’m going to read your comment over and over this week, because you got DEEP. Thanks for your thoughful response! I like your point of view, but in terms of the story speaking truth, storytelling is reflexive as well as direct: we all bring our own stories to the table, so we all hear the stories differently. Two people can read the Hobbit and different things will stand out to them and speak to them in different ways because they have different experiences, ideas and priorities… and I believe that the Holy Spirit uses stories in different ways for different people to communicate different things. In general I have to agree with you that its main story doesn’t challenge with compelling narrative as much as the gameplay presents an immersive experience (of course, I’m not super deep into the game yet, so maybe that could change). But I’m seeing a lot of truth in this game because of how iconic it is – bringing my own experiences to the table and seeing them in the story, and listening for what the Spirit is telling me that he can use Breath of the Wild as an illustration. I’m not saying that decisive story is expendable, and I agree wholeheartedly that video games are still evolving and finding their voice, but I’d caveat that there are things in Breath of the Wild (like the joy of cooking and customization, the expression of natural beauty) that shout truth about the Creator despite the pagan worldview, and I find just as much value in the reflexive truth that comes from listening for truth in this iconic gameplay experience as I do from stories that brim with more authoritative narratives.

  11. Jonny

    BenjiKunz, thanks! I’m glad you like the article and hope you get a chance to play the game soon! If you’re a geography nerd you are going to LOVE it — it is one huge, gorgeous immersive map. With NO LOAD SCREENS when you enter a new area!

    People are usually outraged to hear this, but I never played the N64 Zeldas. Usually people fixate on Ocarina of Time, it’s interesting to hear you single out Majora’s Mask. They’re both on my list of games that I must play someday.

  12. Mike T

    Jonny –

    ‘Tis you who have gotten me to think. Thank you. And I’ve been/will continue to mull over what you’ve written, including today’s post.

    The reflexive v. direct statement is an interesting idea which I’ve never before considered. I think I see a little of what you’re saying, about how some creations really necessitate our unique input – and are even possibly completed by them (and not in a commercial sense). Perhaps an element of mutual expression is at play here? Also that we can further redeem the Zelda (or other) experience by remaining tuned into the Spirit as much as the game itself is a great encouragement to me. Sadly, I had not done so before now (I had to go ahead and finish the game to satisfy my ugly compulsion to complete things so I could, well, live life in the sun again).

    I tend to analyze ideas more than I submit them to the Spirit of God and be formed by him in that sense. This is probably yet more evidence that I need to do so across the board. I’d love to eventually revisit the pagan Zelda universe with that perspective in mind. It’s been admittedly difficult for me to reconcile my own rescue with the Hylian world beyond just a reflexive comparison or analysis.

    I’d love to hear others’ views on the matter.

    By the way, Jonny, I really appreciated your article. Well done, sir.

  13. Daniel Sellers

    @daniel-sellers

    @Jonny If you have the cash for it, I recommend picking up a 3DS and playing the remastered 3D versions of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on there. They may feel a bit dated, especially after Breath of the Wild, but I’m sure you will enjoy them nonetheless!

    My favorite Zelda game happens to be the Wind Waker, but it may become Breath of the Wild soon!

  14. BenjiKunz

    Jonny,

    Not outraged at all. That just gives you two awesome adventures to look forward to, Lord-willing! 🙂

    I echo a lot of people’s sentiments that Ocarina is the best Zelda game (though BotW is sounding like it might edge it out). Nostalgia bias aside, the storyline and gameplay flows perfectly and the Hyrule of that game still feels epic even if it might be a little dated. I think Majora’s Mask might be my personal favorite though. It’s so dark and complex and weird that it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but I’ve really never been so invested in a game before. It’s a direct sequel to Ocarina so it utilizes a lot of the same stuff (characters and music are recycled at times), but it somehow ends up being the most unique game in the Zelda library. I agree the 3DS versions would be worth picking up at this point. I’d like to give those a whirl one day.

    I loved Wind Waker too especially from an exploration standpoint. Interestingly, I didn’t love Twilight Princess as much because the world (while bigger) felt so dull. Same reason the Skyrim games have never appealed to me even though they’re huge.

  15. Jonny

    Mike, there are probably a lot of ways of framing this discussion or defining this dichotomy, but I think the simplest way is, does the encounter with truth depend on the creator or the audience? 
    Obviously, the answer is both, but most people focus more on one or the other based on temperament.
    I’m definitely more on the ‘listening’ side of things… so, for example, I’m fascinated by the fact that this game requires you to step aside from questing and fighting and go to a temple to pray. Like, there’s literally a ‘pray’ action command. And when you pray, you present spirit orbs you have gathered as an offering and they are ‘redeemed’ as new hearts. I think there’s some thought-provoking stuff there.
    But I’m grateful for people like you who invoke the word ‘pagan’ – because let’s not lose sight of the fact that what Link is praying to is a statue. Of a made-up deity.
    So hooray for balance! I try to maintain that balance internally, but discussions like this are one of the best ways to maintain that balance by exploring these thoughts with different perspectives.

  16. Jonny

    Benji and Daniel, Wind Waker is my favorite… although I agree, Breath of the Wild is giving it a run for its money! I don’t know if it can ever beat the nostalgia factor of Wind Waker though!
    Thanks for the 3DS tip.. I’m not much of a handheld gamer, but that sounds like the way to go. I also need to finish Link Between Worlds.. I got to play some of that on my brother’s 3DS and MAN it’s good. Like, ‘one of my favorite Zelda games’ good. Although.. Breath of the Wild is taking so long that who knows if I’ll ever be able to move on to Link Between Worlds, Occarina, and Majora’s Mask.
    Based on what Ive heard about Majora’s Mask, it is pretty unique.. that’s the one with the moon fall where you’re on a timer, right? I always figured it was second only to Link’s Awakening in terms of being different than the rest of the series. Have you played that one?

  17. Daniel Sellers

    @daniel-sellers

    Jonny,

    A Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games, for sure! And if you manage to grab a 3DS XL, you’ll barely notice you’re even playing on a handheld… the screen is so big!

    I have indeed played Majora’s Mask, and it’s definitely a dark horse for the series, even more so than Link’s Awakening (though perhaps not so much as Zelda II on the NES!). I still highly recommend it, though. The storytelling and characterization is one of the best of any Zelda game, and it’s a truly unique experience. Some of the limitations imposed by the older hardware and software can be a little frustrating at times, but the 3DS version addresses some of those and is the best way to go.

  18. Ann Gehin

    No deep insight here.  The only video game I have every played is Pokemon Sun/Moon, solely for the purpose of getting Pokemon that my son didn’t get with his version (I bought Sun, he bought Moon).  Once again, my son convinced me that BOTW was the game of the century and I would love it.  I truly did not think it would mean much to me.  But, man oh man, I LOVE this game.  For the author, it is cooking.  For me, it is finding Korok seeds!  I am a woman on a mission.

    What has surprised me the most, is the confidence I am gaining in battling monsters.  I am 51 and have NO gaming experience, so learning to quickly maneuver, shoot, jump, parry and simply stay alive was very rough in the beginning (much to my son’s chagrin).  However, I am now fairly bold in battling (except for “Major Test of Strength Shrines”, those still scare me).  Just yesterday, I obtained the Master Sword, and I still have two Divine Beasts to unlock.  (If anyone has any tips on Van Medoh, I will take them.  That beast has me stumped as to the upper and lower terminals.)

    There are days I have purposeful goals, and there are days I just wander around, looking for Koroks, treasure chests and ore.  The biggest drawback of this game is that it has seriously eaten into my reading time.  So fair warning:  if you purchase this game (do it on the Switch, it is AWESOME), be prepared to give up a part of your life to magic and fantasy!

  19. Josiah the Carrot Stick

    @thecarrotstick

    I haven’t played much of Breath of the Wild, but man is it fun. As far as other Zelda games go… I honestly have to go with Skyward Sword as my favorite. I know it has issues, but there’s just so much I love about it. The art style and graphics (though not HD) are great, the characters are more developed in than in other Zelda games, the story is excellent and cinematic, the music is superb, and despite the flack it gets, the game play is really fun (though occasionally tedious). Ocarina of Time is a very close second for me, predominantly due to the nostalgia of playing it when I was about 5. I also loved Twilight Princess, for many of the same reasons that I loved Skyward Sword. I had a hard time really getting into Wind Waker, but I can understand why people love it. I haven’t played much for the 2D titles, but what I’ve played of Minish Cap is pretty fun, and I’d love to play Link to the Past and Link Between Worlds at at some point. Honestly I’d like to play all of the Zelda games, but those are two that are pretty high on my to-play list, along with BotW and Majora’s Mask.

  20. Jonny Jimison

    @jonnyjimison

    @thecarrotstick I’m right there with you in being a Skyward Sword fan! That game gets a lot of flack, but for me, it’s the perfect balance between Wind Waker’s cartoony innocence and Twilight Princess’ epic scope. Also… I like the motion controls that make me feel like I’m holding a sword. I’ve heard nothing but hate for those motion controls, but I like it a lot. =) Plus you can FLY – I love exploring on my loftwing!

    If you get the chance to play Link Between Worlds, DO IT. It’s as good as any Zelda game, console or handhold.

  21. Josiah the Carrot Stick

    @thecarrotstick

    @jonnyjimison Yes, absolutely. I was impressed by just how cinematic Twilight Princess was… I remember a scene in Kakariko really striking me. I enjoyed the motion controls in Skyward, too. I really struggled with them at the beginning and during the final Ghirahim fight, but other than that I didn’t really have any issues with them. I loved the exploring the islands, and the Goddess Cube mechanic was fun, too. Not to mention the side quests. The side quests were hilarious.

    Yes, I may pick up a 3DS or 2DS at some point soon, and LBW is definitely high on my list of games to get!

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