When I booted The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild this week, the most recent save file was dated April 9, 2017—almost six years ago exactly. The save sat in front of the game’s final boss, Calamity Ganon. In the spring of 2017, I beat Ganon, put the game down, and moved on. But with the game’s sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, due to arrive in a few weeks, I felt compelled to revisit what remains Nintendo’s most impressive release of the last decade.
Doing so was a delightful form of time travel, an exercise in trying to piece together what Patrick Klepek was up to six years ago in Breath of the Wild. What were his priorities? What did he find interesting about the world? What weapons was he hauling around? I clearly made the markers on the world map, but, uh, I don’t know what any of them mean? I may have been the person who played this for 70+ hours back in 2017, but those memories left my brain the moment the Switch was turned off. They live on, instead, inside the save file.
These days, save files follow you around, in the cloud or attached to a console you own. But growing up, one of my favorite activities was renting a video game and seeing what previous players were up to. Prior to the introduction of memory cards around the PlayStation era, save files were attached to the game cartridges themselves, and rarely did kids delete their progress. In fact, when I rented long role-playing games, I hoped and prayed that the next person who rented the cartridge kept my adventure intact by the time I could rent it again!
It was a glimpse, long before YouTube and Twitch, into different ways to play a video game.
But in this scenario, the person I’m glimpsing is 32-year-old me. I’m 38 now.
“Here's the question,” posed Ted DiNola, a designer who works in virtual reality at Meta. “Would you know if [your saves were the same]? Like, if they just kinda ‘fuzzy matched’ your 6 year old save file, how good's your memory? If they gave you different horses, randomly marked a set of Ancient Shrines complete, changed up your inventory... would you know?”
Heavy, bro. But practically speaking, it’s basically the same thing. Memory is funny like that.
Animal Crossing, another person pointed out, actually does this. It’s a game that dynamically changes when the player is away, and the world has shifted upon return. Characters remark on your absence. Breath of the Wild is not like that. The world is as you left it, your marks (or lack thereof) the same, the only difference being you’re returning with the passage of time, lapses in memory, and an interface insisting you spent an enormous amount of time here.
The most obvious obstacle to revisiting a video game half a decade later is obvious, and a constant annoyance of mine: you’ve forgotten all the controls. The vast majority of video games do not allow players to jump into any old tutorials, forcing you to fumble around and bash the buttons until they start making sense again. This is a game with a feature called the Hero’s Path—it was added after launch, as a form of paid downloadable content—which tracks all the walking, climbing, and dying players do over hundreds of hours! But I can’t hop into an options menu and ask the game to explain how dodging and parrying works again!
That’s easy enough to overcome, though. You can look up how the controls work, and hey, it’s a Zelda game. I’ve played a bunch of these before, and while this one is more complicated than most, we’re not not learning how to control a 3D game for the first time.
What’s less easy to overcome is deciphering my old self. Take this, for example:
Breath of the Wild, like many open world games, gives players options to mark the map with icons to denote locations of interest. The icons can represent something specific, but the game doesn’t require it. The map is littered with preset icons, like shrines and towns, but the little yellow ones are for the player to assign their own actions to. In 2017, I apparently decided this little island deserved a star. Oh, and so did this one spot outside of a town east of Central Hyrule. This isn’t Mario, and you don’t collect stars. So, what does a star mean?
The answer: a puzzle. It was a puzzle that 2017 me couldn’t, or didn’t want to, solve. And in 2023, with the help of people watching on Twitch, we solved them. (Well, one of them—the other required doing a series of side quests that we didn’t have time for. But look, you get it!)
In the same way that Nintendo programmed Breath of the Wild to track my footsteps, with my save file, I was able to track my own past, including my past failures, by the crumbs of digital evidence I’d left behind. Oh, this was a tough fight that I didn’t want to deal with. Oh, this was an area that didn’t make sense to me, and I hoped to figure it out later. (I did not!)
It became a form of memory excavation, as I poured over the existing evidence in search of understanding why I thought, at one point, it was important to mark this on the map…but not actually finish the task. There’s no way to know for sure, obviously. Maybe I was tired, being a new parent at the time? Maybe my relatively new job at VICE forced me, like it does with so many other video games, to put Breath of the Wild down before I was truly done playing?
I don’t know!
Beyond the fun of revisiting history and examining a past self, it’s only reinforced how transcendent Breath of the Wild was—and is. Playing it again in 2023 is a reminder of what a strange experiment Nintendo pulled off. A video game about friction and boredom and broken weapons wasn’t on my Zelda bingo card six years ago, and it still feels remarkable.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).