One late Saturday night, I decided to venture out to the last area I hadn't yet visited in Breath of the Wild—the Gerudo Town. The town is situated in the middle of the vast Gerudo Desert, with heat radiating off the beautiful sands. Two guards blocked me from entering the walled town, which is how I learned that only women could enter the town. Men (voe, in the game's terminology), are forbidden. To get in you have to finish the disappointing Forbidden Town quest, in which Link has to find women's clothing in order to disguise himself.
This wasn't ideal, but when I finally entered the town, my dad, watching from the couch, exclaimed "Wow!"
Being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, my dad was amazed by the details of the tiny city and how well it evokes ancient Arabic towns. Gerudo Town is surrounded by high walls, suggesting an isolated people, protective of their culture, similar to homes constructed in the Arabic countries of the Persian Gulf. Imagery and architecture are not the only elements borrowed, as the citizens' attitudes towards gender show similarities to Muslim-majority countries, with one major difference: The roles are reversed. Only women are allowed here, and thus are (typically) the only ones allowed positions of power and prominence in the culture.
Playing through this part of the game, I couldn't stop thinking about the similarities and inspiration it takes from Arabic culture. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for the majority of my life, gender segregation is our reality (As a man, I didn't experience even half of its pernicious effects). Public spaces, governmental institutions, schools, cafes, and restaurants are all gender-segregated. This segregation targets women and constrains their lives. Men get to decide whether, when, and where women should leave their homes. Thus, public spaces are considered masculine. To the point of absurdity, and even tragedy.
In 2002, there was a tragic school fire in Mecca. The female students were not allowed to leave the school, nor were the male firefighters allowed to enter, because the girls were not wearing their Abaya (a garment designed to cover women's bodies). The religious police actively stopped the students from leaving and stopped men from helping them. While walking around the Gerudo town, these thoughts and memories came flooding back.
There are a few places where these themes are touched on, and BOTW flirts with something like depth and complexity—there is a classroom where Vai (Gerudo for "women") learn about men and dating, and a secret shop where men's clothing is sold—but I was ultimately disappointed in the ways Gerudo town and culture just felt like window dressing.
Men and women in Saudi Arabia have very specific, prescribed interactions, but any situation outside the norm becomes difficult. I had to become accustomed to interacting with women in different situations when I went to high school in America. I wasn't used to having women teachers. Those little moments made me wish someone had taught me the different social cues of American culture. The game has a unique opportunity here, to connect with those real-life moments of culture shock. But instead, Link was just a passive observer.
Hosting a gender inclusive event, meaning both men and women are in attendance, is illegal in Saudi Arabia. This is part of the reason why movie theaters are banned in the country. Several guys at my school had to hide and lie about the time they spend with their girlfriends; having a girlfriend is also a cultural taboo. They would go to great lengths to hide this part of their lives. They would go to their isteraha (Arabic for "resting place," usually a place for group gatherings) far from the city. In these gatherings, people are given a chance to break cultural taboos; they would play music, dance and break the biggest taboo, hanging out with the opposite gender.
The secret club quest conveyed a familiar sense of secrecy and illegality. Including quests around details like this could have provided depth to the game's portrayal of Arabic culture. People don't always accept parts of their culture, but question it and try to subvert it. The game avoided portraying that conflict—between the old and new forms of culture. I wanted to take part in breaking taboos, to have in-depth dialogue with the people who are subverting tradition and to feel like my actions, completing quests and talking to NPCs, actually affected and transformed the town in any way.
The game could have continued the success achieved in Tarrey Town, in which the player builds something, affects people, and feels connected to the people they helped. Breath of the Wild squandered the potential it demonstrated in other quests and failed to represent Arabic culture, because the quests and moments that dealt with gender just ended after getting an item.
I love Breath of the Wild. The lovingly detailed towns, the beautiful overworld, the cleverly designed puzzles, the great characters (Urbosa is amazing!), and ambient soundtrack all filled me with a joy I hadn't gotten from a video game in years. And I love that the game attempted to represent a strong, proud matriarchal society.
But our culture needs to be represented with depth and care, because our lives are as real as any other peoples'. Breath of the Wild doesn't deliver in this respect. We should expect more from games that borrow from real cultures: Games should tackle issues and topics like gender, race, sexuality, and politics, thanks to their ability to embody the player in a world or role. Games have the power to give players a chance, however small and ephemeral, to experience someone else's life.