There were a number of surprises at the official unveiling of the Nintendo Switch. A resolved dedication to motion controls in the JoyCon controllers with the launch title 1 2 Switch. The fact that after twenty years Capcom still can’t resist re-re-re-re-re-re-releasing Street Fighter II with some minor changes. Konami’s name being attached to a project that doesn’t completely squander and denigrate its legacy in a sad attempt to chase trends with Super Bomberman R. But the biggest surprise came at the very end of the conference with the reveal of the latest trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Trailer
But the surprise wasn’t that they presented another trailer for the Switch’s killer app. It was the raw and visceral reaction I had upon viewing the trailer. I am personally coming up on writing critically about games on a semi-professional basis for almost seven years. I’ve covered extensive and messy behind-the-scenes production issues, been a vocal critic of certain business practices, and have even been the target of harrassment over mildly controversial opinions on certain major productions. After a while, it’s easy to become jaded and cynical about everything in this industry. Yet after seeing this trailer for the Nintendo Switch’s biggest launch title, I was overcome with emotion. To the point that I shed tears.
For this entire week I continued to wonder why this trailer? Why did this trailer pack so much emotional punch to rival entire video game experiences? It had to be more than nostalgia, which explains why this wasn’t out sooner as a much more topical hot take. I couldn’t just leave the whole experience up to just that. So after losing a lot of sleep, going over the trailer with a fine toothed comb, and getting a big primer on film theory, cinematography, and storytelling techniques, I think I have discovered the brilliance of the 2017 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
First the matter of nostalgia has to be addressed. As a company, it is easy to dismiss Nintendo use of nostalgia to sell their franchises. The purity of their brand focusing on simple yet deep gameplay with elegant yet iconic imagery and characters has always been a strong pull for all of their work. It’s what helped buoy the otherwise commercial failure of the Wii U.
But nostalgia can wear off. Just last year my biggest gaming disappointment was Star Fox Zero, an installment that went out of its way to invoke my deeply ingrained nostalgia for the Star Fox characters and world, yet the extremely cumbersome and unintuitive control scheme made me sick to my stomach. It was a caustic punch to the gut since it showed that for all of Nintendo’s dedication to gameplay polish and technical mastery, they can still be a company that makes mistakes.
It is a full on reminder that nostalgia alone cannot save a project. At its heart, nostalgia correlates positive emotion with stuff you recognize from your youth, regardless of quality. It is a reactive primal desire to remember such things fondly from a more innocent time, and it can be imprinted on just about anything. For example, I distinctly remember being nostalgic for the animated Mighty Ducks cartoon by Disney, even though now through modern eyes I can tell the show is kind of crap.
On a surface level, Breath of the Wild’s trailer seems to be playing the nostalgia tune, but with noticeable restraint. We see Link riding on horseback through Hyrule, but he is not wearing his marketable green tunic and hat. We see him fight but with arrows and spears, utilizing more obscure items like the ice wand rather than the boomerang. Ganon is the Big Bad once again, but he is not visualized as a pig monster or a humanoid sorcerer mastermind but as a living natural disaster. Anything resembling familiar locations like Hyrule Castle are either barely recognizable as ruins and many of the new characters shown are distinct but cut from different cloth. There’s even the inclusion of voice-acting, a first for the franchise so disarming you can fool yourself into thinking the trailer was for a completely different game.
Which finally brings me to what truly gives Breath of the Wild its emotional punch: its overall thematic tone and its use of intertextuality. While nostalgia is purely emotional and tied positively to memory, the idea of intertext is that a certain item, phrase, or character is given greater meaning, complexity, or symbolic weight by its presence in another piece of media. It’s one of the oldest storytelling techniques out there and it has seen a modern resurgence with more recent Hollywood films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a fantastic example. You know Captain America is a bright and upstanding patriot that will always do the right thing, not necessarily due to him stating it outright in The Avengers, but because you have been informed of his character traits in another film, specifically Captain America: The First Avenger.
The Legend of Zelda is no stranger to this technique. In fact, the power of intertext has become more potent in this series than anything else in the publisher’s library due to the official publication of a Zelda timeline, laying out that all of the games released throughout the series thirty-year history are part of a large sprawling mythology across multiple generations. Always repeating the same events: the courageous hero with the magic sword, the wise princess that always has a plan, and the powerful demon king locked forever in conflict throughout the ages.
Intentional or not, this has lead to these enduring characters having strong traits. Princess Zelda usually gets labeled as a generic damsel in distress, yet taken as a whole her character is active, always showing quiet yet solid resolve in any situation. She is captured by evil forces, but she uses magic to send out a message for a rescue. Her recklessness in another story leads to her manipulating the hero into trying to obtain an artifact of power before the villain that goes horribly wrong. In one of the series’ darker installments she was a full on commander of an army, only to be overwhelmed by the enemy’s power. All separate adventures, but it leads to a collective idea as to who Princess Zelda is: a wise ruler that protects her people but is still prone to mistakes, and even then is emboldened to fix them.
However, it must be stated that something relying on intertext alone cannot sustain itself. There’s only so much inside language and iconography that can be used before it can become completely alien to its audience. Or worse, used as an emotional crutch.
Which finally brings us back to what the tone of Breath of the Wild’s trailer sets. The trailer’s first big pull at nostalgia is the reveal of the iconic Master Sword, a reveal that takes up forty-five seconds of a trailer that’s about four minutes long. But the intertext of that weapon has always been that of a magical slayer of evil. Always sharp and ready for the hero to claim it. So why does it appear rusted and damaged? We also see Hyrule Castle overtaken by an entire world full of evil monsters with barely another human character seen. There’s even a solemn melancholy piano and string assortment selling the mood of a tired world.
The tone picks up in a more confrontational energy as it shows Link traveling the world and fighting various monsters, the sort of stuff you’ll expect to do in actual gameplay. Then, the music changes to one of desperation, the footage showing widespread destruction and the first scenes of Link interacting with Princess Zelda. They are running away from something, and what appears to be the city of Hyrule is in flames. All of this leading to the emotional climax of this entire trailer: Zelda stating that everything she has done up til now has all been for nothing before emotionally breaking down in tears into Link’s lap. The wise princess that always had a plan is broken, and that heartbreak is conveyed in a truly jaw-dropping mix of emotional acting and lovingly rendered visuals.
All before transitioning to a triumphant return of The Legend of Zelda theme with Link facing greater challenges, meeting brand new characters with optimism and determination plastered into their body language. All of it crescendos into one last sequence of Link looking battered as he faces an unseen evil before cutting to the title.
The intertext, cinematic language, and tone helps sell this trailer as one of hope against overwhelming odds. The courageous hero has nothing that he knows as familiar. His magical sword cannot help him. The grand kingdom he is usually sent to protect by a wise princess is nowhere to be seen and she has no information to help guide him. The powerful demon king appears to be unchallenged and is on the cusp of conquering the world. But the courageous hero is still going to stand defiant and find a way to win.
For a series that can easily be criticized for going over the same familiar beats, it shows what can be done when Nintendo steps away from their formula. Make no mistake, this trailer is beautifully rendered and it truly is an emotional ride, going from curious to determined to operatic to jubilant in a way that very few video games manage in their entire run time. Speaking personally despite the cel-shaded visuals, the tone of this trailer paints arguably the darkest Legend of Zelda title since Twilight Princess. So while it can be easy to just say nostalgia played a part in how some were hit with “the feels” from this trailer, that wouldn’t be giving the developers enough credit for their savvy understanding of the characters of their world and what happens when you use their inherent values to spectacular use.