The Active Ambiance of Breath of the Wild

File Apr 09, 8 24 24 PM
Breath of the Wild by Tre Simmons

Breath of the Wild is the latest iteration of the successful The Legend of Zelda franchise, and it has succeeded on so many accounts (even becoming the 2nd best reviewed entry in the series) by combining the disparate parts of its predecessors into a fully functioning whole. It contains the cel-shaded beauty of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword; the constant movement and scheduling of non-playable characters in a similar way to Majora’s Mask; and it retains the open world and “choose your own order” feature of A Link Between Worlds. Much like all of the other games in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild also boasts a beautiful set of sounds and music that fully ensnares players into its fantasy world. Nearly all of the other games in the series include creative takes on 8-bit soundtracks, as well as heavy orchestration and occasional other instrumentation to flavor key areas or games in order to stand apart from other entries. Breath of the Wild does something similar; while still containing past themes and motifs in the many places the protagonist Link can visit, BotW is the most ambient, utilitarian and (in my opinion) beautiful music in the entirety of the Zelda oeuvre, in part because of its sparseness.

Ambient, as put by the musician Brian Eno, is music designed to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This is to say, ambient music should be able to blend into the background and become one with the rest of the world as it should be captivating and intriguing in its own right. Breath of the Wild succeeds on both fronts; when traversing through the massive region of Hyrule, players can easily become lost in the many quests and enemies there are to triumph over. When facing down a troop of Bokoblins, for example, you can become so wrapped up in defeating said enemies and having weapons left over that the music can become entirely unnoticeable. However, in giving equal or a majority of attention to the soundtrack found within BotW, a Bokoblin fight can become that much more catchartic and triumphant.

Where Breath of the Wild differs from most Zelda games is its heavier use of piano in contrast to prior entries. When riding a horse, for example, a broken, ecstatic melody plays; in the interim during both the day and night, individual notes play in a protracted manner that, when put together, spell out major musical themes of previous Zelda iterations. In effect, it combines a little bit of both old and new music to the Zelda franchise that becomes its own idiosyncratic musical language. Older themes can also be heard when visiting the various horse stables found throughout the game, which hearkens back to Epona, the silent hero’s trusty horse companion. Various piano and accordion melodies can be heard everywhere throughout Hyrule that lend each sub-region its own distinct identity.

The spare melodies of the soundtrack also continuously change as you face certain trials in the game. Battles against one of the most fearsome enemies, the Guardians, begin with a dissonant piano before leading into a driving, tense 6/8 melody. Said music ends in a literal explosion only once a Guardian has been defeated or trails off into the more serene day or nighttime themes if Link is able to move far enough away from the range of the enemies’ laser attacks. Many other sounds spark interest and keep players on their toes in all areas of Hyrule. One can be taken aback by the sine wave sound leading into the common day and night variations, sparked into action by a puff of smoke which introduces a certain enemy, or simply bask in the field recordings of various real life creatures thoughtfully placed into the background of beach, field and jungle regions.

Simply put, Breath of the Wild takes a lot of care to fully envelop you in its world through stunning visuals, carefully wrought gameplay and its minimalist choices in sound. It has become one of my favorite games to play because of how placid and rich its sonic territory is. The density of the sounds hear never rises beyond three or four elements at any given moment, yet there is a world of depth and attention to detail that busier works can never even fathom. In this way, it reminds me of some of my favorite minimalist works of music; The xx’s debut album, Visible Cloaks Reassemblage and ANOHNI’s version of Oneohtrix Point Never’s song “Returnal” come to mind. Breath of the Wild took core elements of the Zelda world and filtered them in a way where an entirely new idea of the series has been created, and they have amply breathed new life into an already amazing series.

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