What Breath of the Wild Taught Me About the Value of Play

My friend and I, both avid gamers, were talking recently about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I didn’t enjoy The Champions' Ballad expansion because it heavily features some of my least favourite game mechanics: spatial reasoning puzzles as opposed to open-world exploration.

As I defended this unpopular opinion, I realized that I wasn’t having fun playing the game because my primary focus was on doing things correctly. I've never felt like I was good at those types of puzzles, so I automatically assumed I'd struggle, and went straight to Google.

Instead of exploring and trusting that I could figure it out, I was meticulously following step-by-step instructions on how to play the game instead of actually enjoying myself. I had my iPhone in my hand, checking every numbered step against what I'd done, barely even looking at the television.

I was following someone else’s plan for how to play, how to have fun, and it was tedious. I found myself talking myself into finishing whatever quest was before me like it was a load of laundry. I wasn't engaged, and my mind wandered to all the other things I could be doing with my precious free time.

That's the opposite of how video games are supposed to work. When titles are described as having an immersive experience, it means they transport the player and make them feel entranced and invested, not completely mired in their own resistance.

I was doing it wrong.

I robbed myself of the delight of discovery, the potential for surprise, and the satisfaction of solving things on my own.

Because I didn’t believe I could figure it out.

I didn't trust myself to be clever enough, to be perfect.

I completely missed the point.

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When the Nintendo Switch first launched, I spent a month scouring online retailers, obsessively refreshing inventory trackers, and phoning brick and mortar stores, desperate to get my hands on one. The Legend of Zelda was the franchise that made me fall in love with video games, and I knew this latest installment was going to be superlative and significant. My playing it was non-negotiable.

Had I really done all that to turn something I love into a perceived obligation?

I stopped using the walkthrough. I started paying attention to what was in front of me: visual cues, changes in music, tools at my disposal. I thought about the problems laid before me. I've played video games for a long time. I know all the genre tropes, and I have a creative mind. This environment was built for me.

I had the same resources as anyone else, so how would I use them? It didn't matter if it was the "correct" way; I had the opportunity to shape my own story, and all I had to do was take a chance and try. Failure was impossible.

What the hell was I waiting for?

I began to explore, to experiment, and, to my surprise, found solutions that made intuitive sense to me with ease. That's how I spent an hour tying balloons to rocks, trying to float them across an ice bridge to complete a stone formation on an isolated island in the middle of swamp filled with deep mud.

If it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid.

Breath of the Wild was seemingly developed around that philosophy, as it entices players to test their instincts and interact with the virtual world as if all things were possible, because they are.

There are multiple right answers, and iterating on that truth requires a mindset shift away from linear thinking and a willingness to be in the moment.

To let go.

To play.

Was there an easier way to complete that rock pattern? Most likely. But I solved it using my own idea, and it felt damn good when I did.

Regardless of what you're doing, it's very easy to get caught up in the comparison trap, and what the “correct” way to achieve your goal is. I've really struggled with any pursuit that doesn't have a clear rubric for success, because I have no idea how to reverse engineer my own actions to excel.

What do you mean there's no right answer?

Shoutout to all my fellow perfectionists and overachievers out there. You’re going to hate this next part, but I promise it will set you free:

There are no rules except the ones you make. It can be as fun (or as tedious) as you make it.

Go play.

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