In October 2016, world class boulderer Nalle Hukkataival completed the first ascent of a climb he had called the Lappnor project.
The Lappnor project: a climb where every single hold requires movement that literally pushes a human being’s ability to move upwards to its absolute limit. There is no route yet discovered that is as difficult.
It took Nalle Hukkataival over four years to finally complete the climb. He finished it at night, alone, almost by accident. Just another day, another attempt. He gave it the grade V17 – the first and only V17 in the world.
He called the route ‘Burden of Dreams’.
Climbing in Zelda: Breath of the Wild reminds me of the Burden of Dreams.
When I first began playing I was underwhelmed. As someone who loves video games and loves climbing, I’ve spent a lot of time (and words) thinking about the intricacies of climbing in games – how the moves are represented, how the animations reflect good or bad technique. Whether or not the development team has done a good job of representing what it feels like to move on rock.
Based upon those metrics, Zelda: Breath of the Wild falls short. The animations are sub-par, the rock textures barely representative of the movements Link makes whilst climbing. Compared to, say, Uncharted 4 which set a new benchmark in climbing animation and movement, Breath of the Wild is crudely abstract. Link doesn’t really climb in the traditional sense, so much as he just hunkers up the rock. Breath of the Wild is impressionist – it gives us the broad strokes and asks us to fill in the blanks.
No, the important thing about Breath of the Wild is this: it allows you to climb anything you see. Not in the Assassin’s Creed sense -- which sets routes for the player on every building -- in the actual sense. In Breath of the Wild you can attempt to climb every vertical surface you encounter. In Breath of the Wild you look at the mountain in the distance and you ask, “I wonder if I can climb that?”
Breath of the Wild gives its players the burden of dreams.
Can I climb this wall? Is it even possible?
In Breath of the Wild you can climb anything, but you can also fall.
You don’t fall because you pressed the wrong button. You don’t fall because you misread a texture. You don’t fall because you missed on onscreen prompt. You fall because you run out of stamina. You fall because you aren’t strong enough.
In climbing there’s an allure around the ‘first ascent’, particularly in bouldering, particularly at the higher grades. Because climbers at the highest level aren’t just climbing, they’re pushing the limits of human achievement. When Nalle Hukkataival attempted Burden of Dreams for the first time he couldn’t do a single move, let alone string them together and ‘climb’. For the longest time -- for a period of years – he was asking himself an important question.
He was asking, “is this possible?”
Is this humanly possible?
Video games rarely ask you if something is possible. Most video games don’t ask you to do the impossible. They are explicitly designed to be possible. Of course Nathan Drake can climb that wall. That is the wall that will trigger the next cut-scene and the next shoot-out. That is the wall that has literally, from its inception, been created for you to climb. Go climb it. Climb without fear. It is possible. That is a promise. A promise that can’t be broken.
But here is what true exploration, and true climbing, requires – the absolute possibility of failure. The possibility that something is not possible. The possibility that you will fall.
That’s the true burden of dreams.
In Breath of the Wild every ascent is a first ascent. That’s the beauty of it. These climbs have not been designed, they simply exist. No-one has climbed these walls the way I’ve climbed them. No-one has moved on this rock like I have. And they never will
Are there walls and mountains in Breath of the Wild that are impossible to climb? I’m not sure and I doubt I’ll ever know. I only know that this is a video game that allows me to ask the question, “can I climb this?” without immediately (and conclusively) giving me the answer to that question before I even start.