When I read reviews for Breath of the Wild, I found it hard to believe that it could be as good as the hype. Then I played it. Evoking a sense of expanse, delight and adventure at every turn, this latest imagining of Hyrule and its inhabitants strikes many chords with me. I’ll leave the game analysis to those who are experienced in development, and instead focus on one of the topics I do know about – and one that I feel this game has done particularly well. Let’s look at 5 times this Zelda game looked at Mental Health and succeeded.
Dr Jennifer Hazel is a psychiatry registrar. She is also the founder and Executive Director of CheckPoint, not-for-profit organisation which acts at the intersection of mental health with video games and technology. They're currently running a Kickstarter for a video series. You can check that out here!
Dorkly Editor Tristan Cooper caught my attention when he tweeted about this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it NPC interaction. When you cross Proxim Bridge, a rather hopeless Brigo is ruminating about the world’s imminent demise. This is reasonable considering the context. There are two really great things about this scene.
Firstly, as soon as he notices you’re there, Brigo completely changes his tune. His tone becomes motivating and he is clearly trying to project a sense of hope despite his lack of it. This is actually a wonderful thing to see, and of course, feeds back into what we see next.
If you try to jump off the bridge into the river below (for whatever reason), you are interrupted by Brigo. He tries a number of tactics to convince you not to jump, which, he assumes, is an attempt to end your own life. These techniques include reassuring you that there is something to live for, and reminding you that your death would cause pain to others. Afterwards, he offers to talk things through with you.
If you stand on the edge of a bridge, this guy will try to talk Link down from suicide. He even offers to help talk you through it pic.twitter.com/c2xkY6HgzB
— Tristan Cooper (@TristanACooper) March 11, 2017
Video games are designed to be immersive, and there are a lot of givens we often overlook. Death is almost never permanent, and characters often go through intensely traumatic events with no ongoing psychological baggage. What’s wonderful about this scene (and so much of this game) is its refusal to buy into that rhetoric. There’s a sense of reminding you that the actions you take do have meaning to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. There’s also a hopefulness to the entire scene – despite being convinced the end of the world is here, this one guy will still go out of his way to show you that someone cares about your life.
Interestingly, Tristan later updated his Twitter to reflect a discovery that Brigo “might be based on Kevin Briggs, a real-life patrolman who saved hundreds from suicide in San Francisco”. I really hope that this is true. I recently had the fortune of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and was pleasantly surprised to find numerous suicide prevention signs.
Koko the Chef
There is a recurrent theme in this game that many of the adults are not around any more. In Rito Village, the tradition is that the women sing and the men go to war. Ultimately many of the children do not have fathers, and many of the wives do not have husbands. NPCs regularly comment about how dangerous it is to leave the villages.
Koko is a little girl in Karariko Village who requests ingredients so she can cook meals for you. She alludes to how she wants to be as good a chef as her mother was, and how much she misses her mum. It’s fairly clear at this point that she is being raised by a single father. It then turns out her father has not told her that her mother died, but she worked it out anyway (I honestly feel that any child capable of cooking over an open flame is able to understand death, but I digress).
If you turn up at the town at the right time in the morning, Koko is making her way to the east side of town. She remarks that she is “visiting” her mum before her sister gets up, because the younger sibling is not aware of their bereavement, and Koko doesn’t want to upset her. She then proceeds to a makeshift graveyard just outside of the village, and cries for about an hour.
The entire thing breaks my heart. It is truly these small details which make this game probably one of the best of all time. It is that sense of a family which has been torn apart and put back together, enduring a tragedy whilst the world continues to turn. And it is the story of a little girl growing and taking responsibility over her sister and her father’s emotions, whilst still expressing her own at the right place and time. It’s not ideal, or a model for how things should be, but it is certainly a rare and sympathetic representation of how things so often are.
A World of Immersion
Studies have shown that games with high levels of immersion are beneficial to wellbeing. There’s a few different theories of mechanisms at play here – flow state, self-determination theory, escapism, to name a few. The important thing is that games which get you “in the zone” without becoming a problem can be inherently pleasant experiences, can raise mood, and reduce anxiety.
Hyrule in BotW is nothing if not expansive. It’s the most feature-rich, detailed, animated game world I’ve ever seen in my life. There are quests everywhere for you to find, characters to interact with, puzzles to solve, and views to see. It is truly a wonderful place to be.
The beneficial thing that this contributes to wellbeing is the ability to lose yourself in an environment that can be very relaxing. You can easily choose not to fight anything, instead exploring autonomously. The visuals are stunning and transportive, and it feels great to play. The experience is finite, so there is always a definitive endpoint, reducing the risk of addiction.
When used for self-expansion purposes, escapism is a valuable tool for personal growth and improved mood. Whether on foot, by sea, by horse or gliding through across the horizon, a trip into Hyrule is one well worth taking.
Breath of the Wild sees easily the most complex, well-rounded and interesting Zelda yet. It took a while for us to recognise this — I think in part because unfortunately many find her English voice actor to be disappointing.
Before even progressing that far through the story, we know a few things about Zelda. She is resilient, and has been fighting for 100 years. She is tougher than previous Zeldas, and has opted for a more practical garb to match, including – for the first time ever – trousers. (This is of course excluding her alter-egos, Sheik and Tetra).
As you uncover different memories around the vast world, Zelda becomes an increasingly rich character. We see that she is riddled with insecurities about her own perceived failings. We see her take this out on others, and reparative efforts afterwards. Other attempts to reconcile these anxieties is to throw herself into research and academia, often recklessly and at risk to her own (and others’) safety. Ultimately she owns these misdemeanours and acknowledges accountability for her actions, but remains crippled by the pressure she is putting on herself.
In fact, in the end, it is this stubbornness and her insistence on doing everything by herself (and therefore never realising it is Link who is supposed to have the Sheikah Slate) which contributes to the downfall in their battle efforts. It’s easy to be annoyed at Zelda. It feels like everything is, quite literally, all her fault. But upon recovering the last few memories, my opinion of her softened.
Zelda’s power is hereditary and her role assigned before she was even born. Despite not wanting to, she is forced to fulfil a world-saving prophecy, an exceptional burden for the 16-year-old princess to bear. The one person who had any ability to help her on this journey is undoubtedly her mother. (Aren’t they always?) But when Zelda’s mother tragically passes away, she is left with no guidance and no time to grieve. She must face her destiny completely alone – at least, that is how it feels. This sense of being abandoned, of needing to be independent and self-sufficient, is reinforced by her father. So it is unsurprising when she rejects those who attempt to help and becomes so single-minded regarding her own power. She “can’t quite see the range for the peaks”, as Daruk puts it.
Link’s Mutism Finally Explained
One of the things I do at CheckPoint is analyse characters in games from a psychological point of view. This is mostly for fun/interest’s sake, but I think it also has a beneficial application too. Unfortunately there is still a significant stigma around mental health issues, but I feel that with accurate and empathetic representation, this can change. Particularly in games, as characters get more well-rounded and have greater depth, it allows a number of issues to be explored in a way that breaks down stigma. This could even be helpful to those who recognise their own vulnerabilities in a cherished hero.
I was recently on a podcast and was asked what Link’s psychology was. I hesitated; it’s impossible to judge a silent protagonist in that way. I ultimately went for selective mutism, but focussed on how despite this he still rose up to be the hero of Hyrule time and time again.
In Breath of the Wild, this is explained in a way that left me speechless.
Hidden in a Zelda’s bedroom – which is an optional area depending on how much you explore Hyrule Castle – is a diary. It chronicles her journey through Hyrule (and life). During this, she mentions her knight, the hero of time – Link. Specifically, why he is so quiet.
Turns out, Link’s silence a statement of stoicism. His way of dealing with the immense pressure he experiences, without putting the burden onto others. He is quietly containing the responsibility not only for the lives of everyone in Hyrule, but their anxieties about what may happen to them if he fails. He truly is the Hero of Time!