The musical palette and gameplay format of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is significantly different from earlier games in the Legend of Zelda series. The unique narrative organization of this game interacts with the different musical style to suggest a new mode of storytelling within the franchise. This article examines the narrative structure of Breath of the Wild, then groups various contrasting musical elements into emerging topics that are key elements within the game’s narrative structure. In particular, the mechanistic topic is tied to ancient technology, while a contrasting nature topic denotes the living creatures of the gameworld. These topical cues give players important information about their in-game surroundings by linking locations, characters, and events through a completely player-driven narrative discourse.
Since their inception, video games have relied on music to provide context and content. Early technology limited composers to 8-bit, repetitive themes, but as games and gaming technology have become more complex, composers have also expanded the boundaries of video game music as a genre. One of the most well-known franchises in the video game industry is Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda, with nineteen primary games in the series.1 As scholarship on video game music has grown, the music of TheLegend of Zelda franchise has been a perennial topic in video game studies, with notable discussions from Jason Brame, Elizabeth Medina-Gray, and Steven Reale.2
Earlier scholarship on music within the Legend of Zelda series has been linked to features omitted from the latest game in the franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017). Elizabeth Medina-Gray’s discussion of modular combinations in The Wind Waker points out important effects on player experience when the in-game instrument of a harp interacts with location-specific music.3 Likewise Steven Reale uses transformational theory to describe the connections among various thematic areas that players might traverse in Ocarina of Time, and generates a map of the possibilities for musical relationships.4 Again, these musical relationships are mediated by the titular in-game instrument of the ocarina, which players can use to warp to various locations in the game. Breath of the Wild does not incorporate a musical instrument into Link’s arsenal, and area boundaries are less well-defined than in earlier games, both physically and musically. Jason Brame provides an intertextual consideration of the construction of several recurring themes from various games in the series.5 Rather than following transformational, modular, or thematic links, I focus on stylistic and topical contrasts in the game’s music, with minimal reference to other games in the series. I propose that these musical contrasts interact directly with a neo-narrative gameplay organization and serve to give players clues to their in-game surroundings, linking locations, characters, and events through a completely player-driven discourse.
Until Breath of the Wild, the main games of the series maintained a predictable format in both gameplay and music, with some variation based on technological capabilities and the platform on which it was released.6Breath of the Wild’s musical palette is significantly different from earlier games, a change noted in many user reviews and opinion pieces about the game. Player reactions resulted in various blog titles, ranging from “Does Breath of the Wild Have Memorable Music?”7 to “The Genius Behind Breath of the Wild’s Music”8 and even “In Defense of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Soundtrack.”9 These titles point toward a different musical aesthetic for the game, allegedly in need of “defense,” that uses less obvious thematic material than some players clearly expected. Other games in the Legend of Zelda series use memorable, looping themes in virtually every area of the game. Breath of the Wild also uses some short, memorable themes, but it has wide areas that have been called musically “simplistic” or “quiet and sparse.”10 Although the music of Breath of the Wild is largely based on location and characters, many uninhabited areas of Hyrule are accompanied only with solo piano or nature sounds such as birds or wind. Other music is tied directly to characters that appear in a variety of locations, allowing it to indicate an upcoming interaction rather than a specific location.11
Beyond the music, the gameplay of Breath of the Wild also departs from the traditions of its predecessors. Other Legend of Zelda titles use essentially linear plots, in which players must conquer specific regions in order to access new areas and abilities. In Breath of the Wild, the entire map of Hyrule is open for exploration after a small tutorial-like session in which players obtain a few basic skills and items. Players even have the option of going directly to the final confrontation with Calamity Ganon, although this is inadvisable for the majority of players due to the difficulty of the final battle. The innovative nature of the musical style and gameplay structure invite closer inspection of the interaction between the game’s soundscape and its narrative organization. Therefore, before looking at musical topics within Breath of the Wild, I will consider elements of narrative to lay the groundwork for my subsequent analysis of the musical content.
Elements of Narrative in Breath of the Wild
Narrative has been defined many ways in various contexts, and, as summarized succinctly by Michael Klein, “there is no shortage of definitions for narrative nor of scholars who find each one inadequate.”12 I have elsewhere defined narrative as something that “is capable of referring to external objects or events (even imaginary or abstract ones), projects a temporal structure, and uses consistent patterns or archetypes.”13 Byron Almén suggests that all narratives involve “the transvaluation of changing hierarchical relationships and oppositions into culturally meaningful differences.”14 Further, neo-narrative is the idea of being, in Michael Klein’s words, “in search of new ways to tell stories.”15 On the most basic level, following the lead of Lawrence Kramer, I consider narrative to be the impulse to communicate, and anything that contributes to this impulse is an element of narrative.16 The combination of narrative elements creates a narrative text, something Vincent Meelberg calls “a graspable whole,”17 which I refer to as a narrative arc. For video games, the external events referenced are fairly straightforward: the gameworld and its characters. Before delving into the game’s music and its relationship to these elements of narrative, I will briefly describe Breath of the Wild’s temporal structure and its use of various archetypes pertinent to my subsequent analysis.
In Breath of the Wild, the distinction between story and discourse is particularly relevant to understanding the temporal structure of the narrative. Vera Micznik summarizes that story is “the content…or the narrated events abstracted from their disposition in the text and reconstructed in their chronological order,” while the discourse is “the means (the signifier) by which the content is communicated in the actual text, that is, the mode of the unfolding of the events.”18 The underlying story of Breath of the Wild is fairly straightforward. Prior to the game’s beginning, the villain Ganon defeats the heroes Link and Zelda, leaving Link in a resurrection chamber and Zelda imprisoned by Ganon for one hundred years. As the game begins, Link wakes up without his memories, but he is given instructions by a mysterious voice and embarks on a quest to free Zelda and defeat Ganon. The discourse, however, is much more complex. Players learn the details of the story of Ganon’s previous victory only if they choose to track down a series of memories, revealed in cinematographic cutscenes. These scenes are initially viewed as soon as they are discovered—most likely not in a chronological order. Players also have a multitude of options for building a unique discourse while completing the story of the main narrative arc, as the order of events is not defined by the game’s structure. The unique approach to discourse makes Breath of the Wild a progressive step in narrative gameplay.19
Part of the complexity of discourse in Breath of the Wild is connected to the game’s treatment of a common feature of role-playing games (RPGs): side quests. The side quest, in which players are tasked by a non-player character (NPC) with an additional objective—such as item retrieval, delivery of an item, clearing an area of monsters, or a number of other common objectives—is a staple feature in many video games. Generally these side quests effectively suspend development of the primary narrative arc by allowing the player to accomplish optional objectives. The narrative design of Breath of the Wild minimizes the distinction between a primary narrative arc and side quests by minimizing prerequisites for various areas, allowing events to unfold in a unique way for each player. I consider the various quests within Breath of the Wild to be narrative bursts that reside within the game’s larger narrative arc. The narrative bursts both supplement and transform the story and discourse of the primary narrative arc. The musical context of the various quests, characters, and enemies helps define and connect both the main narrative arc and the narrative bursts. While this concept could be applied to a variety of games, the level of freedom built into Breath of the Wild shifts the focus from a single, linear narrative arc to multiple, interwoven events, creating a unique story and a complex discourse for each player.
Structuring archetypes are another important feature of narrative in a variety of media. For Breath of the Wild, my analysis will highlight three classes of archetypes that are exhibited both musically and through other aspects of gameplay: general narrative archetypes after Byron Almén, myth as described by Victoria Adamenko and Joseph Campbell, and issues of questioning modernity and alienation suggested by Michael Klein.20 Almén lists four common archetypes: tragic, comedic, romantic, and ironic, each with a specific alignment and transvaluation of hierarchy, transgression, and cultural value as summarized in Table 1. In Neo-mythologism in Music, Victoria Adamenko discusses repetitiveness as a key feature of a mythological archetype. Adamenko describes the appearance of an archetype within a story as part of the definition of myth. She writes, “Myth seems to be collecting variants of the same idea, or archetype, even within one story; this archetype reveals itself through its multifarious appearance.”21 Likewise Joseph Campbell’s description of the monomyth states that “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return.”22 Finally, Klein states that important themes of modern musical narrative include issues such as “[to] question modernity, respond to alienation and dysphoria, ironize the past, [and] model the human psyche.”23
Specifically within Breath of the Wild, these three structuring archetypes occur both musically and through other elements of the game. Breath of the Wild can be categorized as an example of the comedic narrative archetype, defined by Almén as “victory of a transgression over an order-imposing hierarchy.”24 In the comedic archetype, the hierarchy is negatively valued, so that the overthrow of that hierarchy is generally interpreted as a desirable victory.25 In this instance, the tyrannical order imposed by Calamity Ganon is overcome by the efforts of the game’s protagonists. In certain areas Breath of the Wild musically cues this transvaluation through style and topical changes. The second archetypic is the mythic archetype, which appears in multiple ways. On a broad narrative level, the Legend of Zelda franchise repeats the general scheme of a hero overcoming evil, including particular recurring weapons, items, and puzzle types. Breath of the Wild continues in this mythic legacy, although with considerable variation in the surface-level narrative structure. Recurring elements within Breath of the Wild itself reveal the mythic archetype within the gameworld and are supplemented by their musical accompaniment as well. Finally, I suggest that within Breath of the Wild, modernity is directly questioned through the association of technology and evil. In the course of the game, players learn that the Hylian’s defeat prior to the game was due, in part, to Princess Zelda’s choice to rely on technology rather than the inherent magic of the royal bloodline. This raises the conflict of machine versus nature, a conflict I examine further in the musical analysis. Furthermore, Link is forced to respond to alienation—he no longer remembers his previous life, and he has no place in the current world of Hyrule. Together these elements of narrative structure contribute to a rich neo-narrative that I argue is enhanced by emergent musical topics.
Two Emergent Topics in Breath of the Wild: Mechanistic and Nature
Robert Hatten defines musical topics as “patches of music that trigger clear associations with styles, genres, and expressive meanings.”26 This insight has informed topic studies for a variety of musical styles, including the music of video games.27 As both Sean Atkinson and Hatten note, traditional topics often apply to newer music, but new topics also emerge as meaning, content, and expression change over time.28 Because of the underlying conflict between technology and nature in Breath of the Wild, I divide much of the game’s music into two emergent topical categories: mechanistic and nature. The mechanistic topic is generally associated with characters and areas linked to advanced technology, while the nature topic is associated with living characters and their surroundings. These categories are broad, but not limitless, and do not account for all of Breath of the Wild’s music.29 Furthermore, I subdivide these topics into modes, just as Raymond Monelle discusses various modes of the pastoral topic.30 Musical variety and semiotic intricacy are also achieved through troping of topics within the game. Ultimately the stylistic conflict between the mechanistic and nature topics help emphasize one of Breath of the Wild’s ludic themes: technology is a potentially dangerous tool that can be corrupted, but ethical usage of technology can benefit mankind.
The nature topic is associated with living characters and their surroundings, and it generally exhibits memorable thematic content, clear pitch centricity, the use of folk or traditional instrumentation, and an emphasis on consonance and simplicity. These features align closely with the pastoral topic that has been discussed extensively in both literary and musical disciplines.31 Typical musical signifiers of the pastoral topic include “pedal point, slow harmonic rhythm, simple melodic contour with gentle climax, compound meter, major mode, parallel thirds, and subdominant inflection.”32 Despite the similarity, the nature topic I identify in Breath of the Wild encompasses a slightly different range of musical features and expressive meanings than the traditional pastoral topic. The nature topic adapts two pastoral principles, “simplicity as opposed to complexity” and “mollified tension and intensity.”33 It encompasses characteristics of traditional or folk styles, which have also been attributed to certain iterations of the pastoral by Monelle, who writes, “The Romantics also imagined countryfolk to possess a naturalness, an uncorrupted simplicity, that the urban middle class had lost.”34 Simplicity in instrumentation, melody, harmony, and rhythm permeates the music associated with living beings in Hyrule and develops the idea of the pastoral into an emerging nature topic that denotes a connection to the land and people of Hyrule.
In contrast to the principles of simplicity and mollified tension that underpin the nature topic, the music of the mechanistic topic in Breath of the Wild is complex and increases tension. Allison Wente identifies a mechanical topic in both film and concert music of the early twentieth century.35 Wente’s mechanical topic features “sounds of industrialized labor’s regulated and percussive rhythms, frenetic pacing, repetitive nature, and general indifference to metrical hierarchy,” along with “a mechanistic indifference to harmonic dissonance.”36 Atkinson also notes the importance of the machine in depictions of flight in early film music, again noting the importance of “rapid and repetitive motions” associated with early mechanical flight.37 Likewise the mechanistic topic within Breath of the Wild includes energetic repetition, synthetic and mechanical timbres, obscure or absent melodic content, emphasis on dissonances, planing, and pointillistic textures. Some musical forerunners that help establish the expressive meanings for the mechanistic topic include Arthur Honegger’s depiction of the locomotive in Pacific 231, George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, and film scores such as Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.38 The mechanistic topic emerges as a meaningful element directly connected to an underlying premise of Breath of the Wild, in which the narrative conflict is reflected in a musical contrast between mechanized relics of the past and the living inhabitants of Hyrule.
The Mechanistic Topic in Breath of the Wild
One class of creatures in Breath of the Wild that illustrate the mechanistic topic, both visually and musically, are the guardians. In the game, guardians are ancient automatons originally created to defend Hyrule from Calamity Ganon that have since been corrupted by evil malice, which is represented by a black and red substance in areas controlled by Ganon. The guardians serve Calamity Ganon and will attack any living creature that crosses their path. As hostile machines, guardians represent the antagonistic mode of the mechanistic topic. This mode is characterized by a strong emphasis on dissonant harmonies, upbeat tempos, and electronic or mechanical timbres. When the player enters a battle with a guardian, any previous overworld music is interrupted with a low, electronic ostinato pattern. This pattern is accompanied by irregular, dissonant string tremolos (Video 1, 0:10).39 The mechanistic topic is further developed through occasional “steam engine” sounds, as well as the electronic and mechanical sound effects of the guardian itself.40 The battle is also punctuated by brief, pointillistic violin outbursts, which can be heard in Video 1, with clear examples at timestamps 0:02–0:03 and 0:13–0:14. These interjections are quasi-tonal but are not sustained melodic lines. The overall musical effect is one of disorientation and a high level of tension through the dense texture and constant rhythmic activity. When the player defeats the guardian, as at the end of Video 1, the mechanistic topic continues, but is troped with other materials, signifying the defeat of the enemy. The player’s victory is signaled first by a horn rip (0:22) and followed with a rising piano gesture, giving the impression of triumph or a fanfare topic; the tonal ambiguity and complexity of the passage, however, maintain the overall sense of the mechanistic topic.
The guardians and their music serve several narrative functions within Breath of the Wild. As primary enforcers of Ganon’s control of the area surrounding Hyrule Castle, the guardians illustrate the oppressive nature of the initial order of the game’s comedic archetype. The force with which the electronic ostinato of the guardians’ theme overtakes any previous music aurally reinforces the idea of guardians as oppressive and destructive. The entrance of the guardians’ battle music can also directly affect players’ choices and the discourse of the game. Guardians are often stumbled upon and may catch a player by surprise. The interruption of previous sounds with an ominous, mechanical cue alerts players, who may wish to either avoid or prepare for a difficult encounter with a guardian, allowing them to craft a discourse of their own choosing. Because the guardians are more common near Hyrule Castle, the musical cues of mechanistic danger can steer players away from this area early in the game or guide players toward their destination as they prepare to face Calamity Ganon to complete the primary narrative arc.41 Players can also use the music as a proximity alarm by hiding when the battle music begins and moving again as the guardian music fades and other sounds resume. Cognizance of the narrative functions of the guardian music can deepen an understanding of the creatures’ role in the game.
Another important example of the mechanistic topic appears in miniature dungeons known as shrines. In the game, the player discovers that shrines are relics from the distant past that remain as training grounds for the hero. Shrines contain a variety of mechanized puzzles and mazes, as well as small, uncorrupted versions of guardians. Every shrine awards the player with a spirit orb, which may later be exchanged for an increase in maximum health or an increase in maximum stamina. Additionally some shrines contain chests with helpful armor or weapons, adding more variability to each gameplay experience, depending on the order in which shrines are completed, whether or not the player finds the additional items within, and how the player chooses to spend their accumulated spirit orbs. The shrine entrances are visually distinct from the landscape of Hyrule because they are clearly artificial formations, marked with intricate designs lit by glowing blue lights—technology beyond that of the people of Hyrule. Access to the interior of a shrine is only available to the player through use of a special device known as the Sheikah Slate, which activates an elevator to descend into the shrine. These technological features contrast starkly with the rich natural setting of Hyrule, suggesting their importance to the hero’s story. Likewise the music of shrines showcases the mechanistic topic and is identical in all the shrines found in the game, regardless of where the entrance is found or what the specific task is.
When a player enters a shrine, texture and timbre are in the musical foreground. Rather than opening with a catchy theme or motive, shrines begin with a single chime pitch that is followed by reverberating, electronic overtones, invoking the mechanistic topic through its distinctive timbre and lack of clear melodic content. The chimes and reverberations are each allowed to dissipate before the next begins, creating a spacious texture. This aesthetic creates a sense of separation from the rest of Hyrule—when inside a shrine, Link is cut off from both the sights and sounds of the world above and is immersed in an alien, technologically advanced environment. Video 2 shows the experience of entering a shrine. While dissonance is not emphasized in the shrine music, texture and timbre are reminiscent of certain twentieth-century styles, such as Morton Feldman’s. Melodic content eventually appears, first in a bass melody and later in a more traditional melody played by a bagpipe, which can be heard in Video 3. When the bagpipe melody enters, it acts as a foil to the prevailing style of stasis, adding pastoral elements to the prominent mechanistic topic. The ameliorating effect is much like the viola melody near the end of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, cueing the player that while the mechanistic, artificial world of the shrine is an obstacle to overcome, it is not hostile. In game the bagpipe melody is surprisingly easy to miss, and it is overridden by any action-specific sound effects or themes, such as puzzle completion, treasure chests, or guardians.42 After these interruptions, the opening chime and reverberations always return, and they remain the central feature of shrine music.
Rather than signaling a specific location or event within the game, such as a particular boss, temple, or overworld location, the music in shrines signifies a generic, repetitive plot point: the hero faces a challenge in order to strengthen himself. The process of finding, entering, and overcoming obstacles of shrines is a clear token of Joseph Campbell’s description of the monomyth, in which “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return.”43 This important, recurring step infuses the journey within Breath of the Wild with mythic weight while simultaneously freeing the player to craft a unique sequence of events—the journey of my Link will not be the same journey as your Link, yet they draw from the same mythological source. Unlike earlier games, which feature a few large dungeons to prepare for the final battle, Breath of the Wild relies on a gradual buildup through repetition, allowing the player to choose when they are prepared to face Ganon. While the archetype itself—the hero’s trials, or gaining strength to face Ganon—is nothing new to the series, the unprecedented level of repetition for the Legend of Zelda series creates a new narrative approach within Breath of the Wild.
In addition to the multitude of shrines, players have the option to work through four larger dungeons, known as the Divine Beasts. These automatons have a complex history in the game. Originally Princess Zelda attempted to use the Divine Beasts to defend Hyrule against Calamity Ganon, but the machines were corrupted by Ganon and turned against the people of Hyrule. When the player arrives, the Beasts are under the influence of Ganon. If the player is successful in defeating the evil within a Divine Beast, they are rewarded with a special ability and then receive the assistance of the Beast when they face the final battle with Ganon. Like shrines, the technology of the Divine Beasts is beyond the level of the present Hyrule, but their corruption by Ganon serves as a warning against reliance on technological advances.
Unlike the shrines, the musical context of the Divine Beasts differs among the four dungeons. This article considers only Vah Medoh—the bird Divine Beast associated with the Rito champion, Revali. Upon the player’s arrival, this dungeon presents a distinctly mechanistic soundscape including dissonant chords and ethereal electronic accompaniment, heard in Video 4. These chords are similar to sounds in George Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique, particularly between rehearsal markers 75 and 76, as shown in Example 1. In both the Divine Beast’s and Antheil’s pieces, the dissonance and lack of function or tonal center create an unsettled feeling. In Vah Medoh these striking chords follow the player through the first part of the dungeon, until—as the presence of Ganon is gradually removed—the soundscape changes to a quasi-minimalist, scalar string motive, which can be heard in Video 5. By shifting from the austere piano chords to the warmer sounds of the orchestral strings, the aura of the Divine Beast becomes less threatening, but no less mechanistic. Just as the guardians represent a hostile mode of the mechanistic topic, and shrines represent a neutral challenge, the mechanistic topic within Vah Medoh varies in mode to help inform the player about the Beast’s overall alignment. Each of the other Divine Beasts has a similar mixture of synthetic, piano, and other acoustic instruments, creating unique but topically similar musical contexts.
Like the shrines, the four Divine Beasts may be completed in any order or omitted entirely before facing Ganon and freeing Princess Zelda. Unlike shrines, the Divine Beasts each have their own narrative subplot, in which Link recovers memories of the four champions who piloted the Beasts prior to their corruption. Beyond this, the unique abilities Link gains after defeating each Beast have an impact on subsequent gameplay by allowing easier access to some locations or additional protection against enemies. Thus, the narrative effect of the Divine Beasts is more potent than that of the shrines, just as their music is more diverse. Unlike earlier games in the series, though, none of the powers are prerequisites for gaining any others, again allowing complete freedom in the development of a player’s particular discourse.
The mechanistic topic and its associated characters and locations are marked elements in the lush outdoor world of Hyrule as presented in Breath of the Wild. One underlying and somewhat novel feature of the mechanistic topic within Breath of the Wild is an inversion of expected chronological associations. Generally, advanced machines are considered objects of the future, and many of the features of the mechanistic topic correlate with modern or experimental art music. In Breath of the Wild, however, the mechanistic topic invokes the distant past: guardians, shrines, and Divine Beasts are all described as relics from a mysterious lost civilization. The technological regression sends a subtle message warning of the dangers of technology. Princess Zelda’s attempt to revive the ancient technology was unsuccessful and allowed Ganon to corrupt the very weapons designed to fight him. Instead, Ganon’s defeat is possible only through the power of a living hero and Zelda’s own magical energy. But as demonstrated by the initiation rites of the shrines and cleansing of the Divine Beasts, technology itself is not the enemy. Instead, its misuse and corruption must be avoided. The expressive meaning of the mechanistic topic, at the core, is an indication of advanced technology or power that is beyond comprehension to the protagonist—possibly dangerous, but also possibly beneficial.
The Nature Topic in Breath of the Wild
In opposition to the mechanistic topic, living NPCs and their homes exhibit music I associate with a nature topic. One such set of locations is the network of stables. Like shrines, stables are scattered throughout Hyrule, are similar to one another in appearance, and use the same musical materials regardless of location. The visual and musical features of stables, however, create a stark contrast with the shrines. The shrines are artificial and technologically advanced, but the stables are clearly man-made structures, simple and tent-like, topped with a crude representation of a horse, and are made of various wood and cloth materials. Likewise, the tranquil, acoustic ambiance of the stables contrasts with the mechanistic topic. As illustrated by Video 6, the player will often hear the stable before seeing it, whereas shrine music only occurs within the confines of a shrine. Like guardian music, the stables warn the player of their proximity—often a welcome event for players in search of supplies or new side quests.44 This highlights an important distinction in narrative function; shrines are elements of the distant past, separated from the day-to-day life of Hyrule’s residents, while the stables make up a part of the landscape and are populated by the living.
The simplicity and tranquility that are central to the nature topic are emphasized through the music of the stables. These locations use a simple, diatonic melody, transcribed in Example 2. The stable music features ocarina, guitar, and toms. The ocarina adds simple ornamentations to the melody, which is both imitated and accompanied by the guitar at various points. As the melody reaches a satisfying conclusion, the toms provide an anacrusis, allowing the melody to easily loop back to the opening. While this music is repetitive like the shrine theme, the stables are grounded in the tonal, improvisatory, and ornamented style of the ocarina, and the melody is also enhanced by the literal sounds of nature that surround the stable, such as the birds singing in the trees in Video 6. The music of stables clearly illustrates the roots of Breath of the Wild’s nature topic within the classical pastoral topic through its diatonic melody, simple melodic contour, and instrumentation. Within the context of Breath of the Wild, these musical features take on new signification, indicating not only an ideal natural landscape but also the specific communities and people that populate the game and the land Link is tasked with saving.
Stables can serve as a narrative hub for the unfolding of events that shape a player’s experience. Each stable has NPCs who give Link side quests. With these quests, a player can focus on smaller narrative bursts while the larger story is suspended indefinitely. Other players may choose to largely forego the side quests and focus on progressing the primary narrative arc. In either scenario, the choice of quests will send the player into different areas of the world, altering the game’s discourse and offering opportunities for players to experience the sounds of Breath of the Wild in a unique order.
Just as the Divine Beasts exhibit location-specific musical content within the mechanistic topic, certain locations feature the nature topic. Kakariko Village is one of those locations and a beginning point for many narrative bursts within Breath of the Wild. Kakariko Village is also a familiar location featured in other Legend of Zelda games. In Breath of the Wild, Kakariko Village is the home of Impa, a recurring character from the series, who—in this iteration—provides wisdom and guidance for Link’s journey. Impa is also the point of contact for the quests associated with the Divine Beasts, Link’s lost memories, and the main quest to defeat Calamity Ganon. By interacting with Impa, the player gains clues about locations and directions for how to proceed in the various quests. Additionally the other inhabitants of the village present Link even more opportunities for side quests. Both Impa’s information and the other quests are optional in the narrative structure of Breath of the Wild, although the game does offer suggestions at various points that lead toward Impa. It is conceivable that a player could choose to complete the primary story without ever visiting Kakariko Village, creating an alternate narrative with fewer modules than one that incorporates the quests suggested by Impa and any of the NPCs in the village.
Visually Kakariko Village’s connection to nature is evoked through buildings constructed from wood and with an emphasis on agriculture as a main activity for the villagers. The location is within a valley and includes an idyllic waterfall and small river running through the town. The villagers raise cuccos (Hyrule’s chickens), pumpkins, and carrots. There are multiple shops in the village where the player can purchase food, clothing, and other supplies for Link. The visual cues of simplicity and a relaxed lifestyle are clear markers for the nature topic and are augmented through the village’s music.
Upon arriving at Kakariko Village, the player is greeted with sounds that fit within the nature topic, as heard in Video 7. While the expressive state of the village is similar to that of stables, the music of Kakariko Village draws from folk idioms, helping create a distinction between the well-known pastoral topic and the emergent nature topic. The first primary instrument is a shakuhachi. The bamboo flute suggests both rural simplicity and cultural distinction through its Japanese origins. The timbre includes an element of the performer’s breath, emphasizing the nature topic’s association with living beings rather than mechanical constructs. The shakuhachi’s melody is simple and familiar to fans of the Legend of Zelda franchise. This rendition of the classic Kakariko Village theme, though, is played in a vaguely improvisatory style by a live musician and loops onto itself nearly seamlessly, creating a soothing yet memorable backdrop for the village.
The simple shakuhachi melody is joined by light taiko drums, chimes and a koto—all folk-style instruments rather than modern orchestral timbres. Kakariko Village’s theme uses a pentatonic collection, again connecting to long-standing associations with simplicity, pastoral, and folk music.45 As the shakuhachi finishes its phrase, the koto rises to the fore of the soundscape, providing variety of timbre while keeping the performer-centered mode. By using only acoustic instruments, simple texture, and a memorable melody, Kakariko Village contrasts with mechanized areas such as shrines or Divine Beasts.
While the mechanistic topic is machine-like in its consistency, areas associated with the nature topic often include thematic variations, reflecting diurnal cycles of the living beings. Video 7 features the daytime version of Kakariko Village’s theme, but there is also a slower, darker version for night (Video 8). A nighttime arrival is greeted with the shakuhachi, but playing in a lower tessitura at a noticeably slower tempo. Additionally the instrumentation accompanying the shakuhachi is reduced, notably omitting the koto for the majority of the theme and focusing instead on the shakuhachi. Because players often return to Kakariko Village multiple times throughout the game, the variations of the theme highlight the location’s connection to nature and living beings. In the night variation, the melodic material is the same but has been transformed to reflect the sleeping village.
While initial events of the game push the player toward traveling to Kakariko Village, the timeline and route are open. Players may explore extensively before venturing to the village, so providing musical markers that differ depending on arrival time enhances the unique nature of each individual’s experience of Breath of the Wild. Once players meet Impa, Kakariko Village’s place as a signifier of the mythic archetype begins to become clear. The familiar theme and recurring character align with Campbell’s description of the supernatural aid, who is a “protective figure,” and helps the hero begin the quest.46 Kakariko Village generally serves as a nexus for the primary story of Breath of the Wild, highlighting the importance of its music and the folk-inflected nature topic.
In addition to locations, specific characters in Breath of the Wild are connected to the nature topic. One such character is the Great Deku Tree.47 As franchise fans know, the Deku Tree is a sentient tree who serves as another guide along the hero’s journey in Legend of Zelda games. In this iteration, the Deku Tree provides Link with information about the days of Ganon’s victory and details of the fate of Link’s traditional weapon, the Master Sword. Upon Link’s arrival, the sword is encased in stone at the base of the Deku Tree and, in Arthurian style, can only be removed by the worthy, chosen knight.48
The visual application of the nature topic to the Deku Tree is immediately apparent. The musical accompaniment also displays clear markers of the nature topic, including slow harmonic rhythm, a clear, memorable melody, and acoustic instrumentation. The music in Video 9 occurs upon a player’s first encounter with the Deku Tree and features woodwinds, notably the clarinet, oboe, and flute, along with strings, percussion, piano, and occasional horn accompaniment. The music in Video 9 is only heard when Link first meets the Deku Tree, while subsequent visits use a variation of the theme with similar instrumentation and a faster tempo (Video 10). Returns are often more focused on the area rather than the character, blending this music as representative of both the Korok Forest (location) and the Deku Tree (character). The Deku Tree’s theme also serves a dual role in the initial cutscene as it reflects the natural setting of the Korok Forest and also participates in text painting as the Deku Tree relates his tale of Zelda placing the Master Sword into the stone. Because of this role, there are moments of topical troping within the scene. At 1:34 and 2:00 of Video 9, the Deku Tree tells Link that only one who is worthy can remove the sword, and brief dissonances hint at the danger of trying to remove the sword. However, nature markers rise to the fore, along with the Deku Tree’s laugh, dispelling any immediate threat.
Because the tree and sword are unique elements in the narrative of Breath of the Wild, their narrative effect is likewise important. I have already alluded to mythic ties in the quest to obtain the Master Sword. Through this interaction, Link gains strength as the transgression preparing to overcome the oppressive hierarchy, enacting the transvaluation of the comedic narrative archetype. For experienced players of the Zelda franchise, the tree and sword are familiar elements of the myth and are traditionally mandatory aspects of games. In Breath of the Wild, though, finding the tree and the sword are technically optional, emphasizing the unique narrative structure of this game.
The gentle nature topic and important cutscene that greet players on their initial arrival at the Deku Tree serve as a respite from the dangers of the world outside, suggesting yet another narrative archetype. The Deku Tree and Korok Forest serve as an iteration of Campbell’s world navel, which “is the symbol of the continuous creation: the mystery of the maintenance of the world through that continuous miracle of vivification which wells within all things.”49 In Video 9, the Deku Tree himself claims to have watched over Hyrule since “time immemorial.” While stables recur throughout Hyrule, the Deku Tree and Korok Forest create a unique location of respite that offers the hero an opportunity to grow in strength through the Master Sword, but also offers protection and a free inn where Link can rest and restore health. The nature topic’s musical reflections of the world navel suggest an area that is set apart from the struggles of Hyrule but offers the opportunity to assist in the recovery of peace for the land.
Blurred Lines: Other Topics and Troping
While a clear tension between mechanistic and nature topics form a fundamental element of conflict in Breath of the Wild, there are events that blur these lines, suggesting the possibility for a more detailed taxonomy of topic, trope, and function within the game. One example that combines, or tropes, the mechanistic and nature topics is tied closely to Link and his actions. When Link is riding a horse, pointillistic piano accompaniment begins, suggesting the mechanistic topic. Video 11 shows the transition to riding music. The steady, staccato chords combined with the austere piano timbre and piano dynamic level invoke a neutral mode of the mechanistic topic. If players continue to ride undisturbed, familiar, tonal melodic content from other games in the series appears—an augmented “Zelda’s Lullaby” in the daytime (Video 12) and an augmented “Hyrule Field” theme at night (Video 13). “Zelda’s Lullaby” is a thematic staple in the Legend of Zelda series, usually appearing in situations connected to the Princess Zelda and/or the royal family of Hyrule. The “Hyrule Field” theme is an adaptation of the location music that appears while the player traverses Hyrule Field during the day in other games. Here both invoke the nature topic through their simplicity, the solo violin timbre, and ludic connection to living characters and natural areas. These themes are delicate, as they only appear when Link is riding a horse without being attacked or performing any other action. I interpret the troping of the mechanistic topic—pointillistic piano—against the familiar, nature topic themes as a subtle yet clear commentary on Link’s role as Hyrule’s champion, harnessing the mechanized past and using it to save the living in Hyrule.
More troping occurs near Hateno Village,50 where players can discover a building known as the Hateno Ancient Tech Lab, inhabited by two characters named Purah and Symin. Video 14 shows the approach to the Ancient Tech Lab. The primary structure is constructed of wood, stone, and plaster, but two objects visually indicate the mixture of nature and mechanistic. The first is a large furnace glowing with a special blue flame (0:09), and second is the large telescope-like construction (0:15, back right), which appears to be made of the same materials as the shrines. Likewise, as seen in Video 15, the interior displays an incongruous mix of simple, natural materials, books, and ancient technology. In this lab Link is able to acquire upgrades to the Sheikah Slate and learns of another similar lab in the Akkala region.
The Ancient Tech Lab also contains a combination of nature and mechanistic musical topics, shown in Videos 14 and 15. The primary melody is led by a recorder and accompanied by a rhythmic, pointillistic, electronic ostinato, blending acoustic and electronic music. Other instruments include an accordion, various idiophones, and synthesized electronic sounds. Melodically the theme is simple and diatonic, jumping amongst members of the tonic triad, while the harmonies emphasize consonant intervals, and tonal progressions are played by the accordion. Together this blend of electronic and acoustic instruments complements the blend of ancient (mechanistic) and present (nature) visual aspects of the Ancient Tech Lab. As home to two living NPCs, the Lab has music with acoustic instrumentation and simple melody that invoke the nature topic, while the characters’ involvement with research of ancient technology is reflected through the electronic and pointillistic accompaniment. Like Link himself, Purah and Symin are bridges that span the past and present, and the music of the Lab helps convey this duality to the player. Within the broader scope of the game, the characters in this location, along with Impa and the other Ancient Lab at Akkala, represent the mythic archetype of the sage or advisor who helps the hero on the quest. However, not all tropes of nature and mechanistic have such positive expressive meanings. Some locations also musically emphasize the implied danger of technology and the menace of Ganon’s evil.
Hyrule Castle is a location that repeatedly tropes the mechanistic and nature topics. As the seat of Calamity Ganon’s power, it might be expected to feature corrupted mechanistic topics. However, Link and Zelda occupied the castle prior to their defeat, and topical echoes remind the player that this location was once a safe haven for the hero and the rulers of Hyrule. In Video 16, the player arrives in a room that has become ruined and decayed during Ganon’s 100-year reign. In this excerpt, a mix of mechanistic and nature topics emphasize the confluence of ancient evil and memories of a life lived in peace. At the opening of the example, the player hears a repeated sequence of unsettling piano chords, which transition to soft organ flute pipes playing a brief tonal phrase. As the player exits the interior and views the storm around the castle, the instrumentation shifts again. Brass and percussion give a militaristic tone to the same tonal fragment. While the organ’s flute pipes might recall pastoral pipes, and thus the nature topic, both the organ and the brass instrumentation connect this music to an elevated topical style,51 as might be expected in a royal castle. The troping of mechanistic and nature, along with the elevation in style, creates a sense of loss and a longing for Hyrule Castle’s restoration. As the player explores, the music shifts yet again. Video 17 reveals that, while some elements of the mechanistic topic remain, the nature topic comes to the foreground as Link explores the area that was once Zelda’s home. Again the nature topic is summoned through the use of “Zelda’s Lullaby.” The lullaby is particularly poignant in this location. Beneath the theme that is played again on organ flute pipes, an electronic ostinato hums menacingly, and the passage pauses on a dissonant suspension near the end of the melodic line. Chimes sound, recalling the music of the shrines and their challenges. While fans often notice the famous lullaby theme, the troping of the theme with mechanistic markers allows the sense of danger to continue while also adding to the sense of loss of the castle’s living inhabitants that existed before Ganon’s victory.
Conclusion: The Importance of Topic in Breath of the Wild and Other Multimedia Genres
As Link battles with the forces controlled by Calamity Ganon, his struggle is highlighted by the contrast between the mechanistic and nature musical topics that surround him. The mechanistic topic denotes technology of the distant past that is beyond understanding for Link and the other inhabitants of Hyrule. One mode of the mechanistic topic represents the immediate danger of the machines corrupted and controlled by Calamity Ganon, while other mechanistic modes are neutral or may even be troped with other topics for nuanced meanings. In contrast to the ancient machines, the living inhabitants of Hyrule are represented through the nature topic. Musically this topic is closely related to topics like the pastoral and folk, but ultimately it emphasizes a connection to the land Link calls home and its residents. In addition to tropes with existing topics, the two emerging topics are themselves troped through Link’s role as mediator of past and present—the chosen hero who is able to defeat evil through a courageous use of ancient technology and the assistance of the natural magic of the Royal Family and Princess Zelda.
Breath of the Wild explores a new method of narrative organization for the Legend of Zelda series. Along with the nonlinear gameplay, the music of Breath of the Wild is more subtle and often less present than earlier entries in the series. The music also unveils one of the underlying conflicts of the game—the machine versus nature. This conflict occurs in both musical and game domains, and it presents a comedic archetype with a story of mediation: Link, Zelda, and other heroes work together to harness the potential good of technology, while Ganon works to usurp and destroy using that same technology. On a broader level, elements such as shrines recall mythic archetypes of repetitive challenges and define Link as the archetypal hero. This role is felt in-game through Link’s ability to interact with both nature and machines, and his call to discover a path to save his friends and his homeland. The music that surrounds Link’s journey serves to connect these mythic archetypes and weave a narrative discourse that is unique from player to player but is nonetheless relevant and compelling.
Developing an understanding of the various topics present in video games and other modern media is an important step for suggesting ways in which media connect meaningfully with audiences. By defining topics that are specific to modern media, scholars can open new pathways for interpretation of musical media and also provide vocabulary for composers and teachers of music in those media. Following Atkinson and Monelle, I want to recognize new meanings for existing topics,52 as well as identify “new topics as they arise.”53 Within Breath of the Wild, the mechanistic and nature topics present new expressive meanings for certain musical features, building upon and transforming existing topical meanings.
Beyond Breath of the Wild, I believe this analytical approach may open avenues for interpreting musical and narrative interaction in a variety of modern media. Just as Hatten’s work is often invoked for studies of classical and Romantic repertoire, the mechanistic and nature topics can be applied to music of other video game and multimedia genres. There is significant topical crossover among the music of movies, television, and video games, as seen in the work of Wente and Atkinson.54 Audiences of these media are often given subtle clues about narrative situations through topical cues in the music. Recognizing and understanding these topics and various tropes in modern media can prove beneficial for not only audiences but also producers of media, who can enhance their art through application of these ideas, generating more immersive, engaging experiences.
“The Official Home for The Legend of Zelda - About,” accessed June 24, 2019, https://www.zelda.com/about/. The official timeline lists seventeen games but does not include Link between Worlds (2013) or Breath of the Wild (2017)
Jason Brame, “Thematic Unity across a Video Game Series,” Act: Zeitschrift Für Musik Und Performance, no. 2, 2011, accessed September 11, 2017, http://www.act.uni-bayreuth.de/de/archiv/2011-02/03_Brame_Thematic_Unity/; Elizabeth Medina-Gray, “Meaningful Modular Combinations: Simultaneous Harp and Environmental Music in Two Legend of Zelda Games,” in Music in Video Games: Studying Play, ed. K. J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner, 104–21 (New York: Routledge, 2014); Steven Reale, “A Musical Atlas of Hyrule: Video Games and Spatial Listening” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, St. Louis, MO, October 29–November 1, 2015).
Medina-Gray, “Modular Combinations.”
Reale, “Musical Atlas of Hyrule.”
Brame, “Thematic Unity.”
For instance, some games are a two-dimensional, overhead view, while others are a three-dimensional, third-person point of view. Also the music of earlier games was limited to the capabilities of 8-bit systems, while more recent games take advantage of full orchestral scoring.
Darrin Harr, “Daily Debate: Does Breath of the Wild Have Memorable Music?” Zelda Dungeon (blog), March 21, 2017, https://www.zeldadungeon.net/daily-debate-does-breath-of-the-wild-have-memorable-music/.
Alex Walker, “The Genius Behind Breath of the Wild’s Music,” Kotaku Australia, March 24, 2017, accessed September 15, 2017, https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/03/the-genius-behind-breath-of-the-wilds-music/.
Game Score Fanfare, In Defense of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Soundtrack | Game Score Fanfare, December 12, 2017, accessed January 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TDN2qKjtck&list=WL&index=16&t=70 s.
Game Score Fanfare; Harr, “Daily Debate.”
Character-based music is not unique to Breath of the Wild within the Legend of Zelda franchise. For instance, the merchant Beedle appears at various locations with the same theme in multiple games.
Michael Klein, “Musical Story,” in Music and Narrative since 1900, ed. Michael Klein and Nicholas Reyland, Musical Meaning and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 11.
Wesley J. Bradford, “Developing a Mathematically Informed Approach to Musical Narrative through the Analysis of Three Twentieth-Century Monophonic Woodwind Works” (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 2016), 3.
Byron Almén, A Theory of Musical Narrative, Musical Meaning and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 41.
Klein, “Musical Story,” 5.
Lawrence Kramer, “Narrative Nostalgia: Modern Art Music off the Rails,” in Music and Narrative since 1900, ed. Michael Klein and Nicholas Reyland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 164.
Vincent Meelberg, New Sounds, New Stories: Narrativity in Contemporary Music (Amsterdam: Leiden University Press, 2006), 33.
Vera Micznik, “Music and Narrative Revisited: Degrees of Narrativity in Beethoven and Mahler,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 126, no. 2 (2001): 202–3.
The open-world style discourse is not unique to Breath of the Wild. However, the degree of freedom in this discourse is a departure for a Legend of Zelda game. This game offers a near-limitless variety of options for players, with no mandatory order even for the primary narrative arc.
Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, Interplay Series, no. 5 (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2006); Almén, Theory of Musical Narrative; Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: MJF Books, 1997); Klein, “Musical Story.”
Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music, 64.
Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 30.
Klein, “Musical Story,” 21.
Almén, Theory of Musical Narrative, 66.
Robert S. Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Musical Meaning and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2.
Sean E. Atkinson, “Soaring through the Sky: Topics and Tropes in Video Game Music,” Music Theory Online 25, no. 2 (July 1, 2019), accessed August 21, 2019, http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.19.25.2/mto.19.25.2.atkinson.html; William Ayers, “Analyzing Narrative in Video Game Music: Topic Theory and Modular Design” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, St. Louis, MO, October 29–November 1, 2015); Marina Gallagher, “Can’t You Simply Taste the Air of Foreboding?: Anti-Pastoral Music, Landscapes, and Immersion in Final Fantasy XII and XV” (presentation at the North American Conference on Video Game Music, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018), accessed September 6, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-W9Zl8w_Dg.
Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes, 68; Atkinson, “Soaring through the Sky,” para. 1.
Some examples that do not fall into either topical category include the music of the Great Fairies and the antagonistic Yiga Clan’s hideout.
Raymond Monelle, The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military and Pastoral (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes, 53–56; Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, paperback ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961); Michael Klein, “Chopin’s Fourth Ballade as Musical Narrative,” Music Theory Spectrum 26, no. 1 (April 2004): 23–56, accessed June 1, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1525/mts.2004.26.1.23; Monelle, The Musical Topic; Danuta Mirka, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes, 56.
Monelle, Musical Topic, 253.
Allison Wente, “Queue the Roll: Taylorized Labor Practices and Music of the Machine Age,” Music Theory Online 24, no. 4 (December 1, 2018), accessed April 10, 2020, https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.18.24.4/mto.18.24.4.wente.html. Wente’s article traces seeds of the mechanistic topic through musical depictions of clockwork and other simple machines, citing works such as Haydn’s Symphony 101 and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as early forerunners of a mechanistic topic.
Wente, paras. 1.1, 5.5.
Atkinson, “Soaring through the Sky,” para. 9.
Wente, “Queue the Roll.” Wente includes detailed analyses of both Ballet Mécanique and Metropolis in her article.
All game-capture videos are by the author, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), Nintendo Switch.
In addition to the aural cue, guardians also produce a targeting laser that will appear on and around Link as the guardian approaches. While not strictly musical, the targeting laser is accompanied by an electronic sound, helping further alert the player to the presence of the guardian.
Isabella van Elferen, “¡Un Forastero! Issues of Virtuality and Diegesis in Videogame Music,” Music and the Moving Image 4, no. 2 (2011): 32–34, accessed June 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.5406/musimoviimag.4.2.0030. My concept of guidance is similar to van Elferen’s notion of game music as a GPS (game positioning system).
The small, uncorrupted guardians have an adapted version of the guardian battle theme, yet another example of the mechanistic topic as connected to a dangerous adversary.
Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 30.
As the game capture of Video 6 shows, stables are also locations that trigger the auto-save feature, adding another dimension to the categorization of the nature topic as a representative of safety.
Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, 259.
Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 69.
While the Deku Tree is certainly a sentient character, it is also arguably a location, as shops and an inn are located inside of it. The thematic variation attached to later visits to the tree still maintains the nature topic, regardless of whether it is considered a character, location, or some combination of the two.
In the context of Breath of the Wild, worthy literally means possessing the requisite number of hit points, expressed as hearts in the upper left of the screen.
Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 41.
Hateno Village is another example of the pastoral mode of the nature topic, and it includes the option to build a home for Link, adding another dimension to the topical connections.
Robert Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation, 1st pbk. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 76. Hatten notes that correlations for high musical styles include “dignity, majesty, or ‘authoritativeness.’”
Atkinson, “Soaring through the Sky,” para. 1. Atkinson uses the waltz topic as an example of the expansion of meaning within topics.
Monelle, Musical Topic, ix–x.
Wente, “Queue the Roll”; Atkinson, “Soaring through the Sky.”