Tears of the Kingdom Is a Masterclass in Pointlessness
The journey is the destination.
I’m afraid to jump.
I’m ten minutes into The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, on a ledge high above the clouds. Instinctively, I turn back. I stall, re-familiarizing myself with the controls in the safe confines of this small cave, which apparently has been floating high above everything else. I know the conceit of the game is to travel between the sky and earth. Yet faced with that first big leap, I hesitate. Where to begin?
If you’re one of the 30 million players who bought and gorged on Breath of the Wild, you may have certain expectations. This is, after all, the first direct sequel in the franchise since 1987’s The Adventure of Link. Just as Nintendo rewrote the book on open-world games back in 2017, it has rewritten the rules for a big-budget sequel. Most numbered titles take you somewhere bigger and grander. For Tears of the Kingdom, we’re still in Hyrule. But things have changed. You have changed. By leaving the general contours of the map the same, Nintendo has challenged you to explore a world you thought you knew.
For me, at the edge of that Sky Island precipice staring down, the opportunity is both thrilling and overwhelming. There’s a lot of that in Tears of the Kingdom: A feeling of not knowing where to go, because the answer is anywhere. The same potential paralysis happened in Breath of the Wild, but here the feeling is cubed: You now have not one but three maps to get lost in, each layered atop the other. (Lurking below the surface is a massive shadow world called The Depths.)
The latest Zelda is a game that inspires lovely turns of phrase. Simon Parkin of the New Yorker landed on “choice arousal” to describe its near-limitless bounty of interesting things to see and do; in his essay for The Washington Post — where he mostly sits and watches his daughter play — Tom Bissell describes the game’s ethos as “wandering, thinking, tinkering.”
Most blockbuster titles are not interested in such verbs. That the biggest game of the year intentionally evokes such uncertainty and wandering speaks to the designers’ confidence in where all that wandering will take you.
As I play for hours without any sense of traditional progression, the phrase that comes to mind is “aimless compulsion.” And though it feels like a pejorative, I don’t mean it as an insult. To be compelled to do something without a definitive purpose speaks to Nintendo’s ability to draw you in and keep you there for dozens of hours, seeking out the mysteries of Tears of the Kingdom.
Usually, a piece of media has some target in sight, a goal to keep you diving deeper down into the rabbit hole. Tears of the Kingdom has its high-level purposes — find the lost Princess Zelda, defeat the evil Ganondorf — but there are so many intermediary goals. And all of them somehow feel compulsory, or at least intriguing. To play the sequel to Breath of the Wild is to live in a world with no particular place to go, even as every place you visit is rife with intrigue.
I fix an old woman’s hot air balloon so she can observe a crop circle cut into the grass below. One thousand feet up, she says, “You can paraglide down now. I’ll land myself later.”
I don’t yet have a paraglider. There’s no other choice — I jump. As I fall, I scan the ground for pools in which to dive safely, but there’s nothing but dirt, plants, and rocks. I land with a fatal thud on the hard Hyrulian earth. (As I type this, I wonder, could I have reversed time? Might the hot air balloon have descended safely with me in it?)
Thankfully, there’s little penalty for dying — all the more reason to risk it in order to try something new.
Finally, I decide to follow the glowing gold emblem on my map. It takes me to a small town where I buy armor and, importantly, pants. I talk to some goofy scientists and earn the paraglider I desperately need. I also unlock buildings called Sky Towers, which help me fill in this unending map with detailed terrain. All the better for getting lost in.
Link’s new powers help foster this feeling of anything goes. Like any skill, they require practice in order to wield with efficiency. I slap a bunch of logs and doors together like a kid trying to glue his puzzle pieces. The results are less than exceptional.
Even when not playing, the game lingers in the back of your mind. One day, after my six-year-old returns from one of his final days of kindergarten, I’m playing with him and his four-year-old brother in their bedroom. We’re snapping MagnaTiles together, those magnetized shapes for building objects or designs, and when the six squares sync into a perfect cube, I realize: I could build 3D objects in Zelda using found boards.
Life doesn’t just imitate art. If the art in question lets you tinker and think, it also gives you ideas for problems not yet solved. A sequel to a big-budget action game is a similar problem to solve: How do we make this game again, the studio asks itself, for both old and new players alike?
Other recent or upcoming sequels have answered predictably enough. God of Wår: Ragnarok is, once again, an epic Norse quest that funnels you down the particular story the writers and designers want to tell. Horizon: Forbidden West lets you control Aloy, again, as she hunts mecha-dinosaurs. Bethesda’s long-gestating Starfield looks to put the Elder Scrolls formula in deep space.
But Tears of the Kingdom is a weird one: It’s both a sprawling journey with baked-in narrative points, but also a wild space to wander aimlessly. Hyrule is vast and deep, dense with an abundance of curious landmarks, inhabitants, fauna, and secrets that could leave one feeling overburdened with things to do.
Yet you can also do nothing — sail the current on a contraption of wooden boards, or gallop toward the sunset on horseback to nowhere in particular — and be content.
When I finally seek out a chasm, one of many rifts pocking the land, I hesitate again before plunging below. In my periphery, a giant rock falls from the sky; I could hop on, reverse time, and rocket upwards to one of the many islands hiding their own mysteries. A bonfire burns in the middle distance: An enemy stronghold, about to be attacked by the local army, who could use my sword (and a well-placed Bomb Flower). I am, safe to say, aroused by choice.
I turn away, compelled to roam more, without aim, secure in the knowledge that what I find will be worth it: That getting there — no, going there — has been the aim all along.
Cult of Nintendo is an Inverse series focusing on the weird, wild, and wonderful conversations surrounding the most venerable company in video games.