Do you really remember me? Ending and memories in Breath of the Wild
What follows is a reflection on the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As such, it does not shy away from discussing the content and structure of the game, and may detract from the experience of the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW) has been nearly universally acclaimed since it came out in 2017, for its art direction, its environmental design and most of all for the freedom it awards the player from the onset. Although BotW does contain some linear elements, including invitations to visit certain places, and the fact that some early path choices are privileged over others (by the strength of the monsters, by their proximity to the starting point, by their immediate visibility), the player is free to ignore these nudges and invitations, to navigate the world as he or she sees fits, with the amnesiac hero Link as his or her avatar.
This absolute freedom means that the game never pressures you into actively trying to complete the main quest: defeating a rather loosely defined force of evil – Ganon – which is trapped in Hyrule’s castle, in the center of the map.
In my own experience, the vagaries of my travels around the world dictated the pace and the order in which I completed the various (optional) steps of the main quest: taking control of the four divine beasts which are supposed to help defeat Ganon and recovering the Master sword, which many NPCs describe as being the right weapon to tackle the story’s final antagonist. Only in a late phase did I decide that I needed to actively seek the missing pieces and push towards an ending. Although the game is ostensibly about fighting Ganon and freeing Zelda, the experience of playing it over dozens of hours is dominated by tasks, quests and discoveries which bear only a loose connection to that objective, including cooking, solving abstract puzzles, building of a house, discovering the intricate physical system which rule the world and most of all, exploring.
In other words, early on, and for most of the experience of game, the main quest comes to feel as a MacGuffin, as characterized by Alfred Hitchcock (who did not invent the term): a device meant to provide motivation to the plot and its protagonists, but which is unimportant in itself. The statue in The Maltese Falcon, in Hammett’s novel and it the film version, is a classic example: the precious statue sought by the main characters is eventually revealed as a worthless plaster copy, which fails to provide any kind of closure to the narrative. There is a hint of absurdism in this dramatic revelation, but most of all, it invites the reader or spectator to look back on the experience of the narrative flow as being its own reward, especially so in the movie version, with its strikingly camp performances.
BotW is not unlike The Maltese Falcon, in that its ending is very close to being an anticlimax. For one thing, the final stages of the quest are noticeably less challenging that some of the random or planned encounters in the course of the adventure. This makes sense in terms of accessibility, as it allows players to reach the end of the game and of the story, even if they do not have the experience or the skills necessary to complete its more demanding passages. Though BotW can be difficult, it is also a game that never punishes failure to advance, and the easiness of the ending can be read as an extension of that philosophy. On the other hand, this easiness negates much of the efforts put in by players who sought to improve their equipment, their characters or their skills, only for these steps to be revealed as unnecessary.
That ending is also anticlimactic however, for what it offers by way of a conclusion. Beating Ganon triggers a cinematic sequence in which Zelda banishes the monster for good. She then turns towards Link/the game camera, and asks: « Do you really remember me? » before a final long shot on the two characters, a fade to black and a long credit roll.
In a brief post-credit sequence, the sun rises over the castle of Hyrule, while ghosts of fallen heroes fade away. Taken together, these two sequences last under four minutes, and offer very little narrative content: merely that one question, and the ostensible absence of a romantic denouement.
A second, slightly expanded ending is accessible to players who have collected the eighteen « memories » available in the game, short cinematic sequences that are triggered by visiting specific places. In the additional sequence, Zelda is clad in practical clothes and describes the tasks that await Link and her. She mentions bringing « closure » to her father, the former king, and one of the ghosts in the post-credit scene, then states « There is still so much for us to do and so many painful memories we must bear./It all must start with us.«
That short extra scene ends on a potentially romantic ending, with soaring music, and Link running towards Zelda before another fade-to-black. Again, though that romantic ending remains a mere possibility.
Whatever the ending, the entire adventure in this enormous world thus concludes over two and a half scenes, without any significant development in the characters, in the world building or in the plot.
What it does, instead, is strikingly re-frame the entire adventure, revealing the MacGuffin and unveiling after the fact a new perspective on the notion of success in the game. Crucially, this notion does not rely on « quantifiable outcome » (Juul 2003), nor does it position the player and its avatar as saviors of the world they have trekked through. This shift in perspective is triggered by Zelda’s final question: « Do you really remember me? » (or simply « Do you remember me? »/”Est-ce que tu te souviens de moi ?” in the French version), which in both endings is followed by the entire credit scroll.
The parameters of this address – the game camera faces Zelda, we never get Link’s reaction shot – invite us to read this question as a metaleptic address to the player; Majora’s Mask (2000) aready contained many instances of metafictional hints about the development of the game, and they constitute a distinct possibility in the game contract (Maÿrä 2008, 84).
It is possible to read it in playful way, as a gentle reminder to the player that he may have lost sight of the Macguffin and the ostensible stakes of the story, while flying over mountain ranges or picking up mushrooms. The question can also be read more seriously, though. Beating Ganon is easy, it is expected, but has the player played the game well, has he or she assembled the mental image of Zelda and her world? The directness of the address invite us to consider this as the hitherto hidden criterion of achievement.
To be clear: the game does contain an explicit mechanism tied to these memories, presented a slightly blurry videos, opening and closing on a nostalgic sepia tint and an antiquated iris effect. However, the structure of the game means that these memories can be collected in any order. They also present mere fragments, isolated scenes, which are not easily reassembled. Collecting these memories is a countable – if hidden – objective, which triggers the full ending, but just like that full ending, they remain fragmentary and incomplete. Besides, even in the full ending, Link fails to answer Zelda’s questions.
The rest of these memories is of course to be found in the game world. Some of them will be provided indirectly, through tales and anecdotes told by the NPCs. Others, in turn, will be provided by the very environment of the game. When the player starts the game, he or she triggers the re-apparition of buried treasures and artifacts, shrines and towers unseen for a hundred years. To conquer these and the divine beasts is explicitly described as a restoration, as a recovery of lost memories. This is underlined by the fact that several main characters insistently ask Link/the player if he remembers them and his past life. The player has little agency in these dialogues, and is forced to admit his ignorance, prompting these characters to explain who they are or who the player is.
The theme of buried memories is of course echoed by the design of a world full of elegantly romantic ruins, moss-covered arches and half-crumbled fortresses, some of whom bear striking resemblance with late 18th-century Rome. Hyrule, especially around the central area of the map, is a place in which memories of the past have become the landscape itself and dot it with places of sublime decay. Even the oft-critized game mechanism of the rapidly broken weapons contribute to this sense of a decaying world, in which even precious objects rapidly become accessible only as memories.
Hyrule is a world full of wildlife and thriving villages, but it is also a haunted place, and these haunted places constitute the major landmarks guiding the player during his or her progress.
Finally, the game may also activate yet other memories for players familiar with the broader Zelda architext, since many zones on the map function as transformed echoes of areas encountered in a previous game. Koholint island, from Link’s Awakening (1993, 2019) is repurposed as Finalis island, for instance, and other names and places tease out connections to previous iterations.
« Do you remember me? » asks the player if he or she has seen enough of that world, if he or she has cared enough. This is a question which the game cannot and will not answer (the statistics regarding the number of shrines visited during the adventure are never displayed in the ending sequence, for instance), but one which invites us to revisit the experience in an empathetic and contemplative way.
In turn, it downplays the importance of the usual accomplishments associated with winning in video games: collecting equipment, killing enemies, completing quests, seducing NPCs, etc. It is no wonder that so many players expressed their frustration at this abrupt disruption of a common « horizon of expectation » (Jauss 1970). Even though the entirety of the games plants the seeds for this reversal, it does so through half-submerged devices, whose purpose is only revealed in that final, unexpectedly poignant question. The full-ending, far from resolving it, further denies the hero his reward, his romantic kiss, his moonlight seduction, his martial triumph, emphasizing instead the need for closure, the weight of memories.
The lesson here is similar to what Andreas Huyssens identifies as the main function of romantic and modern fascination for ruins:
The dimension present in any imaginary of ruins […] is the hardly nostalgic consciousness of the transitoriness of all greatness and power, the warning of imperial hubris, and the remembrance of nature in all culture.Huyssen, Andreas. « Nostalgia for Ruins ». Grey Room 23 (1 avril 2006): 6‑21. https://doi.org/10.1162/grey.2006.1.23.6. page 13.
The ending proclaims that there was never any purpose to the quest but to see, to empathize, then to remember, as if intent on creating a game which could escape the fate of so much of popular culture, the drive towards the ephemeral, the transient and its pendant, the infinite archive of constantly replayed Youtube clips. BotW’s final gamble lays in this fade to black, in this invitation to quiet retrospection on the « transitoriness of all greatness and power », which does not resort to nostalgia. Indirectly, it also offers a powerful critique of the ideological assertions contained in so many conventional endings.
Many thanks to Théo Cazemajou for his insightful remarks, which helped flesh out this discussion.