Think about the games we play — many of them have rousing and epic soundtracks. The Legend of Zelda series is no different. One of the series’ hallmarks has always been its use of music, both as background filler as well as gameplay devices itself. One need look no further than the iconic Zelda theme as one of the most recognizable gaming themes to date. Music is in Zelda’s blood. How Breath of the Wild approaches music has a lot to live up to, just in terms of its own past.
Thankfully it doesn’t disappoint.
Less is more
One of the first things you’ll notice with Zelda: Breath of the Wild is its absence of music. While music itself can be incredibly powerful conveying emotion and atmosphere, the absence of music can be just as powerful. This is something not many games make use of, either. However, the absence of music fits the battle-scarred and wild landscape of Breath of the Wild perfectly. Looking over the Great Plateau and seeing the hundred years worth of overgrowth and destruction wrought by Calamity Ganon is amplified by the lack of music. You feel more in the moment. And when the music does finally arrive – either through battle or another event happening around you – it’s presence is more profound.
A major reason behind why this has such an impact is the prevalence of the piano as the featured instrument. Most orchestra’s nowadays, the piano is just filler — it’s there to provide background, harmony, and is sometimes featured, but not so much. Breath of the Wild uses the piano to great effect, whether it’s a few notes to remind you that it’s there, providing the background and heart to the battle theme, or subtly playing a theme which hearkens to a game past; Zelda’s piano is a perfect fit here.
The perfect vehicle
As a vehicle to carry the game, the decision to use the piano is, as mentioned previously, the perfect fit. Breath of the Wild sound director Hajime Wakai mentions in a previously released documentary, the decision wasn’t to use the piano wasn’t an easy one.
“I was actually a little concerned about using the piano, and I think the main reason for that was we’d never really used it before,” Wakai mentioned in The Making of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild documentary, which is found on the official Nintendo YouTube channel. “Surprisingly, the piano had never been features as the main instrument in music for the Zelda series. We decided to change that and make it our challenge to emphasize the piano in our score.”
The use of the piano has definitely paid off. With so much of Zelda’s presentation includes the music being absent, the subtle and powerful keystrokes of the piano when necessary draw you back in and accentuate the surroundings. How the team uses the piano to convey familiar themes (“The Song of Time” at the Temple of Time ruins being a clear hallmark early on) or to energize a gallop across Hyrule, is simply exquisite.
However, it’s not all piano. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild makes use of other powerful instruments to highlight areas of the map. For instance, Kakariko Village’s use of the Shakuhachi and Shamisen — both traditional Japanese instruments — roots the culture shown by the Kakariko themselves into the game world, making it feel distinct. The other-worldly sounds heard in the Laboratory brings home that this is a place of science and discovery. However, when the piano plays, it takes point — being featured beautifully across the world and providing another layer to an already beautiful and fresh approach to the Zelda world.
Additionally, the composer’s willingness to use music to help tell the story around you helps to distinguish Zelda: Breath of the Wild from other games of the genre. It’s not often in open-world games where the music changes with where you are, or even further, that same music changes with the time of day. Stand in Rito Village and you’ll hear it change pretty distinctly as time passes, going from an upbeat, up-tempo song to a slower, more piano-filled rendition as the town falls asleep. This use of music helps to draw the player into the world further. For a real treat, listen closely to the music as you build up Tarrey Town in Breath of the Wild. You’ll notice it change around you as you make additions, bringing the character and charm of the people who now inhabit the village with them.
Familiarity is key
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has also become known for its callbacks to previous entries in the legendary series. Familiar themes, such as the aforementioned “Song of Time,” make their way into the game, albeit subtly. Ride a horse during the day and you’ll hear the piano playing along, yet playing counterpoint to the piano riding theme is a slowed version of “Zelda’s Lullaby” on violin. At night, this changes, and you hear the traditional Zelda theme playing in its place. “Epona’s Song” from The Ocarina of Time makes an appearance, and the theme I mentioned previously at the Rito Village? It’s reminiscent of “Dragon Roost Island” from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. These familiar tunes help to bring the world of Zelda home for players. The unfamiliar landscape you travel upon, made even more unfamiliar thanks to Calamity Ganon, is rooted in the universe with these familiar themes bring the player closer to what you’re exploring.
As much as the music’s absence plays a huge role in conveying the mood and atmosphere of the game, the familiar themes woven in help to ground it firmly in the series. Many will cry that Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack misses that iconic epic and hopeful charm soundtracks in the series past exude, however, the music — and lack thereof — found throughout Breath of the Wild perfectly fit within the scope of the latest game. The soundtrack doesn’t need to be bombastic, although it does have its moments. It doesn’t need to have that epic iconic theme, though I’d argue there are plenty of iconic themes to be found throughout this soundtrack. The story that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is telling is perfectly mirrored and conveyed through its use of music. And that music, as well as its absence, makes the game better as a result.
[Featured Image By Nintendo]