A Conversation with Zelda Veteran and ‘Breath of the Wild’ Producer Eiji Aonuma
Aonuma’s been a part of Zelda since ‘Ocarina of Time’, and is the ideal person to tell us about latest game's vast world and the possibility of a future gender-swapped Link.
Now that I've played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—on the new Nintendo Switch, no less—my anticipation for it has as good as reached its peak. How can I possibly say no to a new Zelda adventure set within a sprawling and gorgeous open world, a new Zelda that pops from the screen—sorry, the screens—like no Zelda before it? I can't, at all. Whether on the forthcoming Switch or Nintendo's outgoing Wii U console, I will be playing this game when it comes out in early March. I should probably get some blankets in, ready for the long evenings.
In advance of the game's release, I spoke to long-term Zelda series producer and director Eiji Aonuma. He's been a part of what is probably Nintendo's second-most-famous franchise since 1998's critically acclaimed Ocarina of Time, and is the perfect person to discuss the series' evolution to this point, and also where it could potentially go in the future.
Waypoint: As someone with such a long history with the Zelda series, how rewarding and heartwarming does it feel seeing how massively anticipated Breath of the Wild is? You've a 30-year-old series here, in a constantly changing medium and market, and still people are super eager to play another one.
Eiji Aonuma: Yes, I'm really happy to see how enthusiastic fans remain about the Zelda series, and seeing that really gives me energy. Obviously we had a Nintendo Switch demonstration event in Tokyo recently, and the director of Breath of the Wild, Mr (Hidemaro) Fujibayashi, went along to it. He gave me a report on what he saw, which said that so many fans were really reacting positively to the game, including small children who were playing it. And when I hear things like that, to this day, it always makes me really happy.
Is making sure that Zelda games have that cross-generational appeal—that newer titles aren't just appealing to people who played previous games, but to beginners, and children, too—of particular importance to the team at Nintendo EPD [the company's new Entertainment Planning & Development Division]?
I mean, we don't deliberately set out to create Zelda games that are for children, of course. But children always like to stretch themselves, right? They look at what adults are playing, and they want to play those same games. So with the Zelda series, we definitely don't aim at a younger audience, but we'd like to think that these games are enjoyable by people of all ages. There's something about a Zelda game that everyone can enjoy, I think, that everyone can get something out of. And that's an aspect of the series that we want to continue with, going forward.
Above: 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild', Nintendo Switch Presentation Trailer
You only have to look back at all the speculation surrounding Breath of the Wild, from us adults in the press, to see how the series still fascinates older players, people who've got practically all of modern gaming to make their choices from. When stories were circulating—about what this game might be, and what form its characters might take—does that become a distraction for the team, at all? Is it difficult to not get too wrapped up, as the game's makers, in the audience's own expectations for it?
We do actually pay a lot of attention to what fans are saying, after every Zelda is released. We want to know how people have found each game, how they've reacted to it. What their experiences were. And we also take on board what people are saying in the run-up to a new Zelda's release. Sometimes I'll see a reaction, to a trailer perhaps, and it's one I can empathize with—"Yes, I see what you mean. I feel the same way myself." And the opinions that resonate most with me, I definitely take them into account when the time comes to create the next Zelda.
But there are always going to be so many different opinions out there, before and after a game's released. And so many different ideas about what should, or could, be put into a Zelda game. If you listen to them all, you'll end up with… Well, I've no idea what kind of game you'd end up with, but it probably wouldn't be a very good one. So we have to follow our own vision, really, and not pay too much mind to speculation.
One of the biggest talking points when Breath of the Wild was first revealed was the possibility of Link being a woman this time—or, at least, for players to have the option to select their own gender for the Hero of Time. It was quickly confirmed that no, Link is very much a male in this game. But does seeing conversations like that inspire you for future Zelda games, or spin-off titles set within the same universe?
I think it was three years ago, at E3 in 2014, when the game was still at an early stage of development that I said something that I maybe shouldn't have. There wasn't much serious meaning behind it, but I said something along the lines of, 'Well, I've not said that Link is necessarily a male,' and that got picked up on, and became a bit of a talking point.
Really, the main thing I realized then is that I have to be really careful with what I say, because there's always the possibility of, even when you don't quite mean what you've said, it can be taken differently, and become this big discussion.
And regarding the future possibility of us taking a Zelda title in a new direction, perhaps with Link as someone different, or with a new protagonist altogether who's radically different from what we've seen before, on the Wii U there's already Hyrule Warriors. In that you've got Princess Zelda herself as a playable character, and a real assortment of playable characters including numerous female ones. So, that title exists already. But in the future, regarding doing that sort of thing again, and changing what you expect from Zelda characters, I'd say yes, it's a possibility.
I've some questions about how the new game itself "operates", I guess. Firstly, what with the Switch being this home console-cum-portable hybrid, and the battery demands that Breath of the Wild is going to exert on it when on the move, how is the game's save functionality going to work? I won't be 30 minutes into a dungeon, the battery goes and I'll lose all my progress, will I?
Breath of the Wild has two save functions. We've an auto save, and a manual save. The game will auto save as you play, as you move around the map. And so, if you are playing on the Switch, on the go, and the battery did run out, because that auto save kicks in quite regularly, you shouldn't lose too much progress. You'd only go back a short distance.
But as there's the manual save function, too, you can save the game whenever you want to. So when you see the battery is about to die, you can save right then, and not lose any progress at all. But that's not a particular function of the Nintendo Switch, the console, generally speaking. Rather, it's something we've chosen to include in Breath of the Wild. So I can't comment on what other games will do.
There are fewer big dungeons in the new game, and an emphasis on Link having many smaller shrines to explore, spread around the map. Is that a design choice that goes back to the beginning of the project? Or is that a change you made when the decision was taken to make the game for two platforms, to reflect the battery life of the Switch when it's undocked? So the player can finish a shrine in a single handheld sitting?
It wasn't necessarily an original design point. At first, we were planning to include more large, labyrinth-style dungeons, the sort of things you'd expect in a Zelda title. But the reason we decided to include the smaller shrines—which isn't to say there aren't some larger dungeons in Breath of the Wild—was to strike a balance, between this extremely large (over)world that you're exploring, and these goals and objectives to explore within that. So by dotting these shrines around—a larger number of them, but with each smaller in size than the older-style dungeons—it helped bring up balance, and break up the huge world into smaller, explorable chunks.
"From the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected, so you really could freely explore it."
Now, that is something that we hit upon midway through the development process, but it wasn't as a result of us beginning development for the Nintendo Switch. It was purely something to do from a game design point of view.
I'm glad you touched upon the size of the world, as I've been seeing plenty of talk about it, on the socials the last few days. People saying that, yes, it's the biggest Zelda map ever, and how it's bigger than Skyrim. I think that's been doing the rounds a while, but anyway, it's come around again. Was the decision to create such a massive game world influenced by the simple desire to have that "biggest Zelda ever" sales pitch; or did the map's size come about more because of all the things—the areas, quests and items, the content—you needed to put in it?
Actually, we did have in mind, from the start of development, that we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world. And part of the reason for that comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. The way that game world was set up was that you had kind of separate areas, separate strongholds, that you'd sort of land in and explore. But they were all self-contained, and they weren't really connected together.
We listened to a lot of opinions, from people who played Skyward Sword. And a lot of people said to us how they found the game… Not exactly unsatisfying, but they wish they could have explored the areas between the strongholds. So taking that on board, from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.
There's voice acting in Breath of the Wild, for the first time in the Zelda series. Is that something you'd considered introducing before now? And personally, in other games you play, do you find that you develop a better connection with games characters when they are voiced?
I definitely feel that, when you're playing a game, if a character actually speaks to you, with a voice, then you do have a deeper connection with them. You get a clearer sense of who that character is, and what they're all about.
In terms of whether or not we'd considered using voice acting in the past, we definitely have thought about it. We weren't able to do it, though. This time, we could. Now, why we could this time, but not before, is to do with a certain system we've used in the game. But I can't really tell you any more about what that system is, because it'd kind of be giving too much away about the game. You'll just have to play it, and see how the voice acting fits in for yourself.
I'm going to speculate here and suggest that the Sheikah Slate might have something to do with Link hearing voices, but we shall see. I want to talk a bit about the stakes of the game—the latest trailer depicts a very distressed Zelda (see the screenshot above), and a truly terrific evil at play. So, just how ferocious is this new big bad, this Calamity Ganon? And, tonally, is the game going to be quite a dark entry for the franchise?
Regarding that trailer, we really wanted to create, using the music as well, this dramatic flow—and I think we achieved that. But in terms of the overall tone of the game, I wouldn't say that it's especially dark. Similarly to Ocarina of Time, it's quite an all-encompassing story. There's humor, there's moving parts, there's dramatic parts. But Breath of the Wild, overall, isn't darker than previous Zelda titles.
And where does this Zelda fit on the series' timeline, in its chronology, split as that is into three separate yet connected branches?
I wouldn't say that it obviously fits into any one part of the timeline, but if you play the game, you'll be able to work out where it fits. As you probably saw in the trailer, the most recent trailer, there's a woman's voice, and she says: "The history of the royal family of Hyrule is also the history of the Calamity Ganon." And as you know, the Zelda series, up until now, is a history of repeated attacks by Ganon. So, there's food for thought there. I don't want to say anything more as I'd like players to work it out for themselves, to play the game and see what they think.
"I can definitely say that the two games are the same, and there's absolutely nothing missing in the Wii U version."
The game's a dual-platform project, coming to the Switch and the Wii U—bridging Nintendo consoles, as Twilight Princess did. What sort of pressures did that put on the team? And can you assure people playing the game on Wii U that they're not going to be missing out on anything, content or performance wise, that they would see in the Switch version?
The cross-platform aspect became a reality in the spring of last year—that's when we really decided to develop this for the Switch, too. And that was difficult for the team, and I personally tried to work out in my own head how we'd make the necessary changes, and how we'd make that process happen, before I asked the team to work on the Switch conversion. I didn't want to place too much extra burden on them. But, in the end, the process of cross-platform development wasn't as difficult as we thought it'd be. It actually went quite smoothly.
In terms of changes and alterations, they were all done in order to ensure the Switch and Wii U versions are offering the same experience. I can definitely say that the two games are the same, and there's absolutely nothing missing in the Wii U version. What I will say, though, is that one small difference is that the loading times are quicker on the Switch. I'm sure that people who play it on that platform, particularly in handheld mode, will be very happy with those shorter loading times.
Back in 2015, you said that your ambition for this title was for it to be the ultimate, most complete Zelda game. Now that it's pretty much out, do you feel that you've achieved that? And also, once it's out, is that it? With a game world this big, I'm wondering about the possibilities for extra quests DLC, more content to further Link's adventures in this space.
I do feel that this is the ultimate, most complete Zelda we could have made, right now. Because, of course, that is how I feel now, and it doesn't mean we couldn't go further with the series in the future. This is not a pinnacle that can't be surpassed.
Regarding DLC, or any other further additions to Breath of the Wild, we have nothing to announce at this time.
I could have called that last answer, really. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a launch title for the Nintendo Switch, released on March 3rd. A Wii U version of the game is released on the same day. Find further information online here.