Thursday, June 1, 2023

Breath of the Wild's Soundtrack is a Masterpiece

First off, you read the title correctly--this is not a Tears of the Kingdom review; I'm not very far into the game and it will be quite some time before I am in a position to even attempt to review it. Instead, I am sharing a piece that I wrote nearly two years ago for my AP English students, as a sample to help them practice breaking down an argument, identifying qualifiers, evidence, key assumptions, etc. I stumbled upon this document while going over my documents in preparation for my classes for next year, and decided to share--Breath of the Wild may not be the newest Zelda game any longer, but its soundtrack still deserves acclaim:

When I plugged in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time in 2020--three years after the game was released--I had high expectations. And Breath of the Wild met those expectations head-on: I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face for the first three hours that I played, so much so that my cheeks and jaw ached for days afterwards.

For this sample argument, there were so many different directions I could have gone: I could have discussed the game’s breathtaking open-world experience; I could have raved about the addictive cooking mechanic, or the fact that there are multiple ways to solve every puzzle. However, I have chosen to discuss what was one of the most divisive aspects of the game when it was released in 2017: its soundtrack.  It’s fair to say that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is unusual compared to every other Zelda title--VGMO, an online publication dedicated to reviewing video game soundtracks, stated that while the soundtrack was critically acclaimed, the fanbase was polarized, with some praising composer Manaka Kataoka’s innovations and others criticizing it as “directionless ambience” or “just random notes on a piano.”

I’m in full agreement with the first group of fans.  I’m not going to argue that it’s the best video game soundtrack ever; such matters are far too subjective.  I will say, however, that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is a masterpiece because it perfectly fits--and enhances--the gameplay and setting.

Some quick context for those who are unfamiliar with the Zelda series: Legend of Zelda games are known for their big and bombastic soundtracks. YouTuber Pixeltea, in his analysis of the Breath of the Wild soundtrack, states that previous Zelda soundtracks all share one quality: they are all adventurous. There are so many classic tracks that seem to beckon the player into a grand adventure: the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda and Link to the Past; the Hyrule Field themes from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess; the Gerudo Valley theme from Ocarina of Time.  Each of these pieces is BIG, written to give the feeling of a full orchestra playing away.  In fact, by the time Skyward Sword was released in 2011, the game’s soundtrack actually was fully orchestrated.

Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is not big, at least not in the conventional way.  Indeed, one of the first things that might strike a new player when they actually start exploring the Great Plateau at the start of the game for the first time is the lack of music.  There are ambient noises: birds chirping; the breeze rustling through the leaves; the babbling of a far-off brook.  But it takes nearly a minute before the first soft chord progression plays--a lone piano--subtle and unobtrusive.  It’s so subtle that you might not even immediately notice it.  The overworld theme in Breath of the Wild is as understated as the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda is bombastic, punctuated with long silences--impressionistic and tentative (Pixeltea).  

But it works.  It works because Breath of the Wild is set in a post-apocalyptic Hyrule (the kingdom in which most Zelda games take place).  In this game, the main villain--a demonic force known as Calamity Ganon--destroyed the world a hundred years before the events of the game began, wiping out entire cities and much of the population of Hyrule.  This is the biggest that Hyrule has ever been: the world-map spans an area roughly the size of the island of Manhattan, ranging from snow-covered peaks, to desert, to marshland, to rolling foothills, to a towering volcano, to rocky shores, and sandy beaches.  However, while the population of Manhattan is nearly two million, the population of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is just over two hundred, and most of those citizens live in the seven towns scattered across the land.  The player spends most of the game exploring the vast wilderness, far from any other people.  The overworld music captures that sense of solitude, and the feeling of a world one hundred years out from cataclysmic destruction, just as nature is starting to heal, overtaking the ruins of abandoned cities and ancient battlefields. The YouTube channel 8-bit Music Theory suggests that the cumulative effect of these musical choices, in partnership with the game’s visuals, gameplay, and overall setting is that Breath of the Wild feels like “the real story”, while the other Zelda games were “just legends you’d hear in Breath of the Wild’s world.”

The solitude of the overworld’s soundtrack stands out in contrast to the musical theme of each town--each town’s theme is melodic, homey, and welcoming, without the silence that punctuates the overworld theme, conveying the comfort of finally finding friendly faces.  Beach town Lurelin Village has a tropical-sounding steel-drum theme; Kakariko Village in the foothills has a Japanese folk-inspired koto ensemble; Gerudo Town has an upbeat sitar riff.  Each town feels like an oasis of community and home in the gameplay, each with its own distinctive culture, and the soundtrack reinforces that feeling. A particularly memorable sidequest involves building a new town in the middle of the wilderness with recruits from each of the main races in Hyrule.  As more citizens move into town, the musical theme expands to include motifs from each city, a glimmer of hope and unity in the midst of fragmentation.

The spare, solitary piano riffs of the overworld theme are also disrupted when danger strikes, whether it’s the rhythmic drumbeat and urgent horns that play while fighting Bokoblins or Moblins (weaker enemies), the frantic and pounding piano that plays while fighting Lynel or Yiga assassins, or the creepy, crescendoing discordance of a Guardian attack (all stronger enemies).  This music intensifies or fades depending on how close the player is to the attacking enemies.

In short, the soundtrack is living, breathing, and dynamic, seamlessly woven into the gameplay. This is an opinion shared by many video game critics.  Thomas Whitehead of Nintendo Life called the sound design “impressive… designed to blend with your actions and the world rather than define them”, while Jose Otero of IGN described how the “subtle musical queues matched the tempo of my adventure.”  Matt Peckham of TIME called the “restrained, often poignant musical passages” a “tour-de-force of complementary minimalism.”  Breath of the Wild is a vast game, but its vastness is largely unpopulated, full of mysteries to solve and ruins to explore.  Given this, less truly is more where the music is concerned. 

Of course, my argument rests upon the assumption that the quality of a soundtrack stems chiefly from how well it fits and enhances the setting and gameplay.  It is worth remembering that a soundtrack--unlike other categories of music--is specifically created in partnership with a story, with a setting, with a particular visual aesthetic, and exclusively to video games, with a particular type of gameplay design.  Soundtracks are not created primarily to be listened to on their own--though they certainly can be!--; they are created primarily to help tell a story, and create or enhance a setting.  While all of this may sound subjective--and perhaps it is, to some extent--I ask the reader to imagine Super Mario Bros, but with John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars theme playing in the background.  Or an epic role-playing game such as Undertale, Final Fantasy or Skyrim with the Among Us theme playing in the background.  My point is that no matter how technically perfect, no matter how impeccably composed a soundtrack may be–and for the record, I’m definitely not arguing that the Among Us theme is technically perfect–if it does not fit the game’s setting or gameplay, it will feel out of place, and both the game and the soundtrack will be the lesser for it.  

While bombast made sense for older Zelda titles, what if Breath of the Wild had tried to use a big, bombastic overworld theme?  Doing so would undoubtedly have undercut the feeling of solitude while exploring the wilderness, and however good the overworld theme might have been as an individual track, it would almost certainly become repetitive and stale, given the sheer size of the world map and the number of times that single track would play over and over again while traveling and exploring.  By contrast, unobtrusive and simple piano chords do not draw as much attention to themselves, do not get stuck in the player’s head in the way that catchy melodies do, and do not wear out their welcome, while the more melodic village themes are so refreshing and so briefly visited in the scheme of the whole game that they do not easily wear on the ears, either. 

Upset fans have complained that the soundtrack just doesn’t sound like Zelda music.  While it’s undeniably different from the musical style of previous Zelda games, the same could be said for any number of other stylistic choices in Breath of the Wild.  This is only the second game in the entire series (and the first 3D Zelda title) in which Link (the main character) can jump at will.  This is the first game in which shields, swords, and bows break after a certain amount of usage.  This is only the second game since the original to feature a fully open world.  This is one of the few titles in which Link does not have a magic meter.  Do any of these departures make Breath of the Wild any less a Zelda game?  If your answer is ‘yes’ to one but not the others, why the inconsistency?

Upset fans have also claimed that the soundtrack is not memorable; that fans cannot hum along to it.  I would contend that these are two different things, for starters, and that memorability does not equal “hum-ability”.  While players would be hard pressed to hum the overworld piano theme, those chords--or at the very least, the feelings they evoke--are memorable.  And some of the tracks are indeed hum-able: the village and stable themes are catchy, and in fact, if you are paying close attention, you can even find a few classic Zelda tracks snuck into the game as easter eggs!  Kyle Hanson, a critic for Attack of the Fanboy, said that “Breath of the Wild’s music isn’t as ‘in your face’ as other games in the series, which means that you likely won’t catch yourself humming its tunes years down the road, but you will appreciate the music for what it does, which is set the mood perfectly.”

And there it is--this strange, minimalist, impressionist, beautiful soundtrack does what a soundtrack ought to do: it sets the mood and helps to make the game all the more immersive.  Perfection is a lofty claim, but in this case, it is merited.  Because of its role in setting the mood, and enhancing the gameplay and setting, the Breath of the Wild soundtrack is, indeed, a masterpiece.