Released in early March of this year, ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ was met with near universal praise from critics and fans alike. Among the 10/10 reviews and glowing recommendations was a common theme: the game is stunningly beautiful. The art direction ‘Breath of the Wild’ is a multifaceted story that considers the art directions of many games in ‘The Legend of Zelda’ franchise, as well as traditional western art.
The typical western approach to graphics and art direction in most games has been to push as much towards realism as possible within the technological limitations of the time.
This often leads to cutting edge environments that impress the entrenched audience aware of graphical progression, but can leave much to be desired from anyone outside of this audience. This also contributes to games aging poorly, or looking less attractive over time.
The typical Japanese approach, most excellently exemplified by Nintendo products, is to design a game’s identity and art direction to be entirely achievable within the technological boundaries the studio is currently working within. ‘The Legend of Zelda’ has always held to this principle when possible.
The Zelda series spans 26 years of video game technology, and the art direction and general appearance of the games has been altered multiple times. From the eight and sixteen bit 2-D sprites of early Zelda, to the jump of 3-D polygon models in ‘Ocarina of Time,’ Zelda has held many different faces. All these different art directions have all been filtered through the common Nintendo philosophy that defines every decision that they make, “is it fun?”.
While Nintendo wants every game they make to be beautiful they also demand that their art direction inform and assist fun gameplay. This most often translates into bright, easy to read colors and high contrast environments.
The most direct incarnation of these common Nintendo design philosophies was seen in 2002’s which the origins of “Breath of the Wild’s” appearance can be found. ‘The Wind Waker’ reinterpreted the Zelda aesthetic into a more cartoonish and simple direction, and cel shading was used throughout to disguise the relatively tame horsepower of the Nintendo Gamecube. This created a game that according to many critics and fans of the series still looks beautiful running on original hardware today. One criticism surfaced after previews of the games, oddly enough it was only leveled in the west where the philosophy of videogame realism dominated the market at the time. It was criticized for a cartoonish design was considered too childish.
An IGN review of ‘Wind Waker’ had this to say, “Gorgeous. Whether you like the style or not, you have to appreciate the technique and technology. Huge world, detailed locales, beautiful animation and particles, all at 30 frames and in progressive.”
‘Twilight Princess,’ Nintendo’s 2006 Zelda release, was a more realistic and dark take on the Zelda series. The art style would largely be remembered for its overly brown color scheme and muddy textures.
The next major console release for the Zelda series sought to address the successes and criticisms leveled at the previous two titles, leading to 2011’s “Skyward Sword.” The game combined a more realistic depiction of the game world from “Twilight Princess” with the bright colors and cel shading of “Wind Waker.” Being the first Zelda title to take direct inspiration from historical painting styles. The director of “Skyword Sword,” Eiji Aonuma, would point out in multiple interviews citing his love for French Impressionism and Paul Cézanne specifically.
The art direction so successfully implemented in ‘Skyward Sword’ was then honed and refined for this year’s ‘Breath of the Wild.’ Taking direct inspiration from gouache as a medium, the French tradition of en plein air painting, as well as the tradition of Japanese animation. En plein air painting is the act of taking the studio outside into the landscape the artist is painting to create a greater sense of color and motion.
‘Breath of the Wild’ also breaks multiple conventions of the Zelda series, featuring a massive new open world entirely traversable by the player and inspiring an open air aesthetic. Simply standing still and taking in an incredible view of the game’s expansive vistas, tall mountains, and plunging canyons is an experience in and of itself.
The Miyazaki-esque landscape begs to be explored. The grass dances at your feet while the wind blows by and lazy clouds of mist drift across the horizon as if a mustachioed Frenchman is quickly darting his brush across the screen. A strange orange glow radiates off of the game’s many ancient shrines and towers in the distance, their mysterious design derived from Jōmon era Japanese pottery. Hyrule Castle looms at the center of the map ominously lit by red streaks of evil intent. The best part? You’re a part of this beautiful painted world, and an epic adventure awaits you inside its depths.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment