Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve hardly ever had trouble sleeping. More often than not, the real problem has been dragging myself out of bed in the morning. I’ve slept on a bus as we drove through mountains in Asia. I’ve slept on a fourteen-hour flight across the Atlantic. I even managed to sleep in my old flat which stank of smoke, while my flatmate practised his bass guitar at full volume. Whether it was the night before exams, or the start of a new placement, or even the night before my wedding, I’ve always slept at least reasonably well. The only times that I haven’t have been when I’m wrapped up in a good book, or a good game.
The other night, I couldn’t sleep. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that life felt very big and uncertain, and I felt really quite anxious about the future. Myself and my wife are making big life changes, and it feels like no matter what we do there’s always another obstacle.
Ordinarily, when I find my mind to be that crowded, I try and get up and find a change of scene, somewhere new where I can clear my mind, pray, and listen. The problem with that in this instance was that lonely late-night walks through Glasgow city don’t tend to be the most calming of experiences. And so, unable to go for an actual walk, I did the next best thing: I walked through to the living room, grabbed my copy of Breath of the Wild, and loaded up my master mode playthrough, intending to go on a journey.
One of the things I love in good open world games is the invitation to make your own story out of the environment you find. Breath of the Wild is a fantastic example of this; sure, there are objectives, but you meet them at your own pace, in your own order, and if you choose to ignore them then you’re absolutely free to. The only battles you need to fight are the ones you choose to, or the ones you’re stupid enough to walk into. The only story the game gives you is what you can uncover from it, as you walk to through ruined towns and sift through the rubble. Ultimately, the journey is whatever you choose to make it.
On my first playthrough, when I first got the game, I found my preferred path through the game was quite a reckless one. Once I’d figured out the combat mechanics and picked up some equipment, I was game for pretty much any fight that the world threw at me. Since starting master mode, this is no longer the case. The combination of easily breakable weapons and smarter, stronger enemies have taught me to be far more cautious, even a little timid. Every fight has a cost, even if won, and more often than not that cost outweighs the potential benefits of winning.
Before, if a path was blocked by an enemy, I would charge it and hope for the best. These days, I’ll tend to find a way around it, even if that path ends up being much, much longer. When the worst comes to the worst and conflict is inevitable, I’ll plan and prepare as much as possible, and even then I’ll often only scrape by. On one hand, this has been a really interesting dynamic. It makes the world feel more real and dangerous, and really emphasises the sense of desolation that goes along with its sense of beauty. On the other hand, it’s much harder to feel like the hero when I find myself running from nearly every fight. Fortunately, while playing that night, I had a chance to break that particular pattern.
This is the hillside where I started my journey. It’s on a patch of land in the southeast section of the map, surrounded by steep cliffs and tall hills. I hadn’t managed to reach it before, so I set about exploring. It wasn’t long before I ran into some trouble: I was ambushed by two enemies on horseback. They’ve already seen me, so I can’t hide, and I can’t outrun them without a horse myself. My options at this point are to stand and fight, or try and escape down the cliff face. If I fight, there’s a clear chance that I’ll lose, and even if I win I’ll use up weapons and end up worse off than I am just now. If I run, I’ll need to climb back up the cliff and try and stay out of their sight, but it won’t cost me anything except time.
Normally, I’d take the smart option and run.
There, at 2am, unable to sleep, I decided to fight.
I did manage to win in the end up, though not very well. I knocked the bigger guy off of his horse and managed to steal it from him. From there, I was able outmanoeuvre him and eventually defeat him. At this point, the other guy charged me, and I decided to cut my losses, running away on my stolen horse.
Eventually, we escaped, and as night fell we found ourselves at the edge of a high cliff by a lake. I can climb down the ledge easily, but the horse can’t. It’s another hard choice. I really don’t want to leave the horse behind, but I can’t take him down the cliff face. If I want to keep him, I need to get him to a stable, and the only way to do that is to take him the long way down the hill, where there will undoubtedly be more enemies. I’m all ready to dump the horse, when I look over the lake to see this sight.
It’s pretty, right? For those of you who don’t know, there are three dragons this game, that can appear across the map. Each of them represents a particular quality. Naydru is found in the mountains on the east of the map, and represents wisdom. Dinraal is found in the north, and represents power. This one here is called Farosh, and he represents courage.
I said earlier that my favourite part of open world games was getting to build your own story. Moments like this really cement that feeling. Here I am, all ready to take the clear, logical, safe path through the story, and the game dares me to do something different. Looking around I realise that there’s a third path that I could take. If I ride along the edge of the cliff, I can try and find a path which is stable enough to guide the horse down, but is rocky enough that I’ll be able to stay out of sight. It’s a bit of a gamble; I haven’t uncovered that part of the map yet, so there’s every chance I’ll get stuck somewhere, or that there won’t be a path down at the end. Still, it’s the only solution that I can come up with, so I decide to go with it. Slowly, precariously, I make my way through the rocks, as the dragon of courage flies overhead.
It’s difficult finding a path through the rocks – if it looks too steep, the horse won’t go down it, and will instead stop dead on the spot. Once or twice I make a mistake and we lose our footing, sliding along the hillside. Eventually, the rocks level out into a single, steep hill. We charge it head on, at breakneck speed, reaching the ground just as the day breaks.
From there the rest of the way isn’t so bad. We follow the road to the stable past the duelling peaks, where I drop the horse off with a quiet sense of accomplishment.
Looking out my window, at the dark sky, I realise just how tired I feel. Mentally, physically, spiritually. Real life, adult life feels terrifying. Every fight is harder than the last, each has it’s cost, and my reserves are getting smaller every day. The temptation to give up and settle for where I’m at is real and powerful. I’ve contemplated that many times now. And yet, whether in a quiet moment of prayer or an early morning walk, or through a journey through the mountains on a stolen horse, the answer returns the same: Take courage, find the path, and keep going.