It’s about what you don’t hear
Experiencing music in a game is a fully emotional affair – it works in concert with the gameplay and story (we hope) to give you a complete experience. And, if used appropriately, it will elevate the game experience to what it is truly meant to be.
The Legend of Zelda series has always set a high watermark for music in gaming – not only thematically but technically. Breath of the Wild takes this to another level entirely by utilizing the most important tool in a musician or composer’s toolbox: space.
Once I started tooling around the Great Plateau and getting a feeling for the game, the lack of music was the first thing I noticed – and I loved it. The sparse soundtrack is a pleasant and effective contrast to the world itself. Hyrule has suffered a true tragedy, and the world itself is muted and in a state of shock. If composers Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata had gone the more traditional route of a full orchestral soundtrack designed for bombast, it would have been tone-deaf at best – insensitive at worst. The sparse soundtrack serves to honor the state of Hyrule as it is.
In addition, it also serves to highlight the size and scope of Hyrule as it exists in BotW – the largest world in a Zelda game by far. The soundtrack doesn’t need to emphasize how massive the world is – it steps out of the way and lets the world speak for itself. That’s a bold – and correct – move. Watch a couple minutes of the gameplay below, and you’ll notice immediately. (gameplay footage courtesy of Polygon)
Context is key
Since Ocarina Of Time, the Zelda series has embraced and improved upon the use of context-sensitive incidental music throughout the game, and Breath Of The Wild is no exception. There are themes for combat, stables, time of day, and riding horses, to name a few, and they are all low-key – yet deliberate – compositions that support and enhance the gameplay experience. The transitions from overworld themes or riding themes to combat themes tend to be a bit more jarring, as there is not a constant flow of music to blend together a la Ocarina Of Time, but it’s not something that ruins the game experience.
A particular favorite of mine is the new Kakariko Village theme which, historically, has always been a favorite of mine, but it has a completely different application in this game, opting for a slightly more traditional style of music befitting of the small mountain town setting that Kakariko now takes on.
The central instrument around much of the musical experience in Breath Of The Wild is the piano – a surprising choice, but an appropriate one. The piano compositions in this game convey both an edge and a grandeur to the landscape without doing too much to exhaust the player’s ears. It’s actually fun to hear old Zelda incidental music standbys played entirely on the piano.
A number of compositions draw inspiration from traditional Japanese and Chinese music, with the bowed string instruments taking the lead in some town themes. I’m a big fan of the toned down town themes as well, giving them a charming, rural feel that befits the towns themselves.
Battle themes skew into more familiar territory, favoring a blend of orchestral and synth instruments to create a bit more excitement. It’s effective, if slightly out of place, but thankfully the music doesn’t get old, as combat is infrequent enough to give you a break from hearing those themes. Leaving that aside, the recording quality is, as always, excellent, with Nintendo somehow perfectly nailing the blend of synthetic and real instruments more than most studios can manage.
The decision was clear: less is more. Toning down the soundtrack was a prudent decision, given the scope of the game. A soundtrack shouldn’t work too hard to tell you what’s going on, but enhance what you are experiencing. Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack may not be played in many Pops orchestras, but it is nonetheless a remarkable and memorable achievement.