The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the game I never knew I needed

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I’m not much of a gamer. I love playing video games, but I’m generally terrible at first-person shooters, which are the bulk of games coming out these days. I have horrible hand/eye coordination, so forget games with complex, button-mashing moves. Turn-based Final Fantasy video games were my jam, but they’ve sadly gone out of style.

I’ve bought and played many video games over the years, but I can’t say I’ve fully enjoyed them. I often play for a few hours and then abandon them because I can’t quite figure out the combat, or the multiplayer is too important to the game, or it’s just a lot of grinding with no end in sight, or for dozens of other reasons.

I’ve often found myself missing the experience of immersing yourself in a great role-playing game, though. That’s why when the Nintendo Switch released, and the reviews of the new Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, came out, I took notice. I’ve always enjoyed playing Zelda, though it’d been years since I’d dived into the franchise. Maybe this new game was the way to reinvigorate my love of gaming?

It certainly did that, but so much more. Breath of the Wild is the video game I never knew I needed.

I’m an anxious person by nature, and events over the past year have only compounded that feeling. Reading and watching TV were my two main methods of decompressing and managing it before last November, but those haven’t worked as well recently. I compulsively check my phone rather than concentrating on what I’m doing (even if what I’m doing is trying desperately to relax), and it’s been difficult to manage my anxiety levels. Gaming is different; it requires more of my attention, which is part of the reason I love it. Now, with Breath of the Wild, I’d found a game that could hook me and that I could actually play and enjoy.

I suspected I’d enjoy my experience with Breath of the Wild (and I have to say, the experience on the Nintendo Switch, and using it as a handheld versus on a larger screen, is wonderful, but that’s a topic for another time). What I didn’t know is that it would become a vital part of managing my anxiety level.

Every installment of Zelda is different, and each ones tries to improve or change what came before it. There are certain similarities between games: location names, Link as the hero, Princess Zelda, Ganon as the villain, and more. But the gameplay itself changes, and Breath of the Wild in particular is revolutionary for its fully open world. There’s something inherently comforting in sitting down at a game that’s entirely new to you but is wrapped in a world that is so familiar.

The aspect of the game I love most, and that’s so helpful with my anxiety, is the sheer ease of playing. There’s no rigid structure. I can work on the main story. I can knock out a couple of shrines. I can tame horses. I can climb trees and mountains. I can hunt. I can fish. I can do whatever I want to do in that moment; there’s no pressure to accomplish anything. When I’m finished, I can save and just be done. There’s no hunting for save spots involved.

What’s more, the combat and game mechanisms are pretty simple. Yes, I’ve died a few times, but it’s not a big deal. I don’t have the stress of worrying I’m going to die around every turn because some better player is waiting to pick me off (multiplayer is NO FUN when you’re terrible at gaming, people). I can confront enemies or I can run away from them. If I die, I can just choose a different path.

But the flip side of an open-world game is that it sometimes can feel like too much. It’s easy to become paralyzed with indecision when there are no guidelines, and that’s why Breath of the Wild works so well: The game has achieved an incredible balance. It is open world, but it also has small milestones you can work toward around every corner. For example, right now I’m concentrating on collecting the items I need to buy a house. Do I need to buy a house to succeed in the game? I would guess not. But it’s what I’ve decided to focus on right now. It’s small, and it seems achievable. That’s enough for me.

I love the ability to control what I do in this game, since life feels so out of control right now. Being able to choose something, even if it’s as small as what I do in a video game, makes it easier to swallow what I can’t change in the real world. It also gives me the energy to fight for where I can make a difference.

Countless hours in, Breath of the Wild has done wonders for my stress levels. I can feel my anxiety slip away in the first few seconds I start playing it. It gives me structure, but not too much. It gives me challenges, but not too much. It gives me something to work toward, but not too much. It keeps me in control of how I play the game, and it doesn’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do. With the way the world is right now, that’s what I need. I just never imagined that solace would come from a video game.