I know I rave about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a lot (and will until the day I die), but there’s just so much to find and experience in that game. Every time I think I’ve found everything, an alteration to the way I walk through an area, the turn of a camera I am usually not controlling right then, or even a coincidental bit of movement on the screen can show me something entirely new despite having walked through the area a few dozen times across my hundreds of hours playing the game. The best example I’ve found in my most recent play-through is tied to something I’ve largely ignored since my first time playing the game: traveling NPCs.
Most of the time, these folks are traders or adventurers. They bear an assembly of various durable but weak swords and shields if they’re adventurers or some kind of complex backpack and/or animal companion with saddlebags if they’re traders, but only a couple of them look so similar that a player could confuse them. I might not remember their names, but that’s not a mark against them. I can barely remember the names of people I have spent more actual hours around and they have the benefit of actually repeating their names in a way that will catch my attention rather than be ignored moments after I acknowledge it. My inability to remember names does not make them any less of a proper inhabitant of the world I’m exploring.
Instead, I tend to know them by their locations. Beedle (pretty much the only NPC whose name I remember without needing a plot attached to them) sticks around all of the various stables, but some of the travelling traders can get pretty far from where you first encounter them. Because I have been playing the game in a pretty specific, road-eschewing way, I tend to only encounter these NPCs in places where my path intersects a road or at whatever bastion of civilization they frequent. This time through, I’ve started using roads more. I still don’t ride horses much, thanks to my desire to be able to immediately ditch the path I’m on in favor of whatever sparkly object has caught my interest, but I’ve been actively seeking out new experiences and trying to let the game’s design lead me from place to place.
Which means I’ve had a lot of opportunity to seek the paths claimed by the adventurers and traders that have decided it is worth risking the dangers of the world to avoid being stuck in one place. This observation was started when I discovered that an adventurer I’d run into near a field of mostly destroyed Guardians had turned up at Hateno Village, quite a distance away with many dangerous places in between. Places I frequently avoided at that gear level on Master Mode because I didn’t have the weapons to kill them or the hearts to survive them. Curious about how they navigated the treacherous pathways between the two places I saw them, I decided to follow them.
Our journey was a simple one, following the road in a pretty direct pathway, mostly running from the monsters that jumped out to ambush us (I also bombed a few off a cliff to buy us time to escape). I expected that the game didn’t run the encounter when I wasn’t close enough to load it, instead tracking the passage of time compared to the rate of movement of the NPC and simply using math to determine when this NPC should be loaded into the game. But it was interesting to see just how many dangerous places they passed, how much they were willing to risk to satisfy their curiosity and see the world outside the village that raised them. Since then, I’ve been following more and more NPCs as they travel around the world, pursuing whatever goals they might profess to have as I alternate between fighting at their side, buying their goods, and making sure they can safely flee.
Few of them have grand ambitions beyond generally seeking treasure, and those who do are frequently happy to ask me to seek out whatever it is they desire so they needn’t risk their lives, but there are a few powerful souls that walk straight into monster-infested ruins without a moment’s hesitation. None of them have the power that my character has, none of them are capable of taking on vast hordes of monsters using perfect parry counter attacks and bullet-time arrow shooting to drive down the HP of my most troublesome foes. But still they travel in search of goods to sell, contact with other people, a sense of adventure, some kind of understanding of their world, or even just a modicum of control in their lives.
Many of them might as well be cardboard cutouts, given how flat their personalities are, but I still can’t help but admire the story they’re telling through being active in this world. While most of the game speaks about the ruin of the past, of failure and loss, the NPCs speak of life and hope. They are testaments to the ways people will come together and adapt to the world as they find it rather than lament the world as they wished it would be. I may not have much to learn from them about cooking or fighting or survival, but every time I find myself crouched under a lean-to next to a sheltered fire as we sit and wait out the pouring rain, talking about things they never care to mention outside of this specific moment, I find myself learning a little bit about being human.