*Press A* ~ The Music of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Videogame soundtracks continue to rise in quality and prominence, with many now available digitally or physically to appreciate as stand-alone works. *Press A* is an article series on A Closer Listen celebrating the finest the medium has to offer, past to present.

Narrative, Nostalgia and Novelty

The fantasy action-adventure series The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s oldest and most revered franchises. Its soundtracks – mostly composed until recently by Nintendo’s own legend Koji Kondo – are almost as beloved as the games. Each has been pivotal to its game’s distinct tone: the cartoonish, ocean-based Wind Waker gave us swashbuckling anthems; the dark sibling of the franchise, Majora’s Mask, disquieting requiems. Musical instruments are often central to narrative – we’ve made the hero Link play flutes, ocarinas, harps and even a skeletal guitar.

Abandoning what had become a merely iterative formula for the franchise, Nintendo embraced an “open-world” setting and structure with Breath of the Wild, allowing complete player freedom in where to go and in what order to do things. Not only that, it expanded the definition of the open-world genre, coining the term “open-air” to encompass BotW’s unprecedented verticality (Link can climb any surface in the world). The developer was equally daring with its choice of composer. Manaka Kataoka had previously scored a small Zelda title, 2009’s Spirit Tracks for the DS handheld, and had a lot to prove on a flagship title for Nintendo’s new Switch home console – in the persisting shadow of Kondo.

The game has received near-universal acclaim, but its music has divided people. Gone or well hidden are the romantic ballads, stirring anthems and infectious melodies that have held our hands through Link’s prior adventuring. Kataoka sensitively opted for a much more organic feel, which comes across as more modernist. Like all Zelda soundtracks before, BotW’s helps define the narrative tone of the game from its protagonists’ perspectives: reflective, remorseful yet purposeful. More than this, it is sensitive to players’ relationships with the series, discreetly drawing them closer by infusing elements of old motifs to a brew whose aroma becomes heady with notes of nostalgia. Finally, the score is shaped by the game’s novel design – any other approach simply would not have been as effective. As well as helping define the game, the soundtrack is defined by the game.

The Triforce of Courage, Power and Strength may be lacking from BotW’s story, but a musical Triforce of Narrative, Nostalgia and Novelty takes it place. This led to Kataoka creating the most evocative, contemporary and above all remarkable soundtracks in the franchise’s history.

Into the Wild

Upon leaving the Cave of Resurrection, where Link has been asleep for 100 years, you discover a beautiful yet broken world. A nearby temple is a dilapidated shell. A lonesome old man speaks in riddles. You venture on. Soon you become aware of the sounds of nature around you. Birds chirping, crickets calling, leaves rustling. Never before has Nintendo embraced diegetic sound so warmly. Your awareness and appreciation of this natural world are heightened – its every noise imbues it with life.

But where is the music?

We are in the expansive “field” of Hyrule. In Zelda games past, such areas have been synonymous with grandiose musical themes. In Link’s first and seminal 3D adventure, 1998’s Ocarina of Time, Hyrule Field felt vast and had a heroic theme to match. Actually, it took only a few minutes to traverse in any direction. Even the same area in the larger world of 2006’s Twilight Princess took only 15 minutes to circumnavigate.

From corner to corner, it takes 57 minutes to cross Hyrule in BotW.

This is where Novelty helps define the field soundtrack. A repeating melody, regardless of length, would have quickly grown stale in such a vast environment. It would have also disrespected the nuanced atmospheric variations of different locations, which, unlike past games, have no seams in the form of loading screens that could have acted as natural cues to start new tracks. Faced with this advanced world architecture, BotW’s music bows down in reverence, mostly holding its tongue.

You hear it speak for the first time when approaching the dilapidated Temple of Time. This is an iconic building from across the franchise, and has an iconic hymnal motif to match. But we don’t hear anything like that. A piano emerges furtively from the undergrowth, its notes soft and irregularly spaced. The phrasing, like the building, is in disarray. Take a closer listen. Fill in the spaces, and even the tempo. This is the Temple of Time motif – now fractured, faintly discordant. A wave of sentimental awe washes over you. You have returned.

From this point, the silence is interspersed with deft and transient caresses of a piano. Chords drift across like a breeze. Isolated notes convey hesitation, or wonder. The minimalist scales and chords used are distinctly Japanese – redolent of the music of Studio Ghibli and specifically Joe Hisaishi. Some of these fragmentary passages are incidental, imbuing the most mundane of actions – chopping down a tree, climbing a hill – with majesty. Others are adaptive, triggered by events such as riding a horse or climbing one of the many Sheikah Towers across the land. We have never heard anything like this is any Zelda game prior. In such an expansive land, the music exercises such restraint.

Nintendo franchises are always decorated with adaptive scoring – it’s just one ingredient making up that inexplicable ‘Nintendo magic’. The technique especially suits such an organic score. These contextual pieces or fragments primarily serve one of two functions. The first is to establish, then strengthen, Nostalgia-infused connections between player and characters. An example is the sublime “On Horse” piece that starts soon after mounting a steed. The piano is bouncy, with unorthodox accents that mirror your doubtless erratic progress on the feral beast. In the “Day” version, a violin emerges that repeated listens reveal to be a much slower variant of “Zelda’s Lullaby”. More distinct – and sublime – is the “Night” version, during which the violin briefly conjures an echo of the iconic “Overworld Theme” – a grandiose mainstay throughout the series. It glides alongside like a spirit as you gallop across the chilling, shadowy plains, warming you with memories of former glories.

The second function of BotW’s adaptive scoring is to enrich this sparse world with a sense of history. History is the theme of the game’s Narrative – your quest is to rediscover who you were 100 years ago, and what you meant to Zelda, to Hyrule. The story is bare (this is more a game about each player’s story), but world-building details abound for keen explorers. The most fascinating are the remnants of an ancient yet advanced civilization – the Sheikah – that decorate the land. These mysterious vestiges of technological prowess are represented by electronic incursions in the predominantly orchestral music. You first come across one in “Sheikah Tower”, where Kataoka juxtaposes the piano and electronics in respectful dialogue. Airy vocals ascend to weightless highs as you scale these vast towers, while synth notes briefly interject when the ivories pause. You are rediscovering a civilization long forgotten.

As for the subterranean Sheikah shrines that litter the land, filled with arcane structures and ancient divinities, the electronic and orchestral elements are synthesized. If the towers are the limbs of the Sheikah, the shrines are their vital organs. “Shrine Theme” mixes prominent electronic and worldly string instrument sounds, in perfect mimicry of the shrines’ singular fusion of technology and theology – man-made and heaven-sent.

Catch Your Breath

Having descended from the opening Great Plateau area, you feel awe, wonder and intimidation at the scale of the land stretching in all directions. Large monsters patrol ahead; a group of feral horses graze nearby; shells of dilapidated guard houses cast sombre shadows to your right. You climb a hill, spy an intriguing structure, and set forth. The perils around you magnify as darkness falls. Some bokoblins wound you, and you’re out of nourishing food. It’s raining so you can’t even set up a campfire to rest beside.

Suddenly, you hear faint music. You turn a corner and see that structure you espied ahead. The music grows louder – it’s warm and inviting. You reach a stable! For now, you feel safe.

What IS that melody?

Amid the vastness of Hyrule’s fields, deserts and tundras are settlements few and far between. Havens from often gruelling surrounding terrain, these are where Kataoka opts most for the Triforce of Nostalgia. A simple composition of acoustic, percussion and ocarina, the “Stables” piece taps at your memory with particular persistence. Eventually, you’ll reach a stable where Kass, an accordion-wielding Rito, lurks nearby. He plays a counter-melody over the theme: “Epona’s Song”, first heard in Ocarina of Time. Kataoka had planted the seeds of nostalgia early on, and in this instant they bloom, enriching a wonderful piece of polyphony.

The stables are the smallest of Hyrule’s havens. The largest are the four domains for each of the world’s beloved animal or human races. These spaces are fairly compact, so the music reverts to more typical “videogame” form – shorter, looping pieces that move through two or three distinct phases. As you enter them, familiar melodies and textures assail.

“Zora’s Domain (Day)” is the most beholden to earlier incarnations of the Zora theme, with harps and shimmering synths warmly embraced by players. Even more celebrated is the theme to lofty Rito Village – a slower-paced, acoustic and wind instrument version of the beloved “Dragon Roost Island” theme from 2002’s Wind Waker. Located on a volcano, Goron City boasts a melting pot of sounds both familiar and new in its theme – distinctive percussive timbres and hooks from Goron domains past but with a new heavy brass emphasis, a natural evolution from the Eldin Volcano theme in 2011’s Skyward Sword. The desert-based Gerudo Town is the exception of the four main domains, its theme being a wholly new, understated composition – likely as it is the most fleshed-out and welcoming Gerudo settlement we’ve ever had.

Gerudo typifies Kataoka’s approach to scoring settlements that were either completely refreshed or entirely new: Novelty aptly outweighing nostalgia. Series stalwart Kakariko Village underwent the most profound transformation, home exclusively this time to its founding Sheikah people and with architecture evocative of feudal Japan, rather than the Western medieval design of prior incarnations. Kataoka opted for regional tones and voices that lend somewhat austere gravitas to the village, transferring the sense of languid warmth from Kakarikos prior over to the new village of Hateno.

Another popular tune from across the series, “Lost Woods,” was likely deemed too jaunty for the unsettling design of BotW’s Lost Woods, so was also dispensed with. This new composition is a series of jumpy piano chords and synth swells that unnerve rather than gladden the spirit. But, as always, there is a reward for the player: those who navigate through the mist enter Korok Forest, and are greeted with one of the most ‘traditional’ Zelda tracks in the game. Reminiscent of the stirring themes lavished across Ocarina of Time, the all-new “Korok Forest (Day)” is heavy on playful melody, driving snare drum and joyful spirit. Why? Well, this forest conceals the Master Sword – the weapon by which all prior incarnations of Ganon have been slain. It is the heart of Hyrule. Its music evokes the past triumphs of past Links. It drives the player onward to the march of a drum.

With nostalgia and novelty dominating, Narrative is not so much the focus of the settlement themes. But there is one sublime exception to this. One side quest sees Link supporting the construction of a new settlement called Tarrey Town, fetching materials and scouting for residents. With each resident who moves to the town, the skeletal soundtrack adds a thematic layer of instrumentation – brass and percussion for the Goron, Middle Eastern guitar for the Gerudo, clarinet for the Rito and acoustic for the Zora. When you’ve finished, a joyful union occurs in the story, and pizzicato strings complete the “Tarrey Town” theme. It is a wonderfully microcosmic example of the subtle contextual and narrative-building strings to Kataoka’s bow.

End of Calamity

Having activated each of the Sheikah’s Divine Beasts, you feel ready to confront the malign interloper of Hyrule Castle. As you approach the ruins before the castle, the possessed Guardians become more numerous, the devastation more total. Your anxiety is heightened by the foreboding piano. The vanquishing of Ganon will be your redemption.

A hero reborn needs an anthem to match.

Relative to the rest of your adventuring, the endgame of BotW is over fairly quickly. The music has less time to make an impact – so does in the most spectacular way. “Hyrule Castle (Exterior)” marks the OST’s crescendo, with full orchestration and three repeating sequences for each piece of the musical Triforce. The new brass-heavy first part is Novelty, swinging from soaring to sinister, instilling bravado and trepidation equally. The strings then unexpectedly segue into a version of the ominous “Ganon’s Theme” – Nostalgia. But before trepidation turns to outright cowardice, the third sequence offers respite: a slower but unmistakable “Overworld Theme” – the most evocative musical cue in the game. Players who didn’t opt for night-time horse-riding could be hearing this franchise staple for the first time, redolent of victories historic and willing them toward the Castle Sanctum. As well as Nostalgia, this is also Narrative – everything you have recalled across Hyrule culminating in your return – finally – as the hero you were 100 years before. You embody history, and have a historic theme to match.

But Kataoka has one more surprise for us. BotW’s own “Main Theme”, used with typically impeccable restraint, is a gloriously colourful and complex affair, cavorting around our hearts with discrete gestures both uplifting and unsettling. It sounds entirely new – a celebration of the franchise’s rebirth. But the most dedicated of players – those who capture all Link’s forgotten memories of Zelda strewn across the land – will be rewarded with a cutscene containing “Captured Memories” – a bona fide musical twist. This brief piano reimagining of “Overworld Theme” transforms seamlessly into the closing phrase of BotW’s “Main Theme”; the latter was in fact derived from the former! Like so much in the game, a fresh coat disguised deep homage to the layers beneath.

Like every facet of the game, the music of BotW respects the intelligence and commitment of its players. Kataoka dispensed with tradition for tradition’s sake, but honored it where nostalgia would strike the heart hardest. Nintendo gifted us the most expansive Hyrule to date, but the composer choose restraint and introspection, reflecting the quiet sorrow enveloping its characters. Minimalist composition is easy to like, but hard to love. As with the Sheikah technology, the hooks were half-buried – there only for those keen enough to unearth them. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Notes: Nintendo recently announced a five-disc release of all 211 tracks that make up BotW’s full soundtrack, coming 25 April. Unfortunately, the release is for Japan only.

Nintendo has been co-producing orchestral performances of Zelda music since 2011. With four worldwide tours logged in its Sheikah Slate, Symphony of the Goddesses completed its latest run in December 2017. Check the website for details of future tours.

One comment

  1. Pingback: 5. Reality TV for Purists – A STROLL IN SNOWDONIA

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