“In the past we’ve used swords and magic, but this time around, we introduced technology.”
In the days since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been revealed, I've told anyone who I think might have a passing interest that this game is the first sci-fi Zelda.
Everyone has told me I'm an idiot, but then, because I'm persistent, annoying, or maybe just a little bit convincing, they eventually admit that, yes, this game does seem to have a suspicious amount of sci-fi elements and just might be SCIENCE FICTION (Note: Do not hold my opinion against Motherboard weekend editor and gaming writer Emanuel Maiberg).
Zelda games have been quite obviously hard fantasy games in which Link relied on magic boots, time-manipulating ocarinas (is there a more "fantasy" instrument than an ocarina?) and personal assistant fairies to fight an evil magician.
Not so in Breath of the Wild. "In the past we've used swords and magic, but this time around, we introduced technology," said producer Eiji Aonuma when presenting his new game at the E3 gaming convention this week. Through that lens, what we've seen of the game so far looks decidedly sci-fi, and I couldn't be more excited.
Link does not have magic powers and does not use magic
From the get-go, Link emerges after sleeping 100 years in what is clearly some sort of cryonic chamber. While we don't know what this cryosleep is, it seems more Interstellar than Majora's Mask. Hyrule has changed a lot over the years.
In the demo, Link doesn't have any fairy helpers. He has no magic meter. The clothes, weapons, and tools we've seen thus far are unmagical. He replenishes his health not by finding hearts, but by cooking food, which is more science-y. Rather than use a sacredly blessed hoverboots or magical feathers to cross a chasm, he uses his intellect and normal tools to chop down a tree to bridge the gap.
Most importantly, though, Link is almost immediately given a phablet called the "Sheikah Slate," which both looks like and functions like an iPhone.
We don't know what the Sheikah Slate is or how it works, but we do know that to open doors and get into shrines, you need to put it into Sheikah Slate-shaped slots, which seems to trigger animations that look suspiciously electric in nature.
The game even goes out of its way to explain that there indeed is electricity in the version of Hyrule and suggests that Link will harness it on his quest:
In the demo, Link enters a shrine using what appears to be a futuristic—not a magical—elevator, sticks his phablet into another hole and, after the electric podium literally authenticates itself with the Sheikah's servers, allows him to download an OS update that does not give his phablet magic powers but merely gives it software that allows it to use magnets.
A later OS upgrade gives Link the ability to remotely trigger bombs (which appear to be electric in nature and are crafted using the help of the Sheikah Slate) using, let's face it, probably a buggy Bluetooth connection.
There are robots
I feel strongly that Link primarily and perhaps exclusively uses science and technology in this game to defeat his enemies. I feel less strongly about the nature of his enemies, which, to be frank, is where I am least confident in my Zelda-is-sci-fi argument.
Many of the enemies Link encounters in the hour of gameplay we've seen do not use magic. They do look bizarre, perhaps even fantasy-like. To that, I say that science fiction has a rich history of utilizing extraterrestrials and bizarre creatures to tell its story. What do you make of the Klingons in Star Trek, for example?
I will admit, however, that I am having a little bit of trouble explaining away the stalfos (undead skeleton warriors) Link fights. It's unclear how far Hyrulian technology has progressed; perhaps it's possible to reanimate skeletons at some point. Similarly, I'm having trouble explaining the rock creature you see below.
And this monk guy? A misguided religious fanatic, in my humble opinion.
So, point, maybe a point or twofor fantasy there. However, we've also seen two separate goddamn robots. These aren't "ancient robots" like we've seen before, either. These are badass, futuristic robots that are classic sci-fi.
Where is Hyrule?
Nintendo has never said definitively what planet Hyrule is on, and it's a subject of much contention. The realm Link lives and fights on is often referred to in some past games as "The Light World," but the planet itself is still a mystery. There's a creation myth for the Legend of Zelda that involves goddesses who created a sacred realm, which is pretty strictly in the realm of "fantasy." To that, I say that Earth also has plenty of creation myths—just because something is a myth or has a supernatural explanation doesn't necessarily mean it's true.
I doubt we'll learn too much about the world in Breath of the Wild, but we do see a set of constellations in the first shrine that I am relatively sure aren't Earth constellations (if you know what they are, please let me know—I couldn't find any information about them).
If Hyrule is indeed not Earth, the fantasy-type characters can be explained away—they're aliens.
What is science fiction?
Here at Motherboard, we have a pretty broad interpretation of what "science fiction" is. Science fiction often uses, well, science, to tell a speculative story about society. Breath of the Wild isn't out yet, and we know precious little about its story. In my mind, whether Breath of the Wild is truly science fiction will depend on the nature of the Sheikah Slate and how it works. Right now, everything we've seen suggests that the game will explore what happened to the Sheikah, an ancient class of ninjas.
Given Aonuma's quote about link relying on "technology," not magic, I'd bet on a scientific explanation for the slate's powers—maybe the ninja warriors created incredibly technology and were marginalized because of it. Sufficiently advanced, technology is indistinguishable from magic, after all.