Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Doesn’t Get Enough Credit For Its Incredible Audio Design
If I had to describe the audio landscape of open world games in one word, it would be shouting. Not just the literal shouting of characters yelling in your ear, but a general feeling of being bombarded with unwanted sonic clutter. Most triple-A games are noisy, presumably because the developers think it's the best way to keep players engaged. It's as if they're worried that giving us a minute alone with our thoughts will make us switch off and play something else. More noise! More music! More dialogue! More enemy barks!
I recently got back into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, because the sequel's been delayed, so why not? Exiting the Shrine of Resurrection and emerging into the Great Plateau, I was struck by how beautifully quiet this game is. There's been no shortage of breathless, reverential praise for Breath of the Wild in the years since it launched, but I don't think it gets nearly enough credit for its audio design. It's wonderfully understated, and a rare example of an open world game that isn't constantly bellowing in your ear.
As I explore the starting area, all I can hear is the crunch of dirt under Link's feet, a balmy breeze sweeping through the long grass, and birds chirping lazily in the trees. Gentle, serene piano music drifts in and out, never outstaying its welcome. Occasionally I hear Zelda's voice guiding me, but her dialogue is minimal and to the point. I'm being, let's say, encouraged towards an objective, but the game is never overt or obnoxious about it. It's happy to let me get lost or distracted along the way, and get where it wants me to go at my own pace.
Breath of the Wild's subtle audio design makes for a delightfully peaceful open world, but with a sinister undercurrent too. Link awakens from a long slumber to find the once great Kingdom of Hyrule ruined and overgrown. It's a faded shadow of its former self, littered with crumbling echoes of the past. Sure, it's beautiful, organic, and lush, but it's also tinged with a quiet melancholy. The rusted remains of robot-like Guardians are scattered around the landscape, reminding us of fierce, hopeless battles fought long ago.
It's basically a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a fantasy twist, and the audio design reinforces this brilliantly. Hyrule sounds calm, leafy, and relaxing—but it can also sound eerie and oppressive at times, creating a palpable sensation of desolate, windswept emptiness. It's one of the most haunting games I've ever played—especially atop the Great Plateau, where you take your first tentative steps into this forgotten, derelict kingdom and slowly piece together what happened while you were taking your extended nap.
Now that I can finally use my own Bluetooth audio devices on the Switch, I've been playing Breath of the Wild with a pair of quality noise-cancelling headphones—and it's worrying how absorbing it is. When I take them off, it's briefly disorientating being back in the real world. The ambient sound really comes to life with good headphones, and it's given me a newfound appreciation for the game's elegant, restrained approach to its audio design. I just wish more open world games realised how powerful silence can be.
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