Picture credit: Coconico Films
I’m watching an almost two-hour-long long YouTube video by someone called Joseph Anderson about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
It’s blowing my mind.
As I summarised last year, Breath of the Wild was almost universally praised at launch. It received just about every compliment and accolade that it’s possible for a game to get, it did very well in Game of the Year lists, it scored the elusive Edge 10 — you get the idea. As I write this I’m still in the process of finishing it myself and I love it — but not all the time. There’s a feeling in the back of my head that not everything clicks as it could or should, a lingering doubt that my enjoyment isn’t constant, that there are parts of the game that might benefit from more depth, balancing or perhaps a complete overhaul.
And there, on the screen, Mr. Anderson is laying all of this out clearly. On the one hand the game has “huge critical problems… that so many reviewers managed to ignore” and on the other “parts of [the game] do things better than any other game [he has] ever played”. As he steps through the armour, cooking and combat systems, he presents what I would consider objective flaws in the design of these elements in the sense that they are undeniably exploitable. So too, when he methodically breaks down the shrines which make up the bulk of the puzzles, a mainstay of the series, in the game.
How did all of us, the players, the reviewers, the guys who write blogs that no-one reads (not bitter) and the many minds that make up The Discourse, seemingly miss these things. Did I simply not dig deep enough last year? What other videos and ideas are out there on YouTube? In this way, I managed to justify to myself watching ten, then twenty, then fifty then one-hundred YouTube videos to get the fullest picture possible on the public opinion of BotW. Truly, this was the most pretentious pretense in history for an extended YouTube binge.
I like to think that I captured a lot of the variety of gaming content on the platform — with some enormous caveats that I will discuss later. I generally limited myself to post-release content and avoided streams and Let’s Plays, even I don’t have that much free time. What this meant was that I watched a lot of people broadcasting their Takes ‘n’ Thoughts direct from their Nerd Room, I’ve seen enough cube shelves adorned with expensive miniatures, Funko Pops and DVD cases to last a lifetime. That being said there’s a lot of novelty out there on the web: a video written in rhyming verse, one where the guy pretended to be possessed by his dark alter ego, good videos with hardly any views, bad videos with plenty of views, a video presented by a puppet (listen, don’t laugh, that puppet knows his stuff as far as I’m concerned), college projects, a video that was blessedly only a minute long. I saw the Breath of the Wild title card sequence where Link leaves the Shrine of Resurrection and sees Hyrule spread out before him from a clifftop at least eleven times, watched a “retrospective” on the game which was uploaded in the same month that the game was released, found a professional review that dropped the incredibly cliché “New York was the real fifth character on Sex & the City” line, I had the concept of an alternating best/worst line explained in detail to me, I endured I can’t even begin to say how many spoiler warnings or “no spoilers here” reassurances.
Clearly, I had a fun time!
1: There Isn’t Much New Information Or Perspectives On “Big” Gaming YouTube
To put it rather bluntly, what did I really learn from watching one hundred, mostly popular, YouTube videos about Breath of the Wild?
New facts were unfortunately lacking overall in the videos I watched, something which perhaps should not be surprising. As I went through, I marked some with “research” in my notes based on a rather forgiving sense of whether or not they presented me the viewer with something that couldn’t be arrived at by just playing the game normally for a good while. For example, citing an interview gets a tick, as does Joseph Anderson allowing moblins to hit him with things repeatedly in the name of science. I didn’t count tips and tricks for playing the game, which in hindsight may have been a mistake. I marked just 17 this way (1).
So new facts were thin on the ground, as unfortunately were new ideas for the most part. With the notable exception of the numerous, borderline inscrutable, videos about the composing techniques and philosophies employed in the game’s soundtrack, it was rare to see specialist domain knowledge or distinct takes. Rather, I saw dozens of arrangements of a few popular ones, more on those later. There were some exceptions that stuck out though, which, in this post that’s clearly overburdened with lists of things, I am going to list for you now.
One video interpreted BotW’s design philosophy as about posing questions at every turn and giving you freedom to answer. Another presented some baffling psychology thing about the concept of mirroring and non-complimentary behaviour. This videomaker similarly hit you with the jargon, looking at how the game conditions the player and its transition between composition (read, planning) and execution in combat, and presented an interesting mixture of effusive praise and criticism. This endearingly unscripted video noted how the game’s improvisational combat options don’t scale anywhere near as well as the traditional weapons. Another video (since taken down) made a rather “brave” claim that “Breath of the Wild respects your time”. This video made the out-there claim that the game’s problem is that its AI is too good (a claim I would dispute somewhat) where perhaps his real criticism is the lack of enemy variety. This one referred to an interview with the producer to build a case for weapon durability based on how it fits into the open design of the game. One of the most popular videos stepped through the in-game evidence for their theory that Zelda is in love with Link. Nice YouTube people Outside Xtra made in detail the case made elsewhere that Zelda was the game’s most compelling character. Another guy zeroed in what he saw as one of the game’s main flaws, the horses. A man in his Mother’s Basement looked at the different perspective unconsciously present in games journalists compared to everyday consumers, with BotW as the focus. Silky voiced Australian(?) HeavyEyed looked at BotW’s approach to class switching and experience systems. Eurogamer set the standard for research into who fancies Link. One of the sadly little-watched videos looked at the possible allusions to and influences of existentialist thought on BotW. Gamespot compared the visual style of the game’s towns to the works of Studio Ghibli while another content creator went much further in teasing out the nods to and thematic similarities with Princess Mononoke as well as the Zelda franchise’s history of worlds reclaimed by nature.
I mention this video last as some of the themes mentioned therein were points I was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed not to see discussed elsewhere.
I’m a real dummy and even I can see the seeds of ideas and themes scattered throughout the game, begging to be synthesised into a coherent line of thought by someone smarter than me, à la the latter half of this outrageously underviewed Campster video. Sure, there are tonnes of YouTube videos about Breath of the Wild’s themes, (music) but seemingly few about its themes. To name a few: Breath of the Wild depicts a simple agrarian lifestyle of small farming communities as idyllic and without major flaws, the Guardians are a rather on the nose metaphor for mankind’s hastening of its own destruction by embracing technology (what if giant robot spiders but too much?), Beedle is one of the most money-minded characters in the game and he’s depicted as weird and at-times sinister, the Hylians have completely adapted to life without the monarchy or indeed any apparent ruling class and the stable system is a high quality public utility which appears not to charge anything for the ludicrously efficient service it provides apart from the cost of the saddles (somewhat taking the piss with this last one). Despite all this, one video in fact praised the game for “not having any damn politics in it” (paraphrasing here) and there were few mentions of the more peculiar aspects of Gerudo culture depicted in the game.
2: The Internet Sometimes Agrees On Things.
If there was one point of praise that stood out as near universally held by the folks online, it was the earnest love and respect for the approach Nintendo took to the staples of open world genre in the game. Video after video praised the way that objectives are revealed on the map screen, or rather, how they aren’t. BotW appears at first glance to copy but then subverts the Ubisoft tower system. Climbing to the top of a tower fills in your map but crucially does not litter it with almost meaningless trinkets and tasks that encourage a mechanical mode of play. Instead, BotW’s map gives you information and clues, but never the omniscient “go here to progress this quest” waypoints seen elsewhere. Using this information and the genuinely worthwhile and useful directions characters give you in the world, you’re free to follow your own curiosity and are then rewarded by the game’s deft placement of rewards and points of interest throughout the map. Time and time again, this sense of freedom was praised by YouTubers, with repeated references to the fact that, once you complete the tutorial, you’re free to go fight Ganon in the centre of the map if you feel so inclined. On a related note, the Great Plateau, the game’s tutorial section was always spoken of fondly whenever it was mentioned, with a few noting the vast improvement on Zelda’s lengthy tutorials during the Wii era and the subtle encapsulation of the new title’s core gameplay loops within one small area.
Everyone, quite rightly, hated the rain.
Unfortunately for the Big N, the other primary point of agreement I noted was less flattering; most videos I saw had either a neutral or else poor opinion of the Divine Beasts (the five, counting DLC, set pieces that most closely resemble the Zelda dungeons of old). Among the criticisms noted was the sense of brevity, the recycled aesthetics (while each beast resembles a different animal, all of them have the same visual style and textures), the indistinct bosses (the four in the main game are all variations of the same design) and the way that the stages of each Beast encounter follow a very similar formula. That point about shared aesthetics was also leveraged against the aforementioned shrines, but if we’re going to talk about them, then we need to move away from this harmonious world of rare online consensus.
3: People Disagree About Things On The Internet.
I know, I was surprised too.
Were the shrines “a carefully designed little slice of gameplay”? Were they “all worth doing and provide an excellent break from the amount of combat in the overworld” with some being “quite involved”? They were “the best puzzles… ever encountered [by Chris Stuckman] in a Zelda game”? Do they, as Mark Brown put it, all have “genuinely unique puzzles”. Gosh, that doesn’t sound like the what others called, at best, too easy disappointments that throw away a legacy of intricately evolving concepts due to the structure they’re found in and at worst like something a child would design.
Similarly, the music was a clear low point to some and worthy of an entire video’s worth of admiration for others. A recurring point from detractors was the lack of the bombast and classic melodies characteristic of other games in the series. One video asked for “a more traditional soundtrack” in the sequel. AwesomeFaceProd (well, ok then, you do you) liked the town music but felt the ambient music was “slightly lacklustre”. Peter Cole (presumably) of IAmPeterCole considered the lack of “recognisable and catchy music” a disappointment.
Another videomaker appreciated how it’s used but found most of the tracks to be not particularly memorable. Jahnemy Jerms acknowledged that the music “does work” but left him “a little wanting”, with no really memorable compositions. It’s used too sparingly in the opinion of Jirard “The” Completionist though it does accomplish what it sets out to do. I think it’s interesting to note how appreciation of intent on a conceptual level doesn’t necessarily guarantee that someone will like the end result, or perhaps, will be able to set aside their mental conception of what something should be.
4: Reviews Don’t Do Well Re: Views
Some of the most interesting things I learned from undertaking this project was not from the videos themselves (as we’ve discussed it’s questionable how much new information was really in these hours of content) but from finding videos to watch. If you search for “breath of the wild” on YouTube and order the results by lifetime views a surprising trend emerges. Despite the place they hold, in my mind at least, as the bread and butter of games media (“a staple of games publications“), reviews don’t figure heavily in the most trafficked videos. Of those reviews that do place highly, with the exception of IGN (surely The Times of gaming) there are few “professional outlets” at the top, with VideoGameDunkey’s sort-of review leagues ahead of other videos not made by Nintendo. Smosh Games’ Honest Trailer has 3.3 million. Quintessential independent gaming content creator Angry Joseph commands a decent lead (2.7 million) over others such as The Completionist (1.6 million), Zero Punctuation (1.4 million, which is admittedly part of the wider The Escapist banner), Peanut Butter Gaming (1.3 million) and then Gameranx (1.1 million, from a relatively new organisation). I was quite surprised that Gamespot’s review barely broke 800K and that Eurogamer’s English team made no review video whatsoever (all numbers used were correct at time of writing this section, but, jeez, this thing has taken me ages to finish so…). Perhaps I’m late to the party on this, but considering how reviews make up most of the spikes in viewership on smaller channels like VideoGamer I was taken aback to see how out of focus they sometimes seem to be.
Not that the big dogs have no presence at all of course. Gamespot, Gamesradar and IGN all have very popular videos about the game, Gamespot in particular shows up multiple times in the top tier, but these are all list videos rather than actual reviews. The majority of these, very popular, videos are “tips and tricks” and “things to do” lists, rather then straight up guides (which would be a little difficult to make about a game whose main draw is how open it is). It’s interesting to see this pivot away from opinions and pitching why you should or should not get something to a more complimentary role to the game playing experience (as Mark Kermode noted in film journalism in his book Hatchet Job and the current ubiquity of “spoiler warnings” across media criticism generally can attest to).
There’s some overlap in the actual content of these videos. Most baffling is the repeated suggestion that you allow octoroks to suck up your rusty weapons to clean them, which , in the patch of the game I’m on at any rate, is something the game prompts you to do in loading screens (2).
5: Complaining About Anita Sarkeesian Is Still Profitable
On the 11th of March 2017, whoever runs the Feminist Frequency twitter account probably Anita Sarkeesian herself posted 4 tweets to the @femfreq account, presumably while cackling maniacally or whatever. This took a minute to do, but like a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan, this simple action would have a large knock-on effect across the English speaking YouTube world. By my count, at least ten (I originally had 11 eleven suggesting one has been taken down or deleted) videos were made in response to these tweets, summing up to at least 953,000 views at time of writing. The tweets are shown below.
In the eyes of the various stalwart warriors of logic, whoever wrote the tweets Anita Sarkeesian had done goofed.
In the videos I watched on this they all made the point that in the game Zelda hasn’t been kidnapped by Ganon, she willingly went into Hyrule castle to try and keep him at bay, knowing she was giving up her freedom. Link’s “rescue” of her is a more a rescue in the sense of a squadron of troops reinforcing their comrades then saving a helpless victim. The line that Feminist Frequency takes, based on an article published on the site about a month later, is that this is just splitting hairs; being locked in a castle, unable to leave and unable to actually defeat your enemy and so in a constant state of peril is not that different to just being locked in a castle. Nintendo made the decision to once again incorporate this motif into their game. I don’t mean to single him out here, but KingK in his
review retrospective casually describes Link as “saving” the princess in this game, which I thought said something about how this aspect of the plot comes across at a gut level, even if it’s possible to think of it differently if you want to (3).
I’m not the first and surely won’t be the last to say this, but the Anti-sarkeesian contingent are a weird bunch. Years on, their twin fixations, skulls and Anita Sarkeesian remain, with many of the videos having the feeling of a musician playing all the old “fan favourite” rants from back in the day. In the videos I watched, many seemed to lament that they’re still talking about her. Mundane Matthew likened his relationship to her as a sort of “unstoppable force meets immovable object”, Batman and the Joker type of dance that will continue on forever. The poor man, seemingly compelled to make these videos by some outside force or unerring commitment to a higher cause and not, say, because he’s working with an established audience who have shown that they’ll come out for content about her. It’s strange to hear her compared (as he does) to the game’s main villain Calamity Ganon and described as an all-powerful force with an immense and sinister sway over the media. This comes from a video which, by his own admission, involved minimal preparation that has 156K views, which compares favourably to the latest Tropes Vs Women video’s 200k. The most dedicated anti-Sarkeesianite could not reasonably argue that the latter video did not take more time and resources to make but with only slightly better returns in terms of viewership. In terms of retweets, the high-point for the tweets in the thread being discussed is only 76, which in the view of one of these guys constitutes “spreading like wildfire“. To my eyes, the opinions of Feminist Frequency and Sarkeesian herself aren’t that widely discussed online these days (and even less offline). This is presumably frustrating for the people involved but not everything needs to be a huge runaway success to be valid, worthwhile, helpful or good etc etc, (or so I have told myself for the past five years). Most Sarkeesian-related discussion seems to be within the context of the harassment directing at her and the weird Antichrist-esque position that she apparently holds in the minds of several prominent YouTubers as I hope I’ve conveyed here. Ultimately, the people she seems to hold the most sway over are these performatively angry (4) reactionary webcam vloggers and their fans.
6: Gaming YouTube Is Even More Male Dominated Than You’d Imagine It Is
If you’re familiar with big YouTube names then a trend might have jumped out at you when I was listing the top reviews of BotW a little while ago. Total dudefest. Those who appeared on camera were almost all white and many of them had beards (that last part I only mention out of petty jealousy). This trend was evident across the dozens of videos I watched. YouTuber Cononico Films included this collage of notable reviewers that illustrates this nicely, also, hey look I wasn’t lying about the puppet!
I heard from eight women overall over the hundred-and-whatever videos I watched (5). This shouldn’t have been a surprise all things told (welcome to the internet and by extension, the world) but I was still a little taken aback by how difficult it was to find examples when I deliberately went looking for them (I found the Sarkeesian stuff by searching “botw feminism” to see if that could get me on the right track, for example).
I tried looking up well-known female gaming Youtubers and then searching the channels for Breath of the Wild search terms and found few examples that fit the criteria I described earlier. What I did note was “Girl Gamer YouTube” (this name is horrible I know) a) exists (I was worried there for a moment) and b) seems to have a different sort of aesthetic (this part is perhaps not surprising) and follows different strategies to “Guy Gamer YouTube” (again so sorry). There are still a lot of Minecraft Let’s Players and related content creators in this group, a lot of stuff to do with a game called Roblox whatever that is, a lot of Let’s Plays generally (World of Warcraft and Dragon’s Age seemed popular although this could be bias in the list I was working with). What I found were people who were following their own interests and perhaps less beholden to trends and the news cycle. More generally, there were a lot less videos called things like “[Design Notes] Difficulty In Video Games | Video Essay” and people blatantly trying to rip off the Game Maker’s Toolkit style (6) than I was accustomed to seeing.
7: Conclusions And Miscellaneous Observations
So, that’s YouTube, or at least the chunk of it that I sampled. Of course, it’s difficult to say what factors put those videos in front of me, my own subconscious biases excluded. In particular in relation to my previous claim that the BotW-YouTube-thinkpiece-space is almost entirely male dominated, that may just represent the subset YouTube served up to me. If this is not your experience of YouTube and you’ve found no shortage of diverse voices talking about Breath of the Wild then perhaps I’ve been shanghai’d by The Algorithm yet again. I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s thoughts about this particular point. Or indeed, anything.
On a related note, I might have expected my YouTube recommendations to be entirely focused on Breath of the Wild for the next ten years based on the amount of data points I must have fired at the algorithm, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. What was strange to me was that about halfway through the project, I started watching the back-catalogue of one particular non-gaming YouTuber and this had about as much impact on my recommendations. My feeling is that, at the moment, YouTube is interested in showing you work from creators you’ve shown an interest in, rather than subjects.
So, all in all, hardly a blazing trail of originality, more an orderly line of guys with usually one of four accents (middle-class British, nasally American, soft and amicable American and suspect “Radio Voices”). Nevertheless, there is interesting and well-made content out there and while it’s true that a lot of these people are saying the same thing, that’s not immediately obvious unless you go out of your way to watch multiple videos on the same topic.
Something that didn’t come up before now but I feel is worthy of noting was the production quality of the videos, which was typically quite high. I think it’s a mark of the times and indicative of the advances in video and audio capturing technology and the proliferation of tutorials and tips on the subject that even smaller hobbyist channels put out polished and slick content. The scripts for the videos (only a tiny minority were ad-libbed) were also well put together. In fact, I’d dare to say that the “amateur” video-makers typically relied less on clichés and empty hyperbole compared to their big-time “professional” colleagues (although the latter group are probably working on stricter deadlines). As a result this parody video seems dated to me as it seems to be trying to skewer a sort of BotW video which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually exist (which I thought was an imaginative and creative choice) and if it does exist is probably made by people at the absolute bottom rung of the social capital ladder.
In truth, this is only scratching the surface of what’s in my notes about the videos I watched but were I to chase down every observation and line of inquiry (like my claim about pros vs hobbyists in the last paragraph and the conflicting opinions on the game’s combat) this post would never see the light of day.
In the spirit of YouTube videos, I would now like to thank anyone who read this piece all the way through. Please like and subscribe for more content and leave any observations you may have about the YouTube gaming landscape in the comments. Special thanks go to my supporters on Patreon, without whom none of this…. wait, I don’t have a Patreon. Do I? Who am I? Where is my large statue of Geralt? This is not my beautiful Man-Cave! This is not my beautiful title sequence! Where did my assorted nerd-paraphernalia go to?
1: I would at this point like to remind you the reader that despite having no readership to speak of, I subjected myself to hours of Breath of the Wild based content to try and provide you with as much insight as I can into the YouTube landscape, unlike these popular accounts who farted their opinions in the direction of you, the general public, despite a lack of new information or fresh perspectives. Just, you know, think on this. Who’s really your friend here? It’s me, I am, share this post for fu….
2: This is a point I would like to expand on if the response to this post indicates it’s something people would like to read.
3: For the sake of not being called biased, the other argument that these guys tend to make is that to say that critics don’t call out sexism in games that are otherwise good is an outdated opinion, citing the discussion of the Bayonetta series as an example. There’s probably some truth to this, the times they are a-changin’ and all, although a few high-profile examples do not a trend make. However, the exact wording of the tweet is “[critics] often act as if [sexism is] not worth mentioning when the gameplay is great” which allows for some hard-to-define amount of criticism to exist without the statement being wrong. For the record, I recall no serious discussion of sexism in the game in the videos I watched. As mentioned, praise for the character of Zelda herself was quite common and was noted in the Feminist Frequency article.
5: I should note that I made these judgements based primarily based on voice with a check of people’s social media channels in some cases, opening up the possibility that I’ve misgendered people here. If that’s the case I’m very sorry.
6: A better man than me would research whether GMTK is the progenitor of this style or simply another high-profile example of it.